When I was twelve years old, my father decided I was old enough to accompany him to a Bob Dylan concert. The year was 1989. I remember very little of the occasion. We sat outside in a smallish arena surrounded by throngs of people who had come to see Dylan on what he was calling The Never Ending Tour. The men and women who bookended my father and I all seemed to be getting a big kick out of the fact that I was there, amongst them, the music, the lights, the hazy sweet-earth smell of marijuana under the ink black sky.
What I recall most is Dylan onstage, a pied piper with a harmonica whose sound was by turns piercing and plaintive. At one point in the night, the overwhelming mass of people who surrounded me, who had at first inspired a dull fear in my gut, my father singing along in his tone-deaf raspy way, the foot stomping and hand clapping – all of it receded, even the back-up band seemed to grow fuzzy and blur to the sidelines of the stage, and I was left alone with Bob Dylan and his harmonica. A distinct feeling came over me that this man was somehow letting me in on a secret he kept wrapped up tight as a fist. It was a feeling more than anything, something unnamable and pure, but it made sense to my twelve-year-old soul.
At that point in his career, Dylan had seen his popularity rise and fall like the ebb and flow of drastic tidal shifts. After efforts that seemed to miss the mark during the early 1970’s Dylan climbed back on top with Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976). What followed was the break-up of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, a terrible four hour movie he self-directed called Ronaldo and Clara, and Street Legal (1978). Quite simply, Street Legal was Dylan at his worst. However, the cover of the album depicts Dylan in tune with the styles of the times: his look is reminiscent of Pacino in Serpico. Unfortunately, many photographs from this period demonstrate a frightening predilection for leather and eyeliner – and not in a good way.
Dylan, at a low-point in his life and career became a Born-again Christian, to the chagrin of many. What followed were three Gospel albums that, despite their sincerity, and the fact that he won a Grammy for “Gotta Serve Somebody,” quite honestly bore me to death. For a time, he refused to perform his classics. However, it wasn’t long, in the grand scheme of things, before he shed his skin once again and slithered out of the role of preacher. In the 1980’s Dylan released records, some of them decent (Infidels), toured with The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty, and even added vocals to a Kurtis Blow song. But one cannot help feeling that the 1980’s were not kind to Dylan.
From our current vantage point we are able to look back at the 1980’s with a twist of ironic nostalgia. The garish trends of the times have somehow found footing with the hip, and worked their way into both fashion and music, and who am I to say what is right? But we need to keep in mind what a disaster much of that era was. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s had largely been abandoned after self-imploding in a narcissistic binge of drugs that did anything but expand consciousness. The hippies and their lofty dreams of love appeared to have crumbled and been overtaken by a new kind of violence that helped shape the 1970’s and 1980’s. These were not always pretty times. But still, Dylan remained relevant on in to the 1990’s, earning accolades, gaining new fans and believers. Even through the tough times, he seemed to roll with the punches, reinventing, reimagining.
Strangely enough, the 2000’s have proven to be powerful years for the Dylan marketing machine. By 2007, with the release of the brilliant biopic I’m Not There, which featured stylish celebrities like Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and the late Heath Ledger embodying various Dylan incarnations, renewed interest in Dylan had reached a fever pitch. Relevant to music, fashion, culture in general, as of late his style has inspired modern looks by Diesel and Burberry that were featured in a photo shoot for Esquire magazine. And now, Esquire has not only named him one of the seventy-five best dressed men of all time, they have also placed him on the February, 2010 cover of Esquire Russia.
I think it’s fair to say that Dylan’s status as a style icon is firmly cemented both in and out of time…