TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Sunday Features / May 22, 2011
One of a kind: Bob Dylan at 70
By MICHAEL GRAY
Special to The Japan Times
Bob Dylan, the single most important artist in the history of popular music, will be 70 years old on Tuesday, May 24.
Iron ore built the town, and built the remarkably lavish Hibbing High School that Dylan attended: a school whose concert hall has a hand-plastered, hand-painted ceiling whose crystal chandeliers imported from eastern Europe are lowered three times a year for cleaning, and a stage large enough to accommodate the entire Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.
Bob Dylan in 2006, when his 32nd studio album, "Modern Times," went straight to #1 on the U.S. charts.
This is the hall in which the schoolboy Zimmerman first performed, on piano, with his rock'n'roll group The Golden Chords. He hammered out Little Richard numbers on a 1922 Steinway Grand. And when he was leaving school in 1959, he wrote in his high school yearbook under "Ambition": "To join Little Richard."
But by the time the young Dylan had spent a semester at the University of Minnesota, and then dropped out, Little Richard wasn't really available to be joined, having renounced secular music for gospel.
Meanwhile, the rock'n'roll of that generation of artists — including Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis — was being pushed off America's airwaves by nervous advertisers and replaced by a milksop kind of pop that held no interest for the young man from Hibbing. In any case, by this point he had encountered the prewar blues recordings of Leadbelly, the campaigning songs of Woody Guthrie, acoustic folk guitarists in Dinkytown, the bohemian enclave of Minneapolis-St.Paul, the writing of Jack Kerouac and more besides.
All this made sense to him as, with his usual impeccable timing, he arrived, calling himself "Bob Dylan," in New York City's Greenwich Village at the very beginning of 1961 — a 19-year-old already making up romantic stories about his past — just in time to take part in the most exciting period of the the folk music revival then in full flow. A fearless performer, a charming urchin and a pushy, slippery youth, he soon got attention; an attention he held with the striking, forceful songs he began writing so prolifically.
On stage in Bordeaux, France, in 2010 © COLIN MOORE; on the set of "Masked and Anonymous" (2003). Sony Music Japan International Inc.
"How many years can a mountain exist / Before it's washed to the sea? / Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist / Before they're allowed to be free? / Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn't see? / The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind . . ."
It's hard to feel this now, but back in the early '60s, "Blowin' in the Wind" was a wholly new, exciting song — and in a time of racial struggle and conflict across America, a time too of general repressive restraint, this "protest song" spoke out, articulating what so many young people were feeling.
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© Michael Gray, 2011
Michael Gray is a critic, writer and broadcaster recognized as a world authority on the work of Bob Dylan. He is also an expert on rock'n'roll history and the blues, with a special interest in prewar blues. He grew up on Merseyside, England, and now lives in France. His website is http://www.blogger.com/goog_1464801076
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