Bob Dylan turns 70 today and to mark the event, four Dabbler Dylanists pick a favourite song and explain why he matters. Happy Birthday Bob!
Mahlerman — Thunder on the Mountain
ROBERT ALLEN ZIMMERMAN
Born: Duluth, Minnesota: May 24th, 1941
Occupations: Musician, Dabbler
My, he’s as slippery as mercury, but of one thing there is little doubt: he is the preeminent singer-songwriter of our time.
And if pushed to name a single quality he has, as a summation I would suggest that, like many great artists, he has remained true to his own view of himself.
He has constantly dabbled with the look – from angelic, ringleted cowboy-chic to the current offering of Methuselah’s older brother with pencil-moustache.
He has constantly dabbled with his life – booze/drugs, giving up the fags, taking up fitness training, finding God (for a while), discovering, bizarrely, the joys of golf.
And, best of all, he has dabbled constantly with his music – belting out Little Richard tunes as a kid, marching on through Blues and Folk, almost inventing electric folk/rock and never, seemingly, playing the same thing twice.
Along the way there were 40+ albums, with three or four duds, and a sea of awards any one of which would make an old man very happy – an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer…..
And in the decade between 1996 and 2006, when we thought he was done, he produced three albums (Time Out Of Mind: Love And Theft: Modern Times) that would have immortalized his name, if that hadn’t been done already.
From the last of those masterworks, four minutes and one second of rock ‘n’ roll perfection. Try and keep your right foot still.
Jonathan Law – The Times We’ve Known
Choose a Dylan song? It’s part of Dylan’s greatness that you could choose a different song, or performance, for each day of the year and still come nowhere near the bottom of his vast, churning, ectoplasmic barrel. But for this day, of this year, I have to go with something a little strange…
– a one-off stab at Charles Aznavour’s The Times We’ve Known from a 2009 concert in Paris. Apparently, Dylan heard that the song’s composer was in the audience and launched into the song impromptu (hence, I suppose, the slight wobble at the start).
For all its lack of polish, there’s something in this performance that comes close to the heart of Dylan’s mystery – his peculiar way of walking a tightrope between triumph and debacle. The beginning is hardly promising: a few blasts of wheezing atonal harmonica, Bob plonking away on his keyboard like John Shuttleworth, then the late Dylan voice at its most rebarbative and catarrhal. But he carries on, gets a little stronger – and suddenly I’m tearing up. It’s all sorts of things, but mainly the still peerless phrasing in that wrecked voice, the way he goes so boldly for the top note at the end of each verse and so nearly gets away with it that, yes, he gets away with it. It’s almost terrible, but actually brilliant: a dangerous game to play, but one that Dylan has pulled off time and time again.
There’s also the words, if you can make them out: not Dylan’s own, of course, and a great dollop of Gallic schmaltz, perhaps – but right for today.
The times we’ve known are slipping by
Like vapour trails across the sky
The best of times, the worst of times
Have come and gone …
The years of debt, the years of doubt
The years of ‘what’s it all about?’
Of holding fast, and holding out
And holding on …
Some lucky flings, some rotten breaks
Some funny things, a few mistakes
The dreams that every dreamer takes
And makes his own …
The times he’s known! The things he’s seen! And the things we’ve seen, through the strange, turbulent prism of his art.
Nige – I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine
It was on the old BBC Light Programme, of all incongruous places, that I first heard Bob Dylan, rasping out The Times They Are A Changin’ in a voice the like of which I’d never heard before. I was stunned and instantly smitten, sought out all I could find of Dylan’s work, and for the next 15 or 20 years his songs were the soundtrack of my life (and, at times, after that too). One song? I’m going to go for I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine, off the John Wesley Harding album – spare, beautiful, moving, a kind of quintessence of Dylan, or at least of one of his musical selves.
Brit – Visions of Johanna
Every so often some ‘critic’ will come along and explain why Bob Dylan is overrated. Michael Henderson had a go in this week’s Spectator, making a tiresome argument that Blood on the Tracks was more or less his only worthwhile offering. A little while back on The Review Show, a pipsqueak novelist called Alex Preston loftily decried “the increasingly ridiculous Bob Dylan” for his protest-free China gigs.
These people are as artistic gnats to Dylan’s Everest. “Increasingly ridiculous?” Twaddle, Alex Preston. Dylan has always been ‘ridiculous’; which is to say, he has always been Bob Dylan. We don’t get to tell him now what we think he ought to be.
So you don’t like Blonde on Blonde, Michael Henderson? So what? As Noddy Boffin put it in Our Mutual Friend: “Meow says the cat, quack says the duck, Bow wow wow says the dog!” What you think of Dylan simply doesn’t signify. Your dislike of his work is no more meaningful a contribution to the sum total of human aesthetic achievement than is a fart in the Louvre.
This is not to say that everything Dylan has produced is of unimpeachable quality. Duds, daftness and failures litter his career. Only a handful of his 40-odd albums are free of filler, and a couple of them consist of little else. It doesn’t matter, because Bob Dylan is a real artist in a world of mere approximations, of dabblers. His work is what it is; and what it is has come straight from god-knows-where through a channel that only Bob Dylan can tune in to.
We all know this, which is why he is criticised, decried etc. In an interview during his brief Born-Again phase, Dylan once complained that “nobody asks Billy Joel” what he thinks about God. “It’s only me. Why is it only me?” Because Billy Joel is only tuned into the same lame frequencies that we are, of course.
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Where the hell did Visions of Johanna come from? Only Bob knows. The rest of us can worship, or obsessively deconstruct, or decry, or critique as we please. It really doesn’t signify.