When I discovered Bob Dylan in the late 1960s, he actually seemed to have discovered me. His caustic lyrics and the contempt in his voice channeled my youthful contempt for the values of my elders. Dylan was an ally when I fought with my parents about pretty much everything from clothes to hair, music to my future. Times change’ said it best and admonished mothers and fathers not to criticize any more what they could not understand: “Your old way will quickly become old again.”
The arguments in my household eventually subsided, but Dylan’s unique influence on my teenage years helped grow me into adulthood. So if I can’t get my head around the fact that he will be 80 years old this spring – and that he is not alone with his age limit, excuse me. Dylan’s former girlfriend and musical partner, Joan Baez, turned 80 in January; Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel will cross the same threshold in autumn; Tina Turner is already 81 years old. Some other notable mind tamers: Petula Clark, 88; Ringo Starr, 80; Smokey Robinson, 81; Don Everly, 84; Grace Slick, 81.
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Obviously, getting old is nothing new. If anything, it is now less noteworthy than ever. Many elders pretend 80 is the new thing, well, not 80. The President of the United States turns 80 midway through his first term. Dr. Anthony Fauci was too busy of 18-hour workdays to pay much attention to his 80th birthday last December. Margaret Atwood is on the right track at 81.
Dylan and the rest are different. It doesn’t matter whether they are still vital or not; they shouldn’t get old at all. You are first and foremost a musician, but you also have a place in history as a changemaker. Their cause was youth, and they campaigned for it by inventing music – call it rock ‘n’ roll because there is no better catch-all – that spoke directly to the experience of being young. The effect was seismic. Bruce Springsteen put it beautifully in his 2016 memoir: Born to run: “In a moment of light that dazzles like a universe that produces a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, the possibility of a new way of seeing, feeling, thinking, looking at one’s body to comb your hair, wear your clothes, move around and live. “
The “new path” proposed by Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the mid-1950s crystallized into a youth culture of unprecedented scope and influence in the mid-1960s. At the end of the decade, music by and for young people had become the soundtrack of a global counterculture that shook the foundations of the established order.
Long before he received the Nobel Prize, Dylan was crowned the voice of his generation. Hymns like Ballad of a Thin Man scoffed at mainstream society, “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / You, Mr. Jones?” Mr. Jones didn’t know what was happening – couldn’t know – because he wasn’t young. The Beatles sang When I’m sixty-four with the carefree confidence that 64 was incredibly aloof.
Only it wasn’t and never is. No generation stands above the laws of nature. My parents’ generation wore age as a badge of honor, a sign that they had conquered the scarcity and war that had tarnished their youth. The arrogance of my generation, the baby boomers, found a voice in a single line from a 1965 Who song: “I hope I die before I get old.” Perversely, musicians who end prematurely are the purest Icons of counterculture in general: legends like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and John Lennon are frozen forever in their youthful heyday.
The stars who survive today feel like cheaters. The Rolling Stones – average age: 76.5 still deliver the goods musically, but their once anarchic boast has softened to a grizzled bonhomie. (If you’re not careful, Google Rolling Stones, you might land on a Wikipedia page for Rollright Stones, a Neolithic rock monument in England. Worse metaphors can come to mind.) And Dylan’s recently recorded edition couldn’t be further from the outrageous genius and “that thin, wild mercury sound” of his heyday. In concert he deliberately sinks his most famous songs in a voice that sounds like he’s gargling gravel.
In 1976, a 35-year-old Dylan joined a parade of contemporaries including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Dr. John and Van Morrison, at a farewell concert for the band that stopped after years of touring. This resulted in Martin Scorsese’s documentary The last waltz. One song for the final cut was Dylans Forever Young. He had written it for one of his kids, but in the movie it came off as a reassuring pat on the back for worried fans wondering what was coming next.
Scorsese’s film is timeless, but its characters are not. Almost half of the cast are now dead. In an act of wanton curmudgeon, two of the surviving headliners – Morrison, 75, and Clapton, 76 – released an anti-lockdown song during the second wave of the UK’s COVID-19 crisis last fall . Around the same time, Dylan gave away the rights to his songbook for allegedly $ 300 million. And he continues to plug a range of whiskeys inspired by his song Knock on the door to heaven.
The more whiskey ages, the more distinctive it becomes. The opposite is the case with rock ‘n’ roll icons. The older they get, the more ordinary they look. They are shrinking. You do strange things. For us baptized of the counterculture, recognizing their age means dealing with evergreen illusions and the greatest certainty of all: it won’t be long before they are gone.
I doubt I’ll ever be ready to face this.
David Wilson is a Toronto author.
This story first appeared in the June 2021 Broadview issue with the title “Aging Icons”.
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