Five reasons Bob Dylan is a god (or something like that)

Bob Dylan performs during the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in January 2012 in Los Angeles.
Bob Dylan performs during the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in January 2012 in Los Angeles.
Published April 15, 2015

He's not, of course. A god, I mean.

But heaven knows there has been an inordinate amount of time spent in the last 50 years or so trying to classify, quantify and otherwise demystify Bob Dylan's impact on society.

He's a poet. No, he's a prophet! He changed pop music. No, he changed America in the 1960s! He's the voice of a generation. No, he's the voice of every generation.

Dylan, 73, has churned out around three dozen studio albums since 1962, and probably twice as many books have been written trying to interpret and explain them all.

He spent one semester as a student at the University of Minnesota in 1959 and is now immortalized in college courses on campuses from east to west and everywhere in between. (You can take a "Bob Dylan Lyrics" course at Boston University, or enroll in "Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan" at Stanford, or go for the basic "The Music of Bob Dylan" at Indiana University.)

When he was a younger man and among the biggest rock stars in the world from 1967 to 1974, Dylan rarely performed in public. And yet, since reaching middle age in the late 1980s, he has played close to 100 dates every year on the Never Ending Tour, which returns to the Tampa Bay area on April 22 at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

So how do we explain Dylan?

Carefully, I'd say.

1. The revolution

Rock 'n' roll had heart before Dylan.

It just didn't have brains.

When the world was still getting used to Jailhouse Rock, Dylan introduced us to Desolation Row. He didn't sound sweet, and he didn't sing about teenage romance.

His music broke whatever rules we thought existed. The songs were too long, the voice too nasal, and the lyrics too literate. And yet it was impossible to turn away.

Around the time Herman's Hermits were singing Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter and Petula Clark was singing Downtown in 1965, Dylan upped the ante with Maggie's Farm and Subterranean Homesick Blues.

His album Bringing It All Back Home brought substance and scope to rock music. It was the first sign of the type of music that would take us from American Bandstand to Woodstock.

"He was a revolutionary, man,'' Bruce Springsteen said when inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. And he showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect.

"He invented a new way a pop singer could sound. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and he changed the face of rock and roll forever.''

2. The mystery

Nobody does subterfuge like Dylan.

He showed up in New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s with a collection of barely believable backstories and hasn't stopped messing with our minds ever since.

He has rarely granted interviews, and the few he did were often cat-and-mouse affairs. It's probably fair to say that no one has ever had his music picked apart, studied and interpreted as much as Dylan's, and yet he almost never offers his own explanations.

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In an era when entertainers invite cameras to follow them everywhere, Dylan has turned privacy into its own type of celebrity.

The more he hides, the more we want.

3. The unpredictability

Three albums.

That's all it took for Dylan to become the most famous protest singer in the world. And months later he left folk music behind.

It was the beginning of a lifetime spent ignoring trends and defying common wisdom. When rock music was shaping society in the late '60s, Dylan went to Nashville and recorded a country album. He made a string of faith-based albums. He recorded ground-breaking music with the Band, and then sat on the tapes for years.

Upon receiving the MusiCares Person of the Year award a couple of months ago, Dylan poked critics and made light of his supposed unpredictability.

"Critics have said that I've made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that's all I do? That's how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it.

"'What do you do for a living, man?'

"'Oh, I confound expectations.'''

4. The impact

Dylan was quoted by Jimmy Carter during his nomination acceptance speech in the 1970s. He played one of Bill Clinton's inaugural balls in the '90s. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012.

As a 22-year-old, he stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and played his civil rights protest song Only a Pawn in Their Game minutes before Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Dylan has won Grammys, Golden Globes and an Oscar and was given a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize committee for "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.''

It was his biting comment about the plight of U.S. farmers from the Live Aid stage in 1985 that spurred the Farm Aid series of concerts that have raised nearly $40 million.

John Lennon and George Harrison cited him as a huge influence on the Beatles, and he turned the Fab Four on to marijuana for the first time in a New York city hotel room.

5. The truth

For all the mythology surrounding his career, I've always wanted to believe in a Dylan who managed to pull off this mystery act with a wink and a grin — a rock star who took himself less seriously than the crowds calling his name.

The Dylan I've always loved is exactly like the one encountered by a 24-year-old cop in New Jersey a few years ago.

Neighbors in the suburb of Long Branch had called the police after seeing a disheveled elderly gentleman peering into a vacant home for sale on a rainy afternoon.

When Officer Kristie Buble stopped the man and asked him what he was doing, Dylan said he was interested in buying a home. He told Buble his name and said he was playing a concert later that night if she would like tickets.

The officer knew the name, but she figured the old guy was a few chords short of a melody. She put him in her cruiser and offered to drive him to his nearby hotel, thinking they would more likely end up at the psych ward of a hospital.

"He talked a lot,'' Buble later told Esquire magazine. "And I wasn't even paying attention to some of the things he was saying because in my head I was wondering, 'What am I going to tell the hospital, what am I going to tell my supervisor?' He's just blabbering in the back.

"When you encounter someone as famous as him, you expect him to be pompous: 'This is who I am, don't do this, don't you know who I am?' It was nothing like that, nothing at all. He was modest and calm and chill. … He was nicer than 95 percent of the people I deal with every day.''

How do we explain Dylan?

With reverence, I'd say.