Christopher Caldwell

Bob Dylan and the illusion of modern times

To grasp the real shape of recent history, you have to stop using yourself as a measure

Bob Dylan and the illusion of modern times
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I was talking the other day to a young woman who knows a lot about the history of rock. We shared an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan’s later work — especially Blood on the Tracks (1975). As we talked, it occurred to me that Dylan recorded this ‘late’ effort 40 years ago, only 13 years into his career. So why do we treat it as belonging more to our time than, say, his folk ballads from the early 1960s? Some baby-boomer journalist must have decided around 1970 that something Dylan did in 1965 or 1966 — maybe his switch to electric instruments or his motorcycle accident — marked a critical break in history.

We stupidly accept this view of things: Dylan is now in his sixth decade as a symbol of American youth. But time does keep moving on. Blood on the Tracks is now closer to the reign of George V (1910–1936) than to our day. For that matter, Dylan’s eponymous first album (1962) is closer to the reign of Edward VII (1901–10) than to us.

We live life forward, as Kierkegaard said, but understand it backward. The problem is, we have lost the habit of looking backward. We assume anything that happened to us is somehow part of the ‘present day’. If you were born in 1971 and are due to turn 44 this year, then you will consider 1971 part of the era that contains this new year of 2015. You were there then and you’re here now — a member in good standing of the era of Uber, Twitter and Tumblr. Therefore, 1971 is surely hip, new and interesting to talk about.

Yet the very process that makes you consider 1971 a recent birth year reveals you to be an old geezer. To see how far you really are from some event, count the same number of years back from the event itself. While 1971 may be ‘only’ 44 years from today, it is just as close to the 1920s — the decade of Lenin, Bright Young Things, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’, Weimar inflation and Thomas Hardy’s last poems. How young and hip do you feel now?

For some reason music always sounds newer than it is, and this is not true just of baby boom music. You might think Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ (1984) is edgy and subversive if you danced to it back in the day, but it now stands at the some chronological distance from Patti Page’s ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ (1953) as from the stuff kids are listening to today. The Sex Pistols’ first concert (1975) is closer in time to Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony (1936) than to us, and Rachmaninoff wrote much of his music in the 19th century.

Literature is not much better. Take your eye off a writer you consider an enfant terrible and he turns into a grand old man. Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers (1973) belongs as much to the era of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) as to that of novels now at the printers. Philip Roth is still thought to operate on the racy frontier of American thinking about sexuality, but his breakthrough story collection Goodbye Columbus (1959) is closer to Mark Twain’s final short-story collection The $30,000 Bequest (1906) than to anything recent.

Something similar happens in politics. Only a few years separate young Turks from elder statesmen. Kenneth Clarke served as a minister under David Cameron, yet his first race for parliament (a seat in Mansfield in 1964) is closer to Asquith’s premiership (1908–1916) than to the present day. Tony Blair’s takeover of the Labour party (1994) is closer to the last episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1974) than to us. Carl Benz’s invention of the automobile engine (1879) is closer to the Battle of Culloden (1746) than to us.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is closer to the second world war than it is to the next presidential election. Reagan’s birth (1911) is closer to the publication of Goethe’s Faust (1808) than it is to us. When you consider this, the United States as a civilisation comes to seem older, too. Ben Franklin’s birth (in Boston in 1706) is closer to the 14th century — the century of Dante and Chaucer — than it is to us. The settlement of Jamestown, Virginia (1607) is as close in time to the life of Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199) as it is to the present.

You begin to see why people take refuge in gadgetry. Our machines are about the only thing that doesn’t carry with them associations of ancient days. But that, too, is changing, now that Bill Gates’s founding of Microsoft (1975) is as close to László Bíró’s invention of the ballpoint pen (1935) as to us. A year, it turns out, is not so much a unit of velocity as a unit of acceleration.