It’s life, and life only: Bob Dylan at 80

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It’s estimated that more than 1,000 books have been written about Bob Dylan. There must be tens of thousands of articles. Millions of words. Even I’ve put down a few. I’ve done reviews of two gigs (Brixton and the Roundhouse) and the play based on his songs, Girl from the North Country, which was published by the only fanzine that Bob himself gets a copy of, Isis. Another time I did a short piece about my dad being at the ‘Judas’ concert. There was even a review of the brilliantly strange I’m Not There, a semi-biopic that I think will hold up well as the years pass.

But writing this, as Dylan’s 80th birthday arrives, is a different matter, because trying to embody the depth of feeling I have for him is… impossible. I don’t know how to do it. How can I possibly use words that have been used before to say things that have been said before about my Bobby? A remarkable, yet ordinary, flesh-and-blood American man whose music will be listened to for thousands more years and inspire tens of thousands more books and millions more words? I can’t. There aren’t enough words in the world or hours in the day to dig out the inside of my heart and shout from the rooftops about what he means to me. If souls exist, and if I have one, I can only tell you that he reaches its edges and turns them inside out. In a very different way to Bowie, as well. He’s all about reaching my brain’s insides, my id, my body, my being; he consumes me, he stands alone. I am made of his music. Maybe Dylan’s meaning to me is more cerebral, less personal. To see what he is, is to acknowledge what he means to the world, whereas to know what Bowie is, is less tangible, but far more a part of my bones. Such different men, but also their stories interweave so much (that’s a whole other article).

As I write this, as we all stumble into the third decade of the twenty-first century, all the old rockers are dropping, the second generation (after the 1950s era’s Elvis, Little Richard et al., of whom Jerry Lee is the last man standing) of popular music stars who, quite clearly, nobody could see getting old at all. It’s a surprise to many that ‘one of the last legendary boomers left standing’ (if I can steal that phrase from a forthcoming book) is reaching 80 at all, I bet, as so many of them died before they were even adults. Even Bowie said, “I had this poetic, romantic, juvenile idea that I’d be dead by 30; that’s what all artists think, I’ll be dead by 30, I’m gonna get TB and die. Aubrey Beardsley and all that.” That he, a drug addict and alcoholic, made it to 69, just about, now feels like some sort of miracle. But it does change your relationship with the music, when its creator has departed. That was the spur for writing this. I decided last week to play his canon, from the second record (1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) onwards. Almost immediately, I was overcome by emotion that I didn’t expect. Overcome by that young man’s words and his voice, its spoken-word quality, for he has never been a singer in the traditional sense (“I’m just as good a singer as Caruso!”). It took a while to figure out what the sensation was… gratitude. Because the dominant musical figure of my life, David Bowie, is gone. And I don’t remember having a moment like this when Bowie was still alive where I thought: I must appreciate this person because they won’t be here one day and everything will change. Perhaps that’s what this bit of writing is an attempt to do, to show that I am achingly grateful because I’ve realised that I must savour and hang on to every single album, song, gig (one can only hope for more, I’ve only seen him 12 times), lyric and moment while Dylan is here sharing the planet at the same time as me. I am lucky to have lived at the same time as both men. But now Bowie is gone and my relationship to his music has changed, because it was forced to. Thinking about the musical figures I was aware of when I was young, played loudly and often by the parents, it was always Bob and Miles Davis. But Miles died in 1991, when I was 15, so he switched from being an active person, who released music and could be seen in concert, to a gone person. I knew him as a living artist for only a short time. But Dylan? He kept on going. He kept on making albums too and, no, not all of them were great. Some of them weren’t even good, especially from the 80s to the mid-90s (with 1989’s Oh Mercy being a rare highlight). But the point is that he is here. And maybe you shouldn’t care to be heavily critical when that person has given you so much. Having said that, he has had a pretty surprising late-career renaissance, bookended by 1997’s Time Out of Mind and last year’s wonderful Rough and Rowdy Ways, a self-curation of his own legacy and the latest acknowledgment of his mortality. But even if he just phoned it in like Jagger, even if he’d not written a good song since the 70s, I wouldn’t love him any less.

Because love doesn’t work like that. There’s so much in the credit column that even if the debit column builds up a little, it doesn’t matter. It’s complex to talk about the warmth for Dylan that envelopes me and my dad now, especially now my mum is gone. I wish she was here to read this and celebrate the birthday milestone. She’d have a lot to say, for sure, about her Bobby. And what she’s missed eh? Not just five albums – two of his originals and three covers collections – but… he won the Nobel Prize for Literature! That was pretty surreal. When it happened, in fact, it was quite funny to see the fusty old academics and their spluttering, affronted articles talking about a pop singer who’s dared to walk the halls of great poets and novelists. But if the most significant influence on twentieth-century popular music culture doesn’t deserve a Nobel (and an Oscar, he has one of those too) who does? Like all the other gifted Jews who wrote those songs, he’s responsible for a second version of the Great American Songbook. Okay, yes, we can speak up for Sinatra and Elvis as towering figures. And honestly, I think Joni Mitchell is better on each individual count – musician/songwriter/lyricist/producer – than anyone else, full stop. But Dylan is the greatest and most influential musical figure of the last century. I’m not saying anything new here. But does anyone know what Bob Dylan, the constructed persona of Robert Zimmerman, actually thinks about it all? His lecture, given in writing, not in person, to accept the Nobel was sprawling, wild and filled with literary allusions, namechecking The Odyssey and Moby Dick, but it was also very self-aware. I suppose you’d become a monstrous asshole if you believed everything that people wrote about you. He does give the odd interview that lets the light in, just for a second but he’s also smart enough to know his place in history yet be able to brush it off his shoulder. Living long enough to see these types of tributes to your big eight-zero must be like reading your obituary.

It makes me think about how it must have felt for Bowie to witness the mass freakout when Where Are We Now? came out in 2013. It was probably a little like being present at your own funeral. Watching people react as if it were to a joyful eulogy. He had plenty of ego to him, but I suspect he was quite shocked at the outpouring of happiness that greeted his return and I’m glad he got to witness that. I hope Dylan is similarly tickled by how loved he is: perhaps he might catch some of the excellent articles and radio shows that have come out in the last couple of months.

Listening to his early stuff now, you can hear this arrogant, brash young man who knows how brilliant he is. He simply reeled off dozens upon dozens of songs that people will still be listening to for millennia. Sometimes I think about what he’s actually like, because none of us knows him. Only his family get to see past the character of ‘Bob Dylan’. To them he’s just an ordinary zayde (Yiddish for grandfather). A cousin of my dad’s told him that Bob showed up about ten years ago at her synagogue, near Encino, California, which was hosting a social occasion for Chabad (an Orthodox Jewish organisation which he has publicly supported, appearing at a telethon, of all things). A friend who was there told her that this unkempt man shuffled over and started a polite conversation, before asking her out on a date. She had no idea who he was. Equally politely, she said no thank you and he said it was nice to meet her. After he walked away, someone else came up and said, ‘You know who that old man was? Bob Dylan!’

Who else knows him, family aside? Maybe his famous friends (sworn to an omerta for fear of ex-communication). But not biographers or acolytes, and certainly not the bizarre, obsessed fan (one of many) who made a habit of going through the bins outside his house. You might think he’d be understood by others on his level. But even then, a figure such as President Obama found himself beautifully baffled by Dylan – and that was just how both parties wanted it. In 2010, two years before he awarded Bob the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dylan performed at the White House. There was no rehearsal. He turned up, played one song, shook the president’s hand, tipped his head and gave a small smile, then disappeared. Obama later said, “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”

These types of odd stories abound: showing up at his grandson’s school, coming off like the ‘weird guitar guy’. Taking the bus tour of Lennon’s childhood home with everyone else and just sitting quietly on John’s bed. The surely apocryphal tale of mistaking a plumber called Dave for his mate Dave Stewart in Crouch End in the 90s. The author Merrill Markoe, who lives near him in Malibu, has related a decade’s worth of cryptic but magical tales about his Christmas lights; some years they were very plain but later they became a touch more opulent. (I find it strange that any Jew would celebrate Christmas in any way but I know this is a great deal more normal for American Jews than British ones!) Another great story is told by the brilliant writer-director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat), who walked into HBO with Dylan to pitch a slapstick comedy at Bob’s behest. At the meeting, the head of the network, Chris Albrecht, approaches Bob and says, “It’s so nice to meet you, I have the original tickets from Woodstock!” Staring him up and down, Dylan says, flatly, “I didn’t play at Woodstock” then walks over to the windows overlooking the city and spends the entire time staring out of them. It’s also worth mentioning that Charles resembles a more far-gone version of The Dude – with long hair and long white beard – and at that time was going through a phase of wearing pyjamas every time he left the house, while Dylan was wearing a cowboy outfit like Lee Marvin’s in Cat Ballou. They sold the show but, on the way out of the building, probably because the HBO chairman thought he played at Woodstock, Bob said he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to make a Buster-Keaton-esque comedy sitcom starring himself after all. He and Charles later did make a movie together, the extremely loose and weird Masked and Anonymous.

Then there was the time when he got escorted by the police back to his hotel because a local homeowner in a New Jersey neighbourhood he was walking around in, late at night, thought he might be casing the joint. The deathless standfirst is one of the finest I’ve ever read, not least because, although he lived in the town at the time, there’s no reason to, again, mention the 1969 music festival: Forty years after Woodstock, Bob Dylan is mistaken for a homeless man. There are dozens more of these tall tales.

My dad told me the story that, I think, sums him up best. It’s my favourite because it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. Sometime in the 80s or 90s, an anecdote made the rounds about a guy getting into a lift at a hotel and, to his surprise, there was Dylan. He recognised him immediately and moved toward him, saying, ‘I know who you are, but you don’t know who I am’. To which Bob turned toward him, giving a death stare, and replied, ‘Let’s keep it that way.’

He’s always got his eye on the future. Selling his songs may have, to some, seemed a cynical venture but not only does it secure his legacy forever, it also ensures income for his descendants for the next ten generations. In fact, he’s well known for saying yes to any song licensing request whenever asked and has shilled for products for years, from lingerie to cars to his own whisky. I guess what we can infer from all those moves is that he doesn’t value his music as much as others do, which frankly comes off like a fairly healthy attitude to have. People have spent 60 years trying to understand Bob Dylan. And good for them. But I’m not interested in reading books about his private life or raking over the same old coals in nostalgia rock magazines or buying remasters on the anniversaries of album releases. And I don’t imagine that’ll change when he’s not here. I just want the music that he’s in control of putting out and I can leave the rest.

There’s a Yiddish phrase, I suppose the Jewish equivalent of ‘knock on wood’, which is keina hora. It, roughly, translates to ‘no evil eye’. Saying it out loud makes a fervent wish that a person will continue to have good health. Bob Dylan has reached 80 years old, keina hora. May he have another lifetime to go.


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