Bob Dylan, Modern Times, #1
I often think of Bob Dylan when I think about the future of hiphop. I actually think Bob Dylan is the future of hiphop, and maybe even the future of humanity. Or a weird, Vonnegut-ian, bizarro-world vision of the future where nobody ages so much as moves back and forth in time—like the Terminator, not like that post-apocalyptic bookworm Burgess Meredith played on The Twilight Zone who survives a nuclear holocaust and only freaks out when he smashes his reading glasses.
Point being, in the same way I think Cate Blanchett (soon to be seen playing Dylan) would be the perfect big-screen Miles Davis (CGI-blackface willing) because she’s that gangsta-mack with her craft, I think Dylan is how you want to go out as an MC. Because as we watch Nas and Jay-Z try to figure out how you sustain a pure artist’s stance in today’s asscrackbootyslap iPod-disposable hiphop, I look at Brother Zimmerman and I say, “Now that’s how you do your golden years.” Because if you make your living throwing slang and metaphor about with abandon—if you get paid for lyrically poking around the alphabet—you pretty much got a job for life for as long as you care to catch wreck. Because if you’re a performer more known for your slick verbal chops than your sexyback arabesques or your Voice of God, Bob D has to be your man.
Long time ago I was told, “Some writers just have story in their voice.” Like all my other favorite rhymers, Dylan keeps story in his verses—sagacious poetry and prophecy too. But nobody in hiphop, except maybe MF Doom and Ghostface, seems to realize that deft and ingenious handling of iambic pentameter is enough to move a crowd and help you ease on down the road. Lust, violence, god, love, and mortality—if you can consistently set all those Great American themes to a beat, you’ve got the fickle bastards for as long as you can stand ’em. What Dylan has done since Time Out of Mind is twofold: He’s reinvented the whole idea of aging gracefully in American pop, and he’s found a way to turn back the clock to the point where the Dylan of now seems more spry and toothsome than the Dylan of 1964. It’s like that whole “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now” thing of his was really like a reverse-aging spell he put on himself, to be activated once he became a sexagenarian. I mean, the man’s doing stellar, laconic, all-ages satellite radio, daydreaming about Alicia Keys like Ghostface once daydreamed about Adina Howard, touring like the only way he’s ever leaving the stage is strapped to a gurney, and most remarkably of all, making albums that aren’t just listenable, but actually still matter. Where is his Picture of Dorian Gray, we all want to know? Thing must look like Jabba the Hutt after an unlicensed Queens rhinoplasty.
Because the rule in pop, funk-and-roll, or whatever is, somewhere after 55—after old dude has gone through his last mid-life crisis, bagged his last 10-G-a-day coke habit supermodel, and closed out his debt to the live-in family therapist—well, he just hauls his fat ass back in front of what’s left of his fun-loving middle-aged public and tours them golden oldies like he wrote ’em yesterday, and if that means playing the Hibbings County Fair opening up for Chicago, Blue Magic, and Styx, then so be it. But uh-uh, not our Bob D, baby. Ain’t going out like that. So who’da thunk Prince would be shufflin’ in Vegas before Bob muhfuhkn’ Dylan? Who else could go out and tour material primarily from his last three albums, and wouldn’t nobody be mad if “Maggie’s Farm,” “Desolation Row,” or “All Along the Watchtower” never came up in the rotation? I mean, you’d be disappointed, but you wouldn’t leave mad, you know what I’m saying?
I mean, dude’s still Mr. Lyrics to Go. Lyrics as mind-altering as those on ’61
or Another Side Of or Blonde on Blonde. Not better and obviously not owning the crunchy historical moment like that—though Love and Theft is still the most haunted, passionate, ironic art anyone, in any medium, has done “about” or with respect to 9-11, with the exception of David Byrne–Talking Heads’ equally prescient “Life During Wartime” and Steve Vitiello’s Winds After Hurricane Floyd, and 9-11 hadn’t even happened yet, so call him Bob Delphic. But say some young’un comes up to you and says, “Hey Gramps, I want to get into this Dylan cat, where should I start?” Sure you’d recommend Highway or Blowin’ or Blonde or New or Blood, but Time or Love or Modern Times wouldn’t hardly be sloppy seconds—or thirds if the kid wanted something more antique contemporary. Point being, any old codger can be wax-dummied into a classic statue pose, be oiled and anointed and get ’60s Rock Legend stamped over his faded 666-stigmata. But how many codgers can make you believe Alicia Keys better get a head start and not stare too deep into his eyes when she spies him in her rearview?
Point being, you go see Rolling Stones, P-Funk, EWF, Lou Reed, Bowie, Chaka, or whoever because you want to be reminded how good the good old days really were, and because, let’s be real, you want to check in and see how the staunch gray guardians of your dusty glory are holding up. But, and this is the crucial difference, when you put that new Dylan on it’s to hear what he’s up for today. Because see, now that Miles is gone, Bob D and a precious few very, very free jazz cats—namely Ornette, Cecil, Sam Rivers, and Bill Dixon—are the only artistes around that make you feel like whatever they get into tomorrow will be infinitely more arresting or ahead of the curve or in the moment than whatever YouTube-sucking nostalgia trip we’re on now. They’re all still like Method Man: “Still wild still ‘tical still gritty style, foul, crimi-nimi-nal, individual.” Point being, Bob Dylan woke up this morning still representing Bob Dylan. And you, Brutus?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2007