- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby

by Bob Fletcher

A note of caution: any resemblance to people either living or dead is purely intentional. 

It is a habit of mine to begin with a simple idea and then complicate things. The plan was to ask a cross section of people to write, in 25 words, what Bob Dylan means to them and it really ought to have been straightforward. I should never have made the mistake of assuming that participants would understand my attempt at parody and have therefore found myself explaining the Woody Guthrie connection to several bemused, indeed befuddled, would be contributors (I am still doing it three weeks later).  Mind you, I was unaware that the idea had been tried before (after a fashion) and some real stinkers already existed, perfectly formed and in print. The following is the most perverse. Rolling Stone, when reviewing Blood on the Tracks, offered this: “The two best songs ‘Tangled Up….’ and ‘Simple Twist…’ might have been better than anything he’d done if his band had offered him decent support.” (In order to illustrate the 25 word connection I took out ‘in Blue’ and ‘of Fate’. Editing I confess, but necessary and excusable I trust). To further confuse the original issue, when one of the would be contributors is the author Alan Moore the story, as you would expect, hurtles in the direction of surreal at an alarming pace. 

Depending on your viewpoint, technology offers endless possibilities or, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘too much of nothing’. I am computer literate to a point. I have yet to Insert Hyperlink, discover a valid reason for the existence of Powerpoint, or utilise Clipart. The process involved in each remains a mystery and, if truth be told, I have yet to find myself in a life threatening situation requiring enhanced levels of computer literacy in order to survive. Email has its uses as will become obvious. However, as with all things there is of course a down side (‘behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’). For a majority of messages sent there is an assumption that a response will be forthcoming. This is best illustrated using an analogy of sorts. The difference between the Philharmonic concert of 64 and Manchester Free Trade Hall in 65 is all about response (the quality of the recording also plays a large part). ‘If You Gotta Go’, when performed with the audience is magical. The laughter is spontaneous and we, the listener, become involved. Without the audience, albeit with the quality of a soundboard feed, the song doesn’t seem to contain the same joy. The performance is enhanced by the audience enjoying themselves. By the same token this article flounders without the thoughts of others. 

It all began on, what appeared to be, an uneventful morn. I had taken a client to a café (I don’t believe that a dependency on alcohol, his not mine, should be hidden from public view). By coincidence, or chance if you prefer, Barry Hale – Film Maker: ‘Dylan (Thomas) understood how radio could radically change the voice of poetry and how we experience it. Apparently another Dylan wrote Jimi Hendrix’s best song’ was sitting at the table next to me. We talked briefly, I requested his help, and we exchanged email addresses. Except his business card contained a web site, a mobile number, and a pleasing design. For all I know it could tell the time as well. As evidenced above, Barry dutifully supplied me with his thoughts along with the following advice: ‘Alan Moore would best be contacted in person in the café or by phone but I don’t know if 25 words would be enough’. And therein lay the first problem. The message assumed that I knew which café to go to. I replied asking Barry for clarification. The name was forthcoming along with the following instructions: ‘I would suggest being in the town centre for about 4.30 every day – probably in Abington Street – making your way to Gold Street – that’s pretty much his routine’. Barry helpfully ended with ‘I don’t know his email address but you could write to him – if only I could remember what street he’s in’. I had my vision; I’d just have to wait for Johanna. 

In the meantime a colleague provided me with the email link for the Houses of Parliament and a pleasant surprise awaited. Tony Clarke – MP Northampton South: ‘A modern day Guthrie speaking of love, religion, war, poverty and discrimination is Zimmerman a Poet, Rock Star? Wordsmith, Musician? Or just a story teller? informed me that life in his London flat wouldn’t be the same without some Dylan. All I’ve got to do now is to convince Tony to bamboozle the floor by including at least five lyrical references during Prime Ministers questions. 

As I’m sure all of you are aware, the mere mention of Bob Dylan elicits a reaction.

Recently I was discussing all things Dylan with a colleague. A third person joined and commented on his singing, his age, his talent etc etc. She finished by suggesting that Brian Ferry’s performance of Hard Rain was superior. There was little point in arguing.  Over many years I have became immune to the negativity of others. Two nights ago I listened to ‘Dylan’, the 1973 release, (much derided at the time but, in the context of the New Morning and Self Portrait sessions, indispensable) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Listen to ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ and I defy you not to smile. 

When choosing contributors I was conscious that several shared my passion. Colin Bishop – Dylan fan and ’66 witness: ‘A singer and poet who opened my eyes and widened my appreciation of other art and artists. He is up there with Joyce and Kerouac’ seemed an obvious choice. His daughter Angie had informed me that Dad had been a close friend of John Green and had played no small part in introducing him to the ever changing world of the Dylan collector. During a conversation with Angie she talked of many fond memories, including the occasions she would spend at the Green household. She would sit with John’s mum whilst the boys shut themselves away doing what Dylan fans do (it would appear that one of the things they did do was plot John’s first live experience of Dylan in 1981). 

Mark Refoy – Singer/songwriter and guitarist with Slipstream and occasionally the Pet Shop Boys: ‘Hibbing skinny Judas Jesus bleeding sweet Woody Woodstock words that don’t chart smash, motorcycle crash, Beatle hash, Minnesota flash, never ending bash, Don’t Look Back’ was flattered to be asked for his contribution. I, in turn, was flattered to be asked for my opinion regarding his latest songs. Mark is a long time friend. I grew up with his family and Mark was, without doubt, a role model. He showed me kindness and shared his passion for music. 

Whilst discussing the article Mark informed me that he had a contact number for Alan Moore (I suspect there ought to be a dramatic moment here) but after much debate I felt unable to intrude on his privacy. Besides, Mark had a much better idea -trust in the hand of fate. I suspect Bob himself would approve. 

A work related visit to a colleague in Kettering led me to Gordon King – Dylan appreciator and Dobro owner: ‘ 12 years old, Corby 1978, Baby Stop Crying. Start of the long journey from Desire to that jacket on Empire Burlesque! Humanity in all its complexities’ who, by a convoluted coincidence is a very good friend of Wilky – keeper of the flame: ‘the grace with which the phrases rise unbidden to the mind. Offering elucidation not instruction. Priest of no fixed faith. ‘don’t follow leaders’ above all’ (known to some of you as he has attended the Cambridge Bob Dylan Society meetings on more than one occasion). I couldn’t help but notice a picture of Dylan behind Gordon and by the end of a very pleasant hour I had loaded his computer with various Dylan related sites. Since that first meeting I have passed on several bootlegs (or field recordings as I believe they are now referred to) and Gordon reports a newfound spring in his step. 

A week has passed since I spoke with Mark Refoy and fate is nowhere to be seen. Neither for that matter is Alan Moore. I have, therefore, had plenty of time to reflect. 

Sometimes I wonder whether the articles I write actually involve Bob Dylan – I’m sure he doesn’t think he’s involved in the slightest – I suspect the articles actually say more about me. But by listening to Dylan on a daily basis I have begun to understand just how much his work influences me. So I tell myself don’t think twice. It’s alright for me to acknowledge as much. He is a significant part of my life. (I doubt that my long suffering wife shares the same feelings, however she does claim to like Desire). 

For the vast majority of us ideas are important. Unfortunately, unless we remember them, they go as quickly as they came. I have a shelf filled with scraps of paper and a Dictaphone full of ramblings spoken by somebody pretending to be me. Death returned to my thoughts and, momentarily, led me to believe that failure to achieve my goal (finding Alan Moore) signified not just the passing of an idea but a premature end to this piece. However, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. 

A previous article embraced death in particular, and my thoughts in general. Which got me thinking. Considering that the average funeral (or at least the ones I’ve been to) lasts around 25 minutes (which after the talking would leave time for three pieces of music at most) I began to consider what might appear alongside ‘Hallelujah, I’m Ready To Go’. This should not be seen as a challenge and I do not expect fellow contributors to compile lists. It is also entirely probable that today’s choices will be replaced should the mood take me. As I write I am listening to ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ from Prague (11th March, 1995). Andrew Muir understandably refers to the performance as one which “ stands with anything Dylan has ever done….like seeing a precious diamond being held at an unfamiliar angle under a new light, revealing yet more depth and beauty to an already treasured gemstone”. I bought a copy, along with The Genuine Never Ending Tour at a recent record fare and find both bewitching. The third choice, for purely personal reasons (what other reasons could there be) is ‘A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’ (the Great Music Experience, Nara, Japan 22nd May 1994). Andrew Muir recalls “being near tears as The Voice – which had seemed lost forever – returned in all its full, expressive, raging glory”. Q magazine kept it brief: “Dylan resurgent – His Bobness wows Japan”. 

At the recent John Green day I actually happened upon Andrew Muir discussing an article of his. At one point Andrew spoke of the historical and factual inaccuracies contained within Hurricane and illustrated several examples. I was not alone in contributing to the discussion that followed. I was, and still am, of the opinion that Dylan doesn’t use specific stories in the same way as others. He fills the entire canvass but hides within it the picture he wishes to exhibit. By discovering the finer detail we are invited to rethink and revise our original opinion. Paul Williams, when discussing ‘Good As I Been to You’ would appear to agree: ‘Every song a painting. Every painting filled with light, and full of details that become visible at different moments, on different listenings’. By way of example I offer The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (one of Dylan’s most beautiful ‘protest’ songs). I suspect Dylan was fully aware that the actions of William Zanzinger were a contributing factor (he did hit her with his cane) but she did not die as a direct result of the blow. However, Zanzinger was an integral part of a culture which thought nothing of discrimination and believed wholeheartedly in apartheid. Therefore, Zanzinger (albeit not alone) killed the spirit of Hattie Carroll on a regular basis. 

The 1960s were, amongst many other things, a shameful decade. At the trial of those accused of murdering James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman (3 civil rights activists) proceedings were overseen by Judge William Cox, a fiercely pro segregationist. The all white jury (where have you heard that phrase before?) found seven defendants guilty but allowed the Sheriff to go free. Passing sentence on two the Judge was quoted as saying “They killed one nigger, one Jew and a white man – I gave them all what I thought they deserved”. What he thought they deserved was 10 and 7 years respectively.  Should you be in any doubt that such opinions remain, and indeed flourish, I would recommend ‘Ice Tea with Elvis’, Nick Middleton’s poignant observations on the current plight of the marginalized African Americans and an article from The Observer entitled Terminate With Extreme Prejudice (13 June 2004). I am in no doubt that I will never be told by Rubin Carter whether he did or didn’t commit the crimes for which he was found guilty. That, however, is not the point. I understand (I think) what Dylan is suggesting. The event itself is of limited importance; the wider picture contains the full story. John Bauldie offered this when discussing ‘Walls of Red Wing’: “….in reality Red Wing is nothing like the Gothic fortress depicted here. Of course, reality is irrelevant to the song, which is an imaginative exercise in summoning up the horrors of what incarceration in such a place could be like”. By coincidence, the following arrived as I was writing. Jon Philpot – Dylan collector and travelling companion (of mine, not Dylan): ‘dylan is like the greatest novel ever written, you read it constantly, cover to cover continually finding new chapters and stories that compel and inspire’. 

For a number of reasons, not least the Freewheelin deadline, today had to be the day. Emboldened by a live version of Highlands (Feel like I’m drifting, Drifting from scene to scene) and later by a poignant Dignity (Searchin’ high, searchin’ low, Searchin’ everywhere I know) I set off to confront fate and hopefully Alan Moore at the same time. Events took a bizarre twist and then, well, everything went from bad to worse. I made my way to Abington Street and passed some time with various Big Issue sellers, one non-heroin user (currently abstinent), three heroin users (currently active) and Nic, who works in a record shop and continues to marvel at my obsession.

At 4.30 Alan Moore remained elusive so I decided to visit the café. He wasn’t there either. 

There is a phrase, much overused, that annoys me. Window of opportunity is something you will never hear me say. However, when related to the fact that, on this particular day, time was running out (kids needed picking up, food needed eating) I had two choices. Give up or draw the curtains and hope that things may appear in a different light the next time I opened them. Giving up had a comforting feel to it, as did the sight of Alan Moore walking towards me. The feeling was somewhat different as he walked straight past me, apparently ignoring my greeting, and got in a taxi. Luckily the woman with him didn’t. No, she made her way to HMV as did I. Understandably she was suspicious of my approach but after an explanation that included Barry Hale (mutual acquaintance) and magazine (subject Bob Dylan) she agreed to pass on my number. Ominously, she warned me that Alan gets many requests for interviews (he declines) and is currently attempting to retire. 

It would appear that he has achieved the latter. Eight days have passed and the phone has yet to ring. In truth I knew it would end this way. But writing this has provided me with a feeling of well being and besides Dylan taught me many years ago that not all stories have the ending we would expect – ‘Don’t say I never warned you when your train gets lost’. So by way of a conclusion I offer my own 25 words: ‘1966, Dylan freewheelin, saved. Changin’ another portrait before bringing legal mercy. Nashville blonde, basement burlesque, new blood shot down. Budokan Billy unplugged’ and the following digression: if you want a happy ending, well here it is. Tomorrow I’m going to Cardiff for my first live experience of 2004. 

As for Dylan himself, what does he think? The answer of course is I don’t know. However my guess is that the cantankerous old bugger wouldn’t bother with 25 words when the following 17 would do: ‘I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be, most of the time I can be myself’. 

Go in peace.