Opinion

Opinion | Jon Friedman

Bob Dylan’s relentless reinvention

Bob Dylan, 1965 Newport Folk Festival, afternoon sound check.

The Boston Globe

Bob Dylan, 1965 Newport Folk Festival, afternoon sound check.

This year, for many popular-culture devotees, May 24 stands as practically a national holiday because Bob Dylan turns 75 years old.

You can’t look at Facebook these days without noticing some mention of the milestone. This week, you can attend concerts by Dylan imitation bands in many American cities. Radio stations are filled with testimonials too.

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Yet even his ardent followers miss the point of Dylan’s grandeur. Yes, he is a songwriting icon, a musical force, and a societal touchstone. But that’s not where his vast influence ends.

Dylan is a role model as well — and should be regarded as one, just as much as any billionaire, politician, star athlete, or entrepreneur. Granted, he can’t teach you how to write “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” or sing “Like A Rolling Stone.”

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But by following some of his precepts for success, you can live a more fulfilling life.

Above all, Dylan personifies longevity, which is something we all strive to attain both in our careers and our personal lives. Longevity? Remember, Dylan’s 37th studio album, “Fallen Angels,” just came out on May 20.

To put that into perspective, remember how long Dylan has loomed in our lives. Carrying only a suitcase, his trusty guitar, and a few bucks, he arrived in New York City from his native Midwest in January 1961, only a few days after John F. Kennedy was sworn in.

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Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” the following year, when he turned 21. It became a big hit for the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Suddenly the American civil rights movement had a new anthem. On Aug. 28, 1963, Dylan confirmed his status as a counterculture hero when he performed at the rally in Washington, D.C., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his monumental “I have a dream” oration.

How has Dylan managed to remain as a cultural force for more than five decades? The answer (my friend) is something we can all learn from.

The key exists in his restless desire continually to reinvent himself. He moved from what he called “finger-pointing songs,” such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War,” to introspective tunes like “My Back Pages” and the bittersweet love song “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

Dylan infamously plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, and a new persona – rock ’n’ roll star — was cemented. Within a few years of releasing the groundbreaking “Like a Rolling Stone” and other electric masterpieces, he had moved on to rootsier sounds such as “All Along the Watchtower.” He then conquered the country genre with the stunning ballad “Lay Lady Lay.”

In later years, Dylan veered between songs of torment, such as the ones found on 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks,” and a return to message songs, with “Hurricane” and “Neighborhood Bully.” Along the way, he sang devotedly about becoming a born-again Christian. He won a Grammy for Best Album (1997’s “Time Out of Mind”) and a Best Original Song Oscar for 2000’s “Things Have Changed” (which he accepted by proclaiming: “Good God — this is amazing!”).

Dylan’s greatest accomplishment may have been triumphing over the 1980s, regarded largely as his critical and commercial nadir. “Morning in America” didn’t smile on protest songs, and the new cultural sensation was MTV, which stressed good-looking pop stars and catchy videos.

But Dylan, as he pointed out in his bestselling 2004 memoir “Chronicles,” was determined to keep on keepin’ on. To reach a new generation of music fans, he reinvented his approach to performing. He concluded that going out on the road every year or two as a fading counterculture symbol of the ’60s would no longer cut it.

In 1988, Dylan launched “The Never Ending Tour.” He faithfully played approximately 100 shows a year around the world, even showing up in minor-league baseball fields. Today, his concerts routinely sell out. Dylan was tabbed to open the historic rock festival next October in Indio, Calif., featuring the likes of Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and the Who.

No, we can’t all be rock ’n’ roll stars, like Dylan. But we can take control of our lives by figuring out how to remain relevant and achieve longevity. Or, as he might say: You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.

Jon Friedman is an adjunct professor at the Stony Brook a University School of Journalism and the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution.”
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