Bob Dylan is the Ted Williams of music.
After Williams capped his unparalleled career with a home run in his final at-bat 60 years ago, the “Splendid Splinter” refused to acknowledge the scant home crowd of Red Sox fans at Boston’s Fenway Park.
“We want Ted,” his admirers chanted. However, Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, refused to emerge from the dugout and doff his cap.
“Gods do not answer letters,” was how legendary author John Updike explained in the New Yorker Williams’ decision to ignore the faithful.
Dylan, 79, who has been considered a genius ever since the release of 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” doesn’t answer letters, either. There is arguably no living singer-songwriter as revered as Dylan.
The compelling visionary communicates through his music in a manner that Williams spoke with his bat.
Both iconic figures were never much for the media. So it’s an event whenever Dylan answers questions.
The legendary bard recently spoke to the New York Times to chat up his latest album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” His take on everyday life is as fascinating as his 39th album.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is an impressive project for a recording artist of any age. Dylan’s first album of new material in eight years is full of powerful yet playful songs. The poetic Nobel Prize winner snarls his way through his lyrics, which are filled with sardonic wit. On the sonic side, he recorded with a crack band, which features Matt Chamberlain (Fiona Apple, David Bowie), who is the finest sessions drummer in the business.
Perhaps part of what makes “Rough and Rowdy Ways” such an extraordinary album is that Dylan literally has nothing left to accomplish. All of the boxes have been checked in his incomparable career. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been an iconoclast for more than two-thirds of his life. That’s incomprehensible.
However, Dylan thankfully continues to make music. “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute tune, which is the first song of the enigmatic figure to reach the top of Billboard’s rock charts, was inspired by JFK’s assassination. But it’s easy to connect the epic tune to the murder of George Floyd. The haunting track, which was released in March, obviously has nothing to do with Floyd’s death. There’s even bits of humor infused in the song. “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando / Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando.”
However, the title of the song can’t help but take music fans back to the video of the heinous act, which has inspired myriad protests.
“It sickened me to no end to see George tortured to death like that,” Dylan told the New York Times. “It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and the nation.”
It’s always welcome to know what’s on Dylan’s complex mind since he’s often residing in a fortress of solitude. Dylan used the recently deceased Little Richard’s Gospel music as a springboard to comment on media and society.
“Gospel music is the music of good news, and in these days there just isn’t any,” Dylan said. “Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news. And we have to thank the media industry for that. Gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage. You can pace your life accordingly, or try to, anyway. And you can do it with honor and principles. There are theories of truth in gospel, but to most people it’s unimportant. Their lives are lived out too fast. Too many bad influences. Sex and politics and murders is the way to go if you want to get people’s attention. It excites us, that’s our problem.”
Dylan is in great shape for a fellow who is on the edge of octogenarian status.
How has Dylan remained so vital? “That’s the big question, isn’t it,” Dylan said.
“How does anybody do it? Your mind and body go hand in hand. There has to be some kind of agreement. I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.”
Dylan waxed about the differences between youth and elder statesmen. “We have a tendency to live in the past,” Dylan said. “But that’s only us. “Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything. In 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be at the forefront. When you see somebody that is 10 years old, he’s going to be in control in 20 or 30 years, and he won’t have a clue about the world we knew.”
However, Dylan and a list of long-in-the-tooth singer-songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Neil Young are still writing and recording. Each is creating laudable work. What they present is quite a contrast from what is normally celebrated on the pop charts, but the experienced songsmiths continue to craft amazing songs.
There’s no doubt that each of the aforementioned artist’s best work was created during their salad days. However, experience matters, and many writers only improve with age.
Dylan’s “Tempest,” which was released in 2012, is a gritty folk record comprised of urgent, irreverent folk that’s exceptional. “Modern Times” from 2006 is another stunner. The album is filled with passionate and poignant songs.
“Modern Times,” “Tempest” and “Rough and Rowdy Ways” are three albums created by Dylan as a senior citizen. That’s an impressive feat considering the expectation for recording artists in their twilight years is to typically ride the nostalgia wave and deliver greatest-hits sets.
However, Dylan still has plenty to say, and it’s a joy to experience his world-weary and ragged voice. His prose remains compelling, and Dylan continues to surround himself with world-class players, which is no surprise going back to his days when the Band backed him.
Hopefully Dylan will write and record in his 80s. Dylan thinks about death but doesn’t dwell on his own mortality. “Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
It’s difficult to imagine a world without Dylan, but when the man once known as Robert Zimmerman eventually passes, his music will keep his legacy alive.