A FRIEND OF MINE, a big Bob Dylan fan, refuses to see the man perform. His reasoning is that he doesn't want to fuck with the picture he has in his head—that legendary image of the lean, young songwriter greased up on amphetamines, songs tumbling out of his head faster than the tape could sweep 'em up. The Dylan who, in his 1960s heyday, casually tossed off magic like "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and "Visions of Johanna" like overripe fruit falling off the bent branches of a tree.
I can respect this. I can see where my friend is coming from. There's no surer, more irreversible way to puncture the legend than by looking at the gnarled fossil of Dylan today. The man was never exactly a warm, glamorous figure to begin with—even those famous black-and-white photos of the rooster-like, black-clad Dylan sporting Wayfarers reveal a man out of step with (or at least indifferent to) any sort of fashion dictum, resulting in a public persona defined by its own cool apathy toward itself. But the mustachioed, wizened figure touring under Dylan's name today is almost shockingly off-putting, bleating in a fissured husk of a voice that sounds like a rusty door falling off its hinges.
I'll argue, though, that this Dylan is part and parcel of a picture that's not finished yet. No serious person can argue with the man's greatness, whether it be his Woody Guthrie magpie folk-plucking, or his remarkable stream-of-consciousness blues rock, or his '70s singer/songwriter divorcé confessionals. But I don't think Dylan ever stopped being Dylan—he never became the glitzy, crowd-pleasing version of himself, trotting out hits on the casino circuit for ever-aging boomers. Instead of becoming the phlegmatic elder statesman we wanted, he just became phlegmy. He's weird and creepy, but he was always weird and creepy. His new album Tempest is no masterpiece ("Duquesne Whistle" is a pip, but the title track is a single melodic line repeated for 14 minutes—you'll give up after six). But I still won't pass up the chance to see him. There may not be too many chances left.