I recently had to write something about Bob Dylan for a poll being held on a message board. It’s rather a bum deal having to sum Bob up in a few words, so I went a bit weird. But not that weird. Anyway:
Bob Dylan, eh? What can be said about his Bobness that hasn’t already been said?
He couldn’t write lyrics and hasn’t done many albums.
But seriously, Bob is awesome. I know many people don’t like him. Hell, I was one of those people. I had a grudging respect for the fact that he had done so much in the scope of what we call rock and roll. He had influenced lots of folk (and sadly lots of folkies), and cool people like Jimi Hendrix and Axl Rose covered his songs. But I just wasn’t feeling it. His voice was weird, the songs a bit sparse, and it all just felt a tad old.
Needless to say, when I began my studies in Manchester, I bought a Dylan album. Blonde on Blonde, obviously. Bit long. Sounded a touch thin, too, as do pretty much all CDs that were released before people knew how to properly master CDs. This was before the Great Dylan Remaster Odyssey of a few years ago.
With Dylan, it turned out, you need a hook. For me that hook came when I created a particular compilation during that first year of university: it was titled, somewhat vulgarly, Sunday Morning Chill.
Among hot new(ish) acts of the time like Goldfrapp and Groove Armada, and old faves Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, I placed the promising ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’. Not that I thought at this point that it was a particularly fantastic song, but its decent length and rolling – non-climactic – structure created a musical place in which I could comfortably reside for the minutes on those autumnal mornings in which I lacked the energy to rise.
While in that somnolent haze, certain phrases began to pester my consciousness. ‘Did he just say “he smoked my eyeballs and punched my cigarette”?’
The song had clicked. I soon fell in lust with its lines; it is so hard to write surreal rock lyrics without looking like an idiot. But this song, balancing talk of ‘Shakespeare in the alley’, with the visible signs of Grandpa’s descent (‘I knew he’d lost control / When he built a fire on Main Street / And shot it full of holes’) was that rarity that you could equally happily read or listen to. Next stop was ‘Visions of Johanna’, whose key lines are so mind-bendingly good that they have passed into rock quotation cliché.
What is astonishing is that, in the context of the song, ‘the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’ and ‘Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it’ are almost just lines in a song. Many have pointed out that Dylan is merely a poet in the world of rock and, beyond his lines, he offers little. Just listening to how he increasingly emphasises every other word in the former line dashes that perception immediately.
And it spread. But it spread beyond just his music into everything. Seeing him perform live, even now he is a desiccated relic, is a potentially amazing experience. Not only does he roar through classics like the aforementioned ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile…’ with the building momentum of a prime Jerome Bettis, but recent songs like ‘Nettie Moore’ are touching even when the listener is unfamiliar with the studio version.
Dylan was always a carny. What some observers mistake for illegitimacy, a lack of authenticity they believe is the petard on which Bob may be hoisted, is actually Bob’s apparently endless yen for verbal smoke and mirrors. He delights in spinning a yarn and if it confuses those listening, all the better. This can be seen in those odd televised interviews he involved himself in when his career was still young. This is also the reason why his autobiography reads like a novel too well written for its time. Or like his songs writ large.
This fondness for a linguistic meander overflows into possibly the greatest of Dylan’s works in the last couple of decades: Theme Time Radio Hour. During these wonderful broadcasts, Bob plays songs based on a certain topic, be it the telephone or birds. Not only is his record collection, and knowledge thereof, remarkable, but he imbues songs with extra depth. Whether they deserve it or no, he often intones lines from a song with reverence, forcing you to look at that song in a new light.
He also makes with the anecdotes. While it is true to say I could listen to his rasping yet oddly comforting tones for days, his tales, many of which could fairly be described as short rather than tall ones, are bait for the concentration equal to the songs. My favourite is the one in which he recounts meeting someone in Home Depot, while ‘looking for wood’. With no more of a preface than that, he challenges the listener to guess who he met there.
With barely pause for breath, ever reinforcing Bob applauds ‘that’s right! Gina Gershon’. As if anyone on this Earth (or any other, for that matter) would have correctly guessed. This segues nicely into Gina introducing the particular song she had chosen for that broadcast (‘La Bochinchera’, by Graciela with Machito & His Orchestra).
I should imagine Bob found his wood that day.