Two radically different icons of rock music, both unparalleled yet widely imitated, seem more at the forefront of retrospection than ever these days. Bob Dylan claims, like just about everyone else from his era, that the first time he heard Elvis was “like busting out of jail,” the great deciding factor that convinced him to become a musician and, in turn, a hero in his own right. It’s fitting then that the two seem to be at the peak of their second waves of reverence in our modern times, starkly contrasting as their methods may be.
Many people would probably agree that the transformation from Elvis Presley in the ‘50s to people like Dylan and John Lennon in the ‘60s would be akin to water turning into wine, but the King’s foundation shouldn’t be underestimated. To me his music is equally compelling to anything that came after it, if for no other reason than how easy he made it sound—his unhinged performances in 1950s recordings are brilliant, yet all the while comfortably fit in with the notion that the guy didn’t write any of his songs, didn’t really play any instruments and had absolutely no semblance of creative control over his art. Instead, he was an important interpreter of other people’s songs, with his golden voice and incendiary stage moves.
Dylan, on the other hand, was first and foremost a songwriter, one who gained the bulk of his initial recognition by having others interpret his work. He was in complete command of an artistic vision, often accompanied only by himself or musicians he handpicked, and it was never about show or appearance when he played live; the sensationalism in Dylan was in the music alone.
Whatever your outlook on the long bygone days of rock ‘n’ roll infancy, the fact is that both Dylan and Elvis are making larger waves right now than they have for a very long time. One of the main differences is, of course, that Elvis has been dead for exactly 30 years, and old Bobby is still alive and kicking. When you think about it though, this is almost a non-issue: Elvis was never in charge of what he did, and was long done with important artistic output by his death in 1977, so what does it matter that he’s not around anymore? People are acting on his behalf like they have since he first began, and Bob Dylan is following his vision as always.
For Elvis, it’s all about profitability, so to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his death this year, countless reissues of his movies, TV specials and music have been coming out, ranging from inspired to rudimentary. The lowest point was probably when Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie dubbed her voice onto one of his worst songs, “In the Ghetto,” and released it on iTunes along with a video which spliced together images of him singing, her on some apparent Quaalude binge and babies in cribs toting pistols. Anyway, plenty of people must be buying all this material, since Elvis has recently reassumed his position as Forbes’ top earning dead celebrity with a bang.
Bob Dylan has been going about things a bit differently, establishing new vitality instead of milking the past. His three most recent albums have been great, easily his best since the mid-’70s. He’s got a popular XM radio show, and lent his support and music to a phenomenal Martin Scorsese Dylan documentary (No Direction Home) and an upcoming ambitious Todd Haynes film which seeks to abstractly capture Dylan’s essence (I’m Not There).
Things are good for both the King and Dylan today; it’s still clear that what they did in their own respects they did better than anyone, and fans are now being offered more ways than ever to revel in their love.