“The Bob Dylan records and the overdraft
They just could not buy your love.”
For many years, the two constants in my life were Bob Dylan and an overdraft. I came to Bob slightly earlier, through my dad’s cassettes of Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changing. At the time, I remember thinking he had something but he was just one of many artists I was getting to know, such as The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (I loved Jimi), The Clash and Charlie Parker.
Another early Dylan memory is seeing the video for Subterranean Homesick Blues for the first time in a documentary about rock music and thinking: “How cool is that? It’s so clever, so simple, so inspired, unique.”
Then a friend of mine played It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding and I remember thinking how strange it was, almost alien, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The music and the lyrics sounded ancient and avant garde at the same time, brooding, otherworldly.
“Darkness at the break of noon,
Shadows even the silver spoon,
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon.”
The whole second side of Bringing It All Back Home was a revelation. The words. My god, the words. Starting with Mr Tambourine Man. What a song. So many wonderful words, killer lines, rhymes, phrases, sounds. Each song was different, each song was wonderful, each song was a world of its own. If Dylan had only written Gates of Eden, people would still be talking about him. But because of all that he’s achieved and the spectacular artistry in so many of the songs he has written, we barely talk about Gates of Eden.
And what about It’s All Over Now Baby Blue? How amazing was that?
“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.”
How could you not hear that and think, “wow”? To me, it was one of those moments that the word “wow” was invented for. Flipping the record back over to side one, there was the wonderful, beautiful Love Minus Zero/No Limit. How many great lines could one person write?
“My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence,
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
But she’s true like ice, like fire.”
And then that fabulous ending:
“My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.”
It was phenomenal. To me, those lyrics are what the word phenomenal was invented for. Where did those words come from? How could someone so young – 24 years old! – write like that? How could someone so young write like no one else?
Before I could even start to answer those questions, I heard Highway 61 Revisited, I heard Blonde On Blonde and I knew there could be no answer. I didn’t care.
By this time, as a university student, I had become acquainted with the overdraft, an enduring relationship that was to continue, off and on – mainly on – for most of my adult lifetime. To try and make some extra cash, I went busking, singing a range of songs, including Dylan tracks such as One More Cup Of Coffee, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and I Shall Be Released. I usually made enough to buy a few pints on a Saturday night.
I had also become acquainted with heartbreak, but I was a slow learner, so I had to endure that a few times more. Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks helped me understand that we all have to go through it, even if most of us don’t go through it quite as majestically as he did. Another masterpiece full of wonderful songs. More than wonderful. Songs scarred by pain to create something more honest, more human, more rooted in the heart, the broken heart, the recovering heart, the living heart, the heart that keeps us living, moving, heading for another joint.
There are too many songs to talk about, from Tangled Up In Blue all the way through to Buckets Of Rain, but in among all the pain, the anger and the sorrow, there was the generous, breezy, playful gratitude of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, right from the opening line:
“I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before.”
And so many beautiful, generous lines all the way through:
“You’re gonna make me wonder what I'm doing
Staying far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I'm saying
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talking to.”
Heartbreak was real, despairing, anguished. It was immense. At times, it filled my life. But like Dylan condensing so much of it into just under 52 minutes, the lesson was that I could come out of it, that it could fill time for so long but not forever.
There would be another Dylan record, more songs. Life would go on.
I was at university studying English Literature. I loved literature, especially poetry, but I had an ulterior motive for picking the subject. The thing I wanted to do more than anything else was to write a dissertation on Bob Dylan. This ambition was formed only three years after first hearing those two albums at my dad’s house! The tutor who was going to supervise me tried to get me to choose something else. Another person had written a dissertation on Dylan a few years previously and it hadn’t been a great success.
I didn’t care. I wasn’t writing an academic study. I wasn’t parsing his lyrics for meaning or connections to the literary masters of yesteryear. I wasn’t trying to place Dylan in the literary pantheon. I was writing it as an enthusiast. I had no intention of limiting the impact of the lyrics by linking them to something else that had already been written. I mean, I did make some comparisons along the way but what I wanted was for people to see the lyrics, read the words and appreciate them for what they were. In and of themselves.
It didn’t matter to me if people wanted to compare Dylan to Keats or Yeats or TS Eliot. He wasn’t like them. He was Dylan. The only person he was like was Dylan. Nobody else. He’s a one of a kind. Like Shakespeare. Yes, like Keats, Yeats or TS Eliot in that respect. He is in his own space, incomparable. Why can’t people just leave him there? Why drag him into somebody else’s space?
Perhaps people believe it’s flattering to compare Dylan to one of the poetic greats or that it gives him artistic credibility. It doesn’t. It confines his art, categorises it, labels it, puts it in a box, diminishes it. There’s only one Bob Dylan. There is no other.
Which only demonstrates the absurdity of critics who have been too quick to pin the label of “the new Dylan” on the latest aspiring singer/songwriter. Could they even narrow it down to which Dylan these songwriters were being the new version of ? The brutal truth is there were no New Dylans. Dylan was the only new Dylan.
I still think it’s astonishing that Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde within the space of 15 months and that all the songs were written and recorded before his 25th birthday. For that matter, it’s incredible that he wrote A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Blowin’ In The Wind when he was only 21. There are so many lines in both songs that are just as relevant today as when he first wrote them. And let’s not forget that the latter inspired Sam Cooke to write one of the greatest songs ever, A Change Is Gonna Come.
Dylan is not perfect. He has made some poor, tired sounding records with mediocre songs but there’s always a gem to be found somewhere. He’s also left some killer songs off his records, songs that other people would kill to have written, such as Blind Willie McTell, She’s Your Lover Now, Farewell Angelina, Foot Of Pride, Up To Me.
The other thing about Dylan is that he’s funny. Even on Blood On The Tracks, there’s a joke: “The only person on the scene/Missing was the Jack Of Hearts.” His catalogue is leavened with humour and nonsense: “Slap that drummer with a pie that smells,” is a line that springs to mind. Clothes Line Saga is gently funny, observational, slightly surreal and beautifully self-contained. There are plenty more jokes and funny lines or quirky descriptions.
Many people have a favourite Dylan “period”, whether it’s protest Dylan, rock Dylan, 70s Dylan or even Christian Dylan (there are some). Perhaps it’s just because there’s so much Dylan, so many albums, so many songs. Or maybe it’s because there are different Dylans, the style of lyrics, the use of language, the vocabulary, the musical accompaniment, the voice, all change across the albums and the years.
As an example, listen to Blood On The Tracks, Desire and Street Legal in succession, albums released within the space of three and a half years of each other, all sounding completely different, each of them with its own lexicon and vocabulary.
Some people just don’t like Dylan. It’s not my job to convert them. He’s there if they want to find him. The albums and the songs will always be there. Whether they like or dislike Dylan won’t change that. And it won’t matter.
I still listen to Dylan’s songs most of the time. When he released Murder Most Foul, I played it at least two or three times a day. It was beautiful, meditative, prayer-like, it felt like a lament for a moment when the optimism symbolised by Kennedy’s presidency was fractured into a million pieces, displaced by ugliness and hatred.
“I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it's beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it's thirty-six hours past Judgment Day.”
But there was also recognition of the power of culture and music especially to soothe the pain and ugliness, to offer a way out, with Dylan listing the songs and artists that provide consolation, ending with:
“Play Marching Through Georgia and Dumbarton’s Drums,
Play darkness and death will come when it comes,
Play Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell,
Play The Blood-Stained Banner, play Murder Most Foul.
He had never released anything like it before. I knew when I was listening to it that there was nothing like it.
And there’s nothing like him.
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