Author's note: Hopefully nobody will feel too cheated if I combine both the well-known version of "Forever Young" and the up-tempo second version last heard in Pepsi commercials into one post. As for the second version, I'll offer my thoughts in Twitter length: Pretty good version, obvious bone thrown to more rock-oriented folk, can't hold a candle to the original. Next!
So I'm not really sure if this has ever been or currently is a debate, but "Forever Young" is basically the best song on Planet Waves, one of the best songs Dylan's ever recorded (top 10 at least, maybe top 5 depending on whether or not you're actually a parent), and a song so good that you could actually posit that this is Dylan's finest song without getting weird stares (that doesn't mean that it IS, but you wouldn't be lambasted over it, if you know what I mean). Much like how I'd described "Like A Rolling Stone" in my entry for it somewhere around the Ming dynasty, "Forever Young" (the first version - let's not get silly here) is one of those songs that has been burned in our consciousness in a way where it's impossible to imagine it in any other form - Bob surely didn't have this whole song pop out of his brain fully formed, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had, y'know? Everything about the released master take, from Robertson's gentle solos to the harmonica stabs throughout and to Dylan's incredible vocal performance, maybe the greatest of his career ("Something There Is About You" is a personal favorite, but I will fully admit that this performance here blows it out of the water), is so inch-perfect that every time I listen to the track it takes all my, erm, inherent manliness to not just weep at how amazing the track is.
There is a story on the Wikipedia page for Planet Waves about how this song was going to be left off the album because one of Dylan's childhood friends had brought a girl in the studio and she'd goofed on him about become a big old softie in his old age (the ripe old age of 32, but I digress), so Dylan decided that he didn't want the song to be heard. Now, I'm pretty glad I don't live in the parallel universe where Bob hadn't eventually listened to the voice of reason and stuck this song on the album after all, but suffice to say that if Bob had thrown the song into the vaults, not only would this instantly become the greatest song Bob never officially released (snatching the crown away from "Blind Willie McTell"), but - and I'm not sure how else to say this - I think I would actually have liked Bob less if he hadn't recorded the song. I mean, this is purely hypothetical of course, but let's think about this. I think we're all okay with Bob having consigned "Farewell, Angelina" and "Series of Dreams" and, yes, "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to the vaults - they are all great songs, sure, but Bob has surely built up enough goodwill to let those omissions slide. But a song like "Forever Young"? If any other person recorded that song, could they ever possibly say "meh, not my A game" and toss the song aside? How could you ever possibly live with yourself? It would have been the greatest mistake of Bob's career (and he's had a few); that, I think, says a lot about this song.
Okay, so. I think it would be safe to say that, like anywhere between 99-100% of Bob's songs, the reason that people love this one so much is because the lyrics are so incredible, as beautiful and heart-wrenching a summation of the parenting experience as you could ever hope to find. And I think that we can also agree that, in terms of just simple and direct songwriting, this might be as simple and direct as Bob ever got in his entire career outside of Nashville Skyline (John Wesley Harding is pared-down, but occasionally veered on the cryptic side; perhaps you could argue for "Wiggle Wiggle", but that's an argument I urge you not to make). In fact, the main argument a person could make against this song, if they so chose/were lacking human emotion, would be to point out that the lyrics occasionally veer towards a mawkish bent, the sort that might turn off a listener. There might be a point there - after all, "may you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong" is a little too simple and direct, y'know? Most Dylan fans have always thought of the man as a poet; it can be a bit uncomfortable when said poet starts writing numbers a little too close to something out of his diary. Getting soft in his old age, right?
Now, you could certainly pen any number of responses full of spluttering outrage to that bit of drivel, but my own personal response would be rather more measured, as well as my own personal feelings as to why I think the song is a) so amazing and b) has the staying power that it does (apologies in advance if this seems too obvious, but sometimes obvious things need to be written about). Personally, what I think makes "Forever Young" the song that it is is the fact that the lyrics ARE so simple and direct. As previously mentioned in my award-winning post for "Mama, You Been On My Mind"*, a great deal of art has been created in order for us as human beings to allow us to properly understand the Great Issues of Life that we otherwise have trouble understanding, stuff like love and death and infinity and all that fooferaw. Now, that's not to say that the issues themselves can't be simple, of course - it's that there's so much stuff that gets in between the cracks and gums up the works of those issues that we have trouble wrapping our heads around. And I would say that the process of caring for children and watching them grow qualifies on both counts - we understand all this on a gut level, but when you introduce stuff like, say, the entire world into the mix, things can become a bit complicated.
*note: this post did not win any awards
And, thus, we get "Forever Young", a song that so brilliantly and neatly takes something incredibly massive and unwieldy and makes it something simple and direct, a song that both engages our brain and our heart in equally powerful ways. Would this song have possibly been improved with the dense allusions and wordplay of 60s Bob, or even BOTT Bob? I can't imagine that possibly could be true. A parent might not be able to think of his experiences with his children in a complex song-story or even through the filter of something like "Something There Is About You" - but a parent will surely understand and identify with a line like "may your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung/and may you stay forever young". And that is how we understand who, and what, we are.