This was written to celebrate the release of "Love and Theft," which was issued on September 11, 2001. It appeared in In These Times magazine. As for the bit at the end, well, I never claimed to be a prophet.
Bob Dylan’s 30th studio album in 40 years (not counting 1973's Dylan, an unauthorized outtake collection) it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on Bob’s effect on American culture - and vice versa. Suffice it to say that the new album will give you much to chew on. The arrangements continue to reflect Bob’s estrangement from contemporary life, with nods to the 30s, 40s and 50s, while the words show a mixture of disillusionment and wisdom earned in sixty years on the planet. Bob’s voice now sounds like he’s about a hundred years old, but that seems only fair, since he sounded like he was sixty when he was twenty...
Folkie Bob, 1961-65
American Life: America emerges from the conformity of the Eisenhower years and the lingering effects of McCarthyism. Many embrace the idealism of the Kennedy administration and nascent protest movements appear, agitating against the nuclear arms race and for civil rights. Rock&roll is considered dead; the really hip people listen to folk music and jazz. The newfound exuberance is then shattered by the assassination of JFK and increasing polarization of American society.
Bob’s Life: Young Robert Zimmerman, who had trained for future rock stardom by emulating Little Richard and Chuck Berry during high school, emerges from the sticks of northern Minnesota. He reinvents himself as Bob Dylan, tapping in to the folk music scene in Minneapolis, then hitching to Greenwich Village, telling audacious tall tales about his life on the road as an orphaned hobo child. He arrives at the hospital bed of his stricken idol Woody Guthrie, then climbs almost effortlessly to stardom as a “protest singer” at age 19. He astonishes everyone, including himself, with his preternatural songwriting skills.
Masterpieces: “Blowing in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Chimes of Freedom”
Embarrassments: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, album cover and title
Electric Bob, 1965-68
American Life: LBJ wins re-election by promising not to escalate the war in Vietnam, then unleashes the dogs of hell on Southeast Asia. America is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Riots erupt in African-American cities, protests over Vietnam and other causes proliferate. Baby Boom generation turns on to marijuana and LSD, flirts with rejection of consumer culture.
Bob’s Life: Bob blows everybody away again by reinventing rock music, combining its emotional power with the lyrical maturity of classic folk and blues. Swept up into superstardom, Bob indulges his wicked sense of humor as well as a latent mean streak. He turns the Beatles on to pot and is turned on by their music at the same time. In the space of sixteen months he delivers perhaps the finest three albums in a row of any comparable artist. Then, just as the national life is spinning out of control, Bob crashes his motorcycle and nearly kills himself.
Masterpieces: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Visions of Johanna”
Embarrassments: various snotty and arrogant comments
Country Bob, 1968-74
American Life: America goes more or less insane, with further assassinations and more widespread rioting. Rock music follows the examples of Dylan and the Beatles, reacting to psychedelic and political dislocations. The rightwing backlash puts Nixon in the White House and FBI infiltrators into the anti-war and civil rights movements. The national weirdness then escalates to a crescendo with the end of the Vietnam war (at least for Americans) and the fall of Nixon.
Bob’s Life: Bob lays low, recuperating from his injuries with his family and friends in upstate New York. He begins writing quieter and more soft-spoken music, anticipating new strains of folk rock and country rock. He forms musical friendships with Johnny Cash and George Harrison as well as settling down with The Band to create the extraordinary Basement Tapes, which are not officially released until 1975, when America begins a bit more introspection itself.
Masterpieces: “All Along the Watchtower,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
Embarrassments: Self Portrait
Comeback Bob, 1974-78
American Life: America breathes a sigh of relief and tries to get back to normal, whatever that is. Self-help fads and spiritual trends dominate the popular culture, while disco music and bizarre novelty songs enjoy a brief popularity. The moralizing Jimmy Carter is elected president in the Bicentennial year. But as Third World nations begin a series of post-Vietnam revolts, squeezing energy prices, America starts to feel a bit vulnerable. Elvis drops dead and punk rock begins to stir.
Bob’s Life: Bob suffers a wrenching divorce from his wife Sara and responds with Blood On The Tracks, his most emotionally naked and vulnerable music. The Basement Tapes are released the same year, only months after the powerful live album from his 1974 tour with The Band. Bob follows up with two more - only slightly less compelling - albums, then wraps up this phase with an embarrassing Vegas-lounge impression and a baffling four-hour movie of his epic Rolling Thunder Tour, mixed with improvisational psychodramas.
Masterpieces: “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Hurricane”
Embarrassments: Bob Dylan at Budokan
Christian Bob, 1978-81
American Life: Jimmy Carter is stymied by uppity former colonies abroad and resurgent right-wing organizing at home. America’s mood turns ugly again as our Iranian embassy is held hostage, and a B-movie actor with a refurbished John Wayne impression is elected president in 1980, signalling a new era of repression and reaction. Months later, John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
Bob’s Life: Inexplicably, Bob decides that he too, just like Larry Flynt and President Carter, is a born-again Christian. Forgetting his earlier pronouncements about “becom[ing] my enemy in the instant that I preach,” and “lies that life is black and white,” he now declares “there ain’t no middle ground.” Bob embarks on a national tour of smaller venues with a killer back-up band, but refuses to perform any of his pre-Christian songs, even “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” for Christ’s sake. After three albums of intermittently moving gospel music, Bob suddenly decides he’s Jewish again. But the themes of sin and redemption continue to run through his music, as they have from the start.
Masterpieces: “I Believe in You,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”
Embarrassments: Oh Jesus, where do I begin?
Secular Bob, 1981-91
American Life: The Reagan/Bush era marches on with a popular series of feel-good little TV wars, and an even nastier series of secret wars offscreen. Popular resistance to the president’s nuclear delusions reaches a scale not seen since the 60s, with over a million people protesting in New York. Gorbachev takes power in Russia and deliberately decides to “take away your enemy,” unilaterally defusing the Cold War. Rock music splits into a variety of subcultures while superstars Bruce, Michael, Prince and Madonna rule the charts in mid-decade. As Republican rule comes to a close, President Bush is shown the door when a lackluster economy bedevils him.
Bob’s Life: Bob flirts with jingoistic sentiments in songs like “Union Sundown” and “Neighborhood Bully,” then pulls away from explicitly topical commentary again. He secretly marries one of his backup singers and embarks on a series of tours with other oldtimers like Carlos Santana, Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead. Inspired by the Dead’s singular rapport with their fan base, Bob apparently decides to tour constantly for the rest of his life. He alternates promising or even brilliant albums with lackluster toss-offs, but also rediscovers his sense of humor with the Travelling Wilburys.
Masterpieces: “Dignity,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Everything is Broken”
Embarrassments: Knocked Out Loaded, Under the Red Sky
Elder Bob, 1991-2001
American Life: America embarks on a love/hate affair with the alternately charming and disgusting President Clinton. Clinton produces a series of legislative rollbacks that Reagan and Bush could only dream of, while inventing a new doctrine of “humanitarian” warfare overseas. Wall Street begins to warm up, then hyperventilates on a multi-year frenzy of speculation over tech firms both valuable and worthless. Computer geeks and arbitragers become fabulously wealthy while most of the rest of the country does just well enough to make up for the last slump. Alternative rock rises up from the underground and then sinks back into it again. America drifts through the 90s blissfully unaware of the suffering of much of the rest of the world, until a sudden shock serves as a reminder.
Bob’s Life: Bob is increasingly embittered by the materialism and superficiality of millennial America. He shows up at the Grammys shortly after the Gulf War with a passionate but nearly indecipherable version of “Masters of War.” Not long after, he’s quoted as saying that the world has enough Bob Dylan songs, and releases two albums of old folk tunes, inspired, as in 1961, by Harry Smith’s compilation of obscure backwoods ballads, the Anthology of American Folk Music (which is reissued on CD shortly afterward). Then Bob, who has never quit smoking, is nearly killed by a mysterious heart infection. At that point he decides the world needs more Bob Dylan songs after all, and releases the dark, cynical and humorous Time Out of Mind, followed by the arresting single “Things Have Changed.” His son Jakob starts to outsell his old man with two popular albums, and Bob just keeps on touring. He receives honors from the president and the pope, and grabs an Oscar for Best Song.
Masterpieces: "Not Dark Yet," "Things Have Changed," "Moonlight"
Embarrassments: Bob is now beyond embarrassment
Since the Elder Bob phase has now lasted ten years, and his latest album was released on September 11, 2001, it seems logical to assume that Bob will soon enter a new phase, just like America. My prediction:
Muslim Bob, 2001-??
American Life: In a backlash against the corporate globalization and corrupt militarism that brought on the terror crisis, the illegitimate Bush usurpation is swept from office in 2004 by a tide of progressive voters. The new administration embarks on a Marshall Plan for the Third World and a new environmentally conscious energy policy. A vital new strain of “world punk” sweeps the planet’s airwaves.
Bob’s Life: Inspired by the calls to social justice and egalitarianism in the Koran, Bob converts to Islam, changes his name to Robert X, and grows a foot-long beard, interrupting his never-ending tour just long enough for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Masterpieces: "My Sweet Allah," "No Liquor Passes My Lips," "Stuck Inside of Mecca With the Minneapolis Blues Again"
Embarrassments: Annoyed by a sarcastic review in the New Yorker, Bob challenges Salman Rushdie to a mud-wrestling match.