- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

If there’s an original thought out there,
oh, I could use it right now…

by Bob Fletcher


Whilst I don’t necessarily prescribe to the view that the thunder of those interested in the work of Dylan has been stolen by the publication of ‘Chronicles’ (I suspect I won’t be alone in writing well after the publication of volume 3 or his death, whichever comes first), I understand the argument. I therefore await the sound of a collective ‘oh bugger’ as those over concerned with the ‘meaning’ of Dylan read the book. 

Before writing any more I feel the need to confess my sins and seek redemption. In fact, I have decided to circumvent arrest and hand myself in voluntarily. I intend to be interviewed without a solicitor (the legal profession will be of no use) and plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. When standing before the Judge (I have no need for a jury) I will bow my head and accept sentence. If offered the chance of speaking I will decline, safe in the knowledge that ‘irony’ and ‘humour’ do not form the basis of mitigation. I will spend my days, behind bars, chastising myself for forgetting that Bob Dylan HATES TO BE REFERRED TO AS THE MESSIAH. 

I thought the conclusion of my last article contained irony and humour. Diane didn’t. She thought it was rubbish. I tried to explain that, whilst the Barrowlands gig was extraordinary, I was merely attempting to highlight the fact that Dylan, during his Gospel period, had been burdened with this before. I accept my shortcomings (whilst making a mental note never to attempt evangelical satire) and, with the understanding that “he is not the Messiah, he’s a very silly boy” I will move on. All I’ve got to do now is find a way of removing myself from Dylan’s shitlist. 

Listening to Front Row I was intrigued by the suggestion that Dylan’s memories may not be all that they seem (he’s old, therefore he can’t be exact, ergo, he made it up). But should I doubt him? As we age our short-term memory suffers but, naturally, our capacity for recalling long forgotten events becomes increasingly focussed. I am living proof. I struggle to remember what I listened to last night but I can recall, instantly, the moment I purchased Dylan’s first album (I’m not sure that cannabis use helps with the former). 

And here’s another thing. Whilst the shelf remains intact and gloating continues (it is designed to hold further artefacts and will soon be home to the ‘Ace of Clubs’ box set) the fixings that moor my self worth have come adrift. Quite simply, Diane, whilst recognising that I ‘know a lot’, called me a nerd (she later recanted substituting the aforementioned with the term ‘saddo’). Never one to kick me when I’m down, Diane proceeded to question my mild dislike for Mr Morrison. To her credit, she stopped short of calling me childish. Either that or she said it so quietly that I didn’t hear. 

And so to ‘Chronicles’. With Diane’s comments fresh in my mind (the fact that she uttered them over two weeks ago will only serve to demonstrate that, when Diane voices an opinion, she does so with an audible full stop) I will keep things relatively brief. I have yet to finish the book, partly because I haven’t had the time and, of greater importance, I find Dylan’s writing deserves my full attention. As do so many of his performances. 

Paul Williams begins ‘Mind Out Of Time’ with the following: “On the 26th of July, 1999, in a club in Manhattan, Bob Dylan delivered one of his greatest performances ever of his well-loved 1966 epic ‘Visions of Johanna’. As if to acknowledge and signal his awareness of the power and freshness of his latest reinterpretation, the singer-bandleader effectively changed the title of the song halfway through, by starting to sing the chorus as: ‘And these visions of Madonna are now all that remain/…have kept me up past the dawn’……you have the opportunity (if you search patiently) to listen to the same recording I’m referring to”. 

So, naturally, I searched patiently. The ‘Ace of Clubs’ box set includes the performance. I listened intently but was unable to share Williams’ enthusiasm. Which is not to suggest that the performance isn’t good. It’s better than good. But it requires repeated listening to fully understand the sentiments expressed by Williams. The same is true for ‘Chronicles’. I need to reread certain passages in order to comprehend (for a number of years I have been unable to read as quickly as I once did). But it is worth taking the time. The following passage could have been written at the time of Blood on the Tracks: “I was looking at all the guns up at Ray’s place and thought about my old-time girlfriend, wondered what she was doing. The last time I’d seen her, she was heading West. Everybody said she looked like Brigitte Bardot, and she did”. 

Critically, the book has been favourably reviewed (although one to only gloat when gloating is merited, I am enjoying the massed volte face employed by those who were ready to bury Dylan). Writing in the Guardian, Mike Marqusee echoes much of what has been written but, crucially, goes one step further by admitting that “this book is much better than I feared it might be”. Gordon King (a good friend and contributor of 25 words) made much the same comment regarding ‘Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art’ (Marqusee’s book). However, Gordon had to grit his teeth to get through it as he holds a lifelong grudge when it comes to authors who speak ill of ‘Self Portrait’. 

But enough of things literary. Dad’s ego appears to be out of control. Whilst visiting him at his new home I was given a pile of papers and instructed to include them in my Freewheelin articles. At no time did he infer that a vile pox would afflict me if I didn’t, but it felt like that. I did mention that I had deliberately misquoted him last time (he pretended not to hear), I also asked him which bit of ‘no’ he struggled with (he feigned illness), finally I suggested that the audience for Dylan related puns was not, to my knowledge, a growth area (he stared blankly). And still, somehow, I ended up with the bloody things. 

So, prior to examining George Bush’s debt to the Puritans, I am (entirely against my better judgement) unleashing the following (for those of you not wanting to know the score, look away now). “Morose, Dylan was attempting to calculate the numbers of musical instruments stolen from him in the course of his travels the globe over. After lengthy incoherent mutterings he suddenly burst out with: ‘Even when I turned up unannounced at a pretty little town on your River Wye…..” before lapsing into silence. I was intrigued. ‘What happened there?’ I enquired. ‘Hay? Missed a tambourine, man.’ He kicked the coal scuttle”. 

If you listen very carefully you will hear the sound of Dylan crying. Which, by a strange coincidence, brings me to that priceless moment: the sheer beauty of Dylan enjoying himself. ‘Highlands’ has, for me, always been a fine example of his wit. It is not, as has been said, a shaggy dog story. I recently bought a copy of the Santa Cruz performance (16th March, 2000) and the version of ‘Highlands’ is magical. Dylan holds the audience in his thrall. Incidentally, this is not the only time he does this. Both ‘Song to Woody’ and ‘Rock of Ages’ are magisterial whilst ‘One Too Many Mornings’ takes the breath away. Listening to Butch Cage and Willie Thomas performing ‘One Thin Dime’ has the same effect – eerily, the same performers allow me to give Dylan’s mid-song 1966 mumble a geographical time and place (this is Dylan using a tried and trusted technique in order to regain control – it is also Dylan enraptured, to the point of facsimile, by ‘jive’). If further evidence were needed of the unbroken circle, then I would recommend ‘Lady Luck’ by Mercy Dee. Listen to this and it is possible to imagine Dylan contributing the keyboard part. Then move on to Lightnin’ Hopkins (‘Bald Headed Woman’) and you gain an insight into Dylan’s ‘lazy’ delivery. Suddenly, it all makes sense. 

‘I Don’t Believe You’, from the War Memorial Auditorium, Plymouth (31st October, 1975) is another fine example of Dylan at a creative peak. Writing at the time, Chris Charlesworth noted that The Rolling Thunder Review “opened in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a town that likes to call itself ‘America’s home town’, as this was the spot where the Pilgrims landed from the Mayflower. Whether this town was deliberately chosen by Dylan is a matter of conjecture, but it seems uncannily appropriate for this historic trek around New England” (not the most vibrant piece of journalism, I confess). Larry Sloman, on the other hand, illustrates perfectly the effect the tour, and Dylan, had on him: “I thought about all the great songs over the years, the songs that shook empires, the songs that made men weep, the songs that turned around so many people’s visions and ideals and inspirations”. 

To my knowledge, George Bush has yet to write a song. He has certainly made men weep. This is a man who recently denied those about to be executed a final cigarette. The reason? Health grounds. 

Unfortunately, as Jonathon Raban notes, “the Democratic candidate is up against something more formidable than the person……he has to deal with the unquiet spirit of American Puritanism and its long and complicated legacy”. If, as Mark Twain wrote, faith is “believing what you know ain’t so” then this might go some way to understanding why a large number of Americans ignore evidence (including bodies, which, therefore, makes it a body of evidence) suggesting that the occupation of Iraq is fast becoming a disaster (Vietnam anyone?). The key is ‘American Puritanism’. As Raban argues “the shrewd men of the Bush administration have expertly hotwired the president to the galvanic energy-source of Puritan tradition. It’s as if America, since 9/11, has been reconstituted as a colonial New England village: walled-in behind a stockade to keep out the Indians (who were seen as in thrall to the devil); centred on its meeting house in whose elevated pulpit stands Bush, the plain–spun preacher, a figure of nearly totalitarian authority in the community of saints”. What, I wonder, prevents John Kerry from asking the president to comment on his oil links with the Bin Laden family prior to the events of September the 11th. But why stop there. Why not also ask him to explain, once again, the rationale for invading Iraq. And while we’re at it, let’s ask him when a lie isn’t, in fact, a lie. To be truthful, I know the answer to the last question. A lie isn’t a lie when it’s in the name of ‘faith’. And as Raban demonstrates flawlessly “no culture in the world has elevated ‘faith’, in and of itself, with or without specific religious beliefs, to the status it enjoys in the United States. Faith - in God, or the future, or the seemingly impossible, which is the core of the American dream - is a moral good in its own right. In no other culture is the word ‘dream’ so cemented into everyday political language, for in America dreams are not idle, they are items of faith, visions that transcend the depressing available evidence and portend the glorious future as if it were indeed predicted”. Bush believes he is doing God’s work. Whilst Dylan has examined theology, interpreted scripture, and filled songs with Biblical references, Bush has merely encrypted speeches with, as Raban describes, “covert allusions and other secret handshakes”. 

And partly because of his actions, journalists such as Geov Parrish (Working for Change) argue that Bush, more than any other President, including I assume Richard Nixon, deserves to be removed from office. Parrish notes that “the list of reasons why is a near exhaustive litany of his entire record, one of corrosive ideological rigidity combined with stunning incompetence: the Iraq invasion and the subsequent near – comic disaster of an incompetent occupation, loss of civil liberties and our ever expanding prison systems, compulsive secrecy, corporate corruption, the list goes on, and on, and on”. 

A recent Guardian editorial was equally as scathing, suggesting that “the recent presidency has been not merely a crime but a mistake. Mr Bush has proved a terrifying failure in the world’s most powerful office. He has made the world more angry, more dangerous and more divided – not less……A safer world requires not just the example of American power but the power of American example. Mr Bush has done more to destroy America’s good name than any other president”. 

Even Dylan has an opinion. Whilst of a cheerful disposition, he was asked by John Preston whether the United States and Britain should have invaded Iraq. Dylan replied “Maybe I’ll tackle that in the next book”. Had Preston solicited Dylan’s thoughts on the wider implications, in particular Bush and Blair’s decision to link the events of September the 11th with Iraq, and therefore justify a their war, Dylan may have been tempted to give a specific answer. After all, a precedent exists. 

Interviewed for the November 2001 issue of Rolling Stone, Dylan appeared willing to discuss the fact that ‘Love and Theft’ was released on the day the World Trade Centre was targeted. Mikal Gilmore, after mentioning that the line ‘Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down’ (Mississippi) kept coming back to him, enquired if there was anything Dylan would like to say about his reaction to the events of that day. Dylan responded thus: “One of those Rudyard Kipling poems, ‘Gentlemen – Rankers’ comes to mind (We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and truth/We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung/And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth/God help us, for we knew the worst too young) if anything, my mind would go to young people at a time like this”. When asked by Gilmore to explain what’s at stake, Dylan retorted, “You need something else, with a capital E, to explain it. It’s going to have to be dealt with sooner or later, of course”. Gilmore wondered whether Dylan saw any hope, to which the latter replied “It is time for now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished at the moment”. Dylan ends by quoting Sun-Tzu: “If you know neither the enemy or yourself, you will succumb in every battle”. 

Which brings us back to ‘faith’. As Mark Lawson notes “ George W Bush represents to Christian Americans an embodiment of the parable of the prodigal son”. It is worth noting that the very same Christian Americans have been responsible for returning a succession of presidents to power. But is Bush, in the words of Dylan, a ‘great man’? 

The answer, I suspect, is contained within a song written and premiered by Dylan in 1962. ‘John Brown’ realises, too late, that he ‘was just a puppet in a play’ (and a very deadly one at that). But it’s a play not of his own making. George Bush, however hard he tries, can’t use that argument. Of interest is the fact that the previous line of the song contains the following: ‘And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink. Evidence, if evidence were needed, that Dylan’s long-term memory was working well in 1975. 

Diane has spent a considerable amount of time during the last four weeks recalling long forgotten memories. It hasn’t been easy for her. She has returned to work and, I suppose, returned to a sense of normality. Which is to be expected. She has accepted the death of her mother (for a while it is not always easy to believe it to be true). She has adjusted to the loss and, crucially, she has begun to reinvest in life. These are not my phrases. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages people often experience when coming to terms with death and dying: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance (‘Not Dark Yet’ illustrates this point). Writing in the ‘Handbook for Mortals’, author Joanne Lynn suggests that “Because these stages portrayed a common response so well, people began to think of them as the five stages of grief”. However, as she rightly points out, grief does not respect order nor is it time limited. An individual does not always begin at the beginning and it is possible for someone to remain stuck at one or more of the stages. New losses may reawaken slumbering grief whilst unexpected moments may reintroduce sadness. All I can do is to try and understand. 

Which is exactly what Diane tries to do with regards to my passion for all things Dylan (‘tries’ being the operative word). She tries, politely, to refuse as I encourage her to listen to whatever it is I’m experiencing at any given moment (sometimes she concedes, puts on the headphones, and gives me that look). She tries not to shout at me when yet another bootleg or book arrives (collecting for the purposes of research fell out of favour a long time ago). She tries to remain calm when I use Dylan’s lyrics in everyday speech (although sometimes she just refuses to talk to me until I desist). I have reconciled myself to the fact that Diane has her opinion and, whilst falling short of banishing him and his bloody music from the house (I try and tell her it’s not a house it’s a home), she prefers me not to “go on about him so much”. But, conversely, she admires the passion of it all. The very same passion, in the words of Jeff Gitter, “founded out of a deep and longstanding love of the words, the music, and the performance”. 

Others are equally as passionate. Sometimes though their passion is borne of a sorrow I am unable to appease. Rose Gentle, Reginald Keys, Mike Aston, and John Miller, recently wrote the following: “We have all lost our sons in the war in Iraq. They joined the army to defend their country. When they were sent to war in Iraq they believed this country was in danger of imminent attack. They were told we were 45 minutes away from such an attack. We now know the war was based on lies and deceit. Tony Blair knew the evidence for WMD was non-existent but persuaded parliament that the opposite was the case. These lies led directly to the deaths of our sons. This is what we cannot forgive or forget”. The parents intend to lay a wreath at the door of 10 Downing Street and, whilst there, ask the Prime Minister why he acted as he did. They already know that no answers will be forthcoming. 

And just when it seemed that everything American suddenly meant nothing to me at all, I discovered an angel. Jesse Sykes, along with her band the Sweet Hereafter, recently played at the Borderline as part of the Spirit of Austin Americana Festival. Although I had prior knowledge of their music (I bought ‘Reckless Burning’ on the strength of the artwork) I had no idea just how beguiling their performance would be. Jesse may not thank me for this but, at times, she bore a striking resemblance to a young Emmylou Harris and sang songs that touched me, in a voice that ought to melt the hardest of long gone lonesome hearts. She was also charming. 

Which is not a word I would have applied to Greil Marcus had I have met him in 1970. But, as I am now informed that he reads Freewheelin, I am happy to forgive his foolhardiness (I can’t speak for Gordon King though). 

Go in peace and, whilst doing so, hum ‘Masters of War’.