Bob Dylan is 70 on Tuesday. If like me you are a Dylan fan, you will have been waiting for this event for months, perhaps even years. If you are not a Dylan fan, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about. I am a Dylan fan, but not quite a fanatic. I first saw him in 1978, when he played a week of concerts at Earls Court. For me, just finishing university, this concert was a watershed. I had found someone in whom I believed totally.
What's odd is that I've never questioned that faith, even when his inspiration flagged. As a recent poll of in Rolling Stone suggests, all his signature songs are from the first 15 years of his career. 'Blood on the Tracks' in 1975 marks the end of that period of unquestioned greatness. 'Desire' retains some of that aura. But 'Street Legal' (1978), shows a marked falling off.
It is tempting to conjure up a brilliantly revisionist argument — that the true glory of Dylan resides in the mid-80s albums 'Empire Burlesque' and 'Knocked Out Loaded', for instance — but it can't be done. But the albums in the middle period should not be dismissed, even though many critics more or less gave up on him in the 80s. Some artists who produced great work in the 60s and early 70s — Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones — really have added nothing of note to their oeuvre since.
Dylan had lost the knack of producing great albums — he was blocked creatively for much of the 80s — but could still knock out the occasional great song. 'Shot of Love' (1981), at the height of his religious phase, ends with the poignant 'Every Grain of Sand'. 'Infidels', from 1983, has 'Jokerman'. Even Down in the Groove in 1988, reckoned by some to be his worst album, has one song I really like - 'Death Is Not the End', which has one of those gloriously mournful Dylan harmonica intros.
Something was clearly amiss in the 80s — mid-life crisis, too much touring, personal problems, who knows? His gift was always instinctive rather than controlled. No one who could publish 'Tarantula', his rambling 1966 poem, or waste his time on the tedious and incomprehensible mid-70s film Renaldo and Clara could claim to have impeccable artistic judgment. When it was easy for him, it was too easy; when it got hard, maybe he panicked.
Dylan's audience diminished in the 80s. It was easy to get tickets for gigs, and you could see him in smaller venues. But we true fans never wavered.
He wasn't confined to small venues for long. The official bootlegs won back the critics, and gave fans like me new cause for fascination. Then came the run of albums, beginning with Time Out of Mind in 1997, that suggested his gifts had returned, albeit in different form. He seemed to have found his voice again as he ruminated on mortality and communed with the ghosts of the great bluesmen.
Late Dylan is fascinating: the darkness, the obsession with time draining away, the refusal to stop touring even with a voice as rough as sandpaper. He transcends criticism now. When he makes a Christmas album, as he did in 2009, we nod sagely and add it to our collections, marking it down as an homage to Bing Crosby, one of his earliest heroes. I could probably live without it, but I'm not embarrassed to have it in my collection.
Dylan has been omnipresent for the past 50 years, yet we know next to nothing about him. Fat books pour forth, especially in this anniversary year, yet he still eludes us, this rolling stone, this balladic thin man. Todd Haynes's clever, beautiful, moving film, I'm Not There, is a perfect summation of Dylan's career, because he truly does not seem to have been there during those 50 years.
I have a framed photograph of the young Dylan: he is thin, wearing jeans and a check shirt, looking straight at the camera with a hint of arrogance. He is alone, self contained, at one with himself in this alien landscape. He has a slight smile, as if he has some secret information. Yet he never spells it out, never makes it easy for us.
In 2005, the Guardian asked me to review a Dylan gig. This was probably a mistake as the chance of an objective assessment was nil. I remember becoming tearful during 'Visions of Johanna', one of his truly great songs. A man standing beside me saw me making notes through the tears. "We're just crossing the ocean with Bob," he said. "Write that down." And I did, because he had summed up what it means to be a Dylan fan. We are on a voyage, and the voyage never ends.