- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

It’s alright ma, I’m only dying ho ho ho

by Bob Fletcher


Last night listening to Dylan, aided by a combination of Mother Nature’s finest audio enhancement and German lager, I decided that this article would consist entirely of comments made by members of the public during audience recordings. This morning it didn’t seem such a good idea. Admittedly, American audiences seem to transcend everyday observations (“I just want to move her hand…..but she has a better angle” – Louisiana April 12 1993) whilst Europeans tend to err on the side of mundane (“Go on Bobby…” – Birmingham NEC 2002). However, with no obvious assistance from a website and a disabling lack of motivation, I felt unable to continue with any meaningful research. The other problem was that this morning the notes I made last night made no sense at all. In order to compensate I thought about the dream I had. Someone wanted to pay me lots of money. All I had to do was spend the afternoon, in a luxury hotel, with several models dressed only in their underwear... 

I digress. 

There is an old bit of philosophy that says you have to master four ways of looking at things: as they were, as they are, as they might become, as they ought to be. And then you devote your life to whichever of those you want.  Bob Dylan has lived long enough to understand. In fact, he has turned such philosophy into an art form. Listen to ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’ and you find that they are perfect companions to ‘Time Out Of Mind’. (It is with a terrible sense of shame that I now admit to not being over impressed when I first heard the entire album. I have since taken Andy Gill’s advice – Mojo, November 2000 - and bought a pair of cartoon ass’s ears). 

Around the time the former were released an article appeared in The Guardian (13th February, 1992). The author observes Dylan “staring idly at the paperback book that someone has brought aboard his tour bus.” The book is, of course, about Dylan. On handing back the book Dylan is quoted thus; “Naw, I’ve already been all those places and done all those things…..Now if you ever find a book out there that’s going to tell me where I’m going, I might be interested”. Five years later the latter appeared and Not Dark Yet reduced me to tears. 

Two years ago I began, in earnest, to think about my own mortality. I am surrounded by death. I work for a Drug and Alcohol Service and have become accustomed to overdoses, accidents, and self-destruction. I cope. As Hank Williams reportedly said: “Every time I close my eyes I see Jesus coming down the road….I’ve things to straighten out with the man”. 

Like many of you I have experienced the loss of family. Both my grandparents are dead and my parents deal with a series of illnesses on a daily basis. On several occasions I have accepted that I may not see them alive again and have prepared for their funerals. 

Recently I have spent ever-increasing amounts of time waiting for the news of Bob Dylan’s death. Every time I turn on the radio I prepare mentally. And I panic that I may miss the announcement so I buy the Guardian the next day just to check. The obituaries are there, minus Dylan, and another day passes. Which means it gets closer. As with many of Dylan’s lyrics, I find it too much (sometimes too painful) to comprehend. 

By its very nature death defies definition. Bob Dylan has, like all of us, been fixated by the end times. Throughout the sixties his songs, poems, and performances were filled with references. We just had to want to listen. (Strangely,

only lists 28 songs containing the word death. I can only assume that this refers to songs that are subject to copywrite. Admittedly I didn’t try variations such as ‘die’. A wider search of Google using Bob Dylan and Death provides 893,000 sites. More of which later). Dylan has the ability to see the ambulance before most of us realise there is going to be a collision. He has met with Death before, both personally and in the guise of his muse. However, his experience cannot be the same as mine as we are not each other. Likewise, the feelings associated with Dylan’s death will be mine only. 

I will read the obituaries but they will have limited meaning because I didn’t write them. I will experience that “fierce or violent sorrow” which Burton (in his Anatomy of Melancholy) refers to as “the epitome, symptom, and chief cause of melancholy”.

I will seek out those who understand my pain, those who can express empathy. I encourage you to do the same. Rage at the loss and be angry with Dylan for leaving you. But try and remember than none of us has tomorrow by right. 

No time to choose when the truth must die,
No time to lose or say goodbye.

(Street Legal)

Denial is a perfectly normal part of the grieving process. So is isolation. Therefore, I will continue, alone, to listen on a daily basis, at times blissfully unaware that I will never see him again. Though we were never friends I will search for the ‘lost’ Dylan.

Stephen Walsh, in his book Heartbreak Spoken Here (a hugely enjoyable journey through Country and Western music) notes “beyond that, as a pattern to things develops and the adrenalin that change has created disperses, comes a period of pain and isolation which is difficult to endure. Part of it is a simple loneliness, a longing. Part of it is a fearful wonder about where and what one is and where one is going.” 

I will identify with a communal sense of bereavement whilst distancing myself from any public outpouring. If God is in his heaven, Dylan’s resting place will remain unknown. The Devil already has Robert Johnson’s and Purgatory has, with delicious irony, taken care of Jim Morrison. 

Sadly we don’t have to wait for a postscript. God may be in his heaven but broadband has managed to create a direct link. Whilst searching for informed debate I came across the following. You will understand if I don’t provide the link. By typing in Bob Dylan’s date of birth I was able to find the equivalent Tarot card (don’t ask). Apparently Dylan is a Chariot, the characteristics of which include victory through might, advancement through bold action, change through force (this may or may not encourage him to forcibly insert a microphone down the throat of the attention seeking talentless fame hungry my parents never showed me affection gobshite contestants taking part in American Idol).  There is more. I am also able to find the rune equating to Robert Allen Zimmerman (Eoh – referring to the Yew tree, which apparently does not go dormant and therefore represents endurance…it bends but does not break). This rune is historically symbolic of death (It took some time but I finally got there). 

Working my way through back issues of Freewheelin’ it became apparent that many of the contributors have reached a point in their lives where Bob Dylan means so much to them. He helps them, and me, to approach middle age and ultimately death. His lyrics, music, and performances are peerless. He accepts that everything comes to an end. Everything is broken: 

By this time I’d-a thought I would be sleeping
In a pine box for all eternity


I am terrified at the prospect of innumerable posthumous releases, disgusted because Sony/Columbia will ultimately view Dylan’s death as an opportunity. And interpretation of lyrics will reach new lows (in truth, there isn’t far to go). Someone will suggest that ‘nothing left to burn’ (Standing in the Doorway) signalled the end of creation (Dylan has nothing left for us to copy – an unforgivable pun and one for which I ask your forgiveness). Failing that he was telling us, as death approached, he rid himself of the past with a bonfire designed to cleanse. You get the gist. Ultimately there is nothing I can do to prevent the inevitable. Bob Dylan will die. I don’t want it to happen for purely selfish reasons. 

Writing this has been cathartic. I have learnt that Country music has a song for every occasion. I have also found time to consider which songs will be played at my own ceremony (Dylan’s version of Hallelujah I’m Ready to Go seems a good starting point). 

As for an epitaph, I am undecided but the following, with huge apologies to Kary Mullis (a Biology Laureate) seems suitable: “There is a general place in the brain, I think, reserved for ‘melancholy of relationships past’. It grows and prospers as life progresses, forcing you finally, against your grain, to listen to Bob Dylan”. 

As for Bob himself, Suze Rotolo said just about all that needs to be said: “His art was his outlet, his exorcism. It was healthy. This was the way he wrote out his life….the loving songs, the cynical songs, the political songs…..they are all part of the way he saw his world and lived his life, period”. 

Until the next time my friends, go in peace and let him die in his footsteps. 

P.S. What happens if you play a Country song backwards? Your truck starts, your dog is resurrected and your wife returns home…