After a seemingly never-ending seven-year layoff, Bob Dylan – the US singer-songwriter who easily out-legends all other legends, save possibly a lingering Beatle or two – brought his optimistically-monikered Never Ending Tour back to Hong Kong for one memorable night last month.
Given that most other 77-year-olds are banned from using the TV remote and tucked up in bed by 8pm most nights, the Minnesota-born songsmith’s facility for churning through a 20-song set remains nothing short of remarkable.
This Hong Kong stopover was something like the 2,900th date of the Never Ending Tour – a continent-hopping odyssey that kicked off back in July 1988. It’s a gruelling schedule, especially for a man who has spent over 50 years as the living embodiment of the rock-filled ’60s, when teens turned troubadours and the times, they were a’changed forever.
Recently, Bob Dylan was in the news for all the wrong reasons when he was famously too busy to collect his 2016 Noble Prize for Literature, despite being the first musical act to ever be awarded that particular honour. This almost cavalier refusal to conform is entirely in keeping with his career-long commitment to snubbing his nose at the expectations of others and following his own path.
In his early days, he outraged much of conservative America, championing civil rights at a time when the country remained virtually an apartheid nation. Later, in 1966, he wilfully alienated his folky followers by plugging in his guitar during an acoustic gig in Manchester in the northwest of England and going irrevocably electric.
It was all a far cry from his beginnings. Few would have predicted back on 24 May 1941, that the firstborn child (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) of a young Jewish couple in a close-knit Midwest community would go on to become so iconic, so influential and so transformative. There were, however, one or two clues.
Music was an early passion of the young Bob-to-be and, while still in his teens, he discovered the works of Woody Guthrie, beginning a love affair with the socially-aware oeuvre of this early 20th century folk singer that abides to this day. After a brief dalliance with college, the young Zimmerman promptly dropped out and headed to New York, where he was soon to be ‘discovered’ playing in the smoky backrooms of Greenwich Village cafes.
A record deal followed, but Bob Dylan’s first album, a 13-track long-player released in 1962, almost totally failed to make an impression, selling just 5,000 copies. Its follow-up – 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – featured 11 (out of 13) Dylan originals and fared far better, selling a million copies in the US alone and introducing the world to Blowin’ In The Wind, Highway 61 Revisited and several other songs that remain in the great man’s touring repertoire to this day.
The love-hate relationship between Dylan and his devotees / detractors that began in his early career has never entirely dwindled. When not needling his fanbase with one of his passing phases – Christianity, Vegas showman, reclusive rock star – it is his on-stage persona and his very demeanour that has sometimes had even the most ardent of Dylanaphiles weeping into their souvenir baseball caps.
Bob Dylan is also renowned for his somewhat belligerent stage presence, which famously sees him mumble through his best-known lyrics, wantonly rearrange old favourites and sometimes wholly fail to acknowledge the presence of his audience with so much as a raised eyebrow.
And yet, his undisputed status as Difficult Dylan has done little to diminish his worldwide popularity. It certainly hasn’t put a brake on the accolades he accumulates – a Nobel Prize, the Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the US), 12 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, several honorary doctorates and more.
With the superstars of the ’60s on their collective last gasp – we’re down to two Beatles, two founding members of The Who, and a fairly-poorly Joni Mitchell – Bob Dylan is one of a clearly dying breed. Whatever his peccadilloes, he’s one of the greatest exponents of rock’s greatest ever decades and has remained reassuringly relevant throughout his career. For that alone, he should be granted unlimited licence to skulk and otherwise misbehave. Even living legends don’t last forever and this one should surely be savoured while we still can.
Text: Tenzing Thondup