When I discovered Bob Dylan in the late 1960s, it seemed that he had actually discovered me. His caustic lyrics and the scorn in his voice channelled my youthful disdain for the values of my elders. Dylan was an ally as I tussled with my parents over just about everything, from clothes, to hair, to music, to my future. The Times They Are a-Changin’ said it best, admonishing mothers and fathers to stop criticizing what they couldn’t understand: “Your old road is rapidly agin’.”
The wrangling in my household eventually abated, but Dylan’s singular impact on my teenage years helped to shape the adult I became. So excuse me if I can’t wrap my head around the fact that he will turn 80 this spring — and that he is not alone in his dotage. Dylan’s one-time girlfriend and musical partner Joan Baez hit 80 in January; Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel will cross the same threshold in the fall; Tina Turner is already 81. Some other notable mind-benders: Petula Clark, 88; Ringo Starr, 80; Smokey Robinson, 81; Don Everly, 84; Grace Slick, 81.
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Of course, getting old is nothing new. If anything, it’s less remarkable now than it ever has been. Lots of elders act as if 80 is the new, well, not 80. The president of the United States will turn 80 in the middle of his first term. Dr. Anthony Fauci was too consumed by 18-hour workdays to pay much attention to his 80th birthday last December. Margaret Atwood is on a roll at 81.
Dylan and the rest are different. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re still vital; they weren’t supposed to get old in the first place. They are first and foremost musicians, but they also own a place in history as changemakers. Their cause was youth, and they championed it by inventing music — call it rock ’n’ roll for lack of a better catch-all — that spoke directly to the experience of being young. The effect was seismic. Bruce Springsteen put it nicely in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run: “In a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and living.”
The “new way” suggested by the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the mid-1950s crystallized into a youth culture of unprecedented scope and influence by the mid-1960s. By the end of the decade, music made by and for young people had become the soundtrack of a global counterculture that shook the foundations of the established order.
Long before he won a Nobel Prize, Dylan was crowned the voice of his generation. Anthems like Ballad of a Thin Man sneered at mainstream society: “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” Mr. Jones didn’t know what was happening — couldn’t know — because he wasn’t young. The Beatles sang When I’m Sixty-Four in the jaunty confidence that 64 was impossibly distant.
Except that it wasn’t, and never is. No generation is above the laws of nature. My parents’ generation wore old age as a badge of honour, a sign that they had prevailed over the scarcity and war that had tarnished their youth. The hauteur of my generation, the baby boomers, found a voice in a single line from a 1965 song by the Who: “I hope I die before I get old.” Perversely, musicians who met untimely ends may well be the purest counterculture icons of all: legends like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and John Lennon are frozen forever in their youthful prime.
The stars who survive today feel like imposters. The Rolling Stones — average age: 76.5 still deliver the goods musically, but their once-anarchic swagger has mellowed into a grizzled bonhomie. (If you’re not careful, when you Google “Rolling Stones,” you might land on a Wikipedia page for Rollright Stones, a Neolithic rock monument in England. I can think of worse metaphors.) And Dylan’s recent recorded output could not be further removed from the insolent genius and “that thin, that wild mercury sound” of his heyday. In concert, he deliberately scuppers his most celebrated songs, in a voice that sounds like he’s gargling gravel.
In 1976, a 35-year-old Dylan joined a parade of contemporaries, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Dr. John and Van Morrison, in a farewell concert for the Band, who were calling it quits after years of touring. Out of it came Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz. One song to make the final cut was Dylan’s Forever Young. He had written it for one of his kids, but in the film it came across as a reassuring pat on the back for anxious fans wondering what would come next.
Scorsese’s film is timeless, but its cast of characters is not. Almost half of the performers are now dead. In an act of wanton curmudgeonry, two of the surviving headliners — Morrison, 75, and Clapton, 76 — released an anti-lockdown song during the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis in Britain last fall. About the same time, Dylan dealt away the rights to his songbook for a reported US$300 million. And he continues to plug a line of whiskies inspired by his song Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
The more whiskey ages, the more distinctive it gets. The opposite is true of rock ’n’ roll icons. The older they get, the more ordinary they seem. They shrivel. They do strange things. For those of us baptized in the counterculture, acknowledging their age means coming to grips with evergreen illusions and the greatest certainty of all: it won’t be long before they’re gone.
I doubt I’ll ever be ready to wrap my head around that.
David Wilson is a Toronto writer.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s June 2021 issue with the title “Aging Icons.”
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The counter-culture of the 60's and early 70's were much different than the counter-culture of today.
I too miss the "great" artists of that era.
Albeit convoluted, the era promoted peace and love. Some music also promoted Christian ethics, especially in the early 70's. Where most of us attended a "religious" congregation.
Today's culture and music promotes hatred and violence, and attacks Christian ethics.
Sadly I don't even know most "contemporary artists".
As said, "Video killed the radio star.", and it is easier to have a one hit wonder with good looks and no voice or harmony.
I for one am looking forward to leaving this world, entering a better one "filled" with songs and praises. The older I get the more I realize my parents and grandparents were right. "My friends are gone, and my family have their own lives to lead."
We can't stop time, but we can appreciate the things that God has given us, anticipating all the more of what He will give us as followers of Christ.
Sheldon LeGrow says:
Gary, sadly Broadview, for whatever reason chose not to print my views. I just clicked "post" and it disappeared. It happens often to me, a result of the new generation I suppose. However, I realize that the two of us think differently when it comes to faith matters. This time, however, I'm with you. I wonder what happened to the love and peace generation that we came out of. It seems obvious our ideals weren't accepted by our kids. There seems to be too much hate in the world today. I no longer know how people get to be "famous" as recording stars. I've often said that if you can't sing, do rap. Seems like the same thing over and over. But that's just my criticism.
Like you, I don't mind leaving this world behind. If there's nothing, I won't know. If there's something, it will be a new adventure. Folks have been dying for quite some time. It can't be all bad.
Sheldon LeGrow says:
As we age we realize that the wisdom we've gained can't be passed on to the younger generation. Wisdom is something that must be learned from experience. Being young and seeing the world around us, we saw things that needed to be changed. The 60s and 70s generations were about idealistic feelings that if we just talked things out we could find common ground; if we acted peacefully others would act peacefully toward us; if we just learned to love we could put an end to conflict and if we dropped our inhibitions we could actually stop being bound by artificial morality.
However, we all grew up and realized we had to get jobs, raise families and become part of the world because our parents were no longer taking care of us. We realized that our ideals were just that. The world is a rough place and we have to accept that.
There is much wisdom in our experience but young people must learn to fight their own battles; they must fight and fail and pick themselves up and go at it again.
Things are more complex today. Anything we purchase, from a TV to a cell phone to a lawn mower seems to come with a manual half an inch thick. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who, when I go shopping, carries a list on a piece of paper that costs less than a cent to write on while everyone else has their list on an $800.00 cell phone. I can't simply turn on the radio now because there are so many options. A radio per se is passe. Now I have to turn on or push on my car audio system, touch source, touch browse, touch a station icon that I had to pre program before I can listen to the news. And so it goes. Kids don't play outdoors anymore unless it's on an ATV or dirtbike. I don't see them climbing trees or playing tag or a game of knockout. All sports are organized and scheduled.
As for music? I guess there is meaning for the young folks today in what they listen to. Personally I write and record my own songs and listen to them. They have meaning for me and my life. So, like Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and the rest, I realize I am old and I no longer like this world because, at 72 I've been around the block too many times.
However, over the years my sense of spirituality has developed. I have delved deeper into my faith and come up with a faith that works for me. It's not for everyone, just me, and I realize that for all my failings, my dark thoughts, my past regrets, I'm OK. When I look in the mirror I see God in me. When I look at my wife I see God in her and when we're together our relationship is strong because of the God that has caused us to be together.
And so it will be with generations to come. And when it comes time to leave, I hope I can do it with some dignity.
A strange view of Dylan, who has recently given us a beautiful, deep, timeless album of new songs. And, indeed, several wonderful albums in this century, plus a vibrant series of 100 radio shows. May he stay Forever Young!
Matthew Zuckerman says:
You didn't mention in the article that Bob Dylan's recordings in the 21st century are among his best, particularly his most recent -- 2020's Rough & Rowdy Ways. Is this because you simply haven't checked them out, or because you disagree with the consensus that they are great works (R&RW was ranked by Metacritic as 2020's 2nd best album)? Either way, not to mention them suggests that you either haven't done your homework or decided not to deal with anything that would interfere with your flimsy thesis.
As for his selling the rights to his songbook, I hear Aretha Franklin and Tom Petty failed to do so, and now they are gone, their families are at war over who gets to do what with the catalogue. Is this your preference? And in what way is this as reprehensible as casting doubt on medical procedures during a pandemic?