I first heard Bob Dylan when I was about thirteen. A teacher was giving a talk about folk music and he played a crackly recording of a song called ‘Blowing in the Wind’. I thought it was by an old black man from the South. Then I found out about the young Dylan, less than ten years older than me. And so began a lifelong relationship with the music of a man I’ve come to think of as THE romantic poet of our era.
I was never one of the obsessive fans who know all the songs and go to every concert. There were times we strayed far apart, like the first albums after his motorcycle accident, during his Christian period, and, more recently, with his crooning of American classics. Inevitably for someone with such a prolific output it’s not all good. Indeed he says in his memoir ‘Chronicles’ that there were times he deliberately put out crap. But in the last few years, as I’ve listened to some of his bootleg material as well as his latest albums, my admiration for his work has reached new heights. He, above all other musicians, has provided the soundtrack of my life.
So when I saw he was performing – along with Neil Young – at Hyde Park in July, I was on the phone at 9am on the day the tickets went on sale. I’d seen him three times in the previous ten years, and, I have to say, mostly I was disappointed. His voice was rough, he didn’t sing the tunes, he never acknowledged the audience and, on the last occasion, he sang Sinatra songs! But still I wanted to see him again and my persistence paid off. This time it was brilliant.
The Hyde Park setting was impressive. The Great Oak Stage was framed by two huge oak trees – fake but imposing nonetheless – with green foliage tumbling all around. The sun shone and the audience was mellow. Neil Young sang some of his classics – Alabama, Heart of Gold, Old Man – in a high, vibrant voice, unchanged in fifty years. Dylan’s voice has changed in that time. But it didn’t sound as ravaged as before. He used his full range, delicately reaching high notes, powerfully kicking out ‘how does it feel’ in Like a Rolling Stone, dropping to a gravelly rumble on ‘a simple twist of fate’. Yes, he still mucks about with the tunes. It took awhile to realise he was singing ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. But that’s his prerogative. He’s on a ‘never-ending tour’. He needs to vary things. He’s entitled to sing his songs as he pleases, not as they were laid down decades ago. And this time he sang all his own songs. No Sinatra now. A quarter of them I didn’t know. His music is, it seems, an inexhaustible treasure trove.
But you know one of the biggest differences this time? He smiled. A lot. He was enjoying himself. That’s why he does it. That’s why he does up to a hundred concerts a year – one every three or four days – and has done since 1988. Standing there behind his keyboard, sometimes playing harmonica, backed by the best band you can get; bopping up and down in his black, broad-brimmed, top hat; playing with his extraordinary vocal range and incomparable back catalogue; wearing a white, sparkling coat and a black cravat; beaming away… He has become the ultimate ‘song and dance man’, the phrase he used to describe himself in his twenties when people wanted him to be ‘the spokesman of his generation’. And, despite his relentless touring schedule, he still manages to make time to paint decent watercolours and to recycle scrap metal into strikingly beautiful iron gates. He probably even had a hand in the design of this ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ bandana. He is a true renaissance man. Some even claim him to be an ‘American Shakespeare’.
Around the time of the Hyde Park concert a new Bob Dylan film came out. Called ‘The Rolling
Thunder Revue’ and directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s about the 1976 tour of that name. If you’re not sure what the Bob Dylan thing is about, watch this film. If you’re even half a fan you’ll love it. This is Dylan at his best. The shows were done in smaller than usual venues and generated an extraordinary energy, ‘like two batteries’ (audience and performers) ‘charging each other’. Other musicians joined the parade including Joan Baez, who said of Dylan, ‘never met anyone before, since or anywhere with such charisma’, and Joni Mitchell who sang ‘Coyote’ with Bob playing along. Scarlet Rivera was on the violin. Everyone was inspired to become ‘extreme versions of themselves’. Dylan certainly did. He wore make up. His singing was full power and impeccable. He channelled angels and demons. He was ‘the blue-eyed son’. On the film you see incomparable versions of Hard Rain, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, One More Cup of Coffee, Hurricane, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and many more. There are interviews with many other characters involved in the tour including a touching Allen Ginsberg, a hard-nosed but compelling promoter, the bittersweet filmmaker who grudgingly admits to Dylan’s genius.
So that’s my Dylan rant. If you’ve got access to Netflix watch the film. If you want to get into some of his lesser-known songs try The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3, 1961 to 1989, especially the third CD. There’s a great line in ‘Ye Shall Be Changed’ that goes:
‘In the twinkling of an eye when the last trumpet blows, the dead will arise and burst out of your clothes…’
Perhaps I like it because it reminds me of the last line in my version of Merlin’s prophecy: ‘In the twinkling of an eye the dust of the ancients will be restored’! Dylan channelling Merlin!