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THE LAST TIME I LISTENED
TO BOB DYLAN

by Jeff Stevens



Now, just when would that be?

Last week, when I listened to a recent 2005 concert in the car? No way. The voice is shot and the band are workmanlike at best. Enough said. Last year at Finsbury Park? Definitely not. That was just a run-of-the-mill, typical festival gig with Ron and Bob goofing around like old-age pensioners on laughing gas.

Brixton '95? The last time I saw Dylan play in a smallish venue. Not really. The performances were inconsistent over the three nights and too many times in concert recently my mind has started to drift away at the mid-point of the show and all connections have been lost. I have to go further back. The last night at Hammersmith in 1990? Possibly. The first time I saw Dylan 'live' at Earl's Court in 1978? Maybe. However, to be absolutely, brutally honest, which is what we all ought to be in the pages of this august journal, the last time I listened to Bob Dylan's music as if my life depended upon it was when I was a PGCE student at Southampton University and, for the whole of the spring term, the first thing I did after closing the door when I came home from a day's teaching practice was to play "Blood On The Tracks" all the way through, song after song and side after side, day after day, week in and week out for a couple of months or so. That album coupled with Jackson Browne's "Late For The Sky" were the soundtrack to my life in those days. Sad bastard, maybe, but I too had lost my one true love. Mind you, like all of us, nothing can really compare to our first dose of the Dylan muse. For me, that was Christmas morning 1965 when Santa deposited "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" in my stocking. Everything else, all the myriad albums, assorted singles, bilious biographies, critical tomes of various shapes and sizes, tapes, Cds, illicit or otherwise, concerts attended in person or listened to from afar, cuttings carefully collected and collated, magazine articles written and consumed, conversations engaged in or overheard, all the billions of words devoted to this artist in print or cyberspace, have been a mostly unsuccessful attempt to recreate those first moments of listening to a voice that seemed to have the uncanny ability to sum up in song one's own thoughts and feelings and who warned against faith in politicians, ideologies and even one's own heart. Trust yourself, indeed, but always keep one eye open for those unforeseen pitfalls that life can bring.

So, it is time to bid a final farewell to "Freewheelin'". All good things have their end. I contributed to the magazine for ten years from 1991 to 2001 and prided myself on never missing an issue. For the first few years it was an enjoyable and rewarding experience. I particularly valued the annual Lincoln get-togethers when faces were put to names and we could communicate in person rather than in print. Moreover, in those days Bob Dylan was not a fashionable artist. After a series of indifferent albums and tours, he had ceased to be the icon he had been in previous decades. It was a challenge to breathe life into the old war dog. In 1997 Bob suffered his 'life-threatening' illness; in retrospect, a brilliant career move, and, critically speaking, has become an elder statesman of rock, revered by young and old alike. In the same year my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in my mid-forties with two young children. My priorities had changed. Bob Dylan and his music shifted to the wings. I still kept up with all the magazines and books but, try as I might, he could never regain centre stage in my life. Mel Gamble's departure from the group and John Green's untimely demise were two further nails in the coffin. Mel summed up for me the true spirit of "Freewheelin"'. He was, arguably, the most gregarious member, he organised the Lincoln weekends and, when conversations stalled, he could be guaranteed to get them moving again with a well timed interjection. As for John, he was simply irrepressible and irreplaceable. When those jiffy bags ceased to drop through the letterbox, I began to feel like an impostor in the Dylan world. The magic had gone and, when Dylan was sixty and I was fifty, I resolved to move on. I had said all that I wanted to say about the man and his music and it was time to make way for others whose enthusiasm was more infectious than mine. I did not keep up with the on-line version of the magazine, although I did check out the CD-Rom annual produced a couple of years ago. I was greatly impressed by the depth and quality of the writing I found there - far better, I felt, than when I was on board. However, something seemed to be missing. There did not appear to be much personal contact between the individual contributors. Each person emerged with his or her own priorities and prejudices and aimed their articles at an imaginary audience rather than towards fellow members. That, to me, seemed antithetical to the spirit of the magazine that I had joined all those years ago. I did not regret my decision to quit when I did.

Now "Freewheelin'" is finally being laid to rest. Thank you, John Stokes, for all those words of encouragement in dark times and for keeping the dream alive for so many years. Thanks also to Chris, John Welburn, Richard, Mark and Mel for being kindred spirits during those years. It has been a privilege to know you.

Good luck to you all!

 
 
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