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Musical Notes: Bob Dylan - younger than that now

IN THE late 1960s, until he began to de-construct himself with Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan was still the hippest person on the planet. In 1978, after the superlative Blood on the Tracks and the best-selling Desire, Dylan toured Europe for the first time in 12 years, and was received rapturously by enormous audiences and by reviewers, while his Top Ten hit "Baby, Stop Crying" (he's never had one since) was on jukeboxes everywhere. Eleven years later Dylan finally managed a near-great album for the 1980s, Oh Mercy, once more receiving critical and popular approbation, topped by a triumphant, magical series of concerts at Hammersmith.

His public esteem had as often been low. Throughout the early 1970s, Dylan was a pariah of the passe. At the beginning of the 1980s, while post-punk youth ruled and everyone over 30 was a boring old fart, a born- again Dylan's latest album was Saved. He was about as hip as General Franco.

Looming disdainfully above it all was a critical Hadrian's Wall constructed by the literati to keep out all the guitar-wielding barbarians. Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Rotten . . . they were all indistinguishable oiks howling on the borders of civilisation.

As late as 1992 the playwright David Hare could imagine he was summing up the battle-lines between civilised culture and its enemy, a cheap and destructive pop culture, in the phrase "Keats versus Dylan". Never mind that Bob Dylan had spent the previous three decades with his face set firmly against the vulgar and the cheap, or that Keats had been a cockney oik and upstart himself. Such was the critical climate still that Hare's comically inaccurate personifying of the divide caught on like a pop craze itself. Within minutes, A.S. Byatt could go on The Late Show and pronounce that the qualitative difference between Keats and Dylan is that with Keats, she could take you through one of his poems and reveal many layers . . .

What's risible is not the preference for Keats, nor the ignorance about Dylan: it is the malapropriate self- confidence that had her thinking it reasonable to hand down these uninformed but lofty judgements. As if, indeed, her very unfamiliarity with Dylan's work affirmed the loftiness that justified dismissing it.

The wall does seem to be coming down. In 1997 Greil Marcus's critical study Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes was accorded substantial reviewing attention on both sides of the Atlantic; and in late 1998, a few months before being appointed the new Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion discussed Dylan's retrospectively released 1966 concert recording from Manchester Free Trade Hall in terms of "the tremendous beauty and subtlety of the songs and the matchless voice that sings them".

The public mood too seems unusually favourable towards someone so strongly associated with the 1960s that he always risks dismissal when people feel intolerant of the recent past and that decade in particular. There was a wave of warm re-appraisal when, in 1996, Dylan was taken ill. Then his first collection of new compositions in seven years, Time Out of Mind, reminded people of how striking and unique this artist is. He even won Grammys and a Kennedy Center Award, with President Clinton saying of him:

He probably had more impact on people of my generation than any other creative artist. His voice and lyrics haven't always been easy on the ears, but, throughout his career, Bob Dylan has never aimed to please.

Exactly. Meanwhile the presence of the young in audiences at Dylan's concerts shows that many newcomers are drawn to him, in wave after generational wave, in spite of everything. They have the enviable pleasure of getting to know his vast back catalogue: well over 40 albums, contributing to and exploring so many musical genres and much poetry. As we look back at the second half of the 20th century from its closing moments, Bob Dylan still looks one of its dominant figures.

Michael Gray is the author of `Song & Dance Man III: the art of Bob Dylan' (Cassell Academic, pounds 29.99)