That Bob Dylan has attained the Biblically-allotted span of years is in itself remarkable, given the life he’s lived, but mere survival is surely the least of his achievements. As a reason for celebrating his seventieth birthday, it is of little interest to anyone but himself and his dependants. Anyone who has lived through the last decades of the twentieth century will be able to come up with several much better ones. My own are a little unusual, because – in spite of having been a teenager in the Seventies – his music was largely unknown to me until I’d reached middle age and Dylan himself was an old man.
Growing up in Sri Lanka, where records were hard to come by, TV didn’t exist and the one State-controlled radio station seemed to know nothing of Dylan apart from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, I managed to become a to-the-core rock fan, rock geek and even rock musician without every seriously listening to or thinking about Bob Dylan. Absurd, but these things happen. Our handful of early Colombo rock kids, looked upon with dislike by adult authority and out of the mainstream of our contemporaries’ musical taste, passed precious rock albums from hand to hand (singles were never even thought of) and transcribed them, much worn, to tape as soon as cassette technology made that possible. My family weren’t rich enough to afford lots of expensive LPs, so I was largely dependent on this network for new music. And it just so happened that few of my friends were very keen on Dylan. It was usually either heavy rock or campy musical-comedy fodder for the people I grew up with, so I went through my teens without ever really connecting with Dylan. Like I said: absurd.
Mind you, the little I heard of his work over those years didn’t encourage me to investigate further. I couldn’t really dig what anyone saw in that voice – not just nasal and raspy, but with that nasty insinuating tone to it, like he was sneering at people. And when he took the clothespeg off his nose for ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, it sounded like he was barking instead. A woman would have had to be nuts to lay across that big brass bed (as indeed, we now know, a number of them were).
There were other things not to like, as well. The harmonica was definitely an acquired taste. The songs seemed to have too many verses, and the music behind the vocal was often a hurriedly-recorded, shoddily-produced mess. ‘Hurricane’ was the first Dylan song I honestly liked, and I liked the way he sang it too, but it kept getting faster and faster till he was just gabbling the words to get them out, and the notoriously lousy Street Legal production turned it all to mush anyway... you’ll note that all these were impressions received from a handful of songs, mostly heard on the radio. I was still ignorant, still saying the ignorant things people who don’t get Dylan say about him, like ‘Bob Dylan is a great poet but he’s a lousy singer,’ and ‘I like Bob Dylan’s songs when other people do them.’ Did I mean Peter, Paul and Mary’s saccharine rendition of ‘Blowin' in the Wind’, I wonder, or Manfred Mann’s cover of ‘Quinn the Eskimo’? What the hell did I mean?
Bob and I had a couple of near misses. Aged about twenty-one, I somehow contrived to learn all of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, and often sang and played it thereafter on appropriate occasions. How did this happen? It must have been included on a tape somebody compiled for me. I liked the trippy words, man... Then, a couple of years later, I heard ‘Isis’ for the first time. I was surprised it was by Dylan (I’d never heard that version of the Voice before) and it sounded intriguing besides. But this happened at a social gathering, and I was in a conversation I couldn’t break away from to listen.
And so it went, until I was about (I blush to confess) forty, and at a serious point of disconnection in my life. After a painful separation and divorce, followed by illness, I had moved to Dubai to start again. I was pretty bruised but not without hope and I also had, as a result of that divorce, a record collection to replace. Unlike most men of forty (I am proud to boast), I was not much interested in replacing long-cherished teenage favourites. My rock-geekhood had metastasized over the years, and my tastes with it, so that I was now qualified to assemble a representative selection of the best rock and roots music albums of the last forty-odd years – modified by personal taste, naturally, and helped along not a little by a subscription to Q. It was at this time that I began listening intensively to Bob Dylan. It is when I heard Blood on the Tracks for the first time.
Do I see you nod knowingly? Ah, you’ve been there. You’re a Dylan fan who’s been through a happy marriage followed by a nasty separation, just like the man himself, and you know just what I’m talking about. All the thoughts and feelings you ever wanted to express in those times, as well as all the ones you never wanted to have see the light of day, are on that album, presented in a way that makes you live intensely through them all over again – afterwards to be comforted, and perhaps a little healed, by the experience.
As for Dylan the artist, I got him immediately, of course. It would be more correct to say that he got me, just as he will get anyone who is willing to put aside first impressions and listen without prejudice for the length of a single song (‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for preference). I mean, come on – after forty years and forty thousand imitators, how shocking or fundamentally offputting can a funny voice and a scratchy harmonica still be? What do these people do when they hear Tom Waits? Go into spasm?
Still, perhaps the holdouts are on to something, because it changes you, being got by Bob Dylan. Suddenly the whole world looks different. I think the effect is the same no matter at what age it happens, though your reaction will surely be more vigorous if you are younger. For a near-codger like me, discovering Dylan was largely a case of hearing known truths piercingly and humorously stated; for someone in, say, their early twenties, it’s probably more like hearing the news.
There’ll be enough analyses of Bob Dylan, his music and his influence being written and read today. I don’t plan to add to them, beyond stating that, in my considered opinion, he is the greatest artist of the second half of the twentieth century. I came to this conclusion by myself, but have since seen it repeated in a quality British newspaper. To those who would challenge the assertion, I reply as the author of that article did: if not Dylan, then who? Answers on a postcard, please.
Today, this is what I am celebrating: the fact that, about twenty years too late by personal chronology, I finally discovered, experienced and appreciated the genius of Bob Dylan. It was a near thing, and my life would be considerably poorer if it hadn’t happened. I’m celebrating my lucky escape.
To my friends who still resist listening to him, I say: you guys don’t know what you’re missing. And besides, you’re wrong. He’s not a lousy singer and his songs never sound better when covered by other people, they almost invariably sound worse – you can count on some limb of sense or feeling having been amputated. Bob Dylan is not a great poet – his verse struggles on the page – but he is a great songwriter, the greatest of them all. And then there’s the Voice. Nobody else can articulate the scope of meaning and depth of emotion that live in a Bob Dylan song anything like the man who wrote it. It doesn’t even end there: as an interpreter of lyrics, other people’s as well as his own, Bob Dylan has – when he can be bothered – no equal. No Sinatra or Caruso could ever do what he did routinely in his pomp, nor did they ever dare to tackle lyrics as artistically dense as ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Tangled up in Blue’, or an emotional palette as broad as that which includes ‘Idiot Wind’ as well as ‘Romance in Durango’, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. Have you noticed that popular singers before and after Dylan sound completely different? Ever wonder why?
There are sublime aesthetic experiences to be had throughout Dylan’s recorded oeuvre – literally dozens of them. There is a shedload of intelligence and wisdom, most eloquently expressed. There are barrels of laughs. But there is something more as well, something that makes the experience of listening to Dylan qualitatively different from listening to music made by other musicians, a sort of combined effect of concert, poetry-reading and after-dinner storytelling. It has had its imitators and tributaries, but the original is still unique. But it comes with a price of entry attached, over and above whatever, if anything, you paid for the record: you may have to rearrange some of your preconceptions before you can appreciate it. But that’s okay; you will be a better person for the change. There’s another damn’ good reason to be celebrating His Bobness’s threescore-and-tenth birthday today.