by Jim Gillan


Ah, the difficult third column. Thankfully inspiration in the form of Freewheelin’ 199 has arrived with a thump. It’s not that it’s a particularly heavy tome, it’s just that the letterbox is a long way from the floor. But enough of that nonsense. On to this instead. Now then, Paula’s piece on ‘The Formative Dylan’, Todd Harvey’s overview of Bob’s early (1961-63 output) is a cogent, considered, well-presented and thoughtfully argued take on the book. And what’s wrong with a hearty dollop of tautology? Best sellers are full of it. Quite.

But that aside, it’s about 176.875 degrees removed from the review I recently penned for Isis. I too turned the heat up under the cogent/considered/etc bit of the grey matter, but in me the result was that on the whole I gave a resounding thumbs up to the work. H’mmm, something of a difference. Perhaps others will look at both Paula’s and mine, then conclude on some distant wall that she’s wrong from her side and I’m wrong from mine. Maybe the only one who cares either way is Todd, who presumably would quite like to sell a few copies to keep the Harvey kids in shoes and popcorn.

Many and diverse are the perspectives on anything to do with Bob. But are they of any real value? And if so, who to? Truth, fact, belief, what is said, seen and done is only the expression of an individual’s take on anything. This applies as much to Bob as it does to any commentary, critique, rebuttal or whatever that Dylan and his art attracts. Oh sure, a lot of folks put store in others, be they priests, politicians, gurus or world authorities. Why this should be is not something I care to think on. Anyway to borrow a bit from Behan, a bit from Bob and the rest from the murky corners of my mind - An opinion ain’t nothing, it’s only a view, / For the things that I’m seein’ might not work for you. / My wild words of wonder can waltz through the air, As to whether they mean much, well I really don’t care. The out-takes were better. Well, maybe.

Saw Macbeth recently. Good production of a difficult play. Spoiled very slightly for me by the considerable height difference between Macbeth and his missus. I acknowledge that this is a trivial thing, but it intruded enough to notice. Does it diminish Will’s work? Not really. The only thing that was reduced was the actress. Yes, I’m being deliberately sizeist, but only to illustrate that no matter how loudly/cleverly/crudely an opinion is advanced, it remains an opinion. Though some may choose to call it fact. And THAT can matter.

Consider (if you care to) the views expressed about ‘Down in the Groove’, ‘Dylan and the Dead’, 'Self-Portrait’ and so on. Personally I incline towards Freewheeler David’s simply stated, ‘my favourite Dylan song is ‘Death is not the End’. Well that’s nearly two of us, as I only like it a lot. Any more takers and we’ll have a damn movement. For that matter, I like most of the tracks on ‘Groove’, but I don’t regard the album as being a particularly coheren t piece of work. Just a view. Oh, nearly forgot. Macbeth has that line in it about “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”.

Old Will was mighty observant and remains so. Like Bob, there are any number of learned tomes devoted to his every word; any number of critiques about his treatment of language, history, women etc etc etc and every likelihood that there will be many more, but there is no substitute for simply reading the plays, or watching them, or acting them out for yourself. A small shift in emphasis, intonation, delivery can have a big effect. Like every performer, Bob does this every time he walks on stage, but is arguably more aware of it than most, as well as being willing to embrace change, with all its attendant risks and rewards. Even when a Michael Gray is lurking, bile souring his every orifice.

Mikey is more of an irritant than most professional (!) critics, simply because he has a reasonably good technical mastery of the pen, which gets him published and read. But his art (for such it is, though I tend to think the ‘f’ is silent) is much diminished by the way he treats others in Song & Dance Man 3, as well as his tendency to pronounce judgement on everything. Perhaps he thinks that to do so evidence of the knowledge and learning that goes with being a ‘world authority’ on Bob. Me, I know nothing. But that’s what Socrates said, so all I’m doing is underlining my lack of originality.

Last words on the Gray, at least for now. Back in the June 2001 issue of Mojo (which I’ve only now read), Richard Williams told us that he had been taken to task by MG for writing favourably in the Times about the ‘wrecked majesty’ of the Dylan/Dead Auzten Stadium performance of ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ Zen, Richard, it’s not you personally, but rather a Williams thing, as I shall now explain.

Remember how shabbily MG treated Paul Williams in S&D M 3? That’s right! He too is a Williams! Could it be therefore that MG has a deep-seated fear, perhaps bordering on hatred of the name? Following clues in my detective bag and knowing how much a theory, any theory, is valued by Bob watchers, I determined that the name “Williams” is commonly found in Wales. Now at some point, perhaps in another lifetime, on a road full of mud somewhere in Tiger Bay, Cardiff (or is it Swansea? No matter) the then pregnant mother of MG, waddling with the weight of her extraordinarily talented (we have his word for this) foetus, was almost felled by a blow from a leek! A large leek, wielded by a demented 43 year old one-legged ex sailor, cook and parrot fancier from West Virginia. Who answered to the name of ‘Boggs’. However this was not his real name, as will be revealed below.

The attack explains at least some of the irrational behaviour of the adult Michael. His detestation of the Williams (any of ‘em) is less to do with the worth or otherwise of their views, than it is with the dimly remember pain of being battered about the head when his surprised Ma stumbled against the railings of the ‘Under Milk Wood’ public house. It wasn’t so much the assault that caused her consternation; rather it was suddenly finding herself plucked from her familiar home ground and deposited outside a grimly unwelcoming (being a Sunday, it was closed) Welsh boozer. What she didn’t know was that a rift had temporarily opened in the time/space/place continuum and that the inevitable, but in her case unfortunate exchange of matter had brought her in to contact with an obsessive. Which, looking at Mikey’s later career as a world authority, is scarily coincidental and the stuff of the X Files.

We now know that the leek-wielding ‘Boggs’ had jumped ship when it docked (another amazing coincidence) in Wales. As a younger man he had once seen Dock Boggs play. Sensing a kindred and equally disturbed spirit, and detesting his birth-name ‘Silver’ (he was fed up with the rejection implicit in the perennial cries of ‘Hi Ho Silver, away!’ which were common at the time) he adopted the alias ‘Boggs’ and took to humming songs such as ‘Sugar Baby’. Note please that this includes ‘O I’ve got no sugar baby now’ and ‘What more could a poor boy do’ – words which Dylan blatantly uses as song titles in ‘Love and Theft’. Anyway, back to what really matters. The unfortunate collision of events – or, more precisely, the collision of leek and Ma’s left ear. Stumbling, she grunted in a mixture of surprise and pain, causing her to gasp ‘my baby!’ And ‘poor boy!’. Do I need to point out the connection? I thought not. Meanwhile, inside the womb, the as yet unborn Michael felt the bump on his head as Ma fell against the pub railings. In reply to her cries, he replied ‘It’s alright ma, I can take it.’ Astonishing or what?

But although in an instant the rift in time/space/place was healed, which meant that Mum was returned home, clutching a piece of a leek as partial compensation for her ordeal, the damage had been done to baby Mike. The wallop, though minor, was sufficient to cause a fundamental shift in his neural pathways, resulting in an over-developed opinion and a dislike of anything remotely Welsh. Paradoxically it also prompted an attraction of sorts to the name Dylan, though as all the world knows, Mikey fights hard to suppress much of this. So quod erat demonstrandum and even honi soit qui mal y pense, it’s all crystal clear. And no need for footnotes either.

I contend that all The Formative Dylan attempts to do is identify some of the things that influenced Bob’s material in the early years of his ‘professional’ life, as well as explore likely sources and look at differences in his treatment of the pieces. Value judgements are generally avoided, as is anything pertaining to mood or feeling. This does make it a little dry in places, but I was stirred, rather than shaken, by this. Lazy sod that I am, I do like pointers towards Bob’s musical and other influences, but can do without any speculation on their importance to him and the emotions they might have stirred within him at any given moment. Lest I sound like some unfeeling old scrote (though some, myself included, might say that I qualify on at least two of the three) I recently bawled my eyes out whilst watching a video of students of the Royal Opera House singing ‘Va, pensiero’, aka the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, from Nabucco.

It will never be seen as part of a fully realised performance. No orchestral accompaniment, limited lighting, hastily improvised costume, but what a triumph. Verdi’s parallel with an oppressed and fragmented Italian people sustained by belief and each other brilliantly executed. I’ll watch it again and again and though I might not always cry, I’ll hug close to me the knowledge that I once did and hope I will again. I might also shed a tear over Dick Gaughan’s Amandla, or Bob’s ‘Every Grain of Sand’ out-take on the Genuine Bootleg Series. And his ‘Not Dark Yet’, ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Mississippi.’ Which now feels like this. Mis..s..issi…..p…..p……i. A very different song indeed.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious all over again, everything is subject to perspective. Which can constantly change. Granted this can be unsettling and anarchic, but is also hugely rewarding, as it means that every day can offer something entirely new, even if it is only to the apparently mundane and the boringly familiar. Comparisons, like explanations, become secondary to the joy of exploration and discovery. Sometimes there is disappointment, but what the hell, rain is as necessary as sun. And there can be pleasure in both.

There is of course also any amount of pleasure to be had in expressing a view on Dylan’s art and what informs it. Many people like to discuss this with others, perhaps to seek consensus, or seemingly as often, to find reasons to argue. And on the whole it does no harm. But whilst detecting influences and impact can be difficult enough, it pales beside the problem of determining motive, intention and emotion. And even if it is possible to be 100% right, it’s only a snapshot. Ultimately as ridiculous as what is penned above. Just a view. Roll on the shows.