Bob Dylan doesn’t owe us anything

Bob Dylan is one of the last original rock icons, and he’s still the biggest enigma. In an era of oversharing – when even Mick Jagger last week tweeted a video of himself hanging off some guy in Peru dancing round drinking beers – Bob Dylan still maintains that air of mystery 50-odd years later.

He’s in Dublin next week for another tick to the gig calendar on his so called Never Ending tour that’s been chugging since 1988. And the mystery here is what type of gig he and his long-standing band will perform.

Since the mid-60s, the one-time voice-of-a-generation folk singer has created many guises and explored a century of American music traditions, from Dustbowl blues, to folk, gospel, music hall, rock’n’roll and rockabilly.

He even created a new character and mythic scenarios in his brilliant ‘autobiography’ Chronicles, which was really just a work of true fiction.

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Bruce Springsteen was called the ‘New Dylan’ when he emerged in the early 70s, full of verbose beat poetry lyrics and a beatnik swagger, but the two artists are binary opposites these days. While Bruce treats his stadium gigs as communal, inclusive, feelgood happenings, Dylan doesn’t make any concession to the neutrals. You may get a ‘thank you very much’ here and there.

And instead of neatly wrapping everything in a bow and strumming along to Blowing in the Wind, Lay Lady Lay and Like a Rolling Stone as if the last 40-odd years didn’t happen, Dylan has been reworking his songs for decades, and playing odd covers and album tracks. The same types of fans who screamed ‘Judas’ in Manchester when he first plugged in his electric guitar are the same type of fans who go home in a huff when he doesn’t play his greatest hits like they sound on the jukebox.

Millennials get a load of flak for their sense of entitlement, but the older one-gig-a-year crowd can be just as bad – they just don’t ‘get’ Blowin’ in the Wind as a slow waltz, or Dylan’s voice as a raspy whisper.

But even if the arrangements have changed, the songs remain some of the most important chapters in the great American songbook, earning him the latest Nobel Prize in Literature. Even that award started another round of hand-wringing and moaning when Bob barely acknowledged the prize and then turned up to collect it one afternoon in a hoody.

The Nobel saga, as well as last year’s 36-disc 1966 live tour document and Triplicate, his recent 30-track reworking of Sinatra standards, means Dylan is having his most mainstream period in years, in media mentions at least.

Now 76, he’ll have to call time the Never Ending Tour at some point. But even if arthritis has stopped him playing guitar and reduced him to side-stage piano for some of his most iconic songs, Dylan has plenty of fire left. More than half of his set is from after 2000 – when he’s released some of his angriest and brutal-sounding music, hitting Tom Waits levels of gruff menace.

Depending on your level of fandom, a Bob Dylan gig could be a risk – but the diehards can always expect something different.

  • Appeared in Irish Daily Star