A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.

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Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.

The-Ballad-of-Bob-Dylan

I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

5 thoughts on “A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

  1. I have no doubt that Dylan greatness will out live most artist of our time… and I personally love dozens of his songs, hard to say about many song writers….. But I don’t want to know about his life because I think it might affect how I hear his songs, and they are locked to my own personal history and memories… Connell

    1. Reading his biographies have been very illuminating to understanding the songs. Dylan is far less abstract and mysterious when you know what the songs are about. However, many of his songs have philosophical lines of comments, and understanding them will always be open to interpretation.

  2. Oh one other thing…. it use to piss me off that Dylan was so mysterious , when I was 18, but now I know He did the right thing just singing his music and staying out of the public limelight.

  3. The thing with Dylan is that people take too much notice of his words and not enough notice of the songs. As time goes on, I’m sure more of his work will penetrate the collective subconsious and his lesser-known songs will start getting the attention they deserve.

    Oh, and btw: great little blogpost!

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