When Bob Dylan was born in ’41, his parents bestowed upon him the name Robert Zimmerman. Years later, wise to the notion that every legend-in-the-making needs a cool handle, the troubadour from Minnesota borrowed a stage name from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It was Thomas, of course, who set down these famous words about death: ”Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Bob Dylan almost died this year. A condition called pericarditis caused the sac around his heart to swell, and he spent much of the early summer on his back, in agony, on meds. Then, like a cyclone that whips into a fury after nearly tapering out at sea, Dylan started raging. He grabbed the ax and went back on the road. He released his toughest batch of songs since the days before disco: Time Out of Mind, an album about death — a fierce, swampy, blues-haunted lesson in how to burn into old age. Dylan — yep, the ”Don’t follow leaders” guy, the ”With God on Our Side” guy — even posed with the President and played for the Pope. And so, while one-hit wonders rained down upon radio like a plague of locusts (”The top stars of today, you won’t even know their names two years from now,” Dylan forewarned Newsweek. ”Five years from now, they’ll be obliterated”), the Dylan legacy once again cast a long, dark shadow across the badlands.
In the suburbs, meanwhile, a different Dylan legacy was making the rounds. Jakob Dylan, Bob’s 28-year-old son — he of the Jimmy Dean slouch and the piercing cobalt eyes and the voice like rustling hay — emerged from his own years in the wilderness and traded in his father’s Old Testament oratory for dashboard-thumping rock. As a result, Jakob’s band, the Wallflowers, managed to accomplish two things that Dad rarely did: make the teenage girls scream, and sell a hell of a lot of records. (The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse went quadruple platinum.) Okay, maybe Jakob’s ”6th Avenue Heartache” doesn’t have half the battery-acid spite of Bob’s ”Positively 4th Street,” but ”Heartache” sounds better at a party.
In the end, both father and son are driving down streets with no name. For all their differences, Dylan the Elder and Dylan the Younger come to their craft with a devotion to old-school virtues sadly missing in global conglomo-pop. Both belong less to a specific year than to a time out of mind. Like the grim reaper snarling through a strip mall, the poet Robert Zimmerman took a look around at ’97 and croaked out the creaky, gluey opening bars of his new album: ”I’m walking through streets that are dead.” Raging against the dying of the light never sounded so incandescent.