Photo by Ken Regan
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
Why I took the slow train to become a fan of Bob Dylan
Friday 14 October 2016 19.04 BST
s a poet, I’m supposed to be attracted to Bob Dylan as a lyricist. Even as a fellow poet. That’s the received wisdom, and it’s certainly true that I’ve come to Dylan through a series of recommendations and tips, nearly always from other writers. It was the poet Matthew Sweeney who first explained to me that Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were the two albums I shouldn’t be able to exist without. And it was Glyn Maxwell who explained to me that the best of Dylan didn’t stop with Blood On The Tracks.
He also let me in on a fact that all Dylan fans have committed to memory. Namely, a man hasn’t found true love until he finds the woman who will hang on to his arm the way Suze Rotolo hangs on to Dylan on the front cover of Freewheelin’. No one else will do.
To have grown up when Dylan was emerging as a musical icon must have been a compelling experience, and the spell that Dylan still casts over his most diehard fans goes back some 40 years. The image which persists is not Dylan as he is now, a chewed-up and grisly old granddad, but the Dylan of the sixties. It’s amazing how many people who are old enough to know better are still wearing that look. But because I arrived late, I neither feel possessed by him nor possessive of him. So there he is, sitting on the shelves not between Bo Diddley and Duane Eddy, and certainly not betwixt Dryden and Eliot, but sandwiched by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Echo & the Bunnymen, within The Divine Comedy (the band, not the book) and The Fall (ditto). It’s in that field I position Dylan, and in that context I prefer to speak about him.
There’s no reason why my father shouldn’t have been into Dylan, or at least owned one of his records. He could argue, I suppose, that he was too old, being in his late twenties when Dylan released his first album. Or too concerned with conveying his baby son back from the maternity ward a year later to worry about whether or not a hard rain was going to fall. Or too busy earning a crust by the early seventies to be shelling out good money on nonsense (or “shit” as Rolling Stone magazine preferred) such as Self Portrait.
So there was to be no Dylan for some time yet. I’d seen David Bowie on the telly singing The Laughing Gnome, and didn’t know if he was a pop star or Tommy Steele. Next time around, he was Major Tom, a spaced-out astronaut spiralling out of orbit, and a few years later, he splashed down as Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien with a buzzsaw guitar, come to save the Earth. Bowie’s transmutations have always had the look and feel of something new, the “next thing”. Dylan, by contrast, has always been retro, picking up on past models of song-writing and style. Once again, it was a question of choice.
For me, 1984 was the turning point. Morrissey was going stale, Paddy McAloon was going soft, Ian McCulloch had gone over the top, Mark E Smith was going through one of his phases, and my giro had just arrived.
I’d heard Slow Train Coming at someone’s house, and even though it banged on about Jesus and trundled forwards like the locomotive of its title, I thought there was something in it. I was also coming round to realising that the days of turning up at a disco or club with a bunch of gladioli in my back pocket were numbered, and that not everyone wanted to hear Hexen Definitive/Strife Knot on return from the pub. But it was more with a sense of exasperation and failure that I laid down four-and-a-half-quid’s-worth of taxpayers’ money on Another Side of Bob Dylan.
What I found amazing about the record was the narrative content, and also the humour. Did people actually do that? Punk had been all about slogans. I hadn’t heard a record that told a story or made me laugh since Poisoning Pigeons In The Park. But the music had an edge to it as well, an integrity that went beyond the Klaxon harmonica and the knockabout words. Here was a storyteller pulling out all the stops – metaphor, allegory, repetition, precise detail. The songs themselves were written and performed to give the suggestion of spontaneity, improvisation even, but they were too memorable to be anything less than crafted and composed. In all, I had the impression of someone totally aware of his talent and totally in control of his work. I’ve often argued that the only skill any writer needs is the ability to see his or her work from the other side. That is, to put him or herself in the position of the reader. Musicians must be able to do something similar, and I got the instant impression with Dylan that he knew exactly how he sounded in my ears.
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
My collection grew very slowly. I was still more interested in new music than the old stuff, and Dylan had associations. For example, at university, the only people I knew who listened to him were the two gooks on the 8th floor of Bateson Tower who grew weed on their windowsill and conducted business through their letterbox.
Five years later, Dylan was still prohibitively unfashionable, and by now I was a decent person with a proper job. So even when I rescued Desire from down the back of a settee in the probation service waiting room in Oldham, it was a couple of months before I gave it a spin. It was a great album, great tunes, but what was he wearing around his neck – a beaver? A bear?
The trail could have gone cold. Very slowly I was getting the drift, and yet the sheer choice of material was overpowering and off-putting. Left to my own devices I might have ended up with Empire Burlesque, and that would have been it. Finally, a friend had to intervene. A Dylan anorak of the first order, I don’t think he could stand it any longer. Like there was something very obvious I needed to know, a sort of Bob Dylan birds-and-the-bees conversation that needed to be had. He taped me Blood On The Tracks and Blonde On Blonde, and handed them over in a plain brown envelope. I played one in the car on the way to work, then knocked off early to listen to the other on the way home. And suddenly it all made sense.
A few years later he taped me the Bootleg Series, I-III, on three cassettes. I was, by this time, something of a fan, ranging forward and back through Dylan’s output, having bought periodicals and biographies to map out the route. In fact there’s an odd inversion within the strata of my record collection whereby the oldest stuff is in the latest format and the more recent stuff, up to a certain high-water mark, is on crackly vinyl. Which means Dylan actually sounds more alive than David Byrne, or Paul Weller, or Momus. It makes judging between them distinctly unfair.
I still haven’t got everything he’s done. I’m taking it slowly, because I think my appetite for his work is still growing, whereas his ability to make great records is narrowing to a point. Also, to find myself in possession of the entire works of Dylan, like owning every copy of the National Geographic or a complete set of Pokémon cards, suggests to me a kind of autism that, for most of my adult life, I’ve been attempting to avoid. So I’m taking my time. Looking forward to it.
This is an extract from Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan with Poets and Professors, edited by Neil Corcoran (Chatto and Windus)