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Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Still blowin' in the wind
Bob Dylan: 60 years on
As quintessential '60s icon Bob Dylan hits 60 himself, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit examines the timeless appeal of a musical legend.

To the faithful, the opening incantation is as familiar as their own names. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!"

As the house lights dim, and the theatre erupts, a diminutive tousle-haired figure strides onto the stage, clasping an electric guitar to his chest. It's another night in another town for Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour.

But unlike many of his contemporaries, the audience is not exclusively wrinkly. To be sure, many of those at a Dylan concert can remember the thrill of first playing the shining, virgin vinyl of Another Side Of and Blood On The Tracks.

To his younger fans, though, for whom records are a quaint reminder of another era, Dylan has as much to say about the environment and globalisation as he had to their parents about racial tolerance and war.

A young smiling Bob Dylan
The young Dylan mesmerised a generation

The boy born Robert Alan Zimmerman on 24 May 1941 in Hibbing, Minnesota, reaches his 60th birthday still writing, still on the road and with a career which, despite a number of hiccups, still endures.

Of the Holy Trinity of Rock, the Beatles self-destructed more than 30 years ago, Elvis turned up his blue suede shoes in 1977, but Dylan continues to surprise and challenge.

His most recent album, Time Out Of Mind, a richly dark series of musings on ageing and the disillusionment which often accompanies it, was released to huge critical and popular acclaim, winning for Dylan a second Grammy and introducing him to a whole new generation.

Oscar winner

More recently still, the pithy Things Have Changed, from the soundtrack to the film Wonder Boys, brought him an Oscar.

A delighted Dylan thanked the Academy for voting for "a song that doesn't pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature".

In the fickle and transient world of popular music, Dylan has spent 40 years at the top, constantly re-inventing himself along the way, allowing his fans the opportunity to grow up and grow old with their idol and his music.

Bob Dylan the mid 1960s
Hipster chic: At the height of his powers in the mid 1960s

From Greenwich Village's teenage troubadour, through folk-rock, the psychedelia of the late '60s, his embracing of Christianity to his most recent incarnation as a world-weary torchbearer for middle aged men everywhere, Bob Dylan has offered an almost unique insight into the changing perceptions of an artist.

For the most part, his songs are easy to play - 100,000 buskers in 100,000 railway stations are testament to that.

Unsurpassed wordsmith

He does not have a conventionally good singing voice. Yet, as a wordsmith, Dylan is unsurpassed. Transcending pop and poetry, his lyrics have provided a soundtrack to his age.

"The answer is blowin' in the wind", "he not busy being born is busy dying" and "there's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all" are today as much a part of the currency of literature as Shakespeare and Keats.

Even though Dylan has often been dismissive about how much his work reveals about its writer, he admitted in 1990, "People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look."

A bearded Bob Dylan plays at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970
Playing at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970

To the thousands of amateur Dylanologists, their hero's every concert and out-take is to be recorded, collected and pored over as if it were Holy Writ.

Superfans, like the celebrated Larry Lambchop, about whom Dylan once said "this man has seen me play more times than me", constantly follow him around the world.

Chaotic private life

He once said that his 1966 album Blonde On Blonde came closest to capturing the "wild mercury sound" inside his head and the image of mercury, an element which is constantly in flux and difficult to contain, is an apt one for Bob Dylan.

His chaotic private life includes a 1965 marriage to a former Playboy bunny girl, Sara Lowndes, which produced four children before ending in divorce in 1977.

Beside affairs with numerous other women, he had a second secret wife, his backing singer Carol Dennis, with whom he had a daughter.

Bob Dylan plays at the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony
Still on the road: Dylan at the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony

Alimony, as well as a continuing burning desire to perform, means that Dylan remains constantly on tour, so the chances are that the legend will be playing somewhere near you, sometime soon.

Though his glory days at the leading edge of popular culture might be behind him, the timelessness of Bob Dylan's work means that his relevance will never be diminished.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Charles Rhodes
talks to Dylan biographer, Howard Sounes
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