(There was a time when rock and roll was the future; today, 20 years or more into the 21st century, its past has become more legend than history.
So for those who arrived a little late for the party – and what a party it was – The Rock and Roll Canon will look back at the musicians who played crucial roles in the making of the myth. These are the men and women who any serious student or fan of rock and roll must be familiar with, and whose music was an integral part of a story that is slowly fading into legend.
Due to blind luck, I was there for the best of times. I saw the Beatles at Candlestick Park; I saw Jimi Hendrix as an opening act; as a critic, I heard the best (and worst) in small clubs, on the way up. From the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘90s, I pretty much saw them all as they came through the San Francisco Bay Area, and now, looking back, this is what I remember, and this is how it felt.)
When Homer sat in the great halls of ancient Greece, he did not recite the poems that echo two millennia later – he sang them.
When the first words of “Beowulf” reverberated through the smoke of an old English fire, they were sung, not spoken.
When the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine drew the greatest poets of the age to Southern France, the troubadours did not recite – they sang.
And what made the glory days of rock and roll so special is that poetry and politics joined the verses, choruses and I-IV-V blues’ progressions, and thus the music helped set the tempo of the societal shifts that we still struggle to adjust to today.
And no other figure, no other artist, no other musician, added more to the poetry, politics and music of his time than Bob Dylan. His own versions of his own songs still ring true, of course, but his influence goes far beyond his own reedy voice and folk-based guitar. The simple power of the lyrics in “Blowin’ in the Wind” pushed the song to No. 2 on the charts in 1963 – but it wasn’t Dylan’s record. Peter, Paul & Mary claimed that song, just as the Byrds made “Mr. Tambourine Man” their own two years later.
Dylan himself never had a No. 1 song – “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) and “Rainy Dan Women #12 and 35” (1966) peaked at No. 2 – but there was never any doubt about his importance. Not only did he open the door to poetry in pop music (though much of the non-Dylan efforts horrid, to be sure), he also supplied the necessary connection to the protest songs of the folk movement that surfaced in the early ‘60s.
Books have been written about Dylan’s works, and more will surely follow, but what he brought to the pop music world of the ‘60s and ‘70s was intellectual credibility – even while critics derided his voice and purists booed him for playing an electric guitar. And even the long hiatus after his mysterious motorcycle accident of 1966 couldn’t dim his importance. He could be discounted but never ignored.
His short-term conversion to fundamentalist Christianity was huge news, but as always, no matter what he was doing, he couldn’t stop writing. “Gotta Serve Somebody” from that era is just one of his many brilliant songs, and he has never stopped producing memorable music, regardless of the time or place.
That said, Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour has driven away all but the most faithful, as he switched to keyboards and re-arranges familiar songs on a nightly basis so that the only way to recognize them is to pick out a familiar set of words. “All Along the Watchtower,” say, can be delivered in a different key, at a different tempo, with different emphasis, and it can take half the song before most would realize what he was playing.
But that refusal to buckle to expectations is yet another reason why he needs to be included in any discussion of rock and roll. Dylan unrepentantly followed his path, just as the Beatles and Stones had done, and no talk of bigger crowds or more money could change his direction.
And don’t forget, in perhaps his most rock-and-roll moment of all, Dylan refused to give his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet in 2016. He had “other commitments” – and only after protracted negotiations did he agree to give a private speech to satisfy the conditions of the Prize and become a Literature laureate.
That Nobel Prize, though, did more than honor Dylan. It recognized the rock and roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s as the most potent popular music ever recorded, in terms of its impact on society, and indirectly honored the many who tried to follow in Dylan’s footsteps. They couldn’t, of course, but in the effort, they elevated the music they were writing and playing, and turned their songs into a critical part of the cultural discourse on where society was, and where it should be going.
Dylan himself, though, kept growing and kept moving. Like those ancient poets who lived on the road, he sings his songs to this day. And though his lined face is not lit by flickering flames in ancient halls, but rather by filtered stage lights, he is still the Homer of our times. He is still the poetic soul of rock and roll.