x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bob Dylan still going strong at 70

As Bob Dylan hits 70, we take a look at that formidable career and offer a beginner's guide to his music.

Bob Dylan in the studio in 1970.
Bob Dylan in the studio in 1970.

Any long-time rock and pop fans who have yet to discover the full riches of Bob Dylan's back catalogue probably share a similar complaint: that voice. The unmistakable nasal monotone is not for everyone, but with Dylan it pays to persevere. You might be surprised at the varying moods in that mighty canon.

After the famous protest songs, Dylan dabbled in emotional balladry, soundtrack work, gospel albums and a country period during which he adopted a different vocal style altogether. His latest project is country-fuelled but cutting-edge: finishing incomplete songs by one of his heroes, Hank Williams, with the help of a modern devotee, Jack White.

Such standing brings certain pressures, however, and Dylan has shed quite a few of his followers along the way. Loyal fans have often been outraged by his musical defections and occasional bouts of outright career self-sabotage. There are many duds in the Dylan collection too.

So where to start? Well, Dylan's most fertile period occurred just five years into his 50-year career, spawning the albums Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) and seminal singles such as Like a Rolling Stone and Just Like a Woman. Here he embraced a blues-rock sound that would prove hugely influential for the burgeoning rock'n'roll scene, albeit also alienating many existing fans.

Dylan had already antagonised the folkier elements of his audience with the previous album Bringing it all Back Home (1965), one side of which featured a more commercial electric guitar-based sound. He was famously jeered during a subsequent British tour.

In truth, the best place to begin a Dylan collection is not a record at all, but the splendid 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1. Written like a gritty Raymond Chandler crime novel, it reveals in intimate detail the motivations and frustrations behind many of those controversial career moves.

Dylan actually started out playing rock 'n' roll but, inspired by the great folk singer Woody Guthrie, traded his electric guitar for an acoustic and unwittingly became a figurehead with the issue-heavy albums The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changing (both 1963). By the late 1960s his house in the hippy hangout of Woodstock was besieged by what he called "rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest."

The hugely popular singer had already attempted to soften his revolutionary persona with the more laid-back 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, and after a serious motorcycle accident in 1966 he fervently pursued a mellower path, initially via the mostly acoustic John Wesley Harding (1968). "I wasn't the toastmaster of any generation and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots," he wrote. In a conscious attempt to shake off the remaining "rogue radicals" he then recorded a country record, and "the music press didn't know what to make of it," he admitted, in Chronicles. "I used a different voice, too. People scratched their heads."

Nashville Skyline (1969) - complete with his new "country croon" - still failed adequately to quell the devotion, so more drastic action was required. Self Portrait emerged the following year, an erratic double album of country songs, cover versions and general detritus.

New Dylan records have been greeted with a certain scepticism ever since, but fellow musicians remained - and remain - in awe of his songwriting gift, and were often indebted to it. The Byrds' first two singles were Dylan covers. The debut album by his old backing group The Band featured several Dylan songs, while his compositions have since been covered by everyone from the Ramones to Norah Jones.

Dylan was still trying to shake off his revered status in the early 1970s though, accepting both acting and soundtrack work on the Sam Peckinpah movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and releasing Blood on the Tracks, a record based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov.

Oddly enough, many now regard the latter project as his finest album. Few realised the real origins of Blood on the Tracks, as the 1975 LP was assumed to be simply autobiographical, a heartfelt eulogy to a broken marriage. Slow-burning, it was eventually accepted as a masterpiece. The follow-up effort, Desire (1976) also received some fine reviews but those banking on a full return to the folk troubadour tradition would be disappointed. Towards the end of the decade, the Jewish-born singer became a born-again Christian and began making gospel records.

Some of the most revealing aspects of the first Chronicles memoir - which travels back and forth across Dylan's career - are his dark dispatches from the 1980s. Arguably the world's greatest living songwriter was now so lacking in confidence that he wanted to "pour lighter fuel" on several new lyrics, until house-guest Bono suggested a new producer. Dylan's sessions with Daniel Lanois were fraught but fruitful, and the eventual album, Oh Mercy (1989), was his finest work since the mid-1970s, not that he thought it particularly relevant. "Danny asked me who I'd been listening to recently and I told him Ice-T," he recalled. "The kind of music that Danny and I were making was archaic."

Dylan appeared on a hip-hop record in 1986, the Kurtis Blow track Street Rock, and acted in a disastrous movie, 1987's Hearts of Fire, neither of which was ever going to reignite his career. Oh Mercy proved a false dawn, and only well into the next decade did he turn again to Lanois. A good decision: the bruised and bluesy Time Out of Mind won three Grammy Awards, while a newly gravitas-laden vocal style also won praise.

Dylan then suffered a near-fatal lung complaint, but recovered to record two similarly well-received albums, Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006), completing his most impressive triumvirate since the 1960s.

Indeed, that brush with death seems to have thoroughly stirred his creative juices, as the supposed has-been is now enjoying a wider - and very welcome - renaissance. In 2007 a number of Dylan paintings were exhibited and released as a book - The Drawn Blank Series. His own radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, has been hugely popular, while the widely-praised Chronicles Volume 1 secured him a lucrative long-term book deal.

Dylan's move into literature has been so successful, in fact, that it now threatens to overshadow his music career, which continues. The two albums he released in 2009 - Together Through Life and a curious collection of carols called Christmas in the Heart - received varied reviews, and the veteran British critic Richard Williams spoke volumes when he suggested that the singer "take a well-deserved break from recording and get on with the really important job of finishing Chronicles Vol 2."

Many Dylan-lovers would agree, so expect the great man to do entirely the opposite. Even at 70, conforming is just not in Bob Dylan's repertoire.