Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is puling up, we struggle and we stray
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape (Bob Dylan, ‘Mississippi’)
When Levon Helm died last month, he was 71. Bob Dylan enters his own 72nd year today.
Particularly in light of his recent purple patch – though “Love and Theft”, the superlative late album on which ‘Mississippi’ appears, was released more than ten years ago now, its sequels have consistently risen above Dylan’s blackest moments – it’s easy to take Dylan for granted. The fact that he is still with us, still producing music, still – impossibly – relevant is a function of good fortune. That it is still possible to attend, as I have, one of the gem-like concerts that sparkle from what can be a desperately uneven Never-Ending Tour, is not far short of a marvel.
Quite apart from the war of attrition fought by history against careless rock musicians, in 1997 we very nearly lost him. The newspapers were full at the time of rumours that Dylan was suffering from a rare heart condition – the appearance on Time Out Of Mind later that year of a song entitled ‘Not Dark Yet’ added grist to the mill. In part, and despite Dylan’s comment upon leaving hospital that he had been sure he was about to meet Elvis, this orgy of obituary-anticipation was a symptom of the wider culture’s uncertainty about what to do with Dylan any longer. Prior to Time Out Of Mind, he had seemed to be in a rut. “We don’t know what to make of artists who have the audacity to outlive their own revolutions,” wrote Gerri Hirshey in Rolling Stone that year.
What we have done with Dylan since then – since his creative rebirth which nevertheless refigures American standards rather than creating them new – is establish him as a sort of mythical figure, a quasi-legendary elder statesman. From the reverence of Scorcese’s No Direction Home to the mutliple hagiographies of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, we have cast him as a sort of immovable figure, a circus-master presiding enigmatically over America’s zenith and decline (“My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf,” he sings on ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ from Modern Times, a song which remains one of the slyest responses to the 2008 crash recorded anywhere).
Dylan, on the other hand, seems to have moved from the defiance of ‘Not Dark Yet’ to a contented resignation that he, too, will pass. “Love and Theft” was recorded only a few months after the death of his mother, and when on ‘Mississippi’ he sings, “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free / I’ve got nothing but affection for those who sail with me,” the words come as a kind of benediction. Dylan knows what we sometimes seem to forget – his still-hereness, and certainly his productivity, is unlikely and exhaustible. He is about to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a birthday festival is taking place today and tomorrow; these will do for now as signs we are yet to take for granted the captain of our ship. Long may he sail.