What Was It You Wanted?

by Jim Gillan

Was It What You Wanted? A bit late to be asking of course – and anyway neither the question nor the answer(s) matters much in the scheme of things. Herr Professor, what are your thoughts on this? Be aware that the dictionary defines ‘answer’ as ‘the solution to a problem’. Which implies rigour and (assuming the answer is correct) accuracy. However the dictionary also provides other definitions, thus illustrating that there isn’t a universally held understanding. Actually, most questions only generate responses, which of course aren’t the same thing as answers, but are often given (and taken) as such. If so, what we get in place of the answer is an opinion, which, however widely held, is invariably value ridden and not necessarily possessed of intrinsic value. For many things, what matters is the nature of the question, its purpose and context, though this doesn’t always help: 

(a) What is the square root of minus nine?

(b) Where should the apostrophe go?

(c) How many roads must a man walk down?

I’ve been failing utterly to get to grips with John’s ‘In Many a Dark Hour I’ve Been Thinking On This…’ I think I understand it too well and have been meaning to ring him about it, but still haven’t done so. I don’t know what to say, though sometimes having what seems like something in common can hinder communication. But not regard. I will try to reach him for a chat this evening, or failing that, send an email. 

RE ‘The Last Time I Listened To Bob Dylan’: There hasn’t been a precise time for this. I could invent a specific moment, but having absorbed his music over a lot of years I find it impossible to zero in on any particular point. Landing on the last time I saw him in concert (a disappointing Sheffield), or settling for the most recent CD on the player (Empire Burlesque – which spookily ends with ‘Dark Eyes’) doesn’t seem to be anything other than a contrivance. It may of course be time for Freewheelin’ to slide, but in our other worlds life, death and everything in between are all memorised the ways we want them to be. 

Last night’s ‘Late Junction’ played a track by Dylan, but I only switched on in time to catch the tail end of the announcement, not the piece itself, whatever it was. The mention of Dylan made the opening lines of ‘Visions Of Johanna’ leap into my mind and I heard him sing them. Earlier in the day I played a show I recorded from the Internet. Jeffrey Foucault was doing a live set on Whole Wheat Radio ( which beams out of Talkeenta, Alaska. He did a version of ‘Senor’, so when I heard Jeffrey, I also heard Bob. As I write, I’m logged on to the ‘Listen Again’ facility on the BBC Radio Player. Josh White is singing ‘House of the Rising Sun’. This is followed by Bob’s version, so ignore my earlier comment. Presenter Fiona Talkington describes young Bob’s take as “pure genius”, highlighting the grit he brings to the song. Being a mere 21, Bob couldn’t really have been so much older then, so I guess the reference to grit is maybe an oblique pun on him being so much boulder… Which might explain his later search for a solid rock. Ouch. 

On the bottom of his covering letter to Freewheelin’ 234 John scribbled a footnote to me about contributing some words from the bathroom. As I read his request I again heard Bob perform. I don’t know what though, as he was singing whilst simultaneously washing his hair. Wet, it’s much less impressive than when viewed against the backlights. And Bob really does wear why fronts. 

Saw Ramblin’ Jack Elliot a few weeks ago at the New Roscoe, Leeds. He played ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, which he introduced by saying that the first time he performed it, “the author himself was in the crowd – I recognised him by the light shining on his halo…” Close your eyes, open your ears and listen in. 

Now then, in March 2000 I was about to go off to America for a notional* twelve week trip taking in Yosemite, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, the Smokey Mountains and the Grand Canyon National Parks, as well as San Francisco, Nashville, Richmond VA and maybe Austin. Any one of them would have been enough, but having spent most of the previous two years recovering from severe head injury, I wasn’t thinking coherently. The lovely Ros was real worried about me heading off with a tent and backpack, but I had had enough of hospitals, wheelchairs, neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists and an abortive attempt to get back to work. I had to begin to find my own way, rather than rely on others, even if my timing was poor. What the hell, head injury doesn’t promote insight. Anyway, as the day of departure got nearer, she got more freaked. We cuddled for hours and went through my plans, covered all the contingencies, made all the promises and cuddled some more. Played lots of music and loads of Dylan. Which is where I got inspiration for this… 

Folks, I swear that this is true. In an attempt to lighten her burden of worry, in an attempt to make her smile, I came up with the following, which I recounted over a glass of wine and a cuddle – it’s impossible to have too many of these. And I said to her: I had the strangest dream last night. I am in a plane that I shouldn’t have been on, but find myself in mid-Atlantic. The Captain announces that there has been catastrophic engine failure and that ditching in the sea is inevitable. I arrive at the Pearly Gates, where St Peter is utterly nonplussed by my appearance, though nods understandingly when I explain that I somehow get on the wrong aircraft. He tells me that I’ll have to wait until my papers arrive, as until he is able to review them he can’t say if I’ll be allowed to stay, or will have to be cast down to the lower regions of Hell. But, he says, it shouldn’t take too long to sort – and in the meantime, whilst I’m waiting, I can pretty much do whatever I fancy. I tell Peter that my idea of heaven is to have a pint with my Dad, whilst watching Dylan do a solo concert. I also add some stuff about enjoying the attentions of long-legged barmaids, but what with this being a family read, I’ll leave that bit out. “No worries,” says St Peter, who strangely, though agreeably, speaks with a South Australia accent whist supping on a stubby. 

So I find myself in what is my idea of a fabulous pub. And sure enough, my Dad is sitting with a pint of plain, his familiar smile reaching out across the room and drawing me towards as fine a glass of Guinness as I’ve ever seen – and no bloody shamrock shape on the head. On stage, Bob is settling himself on the stool. He’s only about ten feet from where I’m sitting and he gives me a wave and a thumbs up as I mouth ‘James Alley Blues’ at him. “All that stuff and more” he growls. The light reflects off his Gibson acoustic; my Dad leans over and winks at me; I raise the pint to my lips and think about cuddling Ros… 

Just then St Peter taps me on the shoulder and motions me to follow him. Everything disappears and we’re again in the reception area. He has a folder with my name on it and a thick red line running diagonally across the cover. “It’s the other place for you,” he says, then braces himself for the flood of invective I unleash on him. I don’t know how long I let rip, but suspect it set a new record. At last I pause to draw breath and St Peter says mildly, “I don’t know what you’re so up set about – it’s not as though you believe in any of this stuff…” 

At which point Ros burst into tears. What we intend isn’t always what we achieve. Though I still feel that not hearing Bob on that occasion was infinitely better than actually doing so. 

And finally, a HUGE thank you to John and to all those associated with Freewheelin’ for intentions, achievements and limitless tolerance. And there’s always a next time.

*Turned out to be ten weeks, on account of I took ill. I guess I should have listened.

Answers: (a) It’s an imaginary number of course. And is, I suspect, what Bob has in mind when he refers to mathematical music. (b) As you may know, according to Zappa, the apostrophe is the crux of the matter, though for guidance on usage, leave it to Lynne Truss. (c) One – and you’re on it. Where it leads is up to you.