David Hayes: Bob Dylan at 70: Revolution in the Head, Revisited

Roundup: Talking About History

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy, which he co-founded in 2000. He has written textbooks on human rights and terrorism, and was a contributor to Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998). His work has been published in PN Review, the Irish Times, El Pais, the Iran Times International, the Canberra Times, the Scotsman, the New Statesman and The Absolute Game.

A great artist’s landmark birthday tends to be a retrospect. Here too Bob Dylan, born on 24 May 1941, extends the pattern of a lifetime in subverting expectations. For the American singer and songwriter, whose pioneering work in the 1960s made him the most influential figure of popular music in that decade, became in his own 60s if anything even more famous than he had been in his meteoric 20s.

The media deluge that surrounds his 70th birthday - tributes, articles and profiles galore, new books and new editions of books, career reviews, and countless items in the “Dylan and me” sub-genre - is evidence of this rediscovery of a figure who (it is hard to recall now) was regarded during parts of the 1980s and 1990s as no longer of fresh interest artistically.

In great part the recognition is owed to Dylan’s immense and diverse creative efforts since the late 1990s. The turning-point may have been 1997, when the singer received emergency medical treatment for a serious heart infection. In the same year Dylan issued the first of what would become a series of three acclaimed albums of original songs (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Together Through Life).

These alone represent a musical renaissance in terms of the preceding decade. But there have in the post-1997 years also been well packaged compilations and “official” bootlegs of earlier material from his prolific   oeuvre (including to date nine volumes of The Bootleg Series, with many live performances and out-takes), and covers (Christmas in the Heart); an astonishing autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, which seems both to absorb and extend the literary lineages it belongs to, much as his music does; hosting an exuberant weekly radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, where songs of many styles and periods loosely connected by subject are presented with an inimitable mix of affection, learning and bone-dry wit; having his drawings and paintings exhibited, and reproduced in book form (Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series); and not least a concert schedule often described as the “never-ending tour”, which has seen Dylan perform live around 100 times a year across two decades and forty countries....

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