Wall Street Journal to Bob Dylan: Isn’t it time to hang up the harmonica?


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I am a loyal fan of the Wall Street Journal’s Friday Journal, which is usually loaded with smart and provocative arts and entertainment coverage. But when it comes to assessing a major cultural figure, last week’s cover story by John Jurgensen was as hapless and borderline moronic as anything the paper has ever printed. Titled ‘When to Leave the Stage,’ it tried to make the case that Bob Dylan, at 69, should think about calling it quits, arguing that he’d lost his edge, not to mention most of his voice, and was in danger of tarnishing a distinguished career as he -- and a number of other music icons -- reached retirement age.

And how did Jurgensen bolster this premise? Basically by interviewing a doctor from the Johns Hopkins Voice Center, who stated the obvious -- that rock singers are especially prone to scarring or other damage to their vocal cords. Using this superficial medical diagnosis, Jurgensen dismissed the recent live performances by rock’s single most iconic figure, saying that Dylan’s voice has ‘now deteriorated to a laryngitic croak,’ impishly adding that Dylan now sounds like ‘a scatting Cookie Monster.’


Jurgensen also interviewed a scraggle of disgruntled fans at Dylan gigs, such as Jim Waniak, who walked out of a recent show, saying ‘I know every word to ‘Desolation Row,’ but I couldn’t sing along. What you’re used to feeling from his music just isn’t there.’ I hate to break the news to Jurgensen, but Dylan fans have been talking trash like that for decades. When I first started going to see Dylan as a teenager in the 1970s, the tie-dyed counter-culture cognoscente in the audience were already bitching and moaning about how Dylan had lost his mojo or butchered the arrangements of their favorite songs, just as, by the way, the early ‘60s folkies were all up in arms when went Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Dylan lives to confound his fans, and if you’re easily confounded, you’re not much of a fan. But I also disagree with a larger issue that Jurgensen raises: that there’s now a whole generation of rock oldsters out on the concert circuit, unable to give up the ghost -- or live out the Who’s ‘hope I die before I get old’ maxim. After all, if Dylan should call it quits, why not the Stones or the Eagles or Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who’d been out reviving ‘The Wall’ on the arena circuit?

For me, the flaw in this argument is simple: Why should rock be held to a different standard than any other art form? Would anyone seriously argue that Philip Roth should hang up his literary aspirations, even though he’s past 70 and still turning out great books? Should Clint Eastwood, who’s now 80, put away his camera, even though some of his best filmmaking achievements have come in the last half-dozen or so years? What about Michael Caine, who’s still one of the coolest actors on the planet, even into his 70s? Or Elaine Stritch, now 84, who won an Emmy at age 81 for her appearance on ’30 Rock.’ Should she really quit the stage just because she’s lost a few miles-per-hour on her fastball?

The obvious answer: Hell, no. The great thing about being an artist is that you get to live by a different set of rules than the rest of us mere mortals. So if Dylan wants to keep on humming and strumming, as long as there’s an audience willing to follow his lead, he should keep the creative fires burning. As an artistic concept, retirement is wildly overrated.

-- Patrick Goldstein