Reflections on Bob Dylan as he turns 80

Today is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. The troubadour, the poet – with his Nobel Prize – the spokesman for a generation, even if he didn’t see himself that way. And now one of the great survivors, still playing, touring and making albums. His 2020 work, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released to great acclaim. It included a 17 minute epic called Murder Most Foul which mused on the assassination of President Kennedy amongst other things – something he didn’t do in the 60s, at least not directly, when he was the great protest singer. The album’s lyrics are full of allusion and historical, literary and biblical references, as you would expect from classic Dylan. The music is pretty basic, rooted in blues and old time jazz, if I recall. I say recall because I only ever listened to the whole thing once. I found it hard going to be honest, a bit of a dirge. Some of the lyrics were pretty trite. Sacrilege to say so, but the main effect of listening to Rough and Rowdy Ways was to send me scurrying back to the 60s classics.

While I’m in sacrilege mode – the effusive praise will occupy the rest of this piece! – I went to see Dylan and his band at Wembley Arena in 2017. It was the first time I’d seen him perform live – a gap in my musical experience, to be sure. It was awful. I seriously considered leaving half way through – not helped by the fact that I had toothache – but thought, I can’t do that, it’s Bob Dylan, one of the greatest artists of all time, one of my favourites of all time. I stuck it out. The music was a combination of honky tonk blues and barely recognisable versions of a few old favourites. Now I knew he reinterpreted his songs – nothing wrong with that, they’re his songs and it keeps them and him fresh. But this was outright destruction! Back on the tube, heading home, I took refuge in a Dylan selection on my iPod – the best of the best. The concert hadn’t affected my love for his music, which was a relief.

I don’t think anything could affect my love for the music of Bob Dylan – or at least that part of it which, to me, represents all that is great about him. It’s a lot of the canon, but not all of it – I don’t really go much beyond the mid-70s in terms of his original music, though the retrospective Bootleg series, which began in 1991, has been a source of discovery and delight. I wrote about Dylan at some length in my book  I Was There – A Musical Journey*, which I published in 2016. I thought I’d reproduce the piece here, which I wrote in 2011 (there’s a reference to Dylan being 70). You can tell it’s ten years ago – there’s a reference to MP3s, but none to Spotify!

In summary, my journey into the music of Bob Dylan began with Desire in 1976 and I soon discovered the wonders of Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde at university. But my immersion in the 60s classics began in earnest in the 80s when I had started work and had enough money to go on a voyage of discovery. My favourite album remains The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, but there is some stiff competition. Read on if you have the time. If you know the music of Dylan well I’d be interested in what are your favourites; if you don’t I hope you might get some pointers about where you might start…

One of my early plunges [in the 80s] was on Bob Dylan.  The poet and troubadour.  The man who told the story of the sixties – somewhat against his will.  The man who was a massive influence on Bruce amongst others.  It was time to understand.

 Of course I was already familiar with quite a lot of his music.  But now it was time to fill the gaps, buy up the catalogue.  I really got going when I lived in Putney, in 1981-82.  There was an Our Price on the High Street towards Putney Bridge.  I must have done wonders for their profits that year.  I can still remember coming out of there with “The Times They are a Changin’”: the bleak grey cover, Dylan with cropped hair. I was full of anticipation, and even trepidation, about what I was about to hear.  Blimey, it was all a bit heavy, a bit depressing, after the first play. Not one to brighten up the weekend. I never did really get into that one, after that initial reaction. But there are so many others which became fundamental to my life in music.

 My first recollection of Dylan, other than hearing things like “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio, was listening to the album “Desire”. The album came out in 1976 and someone in the Johnson’s sixth form used to bring it in to the prefects’ study.  It was an album full of stories. The leading track was “Hurricane”, a tale of injustice against a boxer called Rubin Hurricane Carter, who had been convicted for murder. It set the tone for the rest of the album.  Dylan extemporising, the guitars embellished by violins and soulful choruses. In the prefects’ study, it was the overall vibe that struck me – not that many tracks stood out at the time. The one that did was the last song on the album, “Sara”.  Even to a seventeen year old metal soon-to-be punk fan, it was a beautiful, melancholy tribute to a woman that clearly he loved deeply.  Later I discovered that this was made around the time that their relationship was breaking up, which makes the song all the more poignant.  God knows what Sara must have felt listening to it.  The price for being the partner of an artist of the greatest renown, I guess.

 I mean, fancy having “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” written for you – in the Chelsea Hotel – and the whole world knowing.

 I love “Desire” now, with its tall and mystical tales, and the harmonicas and violins and the harmonies sung by Joan Baez.  It’s a rambling wild west of an album, and Dylan on the cover looks like he could have been out there in a frontier town in the 19th century.  “Isis” sums up that vibe, with the man who marries and loses the woman called Isis and finds himself on a mission to make easy money.  Of course it all goes horribly wrong; but somehow Isis reappears, the mystical child.  Weird and wonderful, simple music, Dylan weaving one of his fantastical tales.

 That’s the thing I really learned about Dylan when I learned to play guitar. The music, at least in terms of chord structures, is mostly quite easy to play.  The songs are often simple, skeletal. But the way they are delivered – the grating voice, the rasping harmonica and the poetry, the phrasing – take them to another level.  A truly sublime level. You find yourself thinking, how did he come up with that?

From “Desire” I moved on to “Blood on the Tracks”, its predecessor from 1975. I bought it at Univ, probably on a recommendation in NME, or maybe from a friend; I can’t now remember. It was a beautiful album: a work of stunning melancholy, so poignantly sung and played.  It started with the brilliant “Tangled up in Blue”, the wistful story of a lost love and dreams of recreating it.  A story of drifting from place to place, tangled up in the memories of her, whoever she was.  The album was said to be about Dylan’s separation from his wife, Sara. He denied it, even said it was based on Chekov’s short stories. But you could feel the pain throughout, as his voice rose and fell; simple musical arrangements allowing the voice, with shards of sad harmonica, to tell the tale.  It was an album to be listened to all the way through, to feel the moments of optimism amongst the despair, and to experience the shock of “Idiot Wind”, when those tender and elliptical reflections suddenly turned into full-on anger and spite, Dylan spewing out the words.  In isolation, there wasn’t that much enjoyment to be had listening to “Idiot Wind”. In context, it was a crucial and brutal moment in the outpouring of emotions that ran through the album.

 Allegorical it might be, but was that somehow about the same person that he stayed up in that Chelsea Hotel, writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for? The full circle, to be sure.

 My favourite songs on the album, along with “Tangled up in Blue”, were “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello”.  “You’re a Big Girl Now” began with a lovely minor key guitar intro and ended with a wistful harmonica solo, in keeping with the emotions of the song. The song felt like a love letter, aching for a reconciliation, each verse peaking midway with a cry of oh, oh as if the pain of reflection was too much.  “If You See Her, Say Hello” was less hopeful about getting back, but hanging on to that shred of memory: hoping she’d look him up if she had the time.

 Again, the music was gentle, simple: almost off key guitar, an organ mixed right into the background, barely perceptible, but adding depth. And the voice, the quivering, desperate voice. This was grown up music, music I barely felt ready for.  But I felt I understood.  The voice and the lyrics told the tales, but so too did the music.  As ever, you could feel through the music. 

“Shelter from the Storm” was another beautiful, gentle tune, with enigmatic lyrics. It felt like it was a tale of a man wracked by a turbulent life seeking solace with a stranger, a temporary thing. Balm to the wounds. But then there’s a verse about taking too much for granted, a wall between them.  So maybe it’s more than I thought. Who knows?  The wonder of Dylan: so much to be read into the words. Room to create our own stories.  Just writing this, I find myself paying more attention to words than for anyone else I’ve written about, even Bruce and Elvis.  He is the poet, no doubt about it, and I haven’t even got onto the sixties yet!

 It’s fair to say that I have only ever bought one book of rock star lyrics in my life, and it is “Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-2001”, which was published in 2004, by Simon and Schuster. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny.

 It wasn’t long after my introduction to “Blood on the Tracks” that I had my “New Pony” moment, along with Bruce Springsteen singing “Racing in the Streets”, as I listened to the radio at home. “Street Legal”, the album, was good, but not quite in the class of the previous two. My thoughts turned more to the classic past, and that started with “Blonde on Blonde”.

 There’s a famous interview with Dylan from 1978, when he talks about “Blonde on Blonde” as when he got closest to the sound he heard in his mind. He describes it as a wild mercury sound.  What a great phrase. It could mean so many things, but there’s something metallic, precious, unpredictable, untameable.  “Blonde on Blonde” met all those standards.  I bought it when, ‘78 or ‘79? Undoubtedly because the NME, and so many artists interviewed in the paper, referred to it as one of the great albums. And the cover looked great: a fuzzy photo of Dylan with scarf. And it was a double album, and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” took up the whole of side four. That’s just something that you could never get in the MP3 age. There is no side four. Only, huh, that last track’s really long, click on something else. I don’t mind; there are so many plusses in the way we listen to music today. And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” sounds just as great if you hear it on shuffle. You just don’t have that sense of its place, its isolation.

 So where else to start but side four?  Well, maybe side one and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 “? Where everybody must get stoned!  I wasn’t all that bothered about that first time around. Whereas “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” entranced me: the poetic relentlessness of it, the forensic detail, metaphorical, obscure, but clearly an obsession … that all-nighter in the Chelsea Hotel. A simple guitar beat, a little piano, Dylan’s voice twisted but tender. Almost reading out the tributes and observations; melancholy, but like so much of the best melancholy, truly uplifting. And at the end, a harmonica break that encapsulated that wild mercury sound. A flourish that somehow captured and embellished the sentiment of the song, a delicate thread of despair.

 Which is why it had to be the last track: it would have been downhill all the way from there if it had been at the start, no matter how good the other songs were.  “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is one of those songs which occupies a different dimension to anything around it.  A different time and space.

 The whole album was a new, almost daunting experience.  This was Dylan as I’d never heard him before. “I Want You” was familiar; but even that, a simple love song with a lovely clipped guitar, sounded a bit… weird. It was the voice, Bob Dylan in full effect. A half-talking, quarter-crooning, quarter-rasping sound, rising and falling in unusual patterns. Sliding here and there like wild mercury. I was captivated.

 The songs were like abstract paintings, the lyrics like wild brushstrokes which didn’t immediately seem to connect with each other. But they were really distinctive, with phrases leaping out at you hither and thither.  Now, for someone who doesn’t worry too much about lyrics as long as they’re not really bad, this was most definitely a new experience.  Everything revolved around the words. Even when they didn’t make a lot of sense.

 “Visions of Johanna” was my favourite, after “Sad Eyed Lady”. It had all that abstraction, and the weirdness of voice, and the silver sound of the harmonica drifting in and out; and everything came back at the end of each snaking verse, to those visions of Johanna, haunting the singer and the song.  I still haven’t got a clue what it’s all about – Mona Lisa with her highway blues and all that – but it remains entrancing, enveloping.  You can make up your own story, conjure up your own visions.

 There was a lot of blues on this album too; skewed blues, Dylan blues.  “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Obviously Five Believers”, “Temporary like Achilles”.  The latter was basically just a bar room blues, but it had that voice, stretched out and loaded. The emphasis in the oddest of places. This wasn’t what they taught you in music lessons. But it made perfect sense in a Dylan song.

 And “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. What could it mean? What was Shakespeare doing in the alley speaking to a French girl who knew the singer well. Why did the preacher have headlines stapled to his chest? What were the Memphis Blues?  What was Mobile? I dunno, there was a great rumbling country backing, a soothing organ sound, and a story.  Fragments of an adventure, things not quite right, misfits at every turn.  And the Memphis Blues again and again.

 Yeah, I could see why “Blonde on Blonde” was always rated as one of the top albums ever, back in the seventies.  Dylan had invented his own rules and no-one else has ever sounded anything like that.  Even though the music was just your electric country blues with a twist. No, it was the voice and the words, those wild, random, pulsating words.  About nothing and everything.  Poetry.

 And so, in those early eighties, credit card at the ready, I headed back to the years which have to be regarded as Dylan’s greatest. Having established a singular identity, he wrote the songs that defined American folk music, and then picked up his electric guitar, offending the diehards, and made the definitive electric country rock’n’roll blues. Culminating in the surreal patterns of “Blonde on Blonde”.  Between March 1963, when he released “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and June 1966, when “Blonde on Blonde” emerged, he made seven albums, each one a classic in its own way. I swept them all up – and the debut “Bob Dylan”, which was mostly covers –  and absorbed the evolving Dylan vibe.  The three that stood out most for me were “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”.  I got into them in reverse order: I was travelling back in time. 

 “Highway 61 Revisited” was an obvious place to start, because it had one of the great, iconic rock songs on it: “Like a Rolling Stone”. The song ascended, through layers of guitar and keyboard and spiteful lyrics, to that amazing crescendo when Dylan scowled and demanded to know how it felt to be on the way down. On your own, no direction home. I’m sure you know the words.

 You’ve heard it so many times, but it’s still spine-tingling, as the harmonica launches in to finish off the refrain.  It’s a song that must have inspired a young Bruce Springsteen.  There’s an umbilical link to “Born to Run”, I’m sure.

 From “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Tombstone Blues”, a speeded-up blues with the same surreal lyrics that characterised “Blonde on Blonde”.  I loved this song from the start.  As ever, you could just be bamboozled by the lyrical fragments, or form your own picture.  I had this picture of adolescent isolation, hopelessness… in the kitchen of all places, with the tombstone blues. Sulking.

 Because I’d heard “Blonde on Blonde” first, and had it for maybe three years before “Highway 61 Revisited”, the latter felt to me like a dry run for the former.  I’m not so sure now.  Many would say that “Highway 61 Revisted” was the better album, hitting the same spots, but more concise, more focused.  But still with enough time for the rambling final song, the precursor to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the brilliant “Desolation Row”. It had a faster tempo than the snail-paced “Sad Eyed Lady”, and a pretty Spanish guitar sound, and wasn’t about the one person.  In fact, it’s hard to say what it was about. Another abstract musical painting.  Something about losers; a cast of oddities, contemporary and historical. A reflection of the milieu he was operating in? Who knows? It was an epic.

 “Bringing It All Back Home” feels like the coolest Dylan album of all time.  It’s partly the cover: a drawing room scene, as viewed from inside the camera; blurred borders and a clear inner circle, with Dylan, cool as you like, in the foreground with a grey cat, blues and soul albums to his side, and an elegant dark-haired woman in a red dress with a cigarette, reclining behind him. Dylan’s previous album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” pokes out behind her; a copy of Time magazine, with President Lyndon B Johnson on the cover, rests at her elbow.  And loads of other stuff.  Framed in white, with Dylan’s name in red and the album title in blue.  The music had to be good with a cover like that. And surely it was. The album kicked off with the buzzing rock’n’roll beat of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with Dylan reeling off the slogans, a call for rebellion. There’s a famous film of the song – not sure you’d call it a video in those days – with Dylan peeling off a succession of storyboards with the song’s slogans on them.  It’s great imagery, conveying the intent of the song brilliantly. Insouciant and strident at the same time.  So knowing and so ahead of its time. The riff was derived from Chuck Berry, I think; and in turn, Elvis Costello adapted it for “Pump it Up” on “This Year’s Model”.

 The album was divided into an electric side and an acoustic one.  The first side had a couple of love songs, “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, with lovely, tinkling guitar and just a little bit of the surreal lyricism.  “Maggie’s Farm” was a tale of escape and became an anthem in the UK in the 80s for the opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the union movement. And then there was some of Dylan’s distinctive blues.  Side two, the acoustic side, was awesome.  “Mr Tambourine Man” may be compromised by becoming the song of choice for a million buskers, but that’s because it’s a song of great resonance as well as being dead easy to play.  “Gates of Eden” had a yearning sound and lyrics that railed against corrupt society and, well, lots of other things. And then it got even better.  “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was an extraordinary piece, a subdued diatribe against pretty much everything, but with that alright Ma refrain which spoke of an inner turmoil – it felt like Dylan talking to himself. It’s a raw, bitter song, exploring the inner depths, with some memorable lines, like the revelation that even the US President has to stand naked.  And the last shot that sums it up, turning the personal into the universal, when Dylan muses his fate if they ever saw his thought-dreams.

 The album ended with a tender, anguished song about loss and renewal, one of Dylan’s best: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. He’s on the brink, singing at the top of his range, crying out the lyrics, which of course don’t always make sense. I mean, what has a reindeer army got to do with anything?  Yeah, well, it’s Dylan. It’s all what you make it.  There aren’t many songwriters that treat you to so many images, so many possibilities that let your imagination run free… as well as providing a damn good tune.

 And then the journey back in time took me to what became my favourite Bob Dylan album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”.  Remarkably, only his second album, after a debut which was mostly covers of folk and blues, Woody Guthrie to the fore. A year or so later, in May 1963, Dylan had transformed into the spokesman for a young generation disturbed about the way the world seemed to be heading.  This was the time of the nuclear stand-off between the USA and USSR; the time, I imagine, when people most feared that the world might just slip into the third world war. The war to end all wars.  And end a lot more besides.  The Cuban missile crisis was in October 1962.  I was three, so I have no memory of it; but I can imagine the fear of what next.  In my adult times I guess 9/11 in 2001 was the closest to giving us that same sense of foreboding.

 “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was a mix of protest songs and the blues and the love songs and what was just going on in Bob Dylan’s head.  It wasn’t quite so surreal lyrically as later albums, but the signs were there.  The first song I hit on combined the Zeitgeist with some grade A weirdness.  It was “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. The talking blues was a device that Dylan used quite a lot in his early days.  A simple guitar motif and a lot of talk-singing.  Live, a real chance for improvisation, I would imagine. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” was the song that introduced me to the talking blues, but another element of Dylan’s lyrics too – a real sense of humour. It was a song about a dream about life after the apocalypse, told to the psychiatrist. It’s full of brilliant lines, funny and scary at the same time.  There’s one verse that links to another of Dylan’s preoccupations, the anti-communism, the reds under the beds philosophy that had gripped America. That was the subject of another talking blues which I first heard on the official bootleg series which started in the early nineties.  It was called “Talkin’ John Birch Society Paranoid Blues”. It was an amusing song about a man who is so worried about Communists that he joins the John Birch society. And searches for them everywhere, even the toilet bowl.  He’s worried about the red stripes on the American flag, American presidents… even himself.  Killing with comedy.

 “Talkin’ World War III Blues” rambles on, musing about Cadillacs and record players and telephone operators, until the doctor interrupts to tell him he’s been having the same dreams. Except Bob Dylan wasn’t around…

 I love that.  Just imagine the simple guitar picking, the nasal deadpan delivery… and the putdown. Didn’t see you around.

 There were so many songs that I loved on this album.  Some as soon as I got it, others in time. “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” is one of the Dylan classics: a break up song, but softened by the gentle, simple backing.  I like playing this song on my guitar.  It’s not too difficult, and has a lovely sequence of chords, majors (happy), minors (sad), sevenths (launchpads). That’s about as technical as I get on music. There’s something essentially optimistic about the song, and that combination of chords is behind it.  “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another song with a post-apocalypse feel, whether or not that was the intention. It’s prescient too, a theme tune for the environmental concerns that have taken on such force in the 2000s. There’s a relentless rhythmic repetition to it, which conjures up a feel of nightmare. I first heard it as a Bryan Ferry solo venture of course, so I have this rather confused take on the song, as the Ferry version, almost by definition, made it arty, more detached; but I think Dylan’s raw vision has won out in the end. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” again feature the spectre of war, and the military-industrial-political complex with such a stake in the Cold War conflict.  “Blowin” in the Wind”, like “Mr Tambourine Man”, has acquired a busker-cliche image, but what a great song, really. The words, the melody: so simple, and yet so powerful.  That’s why it resonates.  

 Then there were the more personal, Bob Dylan songs.  From the pastoral “Girl from the North Country”, which drew on the old English folk tune, “Scarborough Fair”, to “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, a tale of passing years, and “Corrina, Corrina”, which was a cover, but a lovely wistful blues with a loping guitar in the background.  It sounded like a song about a girl that Bob really cared about. While writing this piece I’ve been playing “Girl from the North Country” on my guitar.  The chords are easy: G to B minor (wistful) to C and back to G.  Not so easy to sing with my range – I strain to hit the peak of that B minor line. But what beautifully simple words that convey everything you need to know about the hurt and the unextinguished love. Take the second verse, where the singer implores whoever he’s addressing to make sure she’s warm enough in the howling winds of winter. Not only does it tell you all you need to know about the harsh climate of the Northern Mid-West – Dylan’s home state is Minnesota – but it’s so affecting, with all the love in the world poured into that concern for her, so far away. Such a simple expression that tells you everything. Gets me every time.   

 Ah, it’s a wonderful album from start to finish.  A joy in itself, but also with a real sense of Dylan on the journey to greatness.  If the peak was “Blonde on Blonde”, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was the first step into the uplands. And it had a great cover: Dylan arm-in-arm, with a girl, his friend Suze Rotolo. Hunched up and happy in the cold, in the middle of a slush-covered New York street. His home turf. With a really cool orangey-brown suede jacket, the like of which I spent years trying to find.  Never quite managed it, but I’ve got one these days which kinda does it for me.

 In those early eighties, I stopped at “Blonde on Blonde” going forward. And then, on the Dylan timeline, I picked up again with that seventies listening:  “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, “Street Legal”. The latter album, despite moments of brilliance, was getting gospelly, which didn’t suit Dylan; or more to the point, didn’t hit my Dylan buttons. And then he got born-again religion. It wasn’t too well-received in the papers I read – NME to the fore of course – and I lost the contemporary connection for a while.  It wasn’t until “Oh Mercy” in 1989 that I got interested again in the modern Dylan.  And to be honest that was because of the rave reviews and the teaming up with producer Daniel Lanois, who’d done brilliant things with U2 and latterly with The Neville Brothers. There was this spacey sound to his works, which allowed Dylan to breathe, and to extemporise.  Whether it was an escape from the previous few albums I don’t know, because I’ve never got around to listening to them. But I think it may have been a bit of a liberation. 

 The making of “Oh Mercy” features in Dylan’s first volume of autobiography, “Chronicles”.  He evokes the atmosphere and scenery of New Orleans, where the album was made, beautifully. The steaminess, the lushness, the cemeteries, the mystery… and the blues; everywhere the blues, and soul and myriad musical forms.  One time he escapes from New Orleans, with his wife, on his ex-police Harley Davidson, to ride the surrounding country, to clear his head.  There’s a bizarre and rather disturbing encounter with a shop keeper called Sun Pie, a homespun philosopher who foresees the coming of the Chinese and the survival of the fittest.  Dylan tells it all with clarity and foreboding – he turns down an invitation to stay for dinner. 

 It’s interesting that the final product did have that spaciness in the sound – and a New Orleans sultriness – because Dylan tells a tale of frustration in his book about the making of the album.  Somehow what is in his head doesn’t connect with Lanois’ musical approach without a lot of effort on both sides.  It’s fascinating to read of the struggle, as well as the goodwill and mutual appreciation, and then to listen again to the album. It’s an education.

 Then, in my rather wayward Dylan journey, in 1994, I discovered the return to Dylan’s folky roots, which accompanied his retreat from live performance and spokesman-for-a-generation status after his motorbike crash in July 1966. The catalyst was an Elvis Costello album of covers called “Kojak Variety”.  It was a good album, a bit of a breather for Elvis. One of my favourite tracks was “I Threw it all Away”, a plaintive little song about, basically, taking a love for granted… and throwing it all away.  I saw it was by Bob Dylan and needed to find out more.  So I bought the album it was on, “Nashville Skyline”. It wasn’t just folk, it was country.  It was a gentle, heartfelt album. Dylan’s voice was totally different to the slurred radical of “Blonde on Blonde”.  It was pitched higher: vulnerable, kind of… normal. The songs were pretty conventional too, but the best had a stirring quality. “I Threw it all Away” really felt that way; “Tell Me That it isn’t True” was fragile bewilderment; and the reprise of “Girl from the North Country”, with Johnny Cash, had two great singers straining to hit the notes, which made it that bit more poignant. And then there was “Lady, Lady, Lay”.  One that makes all the Dylan Best Of’s.  I’d heard it plenty of times on the radio.  It’s a beautiful, laid back, but many-layered song that wistfully implores the lady in question to stay a bit longer. Before I ever really listened to the lyrics beyond the title, I could sense the longing and the impending regret.  A wonderful tune. 

 I picked up “John Wesley Harding” around the same time.  I always thought of it as the follow up to “Nashville Skyline”, but actually it was the first post-motorbike-crash album, released in December 1967.  It had a similar feel to “Nashville Skyline”: a bit less of the country twang, and the songs not quite as distinctive – except of course, “All Along the Watchtower”. The song that Jimi Hendrix took and made his own: a guitar anthem. It’s impossible to listen to Dylan’s original without thinking about what it became.  I think Dylan even said Jimi’s was the definitive version.

 The other music that Dylan made in this late sixties period was with The Hawks, who’d worked with him on his tours in 1965-66 and were pretty involved in the making of “Blonde on Blonde”. They later became known as The Band and made some great music in their own right: albums like “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band”.  Their classic songs included “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and some tunes they wrote with Bob Dylan” like “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”.  The latter two were also on “The Basement Tapes”, recorded in 1967, and one of the legendary bootleg albums until it got an official release in 1975.  I bought the CD twenty years later! It’s an album which feels a bit unfinished, but sounds as if Dylan and the band (The Band…) were having a great time, exploring American music, rock’n’rolling. There’s a lot of humour in the lyrics, a good vibe flowing through it all.  I like things like “Please Mrs Henry” and “Million Dollar Bash”, which go by in a flash.  They were never going to be massive hits, but they show Dylan just being himself, amongst friends.  A feel-good album.

 I’ve got another version of “The Basement Tapes”, a bootleg of the bootleg, or something like that. Courtesy of a good friend, Paul, who is a bit of a collector of such things. The CD has what must be an early version of “Quinn the Eskimo”, also known as “The Mighty Quinn”.  The song became a No 1 hit for the British group, Manfred Mann, in 1968, and features now on all the Dylan greatest hits albums.  It’s an upbeat pop tune – not Dylan’s speciality – and it is now a regular sound at The Stoop in Twickenham, when the Harlequins rugby union team are playing. Sometimes Manfred Mann, occasionally a hard-rocking version by a Swiss band, would you believe, called Gotthard. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Quins for a few years now, and “The Mighty Quinn” is our celebration tune. And we’ve had a few good times to celebrate.  Funny to think it came from those sessions when Dylan was escaping from what he had created, but still wanted to make music…

 The Dylan story continues to this day.  Still touring, still making music, still celebrating music – he has a US radio show that takes people back to the roots of the music he loves and the music that today lives in the same spirit.  He is the ultimate troubadour.  Over the past decade, he has made a few albums which have received critical acclaim: “Love and Theft”, “Modern Times”, “Together through Life”, all exploring the roots of the music that made him what he is.  Each time the voice sounds that bit more frail; but the passion is still there. I’ve bought them all, listened a few times, and then, I have to say, switched back to my old favourites. But I really respect what he is doing.  Music is his lifeblood, singing is his trade, and he’ll do it until the day he dies.  A true hero.

 The legacy has been enhanced by a series of “Bootleg” albums that started in 1991, with a five album box set that strangely comprised Volumes 1-3 of the series. It was a beautifully-packaged set with a classic mid-sixties Dylan photo on the front cover: the punky hair, the Ray-Bans, blowing into the harmonica. The music ranged from early stuff to the eighties Christian period.  It’s when I first heard “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and there was a lovely Irish sounding piece called “Moonshiner” which I’d never come across before.  Overall the music was interesting, in a completist sort of way, rather than amazing.  Maybe because it ranged over such a lengthy period the impact was lessened.

 The next few volumes focused on single concerts. Volume 6 has one from 1964, with Dylan at his acoustic peak. Highlights include a wildly expressive version of “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, a sharp-as-hell “John Birch Society Paranoid Blues” and a song I previously hadn’t heard, called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”. Why and what’s the reason for? cries Dylan.  Davey Moore was a boxer who died after a fight. Who to blame? Not I… say the referee, the manager, the gambler, the writer, the fighter, the crowd and sundry others. Dylan rattles off the denials, in a sinister monotone. It’s a gripping tale and a mesmerising performance. Throughout, Dylan’s voice is at its most expressive: pitched high, almost shouting, spitting out the words at times.  He’s joined by Joan Baez for a few songs at the end. It’s an odd combination, the rasp and the warble. Doesn’t totally work with only the strummed guitar as backing: the voices need to be playing off different things, not just each other. But I can imagine it was amazing being there, seeing and feeling the two of them together. 

 Volume 4 is a concert from 1966 in Manchester, when Dylan had gone electric and some fans weren’t happy.  It’s the scene of the infamous Judas cry and Dylan’s reply, I don’t believe you… you’re a liar, before launching into a visceral “Like a Rolling Stone”.  Volume 5 took in live performances from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, with Joan Baez, amongst others.  It featured songs from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”, as well as some of the sixties classics, often heavily re-worked.  A really good selection.  And then Volume 7, released in conjunction with the 2005 DVD, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home”. What a great film – Dylan interviewed about his roots, his early days and his sixties heyday, with live footage that captures the moment brilliantly. The CD goes right back, with home recordings of Dylan playing at being Woody Guthrie, his main man, and a touching “Song for Woody” from his early studio efforts. You understand…

 In 2004, Dylan’s first volume of autobiography was published.  “Chronicles, Volume One” it was called.  Of course, being Dylan, it wasn’t chronological, but went back and forth through time.  And completely missed out the heyday. It concentrated on the early days, really telling you where Dylan came from, personally and musically.  He’s brilliant on the flashes of light that truly helped to form his distinctive style. Woody Guthrie and the blues singer Robert Johnson take pride of place, with the moments that Dylan first discovered them vividly, excitingly described. He pays tribute to the various folk singers that he played with in New York, people like Dave van Ronk, and is enthralling about the way that a production of Brecht and Weill songs unleashed his imagination, making him think ever more creatively about the structures and characterisation in songs. 

 And I like the bit when he describes listening to a folk musician called Mike (not Pete) Seeger in a New York attic in those early sixties when he was finding his way.  Dylan is so moved by the brilliance of Seeger, his musical virtuosity.  He knows he could never compete, and realises he therefore has to invent his own rules, his own music.  It’s part of the transition to writing his own songs. The rest is history. Thank you Mike Seeger!

 He’s fascinating too, on how he was trying to make music in the late sixties with “New Morning” and then “Oh Mercy” in the late eighties, as I’ve described earlier. There’s a tremendous honesty about the whole thing: the struggles he sometimes had in realising his vision for the songs, his desperation to get away from being seen as the spokesman for the sixties generation. (A tiny bit of me asks is he protesting too much here, maybe rewriting history just a little; but I don’t think so, given the openness with which he tells his tale.) His prose is like the lyrics to his songs: sometimes (but not often!) a straight story, other times almost random musing with flashes of great insight, memorable phrases, extraordinary recall of detail.  Maybe he kept a diary, or maybe he’s just got that eye and memory for everything. The richness and detail of his lyrics suggest he’s just got it all.

 I’ve been re-reading Volume One of “Chronicles” as I write this piece. Even though the periods in his life that he writes about hardly overlap with the times he made my favourite music, the insight into Dylan the man and Dylan the song writer have really heightened my appreciation and understanding of all his music.  More artists should write books like this.    

 There’s no sign of Volume Two.  I hope he’s working on it.  I hope he takes us into the magical period from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” to “Blonde on Blonde”.  And I hope he takes us on the journey through “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. Some of it might be painful, I guess; but I’d love to hear what really lay behind all that great music. I’d like to know what he was thinking of when he wrote “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. What was he hearing when he strove for that wild mercury sound? I’d like to know if or how he managed to record “Blood on the Tracks” without breaking down.  How did he see through the tears when he sang “You’re a Big Girl Now”? I’d like to know what he was dreaming when he dreamt up “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and how he and Johnny Cash got together to sing “Girl from the North Country” with such tenderness. I’d like to know how he has kept the passion and the energy, still reinventing himself at age 70.  Because we can all learn something from that.  I’m sure he would say, be true to yourself, follow your dream. And don’t stop dreaming…

* “I Was There – A Musical Journey” is available on Amazon. Click here. It tells the story of the music I have loved from the early 70s until 2016. It includes delving back into the sixties, to rock’n’roll and some of the jazz greats.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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1 Response to Reflections on Bob Dylan as he turns 80

  1. Great piece, John! I remember the passage from your book.
    I’m not surprised by how awful his later year live shows were; heard that from too many people. I doubt if the man himself particularly cares.
    One of the best tributes, if it can be called that, and definitely some of the most intriguing covers of his songs featured on the soundtrack to the fascinating film “I’m Not There”. If you haven’t heard or seen those, I’d strongly recommend both.

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