May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young
Let’s get this out of the way from the start, he isn’t gay, but his music had a major influence on a generation that, like Dylan, were disparaged and dismissed, only to rise to influence and challenge our popular culture. My case for Dylan as an LGBTQ ally and Queer Icon is in his ease with the queerness of his friends, associates, and fans. Dylan, in his songs and in his writings, brings a celebration of those who are different. Remember also, two of his closest associates, Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez, are queer, and he names Little Richard as his biggest influence.
Someone that I like and admire a great deal wrote a post over on The Facebook opining that they just could not stand to hear Dylan sing. Then I did that thing where I got in a fight with a stranger on a comments thread when they declared that lyrics do not count as poetry. Apparently, they have never listened to Hip-Hop. Or Lorenz Hart.
Robert Allen Zimmerman… to be honest, I didn’t get Dylan for the longest time. I remember hanging out at a friend’s house in my early teens; her brother was totally into Dylan and I could hear the music coming from his room. I just wasn’t digging it.
My own Dylan epiphany came rather late in his career with his song contributions to the soundtrack of The Wonder Boys (2000). I was just crazy for his songs for the film and I purchased the soundtrack CD. Then I went on a Bob Dylan binge. Now, I am totally into him.
I especially appreciated his Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-09) podcasts, where Dylan chose 15 songs from different artists and genres on a theme, like songs about cats, or songs about Ireland, or songs about dildos. The broadcasts included Dylan’ s smart commentary. He really is one of our most important Music Historians and Archivists.
His music has passed through nearly every category: Folk, Protest, Pop, Gospel, Rock, Country, Blues, R&B, Film Soundtracks, Jazz, and The Great American Songbook.
Dylan is one of the bestselling artists of all time. He has released 39 studio albums, 96 singles, 18 notable extended plays, 54 music videos, 16 live albums, 17 volumes of The Bootleg Series, 29 compilation albums, 22 box sets, seven soundtracks as main contributor, thirteen music home videos and two non-music home videos. Dylan has been the subject of seven documentaries, starred in three feature films, and appeared in an additional eight other films. He has written and published lyrics, artwork, and memoirs in 11 books and three of his songs have been made into children’s books.
His accolades include Grammy Awards, Golden Globes and an Academy Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and The American Songwriters Hall of Fame. Dylan has been awarded The Pulitzer Prize for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power“, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and with a lot of controversy, the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition“.
So, to all those Bob Dylan detractors: His tunes have been covered by a huge variety of artists from The Clash to Rosemary Clooney. His influence on popular culture is huge. I’m a boomer; Dylan is my generation’s poet and most caustic social critic.
In 2016, Dylan’s contribution to the album Universal Love: Wedding Songs Reimagined was blatantly queer. The album features six artists doing love songs with gender-flipped lyrics: gay fave Kesha does I Need A Woman To Love Me (originally recorded by Janis Joplin in 1968); gender-fluid St. Vincent sings And Then She Kissed Me (Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, 1963); Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie turns The Beatles‘ into And I Love Her to And I Love Him; and Valerie June changed Noël Coward‘s divine Mad About The Boy to Mad About The Girl (Coward refrained from publicly coming out of the closet in his lifetime, during an era when homosexual activity was illegal in Britain).
On Universal Love Dylan takes on He’s Funny That Way which has been recorded by men and women since it was written in 1928 by Neil Moret and Richard Whiting. His warm version pays homage to both Frank Sinatra‘s lush orchestral take and Billie Holiday‘s bluesy version. Seek this one out.
I appreciate that Dylan is an artist who is always pissing people off. Think he’s a folk singer? He goes Electric. Think he’s a Rock singer/songwriter? He goes Country. Think he’s a musical god? He releases an album so bad makes you question ever being a fan. His ever-changing personas may have angered his fans, but they have resulted in a remarkable career that can’t be narrowed down. Dylan isn’t this, and he isn’t that. He just is.
He is among the many musical geniuses who just loves to mess with everyone. In 2014, Dylan released Shadows In The Night, with 10 songs written between 1923 and 1963 from Great American Songbook associated with Sinatra. The next year he released Fallen Angels, another album of standards. It opens with a version of Young At Heart (1953) with a twangy guitar and Dylan’s mournful vocals. Other highlights include a bluesy version of Melancholy Mood (1939), a shuffle-beat driven That Old Black Magic (1949), and a western swing version of Skylark (1941). Fallen Angels has been on play as I compose this piece.
At 82 years old, he is still at it. His Rough and Rowdy Ways tour will be on the road this summer. His newest album, Shadow Kingdom is scheduled to be released on June 3, 2023. Dylan’s 17-minute song about John F. Kennededy‘s assassination from the album, Murder Most Foul was released as we went into COVID lockdown. It is his first-ever Number One on a Billboard chart. He published The Philosophy Of Modern Song (2022), a riffy, funny book of 66 essays about songs by other artists.
His Never Ending Tour, which commenced in 1988 has been canceled due to COVID-19. I don’t want the virus to get him. In April, Dylan released I Contain Multitudes, on his YouTube channel. The title is a quote from the great American poet Walt Whitman‘s Song Of Myself. I celebrate the Nobel Prize committee on their choice; Dylan is a great American poet.
For an interesting cinematic ride, try I’m Not There (2007), a film directed by openly gay Todd Haynes. It’s a very unconventional biopic. Six actors depict different facets of Dylan’s public personas: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, openly gay Ben Whishaw, and Heath Ledger in his final film to be released during his lifetime. The title of the film is taken from the 1967 Dylan Basement Tape recording of I’m Not There, a song that had not been officially released until it appeared on the film’s soundtrack album. Blanchett won Best Actress from the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, along with an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Dylan songs such as Blowin’ In The Wind (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) were anthems for the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. His lyrics during this period took on a range of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defied pop music conventions and appealed to the new counterculture.
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a changin’!