Bob Dylan is a man out of time

Bob Dylan is a man out of time.
John Shearer

Bob Dylan doesn't belong here.

Not here, but here — as in 2012. And he'd admit as much. Throughout his career, Dylan has always had sentimentality for a world before his time, romanticizing the lives of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. "I was born very far from where I was supposed to be," he said in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home.

In the music video for his latest single, "Duquesne Whistle," Dylan struts about an urban sidewalk at night, looking aloof yet paranoid, with a posse of Latino gangsters, a drag queen and a Gene Simmons impersonator — a group of strange outcasts. And the scene is intercut with a story about an earnest boy's attempts to woo a pretty stranger on the street.

The boy sees himself as charming and persistent, busting into show-tune dances and offering the girl a rose, but she shows her obvious fear of him by trying to outrun him and get to her car. The boy chases after her and attempts to get into the car with her; he receives a faceful of pepper spray and is eventually jailed, kidnapped and severely beaten.

Characteristic of anything having to do with Bob Dylan, the video overlaps two worlds of time. The overconfident boy harks back to the WWII era, when it was considered endearing for a boy to "chase" a girl (à la Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart) and women were perceived as not knowing what they wanted and needing a charming guy to tell them; meanwhile, the pretty girl being pursued is of the modern era, when a strange man waiting outside your workplace is a potential threat, and you have the right to get violent with him if he chases you down.

For an aging rock star, displacement must be a rich topic of inspiration. After all, Dylan is primarily known as the king of the '60s, the most influential artist of the most influential decade in modern history. Today, though, his voice is shot, he's culturally irrelevant, and every other song he writes is about death. Once known for lyrics about politics, drugs, revenge, God and heartache, his most consistent theme of late has been either his own mortality — as in 1997's Time Out of Mind — or the death of others, as on his latest album, Tempest, which includes songs about the deceased John Lennon and the sinking of the Titanic.

Seeing Bob Dylan in 2012, you get the sense that you're witnessing a man who has reconciled with his mortality. In the '60s, when Dylan was more relevant to his own time than anybody, all he cared about was the past. Now, more relevant to the past than anything, he seems concerned only with his future.

Yet instead of hiding this fact — say, airbrushing his flaws with pitch correction and plastic surgery — Dylan has, as always, embraced that which displaces him from the present. His voice sounds like an alligator gargling whiskey and gravel, his music like it's emanating from a riverboat casino in 1920s Mississippi. He's always been a man of masks, and for the last two decades, his mask has been that of a walking corpse, a ghost, a lost spirit that doesn't belong in its own time and is trying to find its way home.

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