SO Bob – how does it feeeel to be 80?
I am, of course, referencing Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, a six-minute tour de force from 1965 that transformed pop into a poetic art form.
Sadly, the answer (to borrow from another song) will always be blowin’ in the wind because words with the elusive, unknowable and endlessly fascinating singer are like gold dust.
But one thing I’ve discovered is that other musicians I’ve talked to have strong opinions on — and vivid memories of — Bob Dylan.
Through them, I’m attempting to scratch the surface of this complex character who still makes records, continually tours (pandemic permitting), gets high prices for his portrait and landscape paintings, crafts elaborate gates out of scrap metal, sells his own brand of whiskey — and turns 80 today.
Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2016 and only last year released one of the best albums of his career, Rough And Rowdy Ways.
The scruffy chancer from Hibbing, Minnesota, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, has come a long way since he pitched up in New York City 60 years ago with barely two beans to rub together, to try his luck as a folk singer on the club circuit.
By 1962, the year The Beatles’ first single Love Me Do appeared, Dylan had released his debut album for Columbia Records and our national treasure Rod Stewart told me of the big impact it made on him as a teenager.
“I’d been listening to Woody Guthrie and American folk music and then the first Dylan record came out,” he said. “And what a change that was for me! America seemed like a place I just had to visit.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1963, Dylan’s meteoric rise to being “the voice of a generation” was cemented by anthems such as The Times They Are a-Changin’ and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which captured the mood of rebellion sweeping the decade.
If he was the newly anointed king of folk, then Joan Baez, who became his lover, was the queen.
When I spoke to her, she cast her mind back to that year’s Newport Folk Festival when she joined Bob and a host of other singers for an ensemble finale of Blowin’ In The Wind.
“I can feel my knees knocking just thinking about it,” she said. “Bob was such a phenomenon, the talent was so overwhelming and so constant that I was in total awe but he soon moved on.”
By “moved on”, she means from both the folk scene and her. The dying embers of their relationship can be glimpsed in D A Pennebaker’s gripping, sometimes painful fly-on-the-wall documentary of Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, Don’t Look Back.
Having previously shared the bill and sung duets at numerous gigs, Baez was excluded from these shows as the spotlight was firmly focused on Bob, who had emerged as a pencil-thin hipster rock star in leather jacket and shades.
“The England thing was a complete disaster for me,” said Baez, who, in 1975, took the plunge again by joining Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a travelling circus of like-minded musicians and poets.
“By then, I stopped expecting that much of Bob. Most importantly, I don’t, and I never did, do drugs, so I was outside of that (tour’s) boys club.”
Before Baez retired from touring in 2018, she was still peppering her setlist with Dylan covers.
“Well, they’re the best f***ing songs we have,” she affirmed. “They’re beautifully written, fun to play, meaningful and they were created by an extraordinary songwriting machine.”
I asked Baez how she felt about Dylan all these years later. “I don’t understand Bob. I am just smart enough to know that I will never understand Bob,” she replied.
She admitted they didn’t keep in touch “but I totally respect whatever the hell his trip is. Really, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if I never see him again. It is what it is”.
Winding back to mid-Sixties, Dylan dramatically cut ties with Baez and the folk crowd by “going electric”, leading one fan at Manchester Free Trade to yell “Judas!” in outrage at amped-up songs such as Like A Rolling Stone and Ballad Of A Thin Man.
But he was on an unstoppable creative roll, delivering a trio of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, that changed the course of popular music with their vivid and surreal imagery.
Around that period, the Rolling Stones were forging their way as chart sensations and the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards songwriting team was getting into full swing with hits including Satisfaction and Get Off Of My Cloud.
Richards, who later became mates with Dylan and sang with him (rather shambolically) at Philadelphia’s Live Aid show, told me: “Being a songwriter back then was a heavy, heavy load.
“Bob spurred us on. He was a prime example of ‘you don’t need anybody else’. If you write your own songs and can play them, you cut out an awful lot of middlemen.
"Tom Waits is another great friend and people like Bob, Tom and me were made to do this. And you don’t get worse if you do it with the right spirit.”
Also in the mid-Sixties, singer Kris Kristofferson was trying to get into the music business by working as a janitor at the Columbia studios in Nashville where Dylan had been recording.
Kristofferson soon wrote fabulous songs such as Me And Bobby McGee and Sunday Morning Coming Down, and Dylan was an inspiration.
“I discovered that he was unique, unlike anybody,” he said, slouched in his tour bus in a London car park, a glass of the hard stuff in hand. He had such a powerful pitch.”
Burned out after his 1966 world tour, Dylan nearly died in a motorcycle crash before recording the legendary Basement Tapes with The Band, exploring country music on a series of albums and raising five children with wife Sara.
One of those kids who lived on the family farm in upstate New York was Jakob Dylan, who followed dad’s footsteps into music as frontman of The Wall- flowers.
When I met Jakob at London’s chic Sanderson Hotel for one of his solo albums on Columbia, he was wary of talking about his father but did say: “I always appreciated that (Dylan’s) music but I’m not a sycophant.
“I was aware of his stuff but I don’t put any more interest into it than into any other songwriter who’s trying to do a good job.”
Did he feel any pressure making a record for the same label as dad? I ventured.
“I’ve already withstood that pressure,” he answered. “It’s not as if the same people who brought him there, brought me there. There’s no one from those days around.”
In 1975, Dylan released his break-up album, Blood On The Tracks, as he and Jakob’s mother separated. It included songs like Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist Of Fate and If You See Her, Say Hello.
After another huge album, Desire, and the ramshackle Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan went full-on showbiz for his 1978 world tour, looking more like late-period Elvis than a tousled troubadour.
The following year marked the beginning of his born-again Christian period which yielded three fire-and- brimstone albums, Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love.
And as he emerged into an Eighties music world dominated by synth-pop and post-punk, Dylan was still a major attraction, drawing a sell-out crowd to Wembley Stadium in 1984.
On the same bill were The Pretenders, led by the irrepressible Chrissie Hynde, a committed Dylan fan. The American Londoner remembered attending an awards ceremony to find herself on the same table as Bob and Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor.
Hynde apologised for her “shameless” name drop and continued: “Bob looks at me and goes, ‘Chrissie, I want you to meet my fiancée, Elizabeth’. He was f***ing hilarious!”
She elaborated: “He’s controversial, he’s told the truth, he’s done all this amazing stuff but people overlook that he’s a comedian.”
Last year, during lockdown, Hynde explained why she’d started posting a series of Dylan covers after hearing Bob’s new song Murder Most Foul, a 17-minute magnum opus based on JFK’s assassination.
“It’s amazing, profound, poetic and, as always, has some humour to it,” she enthused. “Dylan’s excellence really lifted me right at the beginning of the lockdown.”
She also reflected on the times she’d met Dylan. “I’ve been so starstruck and pretty much tongue-tied. I’ll talk to him and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to call Patti (Smith)’.”
Now we must return to the Eighties, when quiet Beatle George Harrison and ELO’s Brummie mastermind Jeff Lynne called up some special friends, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Dylan to form ultimate supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
Lynne had been working with Harrison on his smash- hit album Cloud 9 when the idea came up.
He recalled the exact moment at the Beatle’s country pile, Friar Park. “I said to George, ‘Who should we have in it?’ And he said, ‘Bob Dylan’.
"So I asked, ‘Can we have Roy Orbison?’ Then we both mentioned Tom Petty, because we loved him.”
Three years before his death in 2017, Tom Petty talked to me about Dylan: “Well, none of us could compete with him, still can’t you know? He’s far above us all.”
And Harrison’s widow, Olivia, spoke of the mutual admiration between her husband and Bob which stretched back to the sessions together in 1970 and The Concert For Bangladesh a year later.
“George really revered Bob,” said Olivia. “And I think Bob felt the same way about George.”
If the Wilburys was an Eighties high point for Dylan so too was his final album of the decade, Oh Mercy.
But previous efforts were patchy as he, like so many “classic” artists, struggled with the prevailing pop aesthetic.
In 1986, he embarked on a secret six-year marriage to backing singer Carolyn Dennis and they had one child, a daughter, Desiree Gabrielle.
After a brush with death thanks to a bout of pericarditis, Dylan’s late- period creative renaissance began in earnest with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and an Oscar came his way in 2000 for the song Things Have Changed from the film Wonder Boys.
A 2005 show at Brixton Academy was notable for his astonishing performance of London Calling by The Clash. Bob does punk!
In the audience that night, standing just in front of me, was guitarist Mick Jones, who wrote the song with Joe Strummer.
A few years later, Jones later told me: “It was quite amazing, I was sobbing. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven and Dylan’s band were so good that night.”
The acclaimed 2006 album Modern Times made a big impression on Elton John, who took its vibe into his record with the late Leon Russell, The Union.
“Dylan’s another person I admire so much,” mused Sir Elt, sitting at his kitchen table in Holland Park. “Modern Times set the template for me to think about how I was going to make records in my sixties. I love Bob, I love him. He marches to his own tune.”
In 2015, Dylan put out the first of three Frank Sinatra-inspired covers albums, Shadows In The Night, much to the delight of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ singing daughter, Nancy Sinatra.
She said: “It chokes me up to hear it. I just love what he did with those songs. His heart is in that album.
“Bob Dylan is the poet of my generation. I love his songs and I love that he embraced the Great American Songbook.”
Elvis Costello, who I once saw share the stage with Dylan at Brixton, watched Bob croon his way through some of those Sinatra songs at a Royal Albert Hall show.
“I thought it was beautiful,” he said. “What’ll I Do? was one of the best things I’ve ever heard him sing.
“And I thought, ‘He’s got all these songs he could be singing and he’s up there absolutely killing it with Why Try To Change Me Now?’ ”
If there’s one thing you can rely on, it is to expect the unexpected from the enigmatic Bob Dylan.
Wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking, we’ll never probably never know — but this lifelong Bobcat wishes you a very happy birthday.