Why I Love Bob Dylan
"Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn."
Bob Dylan was my father's first love. He became entranced with Dylan through albums like Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks and the underrated classic Infidels. He taught me about Dylan. He taught me to take care in listening to the genius of his words and his mastery of putting complex emotions into (almost) every song. The first album I heard was Blonde On Blonde, bought for me by my father for Christmas. The album blew me away, I mean, how could it not? It was so densely packed. That Phil Spector like Wall of Sound knocking you over.
Visions of Johanna was the first song I loved of his. I remember getting into a stupid squabble with my friend Paul over the greatness of the song. He thought it was morose, I didn't. I still don't see how someone could ever call such a gorgeous, insightful song morose but oh well, people are strange I guess. The version of Visions of Johanna that does it for me most is the one from the "Royal Albert Hall Concert," actually recorded in Manchester. The concert is a Fuck You to everyone who doubted Dylan's new direction, but it is also a loving, heartfelt performance. Just the guitar and the harmonica...bliss. I always felt that he was singing to me. Silly I know, but I did. That verse about Little Boy Lost blew me the fuck away. That was me. I was this silly boy, taking too much pride in my limited abilities. Always wishing for some beautiful woman to take me on and love me. I didn't get a love until I let that bullshit go.
Bob Dylan has so many albums that I won't be able to cover them all but it is important that I first give an overview of his career. Dylan has released thirty eight studio albums and eleven live albums. He started in 1962 with his self-titled debut, which is by the way, a really fine album of (mostly) covers. (As an aside, I just want to say that people who fail to count Dylan's cover albums are full of shit. Dylan has always been about interpreting old music and giving it a new flavour. This counts for the debut, Self Portrait, Good As I Been To You and the three recent cover albums, ending with Triplicate. If you don't count them as "real" albums, you're an idiot who doesn't understand one thing about Bob.) Dylan is incredibly prolific. He recorded nine albums from 1962 to 1969, each a musical jewel.
Blonde On Blonde is Dylan's masterpiece of the 1960s. It is very close to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks for me. For someone to do such work once in their life is astonishing. That Dylan would turn out album after album just as good is incredible. One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) is a hidden gem. That chorus... Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know. Just superb. Dylan was able to write in such a way that it painted the picture for you. You are transported to a time and place that you never knew but you still kind of fucking know it. "When you whispered in my ear and asked me if I was leaving with you or her. I didn't realize just what I did here. I didn't realize how young you were." In the snow. Walking up to your lover's apartment. A day spent on brandy and ice. A night that stretched on into the distance. Inebriation that doesn't harm or impair. Enjoying the moment. Looking at the shape of her body. I Want You... a simple wish. It trundles along in its pretty and lighthearted way. This is a love that amuses as it enraptures. I want you. I want you. Yes, I want you so bad. Sex is the holiest thing that can happen between two people. This is a sex song, but don't let that put you off. Embrace it and love it like you should.
Stuck in Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again is the song on Blonde On Blonde. "The ragman draws circles, up and down the block. I'd ask him what the matter was, but I know that he don't talk. And the ladies treat me kindly and they furnish me with tape but deep inside my heart I know I can't escape. Oh momma, can this really be the end? To be stuck inside of mobile with the Memphis blues again." It is a traveling song. All the adventures that happen on the road. I will always remember its place in the savagely good adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Terry Gilliam. That is what it brings to mind: visions of the American Dream, visions of the hopeless and desperate.
Bob Dylan wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for his wife Sara (who will reappear on Blood On The Tracks and Desire). It is an epic at eleven minutes and nineteen seconds. "With your mercury mouth in the missionary times and your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes and your silver cross and your voice like chimes, oh who do they think could bury you?" It is a song that gets into it right from the beginning, even though it lasts nearly a dozen minutes. For Dylan to write a song like this for one he loved, do you not think that you would always be in his power? Like, seriously, if any lover of mine ever wrote something like this for me I would never ever be able to leave them. I don't care how shoddily they treated me. I would be theirs for all time.
My favourite period of Bob Dylan is the 1970s. Yes, it starts shaky and uncertain with Self Portrait but ends up with his best trilogy of albums in Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks and Desire. These are more emotionally mature and intriguing than even the best of his 60s material. They are so compelling because they lay Dylan bare. He has none of the emotional barriers that he had with his big production albums, getting back to the honesty of just words and music. Blood On The Tracks is my all time favourite Dylan album and for good reason. It is the story of a man losing the love he had. It is about, among other things, Dylan's divorce from his wife. Not to say it's literally about that, but that is the engine that drives the album.
Blood On The Tracks is one of those albums that demands that you listen to it all in one sitting. Just like the last sentence. Tangled Up In Blue is a song I have discussed before, but it is worth repeating that the song is an expression of pure love through a travelogue. "We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view." Tangled Up In Blue is the enrapturing and all encompassing love and how that fades and drifts away. Simple Twist of Fate is that lost chance. That last thing that could have saved your life. You're a Big Girl Now is condescending and loving at the same time.
Idiot Wind, as released is the anger and rage that comes from a separation. In its original form, it was much more humble and accepting of guilt that applied to the singer. "Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess. They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy. She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky. People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act. Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts. Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at. I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that sweet lady. Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth blowing down the backroads headin’ south. Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth. You’re an idiot, babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe" That Dylan's humble, accepting guilt turned into such volatile and powerful rage is perhaps not surprising considering the hell that people go through when they are in the middle of a divorce. Both versions of the songs are classics, with my favourite being the released bombastic and shocking track. We all think these things but so few of us are equipped to express it in such poetic ways. "I figured I'd lost you anyway, why go on, what's the use? In order to get in a word with you, I'd have had to come up with some excuse. That just struck me kind of funny." Behind the power of the released version is the insecurity and low down beauty of the original. Both are worthy entries into Dylan's Best Ever catalogue.
I want to talk a little while about the song Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. It is a magical thing. The released version is all bells and whistles but the original New York version is the best. It is a tale that would make David Milch of Deadwood fame proud. It is an old Wild West tune. Some think that the song has no place on an album about lost love, but those folks are short sighted. "The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall. The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall. The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down. Anyone with any sense had already left town. He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts." It is a song about fate, and luck. Gambling is the deep desire to let fate take you away and make your decisions for you. Through that letting go, perhaps you can learn to live with yourself and let go of your failures. If fate wills it... Westerns have held a place for Dylan for many years, as I previously discussed on Why I Love Love & Theft, but here you really see it. This could make a great short movie, should anyone ever decide to step up and be brave enough to put time and money into it. "The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”. Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair. She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw. Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law. But most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts."
People think Bob had a bad 80s, and you know they are almost right. He did however record three great albums in Shot of Love, Infidels and the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy. Infidels is on my top five Dylan albums easily. It is love and life seen from the bottom of a whiskey glass. "Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, bird fly high by the light of the moon. Oh Jokerman!" Infidels was produced by the great Mark Knopfler and Jack Frost himself, Bob Dylan. It is an album that so many overlook, but when you get down to it, it is easily one of his best. The lyrics are as poetic and gorgeous as ever and there is a world weary quality that was seen again on Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind.
Sweetheart Like You is my favourite track on the album. You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you. She wanted a whole man, not just a half. She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child. You kind of remind me of her when you laugh. In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear. It’s done with a flick of the wrist. What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?" Some believe that Dylan was being terribly sexist when he said "you know a woman like you should be at home" but I don't. He is being true and honest and brave. He wants to save the woman he loves from the horrors of the world. Those who don't understand the purity and beauty to be found in the so called traditional roles are not thinking very hard. It's not for everyone but there is some honesty and pride to be found in those men who work to provide for the loves in their life. Yes, it's backwards in many ways, but in its open hearted examples, it can be a beautiful thing.
"I'm walking through streets that are dead. Walking, walking with you in my head. My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired and the clouds are weeping. Did I, hear someone tell a lie? Did I, hear someone's distant cry? I spoke like a child, you destroyed me with a smile while I was sleeping. I'm sick of love. And I'm in the thick of it. This kind of love, I'm so sick of it." Time Out of Mind won the Grammy for album of the year. It is easy to see why. It is a realization of all of the would be greatness of Oh Mercy. Love Sick is the song, full of atmosphere and beauty. Walking along... letting the times rest in your mind. When you hear Dylan's voice you understand exactly what he means. He has seen his share of pain and he can't stand any more. This is another important thing to affirm: Dylan's ability as a vocalist. As previously discussed, he may not have a pretty voice but he does have a powerful voice. He can change the meaning of a phrase with a different inflection from his voice. He can turn a song on its head and change its meaning. Time Out of Mind is the best Dylan album of the 1990s, easily. It would be followed up by the best of the 00s, Love & Theft and other great albums like Modern Times and Tempest.
When you're talking about Dylan, you can go on forever so I am mindful not to. I love Bob Dylan first because it is a connection that myself and my father had. Every time I hear a lyric that reminds me of Noel, I cry. I know he is watching me and taking care of me, even now. Bob Dylan is one of the great lyricists of the 20th and 21st centuries. His work will live as long as there are people to listen and dance and enjoy. I have learned so much about men and women and love and lust from Bob. He has been a great teacher, and someone who I feel a connection with that no fear or terror could pull from me. I love you Bob. Thanks for everything.