The Last Time I Listened to Bob Dylan

by Patrick J. Webster

1109 final words on

….endings and closure and flipping and accomplishments…


As a prologue - before attending to the requested title of this last Freewheelin' - I would like to forge some kind of perspective as to my involvement with the magazine.

I think, other than John and Chris, I am the next longest serving member of the group. I joined in March 1987, in Volume 2, Number 7 - in other words Freewheelin’ 19 - and over the course of the next eighteen years I wrote a total of 135 contributions - this one being the final one. It is with some regret that I notice I only managed - on average - to produce a contribution for just over one issue in two: 217 available issues - only 135 actual contributions. Of course, there were many other starts and beginnings for contributions - but because of various reasons of which I now have little recall - they were never finished and hence never submitted. Of this I regret, especially as our esteemed collator, the great John Stokes, scarcely missed an issue.

In any case the last eighteen years of contributing to the magazine has been a great pleasure - and this last piece is therefore something of a literal accomplishment. There are practical considerations - not the least being where to store Freewheelin’s 19-236, they currently make a precarious tower nearly five feet high - in the spare room. I shall keep them, of course, but whether I will reread them is less certain. What I may one day re-read - if I may be self-centred - are my own contributions - as they provide a record of the last (or latest) eighteen years of my life.

Such thoughts leads one to attend to the title of this final contribution: 'The Last Time I Listened to Bob Dylan'. In a literal sense it is impossible to answer - as it would presumably have to be written from a perspective beyond the grave. I suppose one could choose a Bob Dylan song and then choose a means of termination of some kind. Alternatively one could extrapolate and envisage that there undoubtedly will be a final Bob Dylan song I will eventually listen to - but let us not go too far down this particularly literal dead-end; let us not be too pessimistic; let us look to the un-literal intent of the above title.

As of this exact moment - 10.08am Tuesday 19 April 2005 - the last time I listened to Bob Dylan was last night - the song was 'Not Dark Yet'. I played it several times over - at times accompanying it on guitar - it being one of my favourite chord structures - one that affords the simplistic variations I am capable of - I was also attending to the lyric - and to the chapter in Christopher Ricks' book in which he draws similarities between the song and John Keats' poem, ' Ode to a Nightingale.'

I think it appropriate a choice - insomuch as we are talking of endings here - Keats' poem and Dylan's song are concerned with endings - ultimate endings. In Keats we are looking towards a ceasing upon the midnight with no pain, or of being, for many a time, half in love with easeful death. In Dylan it is the burden too hard to bear, or every nerve in one's body being so vacant and so numb.

Talking of ultimate endings, let me draw to a finish by speaking of the Never Ending Tour - a tour that is of course nothing of the sort. A never ending tour is almost as sentimental a wish - in its vain attempt at warding off mortality - as that final line in all those fairy tales we used to listen to as children. We do not live ever after, happily or otherwise, if we know one thing we know this tour is going to end. It is a tour that in reality started in 1961 and it will continue for as long as it continues - but it will end - in Philip Larkin's words: ‘Most things may never happen: this one will’.

Another Philip, Philip K. Dick - perhaps the most knowing sf author of the 20th century - once wrote a book called The Penultimate Man, he wasn't writing about Dylan - but he might as well have been. I cite this book because I am aware of some Dylan fans who have the slightly malign and baleful wish to be there for the final concert - for the actual final concert. I have no such wish, I have no wish to see a singer dying in front of a thousand clowns - to use Dylan's words in the Rolling Stone interview of 1969, in which he alluded to the death of Judy Garland.

Myself, I would rather attend the one before the final one, the penultimate concert and perhaps hear the last performance of 'Not Dark Yet' - wherein the actual intent of the song I last listened to would be fully borne out - 'It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.'

'Here lies one whose name was writ in water.' John Keats wrote this, his own epitaph, breathing his last - in Rome - aged just 25, staring out at the Spanish Steps. It is a line another great poet, Alien Ginsberg, only slightly misquotes in Renaldo and Clara. In the same scene in the film Dylan (in the role of Renaldo) tells us he wants an unmarked grave - and hence probably no epitaph either - a remark - in this context - perhaps worthy of our consideration.

To finally end, to ultimately conclude: in the 1990s I was a big fan of Gary Shandling's American spoof chat show, The Larry Sanders Show. It ran for exactly 88 episodes, from 22 October 1993 to 15 August 1999. I tried to catch them all, as it was one of the very best American TV comedies of recent - or any times. Unfortunately BBC2 tended to arbitrarily change its late night submission on Sunday nights, and it wasn't always easy to catch it. (I find allusions to my lack of contributions to Freewheelin' here.) In any case one of the shows many catch phrases was Larry's: 'Don't flip,’ a plea for the show's imagined viewers not to zap or flip channels in the phoney commercial breaks. The last words, in the last show, a one hour special - held in great affection by we fans - was Larry looking direct to camera and saying, 'You can flip now.' In terms of Freewheelin' let me end by saying, to all our contributors, past and present - 'You can all flip now - and good luck and God bless as you flip.