Back in the days before the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and cellphones with cameras, one of the few things you could do, as a hip young thing, was immerse yourself in music or, more particularly, rock ‘n roll.
The music of the time certainly influenced the way I looked at and felt about life. At boarding school it provided a tremendous mental and emotional release from the strict discipline and conservative family values which the authorities, in the paternalistic form of the Rhodesian Front Government, seemed so determined to ram down my throat.
It was an age when music was still seen as a catalyst for political and social change. At university I tried to fob myself off as a member of the counter-culture revolution, rejecting the materialism of my parents generation. I let it all hang out and felt groovy and grew my hair long, just like my music idols did, although, truth to tell, I was way too well-mannered to ever practice free love and too scared to take drugs.
These days that spirit of youthful rebellion, that was a defining feature of my generation, seems to have all but petered out partly, I imagine, because the modern youth no longer faces the prospect of military conscription.
Likewise, most of the groups I listened to back then have long since disintegrated or disappeared off the scene (the Rolling Stones proving the one stubborn exception) but there are three singer/songwriters who have stuck with me along my life journey and provided a continuing link in my ongoing love affair with rock music – Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. That chain has gone through periods of strength and weakness with albums of unquestionable brilliance being mixed up with the occasional dud.
Of the three artists, Springsteen was undoubtedly the late arrival although it’s hard to believe that it has been almost thirty years since rock critic Jon Landau penned the portentous lines: “Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time”.- a eulogy the Boss has spent the rest of his life trying to live down
Besides their obvious musical genius, Dylan, Young and Springsteen shared certain other common characteristics. All three have made a career out of defying people’s expectations, constantly seeking to evade the mantle their fans had placed on them.
Starting out as an acolyte of Woody Guthrie, Dylan famously scandalised members of the folk music scene with his decision to go electric, prompting outraged shouts of “Judas” from the audience. Springsteen, whose ground-breaking Born To Run had come out in the shadow of the Vietnam war, found himself being deserted in droves by his overwhelmingly liberal fan base with the release of Born in the USA an album many, mistakenly, saw as a paean to the policies of Ronald Reagan.
Another trait the three share is that all they have all enjoyed late period career revivals. Freer than ever before and liberated from the constraints of labels and packaging, it seemed like they were finally able to just relax and rediscover their mojo.
For his part Dylan displayed an astonishing return to form with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and then, just to show this was no fluke, followed it up in 2001 with Love and Theft, an album which confirmed his renaissance, establishing a tighter sound and a looser attitude
With his craggy face and unkempt hair, Neil Young nowadays looks more like a weather-beaten farmer than a musician but that does not mean he has lost his edge or his ability to read the mood of the times. Both Springsteen and Young beat their much younger counterparts to the finish line with the release of their devastating post -9/11 albums (The Rising – Springsteen; Living with War – Young) which reflected a mounting alarm with the direction George W Bush was taking America. Young followed this up with his Freedom of Speech Tour – along side former band mates Crosby, Stills and Nash – staged during the US 2006 mid-term elections. Consisting mostly of anti-war songs, from Buffalo Springfield oldies such as For What Its Worth and CSNY’s era-defining Ohio, their tour received a mixed reaction with enthusiastic reviews being counterbalanced with scornful appraisals of the “ageing hippies” attempts to rouse America into antiwar protest.
No matter. Young, who, somewhat to his own bemusement, had been one of the inspirations behind the whole “grunge” movement just shrugged it off and continued on his lonesome, iconoclastic, way.
At this stage of my life it seems unlikely I’ll ever get to realise my ambition of seeing either Dylan or Young perform live but I did manage to catch Springsteen when he visited South Africa. It was all I had hoped for and more. For a few glorious – if rain-drenched – hours I, too, felt young again.