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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