The Last Time I Heard Bob Dylan

by Andrew Muir


Upon receiving John's moving letter in March, I instinctively and immediately replied that I would of course contribute an article to the final issue of this magazine. However, the title of the piece caused me some disquiet. I knew it would, in combination with other circumstances, lead me into writing about something that I'd been trying to avoid for some time, as will become apparent later. 

I did toy with the idea though of delaying the inevitable by playing on the words of the title - one can imagine a Ricksian riff on the last time, being the latest time, or in the ultimate time, or the danger that every time could be that ultimate time. One can hear in one's ears the Rolling Stones' warning that "this could be the last time, this could be the last time, might be the last time, I don't know." 

Yet that would indeed merely be playing for time, as the song I first heard in my head (I often think in songs - do you?) when I read the title was Joni Mitchell's, The Last Time I Saw Richard. This was the first song that got me into Joni, its melancholy tune a perfect trap for all that adolescent angst that we all project on to a world in our teenage years, imaging with dread an uncertain future. And melancholic was certainly how I was feeling about listening to Dylan at the time that John's letter arrived. 

To explain this, a little background is needed. Some time back Helter Skelter asked me to update Razor's Edge for a second edition. I actually find this quite difficult, as I have not enjoyed the shows for the last few years nearly as much as many others (you can read that as 'years' or 'other people). I have had problems with Dylan's vocal deterioration and although I would dearly like - as Steven Scobie, for example, does - to find how he changes his voice to cope with this admirably engaging; I do not, generally speaking anyway. Instead I find a lack of engagement in his voice, with those terrible tricks of false 'dramatic' pauses and the ludicrous 'up singing' technique on the last word of every line. 

The first two chapters of the updated edition were saved by the American Fall tours which in their different ways gave me much to enthuse over. 2003 was a more testing year but I concluded with an extended review of Hammersmith, that echoed back pleasingly through the book being such a highly featured venue in its early chapters. 

It's not that I have ducked the question of my growing disquiet entirely - indeed much of the update is concerned with developments that worry me- but I wanted the book to have uplifting passages too and at the very least the last chapter of the book to end on a high note (no pun intended!).

Then came the news that Helter Skelter were putting a number of books back to avoid attention being distracted by the release of Dylan's own book, Chronicles. Gulp. I'd need to include 2004 to at least some extent now. However, a sleight of hand ensured that I conjured up a foreword that included me going to see Dylan's inauguration at St Andrews, and at the two Glasgow shows that immediately followed. Thus, the last show in the book was the riotous Barrowlands gig. It did not include anything on the shows thereafter as I just could not get into them at all. Though later in the year I began to hear more interesting things, they still were not enough to get me very enthused and, anyway, I knew I'd get around to investigating them later, there was no rush. 

So, just before John's letter arrived there was a simple answer to the question of this article -1 was immersed in "Planet Waves" on the SACD reissue. Amazingly it sounds even warmer there than it did before. 

Suddenly, though, all my plans were in ruins. First, I was notified that Helter Skelter were going through a reorganisation and had to decided to delay most of their spring releases until the end of the year. This meant I'd have to update Razor's Edge once again because Dylan was embarking already on 2005 shows. There was no way I could now avoid the listening to 2004 before immersing myself in the opening shows of 2005. 

Just to add to the pressure, I was then invited, and I'm deeply honoured to be so, to again open the John Green Memorial Day. As I have two possible talks for that convention and -one very academic in tone and the other one to cover the live shows in the years since Razor's Edge ended plus indeed, a point I haven't mentioned yet that cuts across these, which is to do with obsessional collecting and what happens when you actually start to lose the obsession. 

All these later points seem to me to revolve around the same things that John spent so much of his life involved in. Therefore, I shall be going into all of this in more depth, at the John Green Memorial Day, the correct answer at the moment of writing this, however, is that I am listening to a dull show from about a year before you'll read this and I am not very sure I can hear the Dylan I love so much in it at all. The other correct answer is that by the time you get this Dylan will have played many shows and with the wonder of SHN files and broadband downloads I will probably have listened to a very recent show the night before whatever day John posts these outs. And let us hope that this time I hear Bob Dylan again, and that it is not for the last time.