The value of longevity

In light of Bob Dylan's 80th birthday, Mark Stephens reflects on the classic singer-songwriter, and on why art is indispensable.

This week Bob Dylan turned 80. Yes, the Sixties really were that long ago.

The legendary crooner Tony Bennett once said, “Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for.”

Over six decades, Dylan has taken the long journey. He cranked out eight albums between the ages of 21 and 26. In the mid-60s he swapped his acoustic for an electric, and was branded “Judas” for his troubles. And who could forget his 1998 performance at the Grammys, where one of his backup dancers seized their moment in the spotlight by flailing like a robot with the words “Soy Bomb” scrawled across their shirtless torso. Dylan played on unperturbed. Like Bennett said, there’s fame, and then there’s longevity.

Dylan’s voice is an acquired taste. By no means is all of his music wonderful. As Edward Docx recently wrote in The Guardian, sometimes Dylan is so bad that “an hour of pocket dialled voicemail would make for less painful listening”.

But his lyricism is beyond compare. From his early protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the theological insight of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, or the post-apocalyptic vibes of “Ring Them Bells”, Dylan is as much a poet as a songwriter. Little wonder that in 2016 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The practice of art is often seen as non-essential. But whenever people speak like that, I’m reminded of something the painter Makoto Fujimura said: “Artistic expressions are signposts declaring what it is to be fully human. Art is ultimately not ‘useful’. It serves no practical function. This is why it is indispensable, especially in the modern age.” Happy Birthday, Bob. Keep playing the long game.