Bob Dylan, eh? A poet. A singer of songs. An artist. A thief. Everyone has their own take on the man. Their idea of who he is shaped by his music and various articles and books, etc. Most importantly, they all have their own experiences and their own take on that old ‘what Bob Dylan means to me’ chestnutt.
Me? I try to stay clear of Dylan chat. I’ve witnessed the ‘predictable choice’ elitist bullshit scoffing that can go on with certain fans and the scepticism if someone utters Blonde On Blonde within a few seconds of saying “my favourite album is”. Better still, the scoffers will name that same album within their list of favourites. That’s okay, people. Chances are we have the same favourite albums just in a different order. You chat with friends and strangers to discuss your top 5 or whatever, you’ll likely discover that you have a mutual appreciation for three of them. By the end of the chat, you’re of the opinion that you need to revisit those that you’re just not keen on… and you may just find that you have a new appreciation for them.
“Dylan’s a poet”
It was my uncle Danny who introduced me to the songs of Bob Dylan. He would sing Dylan numbers and tell us that Dylan’s a poet. One of my fondest memories is of him singing The Times They Are a Changin’ and Blowing In The Wind during a Christmas or New Years get-together when I was maybe 15 or 16 thereabouts. The PlayStation is on and he comes in to say hello to us weans.
He spots the guitar and he’s making a grab for it “geez a shot”. He perches himself on the end of the bed… facing the pause screen on the wee portable telly… and he starts strumming the guitar. No shapes. No chords. Just strumming. Making a racket, essentially. Eyes closed. Head held high and singing like some Glaswegian Dylan. “Wit aboot this wan?” and he’s into another. Can of beer on the floor. My dad standing at the door smiling. Shaking his head. Occasionally interjecting to encourage him back into the living room. Laughing as he says “stop annoying the weans, Danny”. He was gonna see it through, though. He had songs to sing. Not just any songs, but Dylan songs. “Right, ‘er yi go…”. He stands up and gives me the guitar before reiterating that Dylan is a poet.
Naturally, I would check out some Bob Dylan, but it would be a bit further down the line.
I picked up Time Out of Mind in 1998 after finding it in a clearance basket in John Menzies. For one reason or another, I connected with much of that in a way that I never expected or maybe had any right to (still finding my way in the world and trying to establish who I was, while finding comfort in the likes of Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam and all that good stuff). I don’t know if it was the rhythms or Dylan’s delivery and gravelly tones, but I really felt something.
Love Sick is such a powerful opener… it’s a deep blues dirge. That same deep blues is all over the album. Even during the waltz of Standing In The Doorway (which is just beautiful). Even now I find myself caught in that moment. “I know I cant win, but my heart just won’t give in. Last night I danced with a stranger, but she reminded me you were the one”. In all of this… the resignation and the weariness… there’s still some fight. And that atmosphere… mystery and mastery in equal measure… he’s like a fading Ali who knows he’s gonna need to slug it out round after round. Tryin’ To Get To Heaven. Not Dark Yet. Cold Irons Bound. Highlands. It’s a deep, deep, deep, deep blues.
Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks and Oh Mercy would hit me the same. Instantly immersed in all that’s powerful and good about them. Connecting with certain tracks in certain circumstances. Oh Mercy is the home to my (other) favourite Dylan song – Man In The Long Black Coat. And while I’ve been underwhelmed by pretty much everything since Modern Times (which I liked a whole lot), I’m revisiting and appreciating the less celebrated Infidels and, more recently, Slow Train Coming. Both those albums have an intensity that I heard on Time Out Of Mind, but there’s something simmering. A darker side of Dylan, perhaps. Contempt for those who criticised his creativity or desire to explore? I dunno, but it’s clear there’s still much for me to discover.
“Fancy going to see Bob Dylan”
What about that ‘life-affirming Dylan live’ experience? Unfortunately I just never had that. My experience was very different. Unremarkable. Indifferent. One of the worst gigs I’ve ever seen. Careful, Jim. Seriously.
My brother got tickets to see Dylan when he was playing in Glasgow back in 2005. Despite The National, who I was digging a whole lot off the back of two great, great albums (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator), playing King Tut’s that same evening, we figured “it’s Dylan!”.
It was a cold November night and my brother and I made our way to Glasgow’s SECC. Understandably, we were pretty excited. Anyhoo, we got there… took our seats… and, well, Bob and the band played. It was unremarkable. Dull. Dylan stood at a keyboard for much (if not all) of the set. Sure, he can play what he likes and how he likes, but he and his band seemed very lacklustre. Proficient, I guess, but never exciting or creative. And that thing where you struggle to identify which song it is until the first or second chorus? Yup – all night. It wasn’t just cause the sound in the SECC is shitty. There was no energy fizzing around… it was very clinical and, ultimately, I left the gig feeling a bit empty. It didn’t help that I missed The National.
And that gig experience stayed with me. When folks talk about their Dylan experience and they ask me if I’ve ever seen him I say “sure. It was dreadful”. I appreciate that it wasn’t that way for loads of others; but it was for me. That’s my experience.
Did I have high expectations?
No, I don’t think so. I just expected to go along and get the badge that says “I saw Bob Dylan and it was fucking ace”.
Instead, I left with the one that says “Should have seen The National”.
*I got speaking with a colleague years later (a couple of years ago – didn’t know him at the time) and it turns out he was at that very gig. He agrees that was a bit of a flat occasion. He also happens to have seen him elsewhere a few years later and says it was as great as a live experience can be. Completely living up to expectations.
**I originally started drafting this for the Blog Dylan shenanigans last year. Figured it was about time I finished it. Sorry it’s late.
***If you’re interested, my favourite Bob Dylan album is Blood On The Tracks.