A young music writer describes his obsession with the octogenarian troubadour, Bob Dylan
(No. 100) This is the centennial issue of Stephen's People! Celebrate by sharing it! by Stephen P. Williams
One hundred is a lot of newsletters. Let’s keep enjoying them. I won’t be surprised if Bob Dylan celebrates his 100th, performing on a stage, in 19 years. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash
A little thought on the 100th issue of Stephen’s People:
I’ve produced 100 issues of Stephen’s People, mostly on my own dime and always on my own time. It’s a huge pleasure for me, yet I’d be happier with more paid subscribers! Please consider going premium, rather than just reading for free. (I have free premium subscriptions for anyone who can’t afford to subscribe — the premium, paid version gives you better content — just let me know.)
I am so pleased to introduce 35-year-old music writer Ray Padgett to Stephen's People. Ray writes two fascinating newsletters, Flagging Down the Double E’s, essays inspired by live Bob Dylan concerts throughout history, and Every Tom Waits Song, going through the full Waits catalog alphabetically. Reading Ray is a real pleasure -- you'll love exploring his obsessions. Check out his new book, I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
35-year-old Dylan freak, Ray Padgett, tells us what Bob Dylan means
One of the most-often quoted Bob Dylan lines (and there’s stiff competition) comes from his 1964 song “My Back Pages”: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
Dylan wrote that line when he was 22. The last time he sang it in concert, in 2012, he was 71. Now he’s another decade younger than even that.
I am not 71, or 81. When I first got into Dylan, I wasn’t even 22. I’m 35 now, and I saw my first Dylan show at age 17, in 2004. By the time I turned 18, I was obsessed, using my new driver’s license to travel around the Midwest seeing as many shows as I could afford with my summer job money. Which wasn’t many, so I relied heavily on the “Mom, dad, can I have my birthday present six months early?” move.
Now, almost two decades later, I write a Substack newsletter all about Bob Dylan. In fact, it’s even more specific than that: It’s all about Bob Dylan in concert. I share recordings of old Dylan shows and interview Bob’s band members and collaborators. I spoke with Noel Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary last week. He’s 84 and still going strong! I’m talking to Dickey Betts of the The Allman Brothers tomorrow - a comparative baby at 78.
One might ask, why does a young(ish) man spend so much time following the work of an octogenarian? But with this particular octogenarian, I’m not that unusual. Though there is no shortage of white-or-no-haired audience members at his concerts, there are quite a few 20- and 30-somethings too. I’ve seen The Pauls - that’s McCartney and Simon - too, and you definitely see more young people in the crowd for Dylan. His audience’s generational diversity appears not just in the room; it’s online too. On Twitter, which skews younger than Facebook, there’s a lively world of Dylan fans in constant conversation. Ditto Discord, a social media platform for young techies. I understand there are even Dylan communities on TikTok. That’s too young even for me!
What is it about Dylan that continues to draw in college kids and 20-somethings? That the work is great is a given. But so is the work of plenty of other ‘60s-era musicians whose audiences age with them.
One answer is that Bob stands for something. It’s not the same thing he unwillingly stood for in the ‘60s when he wrote “My Back Pages”: political protest, the voice-of-a-generation nonsense he hated so much.
Today he stands for not compromising his principles. Even when doing so hurts his career. Even when doing so leads him to create unpopular or even downright bad music! The Dylan fans I know adore the gospel period as much as the ‘60s work. We think the music he’s making in the 21st century stands up with the best of the ’60s. Hell, we’ll even defend his silly synthesizer and even sillier fashion experiments of the ‘80s. It’s not that we’re uncritical (don’t get me started on “If Dogs Run Free”); it’s that we appreciate an artist honestly following his muse. That’s actually the subject of a song, “Mother of Muses,” on his brilliant recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Unlike so many of his peers, Bob makes no effort to recapture his glory years by playing the greatest hits for an audience who remembers-when. Commercially, there’s no doubt that hurts him. He plays smaller rooms than he would if he strapped on the acoustic guitar and led a “Blowin’ in the Wind” sing-along every night. But I think younger people, who weren’t around for the “glory years” to begin with, appreciate him saying that now is always as important as then.
The now encompasses songs from decades ago too. On the current Rough and Rowdy Ways tour, one night he played “Gotta Serve Somebody” like a garage-rock song, then the very next night it became a soft piano ballad. Same song, two totally different arrangements, neither one remotely like the gospel original. All these decades later, he’s still tweaking his own back pages every night.
The final time (so far!) he played the actual “My Back Pages” was at a show in Switzerland in 2012. It sounds almost nothing like the acoustic Another Side of Bob Dylan version did. It’s now a jazz waltz. He plays piano on it. But, though God knows he loves changing the words to his songs live, he sings that one famous line the same way he did way back in ’64: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”
by Ray Padgett
Ray Padgett is a music journalist who writes the email newsletters Flagging Down the Double E’s, essays inspired by live Bob Dylan concerts throughout history, and Every Tom Waits Song, going through the full Waits catalog alphabetically. He founded Cover Me, the largest blog devoted to cover songs on the web, and has written two books: Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (2017) and an entry in the 33 1/3 series, I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (2020), with a third book, on Dylan, in progress. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, SPIN, The AV Club, Vice, and MOJO, and he’s been interviewed as an expert on cover songs by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, SiriusXM, and dozens more. He lives in Burlington, Vermont and works as a publicist for Shore Fire Media.
I took a mini-road trip and discovered a wonderful relationship between two distinctive women
That’s my ex step-mother-in-law on the left, and my ex mother-in-law on the right. I guess they have things in common, sense they both married the same wonderful guy (at different times). My ex wife, who introduced me to these two, died many years ago. But our friendships live on. The other day I drove one to see the other, and was struck by the elegant, feminine way they interacted, with great respect and affection and very little of the grating BS that many men would display in a similar situation. I just enjoyed sitting back and watching the show, which included a lot of cut flowers and a few hours in a garden. I learned a lot, and I wish for all families to have such graceful people at the top.
I’m concerned about the future. I wonder what the planet will be like if by some magic I live 30 more years. Will tech rescue us? Will our environment be so uncomfortable that we won’t want to be alive? Will there be any energy to bring us light and heat and essential goods? How best to plan for inevitable trouble, rather than just letting trouble happen to us? To better understand what is going on with energy, population, consumerism and climate change, I’ve started a newsletter called Our Dark Secrets with my friend Ty Montague, who shares many of the same thoughts. We’re learning as we go, from our research, from our readers and from each other. Please have a look, and subscribe at no cost.
Thank you for reading Stephen’s People, and helping me get to 100 issues. I’m very happy about that. — Stephen