At 80, is Bob Dylan still the voice of his generation?
Because I have a somewhat morbid outlook on life combined with an almost fanatical devotion toward being prepared — a vestige of my year or so in the ranks of the Boy Scouts? — I have been toying with the idea of writing Bob Dylan’s obituary in advance of his actual death for at least the past decade and possibly as far back as the late 1990s, when Dylan had a genuine brush with death. In late May 1997, just a few days after he turned 56, fans around the world were panicked by reports that Dylan had been hospitalized with a potentially fatal heart infection, contracted when he drove his motorcycle through a windstorm near a chicken farm by the Mississippi River, inhaling fungus-based spores that caused pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. (31 years earlier, Dylan nearly succumbed when he broke his neck after a motorcycle accident. Apparently that wasn’t enough to scare him off bikes for life. This is, after all, the man who wrote a song called “Motorpsycho Nightmare” in 1964.) In the end, having recovered from the heart infection, Dylan famously told reporters, “I thought I was going to meet Elvis” (who had died 20 years earlier).
Having written extensively about Bob Dylan over the entire course of my professional life (and even my pre-professional life, when at age 16 I scored a gig as my high school newspaper’s rock critic, motivated in no small part by a burning desire to tell my schoolmates to stop listening to Fleetwood Mac and Kiss and start listening to the future Nobel laureate), there was never any question that when that fateful day finally came — and here’s praying that it never should, at least not in our lifetimes — I would be summoned to memorialize the rock poet in writing. I would bring to the plate a near-lifelong obsession with the man and his work, the experience of seeing him perform somewhere around 100 times over the course of five decades and publishing reviews of most of those concerts, having written reviews of all of his record albums, and having tied it all together in one neat bow in my book, “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet,” in which I argued that Dylan is best appreciated and understood through a lens colored by the Jewish prophetic tradition. I have even half-jokingly discussed the assignment to write Dylan’s obituary with my editor here at The Forward. It sort of goes without saying that when that fateful news reaches me via an alert on my phone if not by text from any number of friends or fellow aficionados, I will be expected to file an analysis and appreciation of the artist I’ve been analyzing and appreciating ever since I bought his 1974 album “Planet Waves” with my own money, a few weeks before I turned 14.
I never have gotten around to pre-writing Dylan’s obituary. Maybe I am not as morbid as I thought. Maybe the pressure of summarizing Dylan’s life and work and overall cultural impact in 800 or 1,200 words is just too intimidating to think about. How could I possibly distill all this into a half-page newspaper column or the length of a few computer screens? Dylan does not seem about to kick the bucket anytime soon. Surely this is something that can wait.
That is how I have justified to myself not having pre-written that assignment, until now. On Monday, May 24, Bob Dylan turns 80 years old. Now that is a sentence that I and arguably few music journalists ever expected to write. Rock stars don’t turn 80, other than Ringo Starr, who is going out on tour again this summer with his “All-Starr Revue,” and Chuck Berry, who died at age 90 in 2017. You can argue that Dylan is not a rock star, but at least structurally, in that he continues to record and release albums of new rock music and was going full speed on his “never-ending” concert tour until the COVID pandemic brought it to a halt, he operationally resembles one. Other than Leonard Cohen, no major popular-music artist has ever released a full-length album of new songs that garnered widespread critical acclaim and commercial success at age 79; Dylan accomplished this last year with his tour-de-force, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
Suffice it to say that with every musical step he now takes, Dylan at 80 breaks new ground. That is not anything novel for him; in many ways he has been doing just that at least since Columbia Records released his eponymous debut on March 19, 1962. (I did not have to look up that date as it is also known to me as my second birthday. Thanks for the present, Bob.)
What are we to make of the fact that the so-called Voice of a Generation (an epithet he despises, but not enough to refrain from having a pre-recorded announcement calling him just that introducing most of his live shows in the 1990s) is now entering his ninth decade? That there is a good chance that he will be back out on the road again with his band barnstorming across the nation in coming months, possibly having released a much-rumored new album of original songs? And that no one has ever done this before at his age, at least not at this level of accomplishment. As if being the Voice of a Generation and winning every prize and award across the globe, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, weren’t enough, he is now setting durational records. Dayenu!
If Dylan ever was the Voice of a Generation, then he continues to be. His audience has grown up with him, expanding with every passing year and every new album released and every concert played. Generations of artists who honor and pay tribute to him through their own music have come along in his wake, only to be replaced by new generations of artists carrying on his legacy.
Dylan has not died. He only turned 80. It is not time to memorialize him. It is not time to write or pre-write his obituary. It is time to celebrate his landmark birthday and the fact that he is still with us, “still on the road heading for another joint,” in his words. In paying tribute to the timeless artist, we pay tribute to ourselves.
Happy birthday, Bob Dylan. Biz hundert un tsvantsig.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward.