Sorry I’m a bit late with this post. I wanted to have it out in time for Bob Dylan’s birthday on the 24th, but what with being deeply embroiled in writing a ghost story and my own closely adjacent birthday to contend with it didn’t quite happen. Never mind. So far as I’m concerned, any day is a good day to talk about Dylan.
I’ve been enjoying the various articles in the media this week: fans listing their Dylan top tens (I have to admit I’m a bit of a list junkie), personal reminiscences and most of all the imput from the next generation of Dylan obsessives, young people who weren’t even born when Dylan first started cutting records but who find his timeless lyrics and unique delivery as affecting and relevant now as they were for their mothers, fathers and teachers in the sixties and seventies. I couldn’t help smiling though when I came across yet another discussion around the subject of whether Bob Dylan should be counted as a poet or not. I would have thought it would be obvious to anyone reading Dylan’s lyrics that his use of rhyme and assonance, word association, literary reference and pure lyrical expression makes him one of the most gifted, original, anarchic, articulate, relevant and expressive poets of the 20th century.
My first awareness of Dylan’s daring use of assonance came when I first listened – properly – to his classic of 1975, ‘Simple Twist of Fate':
They walked along by the old canal/A little confused, I remember well/And stopped into a strange motel with the neon burning bright/He felt the heat of the night/Hit him like a freight train/Moving with a simple twist of fate
The cheekiness of the line-break on ‘freight train’ still astounds me, makes me lighter inside with the pleasure of it. Thinking about this, it came to me that what people are responding to when they call Dylan a prophet or a revolutionary – even if they don’t consciously know it – is his graceful articulacy, a use of language so fluid and so natural that it can break any rule you set for it and still come out kicking ass. The ‘message’ of Dylan’s lyrics, after all, is not a call to revolution or political activism but an injunction to remain true to oneself, to reject all party allegiances in favour of artistic integrity. It was this rejection of the political that was one of the central causes of his split with Joan Baez.
I’m privileged to have genuine memories of Dylan from the time when the tracks were still new. Indeed it was Dylan’s lyrics that formed the basis of one of my earliest horror stories. The track in question was ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,’ which I must have heard for the first time when it was released as part of the Greatest Hits Vol 2 in 1971. From the moment I started paying attention to songs – which happened at a very young age – I was obsessed with their lyrics even more than their melody. My interpretations were often distinctly strange. At six years old I was convinced that ‘Mobile’ was about a kidnap victim being held in some kind of underground cellar! I’m happy to say that I also have more nebulous, magical recollections of songs like ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that for me then were cornucopias of imagery, words like jewels that I hoarded and wondered at, not knowing quite what they meant, understanding only that I found them bewitching.
My rediscovery of Dylan came in the early 2000s, when I began listening to him seriously and this time as a writer myself. I was stunned by what I found. Not just by the classics, but by songs I’d never known existed and from every decade of his remarkable career. It was then that I started looking at him ‘on the page,’ and became a devotee. His lines make me shudder with rapture, not simply at the depth of emotion expressed but with the sheer power and strength of the writing. To see something done this well, intention so boldly and securely executed, is one of the purest delights known to me.
I’m not going to list my top ten – there are plenty of those to choose from already – but I would like to draw attention to a strand of Dylan’s oeuvre that means a lot to me, that stimulates my imagination endlessly and that perhaps has deepest resonance for any writer and that is Dylan’s work as a narrative poet, a balladeer in the truest sense of the word, where the ballad is not a slow love song but a compacted, lyrical retelling of a tale of love, freedom and infamy. The first stanza of ‘Idiot Wind’ illustrates this perfectly:
They say I shot a man named Gray/And took his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks/And when she died it came to me/I can’t help it if I’m lucky…..
Who was Gray and what did he do to get himself shot? Is the narrator being ironic with his use of the word ‘lucky’ and how did the wife die anyway? It’s a mini-ballad in itself, enough to provoke a thousand much longer stories.
In ‘The Changing of the Guard’ we have a story and a lyric that could encompass the whole grandeur and repeating tragedy of Greek mythology:
‘Gentlemen,’ he said/’I don’t need your organization/I’ve shined your shoes/I’ve moved your mountains and I marked your cards/But Eden is burning/Either brace yourself for elimination/Or your hearts must have the courage/For the changing of the guard’
I love the earlier line about being ‘caught between Jupiter and Apollo,’ summarizing the woman’s divided attraction between the man of power and the man of physical beauty. The song – which has sometimes been derided as ‘incomprehensible’ – is a masterpiece of passion and concision.
The shaded beauty of Dylan’s scene-setting in ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,’ is given as much weight as the bloody action itself and demonstrates a commitment to the business of storytelling that is up there with Leonard and Chandler:
Outside the streets were filling up/The window was open wide/A gentle breeze was blowing/You could feel it from inside/Lily called another bet/And drew up the Jack of Hearts
I can feel that breeze, the only relief from the stuffy, dustbowl heat that is a metaphor for the fight that is about to take place. Dylan’s narratives are filmic in their scope. ‘Senor: Tales of Yankee Power’ takes place in the same blasted, blood-streaked landscape as Jodorowski’s El Topo or the Coen brothers’ magnificent No Country for Old Men. The sound of that song is the sound of the spaghetti Western, the mariachi-sounding sax riff directly evocative of the music of Morricone.
And the lyrics! If we’re still playing top 10s, which I think we probably are, I would have to place ‘Senor’ as my personal number 1:
There’s a wicked wind still blowing on that upper deck/There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck/There’s a marching band still playing in that vacant lot/Where she held me in her arms one time and said ‘forget me not.’
It must say something that I don’t have to check these lyrics online before I post them because I have a typed copy of them folded inside the cover of my current working notebook. Scanning the dozens of reader comments on The Guardian‘s ‘Top 10 Dylan’ blog, it struck me forcibly that not one person had included ‘Senor’ among their line-up. I’m therefore doubly proud to draw attention to it here.
Time to stop listening to me, and get back to your own favourite Dylan! On Dylan’s birthday itself I put Blood on the Tracks on my headphones and walked from Hastings through St Leonards along the promenade. The sea was a glister of rhinestones. The castellated facades gleamed white against a burnished sky.