Michael Henderson considers the perennial appeal of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan turns 70 next week, and from Duluth to Derby they will blow out the candles. The Minnesotan troubadour, who rolled into New York the year Kennedy became president, will pay no attention. As he wrote in one of his better songs, ‘Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint.’ Like Ken Dodd, a different kind of minstrel, he will stop performing only when they put him in a box.
It would not be unkind to say he has been crooning like a 70-year-old for some while. His voice, which was never an instrument of beauty, lost whatever shape it may have had at least a decade ago. At one concert in Brixton, Andy Kershaw, the BBC radio presenter and Dylan fan, lost patience with all the mumbling and muttering, and shouted, ‘What song is this, Bob?’
Yet still the followers linger, waiting for a sign. And what followers they are! Across ocean and desert they pursue their quarry, hoping to hear him get it right one more time. No popular singer has attracted such devoted admirers, or so many batty ones. One of the most persistent, Michael Gray, who wrote a biography called Song and Dance Man, once confessed he was spell-bound by the way his hero shakes his leg, so we are not obliged to accept every claim made on his behalf. Dylanophiles do not make hard-nosed reviewers.
The more enthusiastic followers, like that (usually) superb critic Christopher Ricks, would have us believe that he is not a popular entertainer at all, but a poet, a true artist. They make much of his literary pretensions; yet pretensions they are. Reading Balzac may be the pastime of a civilised man (Dylan was very keen to sprinkle names throughout his overrated autobiography, Chronicles), but furnishing a room with books doesn’t make a man an artist.
Nor does quoting famous writers in his songs, and Dylan has never been shy of telling listeners what he has been reading. Eliot and Pound turn up in ‘Desolation Row’, an early rambling song that shows the songwriter at his most turgid. Shakespeare appears in ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. Most ludicrously he squeezes Verlaine (pronounced incorrectly) and Rimbaud into ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’.
There’s nothing wrong with quoting writers. Plenty of American lyricists did it before Dylan but they revealed greater felicity. Try Lorenz Hart: ‘I was reading Schopenhauer last night. And I think that Schopenhauer was right.’ That’s wit. Or Ira Gershwin: ‘You reading Heine. Me somewhere in China.’ That’s class. Or Stephen Sondheim: ‘Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack. For there isn’t much blue in The Red and the Black.’ That’s sheer brilliance!
Dylan is not in the same league as those giants, who knew that songs were not just words flung down to accompany melodic phrases. Listening at a distance of nearly 50 years to some of his early songs, such as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, is plain embarrassing. Not for this ‘literary’ man the playfulness of Cole Porter: ‘Do do that voodoo that you do so well.’ And in half a century of putting words together he has never approached the wounding simplicity of perhaps the greatest of the great, Johnny Mercer: ‘With each beam, the same old dream.’ A world of yearning in seven syllables.
Yet, despite everything, there is a case to be made. Ignore the flattery of his adolescent admirers, the dreadful songwriters who emerged from beneath his cloak, and his own silly remarks, which have too often been presented as evidence of homespun wisdom. Good work will always survive the nonsense that surrounds it, and Dylan made one record so fine that it puts him in the pantheon.
When he entered the CBS studios in Manhattan in September 1974, it was a troubled time for his country. Richard Nixon had stood down as president the previous month, and American troops were still in Vietnam, preparing for the humiliation of withdrawal. It was also a difficult time for Dylan, whose marriage to Sara Lowndes had broken up. Earlier in the year he had toured the States with The Band, concerts which produced a storming double album, Before the Flood. But he was struggling to come up with strong new material, and the landscape of pop and rock was changing.
Against this background of darkness and doubt Dylan recorded an acoustic set of exceptional quality. Unhappy with the mix, he rerecorded five of the ten songs in December back in Minnesota. In January 1975 the songs were unveiled on Blood on the Tracks, a record that is commonly held to be his masterpiece. A cut of the New York sessions, released years later and known as Blood on the Tapes, is, some would argue, even better.
There are, thank goodness, no protest songs here. There are none of those cringe-making jokers and clowns that infect Dylan’s Sixties material. There are no conventional love songs. Saturated by a sense of loss, Blood on the Tracks can make painful listening. It is a work inspired by two fractures, one personal, one public. But it works. At times it even glows.
At its heart are three songs which, taken together, represent Dylan’s finest achievement: ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. Here there is a sense of movement so important to Dylan (and to many other American songwriters) and, tellingly, a sense of restraint: ‘I’m out in the rain, and you are on dry land. You made it there somehow. You’re a big girl now.’
‘Shelter from the Storm’, with its memorable opening lines, ‘’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood’, takes the garland. Here, beset by a misery that only his songs can assuage, Dylan supplies the words that crown the record, and his career: ‘I’m living in a foreign country, but I’m bound to cross the line. Beauty walks a razor’s edge, some day I’ll make it mine.’ It is as if, through the mists of despair, he spies a clear moon, and the possibility of hope.
So Happy Birthday, Bobby. If you are a great songwriter, and not just a singer of quirky songs, bumped up by an army of lickspittles, the strongest evidence can be found on Blood on the Tracks. But as you so rightly said. ‘Don’t follow leaders. Watch your parking meters.’