Dylan, the rebel without a pause
The man who “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” Bob Dylan, aged 75, has become the 259th American to win a Nobel Prize. The award is given to an individual who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
The same day that the Nobel announcement was made, Dylan picked up his guitar for the first time since 2012 to play ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ in Las Vegas. Here we have a personal appreciation of Bob Dylan by Leigh G Banks. The article was written in 2011.
HALF a century ago Bob Dylan was a moto-psycho nightmare pilloried for trying to subvert the great American Dream. But in reality he was kicking and screaming as he metamorphosed into a Kafka-esque god.
Like a crazed but foppish scarecrow he was shining lights into the beds of the supposedly great and the good, seeing through their walls and getting his followers on their feet screaming as he roared: “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”
But now as he reaches 70, many see him as the king of the condominiums, a Jewish money machine who owns a string of baby shops and, once, even a little coffee shop in his iron-and-steel hometown in Minnesota. Selling Times they are a-Changin’ to an insurance company in the mid-90s was the first sign of a sell-out by the man who never wanted to be king.
Let’s face it, the Golden Boy of the revolutionary Sixties – a child with a voice like rocks and gravel – spent almost half of his career working hard at failure. His concerts were very often car crashes with this drunken harmonicarist in the driving seat. His voice too was going through so many changes that it was like listening to Tom Waits going through puberty.
And his songwriting? Well, it just wasn’t what people were expecting any more from the man who wrote the ultimate rock n roll anthem, Like a Rolling Stone. Songs like Wiggle Wiggle and Tweedly Dum and Tweedly Dee were just wistful and nostalgic, few bothered to listen closely enough to catch the subversiveness he had now riven in the world of nursery rhymes.
One of the problems with his Royal Bobness is his need to reinvent himself over and over. He might still know exactly what he is doing, but throughout his often-catastrophic career generations haven’t caught on. He’s been the Chaplinesque folk singer, the wild amphetamine fop. He’s been the jokerman, the nasal family man, the womaniser and he’s been Lenny Bruce.
He has also been the golfer, the preacher of middle-class religion and the purveyor of corporate entertainment. Nowadays he’s the riverboat captain singing about the Mississippi and the Red River Shore – and he’s the good old granddad croaking out classics like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Little Drummer Boy.
He’s paid the price for being the quintessential rebel without a pause who deliberately howled and hissed the life out of most of his classic songs. And yet, even at his lowest ebb in the 80s he caused heart-stopping moments – and sometimes there were only moments out of mammoth shows – a split
second when the genius that allowed him to invent himself in the first place glowed through. Very often that split second of genius was enough to rescue the whole show.
Witness 1987 when he played the NEC with Tom Petty. They stood stock still for 86 minutes and groaned mournfully through Senor, Joey and Emotionally Yours with Dylan refusing to lower the hood of his parka or lift the peak of his baseball cap. It was the direst of shows until he hit his Christian classic In the Garden and everyone left the venue that night knowing that Dylan could still be the shaman he had once been in the 60s.
Then witness Aston Villa in 1995 when he stumbled onto the stage in high-heeled crocodile skin boots with his hair as alive as if he’d got a head full of snakes. First thing that struck you was that he didn’t have his guitar. Next thing that struck you was that he held his right hand waving above his head. But when he blew the harp solo on Mr Tambourine man (yep, that’s why the hand was waving above his head) you knew this was going to be a show like nobody had ever given before.
And it was.
One moment he was as old as Willie Nelson, the next he was as sensual as Marlon Brando, that other rebellious god he was rumoured to have had a gay flirtation with. He smoldered through You’re a Big Girl Now and when finally he picked up his guitar he blistered through Silvio and Jokerman.
It was a secret for the next decade that in fact Mr Dylan had severed the tendons in his wrist in what was put down to a gardening accident. But then everything about the man is a mystery, like the motorcycle crash in 1966 which also apparently almost killed him. Some conspiracy theorists still claim that the accident was manufactured to avoid him being knocked off by the CIA. After all a whole world of dissident political leaders were winding up dead at the time, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the unholy rot was setting in rock’n’roll too: Jimi, Mama Cass. The list would go on to get Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Keith Moon.
Bob Dylan is one of the few surviving geniuses of the 20th century. And this is why. As he considered finally packing in his hard won fame, he reinvented himself once more, this time as Millennium Man. Bob Dylan ended the century with the critically acclaimed Time Out of Mind and welcomed in the 21st century with a major award for his film theme Things Have Changed.
Today he’s back at the top, with two chart-topping albums, a best-selling book, a world-renowned travelling art exhibition, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize. So, what can we expect? Something different for a start. Remember he once played saxophone to a packed auditorium.
Here he is in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a few weeks ago. I was there:
“The band looks slouchy and dissolute. Electricity fizzes in the shadows around them. They exchange glances, Tony Garnier spins his bass and the stage erupts into a foundry of noise and spitting fire. Drums rattle down the canyon. Then the diamond-studded rim of a ten-gallon hat flashes as a figure as thin as a blade flickers into view. He nods to the band and takes his place at the keyboard.
“The band swings in to a country version of Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat and it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before, stately. Pensioner Bob is as unstoppable as a freight train. Gone is the Chaplinesque folk singer – so is the wild amphetamine fop of the Sixties. Gone too is the grungy Eighties s king of stadium rock. Bob Dylan now embodies the ghosts of John Jacob Niles, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Woody Guthrie.
“His trademark guitar is rarely seen and he plays the keyboards standing up with his Stetson pushed lazily to the back of his head. His voice, the most controversial in the history of popular music, has thrown caution to the wind.
There were times in the last forty years when he would hit a note as clear as the ring in a bell. But not any more. His voice has become the soundtrack of America’s history. He howls like a dog across the ancient prairies, he strangles the lightning, regurgitates the rolling of thunder. He is a storm across the face of the moon.”
There is also the mystery of why he is he still on one of the most grueling international tour schedules in the history of performing? Why does he tour something like 150 nights a year?
He doesn’t need the money – his back catalogue is worth a not-so poor country’s national debt and something in the region of a million people a year pay a fortune to see him. He must be one of the richest performers in the world today.
And of course this all gives a lie to what Dylan still represents to people – he was at one point in the mid-1960s the ultimate hippie, the rebel with a cause, the wild child with an incisive wit, poetry better than Rimbaud or Verlaine and a wall of sound that made Phil Spector’s seem like a ghostly imitation.
But that’s where he let all us other lesser hippies down. While we went on to carve careers out for ourselves and went on the hunt for mammon and security, guess what, so did he. And just like he’d been sexier, wilder, more poetic, more romantic, more exciting, more stylish than we had,
he was ultimately more successful too.
And while we got older and made more mistakes, so did he. We got divorced. So did he – the most expensive in America at the time, it cost him £2m. We may have had our dalliances with drink or drugs or both, so did he. Our careers might have languished in the doldrums. Well, so did his.
And you know what? We hated ourselves for allowing all these things to happen to us. And we hated him even more for allowing them to happen to him. We forgot that man and god has to suffer. We didn’t want Dylan to shine a light in our own beds and reflect our own decadence back at us. But that’s exactly what he did. You see, Dylan has the true romance of artistry. We generally don’t.
His creativity has allowed him to span two centuries, ours rarely spans more than a few seconds of passing thought.
Yet, it’s that creativity that he’s been universally condemned for. Take his Christian period.
Well, now that was a mistake on old Bobbie’s side wasn’t it? To start extolling the virtues of Christianity to the predominantly Christian world. The Christians threw him to the lions.
It was just that it wasn’t the done thing to talk about God in such an honest way. Things like “by the blood of the Lord, I’ve been saved” or When They Came for Him in the Garden from the album Saved were too overt, not subtle like With God on Our Side, Dear Landlord or almost all of John Wesley Harding and Slow Train Comin’. Dylan’s always sung about God – for Godsake! He says openly that he sold his soul to God.
You see, and here’s another of those old Dylan dichotomies, his rebellion comes out of absolute home-spun tradition. Every croaky wild and crazy sound that comes up out of his throat and every note that flirts off his guitar or keyboard is based on the very routes and history of the cotton fields, of the blues, gospel, blue grass, country, folk, Cajun, rock n roll, Tin Pan Alley, Elvis, Little Richard and Hank Williams. There’s reggae in there, rock opera, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker. The list is as long as
music itself. And we crucified him.
The fans wrote him off, although his concerts were still selling out across the world. So, he turned his tour into a rant. From being the man who thought it uncool to speak to his audience, he’d preach to them 45 minutes at a time, sometimes rambling, sometimes drunk or stoned or both. But he believed in his message. And we didn’t.
And he’s back courting controversy still. Remember when he went to the Vatican wearing Cuban heels and a Stetson? How the press crowed and poked fun. But nobody mentioned the fact that the Pope was wearing robes and a skull cap and talking about religion.