In March 2001, when I was 12 years old, my father took me to see Bob Dylan at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. It was my first concert, and it was during the school week, which meant the late night wasn't sensible. But Dylan was unmissable.
As he turns 80, it's difficult to remember - given everything he's done and come to stand for - that Bob Dylan is a mere person. I came to his songs via the record collection of my father's youth, and bootleg cassettes in the family car. I've kept him with me as one of the early sparks that initiated my fascination with language, music, poetry, and America.
At that first concert, I remember the loudness, being unable to hear Dad's comments about the setlist over the heart-shuddering thump of the bass and the resonant blast of guitars. I remember the audience, mostly my parents' age or older, shirts boasting attendance at Dylan tours long past.
I remember discovering that, for all its grandeur and myth, American celebrity (American history) was something that, in exchange for some money, you and 10,000 punters from your town could share a room with. I remember another introduction; my father, on the way out, saying "Smell that? That's marijuana."
But most vividly I remember the enigmatic figure on stage, who sang and played guitar and mouth organ but didn't speak, who played songs I knew but often didn't recognise. He was slippery, baffling, immense. These memories are now irretrievably blended with performances seen since, but that night fixed Dylan in my mind as an exemplar of why the best art engrosses: even when you face it head on, its essence remains effervescent, ungraspable.
The perpetual transformation of Dylan's music and character, the early cryptic interviews, the relentless prolificness, the willingness to alienate devotees with his repeated musical metamorphoses, the never-ending touring only make him less locatable, harder to demystify. Few 20th-century celebrities have endured as much speculation and analysis as has Dylan. But the more he reveals, the more inscrutable he seems.
In childhood, a time when more or less everything is cloaked in mystery, the strangeness of lyrics like "Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it" and "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" seem, like all the other mysteries, to gesture towards some yet-to-be-unlocked compartment of adulthood. They differ from the ordinary mysteries of childhood, however, in the magic of the worlds they promise.
Dylan still conjures these worlds. Last year, he released Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album. The first single, Murder Most Foul, is a masterpiece, the kind of song that could only be written in the twilight of a career like Dylan's, which is to say it could only have been written by Dylan. Over nearly 17 minutes, he takes in, as he always has, the sweep of American cultural history: not as it is, but as it's been told, reflexively, sceptically, and lovingly.
The stories Dylan relates are patchworks of cliché, appropriation, nonsense, cinema, poetry, and The Great American Songbook. His characters are broken, lovelorn, wise, cynical, bitter, knowing. His polemics are masterworks of rhetoric, his love songs heartbreaking, his gospel songs transcendent. His stories encapsulate the complex corniness of the American fabric, its canniness and uncanniness.
From the final-verse twist in the sparklingly brilliant Black Diamond Bay, to the spaghetti-Western charm of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, to the disorientingly alien imagery of Jokerman - the surprise is not that he has written bad songs - which he has, inevitably, given his output - but that his catalogue includes such an extraordinary breadth and variety of great songs.
The epic Desolation Row served as my introduction to both the cavalcade of stars who populate its absurdist vision (Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Bette Davis, Casanova et al), and to the possibility that our world might be most powerfully described in ways that depart from its apparent logic. To hear the language of songs like It's Alright Ma, The Gates of Eden, and Highway 61 Revisited was to discover that words could do more than describe experiences and relay emotions, they could fashion new ones.
MORE DAN DIXON:
There are all sorts of places where this revelation might have originated, but it came to me via Bob Dylan.
More than a decade after my first concert, having moved away from Brisbane, I'd booked tickets to return home to see Dylan with my father. A few weeks before the performance, a second night was added. Dylan had decided to play a club show at Brisbane's Tivoli theatre, a rarely intimate space for an artist of his standing, and the only such show on the Australian tour. We had to go.
During the first half of the Tivoli show, Dylan played the same songs we'd heard two nights earlier, the same setlist he'd been playing for the entire Australian tour. But when he returned from interval, he did so with something new, a version of Girl from the North Country that recalled the 1963 recording, soft and longing, but now making use of the depth and knowingness of age. Not a mystery to be solved, but a man. He sounded then, as he still does, like himself.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.