by Jim Gillan


Mary Catherine McDonagh (as she formerly was) married Saul in 1988, having lived with him since they returned from their travels in September 1984.Somewhat to the chagrin of her mother, it was a small and very quiet registry office affair. Noting the suddenness and apparent haste of it all, a lot of their friends and all her family though she was pregnant; but it was simply that they had decided it was something they wanted to do as a way of reaffirming their relationship. They still try to find ways of doing this, as it is passion and desire, rather than comfort and habit, which they thrive on. 

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 captioned it ‘Nothing is 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 “electrifyingly” 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, “with 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.” Both agree 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 Freewheelin’ 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 ‘Cross the 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 Mary” she took back the draft for another, longer, look, then after “I’m really not sure about this” said something like “she’s 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.”  Which 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 stage. 

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 concluded with “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. 

With 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 be jealous”.  Then “what might swing it for Mary is her thinking that it’s not entirely about her”.  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 window. 

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’. She read both pieces through again, then started to speak, only to stop in mid syllable. 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 Things Have Changed, Positively 4th Street, Dignity, Ballad of a Thin Man and You Ain’t Going Nowhere. Everything 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 even more 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. One 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.”  Which 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. “Think 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 “you 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.