“My name it is nothing, my age it means less,” sings the lonesome wailing troubadour in “God on Our Side,” the man who celebrates his 70th birthday today and a lifetime of shaping American music. Ha. His name does mean something — quite a lot, actually — and his age is the subject of many, many columns today in the New York Times, Huffington Post,Time, and pretty much every major news source.
In the course of such focus and attention, more “discoveries” have come out, including some tapes that “prove” he was addicted to heroin and flirted with suicide attempts circa 1966, the year of his motorcycle accident that laid him up in upstate New York, and out of the music production scene, for quite some time. And people are shocked. The Cult of Dylan, which ranges from casual but intrigued listeners to A.J. Weberman-level obsessors, clings to each new piece of information about their idol with such gusto and desperation because he offers so little to go on; the mythiness of the myth breeds obsession, which in turn perpetuates the myth. YIKES! It is a pop-culture conundrum. And I’m sure Dylan wouldn’t have it any other way.
His attitude towards his own work has always been tinged with cynicism if not outright bitterness: he calls himself nothing more than “a song and dance man,” and barely gave President Obama a nod, let alone a photo op, when he played at the White House. He isn’t impressed by anyone, least of all himself. And yet he has a legion of souls who treat him like the face of the second coming. On these newly surfaced tapes, he says “I take [my music] less seriously than anybody. I know it’s not going to help me into heaven one little bit, man…it’s certainly not going to extend my life any and it’s not going to make me happy.” (via BBC) Ouch.
But why should we believe him? Why should we file away this quote with all the others, hoping to flesh out the portrait of this distant enigma into something we can know and understand? First of all, the only thing consistent about Bob Dylan is that he is a dirty liar. (If “liar” seems too harsh a word, “trickster” works just fine, but please, he is lying.) Such lying, evasiveness, and chameleon-like shifting, has long been the calling card of the edgy; John Leland in Hip: The Historycalls tricksters (including P.T. Barnum, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Pryor) “hip’s animating agent,” whose “hoax was as good as the truth, and in the end more truthful…they tease the culture into battle lines according to their personae, then redrew their own masks.” You can’t believe a word Dylan says; or you must believe it, take it as the whole truth, with the knowledge that he could turn on you at any minute and you’d be left in the dust, believing wholeheartedly in the “old way,” with the leader you put all your faith in nowhere to be found. I don’t buy for a second that Dylan takes his music “less seriously than anybody.” He’s contradicted that statement before in his words on destiny and fate and his songwriting process. But I do believe his need to reject the current perception of “Bob Dylan,” to lie outright knowing we’ll take him at his every word, and even kneel down to it. Woof. For all his genius, and for all my well-documentedadoration, there is no one I would rather be LESS than Bob Dylan, trying to juggle all of that love and hate and madness.
So on his 70th birthday, let’s toast this old man (hell, he was born old) without reading into anything, without shoving upon him the title of king or sinner or genius, without calling him a spokesman for his generation or anything like that. Let’s listen to his love songs, read his poems, take a look at his primitive artwork (without. Picasso. comparisons. Please.) I am not in the Kill Your Idols camp, founded by superstar Chicago critic Jim DeRogatis and friends, but neither am I digging through garbage cans with Weberman, and I think it would go a long way towards a cohesive cultural understanding if we treat him like a man — a very smart, talented, and indeed visionary man, trickster and a con man, who plays the authentic while laughing in its face and twists the two so much that you can’t even tell what is realanymore. And who cares? “Straight away and into the ring / Juno takes twenty pills and paints all day / Life he says, is a head kind of thing.”