There really is no good reason for Bob Dylan to show up for work these days. His reputation is secure. His songs occupy their own wing in the pop-culture archive. He’s the rare legend who doesn’t have to go out and earn any new respect — as evidenced by the gazillion “how Bob changed my life” testimonials flooding the Internet in the wake of his 70th birthday last week.
Yet there he is. On the road. Performing.
Last year, for the fourth year in a row, Dylan logged more than 100 dates. That’s lots of hard mileage for an artist whose voice is famously shot, who on some nights doesn’t even pick up a guitar. Why does he bother? Dylan watchers, a cadre that includes both professionals and amateurs, swap various theories on his moves and motives — a fool’s errand given the artist’s inscrutable nature. Musicians have their own notions; an established songwriter once told me he believes Dylan tours as a way to escape the more mundane aspects of life.
We may never get a precise explanation about why Dylan still suits up to play absurdly packed clubs and minor-league ballparks. The “how” he goes about it is a different story, and a reason to care about him still.
When Dylan arrives on stage, he is a man of diminished musical powers. Yet he brings with him a deep-rooted fundamental curiosity — about his songs and how they intersect with (and comment on) the present cultural moment. And that turns out to be all he needs, in the noble quest to discover what “My Back Pages,” from 1964, has to offer those whose sense of self begins and ends with Facebook.
Where the vast majority of rock veterans trade in nostalgia, treating their hits as magic portals that transport listeners back to simpler times, Dylan appears determined to travel to someplace new. At all costs. Even if it makes his listeners uncomfortable. Especially if it makes his listeners uncomfortable. He’s aware that his songs are regarded as the sacred texts of a wise oracle; he sees his songs quite differently, as endlessly mutable outlines and possibilities. For decades, he has been criticized because he “mangles” his cherished melodies, and his typical response has been to push the melodies even further from the notes on the page.
When jumping into some gem from the hallowed songbook, Dylan and his astonishingly sensitive band methodically tear up memories, one beloved phrase after another, scattering the elements and reassembling them into something new and often provocative. He sometimes seems to be measuring the continued relevance of his classics:
Can these pieces, written in fever bursts at a time of enormous creative energy — and, crucially, a parallel curiosity on the part of the audience — speak to our splintered, endlessly diffuse, look-at-me moment?
This is a question not many songwriters have been able to ask decades removed from the moment of creation. Dylan remains significant not simply because he has written such enduring music, but also because he aims to test the resonance of that music every time he performs.
He questions his younger self, and every now and then you can catch him shooting a skeptical raised eyebrow into one of his tunes. He appears endlessly curious to see what new glimmer might appear, how the slightest change of inflection can send foreboding storm clouds across the landscape of a song his followers thought they knew well.
In the act of unseating the expectations of his audience, Dylan opens up a space for the intent of a song to breathe — for new perspectives to arise. He has probably hurled the harsh, castigating “How does it feel?” questions of “Like a Rolling Stone” thousands of times; no two iterations are exactly alike. In this way, Dylan’s enterprise resembles that of a jazz improviser — a restless one, like his longtime labelmate Miles Davis.
Most people who write songs want — no, need — the comfort of an orderly script to follow. Dylan, a serial innovator much like Davis, treats the script more capriciously. He understands that having solid material is only the beginning. Far more important is what happens to that material in performance — the ways it shifts shape as it blossoms. There’s a degree of risk involved, and that brings its own corresponding energy rush: Having dropped himself into highly interactive musical environments over the years (through collaborations with the Band and the Grateful Dead, among others), Dylan seems to relish the chance to reinvent on the fly. With whatever croak of a voice he has on board in the moment. With whatever spark somebody else on stage might contribute.
Of course, what Dylan does in live performance is a little bit out of step with the rest of the industry. He’s the opposite of those dinosaur acts of summer, the ones lumbering through the empty autopilot rock-concert rituals while scooping up the cash. He’s about as far as one can get from the Lady Gaga extravaganza machine. Still, I’d argue that his example is relevant to every artist who intends to connect with an audience in a meaningful way for more than a moment or two. He’s living, breathing proof that while it’s nice to sing with a golden voice or turn a pithy phrase, it’s more important, by far, to be curious.
Tom Moon is the author of 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.