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!