Thursday, June 01, 2006

Blues for Bobby

I haven't got the copyright for this but the blokes who do haven't bothered to archive it.
I wrote it five years ago to mark the bugger's 60 B'day. Since it was his 65th recently, here we go again.
Warning - a long, frigging, self-indulgent whine follows. But then, doesn't that make it the perfect blogpost?

Here we go:

The best thing about Dylan is that you can sing along with him and feel superior. Yeah, he was a good poet, one hell of a talented musician with an instinctive grasp of complicated orchestral abstractions. But he couldn't sing for peanuts, that whiny, nasal, flat voice could barely hold a tune. That incomprehensible high-plains accent butchered his own poetry, mangled and mumbled the words and rendered his lyrics into a guessing game.

Over the years, I guess hundreds of millions have sung along anyway with Robert Zimmerman from
Hibbing, Minnesota. In a thousand campus hostels, every idiot who ever fiddled with a guitar learnt his or her set-piece Dylan. Maybe some of them didn't want to but singing Dylan was the price they paid to keep an audience.

I stopped listening to Dylan as pure music a long time ago. He turned into background noise, something as familiar as driving a cantankerous old car with funny quirks in the gearing. I knew every trick of phrasing, I knew exactly when the harmonica would kick in just the way I knew the delicate balance of choke and starter. I knew the variations Robertson had done on it, I knew the Dead's bootleg version, I'd heard Tom Petty mugging it along with the Heartbreakers.

And Dylan has associations running back across the years. There are the stoner anthems that take me disappearing along the foggy ruins of time to when I travelled steerage to
Goa, more than 20 years ago. There were the unending arguments with Cool Breeze - my black pal from Detroit who thought that Dylan did whiteman's music but he liked it.

There was the music that we played scratchily through the nights on the old gramophone as we stayed awake and waited for the hard rain to fall, for my girlfriend's dad to lose his long hard battle with cancer. There was my bitter empathy with the boy who swore that he wouldn't work on Maggie's farm no more as I totted up my week's commission on the typewriters I'd sold.

I remember driving up the Assam Trunk Road from Guwahati to Tinsukhia and blasting Buckets of Rain over and over again as the windscreen wipers went into overdrive. The lost weekend when a bunch of us got smashed in the grotty old Tiger Cinema bar and watched The Last Waltz three times post-exams. Every time the show ended we just stepped across the road to the Maidan, or down to Nizams and we drifted back again as the third and final bell rang.

Of course, it was "early" Dylan I listened to as a young adult. Sure I'd heard Dylan as a kid, but I started to relate to his poetry only in the grim gray 1980s. That was when Agnetha was wiggling her butt and most contemporary music was built around the metronomic backbeat of an invariant boring bass.

By then Dylan was well into his period of religious mania and he was writing complete crap. The first great manic association of talent clustered around him in the 1960s had broken up and dispersed. Half of his early comrades were dead, some were vegetables, still others had gone their own way. It would be a long time before he would again forge a team where the whole made better music than the parts, still longer before he would find his own feet again as a songster.

But he'd created the early oeuvre, the work that made him great. The first flowering was the great folk ballads of the early 1960s that came straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition and transcended it. Those lyrics articulated what an entire generation felt was "wrong" with the way the world worked. He spoke for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.

In the mid-1960s he started the transition from acoustic road balladeer with banjo, guitar and harmonica to composing and fronting for tight ensembles that stretched the limit of everything electricity could do. The return journey to the softer influences of country and Southron blues ala Nashville Skyline took him several years as well.

There were the flirtations with drugs, the statutory brushes with the law and the string of girlfriends, wives and relationships that turned sour. It was all grist to the creative mill throughout this wondrous 15-year odyssey that transformed popular music, even those aspects that Dylan never directly touched. Blonde on Blonde with its Visions of Joanna, and Sad Eyed Lady must be about the best album of love songs ever written or maybe it just felt that way. Like A Rolling Stone - well, who could write a more viciously brilliant allegory and set it to music?

Nobody who came after Dylan would ignore him; you just couldn't ignore him despite all the obvious flaws. Dylan created the original space for a poet who could sing. Even the rank amateurs often did covers that out-sang the original. It only enhanced his reputation - you realised the depths of the imagery, felt the itches he had so precisely scratched.

The great frequently built their reputations on the songs Dylan wrote. Leave alone pals like Joan Baez, Robbie Robertson and Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix's big popular breakthrough came with the electrifying variation he did of Watchtower at the Isle of Wight. From Jerry Garcia to Pete Seeger, everyone's tried their hand at Dylan.

Dylan still can't sing. A disability he's insisted on publicly flaunting for more than forty of the last sixty years as he's leveraged his limitations into a trademark style.

No other great has performed so often. Dylan still does a concert every three days. Some of them in really weird places, small towns in the prairies, provincial backwaters in
Central Europe - somebody once calculated that Dylan did a round trip of the world every year. In his 60th year, in just the last five months, he has played 13 shows in Japan, nine in Australia, 15 in the USA -- with Scandinavia and Western Europe on the agenda for the second half.

He started putting the music back together in the late 1980s. There were hiccups, the Budokan performance led to a dreadful double album. But slowly the talented started drifting back to the master. Mark Knofler, Neil Young, the Dead, - who else would they ever have taken second billing to?

Recent albums like World Gone Wrong and Time out of Mind are testimony enough to the fact that he has found a second wind. And looking at his contemporaries, the "Never-ending tour" as it's been billed since 1988 makes sense.

Mick Jagger performs Start Me Up for the launch of Windows95, Paul McCartney accepts a knighthood, Jim Morrison fertilises a
Paris graveyard.

Dylan travels endlessly. That's where he started from, the tradition of the roadie, the Okie who chronicled the working mans blues. The travel keeps him sane. He can still tell his audience that even the president of the
United States sometimes must stand naked. And so, while others sign the endorsement deals, he's out there standing on the gallows with his head in the noose, watching with those wild wolf eyes and just waiting for hell to break loose.


Blogger wanderingscribe said...

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There’s more information about my journey at
Best wishes

1:06 PM  
Blogger samit said...

eki! khelcho?
also, amar theke beshi frequently post korcho.
does this mean you are now a...BLOGGER?
Demon Baby sends his regards

7:41 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

One of my favourites -- Dirge -- comes from a much later album, Planet Waves. It's such a brilliant mix of viciousness and self-pity. But my best favourite is Blood On The Tracks.

btw, didn't Dylan help to sell Victoria's Secret?

5:42 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

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5:47 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

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6:20 PM  

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