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The wheel's still in spin

Bob Dylan at 60: Timeless and transcendent

Bob Dylan in the early '60s, just as he was becoming well-known  

By Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- There's a lot of "full circle" in Bob Dylan's life right now, it seems.

The music legend is hitting that milestone age -- 60 -- on Thursday. His son, Jakob, is leading his own successful band. There are several new books on Dylan's unparalleled career filling bookshelves.

And his music is not only relevant -- with three Grammys and an Oscar in the last three years -- it's taking themes that made him famous back when, and putting the twist of age on it.

Case in point: In early 1964, he released the prescient "The Times They Are A-Changin'," an announcement of the social and political upheaval that marked and marred the 1960s.


Then recently, in March 2001, he won his first Academy Award for the "Wonder Boys" tune, "Things Have Changed." The song contains a lyric that will make any reformed hippie get misty.

"People are crazy and times are strange/ I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range/ I used to care, but things have changed."

But one thing that hasn't changed is the respect that Dylan commands. On his 60th birthday, he is to modern rock music what Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci was to the Italian Renaissance. He has influenced everyone from the Beatles to whoever's at the top of the charts today.

Dave Marsh, the renowned music critic, calls Dylan "the best writer-performer" and "the best white blues singer" ever.

Howard Sounes, who's new book "Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan" was released to coincide with Dylan's birthday, lumps Dylan in his list of the Big Four, the other three being Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles.

"And he's really the last one that's still around," says Sounes.


According to Marsh, Dylan's 60th is as good a time as any to take a moment to appreciate Dylan.

"I think that any excuse that Americans find to listen to Bob Dylan, especially given what they're listening to the rest of the time, I think that's probably a good thing," says Marsh.

Importance cannot be gauged

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and grew up in the small town of Hibbing. By college at University of Minnesota, he had donned the performance name Bob Dylan -- taking, according to one version, the first name of poet Dylan Thomas.

In fact, much of Dylan's early life is shrouded in mythology. There are tales, disputed in Dylan biographies, of him hitchhiking around the country and hanging out with hoboes. At any rate, in early 1961 he left Minnesota for good and arrived in New York City, determined to meet his hero, Woody Guthrie, who was bedridden with Huntington's chorea.

In New York, he became part of the growing folk music scene, playing Greenwich Village coffeehouses and spending time with musicians like Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. Within a few years, he was changing music by using a whiny, blue-collar voice and original tunes for political protest, mind-bending lyrical introspection, and soon, psychedelic interpretation.

From 1963's "Blowin' In the Wind" to 1965's groundbreaking "Like A Rolling Stone" and hallucinatory "Mr. Tambourine Man" to 1966's "Visions of Johanna" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie," Dylan might not have sold the most records in the 1960s, but he influenced the most artists that followed.

"He's the one guy from his generation of popular musicians whose importance cannot be gauged numerically," says Marsh. "You can't just go to the chart positions or the record sales to figure out who he is."

Who he is, in fact, has been the target of many biographies. Along with Sounes' work, there are two other new or revised books on Dylan -- David Hajdu's "Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina," and Clinton Heylin's "Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited."

'The best ever'

Though there is no shortage of opinions on Dylan -- the man and the myth -- Marsh admits he's not interested in the new books. The music -- four decades worth, from rock to country to the spiritual to the return to dry folk -- is more than just comments on our times.

Dylan accepts the album of the year Grammy in 1998 for "Time Out of Mind"  

"Everything you need to know about him is in the music," says Marsh. "If you listen to enough of his music, after a while you get a sense of why he is the best ever at what he does, which to me is so far beyond question."

Despite praise like Marsh's, Sounes says Dylan hasn't been affected all that much by the fame, the drugs, or the overwhelming hype, which some say contributed to his sabbatical following a 1966 motorcycle accident.

"Bob Dylan at 60 is the same as Bob Dylan at 16. He's a loner," says Sounes. "He's secretive. He's a man who's very funny, witty and playful, and at the same time he's very serious and traditional. And at the same time he has this flare for being unorthodox and iconoclastic and wayward. But he always was."

Dylan also still has a young audience sitting front-row at his shows. Sounes says he interviewed teen fans for "Down the Highway."

"They like him for the simplest of reasons: One of them said to me, 'Because he's funny,' " says Sounes.

Marsh agrees. He says in the wave of books that have tried to identify the enigmatic persona that Dylan has cultivated over the decades, people have forgotten one of the most revealing elements of his personality.


"People always talked about how he had a Chaplin-esque demeanor on stage," says Marsh. "And the humor was a huge part of what people found so attractive about him when he first came to New York."

'His songs are timeless'

After this birthday for Dylan, the music will go on. Though he suffered a near-fatal heart infection in 1997, he's still touring regularly, with plans for European shows soon.

The image of Dylan is still forming, at 60 years and beyond.

"It's generally popular with the public to think of Bob Dylan as the '60s folk hero," says Sounes. "But if you actually look at those songs, they aren't about the '60s at all. They're not tied to current events. His songs are timeless.

"A song like, 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,' for instance. Although in many people's minds it might be about the nuclear arms race, if you ask young people today, they see parallels in their own lives, with ecological problems and flashpoint wars in the Middle East.

"The songs still hold true. These songs have lasted and transcended his time."

And so has Dylan.

• Bob Dylan: Official site
• Twenty Pounds of Headlines: Dylan bibliography and multimedia
• My Back Pages - Dylan fan site
• Bringing It All Back Homepage - Dylan fan site

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