That voice, softened by the erosion of age but still the sensate rasp that Joyce Carol Oates once compared to sandpaper singing. Even when it’s prattling on, that voice reaches into the synapses of my youth. I’m a Dylan baby; I trekked down from the Bronx to hear him in his Greenwich Village hootenanny days, and I still have the program from his 1961 Carnegie Hall debut. E-bay beckons, but I won’t sell it, or forget the moment when I first heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” on Top 40 radio and realized that the times were…need I finish the line?
Now it’s trickier. There’s Dylan the artist in cap and gown, and Dylan the brand, hyping the new line at Victoria’s Secret; Dylan the Nobel Prize nominee, and Dylan the franchise whose product is being diversified into a tribute musical by Twyla Tharp. And now there’s DJ coming to the XM pay-radio network. Starting May 3 he’ll go head to cred with Howard Stern, chatting up guests, answering e-mails and spinning platters of his eccentric choosing around selected themes (e.g., weather, dancing, whiskey). Those who knew him as the most inspirational voice of the 1960s can tune in to reconnect with their memories through this show. Those who fell away when he found God can hear what’s most admirable about Dylan now: his musical erudition and his bond with what critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” the land of dusty 78s and desperate dreams. XM is betting that Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan will draw a very desirable demographic: haute boomers who are used to paying for premium channels and premium everything.
You could do worse than pass the drive time with one of America’s most important pop artists. But to describe Dylan as merely important may seem paltry, even philistine. To his most fervent admirers he’s not just another artist, certainly not a song-and-dance man, as he’s often called himself. He’s the emblem of his generation’s splendor. Beatified in his youth, he’s cruising toward sainthood today.
Like any holy man, Dylan is surrounded by a cultural guard that sings his praises and keeps his secrets. His recent autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, doesn’t deal with drugs (though they were abundant in his entourage), and neither does Martin Scorsese’s definitive Dylan doc, No Direction Home (2005). That’s the kind of tell-some treatment Dylan expects, and he’s always gotten it from artists who hone and honor his myth. Todd Haynes is making a film with four actors playing avatars of Dylan. This is a sign that something other than appreciation is at work. We’re witnessing a consecration.
As Dylan’s original fans age, some feel a need to make the icon of their youth into an eternal object of worship. Things that last forever aren’t subject to ups and downs, so the former consensus about Dylan–that his later work is quite uneven–has given way to a conviction that his oeuvre is one unbroken flow of genius, a gospel. Prophets don’t have flops, and neither should Dylan. His woeful ode to assassinated mobster Joey Gallo (“What made them want to come and blow you away?”) has to be of a piece with his master song “Like a Rolling Stone.” His endless and tedious 1978 film Renaldo and Clara must be seen as an underrated masterpiece. This failure to distinguish between awesome and awful Dylan is evidence that his reputation rests less on his recent music than on his enduring status as a fetish.