On Friday you’ll hear Bob appreciated and covered by the Americana community and you’ll hear some sparkling great Dylan cuts. No adverts, no competitions just Bob Dylan for two hours. Next Friday? We’re going to do it all again. After two weeks surrounded by US Radio I love public broadcasting. Hope you do too!
So I’ve decided the best way I can introduce the next two Fridays is to put out this essay I wrote for The Scotsman in 1992. Why they asked me to write it then I can’t remember. But I disagree with very little that I wrote except we now know he was about to make 6 straight great albums. Just as well I got round to realising he was as good as I’d first imagined. So here it is unchanged; my younger voice speaking about the Bob I grew up with.
In the stock room of my father’s warehouse I heard my dad asking cousin Brian, “Who is this Bob Dylan anyway?” It was the summer of the Isle of Wight festival and the reason for the assorted PVC jackets sailing into Cowes was a mystery to my old man. The social historians among you (who, I may add will find nothing else worthwhile in this piece) will no doubt notice that this was an incredible question given that what many people consider Dylan’s most worthwhile work had all been released…….but that would be to overestimate pop culture and underestimate my father’s ignorance of the “poet”.
Brian knew who Bob Dylan was. Brian was at university, took flying lessons and would occasionally come to work in the summer sporting a cravat and a jaunty goatee……….he also left a Thunderclap Newman elpee at our house never to have it returned. (Sorry about that Brian but believe me I needed all the youth culture I could get when I came from a Dylan free family – we’d only got the record player the Christmas before and were still getting off on the Jim Reeves Christmas album) I decided to be a Bob-familiar person too. I asked for an album and my aunty Ev finally obliged the following Christmas. More Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits arrived down the lum containing the first track I’d been aware of on the radio – Watching the River Flow.
At this point the purists will all have turned the page muttering darkly about dispatching their first ever letter to the Scotsman but the strange thing about my convoluted conversion to Bob Dylan is that I liked the sound of the whole thing. I liked the guitar, the moothie, Leon Russell’s piano and most of all the voice. I liked the rasp and whisper, the nasal whine and the the fender-twin honk of it all. I knew nothing of God on Our Side or The Chimes of Freedom but I loved this collective noise that was Bob Dylan.
I went on this way for some time enjoying the little extra that I heard: the seminal Blood on the Tracks, the work of the Band, the small newspaper clips in my Dad’s Daily Express about Bob being a right-on-millionaire (yet he still wears denim jackets pop fans) and I began to relax in the knowledge that I was maturing in my Dylan taste. I knew nothing.
I never knew about the bike crash, The Big Pink, or even who the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was. It was big Alan that told me all these things. Big Alan owned and played a copy of a Les Paul Sun Burst with humbuckers (that’s electric guitar to you, square) and even knew that All Along the Watchtower was ripped off a dude called Isaiah! I quickly came to “know” these things too.
Off course it was ludicrous that in the current release Bob claimed to have written Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (we just called it lowlands) for his wife Sara….. I mean people had waited years to get that kind of hard news and he gives it away like, well like Alan lent me his phase-pedal never to see it again. (Sorry about that Alan) Alan “knew”, and your man here was not a million miles behind him, that the most important record onˇ the College of Commerce jukebox was Like A Rolling Stone/Gates of Eden. I came to “know” that Like a Rolling Stone was the greatest record ever made. It didn’t perturb me unduly that at the particular time of its release I was more keenly tuned into the Alan Price Set’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival”.
It was shortly after this a truly wonderful and awful thing happened – Punk. Let’s face it (as one of Mike Leigh’s best characters says) these were not Dylan friendly years. Icononoclasm was in and there was no bigger statue around than the one with the guy with the big nose and the striped T-shirt. He did his best; he jammed with Patti Smith at the Bottom Line, he tried wearing make up but it was always a lost cause. His head finally rolled onto the pavement one day when some poor sod complained to NME about a less than flattering review they had carried about the “Street Legal” album. The fatal blow was ‘cruel but fair’; the enfants terrible of the paper, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons simply quoted the lines of a less that successful song on the album. It contained the immortal couplet: ‘Do you cook and sow, make flowers grow?/Do you understand my pain?’ You will understand me if I tell you that it hurts too much to continue at this point.
There really was only one way out of a ghastly career situation like this but sadly for his Bobness there was no convenient all night drug store/ dangerous sports car/ fat-burger stall / roving gun-man to remedy the sinking
credibility. Instead Bob discovered Christianity.
Some of that isn’t actually true. Bob Dylan came face to face with Jehovah of the Old Testament which in some ways is just as well because he was soon to find out the meaning of unforgiveness for himself. As someone who was preparing to question the fundamental certainties of my younger years and become on of the people my parents warned me about Bob Dylan had made an album that restated the tenets of the family faith. Rock ‘n’ Roll phew!!During this period Bob lost me and I certainly name no attempt to find him. The little I heard had God played by Norman Tebbitt and guitar by ..er Mark Knoplfler!
In 1986 I joined a pop group who got a recording deal on the CBS Records label, home to Shakin Stevens, Mel Torme and Bob Dylan. It was the great irony. To have access to all the Dylan back catalogue and no longer have the desire to collect it. To have people that would get me a ticket to a show and put a beer in my hand afterwards and not to want to go. To have the possibility of an awful lig which might put me in proximity of his legendary howling breath but find important things to do like washing my hair seemed to me to be a paradox worthy only of the big guy that Bob had got to know and had given Job that particularly hard time.Worse. We were to tour in the states . We sought a support slot. It was possible that we might join the Bob Dylan tour. My life was going out of control.This being the kind of tale it is you’ll realise that the tour never happened.
Last year a kind Dylan acolyte in Germany sent me a numbered box-set CD of the bootleg series. It contained a lot of the unreleased material that had been illegally enjoyed for years. In the course of this refresher course I discovered one of the most beautiful songs ever to be written and performed by anyone. A song called ‘Every Grain of Sand’ was a truly touching litany of Christian faith and doubt which would drive the weakest brother back into the chapel and bring him to his knees. ÎIt was performed on a guitar with a piano accompaniment and a wild dog barking in the next room. Not only did it reverse all my negative doubts about Bob but I realised that any man willing to leave the dog on couldn’t be all the things the NME had called him.Ironically the song had been released as a different version on one of the aforementioned Knopfler/Tebbitt sessions but its genius had been disguised as only seminal rock acts seem to know how.I began to perform the song in the same stumbling fashion as the bootleg and on some of the happiest nights of my life when I truly enjoyed playing concerts like I hadn’t done for some time we would play Every Grain of Sand and people were patient enough to give me the time to sing