WHAT WAS IT YOU WANTED?
by Jim Gillan
Amongst the wedding photos is a series of four showing a gust of wind
blowing off her wide-brimmed hat. Her face is a picture – wide eyed
with surprise and then, by the third frame, enormous glee. The last shot
shows it being caught in mid-air by me, though as only my arm can be
seen, you’ll have to take my word for it. In another 10” x 8”
photograph, this one framed and positioned prominently on top of one of
the speakers, Mary is about to kiss Saul.
She has her left hand pressed against the back of his head. She
is gripping his curly hair with her fingers, the nail polish a deep red,
which I remember matched lipstick that needed a lot of touching up. She
is holding her ring finger unnaturally straight, probably to show off
the wedding band.
Saul is turned almost completely away from the camera and is holding her
with his right hand buried in her hair, the other on her behind, drawing
her to him with an intimacy and abandon that is yet undiminished. Her
right leg is slightly bent, the toe of her stiletto shoe partially
hooked around his calf. She has gathered up her skirt, drawing it just
high enough to show off the creamy lace of her stocking top and the
broad ribbon of a suspender. She has dancer’s legs. Long, very shapely
and, even when standing still, with that knack of looking as though she
has been photographed in mid sequence. Saul framed the photo and Mary
Revealed’; a joke that would be a lot more opaque if most of her
friends weren’t reasonably familiar with Bob’s music. Not that they
all like it, but Mary does, and she plays it a lot.
As quite a few people have already seen the photograph I don’t think
that she will mind me telling you this next bit. Clearly visible and
looped around the suspender fixed to the front of her stocking is a
silver and gold rope necklace. It was the first piece of jewellery that
Saul gave her (he bought it in Granada, a few days after the incident in
the Church) and although she sometimes wears it in the conventional way,
she more often arranges it as in the photo.
She says that it makes her feel very close to Saul, especially
when it brushes
against her with every stride she takes.
She is sufficiently self possessed not to care what anyone who
sees the photo for the first time, or who catches sight of the necklace
dangling down her thigh (as sometimes happens in changing rooms) might
think. Although she has never said so, I suspect that she enjoys their
surprise, even their discomfiture. She certainly is aware that it
arouses more curiosity than any piece of body jewellery would, no matter
where the piercing might be.
She is in her mid-forties now, but unless she is tired, looks a lot
younger. She works in publishing, but rarely says much about it. She
likes the fashions, hairstyles and look of the 1930’s and 1940’s, as
well as the music of the time. She spends a lot on lingerie and has a
preference for fully-fashioned seamed stockings. Although not vain, she
cares about her appearance and is forever checking to see that her seams
are straight. If you are ever in Shrewsbury, where she and Saul now
live, you might catch sight of her looking critically over her shoulder
at her reflection in a shop window. Up to a few years ago and
irrespective of her surroundings, she had no hesitation in hauling up
her skirts to make any necessary adjustments, something that Saul
delighted in. These days she is inclined to be more circumspect, “as I’m an old girl now.”
As we talk about what happened in the Church her face is both animated
and serene. I suspect the former comes from it being such an incredible
encounter and the latter from some inner feeling that she holds deep
within herself. There wasn’t room enough in the last piece to include
her comment that when she first went in to the Church and saw the
painting, she felt herself to be Mary, the Magdalen, rather than Mary,
the Madonna. But, she says, having had her wicked way with Saul (who has
indeed always claimed she seduced him), that was perhaps predictable.
She also says that it might have been more than ten or fifteen minutes
between her kneeling down and Bob showing up, but that NO WAY was it as
long as Saul reckons.
Both acknowledge that they have constructed a shared and separate reality
around what was but a brief encounter. They are utterly convinced it was
Bob and not a look-alike. They say that they have neither exaggerated
nor elaborated, instead they have only fleshed out something that was
absorbed instinctively. Mary thinks that the only reason that Bob
didn’t talk to her, maybe even come on to her, is that he sensed
Saul’s presence. For his part, Saul says that although Bob had to walk
past him as he left the Church,
the light streaming through the door and right into his eyes, no way
could he pick me out in the darkness; although I’m pretty sure he knew
I was there.”
that it was all over in five or six minutes and that whilst they still
wonder at it all, it’s unlikely that Bob gives it a second thought.
Saul says that he had probably forgotten about it by the time the
exhaust note faded.
It was just after
210 had come out that I called in to say hello on the way back from
a climbing trip to Wales. We chatted briefly about the piece, then about
Paula’s take on
Green Mountain’ .Perhaps because I’m not much interested in
dissection I found myself looking at the wedding photo and at Mary,
wondering if she is wearing the necklace in the same way. Saul,
perceptive as ever caught my eye and smiled at my brief confusion. I
think it was that small incident which triggered this further piece,
which to take account of Mary’s wishes and other considerations has
required a number of revisions.
That said, what I first wrote wasn’t so very different from this final
version. Both it and earlier drafts attempt to give a brief and
certainly intimate word portrait of someone I have known for years, but
truthfully know very little about. For those of you who have only this
to rely on, what sort of image is conjured up? And not just the physical
appearance, but also the personality. And what does it convey about
Saul? I asked a friend, Frances, who has never met either of them and
who doesn’t much care for Dylan what she thought. She read the draft a
couple of times, made some tea then tossed the papers to me with an
uneasy “I hope you’re not thinking of doing that sort of stuff on me,
although I can see what you are trying to do.”
In response to my
“OK – but
tell me about
took back the draft for another, longer, look, then after
really not sure about this” said something like
quite tall, about my size (Frances is a 12), styles her own hair, never
goes out without make up, probably goes to the gym a lot, is extrovert
and a bit vain.”
was, I agree, a reasonable assumption based on the information provided,
but is wrong in some areas – Mary never goes to the gym, though she
does go to dance classes; she doesn’t always bother with make up and,
for all her confidence, is usually happy to let others take centre
Although I didn’t ask her to, Frances also had a stab at Saul, thinking
that he would be confident, protective but not jealous, proud of Mary,
demonstrative and very tactile. She also thought that he might be
unconventional, but almost immediately said that she would say the same
about me and indeed about most of her friends.
I asked her to think again about Mary in the context of what she
had concluded about Saul. To her credit she did give it careful
reflection, head tilted as though listening to herself, as though
seeking another perspective. Eventually she differed only a little from
her original view, adding that Mary would be flirtatious, though
probably not coquettish (an interesting elaboration), an exhibitionist
of sorts and paradoxically, a little insecure. She thought that perhaps
sub-consciously Mary would always be looking for approval from Saul and
“if she likes
Dylan there’s definitely something wrong with her.”
Which was her way of lightening the mood.
Beyond the obvious point that no matter how much we think we know, there
is always much more that we are in ignorance of (hence the massive room
for misunderstanding) where does this lead? Nowhere really, other than
for all the data, the huge body of analysis and commentary and a
veritable constellation of explanations, none of us really know Bob any
more than I know Mary. But is there anything in the notion that finding
out a little about her is a way of discovering something more about Bob.
“By his fans you shall know him” to misquote the familiar line.
Bob there are many who believe that there is something to be gained by
delving in to every aspect of his life, his art, his influences and his
message – his recommendation to “always carry a light bulb” (sic)
offering endless possibilities. For some it’s a simple matter of
making money, which (I argue) means that the motive is inherently
suspect. For others it’s the desire to be a ‘world authority’,
though to know it all is to understand nothing. For others it’s the
joy of following clues, sifting the meaningful from the misleading, but
with what end in mind? Others seek illumination, which is maybe where
the light bulb comes in. For most perhaps, it is no more than a simple
curiosity that, at whatever level it is satisfied, brings an extra
dimension to the music, the lyrics. We already know that Bob is
intensely uncomfortable with all this, even angered by much of it. We
justify the intrusion by pointing out that he has chosen to be in the
public domain, has sought an audience and has cultivated opportunities
available to him by virtue of his success. I don’t for one moment
think that this piece and its predecessor have shed any light on Dylan,
though Mary has said that in the first essay I did capture something of
his aura, his presence.
Because I wanted Mary and
Saul’s agreement to this piece, I invited them over for dinner. My
wife, Ros, has known Mary since they were children and they have
always stayed in touch. They have a lot in common; sometimes it’s uncanny to see
them together, as they are easily mistaken for sisters. Perhaps because
Ros is a little older, Mary still tends to look to her for advice on all
sorts of things, though she won’t necessarily take it.
Ros was completely certain that both Mary and Saul would be OK
about the piece, adding “if you didn’t write for me like that, I’d
might swing it for Mary is her thinking that it’s not entirely about
It’s a good
point, as anyone who expresses anything through writing, painting,
music, whatever will subconsciously and/or deliberately allude to the
person who is closest to, and matters most, to them. At which point she
stuck her tongue in my ear and all concern about Mary went out the
I was just about to open another bottle, when Mary, who had just been
admiring the tailored calf-length dress that Ros was wearing suddenly
said “you both seem unusually
quiet – is everything OK?” Hugely grateful for the opportunity I said,
“well, I hope so.
I’ve got something that I’d like you to look at.
It sort of follows on from the last piece.”
In an endless silence I heard the neck of the wine bottle clink
against the glass, the tick of a clock and dust settle.
Glass in one hand, a trace of lipstick around the rim, Mary read the
draft carefully, then was silent for a long time. She wouldn’t look at me but I could see she had a faint blush,
which I feared might be a flush of anger.
She didn’t notice Saul (who had already reached the end of his
copy) wink at me, but must have heard my
sigh of relief as she looked sharply at me, before going back to
the top of the page and then out of the room, returning with the copy of
my article for the last Freewheelin’.
read both pieces through again, then started to speak, only to stop in
Saul waited for a
moment, then the sod made me squirm (and Mary and Ros smile) by digging
out a CD, which he programmed to play
Have Changed, Positively 4th Street, Dignity, Ballad of a
Thin Man and You Ain’t Going Nowhere.
can be made to fit, so it might just be coincidence. What is for sure that after having a private word with Saul and
then giving me a further grilling, Mary agreed that it would be OK with
a couple of changes. Not surprisingly, it was a bit of an unsettling
evening, though all of us made an effort to behave ‘normally’. Mary kept looking at the photograph, at the draft and at Saul, as
though she wanted the explanation to come from him. Ros (who has known Mary for a lot longer than me) stroked my
forearm, then said
“I like it, I
like it a lot –
than the last one” at which Mary looked up, grinned and said
ironically “I’m a sexy old bag, ain’t I?”
Later, when they were leaving, Mary rather ostentatiously checked her
seams, tuning one way, then the other.
was badly crooked and, as I have seen her do a dozen times, she reached
down to lift her skirt, only to quite deliberately pause, look directly
at me and say
“I’ll get Saul
to help me later.”
on the whole was a clever and pointed way of letting me know that she
still felt miffed and that I had strayed a bit close to, or even beyond,
the edge of what she thought was reasonable.
Though her agreeing to let it out also says a lot more about Mary
than a holy shower of chapters and photographs could.
what it’s like for Bob” was Saul’s only comment, which in its
own way was the more appropriate contribution.
After they had gone, Ros said
surprised her, that’s all; but she is OK about it.”
She was to,
or you wouldn’t be reading this.
So then. Although it is legitimate to investigate, analyse and comment on Bob’s art, what informs it and its place in the scheme of things, much of what is done is intrusive, speculative and counter-productive. If you want to understand something, first look to yourself. Few really do - not because it’s indulgent, not because there is nothing to be found, but because for many it’s scary. Anyway, what’s really real? Everyone has a right to privacy and therefore the right to seek to protect that by whatever means is appropriate. Disguise, distortion, spin, ambiguity, misdirection, obfuscation and myth are all legitimate ruses that send sleuths and commentators careering off on false trails and up blind alleys. Which perhaps amuses Bob no end. Of course that all tends to spark even more frenzied activity, but it’s the nature of the beast that is a seemingly insatiable humanity. And is why I try to distance myself from it. Wait a minute! Maybe I am an alien! Now THAT’s something to really look in to.
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