The Petty Archives

Bob Dylan proves his appeal is timeless
By Andrew J. Edelstein
The Free Lance-Star - Saturday, June 21, 1986

Sometime in the early 70s, the National Lampoon off-Broadway revue contained a parody of one of those late-night K-Tel commercials featuring a grizzled-sounding Bob Dylan hawking "the hits of fabulous '60s." You didn't need a weather man to know which way wind was going to blow: America's premier protest singer would eventually be reduced to shilling the detritus of a long-gone counterculture.

It's 1986 and thus far, Dylan has avoided that fate. He has chosen not to take the options of other rocks of the '60s: He has not died (the easy way out taken by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), he has not become a parody of himself (like the Rolling Stones), he has not become a parody of himself (like the Rolling Stones), he has not been turned into a soppy crooner (like Paul McCartney) nor has he sunk to the level of a '60s nostalgia act (The Monkees).

At age 35, Dylan remains a vibrant, growing performer whose appeal is timeless. Evidence of this can be seen in the electrifying "Bob Dylan in Concert," an HBO special (airing this week on Tuesday and Friday). He plays acoustic and electric numbers, mixing his old and new material. The concert was filmed in Sydney, Australia, during Dylan's "True Confessions" tour and directed by Aussie film director Gillian Armstrong.

He's backed by four black women singers and by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty, a rock star in his own right, keeps a low profile here, but his presence offers a neat testimony to rock's ongoing creative process. Petty and the Heartbreakers are the American band whose existence pays virtual homage to the Byrds, the legendary folk-rock band of the '60s, whose own existence was based on their ability to interpret Dylan's folk material into rock 'n' roll.

Dylan, of course, has long since lost his anger, but he has not remained complacent, either. He has kept himself going by redefining his vintage material, adding a twist here, changing a melody there. For instance, in "Ballad of a Thin Man" (best known for its transcendent signature line "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?") becomes even more emotionally charged than the original version.

When Dylan first introduced these changes during his tours in the late '70s, they seemed showy and pretentious. Wearing studded leather pants and attempting to engage in self-concious stage patter, he veered dangerously close to knocking on Vegas' door. But he has pared away that fat and emerged lean, mean and triumphant.