by Jim Gillan


Time flies when you are enjoying yourself. Already the calendar has rolled around to 8th April, which pretty much means that my second (Ah! What it is to be an old hand) piece for Freewheelin’ is overdue. Bit more stream of (un)consciousness again. I had a plan but mislaid it.

In Leeds recently. This used to be described as one of those grim and grimy northern towns, where a night out wi t’lads meant supping ale in some dismal and cavernous four-ale bar, with three of the pumps not working. Or so I’m told. Now it’s a vibrant, dynamic and very (well, bits of it) desirable City with it’s very own branch of Harvey Nicks. And if that means nowt to you, then think thasel lucky. Ya big soft southern jessie. ANYWAY, there is a record shop not too far from the town centre where a goodly selection of boots can be browsed over. Yup, where once “boots” meant something to give laces a job, in these lifestyle days of plastic cards and sophistication, everyone knows that boots are responsible for reducing the major music corporations to penury. But that is another subject for another time. No, the lesson for today is taken from the Gospel according to Nick – or maybe Mick. I didn’t quite catch his name.

ANYWAY Mick (or Nick) and his nameless friend were poring over the Crystal Cat Spokane release. And their conversation, to which I briefly listened shamelessly, suggested that like Leeds, Bob’s fans have gone through something of a transformation. Smallish world that it is, Freewheeler’ Dave’s piece in last month’s collation actually serves as something of a trailer for what follows. For those who didn’t see it or have simply forgotten, his underlying argument was that technology means inter alia (I did Latin at skool for a couple of years) that we are much better informed about what Bob and what he’s up to - which may not be entirely a GOOD THING (I also read 1066 and All That). Quite right. And as an offshoot to Dave’s line, it also means that there is also much more opinion/commentary/analysis. Yup. Everything from the arcane to the inane, via the insane is available to us. To the point where it is virtually impossible to avoid.

Back to Nick, or Mick. Actually it might have been Rick. Well, whatever the name, yer man was speaking eloquently, intently and with the zeal of the True Believer about what “Mississippi” means (ironically a filler on the Spokane release), as well as it’s influences and pointers to other songs in the Dylan canon (or oeuvre – French too was on the curriculum), quoting all the time from commentaries on assorted web-sites, magazines and, for all I know, the ouija board. At which point I fled.

Nothing against the bloke himself, a personable enough chap at first glance. It’s just that it made me wonder for the umpteenth time how much all the discussion, debate, interpretation and deconstruction of the song, indeed ANY song, adds to the pleasure of listening to it and, if so desired, interpreting it in a way unique to us as individuals. Does it really matter that others might argue that a given song has resonances in French literature, or in the films of John Huston, or the ancient rituals of Native Americans or whatever? And even if there is a pretty incontrovertible link to a real life person or event, for example Sara, Hattie Carroll or the slaying of  Joey Gallo, how important is that?

Some while back I pored over Bert Cartwright’s The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. At the time it seemed like a good idea, Bob’s biblical and associated references going mostly over my head. I blame me parents, as having being brought up a Catholic, which bears very little relationship to Christianity, I knew something about dogma, but very little about anything else. The Old Testament and indeed much of the New played a poor second fiddle to the need to get to grips with venial and mortal sin, papal infallibility, guardian angels, catechism, the tridentine mass and all the other rot which gets in the way of thinking for yourself. But I wasn’t very far in to Bert’s work before I got the feeling that I knew more but cared less. And Bert was dealing with something that compared to some of Dylan’s references and connections, is dead easy.

Back to - well ultimately it doesn’t matter a jot whether or not the guy’s name was Nick, Mick, Rick or Nigel, anymore than it should matter who the sad-eyed lady is, or why “Love and Theft” is so named. It’s all about what works for you. But in an age when commentary, analysis and opinion is so readily available, so relentlessly thrust on us, is it facilitating or hindering the joy of hearing/watching/reading Dylan? Speaking strictly for me, whilst I quite like to hear about pointers to other musicians, insofar as the subject matter of any piece is concerned I want to  accord it my own meaning, to create my own reality. This is easier if I don’t have to discard other rants and theories. Although I admit it’s fun to swim against the mainstream. On the other hand, many say that there is any amount of pleasure to be had playing detective. That tracking down even the most cunningly hidden clues in the lyric, often in an attempt to uncover Bob’s influences and/or to try to better understand the man is integral to the whole Dylan experience. Well, it’s not for me, and maybe not for Freewheeler Dave either.  

But of course I might be wrong, and not just about Dave. For hugely confused old scrote that I am, I still find myself being drawn towards Dylan articles of all sorts, even those that I know will be a complete load of choss.  Time to put on a bit of music and lose myself in it.

Back again. A poor choice. There might after all be Somebody up there who doesn’t much like me. Liverpool 2001, the Crystal Cat release, or to be accurate a CD-R copy (it’s not just the majors who are suffering) of it which I finally got hold of a day or two ago. ANYWAY (is this an irritating affectation?), I wasn’t at the show, but have been told by a goodly number whose views I respect (though don’t necessarily agree with) that it was a belter. Sorry, but my feelings towards it are adversely coloured by Bob’s take on Positively 4th Street. His phrasing reminds me of those two clunkers, Bush and Blare – might as well make the spelling as appropriate as possible – who can speak only in soundbites. So there is a wholly artificial pause inserted between every bloody part of the sentence, along the lines of “The heinous attack (4 second pause) on the people (two second pause) of New (one second) York (six seconds) is (two seconds) a threat (five seconds) to (three seconds, deep breath, straighten shoulders, eyeball cue-card) us all.” Or as Bob has it :

I know…..
The reason….
That you talked….
Behind my back

Now whilst there is some excuse for politicians (anyone barking enough to seek high office must de facto believe in sound bites) talking as though the audience is particularly dim and therefore incapable of following a longer, more fluent sentence, I can find no room in my stony old heart for a supremely capable wordsmith and a singer whose ability with phrasing is wondrous. In fact I’m astonished that I made it as far as 4th Street, as most of the earlier offerings were as bad. But it’s like what I was saying about being drawn to explanations about lyrical meanings and references, I know it made no real sense to continue listening, but dammit, there’s something that pulled me in. Moan, moan, moan. I wish too that he would stop the practice of repeating a word/phrase. Grrr!

OK. Earlier I referred to having had a plan. As I’ve run out of alternatives, it’s back to that after all. In the Guardian “Weekend” magazine of 6th April is a full-page advert for Hackett of London. Who I think make suits. The ad shows a young chap, slim, hands behind back. Wears a grey check two-piece, accompanied by a light blue tie and a check shirt, whose pattern is replicated on the background. A confident, though not arrogant smile conveys a sense of someone comfortable with himself and confident in every conceivable situation. Good chap in a crisis. Sort of fellow that would gladden the heart of even the most protective and demanding of prospective in-laws. Neat brown shoes. Touch of class evidenced by the handkerchief poking discreetly from the breast pocket. Nice touch, that shirt and matching wall. Implies depth, sense of place, perhaps a touch of whimsy, implying that he will never be a wallflower. Neat hair indicative of a tidy mind etc etc. Looks like Mick. Or Rick. Or Nick.

Tosh, all tosh. All the above amounts to is my jaundiced view. As with any of Bob’s songs it’s whatever you want it to be. In my world the poor bugger is stuck uncomfortably in a tiled room, waiting stoically for the urinals to be fitted. Maybe in yours he’s just going to scribble whatever he concludes about “Mississippi” in the area of white space around him. Only the terminally upwardly mobile amongst you would want to buy the suit. Last bit. By way of a ta ta for now, here’s how I hear MississiPpi. It makes sense to me.