“I Was So Much Older Then” – On Bob Dylan and Aging

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This week I travelled to Dublin and back three times in two days, (600 miles in total for those of you not familiar with the Drogheda bypass). Two trips were book related, and therefore, necessary; the third a pilgrimage of sheer self-indulgence. Despite years of slavish devotion I’ve only once managed to catch Dylan live and so, when the opportunity to see Bob play Dublin arose, despite reservations, (Bob will be mediocre, I will be exhausted, Bob will die before the concert date rolls round), I decided that I really needed to go. I had lowish expectations. My only other Dylan concert experience had been dull, excessively long and, in places, incomprehensible, (it was during his, standing at the back of the stage scowling in a cowboy hat phase). I was hoping for maybe two decent songs and two more from the faintly recognisable column. I was not expecting 1964.

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I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Whilst far from talkative, Bob looked happier than I’ve seen him in years. He appeared frailer than I was anticipating but dapper in his striped trousers and hat. He seemed comfortable to stand centre front and even shuffle-danced along with some of the instrumental sections. He played harmonica and piano, switching easily between instruments and songs. He sang “All Along the Watchtower”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, “A Simple Twist of Fate” and even had a stab at “Blowin’ In The Wind” which, I must admit, has always been a little too preachy for my liking and had not really improved with age or reworking. Of course, there was a fair amount of filler too. Newer songs, despite masterful backing from the incredible musicians Bob has surrounded himself with, lack the subtle and cryptic wordery which first drew me to Dylan’s work. I’m not sure why this is. Dylan, in interview is still sharp as brass tacks and yet lately his lyrics have struck me as somewhat trite and clichéd. I know he’s still the consummate poet and yet I find his more recent songs, for the most part, lyrically unsatisfying. (It’s just a small criticism, a tiny footnote against a canon of work so devastatingly brilliant that the greater good will always overshadow the small pockets of mediocrity).

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I am fully aware that Bob Dylan is 73 years old now and it is an achievement in itself to still be gigging so furiously and intently after fifty years in the business. I don’t expect him to have the same voice he had at 23. I don’t expect him to have the same physical capability with a guitar or the same ability to cast a foreboding presence across a stage. I don’t even expect him to have sustained a passion for the same kind of music he was once consumed by in his 20s and 30s, (people change as they grow older and only the dullest of artists would remain predictably consistent across a half decade career). However, on Tuesday evening I seemed to be surrounded by people who were expecting some sort of time warp to have descended upon the O2. “Dylan’s f***ing done,” “he looks like he can’t be arsed to be here,” “he should let other people do his songs properly.” I would have punched someone if the average age of critic hadn’t been approximately 75. People seemed shocked to see a 73 year old man on stage who no longer sounded, or acted, the same as he had in his early twenties.

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I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years observing and investigating older people’s engagement with the arts. Last week I visited Scottish Ballet in Glasgow to observe their fantastic over 65s ballet programme. Whilst visiting Glasgow we discussed perceptions of age across the various art forms. I was shocked to discover that the Turner Prize, (existing, as it does, to nurture emerging talent in the visual arts arena), is not open to artists over 50. Can people over 50 not develop an artistic practice? Why are they exempt on the basis of age rather than the duration of their artistic career? Similarly in performance based arts arenas such as dance and contemporary music, artists are often relegated to the scrap heap; tolerated, (like Dylan and many of his contemporaries), if they toe the line and indulge the audience’s desire for nostalgia, or perhaps worst of all, allowed to become caricatures of their former selves like the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile in the literary scene, writers are venerated, celebrated and awarded major prizes as they age. Heaney in his later years was undoubtedly beginning to show his age and yet, at his readings, the audience sat rapt, patient and entranced as he read with careful deliberation from his own canon of work. Film makers such as Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are still practicing their art and exploring new creative avenues well into later life. I’d like to think it’s not so, but perhaps we’re not comfortable with the reality of age confronting us from a stage in live performance, and older people’s artistic practice is more palatable when experienced as a piece of writing, a play or film, which doesn’t confront us directly with the limitations and, sometimes indignities, which old age can visit upon an artist.

As I watched Bob Dylan on stage singing “She’s Got Everything She Needs” (a particular favourite of mine from his early period), with such incredible dignity, character and musicality I was struck by a deep sense of gladness that he wasn’t trying to perform it with the earnest nonchalance of his twenty something self. This was the voice of an artist who’s lived many, many lives, who embodied the words and music with a richness and weight he could not possibly have understood when he first wrote this song. I cried a little because it was still a stunningly beautiful song but it’s a different song on the lips of a 73 year old man. Perhaps, we need to rethink how we view aging as an artistic experience. We need to stop saying idiotic and ugly things like “Bob Dylan’s done,” and “he can’t do his own songs properly anymore.” Surely, it would be more profitable and honouring, to celebrate our artists as they grow older, to allow them space in which to explore new avenues or interpretations of their work, without labelling this as somehow less or a failure to sustain former glories.

I have more to consider on this topic and I’m sure i’ll revisit it as I continue to work with older artists. However, for now I’ll leave you with lyrics from Dylan’s best song from Tuesday night; a song, which, when performed by a now elderly man, took on a particularly bittersweet poignancy.

What good am I then to others and me

If I’ve had every chance and still fail to see

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within

Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

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