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POP MUSIC : Bob Dylan: A Legend Turns 50

May 19, 1991|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

Bob Dylan is the primary reason we can still listen to and be inspired by rock 'n' roll.

More than any other single figure, Dylan--the enigmatic singer and songwriter who will be 50 on Friday--turned the teen-oriented energy and celebration of Elvis and Little Richard into an art form in the '60s. He showed that rock could express complexities about society and relationships with the intimacy and insight of films or books.

Without that added dimension, rock may have largely disappeared as a social force as quickly as parents in the '50s had predicted it would.

Like the rock pioneers, the Duluth, Minn., native loved the raw, honest emotion of country music and the blues. He even started out in rock, but he found the style too limited.

"The thing about rock 'n' roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough," he once said. " 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' were great catch phrases . . . and you could get high on that energy but they weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing.

"The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings. . . . I needed that. Life is full of complexities and rock 'n' roll didn't reflect that. It was just put on a happy face and ride sally ride. . . . If I did anything, I brought one to the other."

Signed by Columbia Records after a few club appearances in New York, Dylan was 20 when his first album, "Bob Dylan," was released in March of 1962. Though it brought him some critical attention, his commercial breakthrough didn't come until the summer of '63. It was then that folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a Dylan song that he would include on his second album. "Blowin' in the Wind" hit No. 2 on the pop charts.

The trio's high profile and the song's commercial success directed attention to Dylan, pushing his second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," into the Top 25 on the charts that fall. Flash ahead two years and three albums. The Byrds' recorded an electric version of a new Dylan song off his fifth album, "Bringing It All Back Home." The Byrds' single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," went into the Top 10.

Later in 1965, Dylan's fusion of folk commentary and rock energy fueled "Highway 61 Revisited," arguably the most absorbing album of the modern pop era and the centerpiece of his legend. By this time he didn't need others to put his music on the radio. His version of "Like a Rolling Stone" hit the national Top 5, making the darling of the underground a national rock hero.

Dylan heard boos from the old folk crowd when he walked on stage with a rock band rather than just his acoustic guitar--former loyalists who thought he had sold out. But it didn't deter him--and that's where his courage and strength came in.

It takes immense ambition and vision to become a great artist, but one of the lessons of Dylan's career is that it takes an almost unnatural will to remain a great artist because you have to be ready to sacrifice all that you have gained in popularity and acclaim to keep moving into new creative areas.

He's heard the boos many other times since the mid-'60s as he moved in unexpected directions, yet he has proved amazingly resilient. Every time he has been written off after a disappointing album or seemingly indifferent show, Dylan has rebounded with a work or performance of imagination and heart.

As he celebrates his birthday, the image of Dylan that is freshest in the public mind isn't flattering: a snarling, full-throttle performance of the old "Masters of War" during February's Grammy Awards telecast that many viewers found impossible to decipher.

But there was more to Dylan that night.

After accepting a career achievement award, Dylan, a private man who isn't accustomed to even talking to his own concert audiences, stared hesitantly at the audience as if searching for something meaningful to say--rather than the usual show-biz acceptance speech.

"Well my daddy didn't leave me too much . . . he was a very simple man," Dylan said, shifting anxiously. "But he did say, 'Son . . . it's possible to be so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if this happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways.' "

If he was more awkward at the podium than the others on a night when mostly soulless pop figures who were honored, the words offered an endearing and heartfelt piece of advice: a warning about the loneliness and self-doubt that surround anyone brave enough to be true to an ideal rather than succumb to the popular currents.

Anyone who didn't recognize the tenderness and relevance of the remark in light of Dylan's own history probably also didn't understand Dylan's music over the last 30 years because the words summarized much of the struggle chronicled in his songs. Even on a night when he was honored by the record industry, the quintessential outsider remained a step apart.

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