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September 21, 2006

Bob Dylan's Modern Times

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I must confess to never having understood the Dylan phenomenon. I have understood his talent, his charm, and the spark in my mother’s eye when his name is mentioned, but never have I really got it—The Judas Moment, the spiritual dualism, the ego, the mystic. It may be, as essayist Ian McDonald has it, that Dylan came to represent the younger half of the “great disruption” of the 1960s. Dylan as the Dalai Lama of cool in a generation defined by the schism between two competing ways of life: a battle of fathers and sons. I’m fond of this theory, but I have no firm belief—I was born just months after Chapman fired a revolver into the chest of that other pop messiah.
And so it feels strange to review this thing—if Dylan’s phenomenon is properly located in generations, I am very far away. My generation is not so clearly marked by the “hard rain” Dylan prophesied, but by the odd terrors of asymmetrical warfare. Note also that Dylan’s own experiments with acid and self—the tinkerings that helped him make his best music—burnt him out, and he has long since retreated back to something like the wandering Woody Guthrie figure that emerged in New York in the early ’60s.
Modern Times is Bob playing around with ol’ Muddy Waters riffs, breathing life into them with his grainy, wheezy delivery. It’s a voice that’s seen the schism, and fought it with myth and amphetamine, and a strange liking for self-invention. I gotta say I’m glad he’s still around, and that his voice itself is suggestive of an enormous historical legacy. Those who grew up with Dylan may like to see him now as traveling mystic, happiest when he’s on a remote porch with a guitar and a bottle of moonshine. Maybe Dylan himself is happiest when he thinks that too, but I have no opinion, other than this: there is a great depth and charm to this record, made from the puff and grunt of our greatest musical enigma. This is Dylan breathing in deeply his country’s blues history, and exhaling it with a musical instinct that will probably go down as history’s most observed and argued about.

Posted by Marty at September 21, 2006 6:40 PM