Today marks Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday. For over 50 years, Dylan has been a cultural phenomenon defying expectations and challenging listeners. An enigmatic figure, Dylan is also a very divisive one at that. Nobody can split a room as evenly as he can. While some admire his songwriting ability and disrupting pop music norms of the 1960s, others just simply cannot stand his nasally voice. He isn’t for everyone. An acquired taste, Dylan continues to be a figure that eludes labels amidst a fog of mystery.
I discovered Dylan when I was 14 after looking at a picture of him in an issue of Rolling Stone listing their picks for the 500 best songs ever recorded. Now that I am 28, I can now say that Dylan’s music has been a part of me for most of my life. The first track I can ever remember hearing was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I borrowed a CD which would be his standard Greatest Hits compilation; 10 tracks of Dylan’s best through 1966. When that wasn’t enough, I moved onto a two-disc compilation that was part of Columbia Records’ Essential Artists series; The Essential Bob Dylan covered eras of his career through 2000. The Essential Bob Dylan really appealed to me because I could get tastes of the buffet that was his entire career. I could vaguely trace the projection of his career from a beginner’s perspective.
However, that set wasn’t enough. I started buying studio albums. Highway 61 Revisited. Blonde on Blonde. Blood on the Tracks. Time Out of Mind. “Love & Theft.” All of these were bought while I was still in high school. I was a fanatic. Dylan was all I could listen to and I talked about him all the time. I had that reputation. I didn’t care. While all the other high school kids were listening to Nelly or whatever else was playing on top 40 radio in the early to mid-2000s, I was listening to Bob Dylan and I was convinced that was the coolest thing I could do.
In college, I experienced a real treat as a Dylan fan. 2006 saw the release of Modern Times. Wow! Not only was this a great record, but this album was significant for me because it was the first new studio album Dylan released since I became a Dylan fan. When he released his last album, “Love & Theft” in 2001, I didn’t know who he was. He wouldn’t come up on my radar for another for another year or so. I bought that album the day it came out. I also convinced the music director of the college radio station where I volunteered to put the album in heavy rotation (he did). I even appropriated my college radio DJ name, Jack Frost, from Dylan because that was the pseudonym under which he produced that album.
College also saw my pursuit in learning more about him. I was already academically engaged within the world of high education, so some of that bled over into my leisurely pursuits. I read books and downloaded countless bootlegs thanks to my university’s fast internet connection. In 2007, I even got to see Dylan live for the first time. I rode with my dad to Nashville where I saw him perform at the Ryman Auditorium. Opening up were Andrew Bird and Elvis Costello respectively. And half way during Dylan’s set, Jack White randomly showed out to jam on a few songs; one of which had never been played live since recording in 1964. Over the years, I would go on to see him live 4 more times and collect a few dozen more albums.
My reputation as a Dylan fan preceded me. If I met someone for the first time, they already knew I loved Bob Dylan. And I wasn’t just a fair-weather fan. I defended Dylan and some of his more questionable career choices and laid out all of my knowledge. People would even text me or send me a message on social media when they had questions. Of course, my fandom would also be a source of some ridicule. Crude jokes and cruel comments were often made to me to undermine my interests and the happiness I experienced. I didn’t care most of the time. Sometimes I did. But, Dylan was a guy who didn’t care what people thought of him. When people were calling him a prophet or the voice of his generation, he would pour bottles of whiskey over his head or intentionally record controversial albums in order to dissuade people. If Bob Dylan was too cool to care what people thought, then I would be to.
Even the most casual and cavalier music fans know a little about Dylan. Though their knowledge and exposure is generally relegated to his more famous 1960s about. Things like him “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival or a heckler branding him as Judas during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall are commonly known. I wanted to know everything. I wanted all of the bad along with all of the good. I bought all of his albums from the 1970s and most of the one of the 1980s, two periods that many would consider very low points for Dylan’s career. However, there a quite a few overlooked gems from those periods. Songs that may not be as well-known or brilliant as his more famous works from the 1960s, but still excellent songs that reflect a man who is progressing and growing into a role he feels comfortable with.
With that, Dylan is notorious for leaving some of his best material on the cutting room floor. Unofficial bootlegs of these cuts would circulate and fans would dissect them and debate why Dylan would neglect such great tracks. One that comes to mind is “Blind Willie McTell,” a ballad dedicated to a blues pioneer that was left over from the recording sessions for 1983’s Infidels. The track would eventually find a home on the release The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991; the first installment of his iconic series of bootleg material released in 1991.
In 2008, Dylan released another installment of The Bootleg Series entitled The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. Depending on which version you bought, this was a one to three disc set that compiled alternate versions, unreleased material, and live tracks recorded between 1989 and 2006. Some of the albums that Dylan released in this period would fall to the wayside as being forgettable including two albums of folk covers (Good as I Benn to You and World Gone Wrong), but this would also be a period that would spark a renaissance in Dylan’s career. In 1989, Oh Mercy was a strong comeback album from a performer many felt was wash-up. Time Out of Mind, released in 1997, would go on to earn Dylan a Grammy for “Album of the Year.” And 2001’s “Love & Theft” and 2006’s Modern Times would appear frequently on critic’s list for best albums of the decade.
I have a special affinity for this period of Dylan’s career since I was born in 1987. While Dylan’s truly great and monumental material was recorded over 20 years earlier, he still had a lot of great left in him. This was my Dylan because he was recording this music while I was alive and still growing into the person I am today. This was my generation’s Dylan and that felt so much more valuable than previous incarnations of the folk troubadour.
In 1990, Dylan released Under the Red Sky, a peculiar album the guys behind Was (Not Was). The album is quintessentially early ‘90s and very cheesy at times. Dylan evokes lines and imagery from nursery rhymes and fables into the songs on the album. One of the tracks released on the album, “Born in Time,” actually originated from the sessions for his previous album Oh Mercy. Oh Mercy is considered one of his best albums while Under the Red Sky is merely a footnote. However, in the grand tradition of Dylan throwing away his best material, Dylan discarded earlier versions of “Born in Time” recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions. The song would find a home on Under the Red Sky, completely rerecorded.
The original version of “Born in Time” was eventually released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series entitled The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. The earlier recorded version easily stands out as one of the best songs on that release as well as one of my personal favorites. It is a tender song about love and heartache reminiscing about a love that has past. This version is stripped down to just the band and Dylan’s acoustic guitar. All of the production elements from later version are gone and the song is better for it. Aside from the production, Dylan is also performing better as well. His vocals on the earlier version are better and clearer; less nasally. Even the lyrics evoked greater more fantastic imagery. The later version of “Born in Time” became weaker on all fronts. I don’t think I’ll never know why, but this is a part of the fun.
Dylan is still putting out albums at 75. Last week saw the release of Fallen Angels, the second of two consecutive releases profiling songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. He hasn’t released an album of original music since 2012’s Tempest. No one expected him to put out one Sinatra let alone two whole albums. That is just Dylan’s style, though. He does whatever he wants to do regardless of the backlash or criticism. I’m sure some points of his career were well-meaning missteps that get played off as intentional, but those might be few and far between. For the most part, Dylan knows he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. He has done it all and he will continue to live his life on his own terms. Even if that means throwing away his best material. Even if it means alienating his fans. Even if it means it comprises his legacy to some. For me, he is an inspiration of the true meaning of success. In Dylan’s words, “a man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”
Happy Birthday, Bob.
P.S. Unfortunately, this song does not appear anywhere on YouTube. I encourage you to listen to a sample here and seek out the song on your own.