For half a century, Bob Dylan's music has sparked the creativity of generations, motivating and inspiring some of the most influential people of our time.
We asked a collection of artists and titans of various industries to share their thoughts on the man who — even as he turns 70 — continues to blaze a remarkable path.
Click on the names below and on the following pages to read each tribute.
The truth is, Bob Dylan is a great American artist. His art, his talent, is to speak to everybody, and so when I say American, I think he's a great African American artist, he's a great Jewish American artist, he's a great Muslim American artist, he's a great Asian-American artist, Spanish-speaking artist — he speaks for the American soul as much as Ray Charles did.
There was a time when Bob Dylan was the young kid on the block. We all sang at the Purple Onion and the Hungry I and at folk-music clubs. When Bob came along, everyone loved him because he was what we all had meant to be; he spoke for all of us. And he was known to be honest, which is what a great American artist is. It may not be expedient, but the audience can trust the artist who is honest, and Bob Dylan followed what he said in his lyrics by his actions. He supported the human being, the spirit of being an American — of knowing that the mountains and the rivulets and the voting booths belong to all of us, all the time.
From the man who never grew up: I would simply like to say that Bob Dylan's music has kept me forever young.
I've been a fan of Bob's since the mid-'60s. His lyrics had an appealing complexity to them that spoke on many levels and allowed one's imagination to flow, in addition to the music and his distinctive voice. I was very pleased when Princeton gave him a Ph.D.; I even wrote the president when they nominated him that it was the greatest thing the university has ever done. I've followed Bob through his various permutations and I think his latest stuff is some of the best stuff he's ever done. It's his personal reflections on age and relationships and it's quite different than earlier, because he's lived a life, had a near-death experience and he's seen it all. I love that line where he says he's going down to see Alicia Keys, let me show you what I got.
His voice is pretty much gone, but that's who he is. I don't think he's ever really tried to be somebody else; that's the key. You see a lot of these musicians, they want to be actors or they want to do this or that, and then ultimately they'll come back to being who they really are. I think Bob's always been who he is. He's still out there doing it and that means that his public, in this case me, will never be deprived of hearing where he's coming from at a particular time in their lives.
Bob Dylan has lifted the spirits of millions of people in the world. He has inspired great numbers of artists, and has made those of us who have met him come to be rewarded by the encounter. I admire him, I respect him, I am honored to have this moment to express my deep appreciation for who and what he is.
About five years ago, the director Larry Charles called me up and asked me if I would be interested in being in this movie Masked and Anonymous that was starring Bob, and he was getting a bunch of people together that Bob admired to do vignettes in the movie. And I said, "Sure, I'd be honored." So I went to work and I met Bob, and immediately was struck by a few things. First, his size. I thought, somehow, he was bigger. The cowboy hat and the cigar added to his height and stature, however, and that I liked. Second, I was extremely taken by the lack of ego in his demeanor. His feeling that there's no "I" in the word team, his knowing that his movie was teamwork, and that he had to rely on those of us who he felt were really good actors, more than he relied on his own talent.
Bob is about having your heart and everything else in the right place and going for it irregardless, and that irregardlessness and throwing caution to the wind is what excited me about the man and his music and his spirit. If you want to talk about what makes stars, stars to me are people that dominate decades. I can't think of any one individual, other than Bob, who has dominated multiple decades. What can I tell you, man, he's unique.
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In September of 1965, my father and I loaded up the trunk of his Olds Dynamic 88 in preparation for the drive to upstate New York — this was to be my first day at Bard College. When he turned on the ignition, "Like a Rolling Stone" came blaring out of the radio. My dad and I had just had a nasty argument (I had wanted to drive up alone in my own car) and Dylan's majestic rant — an angry, surreal, logorrheic demolition of an ex-girlfriend who'd hit the skids — seemed to mirror my feral, adolescent rage.
Four decades later, there's no longer a vocabulary to describe the effect that Dylan had on my particular subculture in the mid-'60s. Moreover, there's no longer a context in which to communicate the impact of his work and his person to the several generations of TV babies that have rolled onto the scene since that time. Be that as it may, I know I'm not the only grizzled, world-weary survivor who hears Dylan's voice and is instantly transported to that short-lived era during which many of us seemed to oscillate daily between extremes of ecstasy and horror film-level paranoia. We were all yowling inside and, lucky for us, Bob Dylan yowled back.
In the fall of 1991, a little over six years into my professional wrestling career, Jake "The Snake" Roberts gave me a valuable piece of advice: "A wise man knows where to steal his material." This was in the days before there were any official wrestling writers; though wrestling was presumed to be "scripted," there were never any actual wrestling scripts, and those lucky enough to make their living on the road as full-time wrestlers were expected to have their own material for a multitude of promotional interviews.
Infidels had been a favorite album of mine in the mid-'80s, with "I and I" standing out as my favorite all-time Dylan tune. It was full of great lyrics and wonderful imagery, and best of all, it wasn't well-known. So despite the fact that I picked the bones of that song for so many different wrestling promos, no one knew enough about it to accuse me of the thievery I was, in fact, so guilty of. With a gleam in my eye, microphone in hand, I would spout out "I and I" lyrics like "I'll make shoes for everyone, even you, and I'll still go barefoot," and seem simultaneously profound‚ and a little scary. Thank you, Bob, for writing songs that allowed this wise man to steal from the very best.
I never really knew Bob Dylan's stuff as a kid, so he was never a fundamental part of me as he was with some. There are those out there, you can see it, who have Dylan scorched into their flesh like a brand and every artistic action that he takes or has taken is cause for celebration, debate, hand-wringing, concern, mourning or whatever. I never got that. I missed all that early stuff of his, the '60s, most of the '70s.
But I did, in the end, have my Dylan moment.
I was sitting, on my own, in a bar, in New York — it was the first time I'd ever been to that city — and I went over to the jukebox to have a look at what was on offer. I saw a song, "Gotta Serve Somebody" by Bob Dylan, and thought that that was a great title for a song, so I put it on, and that, as they say, was that. I was knocked down. What I heard seemed so simple, yet so full of ideas — chilling, funny, absurd, perverse, audacious, but heartfelt and mind-bendingly beautiful. I felt like grabbing the guy next to me and saying, "Did you hear that song?" I felt like running out on the street and waving my arms around and yelling, "Hey! Has anyone ever heard of Bob Dylan?" It was like I'd missed the moon landing or something.
So, I started a slow trawl backwards, down the years, through the records, and it was like stepping into Aladdin's Cave — there it was, oceans of the stuff — all the terrible love and beauty you could ever want to hear.
Happy birthday, Bob.
The term "genius" gets thrown around, and I've gone through periods of time where I wanted to discount Dylan, because as a songwriter it's just so overwhelming to think that he's the measuring stick. It was a very liberating thing for me to finally accept the fact that this guy was some kind of an alien. He had this incredible photographic memory for songs, which allowed him to assimilate a lot really quickly at the right time of his life, between 17 and 22 years old. And he did it pretty efficiently and ruthlessly, and I don't mean that in any sort of negative sense.
And he's still good at it. He'll mess around for four or five albums and then he'll do something that's stunning. And he'll do it again before he leaves the planet, I firmly believe that.
I grew up an Orthodox Jew at the end of Highway 61, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. And when I heard Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, I immediately knew that it would be the Talmud to the Torah of my life. I learned Al Kooper's high organ line and Paul Griffin's piano part on the majestic "Like a Rolling Stone," note for note.
Years later, I was the musical director of Late Show with David Letterman and Bob Dylan was our musical guest. After his set, I couldn't help but knock on heaven's door. I had to bond with Dylan. His girlfriend, the singer Clydie King, opened the dressing room door.
"Hi, Bob," I said, and smiled in Clydie's direction. "What's a sweetheart like her doing in a place like this?"
Bob didn't say a word.
"You know, Bob, you grew up just 130 miles south of where I did. We're Highway 61 landsmen. Just like you, I spent my formative years with my ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to Southern stations. That's how I learned to love rhythm and blues, just like you. And hey, Bob, how about that Bobby Vee? You played piano with him. I could sing both parts to 'Take Good Care of My Baby.' We're soul brothers, my man."
No response. Bob just seemed to be staring into space. So I kept it up.
"When you sang Roy Head's 'Treat Her Right' in rehearsal, it killed. You should record it."
Bob looked me straight in the eye. Obviously I had finally made a deep connection.
"Paul, do you think you could introduce me to Larry 'Bud' Melman?" he asked, referring to the lovable nerd who was a running character on the show. "When I'm in the hotel room at night, I flip on the show only to catch a glimpse of Larry 'Bud.' "
I thought he was kidding. But he wasn't, and he dutifully followed me to Bud's dressing room, where a confused Larry Melman, who had no idea who he was meeting, shook hands with the greatest poet of our generation.
Twenty-five years ago I wrote this song along with Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. Two Dylan scholars in a loving tribute to Bob Dylan:
I'm the skinny Jew, one of the few from Minnesota. They had a quota.
I went to the big city, dreamed I was Walter Mitty, wrote folk songs that I thought were witty.
Someone said I'd be the next big thing, until they heard me sing, but it's too late to change their mind, because the contracts are already signed.
Had a few hits, lived by my wits at the Chelsea Hotel, but then I fell off a motorbike.
But I didn't like being out of work, so I came back and sang with a country twang "Lay, Lady, Lay."
Got some airplay. Had to change my voice, didn't have no choice, had to make the payments on a new Rolls Royce.
Played in Nashville, played in Japan, didn't sell no tickets when I played Iran. Jack Nicholson called me "the voice of a generation." I can't get played on most radio stations.
When I found Jesus and I found Moses, people thought it was psychosis.
Commercially I cut my throat while all the critics sat and wrote "he is through, his day has passed" but I think I'll be laughing last, singing at Live Aid, singing at Farm Aid. I'll be singing when they're drinking the Kool-Aid.
Well, I'm a skinny Jew, one of the few from Miiiiiiiiiiinnesota.
I first heard Bob when I was in college in 1963. I saw this little kid on the cover of an album with a golf cap unsnapped and this guy in my dorm put the record on and it was bizarre because his voice made me, and I'm sure everybody else, think that they could sing. But it was a devilish thing because you really couldn't unless you're a genius like him writing those amazing lyrics and have a whole sense of the history of folk and jazz and gospel music. So part of Dylan's genius for me was this humbling, weird challenge that you don't have to be Frank Sinatra or Elvis or Sam Cooke to be a great singer.
Dylan keeps reminding us how great and how important he is. He'll do all this weird stuff, mumble his lyrics for two years on tour, infuriate all his die-hard fans and the critics and then he would resoundingly come back and redefine music again and you'd forgive him all his sins. He's the Obama of rock 'n' roll.
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Bob Dylan is a quintessential New York City success story. Like so many people before and after him, he came to our city with nothing but his dreams — and he found not only opportunity but also a community of people and ideas that profoundly affected him.
And like so many talented people who come to New York City, Dylan has never stopped looking forward — always embracing new ideas, new styles, new approaches, always pioneering new paths, always pushing the boundaries of our imaginations. Dylan would have been a great artist without coming to New York City, but he would not have been the same artist. Many of the songs that gave voice to a generation, and that challenged generations to come, might never have been written or recorded. And the world would be a lesser place for it.
Thelonious Monk said, "The genius is the one who is most like himself." Dylan always seemed to be writing so much from the heart and so little for the audience and yet letting the audience come along. That's what I've always loved most about him.
What's astonishing to me is that if you had told me a week after Blood on the Tracks came out in 1975, "This guy will do better music than this in the 21st century, when he's in his late 60s," I would have considered those chances to be absolutely zero. I think that "Love and Theft" and Modern Times are the best records Bob Dylan has done, and there is no one else, and you can include Miles Davis, Stravinsky, and Picasso, who have done their best work at that age after having done that good work at a young age.
Three cuts into listening to "Love and Theft", I thought, "Something's wrong with me; it can't be this good. I'm 48 years old, it can't be that something is touching me this much in music." This was the kind of feeling I would get at 18 or 19 years old. You just don't get moved that way, your heart is in some way solidified, you know who you are and what you feel, something can't really change the way you see the world by the time you're over 45, something is set in stone, and yet when I listened to "Love and Theft" and Modern Times, there was stuff that inspired me and changed me. How could that be?
Bob Dylan is both a conduit of the nation's musical heritages and their most astonishing re-creator. For half a century, he has conjured with the nation's soul, always as his irreducible self.
He was once a young man who could sound like an old man, in how he wrote and how he sang. He expressed defiance, vulnerability and bemusement, and he also melded them, sometimes with a snarl and sometimes with a gentle snicker. Now he is an older man who sounds like an older man, writing with defiance, vulnerability, and bemusement about how it all looks and feels, now that he is older.
And as he turns 70, he remains as elusive as he is riveting, keeping his fans and his critics wondering what in the world he's going to do next.
Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts, but Dylan shows you can have ten acts and still always be exploring. And while there were periods where you didn't seem to hear much of him, he'd then come exploding back. It's that migration, exploring loose roots; it's a very American theme. Americans are always searching for new frontiers and Dylan personifies that in the music. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but he doesn't stay still, he doesn't get in a rut. You never get the feeling that the man has lost his itch to create.
I know a recent Wall Street Journal piece urged him to retire, but you could have made that case in the '70s, as some did. He's had albums that have bombed, got terrible reviews, and he keeps coming back. Thanks to modern medicine, he could have 10, 20, 30 more years. Why retire? You don't like one performance, wait; Bob's going to come along with another.
Bob's lyrics go beyond timelessness. Take "Blowin' in the Wind" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'." We can't really imagine the world without those songs in it. The content is on such a high plane and so universal in nature it doesn't seem that anyone wrote them.
And I find it hard to believe that there was a time when they weren't in the air. It is remarkable Bob continues doing his art on such a high level. Modern Times came out about three years ago and its one of the best albums he's ever made. We are truly lucky to be alive while Bob Dylan is walking the earth.
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You can learn a lot about a guy's character from boxing him every day. Bob had a lot of heart. If I hurt him he'd fight harder, but if he hurt me, he'd take it down a notch and let me back into the fight, so that was pretty cool. A lot of fighters ask for quarter, but don't give quarter. He actually didn't ask for any quarter — he'd get mad if I would not jump on him when he got hurt.
And he's got a lot of nerve. One time we were lost in the Amazonian rain forest on a side trip we made during one of his South American tours. It was me and Bob and our friend Mitch. We went out on our own and got lost. Bob doesn't take precautions but I was supposed to, he was on my watch. I was worried but he made jokes. He's the type of guy that finds humor anywhere. He's a calm character. I guess if you're on the road that long, a lot of funny things happen and you've got to have nerve.
Happy birthday, Bob, I hope you live another 70 years.
If, as the poet says, "The purpose of art is to stop time," then Dylan has stopped more time, at least for me, than anyone living or gone. Dylan is a man out of time, belongs to the ages, ages well, is no age at all. So what if 70 years have now accrued to the animal body our bard, our Blake, happens to cart around? He was older than that before, and he's younger than that now.
And, most fortunately, his relationship to "retirement" seems to be weird too. Take a day off, Mr. Dylan, and blow out as many candles as you like. But just a day, okay?
The first Bob Dylan album I heard was Highway 61 Revisited. It was 1965. I was almost 13 and had just started guitar lessons. We were living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my dad was teaching at LSU. One of his writing students came over to the house one day with this album. He was raving about it. My dad wasn't particularly interested but I was. His student left it at the house and I listened to it. Even though I was barely 13, I got it.
From the time I was a small child, I had been influenced by southern poets and folk, blues, jazz and country music. Here was a guy who was putting it all together, for the first time. At the time, I didn't get all of the in-depth meaning of the songs but that didn't matter. I decided, right then and there, that I would learn how to do what he was doing. I wanted to be as good as he was and I have been learning how to do it, ever since.
I met Dylan originally because I was a good friend of Albert Grossman, who was his manager and his mentor. Columbia, Dylan's record company, put out a greatest hits album. I did the poster for it. They had gotten control over the editing and they put that album together using material that perhaps Dylan might not have used. Dylan hated everything about that album. But the poster proliferated.
You do things and you have no idea of why they enter the public consciousness and this is one of those things because it represents an entire generation's interests and it's Dylan, who is a compelling figure.
I never did hear his reaction to it. I always assumed he just wanted to forget about it.
Bob's a rock star, a world icon, a songwriter and performer who has influenced and inspired millions and affected our music and our world in a profound way. But at heart, I believe, if someone asked him how he thinks of himself, he would say he's only a minstrel boy. I say, long may he wander in the raw poetry of time! Happy Birthday, Bob.
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