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- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

No one can protect you from it once you turn it on

by Bob Fletcher

 

Lord Buckley once commented, “Now I know why they call television a medium – because it’s very rarely well done”. He and Dad would have enjoyed each other’s company. By the same token, a meeting between Albert Grossman and the aforementioned curmudgeon (Dad, not Buckley) based on the fact that, according to D A Pennebaker, “Grossman refused to let Dylan go on any rinky – dink TV shows” would have been, at the very least, interesting. 

As will become obvious, all is not well with the old git. The advent of seasonal excess and instant gratification has prompted Dad to make it known (in the form of an unsolicited letter) that he is displeased with the world in general, and his newly acquired television in particular (in order to operate the last one he owned Dad was required to employ a little man who peddled a steam assisted bicycle which powered a turbine). “My eyes have developed a tendency to become unfocused. I have watched Hinckley versus Brentford (very funny), Barbarians versus All Blacks (terrible), rhinos and hammerhead sharks, The Simpsons, old aeroplanes and three films. Please advise”. If you read between the lines you will note that, indirectly, I am in some way responsible. As indeed I am for failing to include at least one of his observations in my last piece. He kindly suggested a festive offering; I kindly informed him that there is enough heartache at this time of year.

However, this one (written to compliment my top ten of all things obliquely Dylan) has a certain something. Mind you, Abe Lincoln felt the same about the theatre.

“Though now legendary, Dylan’s obsession with Buff Orpingtons began quietly enough. It was, I remember, on a triste autumn afternoon that I heard the secretive closing of the scullery door followed by a puzzled cluck. Rising from the chaise longue under the stairs, I prepared to challenge the intruders. Imagine my surprise upon seeing Dylan slink into the hall bearing beneath one arm a domestic fowl and beneath the other a sack of corn! I coughed in a marked manner. He refused to meet my gaze. I sighed before resuming my musing. Over the days that followed I became resigned to the sight of him darting in frantic pursuit of the unfortunate bird. I noticed that, whereas his cries were at first both importunate and affectionate, they grew gradually into imprecation, now bitter command. Distressed, I composed an adjuration; it was never delivered for – and it is with sorrow that I now relate it – I suddenly, on, as I recollect, a Tuesday morning came upon Dylan kneeling before a coop wielding a machete and screaming Lay, lady, lay!”  

It’s okay to come out from behind the sofa now…….. 

According to Paul Williams, “had ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ been published as a poem and never sung, it would have attracted little attention”. Dylan maintained that “every line in it is actually the start of a whole song”. Therefore, according to the published lyrics, there are 57 songs contained within (if you include the refrain). Researching the ones that actually exist as complete songs ought, I think you will agree, to make a fascinating article, containing as it would, a list of sorts. Thankfully, John Stokes, whilst undoubtedly one to embrace Romanticism, is also a calming influence. He offered the following advice: 
 

You only got ten…

Which is probably just as well. Dylan has been a part of me for a significant number of years, making the task of compiling any sort of list an onerous one (equally as onerous is my decision to include subjects which bear little or no relation to Dylan). Therefore, with the realisation that each of the following could lead to a separate article I offer, in no particular order of merit, the following: 
 

The TV and Film Appearances of Bob Dylan

Or more precisely, the lack of them. During the 1970s, the promise of live football, albeit televised, was all it took to keep me satisfied. Saturdays were spent at my grandparents, both of whom believed their lives were about to change courtesy of Littlewoods. At 4.40, coupons were checked and at 4.50, with an air of inevitability, life returned to normal and we were required to eat something vaguely resembling dinner (years later I presented Gran with a cauliflower and asked if she would boil it to within an inch of its life, mash it using lard, and serve it with hot dripping. “Of course” she replied. “I thought so” I responded).  Cup Final day was different. The logic applied to identifying eight score draws had no place. Hope was all and everything. Tony Hill (‘If the Kids are United’ – a memoir of a Manchester United fan growing up in East Midlands pit village) speaks for many as he recalls, “settling into an armchair in our front room to watch BBC TV’s coverage of the game. We had watched the previous year’s Cup Final on ITV, but United lost, so ITV was bad luck now. Dad and our pet dog Jackie sat on the settee. I’d sat there a year ago, but United lost, so sitting on the settee watching United was added to my bad luck list”. Prior to 1976 things were grim (as was the final that year). Despite Hill’s assertion that the FA Cup is “the oldest, greatest, most magical football competition in the universe”, the reality was somewhat humbling. Manchester United had last appeared at Wembley the year before I was born (discounting, of course, the European Cup Final). I wouldn’t experience unconfined joy until 1977 when a combination of Macari and Greenhoff managed to bamboozle Ray Clemence. I had to make do with championing the underdog. As with many peculiarly English eccentricities, it didn’t always work. But when it did, it was worth the investment. For every Fulham (gallant losers against West Ham) or Newcastle (humiliated by Liverpool), there was a Sunderland. 

Things have changed. Now it is possible to watch football on a daily basis and, in truth, it has lost much of the allure. I no longer watch the build up to the Cup Final and struggle to actually watch the entire match. Technology has undoubtedly played a major role and will do so with Dylan (visit most of the websites and you will find a link to the’60 Minutes’ interview, likewise the recent radio show which, ominously, is brought to you by the good people at BobDylan.com). It wasn’t always so. A vast majority of Dylan’s early television performances were arranged in collaboration with Albert Grossman (hence the reference at the beginning of the article). Most proved to be advantageous, even allowing for over zealous producers and set designers. Unfortunately some were erased (performances rather than set designers) by television companies keen to reuse tape (the BBC appear to have particularly foolhardy). Overexposure is something that cannot be levelled at Dylan and his management. To this day (with the exception of interviews given to publicise a product) Dylan chooses wisely, based, I would imagine, on the principle that less is more. Recent compilations of television performances focus on award ceremonies, guest appearances, and the occasional musical interlude on high profile chat shows (the latter, admittedly, took place mainly during the 1980s). Whilst the means to disseminate information (DVD, VHS, CDr, VCD) continue to evolve, the mystique surrounding Dylan remains. Well, at least with me it does… 
 

Country Music 

To paraphrase Stephen Walsh, I realise that “the wailing note of pain and heartache” has always been visible; I’ve just lacked the ability to see. Until now that is. Now I understand that the music, and by association the singers, can invoke twisted bitterness, vulnerability, reconciliation, savagery, deceitfulness, and honesty. Dylan was performing Country tunes long before ‘Nashville Skyline’ (but just in case we needed reminding of his affinity he included ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’, a song structure as old as history itself). His thoughts are also well documented: “Traditional music is too unreal to die….it doesn’t need to be protected….nobody’s going to hurt it”. Should further evidence of Dylan’s fidelity be needed I would point to Brian Hinton’s summation of the ‘Basement Tapes’. The author argues that it is possible to find contained within “Flatt and Scruggs, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Roscoe Holcomb, Ian and Sylvia, The Skillet Lickers, Hank Snow, and The Carter Family”. Listen, if you can, to all or any and then really listen to ‘Self Portrait’. It will all suddenly make sense. 

Country music’s earliest roots are to be found in the ballads of the Appalachian Mountains (according to CP Lee, the “narrative style dealing with mythological concepts of good and evil, damnation and redemption, treachery and friendship were already well known to Dylan”). The very term ‘country music’ encompasses at least 80 years of popular music and thousands of musicians. The songs themselves are firmly rooted in the Calvinist tradition and often reflect sexual repression (which, in all seriousness, is reflected in the vocal style) combined with a sense of stark realism. However, as Tad Richards notes, “contrary to the popular stereotype, country music has not always been associated with political conservatism. One of the Opry’s first stars, Uncle Dave Macon, was a fiery radical leftist”. Whilst rampant commercialism became a bedfellow many years ago, country music manages to re-invent, and indeed reinvigorate, itself with each passing generation (I offer as evidence Gillian Welch, The Handsome Family, Willard Grant Conspiracy, and Damien Jurado). As Richards observes “the music has as many faces as American society itself”. Intriguingly, someone once suggested that Dylan has so many faces he’s round. He is also no stranger to Nashville. Which, fortuitously, brings me to: 
 

Blonde On Blonde 

I have nothing further to add Your Honour… 
 

Borrowing a Tune 

If you take the time to compare Irving and Webster’s ‘I’ll Twine mid the Ringlets’ (written in 1860) with The Carter Family’s ‘Wildwood Flower’ (recorded sixty-seven years later) you will notice more than a passing similarity. As Colin Escott notes “For many years, it was thought that the Carter Family’s music was Anglo-Celtic ballads preserved in the isolation of Appalachia, but it was much more. It was Victorian parlour music, gospel songs, blues, topical ballads, and vaudeville numbers. Their theme song, ‘Keep on the Sunny Side’ was a gospel song from 1899; ‘Wabash Cannonball’ was a pop tune published in 1905; ‘Worried Man Blues’ was a prison song probably acquired from an itinerant blues singer; ‘Black Jack David’ was an English ballad dating back centuries; and ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ was a gospel song published around 1907” (of further interest is the fact that three artists had recorded the song before The Carter Family). Escott adds that “The Carter Family made all this music one, and made it all their own. More questionably, they copyrighted it as their own”. 

In some ways Chronicles contains more revelations than surprises. We already know that the young Dylan was more than happy to discuss his musical influences when the mood took him. During a WBAI – FM radio broadcast (Broadside, May 1962) he credits others as direct sources. When discussing, in particular, ‘The Ballad Of Donald White’ (the melody of which, as if to prove that Dylan didn’t just borrow from other songwriters for single performances, later became I Pity the Poor Immigrant) Dylan states that “I took this from Bonnie Dobson’s tune, ‘Peter Emberly’, I think the name of it is”. ‘Peter Emberly’ appears as Number 27 in the late Edith Fowke’s ‘Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs’ and concerns, in the words of Fowke, “the tale of the young man from Prince Edward Island who was fatally injured when a log rolled on him”. Oral tradition has it that Emberly was taken to his employers home by, amongst others, John Calhoun who later described the fate of Emberly in written verse. The words were then set to music by Abraham Munn using an old Irish tune that had served for many songs both in Ireland and North America.

Dylan is on record as saying “I’d seen Donald White’s name in a Seattle paper in about 1959. It said he was a killer. The next time I saw him was on a television set”. Manfred Helfert suggests that “the television show which inspired Dylan to write ‘The Ballad of Donald White’ (rather than his somewhat doubtful claim of having read about him as early as 1959) is identified in Scaduto’s biography” (February 12th 1962 according to Sue Zuckerman). As noted earlier, ‘Chronicles’ reveals many hitherto unknown aspects of Dylan, however we also get the more familiar version (‘smoke and mirrors’ is the phrase used by several reviewers). Hence the lack of surprises. Whilst the sheer enormity of Dylan’s published output prevents the listener from unearthing every single borrowed melody and reworked line or lyric, some of which have yet to be acknowledged by Dylan himself, it is good to hear the obvious ones. So with the requisite amount of humble pie, as fresh as the day it was baked, I offer congratulations to Uncut magazine for the CDs that accompanied the most recent editions (in truth, the Isis/Chrome Dreams compilation is much nearer to being the finished article and I suspect I am not alone in already having a copy of, amongst many other overlooked blueprints, ‘1913 Massacre’ from Carnegie Chapter Hall, 1961, but to castigate would seem churlish). 
 

The Continuing Saga of Lessons in Lola 

It’s eight thirty five at night and, as I write, Lola is falling asleep on the sofa.  Postman Pat has replaced Noddy (“He’s annoying me Daddy”), proved a more popular option than Masked and Anonymous (“That’s not a very good idea Daddy, I don’t like Bob Dylan”), and brought tranquillity to bear. A viral infection has meant that, for the last two days, Lola has alternated between extreme lethargy and hyper mania. Despite her illness she has remained a source of wonderment, unlike Postman Pat. I struggle to remember my ‘pre-fatherhood’ years with anything remotely approaching clarity. The arrival of Lola changed me almost beyond recognition and, as a result, previous events ceased to matter. My thoughts and feelings are, of course, subjective. However, such self-awareness fails to diminish the sense of unconditional love that accompanies every moment I spend with my daughter. Even at nine thirty five when the little bugger still hasn’t gone to bed (“I’m a bit nervous about sleeping on my own and my bedroom is messy and stressy”). According to Freud, Lola’s personality is currently controlled by the id. Therefore she demands instant gratification (at this point Sigmund would be a welcome dinner guest as I’m open to suggestions regarding the future). Prior to the id arriving, Lola’s very existence was measured only by bowel movements, lots of them. Sigmund would no doubt explain this as the development of the ego. He would then take the time to discuss the superego, at which juncture Lola would ask, “When is he going home?” Next in line is the bit about Oedipus and Electra. Finally, according to Freud, Lola will covet my ox. In the meantime she will continue to address me as “silly billy”, instruct me to “shut up Dad”, and generally run circles around me. But, in truth, I wouldn’t change a thing. Despite the fact that I’m wrapped around her little finger and notwithstanding the reality that she plays me, with experience beyond her three years, so effortlessly against Diane, I have nothing but admiration for her free spirit. 
 

Marlon Brando 

As a young actor he was everything I wanted to be. Perversely, the tutor responsible for the following school report “Fletcher continues to set himself low standards and fails miserably when attempting to achieve them” got it right. I no longer work as an actor. 
 

The Basement Tapes 

The fact that Dylan, and various members of The Band, chose to live in Woodstock at the same time was no ‘act of god’ (then again, depending on which side of the great divide you live, it may well be viewed as such). Available evidence would seem to suggest that the recording sessions were no accident. Dylan knew precisely where it was he wanted to be and how he intended to get there. The exact same ethos runs through the performance at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Show, and the three songs (‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt’ and ‘Grand Coulee Dam’), could easily have been recorded during the Big Pink sessions. Beginning in May of 1967, Dylan was, in the words of Richard Williams, “turning what had once been a gallery of nightmarish grotesques into the characters from a neighbourhood bar, only slightly distorted”. With the subsequent releases of ‘John Wesley Harding’ and ‘Music from Big Pink’, Dylan and The Band were, as Williams notes, “very publicly opting for low volume, no distortion, an interest in the natural sounds of the instruments, a respect for history, and a fondness for verbal formulations borrowed from the seventeenth – century King James Bible”. The Basement Tapes weren’t entirely spontaneous: some of the songs must have already been written and therefore rehearsed by Dylan alone or, most likely, in the company of another. Clinton Heylin proffers the following: “Spring 1967. Al Aronowitz, an old friend of Dylan’s, visits him in Woodstock and witnesses him working on some songs with Robbie Robertson. Aronowitz writes ‘Dylan is writing ten new songs, rehearsing them in his living room’. May to June: Dylan begins daily sessions….easing himself back into music making again”.  We already know that Grossman offered acetates of the sessions to other bands, therefore there must have been a purpose, however vague, to the sessions beyond having fun. Certainly, as Andy Gill notes, some of the songs “turned out to be works of considerable sophistication…(and)…crystallised the musicians’ sense of estrangement from the hippy movement’s anti-family platform”. 
 

Marriage, a teenage daughter, and a son who speaks a language I don’t recognise 

Bob Dylan is father to a number of children and husband to at least two wives. I, a trifle more conservatively, content myself with Diane, Rosie, Francis, and Lola. Regarding marriage, Ruth Rudner (whose mother “buried three husbands and two of them were just napping”) stated, “I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life”. At best, I imagine myself to be living the life of the character featured in the final verse of ‘Sign on the Window’ (without, for obvious reasons, the cabin in Utah or, because I don’t enjoy fishing, the rainbow trout). However, self-indulgent fantasy is limited due to the reality that is Rosie (my only consolation is the hope that, one day, she will accept responsibility for her behaviour. Failing that, I intend, in my dotage, to visit her with unnerving regularity and eat her out of house and home. I also propose to invite several friends, insist on sleepovers, and run up huge telephone bills). This will be a little more difficult with Francis as he is likely to be living in his bedroom aged 32 (there are times when I forget what he looks like). Conversations, at times a strange concept as they involve communication, are usually short and sweet. More often than not they include complicated hand gestures and several variations of the term motherfucker. As P J O’Rourke helpfully observes, “Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose with the exception of guppies, who like to eat theirs”. 

The festive holiday period has been a difficult time for Diane. A visit to relatives in Cumbria had to be postponed due to Lola’s illness (this removed a little of the emotional pain but the reality may well have been that the delay only served to increase Diane’s anxiety). Recently, I have felt a heightened sense of alienation and Diane has, at times, appeared a stranger. Memories of happier times have been difficult to cherish and, to borrow from Stephen Walsh, “ in these times of desolation they seem far away as you lurch between one idea and another of what you are, one uncertainty to another about what you should do to work out a way of making things worthwhile”. Audrey’s death cast an extremely dark shadow. As a result, Diane has spent time reflecting upon the fragility of life. Prior to the visit we had not found the time to talk. Foolishly, I concentrated on my own feelings, which, as the days passed, approached mild paranoia. It was, as is usually the case, a chance remark that allowed the arrow of truth to pass through the narrow gate. In another life, Diane lived in both Ghana and France, travelling extensively. In some ways, her heart remains and she wishes to return in order to reclaim all that she left behind (in the words of Johnny Cash who, needless to say, is somewhere in my top ten, in spirit if not body, “every so often everybody’s baby gets the urge to roam, everybody’s baby but mine is coming home”). I now know that I will not be able to give Diane everything she wants; she cannot be Angelina. But, with or without God’s truth, I will try my best to love her. And, in time, Diane will make peace with her memories and, as Jim Dodge suggests, “with the sweet weariness of constant marvel” our days together will be spent watching the sunset. Because as Johnny Seven Moons once observed, “I’ve seen 30,000 sunsets, and no two have ever been the same. What more can we possibly want?” 
 

Writing for Freewheelin 

My thoughts have to have somewhere they can call home. Besides, where else would I be able to discuss the merits, or otherwise, of ‘Drop Kick Me Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life’ and ‘I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home’? 
 

Dylanic Bulimia 

“Once upon a time there was a writer who woke every morning and asked his magic mirror a question. ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the biggest Dylan fan of them all?’ And each morning the mirror replied, ‘For what it’s worth, dork, you are’…” As much as I would like to take credit for both the title and the quip, neither is of my own making. The title is actually taken from a letter to The Telegraph (the magazine overseen by, as Andrew Collins succinctly puts it, “Bob’s earthly representative” not the broadsheet of Middle England). The witticism belongs to Richard Abowitz. 

Back in the day, Dylanology was confined to a few choice individuals. As Dave Henderson points out, “It’s beyond model aircraft building, it covers all media and, when housed in a suitable fashion it has a collectors’ tag… People smitten by Bob in the ‘60s still walk this earth quoting from his lyrics and naming their shops after him”. A combination of primitive technology and under whelming interest meant that, mercifully, distribution was limited to those who, on a need to know basis, needed to know. Henderson suggests that “the church of Dylanology is based two blocks away from Desolation Row”. Should the existence of serendipity be in any doubt, irrefutable evidence is unwittingly provided by John Roberts and AJ Weberman who attempted deconstruction of ‘Desolation Row’ with the express purpose of proving that Dylan enjoys stardom. The following is an extract: 

“Yes, I received your letter yesterday”

Dylan confirms the arrival of their fan mail

 

“About the time the doorknob broke”

And puts down its trivial content

 

“When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?”

If his fans had been digging his pessimistic lyrics they wouldn’t have to ask if he was happy

 

“All these people that you mention, yes I know them, they’re quite lame”

He goes on to explain that he sees the inhabitants of Desolation Row as greedy, revolting squares….

 

“I had to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name”

And because of this he had to represent them all symbolically in his poetry

 

“Right now, I can’t read so good, don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row”

Dylan ends by telling his fans that they ought to cool the letters until they see America the way he sees it 

Most distressingly, it appears that Mr Weberman intends to return via the Internet. He will be in good company. A search provides me with 1,050 sites relating to ‘Dylanology’. It is worth remembering that out there in space, no one can hear you scream.  

Freewheelin has sometimes sailed perilously close to the wind (numbers 227 “Once again connotations of the reliability of binary qualities in heterosexuality are concocted in relation to absurdist notions within the oppositions of night and day” and 231 “In the song the concept of feminist passivity and masculine violence is thus linked with the worship of a ‘pagan’ goddess, arguably opposing what could be seen as a retreat into a Christian ideology”). Other magazines have reproduced dissertations (‘Conclusions On The Wall’ reprinted in Dignity 16, “Ballad Of A Thin Man is not the only song that could be interpreted as having a homosexual undercurrent. One only has to look at the amount of his songs that mention the word ‘Queens’….”). Understanding the lengths people go to in order to illustrate an awareness of Dylan’s ‘meaning’ takes a leap of faith and, in truth, it has taken me a while to appreciate that each of the above has its place (Dylan related magazines, since you ask). My own use of outrageous conjecture, albeit restrained, has eased the journey. However, even my libertarian sentiments are unable to accommodate Sean Casteel. It was my original intention to reproduce his article in its entirety but having lost the will to live halfway through reading it I will, as a parting gift of goodwill and peace, present you with edited lowlights. As I suggested in a previous article, everything is open to interpretation. It is, therefore, with magnificent irony, that I subject Casteel’s piece to the same level of scrutiny. Editorial remarks will appear in brackets.    

“There have been innumerable attempts in the past to see past the artistic guise of Bob Dylan, I am here to suggest an explanation that has, to my knowledge, never been previously offered – UFO contact. I base this on a fairly rigorous study of UFO interaction with humans and a listeners fascination with Bob Dylan that I began as a 12 – year – old in 1970.” (Experience has taught me that most 12 year olds spend endless hours confined to their bedrooms, studying anything that might alienate their parents. Either that or wanking). “When I first heard the song ‘1,000 Men’ (it is, in fact, 10,000) from the ‘Under The Red Sky’ album, I was struck by the appropriateness of the line ‘1,000 women (he’s at it again) in my room, Spilling my buttermilk, Sweeping it up with a broom’. Using ‘Buttermilk’ as a euphemism, Dylan gives us a straightforward account of a sperm sample being taken” (What did I tell you). Towards the end of the article Casteel, who by now, I assume, resembles a near blind Werewolf, informs us that ‘Sad Eyed lady Of The Lowlands’ was written subconsciously, under the direction of aliens, and was “a neat little summary” of the Roswell Incident. 

No doubt Dylan will make reference to it in Volume Two…………… 

Right, I’m off to play my Dobro.

Go in Peace

 

 Bob Dylan Bob Dylan Bob Dylan Bob Dylan Bob Dylan Bob Dylan

 
 
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