As the children of the Sixties tried to crown Bob Dylan their poet laureate, he refused. “I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know,” he said in 1965. Dylan was the rare celebrity who downplayed the worshipful titles offered him — poet, visionary, and especially spokesman for a generation. After his early 20s, he carried no banners, he led no movements, and he scoffed at all attempts to exaggerate his importance. He didn’t even play Woodstock, although he lived there. Dylan barely took notice of the upheaval around him, much of which was choreographed to a soundtrack he created, like a stone-faced silent-film star who strolls through mayhem with his nose in a book.
Dylan today turns 80, the most notable of the great rockers to do so (though John Lennon was born seven months earlier). Looking back, it’s amusing how completely he has defeated all efforts to define him, and it’s hilarious that, based on only a handful of songs in his huge catalog, Dylan accidentally created the template for the socially engaged progressive celebrity. Today a hack comic like Jimmy Kimmel offers more grandstanding about politics in a single week than Dylan did in his entire career. (But then, Dylan has talent.) While America was engulfed in civil rights, Dylan was immersed in the Civil War. When hippies surrounded his house in upstate New York begging for guidance, he booted them off, then moved to Malibu so he could be alone, abandoning his would-be flock.
In 60-plus years of interviews, Dylan has swatted down all efforts to take him seriously with deadpan gnomic utterances. Asked in a December 1965 press conference, “What poets do you dig?” he gave the following answer: “Rimbaud, I guess; W. C. Fields; the family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg; Charlie Rich — he’s a good poet.” (That’s another difference between Dylan and Jimmy Kimmel: Dylan is funny.)
Dylan’s early political works were closely linked to his love life. He was hit with a coup de foudre when, at 20 years old, he met political activist Suze Rotolo in summer 1961, and in the two-and-a-half years they dated he wrote most of his overtly political songs: “The Death of Emmett Till,” “Oxford Town” (about University of Mississippi desegregation), “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” In 1963, he performed at the August 28 March on Washington whose centerpiece was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Playing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his first hit (as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in a cover version that reached No. 1 in the middle of 1963), he cautioned an early audience, “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs . . . I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.” One of the reasons that song has endured is that it’s so vague as to be broadly applicable; Dylan never did write a song about the antiwar movement to compare to Neil Young’s “Ohio” or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
By the end of 1963, Rotolo had aborted the baby she had conceived with Dylan, and she moved out of his apartment; they would split for good early the following year. At the same time, he was unplugging from progressive politics. In December 1963, just three weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, he startled his audience when he said, of Lee Harvey Oswald, “I saw some of myself in him.” (This was in the context of saying, “I don’t see why anybody can’t go to Cuba.”) In the same speech he also said, “There’s no black and white, Left and Right to me anymore, there’s only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”
Two years later, Dylan formalized his rupture with his early folkie-activist career when he plugged in his guitar at the Newport Jazz Festival. That signaled the end of the folk-rock movement, and, from age 24, Dylan hardly ever strived for left-wing political “relevance” again, though his 1975 protest song “Hurricane” is a notable exception. Dispensing almost entirely with earnest lyrics about injustice, Dylan switched modes into dazzling psychedelic wordplay in his greatest Sixties albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (both 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). “Maggie’s Farm,” from the first of those electrified and electrifying albums, was a typically Delphic declaration of independence from the righteous-folkie movement, reveling in nonsense over protest. The word collages of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Tombstone Blues” marked a new level of achievement in pop lyrics, and they had nothing to do with the student movements that would shortly redefine youth.
It is because of these nonpolitical songs, and his increasingly heartfelt romantic efforts (some of which also blended in surreal elements, such as “Visions of Johanna”), culminating in the beautiful ache of his 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, that Dylan earned a permanent place among the first rank of rock singer-songwriters. If he had stuck with his early style, Dylan today might be a mere niche artist, like Pete Seeger or his idol Woody Guthrie, the kind of singer no one listens to except your kooky beret-wearing uncle.