Bob Dylan is in the house, and he's taken it over. Against great odds, this legendary singer-songwriter and master of self-mythology has become a dominant force - again - commercially as well as artistically.
The grizzled bard of rock may not be everywhere, as Mojo Nixon once sang of the deceased Elvis Presley. But Dylan does seem to be nearly everywhere you can imagine, no matter how unlikely some of those places may be for this mythical pop icon.- He's on TV, thanks to his appearance in commercials that promote (indirectly) his new album and (directly) Apple's iTunes and iPod, two high-tech music products that Dylan - who recently declared: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious" - is highly unlikely to use or own.
- He's on the radio, thanks to his weekly show for XM Satellite Radio, "Theme Time Radio Hour." The themes he's featured thus far have included marriage, drinking, divorce, baseball, the Bible and more, while the artists he's featured have ranged from such pioneers as Ruth Brown, Lefty Frizzell and Machito to, um, Alice Cooper and LL Cool J.
- He's on Broadway, in a manner, or will be, starting Oct. 26. That's when Twyla Tharp's dance musical Dylan homage, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," opens at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
- He's on the road, seemingly constantly. Since the start of his fabled "Never Ending Tour" in mid-1988, Dylan has performed more than 1,800 concerts, averaging 100 shows a year. As of Nov. 18, he will have done 98 shows this year.
- He's at Starbucks. The national coffee chain last year was the exclusive sales outlet for his "Live at the Gaslight 1962" album, and also did a brisk business selling "No Direction Home," the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary, which was televised on PBS. His new album, "Modern Times," also is available at Starbucks.
- He's in bookstores, where the first installment of his best-selling autobiographical tome - 2004's "Chronicles: Volume One," is still moving copies - alongside last year's "The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956-1966" and this year's "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia" and "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews." Nearly 30 Dylan books have been published in the past two years alone, from "A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks" to "Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan & Scripture."
- He's in the hearts and minds of the countless musical admirers who perform his classic songs live, be it Pearl Jam ("Masters of War"), The White Stripes ("Love Sick") or the Dave Matthews Band ("All Along the Watchtower"). As of 2002, his 1963 folk anthem "Blowin' in the Wind" had been recorded by at least 375 artists. Commenting on Dylan last year, Neil Young said: "He's the master. If I'd like to be anyone, it's him."
- He's on AOL and YouTube, thanks to his video for "When the Deal Goes Down" (which features actress Scarlett Johansson). Heck, he even has a MySpace Web page, the better to lure unsuspecting Tila Tequila and Dashboard Confessional fans.
- And, thanks in part to this confluence of activity, Dylan is near the top of the album charts. Released in August, his 31st studio album, "Modern Times," entered at No. 1 here and in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland. His chart-topping feat marks the first time he's had a No. 1 album in this country since 1976's "Desire" and is only the third chart-topper of his 44-year career. It also makes him, at 65, the oldest living pop artist to have a new album debut at No. 1.
Dylan's visibility may be unexpected to casual observers, but it's hardly surprising to anyone who's kept track of him in recent years.
First and foremost is his music, which since the release of his triumphant 1997 album, "Time Out of Mind," has exuded remarkable new purpose and vitality.
Its sequel, 2001's "Love and Theft," was equally inspired, while the 2000 feature film "Wonder Boys" boasted a superb new Dylan song, "Things Have Changed," that cogently chronicled the malaise of an aging man and his graying generation. It earned him his first Academy Award.
Of course, Dylan has made great albums before, including at least half a dozen in the 1960s alone. Not a decade has gone by since in which he hasn't delivered at least one standout album or more.
Judging by the frequently inspired "Modern Times," which will likely earn several Grammy Award nominations, he will make more great albums in the future. And even some of his least distinguished releases, such as 1985's dreadful "Empire Burlesque," contain at least one song that rank alongside his best, in this case "Tight Connection to My Heart."
By Dylan's own admission, much of the 1980s represented a "lost in the wilderness" phase for him. In "Chronicles" he writes: "I was going through the motions. Try as I might, the engines wouldn't start."
He was so disillusioned that he considered abandoning music altogether before unexpectedly sparking an artistic renaissance with 1992's "Good As I Been to You" and 1993's "World Gone Wrong." These two widely overlooked solo acoustic albums featured his stirring versions of weathered folk and blues gems, which had previously been recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson and other roots music pioneers he has long held in high esteem.
Dylan long ago transcended his mystique, which continues to grow, with or without his participation. He long ago realized that the only way to keep growing and maintain his sanity was by ignoring all expectations.
More than any other pop icon - and long before almost any other still-active musician who rose to fame in the 1960s - Dylan embraced constant change as an artistic imperative. Where others are happy to rake in the bucks by strolling (or stumbling) down memory lane, Dylan is acutely aware that stasis is death, at least creatively speaking.
That's why he constantly changes his best known and most obscure songs in concert, much as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis before him were constantly reinventing their own music on a nightly basis. He also is one of the very few music stars who, by refusing to adhere to a safe, predictable approach, is willing to risk failure (and alienating his fans) every time he performs or records.
Because the present and future is where Bob Dylan lives - not his storied past - and he and his still vital music are all the better for it. So are we.
Simple twists of fate
Copley News Service
Bob Dylan's place in history is assured, as befits one of the most influential and innovative singer-songwriters ever. But his career has included a number of unexpected and sometimes truly strange moments. Here's a quick look at eight of our favorites:
1982: In his brief acceptance speech after being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York, Dylan says: "I think this is pretty amazing because I can't read or write a note of music. Thank you."
1984: Dylan performs three punk-inspired songs on "Late Night With David Letterman," backed by a band that includes members of The Plugz (aka The Cruzados).
1986: Cast as a jaded, middle-aged rock star, Dylan films "Hearts of Fire" in London with a cast that includes Rupert Everett and Blockheads' leader Ian Dury. The movie is an instant flop.
1990: Dylan performs for cadets at West Point, a military academy he had once hoped to attend himself.
1997: Wearing a Western suit and cowboy hat, the Jewish-born Dylan performs "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for Pope John Paul II and an audience of 200,000 at a Christian youth rally in Bologna, Italy. Although Dylan tells USA Today that "playing for the Pope is just a show," in a 2001 interview with the Irish Sunday Mirror, he says: "The show was one of the best I have ever played and enjoyed in my whole life."
1999: Dylan guest-stars as himself in an episode of the TV sitcom "Dharma & Greg."
2001: After being given strict orders not to admit anyone without a backstage pass, security guards at Oregon's Jackson County Exposition Center bar a pass-less Dylan.
2004: Dylan appears in a Victoria's Secret TV commercial with a young model who cavorts in her bra, panties and large white angel wings. The lingerie company then exclusively sells an eight-song CD, "Victoria's Secret Exclusive: Bob Dylan, Lovesick," at its outlets but strangely fails to create and market the Wonder Bob.