Bob Dylan is successful in his work.
A native of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as featuring as an endorsing celebrity for global brands such as IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Pepsi and Cadillac. This June, he was the focus of a new Netflix documentary directed by Martin Scorsese. He also has his own brand of whiskey, Heaven’s Door, which sells for about 50 euros a bottle. Bob Dylan’s net worth, estimated at around 200 million US dollars, is neck and neck with the entire gross domestic product of the Marshall Islands.
Readers may also know Dylan as the voice of a generation: a freewheeling folk hero whose tracks such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ gave enduring voice to the ethos of the Beat Generation. With a discography spanning 38 studio albums, Dylan has assumed a comfortable position in the great hall of American cultural royalty.
Evaluated by the metrics of capital and cultural presence, Dylan is good at his job. The question at Roskilde Festival on Wednesday was which side of Dylan would show up at the Orange Stage.
The times are indeed a-changin’
His performance, the second of the year on Roskilde’s iconic main stage, was largely defined by drawling nostalgia. Dylan, seated in front of a keyboard and a mounted harmonica, filled the broad fields in front of Orange Stage with a syrupy projection of the Bob Dylan brand: recognisable folk rhythms, less recognisable lyrics. His first few numbers failed to elicit any major reaction from the older, static crowd — only after a disappointing, mid-2000s Wisconsin dive-bar cover of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ did the audience display obvious acknowledgement that the old man under the orange tent was in fact the Bob Dylan our parents told us about.
Dylan’s renditions of the hits most people came to hear fell short of the sound many expected, and songs outside of his most iconic portfolio came across as so-so covers – third-string jukebox selections. His lacklustre revisions of his own songs came across as a symptom of boredom, perhaps a desire to find some new, personal interest in a setlist that has been largely the same for years. Having recently marked the 3,000th show of a relentless three-decade touring schedule, Dylan’s performance seemed more a force of habit than artistic achievement – a marketable muscle memory.
Though his performance lacked memorable shine, Dylan remains a top-billing name, raising the question of whether his appeal lies in the Bob Dylan that is, or the Bob Dylan that was. Did we come to hear what present day Bob Dylan can play, or did we come out of obligation to a cultural monolith – to forever be able to say that we once saw Bob Dylan?
Seeing ageing stars in concert invariably presents this difficulty. One cannot quite shake the feeling that a younger version of the artist might have played the song better, with more passion, in a way more rooted in personal expression rather than the maintenance of a business. It feels cheap and cynical to pounce on these ageing artists for seeking purpose and relevancy past a perceived prime, yet deluded to pretend that a 78-year-old man can still match the performance of his 21-year-old self.
The Enterprisin’ Bob Dylan
Dylan’s current presence as an artist seems in some way ornamental. He is the figurehead of a mighty cultural and commercial engine: a machine which now is largely autonomous, yet still requires Dylan’s physical presence to validate its main stage appeal. The orange canopy frames an image of an ageing man dwarfed by his own brand.
As he rounds the downward arc of old age, when does Bob Dylan get to lie down and appreciate what he has been? After a lifetime in the spotlight, does he want, or know how, to approach life as a private citizen?
The answer, perhaps, is blowing in the wind.