I bought my first Bob Dylan album – umbiguosly titled Bob Dylan – 52 years ago, when I was 13, and have subsequently purchased, on vinyl, 8-track cassette, reel-to-reel cassette, and CD, all of his albums ever since. There was, admittedly, a slight gap during the Gospel phase, but I soon patched that up, realizing a born-again Dylan was just as good as any other Dylan. I now own his latest CD, Shadows in the Night, finding a Dylan singing the Great American Songbook every bit as intriguingly beautiful as a Dylan singing one of his own thousand-odd songs. In 1963 I would have laughed my ass off if someone suggested that Bob would one day put out an album of Christmas songs. He did this five years ago, and I enjoy it more than I do most obligatory seasonal albums by huge stars. I now find him singing old Frank Sinatra standards and lesser-known Broadway hits less surprising. I did, after all, watch the televised version of Sinatra’s 80th birthday tribute, as astonished as everyone there seemed to be, when, after Tony Bennett, or someone of that ilk, had finished his tribute in song, to hear an MC announce, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bob Dylan.” Not a few guests evidently thought the announcement was a joke, yet it was not. Dylan appeared, alone with his guitar and harmonica, to sing what I suspect was a traditional ballad about a bandit with a golden heart. It was sung sincerely, and ended with Dylan saying something like, “Happy birthday, Mr Frank, sir.” Not a trace of irony in it. That was some thirty years ago, and it has taken me just as long to understand that Bob Dylan simply appreciates great singers and great songs, no matter from what milieu they emerge. I have long since ceased wondering who or what the private Dylan may or may not be. As with Shakespeare, the enigmatic personal details, or lack of them, matter little when compared with the work.
As a scholar of literature with two degrees from Oxford, I feel confident in my right to state that Bob Dylan is by far the greatest songwriter of all time, and possibly also the last poetic genius of our age. For, just as capable of writing lame love songs as Shakespeare was of churning out mediocre plays, Dylan has also created many of the finest songs in any language. The sheer quantity of them boggles the mind, so appalling duds, like Under the Red Sky, are easily forgiven. If our culture still exists in any form two hundred years from now, there will be only Bob Dylan, and then the countless artistes he inspired, and who made popular music the last gasp of a poetic tradition stretching back to before the Middle Ages. I mean the tradition in which lyric poetry actually meant songs, whose music either preceded notation or was lost in time. Not only do I have every album he released, but I also have most of the so-called ‘boot-legs’, particularly amazing for their recordings of songs Dylan wrote, performed, and yet, for some idiosyncratic reason, chose never to record in a studio or release on a proper album. Series of Dreams, and Blind Willie McTell would be notable examples, although there are many more. They seem to be a part of the enigma he is intent upon preserving around himself like a magic cloak of protection.
I am content to believe his reasons as stated in Chronicles Part One, the only autobiography, besides that of Miles Davis, by a musician worth reading. One suspects there will never be a Part Two, yet more is not really necessary, since what he has published jumps from what gave him a new inspiration to continue performing songs he describes as ‘carrying around a sack of dead meat’, back to the early days in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. Unfailingly grateful and gracious to those who assisted or encouraged his nascent career, he is also harsh when writing of people, like Robbie Robertson, who were sucked into the vortex of fame and adulation which had begun to make Bob’s days a living hell. His hopes of a tranquil family life vanished, along with any desire to continue with a career that brought such paranoia and misery with it. Yet his silence was interpreted by lunatics as more meaningful than his recordings. Thus, or so he claims, he decided to release an album of country music, Nashville Skyline, which, then being the least hip of all pop-musical forms (even banished to its own category on the Billboard Top 100), he firmly believed would relieve him of the Poet-Prophet mantle his earlier work had imposed upon him, forcing him into a life of hiding from those who thought he had ‘the answer’, and would reveal it to anyone persistent enough to hound him down wherever he was living. There was even a self-proclaimed ‘Dylanologist’, Alan J. Webberman, whose novel science consisted in going through Dylan’s trash cans for valuable clues regarding ‘the answer’. Nashville Skyline was, however, and still is, too good to convince anyone Dylan was merely trying to lose his old psychotic audience. The opening duet with Johnny Cash, as unexpected as it was, had a haunting beauty to it – as did the new, mellifluous voice Dylan had suddenly acquired, most evident on Lay Lady Lady. Even if he was trying to kill off his old self and its fans, he just succeeded in putting country music at the forefront of a new roots movement that rapidly infused all of rock, first unearthing bands like Crosby, Stills and Nash, as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and then heading on to the Eagles etc. By this time, though, Dylan had explored his own roots, returning to solo-guitar-plus harmonica, on one of the finest albums ever made, Blood on the Tracks. I first heard it in a noisy restaurant at the Kathmandu Hotel in Nepal, thinking, This guy sounds like Dylan but is so much better… By the time I was back in the West, of course, Mr. Dylan had moved on to an entirely new sound, featuring a large band, and the violinist, Scarlet Rivera, whose fiddle so dominated the new songs that she was never heard of again. These new songs were on a new album named Desire, and were mostly a rarity, being co-written with playwright Don Levy (there was to be another, far briefer, yet equally fecund, collaboration with another playwright, Sam Shepherd). Many thought this was Dylan’s finest work to date –not forgetting Highway 61 Revisited, or Blonde on Blonde, which single-handedly transformed pop music from silly love songs into a serious poetic art form. It seems that Dylan’s own main problem with Desire was that its poster-song, Hurricane, comprised an irreducibly concise and balefully evocative lyric urging the release of Ruben ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a middle-weight boxing champion convicted of a murder he almost certainly did not commit. It inspired a group of Canadian activists, which eventually did obtain Carter’s release. Having met ‘Hurricane’ myself, I can vouch for the fact that he had become, or perhaps had always been, a loud-mouthed show-off, who was, while innocent of the charge that put him in jail, also probably guilty of several other heinous crimes. He had certainly not been a good man before jail, and was a self-aggrandizing asshole once released, soon proving himself an embarrassment to all concerned with his cause. Dylan never performs Hurricane, or almost any other songs from that album, which include the touching lament, Sarah, an unconcealed paean of regret written during, or after, his wife, the mysterious Sarah Dylan, divorced him. Since he never remarried, one senses in so many of his songs about lost love the presence of Sarah as a continuing source of heartbreak.
The only other woman he had ever allowed to get close to him was Joan Baez, whose folk career was, at one point, as stellar as his own, their duets on stage – with dramatically different voices – as startlingly exquisite as his work with Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, or Willie Nelson. Yet, it seems, no one is permitted to grow too closely associated with Bob. Joan Baez – whose career has curiously vanished – got her best song, Diamonds and Rust, from the end of their relationship; and then that was that. Similar disassociations happened with bands and producers, including The Band, and Daniel Lanois, who Dylan even thanks effusively in his autobio. One consequence of this was a succession of terrible back-up musicians, who cannot be entirely blamed for awful performances, since Bob, reputedly, refused to rehearse with, and some say even meet, his band members. What he has most needed is a band-leader, someone like Tom Petty, able to rehearse musicians without Dylan’s presence. The guy who led Saturday Night Live’s musicians – I forget his name – is another example, also swiftly dumped by Bob, who now seems to have recognized the virtue of having great Memphis session musicians behind him. Mercifully gone are the days when a Dylan concert could be excruciating, the lyrics drowned by cacophonous noise, and a singer who performed with his back to the audience, and seemed to be wearing thrift-store clothing.
A period of decline set in during the late seventies and early eighties, when, as his book admits, he could scarcely bear to sing the old songs everyone wanted to hear, and had nothing new to perform.
Following close after his divorce came Dylan’s movie, Reynaldo and Clara, in which Bob played someone named Reynaldo, and a fat man played someone named Bob Dylan. The story appeared to be non-existent, and the film was eight hours long (edited down from twelve hours). I saw it in LA, and was not impressed. Its only saving feature was all the concert footage, with Dylan in white-face, from The Rolling Thunder Revue, a kind of touring circus featuring Dylan and Baez, but including some rather bizarre and fairly dreadful other solo performers. Everyone agreed that Bob’s film-directing aspirations had finally been laid to rest.
Next came the Gospel phase, which included the stunning news that Bob had been baptised a born-again Christian in Pat Boone’s swimming pool (Pat was evidently now a minister). Coming, as it did, after Dylan was photographed wearing a yarmulke and, in the ancient Jewish custom, stuffing a prayer note between the stones of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the baptism was baffling, to say the least, and made me shun the Gospel albums coming in its wake. His book is silent on the issue, but it is unlikely that Dylan thought Gospel might achieve what Country had failed to deliver: the audience he wanted to drive away had already gone. I feared this decline was the End. But then I bought the Gospel albums, realizing they were in fact very good. By this time the phase had ended, however, and Gospel was chased off by a series of superb albums containing songs as fine as any he had written, with a new soundscape, largely thanks to Daniel Lanois, who then had a reputation for resurrecting entombed major careers.
Another surprise came in 1991, during the Gulf War, when Dylan received a lifetime achievement Oscar award, for soundtracks like that for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he also played a convincing half-wit. I recall first hearing the album before I’d seen the movie, growing bored with hillbilly banjo music, until the incomparable Knocking on Heaven’s Door came soaring out from the speakers like storm-clouds pierced by brilliant sunbeams. During the seventies and Vietnam, the Oscars had become a platform for politically-minded actors to voice their hostile, often very lengthy, and invariably irrelevant opinions of US foreign policy or national affairs, which were then bordering on civil war. Marlon Brando even sent an American Indian to collect his best actor award, and also read a diatribe by Brando against the treatment of indigenous Americans. Much more than glitter was expected from Oscar night back then. Dylan’s award was presented by his friend, Jack Nicolson, and I, for one, hoped he would comment on his country’s latest act of aggression. Instead, he kept standing awkwardly, doing a Charlie Chaplin manoeuver with his hat, pushing it up and down from the rear. Then came his speech: “My Daddy once told me, he said ‘Son’….” Then Bob paused for so long that the audience began to laugh – Dylan was never known for his skills at public speaking. Finally, he continued, “Well, my Daddy said a lot of things…(another pause)…but if you ever commit an act so vile it repels your very soul, just remember there is a God willing to forgive you for everything you sincerely regret…” I assumed this was about as far as he was willing to go on the year’s biggest news and the nation’s latest travesty. But then, surprisingly, it was announced that he would now sing. With innumerable songs from which to choose, I wondered which of them he’d perform at such a time. The answer was a diabolical noise, behind which only aficionados of his work could have possibly discerned Masters of War, the most appropriate of all his songs, comprising a savagely scornful attack against those who make, and profit by, wars. Yet why had he made the lyrics impossible to hear? Why was the band such an distressingly horrible blast of noise? The song was obviously carefully selected from the hundreds he had written by then, so why perform it in such a manner? I came to the conclusion that he had said all he had to say about the evils of war, which everyone knew anyway, or ought to have known. So why the hell not perform his most vitriolic of anti-war songs in a way which made it sound as iniquitously dreadful as its subject? He knew by now that songs change nothing, and are at best preaching to the choir. Everyone expected a comment on the war from him, but they got one so unexpected that it required a lot of thought to decipher. It occurred to me that his whole appearance was a carefully rehearsed and well-thought-out act, from the awkward speech with a sting in its tail, to the barely endurable performance of what is probably the greatest anti-war lyric since Robert Owen’s gruesome poems from the trenches of World War One.
The only time I have seen Dylan caught off-guard was when, years later, he won a real Oscar for Best Song (lifetime achievements are consolation prizes). He was clearly so convinced that he would not win the nomination that he had not bothered to attend the ceremony, touring with his band du jour, and thus present only via a live telecast from Australia. The song in question was a sly and cynical sequel to his iconic The Times They Are A-Changing, with a refrain repeating that things had changed, but Bob did not care anymore. When he was announced as the winner, Mr. Dylan, now sporting a lounge-lizard’s pencil-thin moustache, and dressed like a Palm Beach gigolo, was patently dumbfounded. This time he had no idea of what to say, and hadn’t even troubled himself with writing an acceptance speech, as most do, just in case. He barely managed to say thank you, and looked genuinely awkward and embarrassed. It was clear that winning an Oscar for Best Song, a tangible achievement, meant much to him, far more than the dozens of Grammy Awards he must own. I found this rare glimpse of the human Dylan deeply moving. He was not as aloof as he seemed.
His career has been on an undulating high ever since, with album after album of great new songs, sung to music that resembles a fusion of early rock and late blues. Such music was really his first love and aspired goal, before he became swept away by the tides of a folk-and-protest-song ocean-boom. Yet he also had a genuine passion for Woody Guthrie, minstrel of the Great Depression, who died under the same conditions of chronic deprivation that he had lived in and wrote about, with a tearful Bob grieving at his bedside. Woody hardly made a dime from his folk-singing, and Bob was still wailing for his supper in coffee bars.
Some have said that Dylan merely exploited folk music for his own purposes, his hidden agenda. Nonsense. No one could write The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol without having deep inner rage against a society so inherently racist that Afro-Americans only received the right to vote 50 years ago, and still suffer under exploitation and a new form of segregation, in the ghettos of Baltimore, Detroit, even LA, and many parts of the South. No, Dylan risked his whole career by marching with Martin Luther King, and by protesting Vietnam. Like many of us back then, he truly believed the times were changing; but he also suspected that the answers to hard questions relating to social reform were Blowing in the Wind. Folk music was dying its own quiet death when Mr. Dylan turned electric, writing songs of an obscure, yet deeply personal nature, instead of criticizing a society impervious to criticism. I was at the London concert where his first set was acoustic, and the second unveiled Bob with a Fender Stratocaster (or maybe a Gibson – who remembers?), backed by a band of several musicians soon to be famous as The Band. No one jeered, shouted ‘Judas!’, or booed – that happened up in Birmingham or somewhere north – in fact, everyone was enthralled by this utterly new sound, this Dylan who had married the seriousness of Folk’s poetic tradition to a kind of rock n’ roll. Nothing remotely like it had ever been heard before. You had to be there to appreciate the impact. The Beatles were improvising on Tamla-Motown and American girl groups; the Rolling Stones were reproducing that Chicago electric blues sound – and still are – yet here was Bob Dylan with something uniquely original, entirely his own, and without comparison. John Lennon caught on immediately, transforming the Beatles from good pop musicians to artistes with something to say and new ways in which to say it. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who barely wrote any of their own material, and whose first hit, I Wanna Be Your Man, was a Lennon-Macartney discard so lame that only Ringo was allowed to sing it, suddenly began writing material that, although rarely straying from the Stones’ purloined Chicago roots, still had a new and bitingly personal edge to its lyrics.
As LSD altered the minds of a generation, the music grew stranger, creating bands like the Pink Floyd, who played synthesized soundscapes with incomprehensible, yet undeniably far-out lyrics. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun – who the hell knew what that meant when they weren’t on acid? It was, nonetheless, a creative explosion in musical experimentation quite unlike anything in history; yet its catalyst was Bob Dylan, who, himself, wisely eschewed the psychedelic sound for songs that reflected the era instead of drowning in it, songs like Mr. Jones, who, like most of us, knew something was happening but had no idea what it was.
Anyone who listened more to lyrics than the music accompanying them understood that Bob Dylan was in a category all by himself, writing songs which were, some of them at least, comparable to the greatest lyric poetry in English or any other language. They ranged from the flawlessly simple beauty of William Blake-like songs – I Want You, or Love Minus Zero– to the confounding strangeness and complexity of a Coleridge ballad – Like a Rolling Stone, Just Like a Woman, Queen Jane, and so on. He could write a line as profoundly acute as, Bankers’ nieces seek perfection, expecting all the gifts that wise men bring, with the same effortless ease that he could churn out a throwaway like, Everybody must get stoned, itself even more tricky than it seems, with ‘stoned’ being more self-amused pun than injunction for everyone to do what they were already doing, and to gargantuan excess. A playful Dylan was not always just fooling around: Look out, kid, they keep it all hid…You don’t need a weatherman to know which the wind blows…Clearly those who objected to the people who kept it all hid were listening, since ‘Weathermen’, or the ‘Weather Underground’ was adopted by a quasi-terrorist organization dedicated to fighting the fire of Kent State’s student massacre, and other murderous National Guard enormities during anti-Vietnam protests, with a fire of their own. Little wonder was it that the zonked-out fringe came to believe Dylan was some kind of mastermind, directing the course of what was looking increasingly like a revolution through messages in his songs. The level of paranoia reached such a pitch that Bob became more cautious with his lyrics, trying to spot easily misinterpreted ambiguities before they drove someone to acts of extreme violence. His alleged involvement in plotting revolution was, apparently, serious enough for the FBI to open a Dylan file, and, poor souls, scour through his songs in search of conspiratorial or inflammatory messages. The times were not merely a-changing, they were metamorphosing into a dystopian fiction all too factual.
Following the recording of a song 20 minutes long, Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands – an unheard-of length at the time, and probably presaging, in its mournful lyrics, the disintegration of Bob’s marriage to Sarah — came the famous motorcycle crash. Since Sarah has never spoken to the media or written a book, we have only Bob’s evidence for what actually happened. Some say it was actually rehab for a heroin addiction; others say it was a suicide attempt; and still others maintain it was an excuse to disappear from public view. We are thus obliged to accept Dylan’s own version: he crashed on his motorbike, suffering severe fractures requiring long convalescence, and was lucky to be alive. His long disappearance created ever-wilder alternative-media speculation – he was brain-damaged, paraplegic, abducted by aliens, etc. – which ended abruptly with the release of a new album, John Wesley Harding, which featured a quizzical-looking Dylan, in its black and white cover photo, surrounded by a very odd-looking assortment of people indeed, including a stocky Native Indian wearing a dressing-gown. One assumed these people were Dylan’s new band, yet they were not. When once asked who they actually were, Bob replied that they were simply folks who just happened to be around at the time. No one believed this, and, as far as I know, no one has ever discovered who those folks were. You don’t just stroll into the photo-shoot for an album cover.The album was similarly curious, sounding much more like the old Folk Dylan, acoustic but with high-calibre back-up, mostly from the kind of people usually termed ‘musicians’ musicians’, who make a good living recording ‘sessions’ for stars, and occasionally form one-off bands of their own. They are content, though, to remain relatively anonymous – perhaps after seeing what fame can do to a person. But if the tunes had that feeling of purpose-adapted traditional material from Library of Congress archives, common to many Dylan songs even now, their lyrics definitely did not. Indeed, some had a strangely Biblical, if not preachy, aspect to them: If you see your neighbour struggling, help him with his load; and don’t go mistaking paradise for that house across the road. That is from The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Now, Frankie Lee features in a traditional ballad or two of his own, whilst probably being a fictional character. Yet Dylan’s song has nothing to do with these earlier songs, presenting perhaps a different Frankie Lee, or an untold story about the original Frankie Lee, who now has a best friend, the enigmatic Judas Priest, who readily lends him a lot of money to spend, it seems, in a brothel. The tale unwinds like a Buster Keaton film, with much confusion, followed by guilt and a sound moral lesson. The song has much in common with Black Diamond Bay from the later Desire album. Both are reminiscent of old movies; both involve bad behaviour in a contained environment; both concern somewhat stereotypical characters; and both end in forms of moral or physical disaster. Dylan is clearly very fond of old movies. Brownsville Girl, co-written with Sam Shepherd, is a mix of talking blues and proto-rap, explicitly mentioning standing in line to watch a movie starring Gregory Peck, yet primarily concerned with two guys searching for a mystery-man named Henry Porter. What is both curious and intriguing about the song – besides a chorus totally unconnected with its story – is that Dylan states quite openly he can’t remember the movie’s title, but will watch Gregory Peck in anything. Tracking down a woman who may be the elusive Henry Porter’s wife, Bob admits, The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter. Then the two men inform this woman that they are heading off on a long road-trip. She asks how far they’re going, to be told, We’re going all the way ‘til the engine dies, the wheels fall off an burn, and the water-buffaloes cry…The song is hauntingly compulsive, conjuring up a mental movie, that, without making logical sense, has something complete and covertly logical about it, all the same, much as an obtuse Bergman film can do, making the lack of any coherent storyline a story in itself.
Bob Dylan obviously loathes giving interviews, although he seems happy enough to talk of many things in Martin Scorcese’s masterful documentary about him – perhaps because Scorcese is a director he greatly admires and does not feel is out to exploit him? In this film we often glimpse what is probably the real Bob, quite a funny guy, who does not take himself especially seriously, and can reminisce about his childhood, parents, or siblings with sincere emotions and obvious nostalgia. But Marty clearly knows better than to ask much about song-writing, the one subject other interviewers have focussed on, sometimes almost exclusively, if not obsessively, and always annoyingly. As a writer, I hate being asked how I write, what inspires me, who my favourite authors are – mainly because these questions can’t be answered. I put one word after another, and in a year or two it’s a book. There’s no secret or trick involved, except that it gets easier the more you do it. Everything can inspire me; and I like too many authors for very different reasons to be capable of naming a few favourites. Dylan seems to have the same response to such questions, providing different answers every time. He writes by coming up with a good line, then finding others to go with it – or so he tells one inquisitor. Another is told that William ‘Smokey’ Robinson is his favourite singer. Others are told anything from Willie McTell to Tony Bennett. All we know for sure about Bob Dylan is that his name isn’t Bob Dylan. He was born Robert Zimmerman, although he did legally change it to Dylan, originally written ‘Dillon’, and more related to the legendary cowboy, Marshal Dillon, than to the drunken Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. It is possibly not significant that Dylan has now become a common first-name, whereas Bob adopted it as a surname.
We shall never know how all those songs were written, yet we can discover much about what inspired, or inspires, them. Initially, cowboys and outlaws from the movies loom large, as do newspaper articles Bob finds disturbing in some way. The so-called Folk period songs are often adaptations of traditional material, like the call-and-response technique used in songs such as Hard Rain. Yet their subject matter is generally beyond Dylan’s personal experience, his only possible sources being media of various kinds. Only in the late sixties, when life in New York was too horribly fascinating to ignore, do we get very personal material – some of it indeed so personal, like the songs plainly about poor Edie Sedgewick, than Dylan will sue anyone connecting him to the girl’s tragic life. So intent is he at concealing the real identity of characters about whom he sings during this time that they all have sobriquets: You who used to be so amused by Napoleon in rags and the language he used; go to him, Babe,, you can’t refuse; you’re invisible now and have no secrets to conceal, how does it feel…Edie Sedgewick may have no secrets to conceal, but Dylan plainly has, venting his splenetic hatred for Andy Warhol under the guise of ‘Napoleon in rags’, and other obscurely-insulting names. Why? The only answer must be that he wishes to keep his personal life private, while, like most writers, using it as the source from whence spring untold riches, most of which no longer relate to their origins. Hence the surprise of finding Sarah and their time together so explicitly mentioned that one wonders why Dylan did not simply mail her the song, rather than recording it for public scrutiny. Is he telling her or the world of his love? Beyond doubt it is his saddest song, because we do not have to wonder who it is about. Other lyrics reveal personal feelings more obliquely, yet not always: Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped; what’s good is bad, what’s bad is good; you realize, when you’ve reached the top, you’re on the bottom… Little obfuscation here, yet the song also tells its subject: You’ve hurt the ones that I love best, and covered up the truth with lies; one day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, blood on your saddle…This song, Idiot Wind, is as angry and brilliant as Thomas Wyatt’s Tudor masterpiece, They flee me now who sometime did me seek; or Shakespeare’s lines in Henry VIII, his final play: Be careful whom ye love and give your heart to, for when they but perceive the least dropping-off in thy fortunes fall away like water from ye, never found again but where they mean to sink ye…Bitter experiences resonate through such words so loudly that one cannot doubt the profound grief and rage behind them, nor that it is vertiginously personal.
In the hundreds of love songs he has penned, we learn little of the beloved, hearing only of the love or its sweet memories. The same is true of what could be called his hate songs, where the one hated is presumably most grateful not to be identifiable. Contrast this with Joan Baez’ angry yet still-adoring response to Bob’s departure: You burst on the scene already a legend, the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond, you strayed into my heart…Your eyes were bluer than robins’ eggs, my poetry was lousy, you said; where are you calling from? A booth in the mid-west…Here there is no need to mention Dylan by name. The lyrics make the ex-lover transparently obvious, just as they inadvertently reveal that the singer may be angry, but she still wants him back. Bob is far more subtle, perhaps even using the original emotion as a mere jumping-off-point for a song that follows its own path. Yet we still have: Your breath is sweet, your eyes are like two pearls in the sky; your hair is sleek and smooth upon the pillow where you lie; yet I don’t sense affection, no gratitude or love; your loyalty is not me but to the stars above…Here, in One More Cup of Coffee, we want to know more about this woman; and again all we are permitted to know is how Dylan feels towards her. He even seems reluctant to reveal much about locations or landscapes, except when the song itself seems to demand otherwise: Twilight on the frozen lake, a cold wind about to break; old footsteps in the snow, the silence down below – you’re beautiful beyond words, beautiful to me…Here landscape and lover are inextricably linked; and one imagines a winter vacation in Canada – yet the song could just as easily be about his mother and set near Duluth. The object of his feelings is seemingly obscured by the feelings themselves and their sheer intensity. The beloved could be a woman, a mother, or even God – Dylan truly follows the ancient Troubadour tradition of making what might be a love song to one man, yet a sacred hymn to another. The obfuscation is thus intentional, not to mislead, but to demonstrate love’s immensity and innately spiritual essence.
Songs made for his children are charmingly easy to spot, yet the children themselves are as occluded as his lovers, or love. For Dylan, a love song is only really about the love, not its object – unless that object is in fact love itself. We learn more about Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ in the Sonnets than we do of any lover to whom, or of whom, Bob Dylan sings. Except, of course, Sarah, whose characteristics – a fascination with mysticism, familiarity with the Tarot pack, very aloof and self-contained, hard to read, impossible to manipulate – crop up in numerous songs of both love and hate, sometimes both in one. Her disguise is generally a name of occult significance, like Isis, or Scorpio, who, in one song, stinks in a calico dress...yet in another is a Sweet virgin angel… Such emotions only surface in the deeper kind of relationship, the kind one senses he still has with Sarah, if only via the children and their needs. It is surely no coincidence that she is the only lover ever identified by name in any Dylan love song?
Is it a coincidence too that he has been touring almost constantly now for – what? – a quarter-century, playing some three hundred concerts in an average year? Reputedly worth several billion dollars, he certainly does not need the money. His royalties alone – who has not sung a Dylan song? – rake in many millions annually. Some may say he simply loves the music, loves to play – yet, having seen at least 50 performances all over the world, I rarely recall him looking very happy during any concert. Hardly ever does he say hello, thank you, or even announce the next song. I cannot remember him returning to the stage for an encore, either, although I believe it is not entirely unknown. To Martin Scorcese, he confesses that it is unnerving to find many of the same faces in the audience of every concert – evidently there are people who’ve made a career of attending every Dylan concert, and they have a web-site noting the play-list at each event, as well as variations in lyrics, and if Bob said anything. I find book-tours and signings disturbing enough, so I am certainly glad I don’t have to endure such extremities of weirdness, although I have had glimpses of it. But hearing this merely further begs the question of why he does it. A logical answer might be that he only feels at home on the road: But me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint; I know we felt much the same, but we saw it from a different point of view – tangled up in blue… More recent albums have him walking a lot, as if his seventy-year-old bones need the exercise. The videos don’t show much aging, though; but he now plays keyboards more often than guitars, so perhaps the fingers are showing arthritic wear and tear? He does also sing: It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…Obviously there are intimations of mortality, although I devoutly hope Bob still has a few decades left in him.
Just as one could once tell what movies inspired him, now I have a strong sense of the great reader behind many songs. A Japanese author even found whole sentences from his book on gangsters embedded in numerous songs from a more recent album – but unlike an American author, the man did not phone his lawyer, and, with traditional Japanese curtesy, told the media he was flattered to find his work useful to such a great song-writer and singer.
Putting the Christmas Album aside – no irony involved, quite traditional arrangements, and one Xmas song no one has ever heard – the most recent CDs are somewhat puzzling in places. Tempest, for example, contains a touching and beautiful tribute to John Lennon – I heard the news today, oh boy! Shine your light, you burned so bright, now roll on John… — but we are surely not expected to believe Dylan waited 35 years before reacting to Lennon’s murder, are we? I would guess that it is an old song, shelved for inexplicable reasons, and now, recorded with the same band playing on every other track, sounding like a new song – if, that is, any song on Tempest is new in any real sense of the word. The album even opens with a few bars of what sounds like a tune from the twenties or thirties, before breaking into its own unique blend of musical forms with an upbeat song about a ‘Dukane whistle’, whatever that is. And whatever it is involves a train carrying him away from someone.
The only incomprehensible section in Chronicles: Par One is where Dylan recounts his horror upon finding that the Grateful Dead, which he is about to use as his next band, want to play only his old classics – the ones he now regards as a sack of old meat he’s forced to haul around. Depressed, he goes to bar, orders a treble gin and tonic, and listens to a nameless local band playing in the joint exceptionally well. It is then that an idea strikes him like lightning (or perhaps gin) with the message that he can play any of his old songs in a new, fresh way. The revelation is then elaborated upon, and involves something to do with playing threes instead of fours. Beyond this, I had no clue what he was talking about at all. Nor did any musicians I questioned about Bob’s epiphany, his breakthrough moment. Musical experts said they couldn’t make head nor tail of it – that it bore no relation to anything whatsoever in music. Some ventured to say it was literally nonsense.
Yet nonsense or not, Dylan’s style of playing his classic songs definitely changed around this time, and not just with reggae renditions of Lay Lady Lay, or the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower (which Bob admitted was better than his own version). He evolved a completely new sound, that was also familiar yet could not really be categorized, since it fused together too many disparate forms, and could be further transformed by adding or subtracting various instruments, going from, say, peddle-steel guitar to Hawaiian guitar, or piano-organ to synthesiser. The musicians changed as often as the instruments did, yet the new sound was always evident, making old songs fit seamlessly beside new ones – to the point where I wondered if the rest of his career might consist of re-recording every old album in the new style. Whatever lay behind that revelation worked so well that it generated dozens of new songs that, 50 years along in his astonishing creative life, were as good as the very best material he’d ever written.
Over the years when he was shackled to Columbia Records by a Titanium contract, a pattern emerged in his albums: he’d release one or two fairly bad ones, then a truly great one. I imagine the relationship with Columbia had plumbed a new nadir when Bob released, consecutively, two albums of archaic public-domain songs sounding as if they were recorded on a Walkman in his garage. Devotee that he is to traditional American music, even Dylan couldn’t squeeze much out of Froggy Went a-Courting. The corporate moneymen in LA must have realized that their big star could probably keep up this rigmarole until his contract expired, literally. So something happened, and instead of the usual concert intro, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Mr Bob Dylan”, we now listen to a ten-minute summation of Bob’s stellar career – for many in the audience some of this must have sounded like pre-history – which left no one in doubt that they were about to witness a living legend comparable with no other earthling. It was way over-the-top, and way too long, yet it was also all true; and I saw no reason why that half of the audience born around the time Dylan was born-again should not be told that this was no ordinary concert they were about to hear – that, indeed, their grandchildren would one day marvel at their luck, the way mine do upon learning that I met Picasso and played Chopsticks with Beethoven.
The last concert I saw, before losing my eyesight, was flawless and even audible, although Bob looked grumpy, playing keyboards with his back to most of the audience, and not uttering a single word outside of the songs. The set was not long, but it was also not particularly short; and after playing his final chord, Bob, clad now like a Civil War Union general, stalked off the stage to his waiting palace-on-wheels, where I imagined him stripping into a nightshirt and picking up the book he’d been reading earlier. His catalogue of personae must be as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory. For the previous concert I’d attended, he was dressed like a Spanish waiter – bolero jacket and a shimmering stripe down his pant-legs – for Tempest, the cover pic showed a cigar-smoking bad-ass flanked by the kind of people you don’t want to encounter on a lonely street at night. He had another recent spell with the pencil moustache and flashy suits borrowed from a pimp in Harlem. The get-up made him look convincingly sleazy. Now I find him in white dinner-jacket and black bow-tie, seated next to a masked woman at what appears to be the table of some fifties nightclub or cabaret in New York City – perhaps even the famed Stork Club?. Admittedly, this persona does fit an album of Bob singing through fifteen minutes of Frank Sinatra’s old act. This one is really embarrassingly short, especially considering the range of old Frank songs available. But Bob does sing them beautifully, and, as always, makes them his own, to the point where you wonder if they actually are his own. Strangers in the Night has never sounded better – and it has sounded pretty good from various lovely voices for some 60 years now. As usual, I ask myself what’s next? Will he bring out an Ethel Merman tribute album? Or will there be yet another masterpiece?
If Tempest tells you that Bob certainly read a hefty and detailed tome about the sinking of the Titanic (his song has nothing to do with the blockbuster movie), what does Shadows in the Night reveal? He took a cursory glance through The Great American Songbook is about the sum of it, yet the result is about the only Dylan album you could play for your granny, to be sure; and it is thoughtful, sung with great feeling (and scarcely any hoarse rasping), the songs, bar one, not particularly well-known, yet exceptionally sweet, often touching, and all of them seemingly bathed in the moonlight implied in Bob’s title.
It seems unfair to expect more miracles from someone who has delivered so many so consistently for over 50 years, yet Dylan somehow still promises the well is far from dry. His body of work is staggeringly far beyond compare, and will, as indeed it already has, outlast the whims of time, like Shakespeare, both writers to be studied intensely and yet also enjoyed for their work’s own sake. Little did I know when I bought that first album 52 years ago, having saved up for weeks, that this man’s words and music would be a soundtrack to my life, always there through good times and bad, always sending the thrill of sheer genius up my spine, never predictable, occasionally awful, and providing a whole lexicon of phrases, metaphors, epitaphs and epithets which I still use as if they were mine. He is the only truly towering figure my generation has produced, and it has been a privilege to grow old with him, and to know I will buy every new album, until one of us is dead. Mr. Dylan, sir, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all those incomparably inspiring songs, the serious, the silly, and the just plain magical. I love ‘em all. We shall not see your like again, not even a hint of it; but I wish you many more years of health and happiness. And if you just re-make all the old stuff, it’s fine with me.
Who is Bob Dylan? Who knows? But there are a thousand-odd songs to keep almost everyone guessing. May God bless you, Zimmy, and keep you well away from Heaven’s door until at least I am inside it.
Paul William Roberts