Rock's a young person's game, so how is Bob Dylan still showing everyone how it's done 40 years into his career? Sure the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney continue to churn out albums, but Dylan is not only still around, he's winning awards and releasing some of the strongest albums of his career. He turns 60 years old on Thursday (May 24), and in many ways he's just as challenging a character now as he was when he upended pop music back in the mid-'60s. Enigmatic, powerful, and armed with enough wit and whimsy to keep you guessing forever, he deserves a pat on the back and a tip of the hat.
We asked an eclectic group of musicians including Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, rapper Wyclef Jean, Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and electronica duo the Chemical Brothers to talk about the man's contributions to music and his impact on their art. So happy birthday, Bob. You said it best in your recent Oscar-winning song, "Things Have Changed," when you sang one of your quintessential lines about a drifter on a journey: "Lot of water under the bridge/ Lot of other stuff too/ Don't get up gentlemen/ I'm only passing through."
Scott Weiland "I didn't become a Dylan fan until recently. I've been a Beatles fan my whole life, but Dylan, I always thought, 'I don't understand what's so great about that guy.' But as I've gotten older, and as I've become more open about learning about a lot of things, I've realized that all you have to do is listen to the story he's telling and the way that he's able to use words. He's been widely accepted as probably the most influential writer of lyrics ever since rock 'n' roll began."
Wyclef Jean "'Gone Till November' is an original song that I wrote, but I mention Bob Dylan's name in the song. I said, 'I had none, so I had to do some/ So I'm knockin' on heaven's door like Bob Dylan.' And I was like, 'Yo, we should get Bob Dylan in the video!' And it was like, 'You ain't getting no Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan never shows up in videos, man! Bob Dylan doesn't do that kind of stuff!' But I was like, 'Yo, we can get him, man!' And we got Bob Dylan. I think that what Bob Dylan brought to the game is lyrical continuity in the music, and [the idea that] it's not all about the commercialism. It's about standing up for something and speaking out for the rights of the people."
Mark McGrath, Sugar Ray "I personally have never been influenced by Bob Dylan. He's at another level beyond music; he kind of transcends music. I've never been the hugest fan, but I definitely respect him for what he's done for the American culture in general. I can't write lyrics like he does. I write about beer and falling down, and he writes about cultural change, which I know nothing about. I'll leave it to the pros."
Chris Robinson, Black Crowes "Bob's influence on me was just the power of the music and the magic. Even when I was very young and I wasn't aware of music on a conscious level, I always knew when I heard Bob I knew it was important."
Michael Stipe, R.E.M. "There's a really short list for me as a music fan [and] as a musician and songwriter of people who have had really long careers and maintained a sense of dignity and a really uncompromising approach to their work. It's about keeping your eye on the ball. Fame is great, power is great, money is great. Bob Dylan probably has all that. But the thing that has always kept him writing the stuff he writes is the music. That's what it's about. To me, he's a huge star. I've met the man, too. He's got the softest hands I've ever touched. 'Like a Rolling Stone' is one of the greatest songs ever written. I've always wanted to cover it. I sing it in the shower."
Sting "It was interesting this year at the Oscars, because I was nominated, and Bob Dylan was nominated, and Bob won. I couldn't begrudge him it, because I learned to write songs at his feet like most people of my generation did. We copied Bob Dylan, or tried to."
Miles Zuniga, Fastball "Bob Dylan, to me, is some sort of magician. In [Dylan's 1967 movie] 'Don't Look Back,' you just don't know how he's doing all that. 'I'll let you be in my dream if you let me be in your dream.' That's my favorite line from the movie. He presented [his ideas] like they were always there and you just stumbled upon them, like a mountain. The music and the force of his words are so convincing. You absolutely yield to the force of his words."
Rosanne Cash "There are so few artists who haven't started doing parodies of themselves at around the age of 45 or 50, and Bob hasn't done that. He's been completely original from '64 on. That's a tough trick. To keep going to the same well and finding new things there, to be young and vital regardless of age. The fact that my dad (Johnny Cash) was doing a song with Bob Dylan made me unutterably cool, and 'Girl From the North Country' was so poignant. I had a good sense of who my father was as an artist, so their pairing didn't seem incongruous. In fact, it seemed very natural these guys are complete originals, of course they should do something together."
Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day "He showed me how to stuff as many lyrics into one song as you can get. 'Like a Rolling Stone' was one of the first songs that got into that feeling of abandon. It sounds like he's talking to some trust-fund college kid who came up and had the world on a silver platter and then he suddenly has to fend for himself, has a lot of growing up to do. One of the reasons he's so legendary is that he's so human, he's put out crap, too. That's what makes him even better he has evolved. Eventually everybody makes crappy records, but to come back and make something halfway decent ..."
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco "Dylan is, I think, the only artist of the rock era who is truly timeless. Even the Beatles, great as they are, sometimes sound dated. In Dylan's music, the studio is always transparent, as if the only thing that mattered in the studio was that it documented his furious intellect. If there is something like a rock canon, Dylan is the obvious center of it."
Mike Peters, the Alarm "From having posters on the wall in your bedroom growing up and reading and listening to all of this incredible poetry, to actually being able to go on tour with Bob Dylan later in life is a massive thing."
Stevie Nicks "His influence on me as a songwriter is mammoth. When you listen to Bob Dylan's words for many, many years, you really understand that if you want to be a true songwriter, you've got to stand up to him."
John Doe, X "Musically and lyrically, he taught me more than I can say. He rewrote the book a new chapter on folk, a new chapter on rock and a new chapter on poetry. I know that he has a philosophy of 'strange is better.' At 60 or even after 40, you're usually thinking, 'Well I've done that, now I should be normal.' He doesn't think that way at all. His contribution is his sense of adventure, being a seeker and continuing to experiment. Everybody steals from themselves and copies themselves for the first five years. He still has an unbelievable sense of discovery."
Ed Simons, Chemical Brothers "There's this yearning there's a sort of restless quality because he's always questioning things, every song. A lot of music feels like it's a complete statement, and to me, that's why I like Bob Dylan it always feels like there's more. ... We went to see him a couple years ago at a very small club in New York. ... You know, I've never cried at a gig it was so moving, incredible."
Tom Rowlands, Chemical Brothers "It's just the most amazing imagery that you'd never have in any other songs. It's from another place totally when you listen to it. It just still blows you apart, really. It's brilliant."
For more on Dylan, be sure to check out "Forever Freewheelin': Dylan As Improviser."