Monday 5 December 2016

Whatever you say he is, that's what he's not

Published 14/05/2011 | 05:00

Three weeks after he celebrates his 70th birthday on May 24, Bob Dylan arrives in Ireland to play a concert on Bloomsday in ... Cork. Trust Dylan to bypass the capital for the Rebel County on such a date -- in his own extraordinary odyssey, he has made a virtue out of never doing the obvious thing.

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His is a life that has been lived so large, it looms over popular culture like a colossus. If they were to sculpt a Mount Rushmore of the 20th Century's most influential artists, Dylan's visage would unquestionably be chiselled into the mountain.

When he celebrated his 50th birthday in 1991, a special 'Bob-fest' was staged in Madison Square Gardens in New York, featuring a who's who of musical icons from across the generations and genres, from Willie Nelson to Neil Young to Sinead O'Connor. It's sobering to think of those who Dylan shared a stage with that night who have passed on -- Johnny Cash, June Carter, George Harrison, Liam Clancy ...

Dylan, though. Of course, Dylan always played down the significance of his achievements. He refers himself simply as "a song and dance man", a travelling minstrel who moves from town to town, plying his trade like any other.

And he metaphorically ran screaming from the room when he was labelled the voice of his generation and the figurehead of the 1960s counter-culture. He moved to a rural idyll in upstate New York in an effort to give the madding crowd the slip. But the madding crowd camped out at his front door -- staging the world's hairiest outdoor music festival in his Woodstock neighbourhood. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have cavorted in the mud, but this was one Hamlet where the Prince was a no-show.

In his extraordinary memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan remembers this period of his life as one in which he felt utterly trapped by his ballooning celebrity; the world was his oyster, but he felt claustrophobic within its shell.

He talks about how he just wanted to be a normal family man, being a father to his kids and a husband to his wife, but had to contend with crazies outside his house inspecting the contents of his rubbish bin, so desperate were they to get a piece of him. Having tilted the world on its axis by reimagining rock 'n' roll, Bob Dylan's dream was simply to live quietly in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence ...

That dream proving unattainable; Dylan ended up renting a home in the Hamptons -- that exclusive enclave of New England where the super-rich and super-famous dwell. There, he strolled with his wife and kids on his own private beach -- until it was time to hit the road again.

Part of our enduring fascination with Dylan is his ability to stay one step ahead of the game -- whatever you say he is, that's what he's not. Todd Haynes decided that the only way he could come close to capturing the mercurial essence of Dylan in his arthouse biopic I'm Not There in 2007 was to have six different actors play six different aspects of the man, including a black kid called Marcus and a woman named Cate.

Yet in recent times, the actual Robert Allen Zimmerman has come out to play -- and these days he wears a pencil moustache and a cowboy hat.

There was a rare and revelatory filmed interview on the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. There was his fascinating themed radio programmes broadcast on the internet and later on Phantom FM, where he unveiled his deliciously diverse record collection -- and proved an engaging host.

There was the amazing Chronicles, with further volumes promised. There was also a flurry of critically lauded new studio albums that harked back to old Delta blues and r'n'b showcasing his enduring love of traditional musical forms that pre-date the genres he helped invent. (But the less said about that Christmas album, the better.)

And the NeverEnding tour trundles on. It has taken in Dublin's Vicar St, Point and O2, Limerick's Thomond Park and Kilkenny's Nowlan Park. And as mentioned above, next month it docks into Cork's Marquee.

As a performer, the Dylan of 2011 is, alas, a pale shadow of his former self. These days, he prefers to stand behind a keyboard situated almost off the stage, letting the lead guitarists showboat with endless solos. And then there is his penchant for, ahem, 're-arranging' his old hits.

But we forgive him these eccentricities. He is Bob Dylan. He is engraved in our cultural Mount Rushmore. He is almost three score and ten years old. And he is celebrating Bloomsday by playing Live at the Marquee -- in Cork.

nkelly@independent.ie

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