As well as all the 60th birthday tributes, the critics are having their say as well: Three "damning with faint praise" pieces from today's London Times follow:
Three visions of Dylan at 60
BY CAITLIN MORAN, DAVID SINCLAIR AND PHILLIP HOWARD
'His entire back-catalogue would be so much better if Quincy Jones had made it a bit more interesting'
Once upon a time, the only moving images of Bob Dylan I knew were from D. A. Pennebaker's 1965 documentary Don't Look Back, where Dylan made a fairly decent fist of being the Beat Jesus in a series of heart-breakingly lovely fitted jackets. Then, last year, I saw him onstage at Wembley, and he was orange, wearing some kind of blouse, and looked like he spent his days sitting on the verandah of his ranch taking pot-shots at ramblers while shouting "Gah!" You could see it was his face — hipster Bob was still there, albeit with gobs of bitter old man stuck to him. But his eyes, man. Bob Dylan didn't have Bob Dylan's eyes any more. These were the eyes of the vultures in Jim Henson's 1984 puppet film Dark Crystal. He looked like he'd been around the world and found everything but himself to be ultimately disappointing. I stayed to watch him wrestle It's All Over Now, Baby Blue to the floor, like an old lion-tamer and his even wearier lion, and left. What, I pondered, was the point of being the coolest man in the world — and in the coolest year of the coolest decade in history at that — if you just end up being an orange-faced misanthropist in cowboy boots who duckwalks during the middle-eight of Visions of Johanna? But then, was Bob Dylan ever the coolest person in the world? The thing about Don't Look Back is that you tend to watch it for the first time when you're 17, go "Man, that is the Beat Jesus" and then never really get around to watching it again. But I did rewatch Don't Look Back recently, and although he occasionally said something cool, it was only ever about himself, and the rest of the time he was just a mouthy adolescent with hair verging on a mullet who was incredibly cruel to Joan Baez and clearly scared Alan Price from the Animals, who was supposed to be his buddy, to death.
But, y'know, it's not as if he can't write songs. It's just that the way he plays them makes them sound like they are only made of two notes, one of which is slightly broken. Dylan's version of All Along the Watchtower is interminable — like a pub bore trying to tell you about the English Civil War in real time. Jimi Hendrix's version makes you want to go out and punch things, very hard. Bob Dylan's version of Mr Tambourine Man sounds like Grandpa Simpson whining that his chair is too hard. When the Byrds take it, they sound as if they have breakfasted very lightly on air.
Dylan is a great songwriter, yes; a fascinating pop star, yes, but let's not pretend any more. His entire back-catalogue would be so much better if Quincy Jones had made it a bit more interesting, and Simon and Garfunkel had sung it in their lovely high girls' voices.
So in the interests of counter-balance to all the pieces that will run this week by misty-eyed leather jacket-wearing men arguing over whether Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan's finest moment, I'd like to state that Dylan actually peaked in 1979 with his born-again Christian effort Slow Train Coming. It has nice guitar bits by Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on it, and a dearth of lyrics about little boys in Chinese suits in favour of Man Gave Names To All The Animals, which goes: "He saw an animal leaving a muddy trail/Real dirty face and a curly tail/He wasn't too small and he wasn't too big/Ahhh, I think I'll call him a pig".
Apart from the Bob in the late 1980s who joined the Travelling Wilburys, re-named himself "Lucky" Wilbury and jammed in Siobhan from Bananarama's house with Jeff Lynne from ELO, that was the best Bob we've ever had. Caitlin Moran (Aged 26)
I will never forget the thrill of rushing home with a copy of Bob Dylan's second hit single, Subterranean Homesick Blues. The year was 1965. I was 12 and Dylan was 24. It was such an extraordinary record, a primitive surge of two-chord garage-band blues with a street-smart lyric so dense and verbose I'd even purchased the sheet music to help me untangle it.
A string of sexily hip non-sequiturs quickly imprinted themselves on my mind — "Don't follow leaders/Watch the parking meters"; "The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles"; "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Truly this was a song that went beyond the trivial concerns of normal pop in search of a deeper poetic truth.
My Dad, a jazz musician, took a more sceptical view. Taking the sheet music over to the piano, he began playing the song as scored, plonking the single note that comprises almost the whole of the vocal part with comically deliberate emphasis and a quizzical look on his face. "Not a very demanding tune," he observed.
Well, what did my Dad know, anyway? Dylan had just ripped up the rulebook by which an older generation of musicians had operated. Melody? Harmony? Chord changes? How pedantic could you get? I am now older than my father was when Subterranean Homesick Blues came out. And, of course, both Dylan and I have been proved absolutely right. Subterranean Homesick Blues turned out to be one of the most influential records and Dylan one of the key participants in the shaping of the musical future that we now inhabit, an era in which the envelope has been stretched to accommodate everything from the intentionally tuneless braggadocio of rap to the most abstract of ambient electronica.
You still, occasionally, hear older folk bemoaning the lack of "proper" singing and "decent" tunes in various forms of modern music. But no one would seriously challenge the artistic validity of a Dylan performance on the grounds of melodic or harmonic incompetence, would they? The man, it is popularly agreed, is a genius, a poet, a legend, an icon. His music has withstood the test of time. Fans still flock to his concerts. And within the overheated world of the baby-boomer chattering classes his bona fides remain unimpeachable. Indeed, for any modern cultural pundit with serious aspirations, it has become a rite of passage to pen a book about Dylan, or at the very least an article in one of the supplements, in which all previous claims on behalf of the man's enduring and undying talent are trumped and then double-trumped.
So why do I find myself, on the eve of the great man's sixtieth birthday, thinking back, not to all the wonderful tunes and transcendental lyrics that Dylan undoubtedly did write (a very long time ago), nor to all the musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Badly Drawn Boy, on whom he has exerted a pivotal influence, but instead to that single note, relentlessly plonking away on my father's piano? Partly it's because the case that has been made on his behalf has become so overstated in recent times as to be almost risible. Of course he was one of the principal architects of pop. But a rival to Keats? Chaucer? Shakespeare? And partly it's because I have a sneaking suspicion that in his dotage, Dylan has become a bit of an old sham. The moment when he first blew it for me was when he shuffled on stage at the end of Live Aid in 1985 and busked his way through a couple of songs which his accompanists, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, had never heard before, let alone rehearsed. It was a performance of such slovenly and needless mediocrity that I found myself, over a period of time, readjusting my critical perception of him as an artist.
Why was it, I wondered, the next time I went to one of his concerts, that he has never bothered to rehearse with any of his accompanying musicians? Who could honestly say that — whatever his influence and achievements in the past — Dylan has any sort of a singing voice left now? Why has he written no more than a handful of half-presentable songs since 1975? And how on Earth can he have earned a living for more than 40 years as a professional musician and still be such an awful harmonica player? The answer that keeps pushing itself forward, as Dylan wends his way around the world like some weary gypsy god on his "never-ending" tour, is that he simply doesn't care that much any more. He knows his fans will accept anything he cares to offer, however half-hearted, and with each new anniversary the tributes will pour in ever more fulsomely.
His place in the history books is guaranteed, and quite rightly so. But, rather like Elvis Presley, Dylan has allowed a period of cosmic brilliance to become compromised by a long spell of chronic under-achievement.
Music, like drama, depends on the ability of the artist to persuade his audience to suspend disbelief. Whether it be a Beethoven symphony or a production of Hamlet or a Spice Girls show, the performance must be put across with sufficient rigour for us not to start worrying that it might fall apart at the seams or descend into self-parody at any moment.
Dylan may well be the most revered senior citizen in rock. But how long are we prepared to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt? David Sinclair (Aged 48)
You may be the most influential singer of your generation, Mr Zimmerman. But Christopher Ricks must not rate you as a poet besides Shelley. Keats you ain't. And nor for that matter was John Lennon, or even more for that matter George Harrison.
You may be America's radical prophet, and from America the world. Your songs may be even more popular then those of the Beatles and Elvis, and your lyrics are certainly wittier. (Pas difficile.) How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? This is a puzzling question, but not beyond all conjecture.
I am not the man to criticise you. I prefer Mozart to pop. I found your predecessor, Lonnie Donegan, more to my taste, because he was jokier without your preachiness. But I can see that you are good. And you caught the heroic but woolly anger of your generation. "Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." Your song wailed the self-indulgent Zeitgeist. And so you acquired your fanatical following.
You represent their youth. In the Sixties you were established as the heroic bard of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Your protest songs such as Blowin' in the Wind are classic protest songs. But they are still second division compared to immortals such as the Marseillaise, John Brown's Body or Psalm 130. Your songs are not just didactic. They combine indictment with wit and warmth, as in Girl from the North Country.
And then you became irritated with being national radical bard. Mr Tambourine Man outraged your purist protest fans. After your accident, your songs became more personal and less political. The civil rights movement had (partly) won, and the Vietnam War had been (partly) lost. You have gone electric, switched to gospel, become dreamy, reverted to protest. You are a chameleon of the soundtrack. Your lyrics are the most popular and most intelligent of your generation. For protest songs your voice sounds like the buzzsaw in the blues tradition. For country songs you were smoother, like a lawnmower. Elsewhere you sound more raw like a lavatory flushing. You have many voices, which you use like an instrument to create atmosphere and effect.
You have moulded the thoughts and dreams of the young. You have opened up new avenues of musical and lyrical exploration. Your words are more to my taste than your voice is. Happy Birthday, Strolling Minstrel.
And now for some music more to my taste (age?). Emma Kirkby singing Mozart, I think. Phillip Howard (Aged 66) Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.