John Harris

Journalist & Author

Happy 80th birthday to Bob Dylan, rock’s most prescient, timeless voice | John Harris

As he has aged and changed, so have his songs, but the essentials remain: honesty, wisdom and hope in the face of despair

When I first properly listened to Bob Dylan, I was 10 years old. Each Saturday, Radio 1 aired a series titled 25 Years of Rock, based on news and music spanning the years 1955 to 1979. And that week, in among archive clips of Lyndon Johnson, Harold Wilson, the Vietnam war and whatever else had happened in 1965, there was the sudden whip-crack of a snare drum followed by six minutes of music unlike anything I had ever heard: a great cascading noise, led by a voice that, as the US composer Michael Pisaro later wrote, somehow managed to be simultaneously “compassionate, tragic … vengeful, gleeful, ironic, weary, spectral, [and] haranguing”.

I soon found out that what I had experienced was Dylan’s watershed single Like a Rolling Stone, whose lyric is ostensibly addressed to some unnamed wealthy socialite as she is suddenly cut off from money and privilege. But as a matter of instinct, what I still hear in that song is a message from someone in the midst of early adulthood about how to live at that time of life. The best way to be when young, Dylan seems to insist, is restless, light on baggage, and scornful of any conventions or rules – reconciled, as Like a Rolling Stone famously puts it, to having no direction home.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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