Bob Dylan, who gave voice to the youth revolt of the 1960s and revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll in the process, turns 60 on Thursday with many arguing that he was the most influential musician of the second half of the century.
With his entry into the world of senior citizens, one thing remains certain: Dylan’s inner core and personality remain as elusive today as nearly 40 years ago when he burst onto the folk music scene in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“What he achieved was a reinvention of popular music – a maturation of postwar popular music,” said David Hajdu, author of the new book “Positively 4th Street, which chronicles the lives of Dylan, his former girlfriend Joan Baez, Richard Farina and Mimi Baez Farina in the first half of the 1960s.
Dylan, who started off as a folk singer, is credited in large part with taking the genre’s social protest agenda and carrying it over to more mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.
His early songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin”‘ and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are examples of popular songs with social messages, both written against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
His distinctive style was noticed and imitated to varying degrees by a generation of ’60s rockers that included the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Byrds.
“Dylan was always someone who could not not make music,” Hajdu said. “He never stopped, and that’s been the elemental truth of his life.”
Indeed, Dylan has been not only one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential singer-songwriters, but one of its most prolific.
He has recorded and released 453 songs on 42 albums over a career spanning four decades. His hits over the years have ranged from “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Lay Lady Lay” in the ’60s, to his more recent 1997 Grammy-winning album “Time Out of Mind.”
Over the course of his career, Dylan has shared the stage with luminaries ranging from folk singer Baez, who helped Dylan gain valuable exposure in his early days, to the Band, Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and more recently Sheryl Crow and the Black Crowes.
Despite his huge popularity, however, Dylan has always been a private person in the mold of such elusive figures as singers Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and actor James Dean.
The loner persona was part of an image Dylan tried to cultivate in his early years as he sought to establish himself as a non-conforming folk rocker. But the image also came to be part of his real character, said Hajdu, who was unsuccessful in his requests for interviews with Dylan.
“He always wanted to be a star,” Hajdu said. “His early models were tragic loners in the spirit of the person he eventually became, the spirit of the person he is now – a tragic, itinerant musician loner.”
The depths of Dylan’s private side come out in interviews with other musicians. Chris Robinson, lead vocalist for the Black Crowes, gushed with praise for Dylan but also admitted the singing legend is hardly a social butterfly.
“Bob was incredible,” said Robinson, just back from a tour in which the Black Crowes played some shows on the same bill as Dylan. “I was definitely on Bob’s vibe…. We saw quite a bit of him while we were recording (our new album). We’d say hi and stuff, but he never had that much to say.”
In keeping with his private nature, Dylan has not made himself available for interviews as his 60th birthday approached, and his publicist would only say the singer planned to celebrate the occasion “in private.”
Raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Hibbing, Minn., Dylan artfully avoided discussion of his background when he first came to New York in the early 1960s to pursue a musical career, according Hajdu.
Instead, he cultivated himself as a wanderer cut from the same cloth as gritty characters like Guthrie, who came from and wrote music for the masses.
Regardless of his public persona – or lack thereof – however, Dylan will always be remembered as a highly prolific writer who let his music do the talking for him, said folk legend Pete Seeger, 82.
“I always knew that sooner or later there would come somebody like Woody (Guthrie) who could make a great song every week,” said Seeger in a telephone interview from his home near Beacon, N.Y. “(Dylan) certainly had a social agenda, but he was such a good poet that most of his attempts were head and shoulders above things that I and others were trying to do…. If I had an address, I’d send him a birthday card saying, ‘keep on going.'”