May 24, 2011
Happy Birthday, Bob!
That Hibbing, Minn., native who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman but has been known as Bob Dylan since he first started performing in New York’s Greenwich Village some 50 years ago — and who has lived in Los Angeles probably longer than anywhere else — turns 70 on May 24.
Like most Dylan-related matters, this defies logic and the laws of time and space. If, to quote the birthday boy, “Love is just a four-letter word,” then what is age other than three letters strung together?
However, three score and 10 years is not just any birthday, as the psalms note – it is a milestone, and a celebration is very much in order. But how should we celebrate?
We could send the Bobster a card or drop him a note. But what is there to say to the man who has said and sung it all; performed on stages large and small, in every country all over the world; whose music plays in every nook and cranny where sound can be heard; whose songs and lyrics are the soundtrack of events both personal and historic, of adolescence and maturity, of love and heartbreak, of a wisdom that seems within grasp and eludes us; who remains a touchstone and cipher all at the same time; and has for more than 50 years of performing in public?
We could celebrate by singing one of his songs. But which one? At 70, Dylan has written more songs than Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly or all his idols combined and had a career that has lasted longer than he or anyone could have imagined. Whenever he has reached what seemed an impasse — personally, musically or even spiritually — he has found a way to continue to perform, record and write songs.
Furthermore, is there another living artist whose songs are covered by as many performers? Perhaps his songs remain evergreen and current for just those reasons that his critics fault him — because Dylan’s songs sometimes defy literal meaning. Or because they often appear on his albums as a work in progress, they always remain open to an artist’s fresh interpretation.
We could stage a reading. For decades, Dylan gave cryptic interviews offering no evidence that he could string a coherent paragraph together. But more recently he has opened himself up to documentaries and to a series of conversations where he has, as best he could, tried to leave a fuller record and create context for his work. More to the point, he wrote a memoir,
“Chronicles, Volume 1,” which is as generous as it is well crafted, one of the best accounts of an artist finding his voice. Beyond that, Dylan has engendered a shelf worth of books.
We could donate to a cause. Despite rejecting early calls to be a leader, Dylan has helped causes large (FarmAid) and small (the Chabad Telethon) as well as artists and individuals. When Patti Smith needed to return to touring, Dylan offered her an opening spot. Doesn’t sound like much, but it made all the difference to her.
We could go see him perform. Although Dylan has been on what has been called “the never-ending tour” for more than two decades, a quick glance at the calendar on his Web site shows no performance dates for May – and none on his birthday. Hmmm. So what’s a fan to do?
Let’s begin by saying: Thank you. Thank you for the songs and for the music, for the time performing. Because, as you noted in your first song to Woody, “There’s not many men who’ve done the things that you’ve done.” As you turn 70, we’re not going to wish that you stay “Forever Young,” but we wish that in the words of your song, “may your heart always be joyful” and “may your song always be sung.” I know I’ll be listening to your songs on the radio and on my iPod now and for many years to come. So what else is there to say, other than — all together now — “Happy Birthday, Bob!”
If you want to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday, there are various film, music and print tributes you can enjoy, including visiting rollingstone.com’s “Happy 70th Birthday, Bob!” page complete with a quiz, interviews, photo galleries, etc.
My favorite Dylan albums: “Blood on the Tracks,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Slow Train Coming” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” My favorite Dylan album that no one else listens to: “Street Legal” (I had a cassette and played it incessantly on a cross-country trip long ago). Favorite song from a Dylan album no one listens to: “Shot of Love.”
My favorite Dylan songs of relatively recent vintage: “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Mississippi,” “Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” “Shooting Star,” “Things Have Changed” “Everything Is Broken” and “Not Dark Yet.”
My favorite cover versions of Dylan songs: Eric Clapton, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”; Sheryl Crow, “Mississippi”; Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone”; Shawn Colvin, “Buckets of Rain”; Madeleine Peyroux, “You Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; The O’Jays, “Emotionally Yours”; Doug Sahm and Band, “Wallflower”; and Johnny Winter, “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Most eccentric covers I ever heard Dylan perform in concert: Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” and Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (both in the same night).
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywoodtheblog.