- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

Man thinks coz he rules the world,
he can do with it as he please…….."

by Bob Fletcher


Were it possible, there would be two versions of this. The first would begin, with the help of Simon Schama, as follows: Dear Worldly America, you who “freely engage, commercially and culturally, with Asia and Europe in the easy understanding that those continents are a dynamic synthesis of ancient cultures and modern social and economic practices”, my heart goes out to you. 

The second, safe in the knowledge that America is now, undeniably, two nations that loathe and fear each other, would plough a different furrow: Dear Godly America, you who “turn your back on the dangerous, promiscuous, impure world and proclaim to high heaven the indestructible endurance of American Difference”, you got what you deserved. 

There now follows a minute’s silence. 

During 2001, Bob Dylan suggested that the songs on Love and Theft “deal with what many of my songs deal with – which is business, politics and war, and maybe love interest on the side”. He also stated that ‘Masters of War’, as far as he was concerned, “has nothing to do with being anti-war. It has more to do with the military industrial complex” (according to Howard Sounes, “Bob scandalised Baez by telling her he wrote Masters of War simply because he thought it might sell”). 

In 1961, three days before he lay down the responsibilities of office, Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech to the American people. He argued that “ A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction….we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense (sic); we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions”. Paul Williams notes that “critics complained that Masters of War was over stated and one-dimensional; today it seems to me we need more Old Testament prophets as brash and angry as young Dylan”. Williams continues by noting that the song “seems to contradict everyone who praises Dylan for the understated quality of his political songs; it shouts, it is openly angry, it points a finger, it even rejects forgiveness and calls for the antagonists death……the issue is as real today as it ever was: those who consciously and manipulatively participate in war profiteering still hide behind walls and desks and they more than ever encourage and enable the young of faraway nations to slaughter each other”. 

As Williams is careful to point out, the critics were missing the point. Dylan had written anything but a ‘one dimensional’ song. Howard Sounes provides an interesting theory by hinting that “he (Dylan) did not write the song simply because it chimed with antiwar sentiments then in vogue. It is noteworthy that he rarely included direct references to current events in even his most socially aware songs… mentioning specific political events would date the material. Without these references, the songs would remain relevant as the years went by”. During 1990, as if to prove the point, Dylan himself commented that “Some people say it was the first anti-war song, it’s always like a NO-war song to me” (in 1963, after writing the song, Dylan was quoted thus: “I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars”).   Indeed, Dylan chose to perform the song at the Grammy Awards (20th of February, 1991) in what was, according to Andrew Muir, “a brave choice given that the Gulf War was still going on and Hawkish jingoism was rife”. A brave choice indeed. However, with Dylan registering a temperature of 104 degrees, (“I was extremely sick that night. Not only that, but I was disillusioned with the entire musical community”…), and his decision to bring “maybe two or three ferocious guitar players”, the performance was always going to be of an incendiary nature. Andrew Muir describes it thus: (Dylan) “chose to sing it without a pause for breath……no-one who did not already know the song would have got the message. In fact, many who did know the song didn’t even recognise it here. Not only did Dylan’s nasal passages sound blocked, but it seemed he had swallowed a burst of helium before starting to sing. Many observers thought he was singing in Hebrew”. As ever, there is an opposing view. Robert Hilburn described the performance as “classic Dylan – enigmatic and provocative….no apologies made, and no answers offered”. 

I, of course, was curious. Thankfully the search wasn’t a protracted one. Unfortunately the evidence, both aural and visual, does nothing to detract from the fact that, given the circumstances, Dylan had an off day. It may also support the long held belief that, during the early 90’s, Dylan provided the voices for Mr Magoo and Elmer Fudd. 

Mind you, I have much bigger things to worry about. 

Reacting to the re-election of Beelzebub, Oliver James, a clinical psychologist, stated that he was “too depressed to even speak this morning. I thought of my late mother, who read Mein Kampf when it came out in the 1930’s and thought ‘Why doesn’t anyone see where this is leading?” During the article, published in the Guardian, James stated that people have every right to express their dissatisfaction. “People invest in political ideas as a way of creating a sense of the future. A big factor in depression is a sense of hopelessness; the feeling that you can have no influence on outcomes. There are many who will feel that George Bush in the White House compromises their personal safety”. Brian Keenan, a man who knows a thing or two about hopelessness, wrote for the BBC website last month. He attempted to illustrate the mindset of those responsible for his imprisonment. “If these men talked about the dispossessed and the poor of the world and the spectre of international capitalism, that is because that was there very real experience of the world. These are people who want to be heard, who feel in their skin the exclusion of the world and so turn against it.” More recently, during a radio interview, Keenan questioned Bush’s motives and, when challenged, (Cole Moreton argued that Keenan used his status as a former hostage) replied, “Well it was my view. When people in powerful places point the finger of guilt and call people evil, we’ve got problems, because that’s not the language we need in the 21st century. When Ayatollahs in the White House start screaming about the axis of evil, we’re all in trouble”. 

To my knowledge, Dwight D. Eisenhower was considered to be a popular politician. Despite the fact that he graduated from West Point, became the Commander in Chief of US and British troops in North Africa, oversaw the invasions of just about everywhere, and had Richard Nixon as vice president, he viewed disarmament as a continuing imperative (his proposals were, in part, responsible for the first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy). Here’s how he concluded the 1961 speech: “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love”. 

I have it on good authority that, just as God was tackling ‘poverty’, Dick Cheney replaced him. 

I haven’t been listening to Dylan much lately. I have periodically revisited Madison Square Garden (2002) and Stirling Castle (2001) discovering moments of magic from each. A recent conversation with John Stokes (in which he informed me that he chose not to listen to many of Dylan’s ‘live’ recordings) has stayed with me. Overtime I have begun to better grasp John’s reasoning. Whilst accepting that we approach the subject from different directions, my problem lies, not with Dylan’s contribution, but with that of others. Digital technology means we are now able to listen to recordings of a quality hitherto unavailable, and some are absolutely magnificent. The problem is that we also get the audience. 

Now I am aware that this is also the case with pre digital recordings (throughout the Isle of Wight tape, save for the soundboard recordings, the audience is in close proximity to the tapers). However, compared to 1965 (when attendees sat in complete and reverential silence), today’s audiences see no reason to remain quiet whilst actually having nothing of importance to say but saying it anyway. At least those at Newport felt passionate. Later the same year, according to Levon Helm, “The audiences kept booing….the more Bob heard this stuff, the more he wanted to drill these songs into the audiences”. By 1966, audiences were battling not just with Dylan but also with themselves. 

During November 1979, Dylan began a tour designed to showcase Slow Train Coming, Saved, and his abiding belief in a God of vengeful righteousness (who by now, had also become a God of restoration and love). Paul Williams suggests that the audiences for the San Francisco shows “included a fair number of Christian believers…The next four shows were in Santa Monica, and were heavily attended by people from the Vineyard Fellowship”. It strikes me that, for a performer so used to confrontation, preaching to the converted may not have been what hat Dylan had in mind when he planned the tour. Paul Williams appears to be in agreement: “It’s worth noting that performing in a self-consciously ‘Christian’ environment may not have been an entirely positive experience for Dylan”. However, one thing the environment did allow was the chance to deliver ‘onstage raps’. To begin with, as Clinton Heylin notes, Dylan would add his thoughts during the band introductions but “On November 16, Dylan for the first time incorporates into this rap a direct enquiry to the audience”. By doing so, Dylan must have known he was testing the water. He would, I assume, have recognised the possibility that not all present would be in agreement. Therefore, Dylan would surely have been prepared for a confrontation of sorts. Which is exactly what he got. But he had already met the ‘enemy’ at the beginning of the tour. According to Bob Spitz “the first show was a real eye opener…after the second song, the audience began to come out of its shock ‘We want Dylan’, someone shouted. What they got instead was ninety minutes of devotional songs….after the finale, Bob spoke his first words: ‘That’s the show for tonight. I hope you’ve been uplifted’…Then he disappeared, carried offstage by a volley of boos and catcalls”. The tour moved on to Tempe, Arizona, where Dylan was to encounter increased levels of hostility. During 1966, Dylan chose to ride the waves, at times relying on a mixture of humour and otherworldliness to overcome the hecklers. By 1979, he confronted them head on. 

On July the 13th, 1985 Bob Dylan played to the biggest audience of his performing career. As Howard Sounes points out “the fact that Dylan was chosen to headline the Philadelphia show….was testament to his enduring legend”. Following an introduction by Jack Nicholson (“Some artists’ work speaks for itself. Some artists’ work speaks for its generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man, the transcendent Bob Dylan”) he took the stage and was greeted by a roar from those in the stadium. Over one billion people were watching on television. Dylan and his accomplices (Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood) performed three songs: ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘When the Ship Comes In’, and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. The performance will not be remembered for the songs, despite the fact that Dylan was contending with feedback from the enormous PA system, the entire cast were rehearsing the finale directly behind him, and he was forced to use Wood’s guitar after strings broke on his own. It was the comments made prior to the second song that invited confrontation, albeit from a television studio within Wembley Stadium. 

During the natural break between performances, Dylan spoke. “I’d just like to say I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it – maybe one or two million maybe – and use it, say, to pay the… er….. pay the mortgages on some of the farms….the farmers here owe to the banks” According to Sounes, “Bob Geldof, watching on television in London, was aghast. He thought Bob displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid”. Geldof further declared that Dylan’s comments were “crass, unforgivable and nationalistic”. But, as Gavin Martin points out, Geldof may well have missed the point: “Dylan’s plea for charity at home was in keeping with sentiments displayed six years earlier”. The sixth verse of ‘Slow Train Coming’ begins ‘People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting, Oh you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it’. Geldof may well have not made the connection between Dylan’s speech and the choice of the first song (here’s a funny thing. I thought I was alone in noticing this but Heylin, Williams, Wolcott, and indeed most of the Western world, have made the connection – oh well, all good things to he who waits). I am of the opinion that Dylan may well have intended to cause consternation. As James Wolcott argues, “Bob Dylan rigs every performance, no matter how direct, with decoys and trip wires. His welcome mat is set above a trapdoor”. Not that anyone should have been at all surprised by Dylan’s performance. Prior to the event he had suggested that “people buying a song and the money going to starving people in Africa….is a worthwhile idea but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song. To tell you the truth, I don’t think people can save themselves”. And, to a point, Dylan was right. Queen, one of the acts credited with a critical renaissance following Live Aid, had broken the artistic boycott requested by activists attempting to dismantle Apartheid by playing Sun City. The concert, to some extent, saved their career. So why did Dylan, at times the biggest ego of all, bother to perform. Maybe he just wanted to puncture the balloon of those displaying empathy with the poor. Those who, at the same time, were fully aware of the fact that their royalty payments were about to increase dramatically. Maybe Dylan was slighted at being offered the final slot, and in the process, being labelled, yet again, as the spokesman of a generation. 

My own conclusion, based I admit on conjecture, is that Dylan intended to highlight the fact that people are always starving, at any given time, somewhere in the world. I don’t believe he felt that farmers were more or less deserving, he just wasn’t sure that focussing on one area was the answer. And lest those gathered for Live Aid should forget, Dylan reminded them that he had always been a man of morality. Even without his comments, the fact remains that the world’s governments continue to sell arms and refuse to drop debt whilst applauding Geldof for his humanitarian efforts. Never before has the phrase ‘Band Aid’ been so apposite. 

These days, the only challenge Bob Dylan the performer has is to maintain a Herculean touring schedule whilst finding new ways of annoying his critics. And I can’t help but wonder if he misses the confrontation. I can only imagine that Barrowlands presented Dylan with a challenge of sorts: should he accept the audience participation or deliberately sabotage proceedings by adjusting tempo, rearranging phrasing, and generally bamboozling those present. On that particular night he chose to enjoy himself immensely. 

Although I have chosen not to listen to Dylan, I have, as you would expect, continued to read ‘Chronicles’, which continues to surprise, delight, and dumbfound me. In my last article I made reference to the music that was exciting me (In fact I was so excited that I sent an email to CP Lee. The grumpy bugger has yet to reply). The recordings featured all come from a collection entitled ‘Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection 1960-2000: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz’. Ordinarily this would be another chance discovery, recommended to friends. However, as with all things Dylan, it’s not quite so simple. Arriving at page 239 of ‘Chronicles’ I was delighted to find mention of ‘Haul Away Joe’ (a song taught to me by Dad). Seven lines later Dylan cites the Arhoolie label, informing the reader that this is where he “first heard Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson”. I suppose I ought to have guessed as much. 

Consequently, the mention of John Jacob Niles should have come as no surprise. But it did. I had no idea who he was (he died in 1980). Nor did I realise that he had composed (he is credited as a collector, balladeer, and composer) “Go ‘Way From My Window”. Therefore, of course, I had not the slightest idea of the origins of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. I have always been aware that Dylan has reinvented existing songs, in particular, those of his ‘blues’ heroes. Typically, Dylan has taken a line or two or rearranged a phrase (the 112 page chapter within Song and Dance Man provides a fascinating glimpse. For those with a shorter attention span I suggest the condensed version featured in Uncut Legends #1). Niles composed the aforementioned song at a young age. Concerning its origins he wrote “In 1908 my father had in his employ a Negro ditch-digger known as Objerall Jacket. As he dug, he sang, ‘Go way from my window, go way from my door’ – just those words, over and over again, on two notes. Working beside Jacket all day, I decided something had to be done. The results were a four-verse song dedicated to a blue-eyes, blond girl, who didn’t think much of my efforts”. Not only does Dylan advise the person to go away from his window (the same person who, by all accounts isn’t over impressed with what he has to offer) he also suggests that they can take as long as they like, a theme which reappears much later on Love and Theft: “It’s not always easy kicking someone out, Gotta wait a while – it can be an unpleasant task” (sincere apologies to those of you who, following a mention in the introduction, were left wandering if I was ever going to arrive at the ‘Love and Theft’ link). 

In the spirit of the upcoming festivities, Uncut magazine have decided to treat us to the full story behind ‘Blood on the Tracks’ ( Mojo, June 2001 featured an extended essay by Andy Gill and this year saw the publication of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ by both Gill and Kevin Odegard. Therefore I’m not expecting anything new). As ever, it appears that Dylan’s name increases circulation so there will be two versions, each with a different CD attached. The first will contain songs that influenced him, the second, songs that bear his influence. At the time of writing I don’t have a track list but I’m guessing ‘Wagon Wheel’ won’t be featured (known as ‘Rock Me Mama’ in its original form, the song was written by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and recorded by Dylan during the ‘Pat Garrett’ sessions. It remains unreleased but can be heard on ‘Peco’s Blues’). I happened upon ‘Wagon Wheel’ by chance. The Old Cow Medicine Show come with a fine pedigree. Patronized by Doc Watson, the group’s eponymous first album contains a most astonishing mix. Steeped in the earliest traditions of American music the musicians combine Dobro, guitar, double bass, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica to create a sound somewhere between Appalachian string music and heaven. ‘Wagon Wheel’ is credited to ‘Bob Dylan with additional lyrics and melody by Secor’. Live, they perform with the ferocity and evangelicalism of travelling showmen. Seeing them at the Borderline recently was an absolute pleasure. Such a pleasure, I went again four nights later. 

The poet Gerald Locklin, cited in ‘Country Roads: How Country Came To Nashville’ sees “the current craze for Americana as white people searching for their roots”. This is not the case with The Old Crow Medicine Show. The songs come from deep within their bones whilst the very pulse of history is buried in the music they create. At times the instruments speak to an audience standing at the crossroads. To paraphrase Brian Hinton, for those with “ears to listen and a heart to understand” here is music “which has too often been the tightly guarded secret of its own initiates”. 

This particular story has a very happy ending. I was fortunate to meet the band the first time I saw them. On the second occasion, by way of ‘the Desire hat’ I was instantly recognised, greeted with genuine affection, and afforded the pleasure of an after show chat. Dylan, as you no doubt will have expected, was discussed at length. Copies of various recordings, alongside articles from Freewheelin, will be forwarded to the band over the coming months. I left with a renewed sense of well-being and a signed copy of the CD for my three-year-old daughter Lola (I have explained to her the possible consequences of singing “tell it to me, tell it to me, drink corn liquor, let the cocaine be” whilst at nursery but she refuses to acknowledge my reasoning). Quite unexpectedly, the audience contained several Dylan fans, one of whom had come simply because she had heard that the band covered a Dylan track. In fact, on the first night, they encored with a beautiful version of ‘Goin’ To Acapulco’ so she was rewarded twice for her efforts. Intriguingly, The Borderline is located in a basement. 

Sadly, even a million dollar bash is sometimes followed by tears of rage. Dad visited his consultant recently and was advised that while his prostate specific antigen was, once again, under control, the likelihood is that the cancer will reappear in an advanced state. Timescales are, as you would expect, vague. We both express anger, albeit in relative degrees (“one man’s temper might rise where the other man’s might freeze”). Despite our differences he did indeed carry me in his arms therefore I have no intention of ‘throwing him aside’ or ‘putting him on his way’. 

It has been suggested that if you cut Bob Dylan he will bleed American music. Whilst the following connection is of my own making, I think Clinton Heylin’s observations, adapted on this occasion to illustrate my point, can be applied to both a young Bob Dylan and the Old Crow Medicine Show: “The diversity of songs is quite remarkable, from pure Gospel to morality tales – from the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi Delta, Nashville’s Music Row, and even Tin Pan Alley – as if somehow attempting to tap into some common constituency in American popular music in order to remind (themselves) not only of (their) roots, but of (their) audience”. 

Following the final Borderline appearance, the Old Crow Medicine Show returned to Nashville to record a new album. In 1967 Dylan did the very same thing. With god on my side, I hope to take you there soon. 

Until then, go in peace.