Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Me and Bob Dylan

The media are all over Bob Dylan this week, for obvious reasons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention, he turns 70 today. Seventy!

And in case you really haven't been paying attention, Bob Dylan is a highly-rated but controversial popular music artist, a self-described "song and dance man", who emerged in the New York folk scene in the early 1960s, and came to rapid prominence, partly on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement, and partly due to his uncanny ability to channel the Old Weird America into something poptastically new and strange. Once in the door, though, they couldn't chuck him out, even when he lost interest in being a "protest singer", and he spent the next 45 years annoying, frustrating, enchanting, intriguing, entertaining and generally mystifying everyone and anyone. Yes, that Bob Dylan.

I took the opportunity of watching the second part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home the other night, as it's there on the BBC iPlayer. It's a superb piece of work, but fails, I think, to explain the Dylan phenomenon, simply because it's an insider's picture (you have to wonder how often the likes of Joan Baez, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson can stand to repeat their well-honed reminiscences of "Bobbie" to camera one more time). It also reminded me of how viscerally I dislike Pete Seeger. I'd cut his power line with an axe any day. "Green corn, green corn..." Thwack.

Neither, at the other extreme, does the portrait of extreme head-case Dylanologist A.J. Weberman (Tangled Up With Dylan, also on iPlayer) tell us much about the phenomenon, though I think this does get closer. Few, if any, artists have attracted creepy obsessives as much as Dylan. No, the best thing I've heard recently was the BBC Radio 4 programme in the Saturday night "Archive on 4" slot, Bob Dylan and Me, in which performers, writers and even academics who have been influenced by Dylan spoke of their relationship with the music.

This is the whole point, surely: the vast mass of Dylan fans never got to know "Bobbie", or stand on a stage with him, or even shout "Judas" at a concert; they simply knew his albums, inside out, back in the days when a vinyl LP was a statement, an item of contemplation, an event. For every Baez or Weberman, there are a thousand ordinary folk in their late middle age who have had an intense relationship with at least one Dylan album, probably more intense than their early relationships with girl- or boyfriends.

It's curious how often it is only one or two albums. Or perhaps not, given the unevenness of Dylan's output. In my case -- and I am far from being a Dylan fanatic -- it's Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks. I know pretty well most of the other albums released before 1980, and a few of those released after, but it's only those two that matter to me. Why? Simply because they're the ones I owned, at a time when it mattered.

I know Blonde on Blonde is indispensible to many people, or The Basement Tapes to others, and it sometimes seems that I must at some time have owned copies of Desire and Highway 61 Revisited, but I simply don't care about any of those albums. But the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks -- their lyrics, their attitude, their irony, their wise foolishness -- are in my bloodstream. Every note, every inflection, right down to the stoned laughter that breaks up the start of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, or the bass playing on Simple Twist of Fate.

This is odd, really, because -- if I can put it this way -- I 'm not aware, at a conscious level, that I have ever really liked Bob Dylan that much. I can't remember the last time I played a Dylan album. But I only have to hear the opening notes of one of those songs to recall the intensity of my relationship with it. Only to forget it again. I think part of it is that Dylan was over, in a sense, before I was old enough to pay attention. He belongs to the over-65s -- I have watched several highly-intelligent people of that ur-boomer generation tear up and dissolve into mumbling inarticulacy, trying to describe what those early albums meant to them. Blood on the Tracks -- released in 1975 when I was 21 -- was a comeback album, for God's sake!

The music aside, though, what is so striking in watching video of old interviews and press conferences, and what may be the true root of his significance, is how far Dylan's modernity as a personality was in advance of the times. Not least here in stuffy, stick-up-the-arse mid-60s Britain. It's embarrassing. You cringe as a pack of plummy-voiced, RAF-moustached reporters ask their wordy, patronising questions. And you wonder as Dylan, like an unflattering mirror, reflects back the absurdity of the literal sense of the words falling from their lips. He is Andy Warhol with attitude. He is a visitor from the future, fey and amused, a real-life Dr. Who.

My favourite moment like this, is that press conference in LA in 1965, featured in No Direction Home:

Reporter: How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: Um...how many?
Reporter: Yes. How many?
Dylan: Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan: Uh, it's either 136 or 142.

Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did -- God knows when, but you're doin' it again...


Martin H. said...

Bringing it All Back Home and John Wesley Harding for me. Dylan encouraged me to see those parts of the world which had my name on it. Of course, I neglected my territory, but it's still visible, if largely overgrown.

Dave Leeke said...

I too love "Blood on The Tracks" and the only time I saw him was just after "Desire". I occasionally listen to him but feel that I was a bit young for him generally.

I certainly never really "got" the protest stuff. As Rich Hall says, "the problem with folk music is that nowadays everyone's got a hammer".

Tony_C said...

I have occasional guitar sessions with Sean Zag. Last week we paid birthday tribute to His Bobness by playing Simple Twist of Fate and This Wheel's on Fire, two of his best, surely (although the latter co-credited to another, unusually).

Mike C. said...


You play the guitar? That is as surprising to me as me driving a car was to you. I've had to give up -- arthritis starting in the thumbs.


Dave Leeke said...


"This Wheel's on Fire" is co-credited with Rick Danko from The Band because they wrote it together during what's become known as "The Basement Tapes" sessions. Dylan was quite happy to co-write with others, especially Jacques Levy around the time of "Desire".

Okay, I'll get my coat . . .

Tony_C said...


Cheers for that. I was wondering. Never did get to hear the Basement Tapes. Definitely 1 to do before I die.

Of course it's the Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity who made the unforgettable version:


Can any classical fans id the piano intro?

Tony_C said...


When I moved back to Bristol, the guy whose room I took over had left behind Yamaha acoustic and three songbooks: the Complete Beatles and (as it happens) Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.

" That is as surprising to me as me driving a car was to you."

Take your point. Of course, if you'd said you were GOOD at driving, that would have been truly unbelievable. I'd no more expect you to want to hear me playing than you would me to be a passenger of yours.

[Checkword: matota - dunno what it means, but I like it!]

Anonymous said...

i read your dylan article closley, as a "hardcore"dylan fan" to use a light term, and encourage you to read again what you have written.besides the obvious contradiction regarding your individual feelings for a genious that has been such an intricate part of shaping our world, our lives, and liturature itself,i have only to say that the whole crux of dylan, is that he is timeless.born in the year of pat garret and billy the kid,dylan has reshaped my adult life beyond even my own comprehension.each album,which by the way are far from over,the music and words do not know time.they do not cowtow to any age, and will live on, and remain relivant long after the very sad day that robert zimmerman leaves this world.I personally think that for one reson or another, you have let a wonderful chance to let yourself allow dylan into your world, with excuses of time restrictions, relevance, and obvious fear that the words that you may or may not comprehend, might have helped you progress when you simply rejected the opportunity for growth.i encourage you to smash these pretentious walls between blood on th tracks, and bring back home the realization that its ok to admit that this underated icon might just be more with you, than against you, as frightening as his intense genious may be to your ego. by the way , the quote from the reporter was "toiled" not labored...backing me up, in my ultimate point...listen again,and again, he might just teach you something, that in my opinion, you are crying out to learn.pride is the wall that keeps doors locked, and make friends, seem like potential threats.just the fact that you wrote this, tells me that somewhere inside, you know that something bigger than you might have some answers,don't let the reality that bob dylan appears to us as a mortal man,deter you from benefiting from the messages born through him from a higher power.true genius does not boast,and the times will always be changing.our job is to make sure, that we too, are in a constant state of change, or we will wither and surley die.