YouTubers and Barack Obama show how Bob Dylan's influence reaches down the generations: Anthony Clavane

The world’s greatest singer-songwriter is 80 on Monday. That’s Bob Dylan to you and me. Or His Bobness, The Zimster, Bobby D.

US musician Bob Dylan performs on the Orange stage as the music area opens at Roskilde Festival on July 3, 2019. (Photo by Helle Arensbak / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP)
US musician Bob Dylan performs on the Orange stage as the music area opens at Roskilde Festival on July 3, 2019. (Photo by Helle Arensbak / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP)

Or Robert Allen Zimmerman, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

I realise that many of you will now be about to abandon ship. Mr Zimmerman certainly divides opinion.

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On Monday, after listening to a Dylan tribute on Radio 4’s Today show, I noticed that his surname was trending on Twitter. There were scathing references to his supposedly appalling voice, his supposedly sycophantic fans, his supposedly pretentious lyrics.

Bob Dylan turns 80 this Monday.

The anti-Dylan brigade were keen to point out that, even if he once was “quite good”, the 1960s’ “voice of youth” was now well past his sell-by date.

Of course, he’s not the messiah. But neither is he a naughty boy who has fooled us into thinking he’s the messiah. He’s always insisted that he was just a song and dance man.

His voice, his fans and his lyrics might not be to your taste. His music might not be your cup of tea. But there’s no getting away from the fact that he is, in the words of Radio 4 Controller Mohit Bakaya, a “musical genius who has loomed large in our culture for many decades”.

This is why anyone remotely interested in our culture, not just Bobcats and Dylanologists, should try to catch the five-part series It Ain’t Me You’re Looking For. Presented by Professor Sean Latham, and commissioned by Bakaya, it eloquently documented the remarkable journey undertaken by pop’s most enduring enigma.

Members of the audience wait to see Bob DYLAN at the Isle of Wight music Festival in the summer of 1969. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

As Dylan once noted: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” He has always re-invented himself – often to the dismay of his devotees – shifting from protest singer to psychedelic rocker to country-and-western star to evangelical Christian to Sinatra-eque crooner (yes, really) and finally, in his latest reincarnation, to world-weary chronicler of Americana.

Paul Morley sums this up beautifully in a new book, You Lose Yourself You Reappear, arguing Dylan has always refused “to let his career become embalmed”.

Still, it will be strange to witness the Voice of Youth becoming an octogenarian. Remember The Who’s Pete Townshend once declaring: “Hope I die before I get old”? Pop music is not supposed to be for the old.

In a 1960s cartoon, a record store assistant told a hippie browsing some new albums: “Better get them now. All of Bob Dylan’s records are going to self-destruct when he turns 30.”

Well, Dylan is about to turn 80 and, rather than self-destruct, his records not only stand the test of time, they continue to inspire new generations of music lovers.

I have recently become addicted to watching reaction videos. In the manner of Gogglebox, they show the emotional reactions of people viewing great songs – or television series, films and comedians – often for the first time.

In one famous video, some YouTubers decided to listen to Dylan’s The Times They Are-A-Changin’. Suddenly, taking them by surprise, Barack Obama appeared live to chat with them about the track.

“I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan for a long time,” explained the former President. “Partly because I’m older. He was part of that kind of social conscience that was in rock music and then in hip-hop music.”

The YouTubers were blown away by Dylan’s voice, his delivery and his prophetic lyrics. I have to admit I get a kick out of seeing a new generation – whether Millennials or Gen Z – reacting to great songs from Bringing It All Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks and last year’s epic Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Dylan has had his bad moments. Moments when he appeared to be washed-up. Moments when he became a self-parody, threw himself into gospel-rock or made a laughable attempt to croon his way through a tranche of Sinatra covers. Not all of his 600-odd songs, and 39 studio albums, have been to my liking.

But, as Rough and Rowdy Ways demonstrated, he has always re-invented himself – in an often extraordinary manner. He has never rested on his laurels.

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny Robert Allen Zimmerman’s iconic status as a lasting and influential figure in popular culture.

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