His milestone birthday has been greeted by a torrent of appreciations for great Robert Zimmerman. Building up to Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday we were bombarded with radio tributes, articles, and personnel acts of dedication. I myself watched No Direction Home on his birthday and had selected The Times They Are A’ Changin’ album as my exclusive driving CD of the month.
At the ‘three score years and ten’ moment, the never ending debates resurfaced: Which was the ‘best’ Dylan period; civil libertarian or poet; acoustic or electric, what did he and Woody Guthrie chat about; did that guy really shout Judas in Manchester in 1966; should he have packed it in after Street Legal; the mystery of the most conveniently timed motorcycle accident in music history and of course: ‘Jeez I can’t believe Dylan would sell out like that for Victoria Secret Catalogue and iTunes’. The self-perpetuated enigma of Bob Dylan and never ending debates are indicative of a character with seemingly unassailable influence on popular culture. What I see, what I hear, what I remember when Bob Dylan is playing is a journey through life. Cheesy yes, but songs about love, loss, life, death, right and wrong instruct me and shape me towards a level of understanding of the world around me that no other form of popular culture ever could. From tiny cafes in Greenwich Village, to a half-empty Beijing Stadium, who can really say that Bob Dylan has not created a lasting, if mysterious legacy. As the great man wrote: ‘…you can’t criticise what you don’t understand’.
I missed out on the unquestionably majestic 60s, because I had not been born, nor did I at first hand label Dylan a genius from Bob Dylan to Nashville Skyline. I am envious of those who were able to live through decades of his music. I was unfortunately born a few months after what I believe to be one of the worst Dylan albums ever made, Down In the Groove (May 1988) in what many cite as the worst Dylan decade. Despite this, my earliest Dylan experiences was with 60s Dylan; in long drives to France and Italy, with my parents in firm control of the music in the car. Cassettes of Blonde on Blonde, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and even Abbey Road, Dark Side of The Moon, The All Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison and the Rolling Stones compilation Hot Rocks are my earliest musical memories. I was about four or five at the time, but I used to thoroughly enjoy singing along to Blonde on Blonde’s opening knees-up hootenanny Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 shouting, without any understanding: ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned!’ as we sped down European motorways. Dylan has always remained in my mind. Dylan reminds me of family time, holiday and usually some kind of warm climate. But it is his voice too; there remains something about his delivery that appeals to me. He certainly hasn’t got the greatest singing voice, David Bowie once sang he had a ‘voice like sand and glue’, and maybe this distinct rawness, makes for an everlasting imprint. Even when his voice changed (which some attribute to the motorcycle accident), his voice was so startling and distinct even then, that you couldn’t help but be drawn to his words. Lay Lady Lay off Nashville Skyline makes my spine tingle every time.
Later, as I become more aware of the world, and as my hair grew long, and I was impatient to gain a rebellious mindset, I attended anti-war marches, with Dylan’s lyrics in my ears. Although he declines to be seen as a voice of the civil-rights movement, the words of early Bob surely speak for him. Footage of Blowin’ in the Wind in Washington Square is a telling reflection of a strife-filled moment in history. I recently saw grainy footage of Dylan at the 1991 Grammy Awards performing Masters of War. The awards coincided with the declaration of the first Gulf War; his art transcending the years.
I remember the Stop the War march in February 2003. I passionately opposed the war in Iraq, but I was somehow equally keen to attend a mass protest. It was a right of passage and a life experience. As an impressionable 14 year old, beginning to work things out, I was in awe of the swell of the crowd, the banners and the deafening noise of whistles and chanting. But something else will never leave me from that day: the seemingly spontaneous rendition of Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’. Several hundred people ahead of me sang a-cappella, word-for-word, a song, which speaks across generations. There was something profoundly memorable about singing Dylan; something I cannot quite explain. Not so much the appropriate lyrics, more everyone creating the obvious soundtrack for the march.
Despite his declared reluctance to see himself as a leader, Dylan’s words reveal unmistakable distress, anger and even sadness at many of the social injustices prevalent during the ‘60s. The Times They Are a Changin, Blowin’ In the Wind and Masters of War are obvious examples of anti-war songs. The Ballard of Hollis Brown; Only a Pawn in his Game and The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll are incredible powerful songs, both lyrically and musically, speaking about racial inequality. More subtly, the beautiful Desolation Row and Like A Rolling Stone off Highway 61 Revisited are a commentary on American culture; the loneliness of fame and the fickle worship of celebrities. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat off Blonde on Blonde cynically points at the materialism of fame. And lets not forget the powerful Hurricane off the 1976 album Desire that hammers home objections of institutional racism and injustice surrounding the wrongful conviction of Rubin Carter, more bitter and angry than the sadness of Hollis Brown or Hattie Carol.
Dylan cynically told a journalist that he has written 136 protest songs in a memorable press conference clip, included in No Direction Home. Despite this ambiguous and typically self-mocking pronouncement, many of his audience defiantly believe these to be among the best Dylan songs. They are passionate, heartfelt and the ‘truth’ I agree, to a degree.
Dylan’s muses included the poet Dylan Thomas (whose name the songwriter took) and musicians such as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. Much of Dylan’s work expands the mind with visions and trails of thought that will occupy fans (and academics) for eternity, perhaps. John Wesley Harding offers beautiful stories and imagery such as the Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest and the Hendrix-famed All Along the Watchtower. Freewheelin’ has the satirical Talking World War III Blues, and Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited are full of the most brilliant stories from Subterranean Homesick Blues and the rambling stream of consciousness Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Ballard of a Thin Man and the albums title track Highway 61 Revisited.
In Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Mike Marqusee wrote: “Between late 1964 and the summer of 1966, Dylan created a body of work that remains unique. Drawing on [popular culture of the time]…he forged a coherent and original artistic voice and vision. The beauty of these albums retains the power to shock and console” (p.139). To shock and console. Marqusee is spot on. Take the opening verse to A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall:
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
The content shocks and it’s obscurity is at times uncomfortable, yet the chord progressions and the familiarity of his voice is comforting. With enough imagery, ambiguity, stanzas and iambic pentameter to fill a textbook, would exam boards ever consider throwing students a Dylan song rather than a Shakespeare sonnet?
Dylan’s expansive back catalogue dives deep into the abyss of humanity, outlining right and wrong in the most beautiful ways. And his songs of love and loss are, to my ear, some of his finest. His more personal songs reveal another, more subtle and sensitive side of Dylan. Songs like Girl From The North Country, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and I Want You are simple, yet brilliant love ballads. But Dylan’s best love songs are the ones that deal with loss, breakup and bitterness. Songs like Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright and Just Like A Woman touch on Dylan’s heartache, but also expose his cynicism.
Yet not until the 1970s when Dylan had abandoned his old sound are we faced with a more personal depiction of the man himself. Following moves between record labels and a lengthy tour with The Band, Dylan and his wife Sara’s relationship began to strain. Are we not all heartened by the idea of a break-up album? Something to listen to on full volume, misty eyed, hugging your knees, alone in your room, after the ‘one’ leaves you for reasons unknown. Music does have an enormous ability to penetrate the soul and dig-up those buried feelings. Blood on The Tracks was a personal favourite of a former girlfriend. It was often appreciated and regarded as a stand-alone great sing-along album. Yet not until the heartbreak, did Dylan’s words make a mountain more of sense. You don’t need to be a great Dylan fan to point out the likes of Tangled Up in Blue, Idiot Wind and You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Yet the sweetly heartbreaking song Buckets of Rain makes me choke on my cups of tea even now: ‘Like your smile and your fingertips/Like the way that you move your hips/I like the cool way you look at me/Everything about you is bringing me misery.
Blood on The Tracks speaks to us all as it reveals a Dylan clearly pained by his breakup; a frail and vulnerable man, hit with regret and remorse over his fading relationship. It reveals his own mistakes and his most deepest human feeling of denial: ‘And Through our Separation/ It Pierced me to the heart/ She still lives inside of me/ We’ve never been apart’ from If You See Her, which hits you like a ton of bricks on those lonesome bedroom nights. His often denied this album to be a ‘confessional’ album, merely adds to the complexity of Dylan’s aura. You can hear it his voice, the sadness, but it is this which adds to Dylan’s exceptional levels of creativity and talent At one’s lowest end, Blood on The Tracks can cause even the most self-assured Dylan fan to scream into their speakers: ‘ME TOO, BOB, ME TOO’. Love and relationships, forever ‘tangled up in blue’.
Perhaps what I admire most about Dylan is his musical development through change. Although, for many, acceptance of his later output requires a massive rock of salt, and possibly some kind of herbal high, I am delighted that he has not produced 50 years of folk songs. His changes in style of music, is synced to a change in the times. Not because he wanted to necessarily please the audience, else ‘Judas’ might never have been uttered in Manchester and Pete Seager may never have gone berserk with an axe in Newport, but more as a testament of time itself. As he has aged, Dylan’s voice, outfits, musical style and stage charisma have adjusted.
As much as I love The Rolling Stones, there is something grossly off-putting about 67 year old Mick Jagger strut and pout around the stage in tight jeans and t-shirts. I admire the charisma, but the ‘never say die’ attitude and carrying the flaming banner of ‘rock-n’ roll forever’ is a glamorised denial of the passing of time. This idea continues throughout music from Iggy Pop to Oasis.
Dylan however carries a life-torch. Excluding of course the heartfelt Forever Young off 1974’s Planet Waves which was written for his children his more recent catalogue seems to be creating a concluding epitaph to life; a reflection on his career, his highs and his lows. Dylan’s voice fades with every album; age and mortality are alluded to in albums such as Time out of Mind, Modern Times. The opening track on Together Through Life, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ opens the door to more than just an average Dylan album.
No matter if Bob dies tomorrow, next year, or beyond another milestone birthday, I know with total confidence that Dylan and I will be together through life. His 50 years of music provides a beautiful map (and soundtrack) through life’s many experiences. What is also certain, is that the enigma of Dylan himself will ensure that his work and life will forever be subject for discussion. What Dylan means to me, is certainly not what it means to others, revealing the greatest achievement of any form of popular, or indeed high, culture.
Happy Birthday Bob.
Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s by Mike Marqusee is available for purchase online. Photo from thisisnotporn.net