‘Tricked once more…’. Happy birthday, Dr Dylan

Today’s the birthday of Bob Dylan. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2005 when Dylan was nominated (unsuccessfully – again) for the Nobel Prize:

It was an odd kind of funeral. The deceased had lived a full and somewhat rackety life, and most of those who had come to bid farewell were, like him, brave and scruffy individualists. But the church service had gone wrong somehow. The vicar misjudged his congregation; there was a mismatch between the stolid pieties of established religion and the wayward spirits of the largely hippyish congregation.

After the service, the coffin was borne on a horse-drawn cart through the streets of the town and out into the country where, on a patch of private woodland next to a common, the grave had been dug. We gathered around the hole in the ground, some of us feeling odd demoralised by the dreary church service.

At that moment, someone produced a guitar. Photocopied song-sheets were handed round. On it were the words of ‘Hey, Mr Tambourine Man’. As the coffin was lowered into the earth, the mourners  –  mostly members of that shambolic, enterprising generation that came of age in the Sixties and their children   –  sang the song which Bob Dylan had written four decades before.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand wavin’ free,/ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,/ With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/ Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

 At that moment, all the warmth, hope and spirituality that had been lacking in the cold, echoing church was back among us, conjured up by a simple tune and by the oddly psalm-like quality of the words.

As the forever young generation totters through middle age into the grey beyond, instances of that kind occur with increasing frequency. It may be true that, as Dylan wrote on the sleeve-notes of his album Planet Waves, “the ole days are gone forever and the new ones ain’t far behind,” but with time comes the realisation that, just now and then, a writer or musician comes along who connects with his moment in history in a way that is truly unusual. They have a tendency to burn out or go bonkers, these people. When one survives all the pressures and temptations that come with fame and riches, and continues to create and to engage with his times, a sort of miracle has taken place.

This month will see a recognition of the life and achievements of Bob Dylan and for a few weeks, he will be as solid and unavoidable a part of the culture establishment as he could possibly dread. His memoir Chronicles – Volume One, the literary treat of last year, is published in paperback, as is a collection of unpublished and unseen archive material in The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956-1966. A three-week season of Dylan-related films is being shown at the National Film Theatre and an exhibition of rare photographs is in show at the Proud Gallery in London. In October, the Nobel Prize for Literature is to be announced and Dylan, according to one on-line betting firm, is an unlikely joint-favourite with Margaret Atwood.

26th September is the 44th anniversary of Dylan’s first professional appearance – he came on as support act to John Lee Hooker at Gerdie’s Folk City in New York – and it is on that day that the first part of No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s authorised documentary about Dylan’s early career will be shown on the BBC’s Arena, with the second part being shown the following day. Not exactly garrulous at the best of times, the film’s subject is said to have contributed an astonishing ten hours’ worth of interview, talking to his manager Jeff Rosen.

It is a rare treat, this Dylanfest. And yet, almost certainly, after all these various explorations of his life and music, the essence of Dylan will somehow evade capture, as it always does. His true admirers, as opposed to the nerdish Dylanologists forever grubbing about in the margins of his history, may be rather relieved about that.

For Dylan’s elusiveness is central to what makes him great. One of the great surprises in his book Chronicles, apart from its wit and verbal brilliance, is the rage with which the author writes about the various expectations of him. From the earliest times, he was of the old-fashioned opinion that a musician’s job was to make music. He represents nothing but himself. Receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Princeton University, a hapless academic introduced him to the audience as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America.”

Dylan writes that, sitting there on stage, he almost bit himself in fury. “Oh Sweet Jesus! It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless. The disturbed conscience of Young America! There is it was again. I couldn’t believe it. Tricked once more.”

No wonder he has had such a hard time of it from journalists. It is more comfortable for all concerned if a public figure slips into the particular cloak of celebrity that is offered to him and gets through his life by playing a part when in public, but then Dylan has never been in the business of providing comfort. Just as he was enraged during his twenties by the idea that he was the voice of anyone but himself, he has, approaching his pensioner years, refused the various personae that are on Offer: grand old radical, political prophet, four-chord guru, cultural icon.

For those of us who have followed his career from afar, this talent for disappointing expectations of him has been perversely satisfying. Who else but Dylan would enrage his hippy following so effectively by selling the exclusive right to a long-awaited live album recorded in 1962 to that emblem of American mercantile imperialism, Starbucks? How many other ageing singers could so enrage a businessman like Humphrey Kadaner of HMV Canada that this month he huffily announced that the entire Dylan catalogue would be removed from stores in retaliation?

This bloody-mindedness has taken a lifetime to perfect but was evident over 40 years ago. When the producer of American TV’s all-important Ed Sullivan Show refused to let the programme’s 22-year-old guest sing the political lampoon ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ and asked to play a nice Clancy Brothers song instead, Dylan walked.

Truthful in his songs, he has outraged journalists by cheerfully self-mythologizing  –  lying, as it is technically known  –  in interviews. His story of jumping a freight-train to get to New York when he was a teenager was not strictly true, nor was the Sioux Indian bloodline to which he later referred. He has changed his date of birth now and then. When reviewers commented that the bitter songs on his album Blood on the Tracks reflected feelings about his failing marriage, he was incandescent. “Stupid and misleading jerks, the interpreters are,” he said. “Fools, they limit you to their own unimaginative mentality.” The fools were almost certainly right.

Boy and man, Dylan has gone his own  way, insisting, as he once did in those lines of ‘Maggie’s Farm’, “I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them.”

The great advantage of this consistent defiance of what Joni Mitchell once called “the starmaker machinery behind the popular song” is that the familiar process of private memory being eroded or subsumed by a shaped, public version of what happened is less likely to take place. Bob Dylan first sneaked into my musical consciousness soon after I had arrived at public school, was not particularly happy and had just graduated from the ukulele to the guitar.

It seems now that, to those older and more worldly than I was, his music was cataclysmic and revolutionary. All I knew was that some skinny kid from America was giving hope to those of us who were decade behind him. His voice was reedy and uncertain, his guitar and harmonica styles were (deceptively, I now know) rough and ready. His songs, miraculously, were based around a few simple chords. Frankly, if you were unable to mater ‘Blown’ in the Wind’, you had no business playing the guitar.

Looking back now, it is easier to see what an extraordinary change he brought with him  –  more radical, in its way, than anything that was happening in Liverpool or west London. Our ears were attuned to the stuff that Radio Luxemburg was pumping out through millions of tinny transistors, usually hidden under pillows and listened to after lights-out:  Bobby Vee, Johnny Tillotson, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, all bouncy strings, smooth harmonies, boy-girl lyrics, bubble-gum and candyfloss. The Everly Brothers were as near as we got to rebelliousness (Quite, quite mad,” my grandmother murmured, seeing Don and Phil sing Kathy’s Clown on TV).

When Dylan arrived, all that began to change. Something was happening and but in that bubble of uncoolness, the British public school, we didn’t know what it was.  Those extraordinarily tumultuous and productive years of his career, from when he arrived in New York in 1961,  and started singing Woody Guthrie songs in cafés and coffee bars, to the tour in 1966 at which he was regularly booed for a perceived betrayal of folk music, are the focus both of Chronicles and of  No Direction Home.

Those who subscribe to the view of the 1960s as a time of feckless hedonism might usefully look at Dylan’s early career. He was nervous and tentative at first about writing his own songs  –  “It’s not easy,” he wrote in Chronicles. “The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing”  –  but soon songs and lyrics were pouring out of him. Many of them were adapted or developed from songs of the 1930’s and 1940’s, belonging to a category called “Americana” which is now popular but was then profoundly unfashionable, or borrowed from contemporaries like Dave Van Ronk or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

For Dylan, it was not plagiarism, simply a matter of the work coming first. He was as careless and profligate with his own songs, 237 of which were published in a two-year period by Witmark Music and covered such unlikely singers as Glen Campbell, Jackie de Shannon and Ricky Nelson.

The prolific generosity of Dylan’s talent down the years has been a wonder to behold. “Industry … is itself the artist’s portion,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in her book The Artist As Bad Character. “There is no question that quantity  –  added, of course, to genius  –  is what separates major writers from minor ones.” By this standard at the very least, Dylan ranks among the greats. He has written a superb songs and duff ones and sometimes, in his performances, has not seemed to know which was which. Even his stronger songs contain occasionally clunky lines that it appears he simply had not time to fix. Who else could get away with this rhyme in the middle eight of ‘The Man in Me’? “But, oh, what a wonderful feeling / Just to know that you are near,/ Sets my a heart a-reeling / From my toes up to my ears.”

This combination of profligate creativity and an enigmatic personality have provided rich pickings for the great Dylan industry, which is staffed largely by the natural heirs to the geeky AJ Weberman, the “garbologist” who likes to go through the Dylan family’s rubbish during the early 1970’s and eventually received a thumping from the man himself. Type “Bob Dylan” into the Amazon book section and a list 12,682 titles will be offered to you.

Personally, I will be happy with the songs, Dylan’s memoirs, of which there should be more volumes and the Scorsese documentary. Not for the first time, I shall regret that, in all senses that matter, the Sixties passed me by: not many drugs, virtually no sex and Dylan restricted to struggling with the chords of ‘Ramona’  in a school dormitory. Had I been slightly further up the generational and behavioural food-chain, I might have been caught up in the great folkies v. hippies row that surrounded his 1966 tour when, almost as an act pf provocation, he played an acoustic first set, thrilling the folk fogies, before blasting them away with the help of The Band in the second half.

Dylan was sinking low at this point. He was “a little shit, very pleased with himself and using smack,” according to an interviewee in Jonathon Green’s book A Day in the Life, and that certainly was the impression that I, as snotty undergraduate, gained of him from DA Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. By then, many of us felt that, having sung his songs so often, we sort of knew him. Yet there he was on screen  –  zonked out, surly, arrogant. He was mean to some poor little journalist, insensitive to lovely Joan Baez. He made our own Donovan look silly (not difficult, admittedly).

It took a few years for me to understand that Dylan was ahead of the game. Worn down by the pressure of expectation, he wanted to get back to the music and was prepared to use anything, no matter how uncool, to wrong-foot the world and shake it off. In the Sixties, it was loud amplifiers, a hideous houndstooth check thing, and a sudden (and, for me, miraculous) affection for country music; later in was a startling conversion to born-again Christianity, then Judaism and finally Starbucks.

Few of us, watching the wasted, demoralised figure of Don’t Look Back, would imagine that he would still be up there, still touring, a Nobel Prize contender almost 40 years later. Even before he nearly killed himself in a motorcycle accident, he seemed as if, unlike other greats of the time, his career and maybe his life would burn out. McCartney was clearly going to be a family favourite when he was 64 and Pete Townsend was never going to die before he got old. Dylan, though seemed terminally tangled up in youth – its rage, confusion, radicalism and general restlessness.

Surviving, and on his own terms, Dylan has not only produced an astonishingly varied catalogue of songs from great political anthems (‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’) to simple love songs (‘Boots of Spanish Leather’), from mad, tumbling story songs (‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’) to agonised meditations on loss (‘Idiot Wind’).

But, beyond all that, and absolutely without intention, he has offered a way to live your life. Through excess, drugs, heartbreak, crises of faith and ill health, he has come through and at 64 is, if no longer forever young, is still on the move, still changing.

“In words and music Dr Dylan has created an almost unlimited universe of art which has permeated the globe and, in fact, changed the history of the world,” the Nobel Prize nomination reads. I long to see our man on that platform, getting angrier with every word of praise. Could we have our first walkout of a Nobel ceremony? With a bit of luck.


This article was first published in the Independent on 22 September 2005.