Me and Bob Dylan (24 May 2011)
The media are all over Bob Dylan this week, for obvious reasons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention,
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, either, though I think this does get closer. Few, if any, artists have attracted creepy obsessives as much as Dylan has, and continues to do. Brrr... 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 most of the other albums released before 1980 pretty well, and a few of those released after, but it's only those two that count for 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.Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did – God knows when, but you're doin' it again...
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.
Me and Bob Dylan, Slight Return (25 May 2011)
I remember now. I remember why Dylan seemed less than essential when I turned 14 in 1968. Two simple lists might do it:
List A: Dylan releases:
1967 John Wesley Harding
1969 Nashville Skyline
List B: World events:
1967 list here
1968 list here
1969 list here
From those lists, I suppose I would highlight the escalation of the Vietnam War and anti-war protest, the dangerous nuclear face-offs of the Cold War, race riots in the USA, the events of May '68 in Paris, the RAF (Baader-Meinhof), the "Six Day War" in the Middle East, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shootings of Rudi Dutschke and Andy Warhol, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Days of Rage, British troops in Northern Ireland ...
It was a turbulent, angry time. People who focus on the "Summer of Love" have no idea what they're talking about. Dylan's turn to quiescent Americana and away from politics at that precise moment in history seemed merely to underline his irrelevance. Radical left politics was on the upturn, and a singer who had formerly seemed a spokesman for radical youth was recording in Nashville with Johnny Cash (not then the apotheosis of Cool he has somehow subsequently become).
I rest my case. I also note that those Wikipedia lists record the first performances of Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin. One might also note the launch of Island Records' "pink label", surely a defining event in anyone's chronicle of World Events.
A wink from the Queen of Heaven