This Tuesday, one of America’s best-known musical icons, Bob Dylan, turns 70. Rolling Stone currently has a whole issue dedicated to Dylan’s 70 best songs, chosen by editors and musicians, including Bono and Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan remains one of my favorite artists ever, and anyone who knows me well knows I have a slew of his albums, spanning most phases of his career, on vinyl or CD. I am not, however, going to even attempt picking my favorite Dylan songs. Hs discography is far too vast, and there are songs I love from each of his musical/artistic phases, whether it be his early years when he tried so hard to be Woody Guthrie, or his more recent blues rock phase.
I first heard of Dylan when I was a kid. My sister Nicole had a lot of his stuff on CD, and I remember that she used to joke with her friends that the mid-60s era Dylan was “cute,” with his mop of curly hair and black sunglasses. But I didn’t really start listening to Dylan until I was in college and became deeply involved with a slew of left-wing causes. Dylan’s earlier albums, especially The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A’Changin’, were comforting in the age of the Bush Administration, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Patriot Act. Dylan’s condemnation of the military industrial complex and the “bomb makers” on “Masters of War” sounded just as poignant in 2002 as it did in the early 1960s. And his apocalyptic war visions on “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” found new meaning to me as the bombs started falling in Baghdad in March 2003.
Shortly after acquiring Dylan’s early acoustic albums, I bought all of his early electric albums, including Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisted, albums that earned Dylan the “sell-out” tag from folk purists because by the mid-1960s, when those album were released, he left the politicking and acoustic guitars behind. But I didn’t mind the electric sound, and in fact, I appreciated his willingness to evolve as an artist, to expand his writing to include references that involved everything from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to various rock critics at the time that got under his skin.
Over the years, I collected several of Dylan’s albums, even the ones from his Christian phase, and on each album, I’ve always found little gems and have enjoyed Dylan’s wit, trademark snarl, and rambling narratives. Above all, I’ve always been impressed by Dylan to transform, to progress as an artist, to not stay trapped in one phase for too long. Even at 70, Dylan is still selling out shows and drawing controversy, including his most recent trip to China where he didn’t play any of his famous protest songs, drawing ire from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who felt Dylan should have used the massive stage to speak out against China’s human rights issues. But throughout the decades, Dylan always did what he wanted. Why would he stop at 70?