This Week In Advancement: Should Bob Dylan Retire?

This week in Advancement, Jason Hartley explains why Bob Dylan should retire whenever he damn well pleases.

This Week In Advancement: Should Bob Dylan Retire?

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by John Jurgensen that dealt with “a generation of music icons is hitting retirement age” and whether they should, in fact, retire. While several artists are mentioned—Roger Waters, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, the guy from Flock of Seagulls(?)—Bob Dylan is the focus.

To get a comprehensive view of this important question, Jurgensen interviewed critics, the director of Johns Hopkins Voice Center, and some guy who took his kid to see Dylan at a hockey rink. One person he did not interview is Bob Dylan, the only person qualified to decide when it is time for him to stop touring.

Jurgensen does include a quote taken from an interview Dylan did with ‘Rolling Stone’: “Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A welder, a carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire…. My music wasn’t made to take me one place to another so I can retire early.” That really should be the end of the argument. If he wants to tour, he should and you can go see him or not. But a lot of people don’t see it that way.

One of the more amusing reasons given why he should retire from performing is concern for his voice, which is why Dr. Lee Akst from Johns Hopkins was brought in. Dr. Akst says he can’t diagnose a patient without an examination, but he notes that rock singers are prone to scarring in the vocal cords. But Jurgensen, meanwhile, compares Dylan’s current voice to a scatting Cookie Monster, so I don’t know what Dylan needs to protect. And setting aside for a moment that Cookie Monster is a fine singer, the idea that Dylan might choose to sing the way he does, rather than being forced to by scarred vocal cords, does not enter the picture.
When I saw him recently, Dylan’s voice was extremely rough, but occasionally he would sing like the old Bob Dylan (by which I mean the middle aged Bob Dylan). So I can’t say for sure what his vocal range is these days—I haven’t gotten chance to examine him either—but what he does with what he has is fascinating to hear.

The most ridiculous concern is that Dylan could somehow tarnish his legacy by sticking around too long. If anything his constant touring adds to the mystique of the material from his younger years. After all, if you think he is so terrible now, you can’t help but wonder where that brilliance came from and how did it disappear. Of course if you believe in Advancement like I do, you believe that brilliance has only gotten stronger.

What I find interesting is that people say that later work can tarnish an artist’s legacy without fear of contradiction, but when I say that an artist’s early work could inform our judgment of his later material (in a positive way), I’m called a contrarian. I think it is far less likely that someone could secretly be terrible for 25 years than it is for a genius to have evolved to a state where few people have the capacity to fully appreciate their work. There is a reason they say that genius is misunderstood: because it is misunderstood.

I was prepared to hate the WSJ article simply because of its premise—that someone other than the artist should decide when it is time for that artist to retire—but it turned out to be a generally positive take on Dylan’s late period. The critics get their little jabs in about being burned by uneven live performances and, of course, the Cookie Monster bit, but they all appreciate the fact that Dylan continues to do new things with his most recognizable songs. In particular he is compared favorably to Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones, who perform “acts of note-for-note nostalgia, but on a bigger scale.” That comparison shows just how little is to be gained by a musician like Bob Dylan. If he plays the songs the way they were written, he’s nostalgia act. If he tries new things and fails, he is mocked as a scatting Cookie Monster who is begrudgingly granted nobility in defeat.

This is why many of us would prefer older artists to go away: we want them frozen in time so we can love them without being challenged. We aren’t worried about their voices or their legacies, we’re trying to protect our memories and our vision of ourselves. If Bob Dylan is singing one of your favorite songs but you can’t sing along or sometimes even recognize it, you are forced to make a decision: do I move on to this new version or do I reject the artist that I love?

Most of us just don’t have the energy for the former, so we settle for the latter.
Most of us buy into the idea that genius, especially in the world of rock’n’roll, can’t survive beyond the first hint of crow’s feet. This is unfortunate because my feeling is that people want to continue to like older artists like the Rolling Stones, even if they do have a Monopoly game based on them. In fact I’ve gotten a number of emails from readers of the Advanced Genius Theory, who tell me either that they are relieved that someone else agrees with them about later Dylan or Lou Reed, or that they have gone back to listen to music they had rejected before giving it a real chance.

Luckily, Bob Dylan and other Advanced artists don’t care at all what we think. They will continue to do exactly what they want, whether that is making music for dogs<>, appearing in a Spice Girls movie, or playing minor-league baseball stadiums. I, for one, am glad. The concert I saw was my first opportunity to experience Dylan up close, and it will always be one of my great memories. Plus, he rocked pretty hard for an old guy.

For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book, The Advanced Genius Theory.
This Week In Advancement: Should Bob Dylan Retire?