Friday, 27 November 2015

Short-termism: the Curse of the 21st Century

There is a saying to the effect that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. That piece of received wisdom, in my own experience, means that rather than learn from their mistakes human beings generally learn to make the same ones only with a bit more expertise.

From all that I have heard on topical affairs programmes since David Cameron made his speech in the House of commons yesterday, the Government is on the verge of making the same errors that Tony Blair's Government made in 2003, probably for the same reasons: to keep the Americans sweet and demonstrate that Britain is still a world power.

Critics of Mr Cameron's reasons why Britain should send in the RAF to bomb Islamic State in Syria question the validity of the long-term proposals the Prime Minister adumbrated in the Commons: installing democracy where there is tyranny, rebuilding the infastructure of Syria, forming a diplomatic coalition with other significant powers. All that, he implied, was for the future. Right now we need to start bombing - but marginally.

Does this mean we'll only drop a few bombs, fire off a few missiles, restrict the number of drone attacks? We don't know because Mr Cameron did not spell it out. The nations currently bombing Syria have reportedly dropped more than 30,000 bombs (the figure was given in the House of Commons by a Conservative MP). How many more need to be exploded to get rid of Islamic State, does the Ministry of Defence calculate? We don't know because Mr Cameron did not say.

To pick up on a point made on Question Time last night, IS is active not only in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Off-shoots are rampant in parts of Nigeria, Mali and elsewhere. In our determination to rid the world of this evil, should we be sending bombers to attack them there as well?  We don't know because Mr Cameron did not say.

How long should we go on dropping bombs once we've started? Is the moral imperative to destroy IS such that we should not question the cost let alone the cost-effectiveness of sending in the bombers? We don't know because Mr Cameron did not say.

But then neither did Tony Blair when he too stood at the despatch box twelve years ago and told the Commons that Britain's safety was under imminent threat from Saddam Hussein. In spite of all the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan agonising, the British Government seems to be intent on repeating the mistakes of 2003 irrespective of how this action is going to be interpreted in the wider world.

Taking a calculated gamble is one thing: blundering about in the dark is another. We should know enough from past mistakes to be able to differentiate one from the other.

While what's going on in the Shadow Cabinet makes for fascinating theatre and plenty of Westminster gossip isn't it a distraction from the main point at issue? Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as leader of Her Majesty's Opposition struck me right from the start as likely to be interesting rather than epoch-making - stirring up moribund New Labour, not winning the 2020 General Election at the age of 71.

There may be a time to bomb Islamic State in the future, but I don't believe that time is now or next month. Too much needs to be sorted out and clarified in the Vienna talks and the meeting next week at which the Saudis will allegedly bring together representatives of opposition forces to IS and persuade themto agree a coherent plan of action.

In the interim somebody has got to act as an honest broker between the undelightful Turks and the angry Russians. The last thing the world needs is David Cameron stamping over the Middle East to demonstrate that, to paraphrase from another time, he is tough on terror and on the causes of terror. What is this narrative really about: intimidating the apocalyptic nihilists of Islamic State or the nervy leaders of the other 27 members of the European Union?

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bombing Syria

Advances made in the improvement of prosthetic limbs for British military personnel over the past dozen years or more may be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pursued by the Blair and Brown Labour Governments which resulted in the death of more than 700 soldiers and many more being severely wounded.

While these foreign adventures did little or nothing to secure for the people of these countries a future free from terror and attack, they did wonders for British military paraplegics. Today reports from the Middle East suggest that American and Russian bombing in Iraq and Syria has had equally little effect in securing those battered countries for the people who would like to live peacebly in them - those that have not fled to Northern Europe that is.

In spite of this David Cameron is eager to get in on the act, miffed perhaps even a bit jealous that Russia's President Vladimir Putin has had at least one private conversation with America's President Barack Obama on the subject of what to do about the men in black in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, otherwise known as Islamic State. President Putin, of course, has been the European Union and America's favourite baddy over the past year or so for putting a stop to the EU's attempt to woo Ukraine away from Russia and into Nato.

Just when we thought the Cold War was history, suitable only for indifferent remakes of John Le Carre novels, the corpse came alive again. Only last week David Cameron declared that he had no intention of letting Britain become a hostage to an anti-bombing veto by the Russians in the United Nations Security Council. Why would the Russians do such a thing when they are already engaged in the kind of air strikes Mr Cameron wants the RAF to emulate?

The Prime Minister's argument in favour of reversing the House of Commons' vote against bombing in Syria boils down to this: Now that France, Russia and the United States are doing important things such as dropping bombs and firing missiles at IS, Britain must be seen to be doing its bit. This is depressingly reminiscent of the general feeling 100 years ago when young men from British cities felt compelled to volunteer to fight the Kaiser. What, precisely, is this bit that Britain ought to be seen doing over the skies of Syria and to what end?

A couple of weeks ago the writer Will Self gave the inaugural J B Priestley lecture at the University of Huddersfield, this was two days before the shootings in Paris. During his wide-ranging talk, made fluently without notes, Self predicted that the House of Commons would shortly vote for the bombing of Syria. Governments exercise their ultimate authority by killing people, he said. We'd done it in the recent past and presumably he sensed the mood swinging in favour of it again.

If this indeed does happen then Islamic State will become the equivalent of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the WMD which, as Tony Blair told the House of Commons in 2003, could be armed and fired at the UK within 45 minutes. By the time Sir John Chilcott publishes his long-awaited report into Britain's involvement in the Iraq war in 2003 the chances are we will be involved in another imbroglio in Syria and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East.

I can't think why else the UK Defence budget has shot up by £20 billion or more. The men at the Ministry of Defence will be celebrating. Nothing like a good scare story for getting money out of central government. It's worked spectacularly well for the Green lobby and today it paid big dividends to the police. Money for policing is being safely corralled along with Overseas Aid, Education and the NHS, or so we're led to believe. Now the defence chiefs have got their way with lots of lovely millions to spend on more destructive toys for the boys.

Does that make me feel any more secure than I did, say, in 2005 or last week? No, it doesn't. I am not as cynical as I sometimes pretend; I want to believe that politicians do their best to be honest and do the right thing for the right reason. But while getting rid of Islamic State is self-evidently the right thing to do, will aerial bombing bring that about or merely make things worse than they are? Bombing Libya seemed a good idea at the time four years ago. But what did doing our bit for the Arab Spring lead to apart from factionalism in North Africa and lots of refugees?

As one of the gullible who accepted the Blair Government's argument for invading Iraq in 2003 I don't wish to be fooled again. Plausible and persuasive though David Cameron can be at the Despatch Box or on a party conference platform, his Tin Tin air of confident certainty is not to be trusted. This was the man who declared that immigration would be reduced from hundreds of thousands to merely tens of thousands. Last year it was what, a record 350,000? A couple of years ago the Prime Minister was all for bombing Syria's Assad regime into extinction. Now he wants to bomb one of Assad's enemies. The Syrian President probably can't believe his luck. From being the pariah of the Western world he's got its major powers fighting for him.

From what I have read from foreign correspondents closer to the Middle East than I am, Mr Cameron's conviction that bombing will help win the war against IS is misplaced. There are tribal forces trained and equipped to take on and defeat the men in black - the Syrian Army, Kurdish guerrillas, tribes loyal to Iran - but we're not supporting them. Former defence minister Michael Portillo last week said the UK should join a coalition with the US, France and Russia against Islamic State. But partnering up with Russia against a common enemy, as we did during World War II, seems to be a step too far for Mr Cameron to contemplate at the moment.

He may well win his Commons vote, as Will Self forecast he would. If he does and the bombing commences, I hope he is prepared when the consequences of military cock-ups kick-in.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Night of the Jihadis...Revisited

The last time I saw Paris, in early May 2011, there was a bomb scare near the Quai d’Orsay. The streets, busy with bug-eyed tourist coaches, cars and hooting scooters, were patrolled by blue-uniformed armed police.

A few days before, American Seals had stolen into Pakistan under the cover of darkness and assassinated Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. French news magazines were full of it. Bin Laden’s bearded face shone in hot sunshine on all the glossy covers on news-stands. Evidently the French were apprehensive of retaliation by Islamic jihadis.

Twelve years earlier, in late March 1999, a writer friend and myself spent a long weekend in the capital of love to celebrate the publication of a couple of books and to see the exhibition of David Hockney’s three Grand Canyon paintings at the ugly Pompidou Centre. 

On the afternoon of our departure the streets were full of armoured vehicles and CRS men in their dark blue airmail hats. NATO had just started bombing Serbia in response to the crisis in the Balkans. Tomahawk Cruise missiles were flying. The French authorities feared some kind of backlash in the city. Coincidentally, the length of the Pont des Arts bridge was full of larger than life statues of falling US Seventh Cavalrymen and Sioux Indians gripping – tomahawks. The Battle of the Little Big Horn had come to Paris.

I happened to be re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal round about the time of the latest massacre of innocents in Paris. The eight masked Islamic State kamikaze nihilists must have been making their final preparations while I was reading. The book begins and ends with attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, first by members of the French military disillusioned by Government policy over Algeria (the Secret Army Organisation), then by a British hit-man, code-named Jackal, hired by the OAS. Against vast odds - many thousands of patrolling police oficers and paramilitary men - the Jackal comes within a whisker of killing the President. Part of the fascination of this story, first published in 1971, is that the reader watches the Jackal making his detailed preparations including four changes of identity. The security forces are always chasing, never lying in wait. If a fictional lone gunman could come close to destroying the status quo then why not a real group of trained and determined gunmen utterly indifferent to their own safety?

De Gaulle survived seven or eight attempts on his life; he even survived the 1968 student revolution which occupied the streets of Paris and the university quarter of Nanterre. That bout of street-fighting, replicated in Berlin, London and Chicago, was in part triggered by the (undeclared) Vietnam War. Although widespread and intense, exciting much fervour among the impressionable young and older intellectuals, the revolt did not result in casualties on anything like the scale of either the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January this year (20 murdered) or these November killings (129 dead and counting).

The French have known nothing like it since the war for independence in Algiers. In that murderous encounter, embittered by the French defeat in Vietnam in 1954, the French Government felt obliged to agree to talks with its enemy and eventually to withdraw from Algeria. I don't think they'll be doing the same in this case because this is not a battle for independence but war on a way of life.

All this the world well knows – doesn’t it? I thought so until I watched some of the television reporting of the latest killings. That Islamic gunmen, driven by religious fervour, anger at French military action in Syria and a shoot-to-kill policy, should take to the streets of Paris and open fire on civilians seemed to come as a complete surprise to some. It was as though they had no knowledge of recent history. Militant Islam's war on the West started in the mid-1970s with Black September, the late Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation and continuing through the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the 1989 fatwah against Salman Rushdie and thereafter the rise of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (funded by the United States), followed by the religious nihilists of the Taliban, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and latterly the black-masked killers of Islamic State.

Going back further, the jihad against the godless West has been going on ever since General Gordon was killed in Khartoum by the Mahdi’s forces in January 1885 – 130 years ago. In Afghanistan it goes back to the early decades of the 19th century when the British made a bad choice of allies among tribesmen and ended up sending a punitive expedition from India through the Kyber Pass and into Kabul.

In the book We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists by Rafaello Pantucci, director of International Securities Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security (founder, the Duke of Wellington), the point about the longevity of militant Islam’s war with the West is re-stated:-

The reality is that while British security services understand much better the networks they are dealing with and what radicalisation looks like, there is still very little understanding of how to counter and de-radicalise.
Among the wider radical community, numerous arrests and lengthy incarcerations have not stopped a steady number of young Britons posting radical material online, attending meetings or seeking out others with similar ideas with whom they can plot and form secret communities.
Britain’s jihad has been underway for decades, and the appeal of the ideas that underlie it has proved remarkably resilient.
Three main drivers usually have to be in place before individuals become involved in terrorism: ideology, grievance and mobilisation. How they coalesce is dictated by random events and how individuals respond to a given situation, factors that are difficult to forecast.

In his book Pantucci explains each of these three factors in detail, giving them an historical context. Like the emblems in a fruit machine, they have to be aligned in order to drive an individual to terrorism.

One of the problems of this murderous conflict is the different application of the word ‘martyr’. The Christian and post-Christian West associates martyrdom with self-sacrifice, not the taking of the lives of others. Usually this conscious act of existential self-abnegation is undertaken by an individual who lays down his or her life for others or in support of an idea. The eight Islamic State killers in Paris killed or wounded hundreds of others to justify their adopted nihilism and their own acts of self-immolation. Clearly they had no conscience about doing this because they believed that the people they were shooting and bombing were infidels.

To fall into this category appears to have little to do with belief in God or Allah; it’s more to do with the Islamic caliphate as defined by the leaders of Islamic State. Their followers happily kill fellow Muslims - Shias - wherever they find them. The military forces of the West may have killed 100,000 Muslims in the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq in 2003; but in the eight year war between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran (the West supported Iraq in that one) more than a million Muslims were killed. Few if any Muslims in this country felt compelled to join in. It didn't seem to be a public issue with them at the time even though the West tacitly supported Iraq.

The West’s military meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan undoubtedly played a part in educating disaffected young Muslims in the art of insurrection and insurgency. Islamic State is one of the consequences. The refugee crisis now bewildering the European Union is a concomitant consequence of that. Again, all this the world well knows – at least I thought it did. 

But the heart is also involved as well as the head. All day the sombre weight of what happened in Paris has been upon me.That weight has been there so many times in the past it's a wonder I have any humanity left. Gruesome newsreels of so many wars, civil wars, acts of genocide, terror attacks and hatefulness have been a constant feature of life since Korea in the early 1950s. Thirty of my nearly sixty-seven years were besieged by Northern Ireland, a conflict which the late Denis Healey said he could not imagine an end to. 

I felt the same about the terrible civil war in Lebanon when various religious militias tore into each other and the fabric of the country. Thirty years ago or more Beirut was like Aleppo and other Syrian cities now. In the early Nineties it was the turn of Sarajevo. I had hoped the 21st century would be different from its blood-boltered predecessor. Fifteen years down the road I'm still hoping; but then, as Russians say, hope is the last thing to die.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Bob Dylan's Music - an Appreciation...


There is no proper place to start an odyssey into the world of Bob Dylan’s music.
     For an Arena biography-documentary, BBC Television chose as the programme’s theme and structure Highway 61, an old metalled route that follows the Mississippi from Minnesota 1,300 miles south to New Orleans, where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The lifeline on the palm of America, Highway 61 cuts through the heartland of the country’s musical culture. The music stations of Chicago transmitted the blues northwards where it was picked up in a boy’s bedroom in a white corner house in a leafy suburb of Hibbing. When Dylan came to choose a title for his sixth album his choice of Highway 61 Revisited was not just a happy accident. Highway 61 mapped the route he had been following in his head for years.
     Martin Scorsese, for the title of his two-part bio-pic, chose a phrase from a song on that album. The song was Dylan’s most famous rock composition, Like a Rolling Stone; the phrase was no direction home. These two programmes, No Direction Home and Highway 61 Revisited, separated by a couple of decades, suggest that 1965, the year when the albums Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited were recorded, was the high watermark of Dylan’s creative outpouring.
     The lively first part of Dylan’s projected autobiographical trilogy, Chronicles, begins and ends in the New York City office of one Lou Levy, top man at Leeds Music Publishing. Dylan, if you can believe everything he says about himself, says this man in the winter of 1961 gave him a hundred dollar advance to publish his future songs.
     Singer-songwriter, concert performer, recording artist, movie star, author, troubadour, minstrel, song and dance man: Dylan’s fifty years on the road (up to 2011) have resulted in more than 50 albums - including greatest hit compilations, out-takes and an album of Christmas songs in 2009 – an estimated three thousand concerts and 500 or more original songs.
     Things Have Changed for the Michael Douglas movie Wonder Boys won the 2001 Oscar for Best Song. Twice he has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour that must be coming his way. He sang at the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jnr delivered his I have a dream speech. He has sung at the inauguration of two US Presidents as well as for the late Pope John Paul II, who requested Blowin’ in the Wind.
     You could say that any year since John Hammond Junior signed Dylan for Columbia Records in the autumn of 1961 is a good place to start. So let me begin with an anecdote from northern England the early 1990s.
   The late Barry MacSweeney, poet and journalist, during a long telephone call  declared emphatically to me that Bob Dylan was the greatest artist of the Twentieth Century.
   Greater than Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Bertolt Brecht, John Huston, Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, W B Yeats, Maria Callas, Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Prevert, Lotte Lenya, Miles Davies, Billy Wilder, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Bela Bartok, Boris Pasternak, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy...
     MacSweeney said so.
    Well, Dylan has sold more records than Charlie Chaplin but, unlike Ken Dodd, he has never topped the UK singles chart. While Dylan’s voice has not lasted as well as Frank Sinatra’s, twenty-four of Dylan’s albums reached the Top Ten of the UK album chart, six of them ringing the bell at the very top. Only one of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ numerous albums did that.
     The Spice Girls and Take That have probably sold more albums but which of their ditties has, like Blowin, in the Wind, been covered three hundred and seventy-five times by other artists? According to The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, ten of Dylan’s songs have been covered in excess of fifteen hundred times.
     In spite of the fluctuations in his career since signing for Columbia in 1961, Dylan’s output has never ceased to excite interest, comment and analysis. Hence the dozens of  books about him, excluding his own.
     As a poet of the written word, Dylan’s observational reportage - see the back covers of The Times Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan – is witty, sometimes poignant, with a marked degree of psychological insight into the games people play. They recall the poetry of the young Yevgeny Yevtushenko and perhaps Allen Ginsberg. In one poem on the theme of psyching out someone, two men are playing chess. One says: “If you don’t beat me you must be the worst chess player in the world.” His opponent is drawn. “Why?” he says. “Because I always lose,” comes the reply. “Hmmm. Now I got to beat you!” his opponent says. In another poem, a fine piece of work, Dylan is among a crowd of people watching a man threatening to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. Dylan observes the scene, describes the man – his silver wristwatch, his mouth gaping like a shark’s. “I could tell he was uselessly lonely,” Dylan says, and turns away, admitting that he really wanted to see the man jump. The longest poem is about Hibbing, his own aesthetic of ugliness and how his view was modified when he met Joan Baez and heard her sing. These poems are worth a place in any anthology of American poetry; his work is superior to that of Langston Hughes.
     As a singer of his own written words, however, Dylan is in a different class. Dylan’s best songs have great poetry’s inspirational touch; but their originality requires Dylan’s unique voice, his idiosyncratic phrasing and music.
     That Bob cat from the North Country was never as nimble a mover as Gene Kelly nor as adroit with his pen as James Augustine Joyce; but Kelly couldn’t write a song and Joyce, mellifluous of voice as he was, would have made a dog’s breakfast out of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.
     As a painter, Dylan probably ranks with Hitler, Winston Churchill.

Between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the kid in the corduroy Huck Finn cap, shabby fleece jacket and stained boots, started to make a name for himself in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village (Green-rich Village in the spoken prologue to Baby Let Me Follow You Down).
     In the Cafe Wha?, The Gaslight, The Kettle of Fish and Gerde’s Folk City, willing ears absorbed his roughed up brand of folk and blues. Word reportedly went round about the auburn-haired kid with the amazing take on topical events – his talking blues delivered with the humour of a Jewish stand-up comedian.
     Wilfred Mellor, erstwhile music critic of The Times (London), compared the song-writing of Lennon and McCartney to that of Schubert. Unlike him, I am not going to measure Dylan’s output against that of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, Lerner and Lowe, Jimmy Van Heusen, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. These and many others occupy honoured places in what Leonard Cohen calls The Tower of Song.
     Dylan is a different kind of song-writer. Like Hank Williams, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, Dylan is primarily a writer-performer-cum-recording artist, three in one, whereas Holland-Dozier-Holland and Sammy Cahn, wrote songs for other performers.
     From 1963 to 1969, Dylan was writing, performing and recording at the same time as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and many more singer-songwriters. Nevertheless in those seven years, six of his albums topped the UK chart and five others reached positions three, four (twice) and eight. By May 24, 1965, twenty-four year old Dylan had compositions as various as The Times They Are a-Changin’, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and Positively Fourth Street in the UK Top Twenty singles chart.
     Robert Shelton’s glowing notice in The New York Times on Friday, September 29, 1961, formally announced Dylan’s arrival as a folk artist. He had seemingly come out of nowhere with complete confidence in his ability to make an impact. He says himself in Chronicles that he never doubted he would make a difference in the world. It was the expression of this confidence on stage that caused word to go round so fast.
     Within months of his boot-heels scuffing the sidewalks of New York, with a little help from those who befriended him, Dylan had a recording contract with CBS, a thousand dollars advance in royalties and a publishing contract with Witmark for his songs. During the next five years Dylan single-handedly turned popular music upside down and inside out.
     He destroyed the Tin Pan Alley concept of the three-minute record with simple verses and a bridge, written expressly for the hit parade. Like a Rolling Stone powers on for more than six minutes, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands ten minutes 45 seconds and one of his greatest songs, Desolation Row, 11 minutes 18 seconds. 
     Dylan’s professional life up until 1968 has the urgency of a mission. He proved early on with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind that he possessed to a high degree the uncanny knack of putting into memorable expression what was on the public’s mind and making it pay. Liam Clancy said he could receive and transmit unlike any other artist.
     Most artists could do one or the other: Dylan could do both; moreover he wrote and performed his own material.
     Fifty years after Robert Shelton’s illuminating address, Dylan is still feted. Hagiography undoubtedly plays a part in it, envy too - of the wealth and fame he has acquired. Treating Dylan as a rare individual is the nearest most fans can come to explaining the imaginative fecundity of a mind able to create hip song-lines such as:-

How many ears must one man have/  before he can hear people cry?... 
Yes’n’ how many times must a man turn his head/  and pretend that he just doesn’t see?...
To live outside the law/ you must be honest...
She knows there’s no success like failure/ and failure’s no success at all...
To them who think death’s honesty/ won’t fall upon them naturally/  life sometimes must get lonely...
We’re just one too many mornings/  and a thousand miles behind...
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows...
When you’ve got nothing/ you’ve got nothing to lose...
You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend...
Now little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously/ he brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously...
Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked...

     The sleeves of his albums were striking, each one marking a significant change in the style of the content and perhaps Dylan himself. In Chronicles he says he grew to loathe the adulation, the hero worship, which followed him through the streets of New York City up to his home in New York State. He wanted to get away from the mythology of Bob Dylan. This is his explanation for the double album Self Portrait and the public’s first exposure to Bobby the Zee, light tenor country singer. The author of those memorable lines above went on to utter:-

Love is all there is/ it makes the world go round...

Her and her boyfriend/ they done changed their tune...
If you get close to her, kiss the kids for me...
You can have your cake and eat it too...
By golly what more can I say? Love to spend the night with Peggy Day...

Quoting the naked words without the essential voice and music is contrary to an earlier assertion; but in none of the songs from which these lines are taken is there the slightest hint of irony let alone what a former friend once described as Dylan’s “lip curl.” Songs such as Winterlude, Romance in Durango, Heart of Mine, If You See Her Say Hello, Country PieThe Man in Me, Peggy Day, Went to See the Gypsy, are forgettable.
     The deeply personal songs on Blood on the Tracks and Desire, which I used to like, now seem to me an artistic mistake. The kid who defiantly declared that he was hip to the rules of the road and could dodge the games that people played had become a married man and a father. Like everybody else, Dylan discovered he had something to lose.
     Although I no longer care for a good deal of Dylan’s 1970’s output the exception is the 1974 rogue album Planet Waves. The power and expression of Dirge, Something There is About You, NobodyCept You, Forever Young, Going, Going Gone, Never Say Goodbye, Wedding Song, are rivalled only by Shelter From the Storm, Buckets of Rain, Simple Twist of Fate and perhaps Black Diamond Bay and parts of Hurricane, Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, from Blood on the Tracks and Desire.
     In the 1980s the release of Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove (a wretched title), and Under the Red Sky, passed me by. I was not particularly bothered whether I listened to them; in my view, Dylan the artist had fallen a long way. The main problem was his voice. That incomparable instrument of raging glory, swooping irony, whooping playfulness and growling introspection, had become attenuated to nasal whining. Dylan appeared to be singing through his nose, tweaking out words and phrases with facial grimaces. What had once been arresting was now irritating.
     I took notice of Infidels and Oh! Mercy, released in 1983 and 1989 respectively. Both albums were well received in the press and on radio. Dylan’s voice sounded better. He could sing songs such as I and I, License to Kill, Long Black Coat, Political World, Everything is Broken, with authority and power, wit and charm, as needed.
     Dylan admits in Chronicles that during the mid-1980s he did indeed fall a long way. He says he came close to retiring. By his own estimation he was not much more than a nightclub act; he had lost touch with the meaning of much of his vast repertoire, no longer knowing how to perform his greatest compositions. Oh! Mercy, recorded under the supervision of Daniel Lanois in New Orleans revived Dylan’s interest in recording. That album revived my interest in Dylan’s music.
     Memory can be deceptive. My own did not serve me well when I first began to consider Dylan’s post-1969 career. The fluctuating quality of Dylan’s voice and his material, his preference for the LA pyrotechnics of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a backing band, made me indifferent to his post 1960s work.
     And then one wintry morning I spent a couple of hours poring over the contents of the thirteen albums from Nashville Skyline (1969) to Empire Burlesque (1985).
     One hundred and twenty-two songs plus thirty out-takes, making a total of one hundred and fifty-two songs. Of these I rated highly fifty-three, or one-in-three. That is a high standard for any artist’s work let alone a sixteen year section of one man’s career. Creative highs include: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Something There is About You, Every Grain of Sand, I and I, Licence to Kill.
     After 1985 there are plenty of others worthy of inclusion in the catalogue of Dylan’s finest song performances: Lord Protect My Child, Foot of Pride, Dignity, Blind Willie McTell, Series of Dreams, Disease of Conceit, Political World, Everything is Broken,  Long Black Coat, Love Sick, Cold Irons Bound, Not Dark Yet, I Can’t Wait, High Water, Mississippi, Bye and Bye, Moonlight. After years on the road – the darkest part – Dylan found himself again.
     Since 1969 of all the songs Dylan has written and recorded, up to seventy would establish his reputation for all time as an artist of profound and remarkable gifts. Enough to fill seven albums. Though I think his early work unsurpassed, these later songs prove that Dylan was not merely the protest voice of the 1960s.
      He once declared that he accepted chaos, but had yet to know whether chaos accepted him. In his forties and fifties he railed against depravity, greed and licentiousness with the same moral conviction he had shown in his twenties. Dylan has always been judgemental. In his sixties, more relaxed and sure of himself, grateful perhaps for still being alive, Dylan’s darkest songs are edged with compassion and flashes of humour.
     When the time comes to write his obituary and compile the definitive television documentary (Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home takes three-and-a-half-hours to reach 1966), the range and variety of Dylan’s output will prove too much even for the most indefatigable journalist and film-maker. Just as a single trawler cannot hope to gather in the Pacific ocean’s silvery shoals, what hope does one man have to encompass the length, breadth and depth of Dylan’s writing, recordings, concerts and film-work?


Anthony Scadatu, Michael Gray, Robert Shelton, John Bauldie, Michael Gross, Christopher Ricks, Paul Williams, Clinton Heylin and Howard Sounes are just a few of the biographers and chroniclers who have had a go at explaining various aspects of the Bob Dylan phenomenon. Nigel Williamson’s The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, a pocketable 385-page compendium, endeavours to summarise the other twenty-six books. There are probably others.
     At one time I reckoned to own every over-the-counter published book on Dylan extant in the United Kingdom. It was a mania. One Saturday afternoon without premeditation I suddenly rushed into town and bought every Dylan book available on the shelves of W H Smith. I came away with four or five, including Paul Williams’ triology: The Music of Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Watching the River Flow. Williams comes closest to evoking the spirit of Dylan’s songs – he is sensitive to intonation, a turn of phrase, a skeleton key change. Unlike most of his rivals, Williams properly treats biographical information as incidental to the work.
     And yet, faced with Dylan’s back catalogue and the growing number of concerts and bootleg recordings, even the tireless Williams is overwhelmed by the task he has set himself. Dylan also has the habit of rarely singing a song the same way in the next concert, therefore making each performance unique. Since 1961 Dylan has played in thousands of concerts. No one can possibly know how many illicit tape recordings have been made in the past forty-four years, each of them revealing another side of Bob Dylan’s art.
     Both Scadatu and Shelton amass biographical detail to try to locate the authentic man behind the music and hence the reason for it. Biography can only describe the colour of the door facing them: neither of them succeed in unlocking it. They fall back on the commonest mistake of all: using Dylan’s songs to describe or explain his life.
     Fact and fiction, however, are not synonymous. I had always thought that Shelton’s shrewd and perceptive 1961 concert review made him best placed to write the definitive Dylan book. My excitement at the publication of No Direction Home in 1986 was matched only by my disappointment. The writing was unilluminating, dulled by fact and too much talk.
     Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, which has mushroomed into a vast tome, tries to validate Dylan’s art by locating it in an F R Leavis-type Great Tradition, demonstrating a connection between Dylan’s lyrics and the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Tennyson. I am not sure what purpose is served other than to elevate modern American song-writing to the pantheon of high art.
     If this is what it takes to get Dylan the Nobel Prize, then Mr Gray deserves the thanks of Dylan’s fans. Dylan’s work has never sought and does not require academic respectability. The increasing tendency to separate the words from the music and to study the former in isolation will always vitiate the arguments of Dylan’s well-meaning professors.
     Dylan’s Visions of Sin is the title of Christopher Ricks’ book. I have not read it, though I was tempted.
     The late John Bauldie gathered and collated a great deal of useless knowledge in his magazine All Along the Watchtower. Unless you are taking part in a Trivial Pursuit quiz, knowing the make of Dylan’s electric guitars in 1965 or the boots he was wearing when he met and failed to woo Francois Hardy in Paris in 1966, is entirely immaterial to the music. Possession of such arcane knowledge bestows snob appeal of a sort, Mr Jones.
      In Positively Fourth Street Dylan sings, somewhat wearily, I think: Do you take me for such a fool/ to think I’d make contact/ with the one who tries to hide/ what he don’t know to begin with...Bauldie, whose love of Dylan’s music can probably be taken at face value, was intelligent enough to concede the point. He just became immersed in Dylanology. Fun, but ultimately pointless.
     Bob Dylan: An Illustrated History, the book by Michael Gross published in 1978 in time for Dylan’s series of concerts at London’s Earl’s Court arena, has evocative black and white photographs, especially of the early years in New York, and a factually accurate text. It is one of the best of the Dylan biographies in that Gross does not allow his admiration for Dylan’s work blind him to the singer-songwriter’s faults.
     Dylan’s persistent attempts to create a myth of a homeless waif, working in circuses and travelling fairs, seemed amusing at first; now they strike me as attempts by a Jewish middle-class mother’s boy from the sticks to cover up his social and material advantages. During the 1966 tour of England, Pennebaker’s documentary reveals glimpses of Dylan smiling to himself on stage. His rapid rise to fame had made him rich; he was secretly married to a beautiful model; the future was his to command. What did his conservative folk music detractors in Newcastle and Manchester know?  He knew a hell of a lot more than they thought they knew – if only they knew!
     Gross is aware of this.
    I bought Howard Sounes’s book having read and enjoyed much of his biography of Charles Bukowski, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. Sounes, who learned his craft as a regional newspaper reporter in England, was aiming high. He did not manage to obtain an interview with his subject; but he did get access to information about Dylan’s material possessions – seventeen properties in the United States – the divorce settlement on his first wife, Sara, and his subsequent marriage to backing singer Carolyn Dennis.
    Elsewhere, Dylan discloses that he owned a yacht on which he sailed to all the islands in the Caribbean with his family.
     None of which explains a single line of I and I.
     Incidentally, I am not fooling myself that the Bob Dylan in my pages is the real man. This is my Bob Dylan, as heard and seen by me in England. To this extent I am just another mother of invention, a decipherer of intention, on a road which others have taken before me.
    That man named Gray linked Dylan’s lyrics and T S Eliot’s poetry. Eliot’s preoccupation with time in its various guises in Four Quartets is one of Dylan’s themes. In Restless Farewell, the concluding song on The Times They Are a-Changin’, Dylan describes the man-made time of clocks and watches as A false clock that tries to tick out my time. In Four Quartets, Eliot considers the various ways we experience time and how these experiences inform our understanding of our place in society, history and civilisation. In the work of both men the past is a living entity which shapes and pre-figures the future. Space is the medium of sight but time is the medium of feeling. Dylan, being short-sighted, doesn’t trust too much to sight.

Who in England in 1962 was writing witty songs about Cold War paranoia, daringly employing a series of comic interludes about the aftermath of a nuclear attack to punch home a truth about the selfish way we see ourselves? Noel Coward wasn’t. Neither were Flanders and Swann. The British folk scene would not have considered nuclear war a suitable subject for comedy.
     In the summer of 1966, a girlfriend played me Freewheelin’, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and, if I remember rightly, Bringing It All Back Home. At the time I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. These were like mighty electronic corporations: rich, powerful and all pervasive. Then, into the room walked this kid with his guitar and harmonica.
     In the summer of 1966 the Dylan of Freewheelin’ had also moved on, but I was unaware of the import of his artistic changes then – the Newport Folk Festival of July 1965, the concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in May 1966 when Keele University student Keith Butler bawled out “Judas!”. I was three years behind the times, but that turned out to my advantage. Greater familiarity with his work might have made me a Dylan purist. I might have agreed with those who greeted his electronic line-up with derision.
     But I had the advantage of ignorance. Dylan rapidly broke down my resistance. Girl From the North Country, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall were self-evidently masterpieces; they struck that hidden chord deep within as soon as I heard them.
     Nevertheless, I was not prepared for the audacious intelligence and comic inventiveness of Talkin’ World War III Blues. How could anyone so young understand the human condition so profoundly and put this knowledge into telling words and music? Dylan seemed so far ahead of the field. Barry McGuire tried to cash in on the times with The Eve of Destruction, a song which, artistically, is a thousands miles behind Dylan.
     The song starts with a conflict between the narrator and a psychiatrist. The narrator says he has dreamed of surviving a nuclear war. The shrink at first tells him not to worry about what must be a bad dream and then declares the boy must be insane. Modern America’s obsession with psychiatry becomes part of the unfolding comedy. The narrator, subjected to analysis, sanely recounts a number of bizarre incidents in his dream, each incident emphasising an aspect of human behaviour under pressure. The psychiatrist interrupts the narrative, admitting that he has been having the same dream, the only difference being that he was the sole survivor.
     Dylan drops his pay-load. Everybody sees themselves/ Walkin’ around with no one else. The self-deceiving folly of the mind. Nuclear war remains a policy option only because of our innate inability to imagine ourselves suffering – the worst always happens to someone else. Left at that the song would be brilliant. But Dylan follows up by dead-panly repeating Abraham Lincoln’s Socratic aphorism about the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. Dylan then caps this by adding the seemingly throw-away offer: I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours/ Ah, I said that. This is not Woody Guthrie but Woody Allen set to music. At the age of 21, Dylan  demonstrated with Talkin’ World War III Blues that he had an old head on young shoulders.
     This aspect of his character is revealed in the photograph for the cover of The Times They Are a-Changin’. His head sticks out from the blue collar of his open-necked shirt like an angry ostrich. Dylan’s grave demeanour has the seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s lined and craggy face. On the front of the later Highway 61 Revisited, however, Dylan looks younger. The brushed back hair, the multi-coloured satin shirt, the distancing look of scepticism about the eyes and mouth, denote star quality. He’s a shape-shifter. On the cover of Desire, the gaunt face and big teeth are reminiscent of Joan Baez, a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
     Traditionally, the folk singer’s art consisted of telling a tale chronologically in the third person. Dylan changed all that, first of all with North Country Blues, in which the narrator is a young married woman contemplating a bleak future in a North American mining town. He went further in Boots of Spanish Leather, alternating the voices of two lovers, a man and a woman. The woman is going away to Spain, the man tries to ease her guilt about leaving him by bidding her to look to the future and to the new experiences that await her. One consolation he asks for is a pair of boots of Spanish leather. In Ballad of Hollis Brown and later the complicated Hurricane, Dylan slips inside the mind of his protagonists.
     To the pounding beat of an acoustic guitar, representing the thudding heart of Hollis Brown – and the listener’s – a set of circumstances are described which culminate in an act of despair. In the space of three verses, Dylan succeeds in making us aware of the plight of the poor farmer Hollis Brown, shifting our attention from exterior circumstances to the desperation in his mind. The man is holding seven shotgun shells in his hand – one for each member of his family. Then he contemplates the shotgun on the wall. Next, the shotgun is in his hand, loaded and ready for firing. But instead of pulling the trigger and describing the carnage, Dylan shows his maturity as a dramatist by cutting immediately to the horizon and declaring matter-of-factly: Somewhere in the distance, seven new people are born. The same situation will be repeated, Dylan implies.
     Hurricane, a song about injustice, is more complicated than Hollis Brown. The song has a band arrangement including an electric violin. It contains a mass of incidents and several conflicting points of view. Following the plot demands a good deal of concentration and working out afterwards. At the centre of the nightmare is the song’s subject, the black boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, charged with triple murder and subsequently jailed.
     Dylan lashes the lyrics through the song with the same panache as the drummer lashing his cymbals, amply aided by the driving bass and the electric violin. Folk songs generally contain a fair amount of repetition. Except for the chorus, there isn’t any in Hurricane. Dylan lays out the complicated circumstances of the offences, describes the reaction of the police, the culprits and then explains how Carter got caught up in the tangle.
     If Hurricane is hard to grasp the first few times, Tangled Up in Blue from the much acclaimed Blood on the Tracks album is virtually impossible. Events do not develop chronologically. In what is Dylan’s boldest experiment in playing with the idea of man-made time, the conflict between the man and the woman in the song is related out of sequence. The end of the relationship is described shortly after the song has begun. What follows is a series of recaptured, re-imagined and perhaps re-invented scenarios – as in a movie.
     Dylan may well have been in Renaldo and Clara mode when he put together Tangled Up in Blue. Dylan also hops about from first to second person. Any attempt to make sense of the song logically will probably lead only to confusion. Although the main tune is immediately catchy and there are moments of great singing, the song as a whole is not satisfactory. In concert, Dylan has been known to change the lyrics repeatedly, as though not satisfied himself.

Beyond man-made chronological time, there is no unitary time common to all. The world of longitude and latitude is divided into time zones. The only time beyond chronological time is the time of experience, in which the sensation of time passing externally is relative to interior emotions and feelings.
     Why is time such a persistent theme in Dylan’s music? It is not an original theme. Ever since Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell, time, mutability and mortality have been consistent concerns in English writing. In the Crow cycle of poems by Ted Hughes, time becomes death and therefore immortal. A consideration of time, however, will tell us more about the America, real and imagined, of Bob Dylan’s music.
     Consider the country he comes from, which cannot easily be imagined by an Englishman.
     From a jet, thirty thousand feet above the earth, the United States seems to have no beginning and no end, I have been told. As no landmark in England is more than seventy miles from the sea, the sheer scale of American geography is both awe-inspiring and alarming. By comparison, England’s geography is more homely. The distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, both in the State of California, is some 400 miles. That is roughly about the same distance between Land’s End and John O’Groats. The clover-leaf cluster of lakes in the North East corner of the United States stretches approximately seven hundred and fifty miles from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario, or from Duluth, Dylan’s birthplace in Minnesota, to the mouth of the St Lawrence river. In European terms that is farther than the distance separating Manchester and Berlin. And yet those four Great Lakes would fit comfortably into Texas. In the United States, distances are epic. No one should be surprised, therefore, if other aspects of American culture tend towards the epic, the larger-than-life.
     Consider also the channels of trade, communication and travel: the rivers, railroads and highways – big themes in American history, from the travels of Lewis and Clark and the founding of the Boseman trail from Texas to Kansas to the freedom songs of escaping slaves to Jack Kerouac, the Beat poets and Bob Dylan, on the road. The US highway system follows two simple principles: horizontal routes running between west and east have even numbers, like Route 66. Vertical routes have odd numbers, like Highway 61, that concrete artery transmitting the very pulse of the country’s negro spirituals, blues, jazz and folk music, from Memphis in Tennessee, from Chicago in Illinois, to Hibbing in Minnesota.
     Paul Williams makes the same connection in his explication of Dylan’s song, Blind Willie McTell:- Dylan glances out of the window and sees this historical tableau, as though he were sitting in Minnesota’s fabulous old St James’ Hotel gazing with some third or fifth eye all the way down the Mississippi to the historical vista that lay at the other end decades and centuries – time and space have been telescoped – ago. Sees it, feels it, and cries out in pain and despair and a kind of joy which is the liberation inherent in the blues, the liberation of being able to express and release the ‘oppression of knowledge’ (as John Bauldie calls it)...Blind Willie McTell is, not paradoxically, one of the saddest and most uplifting songs this listener has ever heard.
     Dylan has said he was not happy with the recording of Blind Willie McTell. Somehow the song did not get “developed,” his word. Far from sounding like a jazz improvisation on the old tune of  St James’ Infirmary, the melody of Blind Willie McTell reminds me of an earlier Dylan composition, If Your Memory Serves You Well, or the King Lear-like This Wheel’s on Fire, recorded in Britain by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger and later used as the theme music for the BBC television comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Dylan, reportedly never happy to repeat himself, may also have been struck by the ships with tattooed sails image in the song, a reprise from Gates of Eden.
     Those who unconditionally praise America and those who unconditionally condemn it make the same mistake. They judge the country from preconceived prejudice or political belief.
     Although I have not visited the country, I did not need to read Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, nor Charles Olson’s illuminating critique, Call Me Ishmael, to sense from Dylan’s songs that the land that he lived in was a great paradox, a land of conflicting truths. The land of the free is also the country with the biggest prison population. Libertarians and adventure capitalists salt the earth of California and Nevada and Shakers, Quakers, Armish and Menonites the earth of Pennsylvania.
     The country is a living biblical parable, at once capable of inflicting great evil and bestowing great good. It suffers storms and floods of Old Testament proportions. The America which finally brought the Indians to their wounded knees in South Dakota in December, 1890, is also the America whose Dakotas airlifted a greater tonnage of life-preserving aid into West Berlin in 1948 than the bombs dropped by Flying Fortresses during World War II. Violence may be as American as blueberry pie, as a Black Panther leader once observed, but it is also a sanctuary to which persecuted minorities most commonly emigrate or escape.
     Bob Dylan’s internal landscape is not merely personal: it is also historical and musical. It is the historic landscape of the United States transmuted by art into images, statements and melodies that are either radiantly clear or darkly ironic.
     In All Along the Watchtower, against a stark beat of drums and bass accentuated by piercing blasts from Dylan’s harmonica, the singer becomes the land of America. Businessmen, they drink my wine/ Ploughmen dig my earth. The businessmen and farmers in the song know the price of things but have lost touch with their intrinsic human worth. Towards a country grown confused, angry and self-destructive, two riders are seen approaching out of a stormy skyline. Dylan does not tell us what message they bring; but he says that the wind – the idiot wind, the blowing wind – begins to howl. Howl as in Allen Ginsberg’s long anguished Jewish lament of the same name. Howl as in King Lear or Four Quartets The wave cry, the wind cry.

Is Bob Dylan a Rock star?
     He says somewhere that he wanted to be as a teenager. The first disc he ever cut, Mixed Up Confusion, rocks along fucking loud although the lyric has a typical Dylan touch: Ah, but I’m lookin’ for a woman/ Whose head’s mixed up like mine...Not a goddess with an Egyptian ring, not an Isis. At that time in the mid-to-late 1950s, any kid wanting to come out of Minnesota and make it as a Rock star probably had in mind as a role model Eddie Cochran, who will ever be remembered for three great numbers: C’mon Everybody, Summertime Blues and Three Steps to Heaven.
     Dylan’s four albums through to 1964 are dominated by acoustic guitar, harmonica and solo voice. Folk singers travel light. All but five of the thirty-five numbers on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, which cover the years 1965 and 1966, have a backing entourage of electric guitars, organ, piano, bass, drums and, on one, trombones. Must have been wild while it lasted.
     D A Pennebaker’s two fly-on-the-wall rockumentaries. Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document, the first in black and white, the second in colour, catch Dylan at a transitional time. Don’t Look Back, much more gripping and truthful than A Hard Day’s Night and especially Help, shows Dylan on stage and back stage during his 1965 tour of England. The film reveals a growing tension between Dylan’s sense of his audiences’ expectations and his own creative inclination. His fans want Dylan’s great folk hymns – Masters of War, A Hard Rain, Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin’. On stage he exhibits weariness, boredom even, with the songs that have made him famous. Subterranean Homesick Blues is rising in the UK singles chart, but Dylan cannot perform it because he has not brought the musicians with him. He tries out Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, but these acoustic classics do not readily fit in the category of protest song with which folk music is associated. Eat the Document, the film of the 1966 tour of England, shows the Dylan who was waiting to appear on Blonde on Blonde – the prince of darkness from New York’s demi-monde. During the filming of Don’t Look Back Dylan’s entourage were responsible for the safe-keeping of his cane. A bullwhip had preceded the cane and was in evidence at the 1965 Newport Festival. In 1966 Dylan did not need any circus devices. He had a whiplash tongue; fresh-faced irony was turning into Siamese-eyed malice. The trusty old serge work shirts had been replaced by silk and leather, suede and polkadots and backcombed hair. The folk purists busily booing Dylan for betraying their expectations were deaf to the things that had not changed: Dylan’s wit and wonderful humour.
     Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream on Bringing It All Back Home, scarcely discussed by most of his biographers, is a sustained, picaresque, satirical masterpiece in which Dylan superimposes modern America on the America discovered by Christopher Columbus. Dylan has great fun playing games with the language: ban the bombs is enunciated as ban the bums; the harpoons carried ashore by the ship’s crew are in modern parlance hypodermic syringes.
     On Highway 61 Revisited, the song Tombstone Blues, a fast Rock number, contains one of Dylan’s funniest, wittiest responses to the tough guy image perpetrated by a part of American culture: I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill/ I would set him in chains at the top of the hill/ Then send out for some pillars and Cecille B DeMille/ He could die, hap-pily, ever after. This ranks with the verse on Dylan’s earlier Bob Dylan’s Blues:- Well, lookit here buddy/ You wanna be like me/ Pull out your six shooter/ And rob every bank you can see/ Tell the judge I said it was all right. Yeah.
     By the time Blonde on Blonde was released, the fuss had largely died down. Protestors had started to worry more about what the US was doing in Vietnam than what Dylan was doing with an electric guitar strapped across his shoulders. But nobody, nobody, expected a double album. Except for operas and musicals like Oklahoma! double albums were unheard of in the Tin Pan Alley world of the two-and-a-half minute 45. There was another shock lying in wait for those easily shocked. One entire side of the second album was taken by a single song, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (years later the British band Alabama Three put out a song called Sad Eyed Lady of the Low Life). Most Dylan fans tend to think of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands as Dylan’s biggest song. In fact, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, at ninety-nine lines, is almost twice as long as Sad Eyed Lady, which is sixty-five lines long. Incidentally, Visions of Johanna has fifty lines. For those interested in longevity, Brownsville Girl, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, is eighty-seven lines long; some of the lines are very long indeed. All in all, Blonde on Blonde is Dylan taking his words for a drag round the amphetamine lofts and heroin stables of hip mid-Sixties New York. The songs are sound pictures of the artful world he was passing through which was passing through his brain.

So is Dylan really a folk singer?
     The kid who grew up not far from Thief River in Minnesota certainly swiped a lot of traditional folk tunes for his early compositions. He was still doing it at the time of John Wesley Harding for the song I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine – a variation on the folk ballad about socialist martyr Joe Hill. But as Bono says on The Fly, every poet is a thief. T S Eliot borrowed freely from the entire canon of Western European literature as well as Eastern philosophy. Eliot does not stand accused as a plagiarist because within the context in which these borrowed lines appear they sound as though Eliot would have said them. He, doubtless in his own defence, declared that absolute originality was absolutely bad because it carried no echo from the past. Anyone not attuned to the voices of the past was unlikely to have anything worthwhile to say beyond the age of twenty-five, he added for good measure.
     By the time that Dylan was twenty-five he had reached the summit of popular music. He had redefined the craft of song-writing and along the way had broken many taboos. The length of a song was now up to the artist. The way he or she wrote about love owed so much to Dylan’s uncompromising versatility. It Ain’t Me Babe, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), To Ramona, It’s All Right, Don’t Think Twice, liberated the love song from its traditional girl-meets-boy format. But he knew his craft. His repertoire of traditional folk, blues and ballads was enormous. Years later, the story goes, he defeated Van Morrison in an impromptu contest in a Dublin bar, being able to sing more traditional Irish songs than the great Van himself.
     Like Eliot, Dylan is gifted with the ability to take sounds from the past and transmute them into something modern and vital strictly for his own purposes. Making the original sound familiar takes genius, I would say. The quest for authenticity drives some would-be writers into private ingenuity. What Dylan adds to past tradition is his own unique wit, intelligence and eagle-eyed seriousness. Take the song Only a Pawn in Their Game. No one but Dylan could have taken the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers and turned it into a lament for poor white trash racists who blame the blacks. Everything comes down to the games people play. Dylan’s songs were hip to these games, the rules of the road, as he called them on It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). Dylan’s later career is marked by awareness of and penitence for his own mind-games. The born again Dylan ignored the contents of Blonde on Blonde for years although this double album, with its silk and steel edges, contains a good deal of great music.
Goshdarn it then, is Bobby Zee a country singer?
     Well, that’s him tipping his hat all neighbourly and countrified on the howdy cover of Nashville Skyline. He’s notched up his voice too, singing in a kind of varnished tenor. He cuts a breezier, easier, more wholesome line. The cynical slurring that characterises the basement style of Blonde on Blonde has vanished. Dylan’s purified country voice was first heard on John Wesley Harding, but the unfamiliar vocal sound was attributed to neck injuries sustained from his alleged motor cycle accident. The song that everyone remembers from Nashville Skyline is the soupy Lay, Lady Lay. Women especially like this. It is without doubt one of the six songs for which Dylan will be remembered by the general public; the others are: Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Like a Rolling Stone, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and  Tangled Up in Blue. Dylan should have got a movie Oscar for Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – far more stirring, universal and memorable than Things Have Changed.  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was a better film too, although Dylan should have played the part of Billy.
     At the time of Nashville Skyline Rock music generally was halfway down suicide road. Those who weren’t bent on blitzing their minds with drink, drugs and wild wild women, for the entertainment of their public, took to re-evaluating their careers, their lives. John Lennon was exploring his mangled sub-conscious and learning to scream in public for his mummy and daddy. Progressive Rock was about to zoom off into the superstar stratosphere of concept albums and Rock operas. Nashville Skyline emphasised the virtues of a simpler, cleaner lifestyle. Dylan was not preaching, merely celebrating coming home, having a wife and family of his own, being out of the rat race. He was, remember, a boy from the North country.
     Some Dylan hagiographers proclaimed in Rock journals that Dylan had rescued American country music from the doldrums. Dylan would have had to go a long way to outdo Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, let alone Hank Williams. He may have revived interest in country at a time when everything was heavy Rock; but I do not believe that the genre underwent renewal, thanks to Bobby Zee.
     However, I have no doubt that Dylan knew and deeply valued the traditions of country music in all its forms. In 1986, he was reported as saying that he would rather listen to a record by Bill Monroe, the accredited father of Bluegrass, than to any other type of record released in the United States.
     It’s what America is all about,” he said.

Perhaps Dylan is a bit Tex-Mex, then?
     Never say so within a hundred feet of my hearing. He dabbled in it for a while, following the filming of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid down in Durango; but that kind of trumpeting yodel – Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun – was an artistic error of judgement. Street Legal contains the last few strains of this style, most notably in the song Senor: Tales of Yankee Power, a strong melody but nowhere near as good a song as some have claimed. Romance in Durango is one of Dylan’s regrettable songs, with the inevitable cantinas and senoritas.  It is a style of music he would have ridiculed during his dark prince of the demi-monde days in New York City. Jingling spurs, leather chaps and tequila sundowners are camply gypsy. I feel like shouting: “Take the flowers out of your hatband!”
     Dylan is too much of a natural-born surrealist to sound convincing as a knife-throwing outlaw down in old Mexico. How many ears must one man have, before he hears people cry? Indeed. Only a gifted imagination could have pitched the question in that new and startling way. No, no, Angelina, the man who can make you see a solitary table at the edge of an ocean is neither a country hick nor a gratuitous wetback.
So what is the real Bob Dylan?
     Anyone seeking to delineate the one and only Bob Dylan is bound to stumble and fall among a maze of tracks. Joan Baez says she was never able to figure him out. Dylan himself said he was no respecter of mere fact. Martin Scorsese’s documentary contains archive material of a radio interview in New York, between 1961 and 1963, in which Dylan says he was raised in Gallup, New Mexico. He told Scorsese that when he first heard the songs of Woody Guthrie he felt as though he had been born to the wrong parents. Liam Clancy declared that Dylan was born to be a receiver who could in turn articulate things that everybody wanted to put into words but could not. Allen Ginsberg, in an archive film, said that upon hearing A Hard Rain he wept. The torch had been passed, he said, to a younger generation. Dylan was able to objectify subjective experience that was not his own.
     He is an amalgam of American musical culture embodying John Jacob Niles, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Huddy Leadbelly, Dave Van Ronk, Rambling Jack Elliott, Ric Von Schmidt, Odetta, Howlin’ Wolf, the logger rhythms of lonesome Hank Williams and hundreds more. Let’s just say that Bob Dylan is a gift, a fiery angel come to stir us up. Why not? What matters is the music, the wealth of it, the best of it.
     Factual information can cast little or no light upon the inspirational songs he felt moved to write, simultaneously professing to Joan Baez that he had no idea what these songs were about. And yet when asked that very question by an unwary journalist, Dylan replied that his songs were about six minutes, eleven minutes.
     He can rasp across your mind like an avenging angel or breeze into your ear like a country zephyr. Dylan knows what it is to be both Robert Ford and Jesse James – the betrayer and the betrayed.

Rock star, folk singer, snake in the Blue Grass, gringo in Durango, surrealist, Christian Jew or Jewish Christian: take all the various Dylans together and what have we got? A polyglot melting pot.
     In a word: America. A land of many peoples, tongues, backgrounds and expectations. Small-minded Europeans look down their noses at the gross of America, wondering how a bunch of burger-bloated, gum-chewing Homer Simpsons managed to land a man on the moon. Purists forget that America is both Sodom and Gomorra and Jerusalem. Millions of persecuted Europeans have been glad to call America home. To them it must seem like the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, opportunity and money. Their Jordan river was the Atlantic ocean. Dylan’s antecedents were Russian Jews.
     Because the world’s poor huddled masses retain folk memories of their place of origin, American music readily lends itself to the expression of feelings of displacement and alienation. Spirituals and the blues commonly dramatise a sense of estrangement and a desire for what Blind Willie Johnson called the city of refuge. America has been Bob Dylan’s inexhaustible source book.
     The North Country’s wide open spaces in summer, closed in by snow during winter, sang to his boyish ears. In New York City the ceaseless babel of the its population excited his imagination. The nobility of sunlit canyons and monumental mountains struck a chord. One of the songs not included on Nashville Skyline is Wanted Man in which Dylan exercises his ingenuity in a litany of American place names:-

                           Wanted man in Albuquerque, wanted man in Syracuse

                           Wanted man in Tallahassee, wanted man in Baton Rouge

                           There’s somebody set to grab me anywhere that I might be

                           And wherever you might look tonight, you might get a glimpse of me...

 Dylan once summed up the true meaning of his minstrelsy as the unwindin’ of my happiness. Taken as a whole, his 500 songs amount to a many-faceted song of America.
     The inhabitants of God’s own country sometimes carry on as though they are indestructible. Pride begets vanity and conceit. If vanity comes down to uncritical self-love, conceit is the projection of that belief on to an imagined audience. Americans believe they are the best and make the mistake of thinking that the rest of the world shares their belief. Truth comes as a rude awakening. In the old days black Americans sang about death and Heaven, giving perspective to the troubles of this life. With the end of the Cold War, however, Americans carried on as though they were going to live forever.
     Dylan’s Disease of Conceit mockingly observes the American mind contemplating its own importance. Accompanying himself on an old time jangly piano, plenty of back echo for effect, Dylan muses in an enthralled whisper on the sad futility all around him:-

               There’s a whole lot of people suffering tonight from the disease of conceit,

               Whole lotta people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit...

The country, the world, is full of sad bastards, lonely egotists, who think they only need someone else to share and reflect their self-love and everything in the garden will be all right. We look at our reflection and cannot imagine the world without us. We think we’re too good to die, to disappear into a loveless nothingness. This is the mentality of people who only see themselves in man-made time, outside historical time, God’s time. A world full of people who see themselves walkin’ around with no one else.
     Don’t look back. Lot’s wife did not heed this warning and was turned into a pillar of salt. Just like a woman, you might say. This cautionary tale has served Dylan well. Remembering how things used to be is harmless enough; but judging someone by how they used to be, how we choose to remember them, is not.
     More than most, Dylan has been the victim of retrospective wishful thinking. An artist does not want to be judged, he wants to be heard, felt, seen, understood perhaps. Throughout his protean career Dylan has been judged by what he used to be. Mr Tambourine Man is a weary psalm on the theme of deliverance in which the singer craves to be allowed to forget about today until tomorrow. Artistically, Dylan was going through changes very fast when he recorded this song in the summer of 1965. Though hip to the ploys of Madison Avenue marketing men, the growing weight of expectation on his shoulders from his record company, his manager, his fans, must have been hard to bear. One way or another all of these people saw in Dylan the embodiment of their hopes, their dreams, their fantasies. One French magazine hailed him as the new god. Dylan was a bull market in which everyone wanted a stake.
     But the Dylan in whom everyone was investing had moved on. The Dylan which the British public saw and heard in concert in 1965 was the Dylan of 1963. While their ears were tingling to Don’t Think Twice, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, Masters of War, The Times Are a-Changin’, Only a Pawn in Their Game and It Ain’t Me Babe, Dylan was busy being born again with an electric guitar in his hands. He was already experimenting with other ways of singing and performing when he toured England, barely able to stop yawning on stage as he goes through his acoustic repertoire to adoring audiences who, in turn, are observed by astonished reporters. The latter had only just accustomed themselves to the phenomenon of Beatlemania. Now they had to explain and account for the attentive silence that greeted Dylan’s songs.
     A year later, back with a five-piece band, Dylan was back to a chorus of boos wherever he went; hardened folkies accused him of selling out to commercial Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Aw, c’mon now...this is American music,” Dylan pleaded. They didn’t like his music, even less they liked his voice. The pure, clear-throated, swooping and soaring of  his first four albums was low-pitched and slurring. Dylan sounded like a stoned piano-player in a New Orleans bordello. The clean-cut kid had gone. In 1965 he wore a leather jacket like a coat of sin. In 1966, wearing his two-tone check-patterned suit, Dylan lisped his New York parables at these bewildered audiences. This was another side of Bob Dylan they had not expected. Was Dylan ahead of the times or were his admirers just too far behind, stuck in the past? 
     Many of Dylan’s songs contain a protagonist, an opponent. The flourishing Dylan industry speculated on the real-life identity of their prodigy’s latest truth attack in Positively 4th Street, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Ballad of a Thin Man.  But none of these songs would mean an iota more if we knew because we would have to know personally the suggested contenders – Joan Baez, Max Jones. Instead of this futile exercise, trying thinking of a composite person, a universal Everyman.
     Dylan is often said to be elusive as though this was his definitive characteristic. I think he is allusive, too much so at times for me (does anyone understand Jokerman?). He pitches his truths and meanings beyond datelines, deadlines, the particularities of time, place and circumstance. Fans do not readily understand the artistic process. Hero-worship makes time stand still. To an artist, however, stasis is creative death. He must move with the spirit that moves him, but it is neither his job nor his obligation to explain this. That is what critics are for.
     If Dylan had told that Gerde’s Folk City audience of 1961 that he was “consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field-hand musing in melody on his porch,” the effect would have been embarrassing and ridiculous. Robert Shelton wrote that and, in the context of his New York Times review, it made sense. Shelton prepares you for the panache and comic genius of a new talent. But fans do not like critics; a fan’s pleasure is irreducible, not to be examined and analysed. An artist who panders to the expectations of his fans is doomed to be a hostage to their likes and dislikes.
     Prophet, guru, voice of his generation, shape-shifter, visionary, mystic, the new god: right from the start Dylan eschewed the labels that others stuck on him. I would like to think this was because he knew the worth of the work of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the wondrous Pete Seeger and others, that surrounded him. Fans resort to adjectives when they are unable to explain the cause of their emotions. Without being overtly flip or arch, Dylan was able to ramble round the interior of the mind and expose its self-deluding tricks; he could shine this light into the darkest corners of society and history and make of his experiences stories for all to understand. Long before he was famous he was hip to the danger of hero-worship:-
                        Lookit here buddy, you wanna be like me?

                        Pull out your six shooter

                        and rob every bank you can see.

                       Tell the judge I said it was all right. Yeah.


The climax of the 1985 American Live Aid concert climaxed with Bob Dylan top of the bill. An unhappy choice in the circumstances. Jack Nicholson was invited on stage to make the introduction. The acclamation he accorded Dylan – “America’s great voice of freedom” – jarred then and still does.
     The Californian actor’s idea of freedom and Dylan’s are likely to be two very different things. Nicholson, famous for playing dysfunctional existential types in movies such as Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is the jolly sybarite, a self-confessed hedonist in whose kitchen one of his female conquests found seven types of vodka.
     Dylan the artist has always been a moralist; even when doing his best to sound like a libertine on Blonde on Blonde the note of judgement still gleams on the edge of his voice. In the mid-1980s he was calling down God’s wrath to crush the unrighteous. Twenty years earlier he sang:-

                           Now I’m liberal, but to a degree

                           I want ev’rybody to be free

                           But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater

                          Move in next door and marry my daughter

                          You must think I’m crazy!

                          I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

The freedom which Dylan’s music celebrates is the freedom to be one’s self – not the freedom to do whatever one likes. It is authenticity he hungers for, not indulgence. To thine own self be true is a constant theme. Beyond the pleasure principle, the self is the guardian of the conscience. The born again Dylan looks upon conscience as God’s tuning fork. Conformity, an early Dylan target, is an obstacle that must be overcome.
     Like a Rolling Stone, Positively 4th Street and Desolation Row each address the accusation of betrayal – a familiar situation for Dylan after he went electric. The first song is a howl of triumph. The un-named protagonist, once in a position to judge and mock, is now out of luck, out of fashion and evidently out on the streets. How does it feel? Dylan asks repeatedly. The question is rhetorical: the singer, the erstwhile Napoleon in rags, knows how it feels to be a complete unknown, without a home. The tables have turned.
     Positively 4th Street is another way of saying this sucks. It is proclaimed as Dylan’s cruellest song because the protagonist is assumed to be one person, a former friend. The song’s tempo is deceptively upbeat. Dylan sings, to my ears at least, with exasperation rather than malice. Dylan refutes the charges against him by examining the motives of the accuser. He acknowledges their disastisfaction with their place in society but says doing something about it is not the singer’s problem. Another target is presumption, pretending to possess knowledge that one does not have.
     Desolation Row is like a final summation. Against a pattern of bass, acoustic guitars and what sounds like a plucked harp, Dylan launches into this epic with the mordant observation that postcards of hangings are now on sale, sailors fill the beauty parlours, the circus is in town. He then proceeds to pan his mind’s camera along a vast parade, a madis gras of freaks and fallen heroes outside Desolation Row – the place, the condition, of ultimate reality where wisdom abides. Desolation Row validates the learned wisdom of real experience over mere knowledge, a theme of Gates of Eden and Ballad of a Thin Man. In the latter song the imagined inquisitor, it could be a reporter, is portrayed as a hapless voyeur, peering into realities he does not understand and wondering how he is going to explain it when he gets back to the safety of his home. There is more sneering in this song than there is in Positively 4th Street.  Dylan perceives a gulf between those who dare to live and those who live to trade in knowledge or gossip which leads to idolatry and conceit. In Dylan’s imaginary tableau of real and fictional heroes and heroines, their symbolic significance is contrasted with what is really going on in Desolation Row. I know no truths and I don’t have answers for anyone, Dylan wrote on an album cover.
     Dylan’s songs might indeed be the unwinding of his happiness, but the movement is usually outward and includes the wider world. He is a time-traveller through the mental landscape of the United States as formed by its culture, its history, its people. His ability to get inside the mind of his protagonist has always marked him out as an original and exceptional sensibility. If this sensibility makes him difficult in real life then that is the price that has to be paid.
     Someone once said of John Wesley Harding that the final two songs were pleasant but that overall he preferred the songs that were apocalyptic. After Dylan embraced Christianity he was wont to address his audiences, warning them that the world was in the end time, that judgement was coming (like a train) whether they were ready or not. Again, he was heckled and booed. He was undeterred. Christian or Jew, believer or lapsed sceptic, Dylan’s temperament has something of the apocalyptic about it. Dylan was more inclined to accept the description of prophet in the late1970s and early years of the decade that followed because the word had lost its glamour. In these dark times a prophet implied a wilderness. Also, was it not true that Dylan was not honoured in his own land at that time? He went stomping round the country like Bob the Baptist, warning people to wake up. He was a modern day Paul Revere travelling through the land.
     Warning of what? Ultimate doom, of course. And, as always, the danger of feeling betrayed. People who feel betrayed nurse destructive anger and they seek revenge. And no one feels more betrayed than a fan, a patriot, a lover, a friend, a family member. The world is full of sad and dangerous people who feel let down because they live vicariously through others and are encouraged to do so by the media. Like a Rolling Stone carries the warning:-

                 You’ve never understood that it ain’t no good

                 You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you...

Mark Chapman was John Lennon’s biggest fan, until the moment he felt betrayed and decided to seek revenge. Lennon paid with his life for Chapman’s disatisfaction with his particular position and his place. Dylan’s categorical imperative has always been: think for yourself and take responsibility for the words that you use. Even under the rule of God, Dylan cannot cease struggling to assert his autonomy:-

                This time I’m asking for my freedom

                Freedom from a world which you deny

                And you’ll give it to me now

                I’ll take it anyhow

               When the night comes falling from the sky

 If Dylan speaks his truth in images in the way that Christ speaks his truth in parables, it is incumbent on Dylan’s self-appointed disciples to do a little thinking for themselves. The fan who regards Dylan’s work as a set of symbols leading to ultimate wisdom is probably suffering from mania. Dylan’s work symbolises nothing but the artist’s historic quest to convert real or imagined experiences into rhythm, rhyme and metaphor. What may be dying is our ability to respond to symbol and metaphor and to differentiate them from daily life. The fan who demands the same thing from life that he gets from art is heading for one of two places: a cell in a monastery or a cell in a prison.

Most Dylan fans and those not so enthusiastic about his music would probably agree that Blood on the Tracks is among his most compelling albums. I disagree. Given a choice between that and, say, Planet Waves, I would choose the latter. With all its flaws, these exhilarating recollections of his youth among the Lake Superior hills still provoke a hair-tingling thrill.
     Blood on the Tracks was greeted with almost universal acclaim in 1975 and, looking back five years, it is easy to understand why that was so. The album arrived in the UK with reports of an unusual series of concerts in the United States. Dylan was back on stage with a host of friends, cronies and side-kicks from his past – Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Scarlet Rivera, the electric violinist, David Blue, and many others. What’s more, they were rolling from town to town in a coupe of buses, stopping at small venues and putting on impromptu shows. This story did not quite match up with another one, that tickets for the Rolling Thunder Revue had sold out in advance almost immediately, thus lessening the spontaneity implicit in the first story. Whatever the truth, Dylan was on the move again, this time wearing slap and flowers in a big white stetson. On a more personal note, Dylan’s marriage was said to be on the rocks if not completely wrecked.
     Naturally, most people assumed that Blood on the Tracks must be a blow-by-blow account of lost love from Dylan’s point of view. The album’s title was not merely a metaphor but close to the literal truth. Well, that is how I heard it at the time. I do not hear that now because I no longer listen to any of it. Of the songs which impressed me thirty years ago – Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Idiot Wind,  Shelter From the Storm – the last one and the latter part of Idiot Wind would still have the capacity to thrill, I think. The playing throughout is of a high quality; Dylan sings his best songs with passion, wit and panache. But for me there is something maudlin that wearies me now. Stronger passions are mingled with cajoling sentimentality that, in 1965, Dylan would have deleted at an early stage. People either like this looseness or, after the novelty has worn off, can’t help but compare it unfavourably with the overall mastery of Blonde on Blonde. I especially dislike the note of special pleading in the singing on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. It is as if Dylan is trying to mitigate the harshness elsewhere on the album, particularly the searingly accusative Idiot Wind. I think If You See Her Say Hello should not even be on the album. You’re a Big Girl Now is ever so slightly sardonic. It is a vehicle for Dylan to try to come to terms with the big kiss off. The hip genius who declared

                       All the rules of the road have been lodged,

                       It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge...

had been caught out. Dylan has dealt with this theme of emotional rejection before and, in my view, much more successfully. Don’t Think Twice, Most Likely You Go Your Way, To Ramona, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) and the defiant It Ain’t Me Babe. In these songs the referential possibilities are free of any definitive association: Dylan could be singing about one person or many. I prefer that.
Blood on the Tracks is Dylan caught in a period of transition, artistically speaking. He is up  to something but quite what does not become clear until his next album, Desire. Blood on the Tracks was on general release when Dylan reportedly returned to the recording studio to re-take five tracks including Tangled Up in Blue. Paul Williams, who has attended more Dylan concerts than most Dylan commentators, said he had heard at least three radically different versions of Tangled Up in Blue. This indicates to me that Dylan was not happy with the structure of the song. He told an interviewer that he saw it as a kind of painting with events removed from time and place and edited into a different sequence. In a Chagall painting, the figures frequently defy the laws of physics by flying about or standing on the edge of high places. The break-up of the relationship occurs in the second verse. Thereafter, Dylan tries to escape the constraints of the straight narrative by messing about with grammar - changing tenses and persons. None of which sits well with the more straight-forward You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Even the way Dylan tries to inflect a little irony in the word lonesome doesn’t quite come off. Instead, the intonation is rueful. Tangled Up in Blue sits even less well with the dire If You See Her Say Hello with lines such as:-

                           If you get close to her, kiss her once for me

                           Always have respected her for busting out and getting free...

Compare that with the mounting wrath of Idiot Wind:-

      There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

      You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the war

      After losing every battle...
Dylan’s at his best when he’s apocalyptic.
     Evidently Blood on the Tracks got him moving again. The experience of swinging his way across America with a band of friends loosened him up for the much more joyous Desire. Whereas John Wesley Harding leaves you on the edge of a dark plain waiting  for a message out of the wilderness, Blood on the Tracks leaves you slumped in introspective melancholy thinking about your own divorce. Desire makes you want to get off your arse. Dylan sings and plays with the conviction of a man who has rediscovered the source of his exuberance and is free once again to tap into it. The maroon gloom of Blood on the Tracks has been replaced with variegated colours. No, this is not exactly the Dylan of Freewheelin or Blonde on Blonde; this is another Dylan. True to his foolish mission Dylan has succeeded in keeping a step ahead of himself, the self that belongs to the past, the self that is idolised by folk groupies and acid rock freaks. Desire owes a good deal to the writer Jacques Levy with whom Dylan closely co-operated on the lyrics. Levy brought to the writing of Hurricane the freshness and vigour of street vernacular – pig circus, meaning a farce, heat, meaning the police, they want to put his ass in stir, meaning prison, with no idea of what kind of shit was about to go down, meaning trouble that was coming his way. Then there is the way Dylan enunciates words and phrases, most memorably:-

                       They want to pin this triple mur-

                       der on him, he ain’t no Gentleman Jim

as in Gentleman Jim Corbett, a white boxer of the old days who was reportedly a racist. In the song Sara the elusive Zimm actually refers to his back catalogue, telling the world how one of his masterpieces was written:-

                      Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel

                      Writing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for You

Although this admission does not provide the key to the song’s mystery, hearing Dylan come out with it was thrilling at the time.

Bob Dylan’s most important instrument is his voice. Setting aside the periods in the past 45 years when Dylan’s voice has been more like nose singing and face pulling, he has always put great emphasis on the sound he wanted to create - the swooping humour and seriousness of Freewheelin’,  the throaty slurring cynicism of Blonde on Blonde, the fresh country-style tenor of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. Assume, if you will, Dylan’s voice at its strongest, clearest, most understandable – at least to English ears. Given that, you still mis-hear certain words and phrases.
     Take that thrilling anthem Chimes of Freedom in which Dylan, trapped in a New York doorway by a terrific thunder storm, imagines Heaven tolling out absolution and redemption for all the wretched of the earth. He appears to sing midnight’s broken toe, a fantastic image for the crippled landscape of New York in a storm. Disappointingly, however, the actual phrase is midnight’s broken toll, an altogether less graphic image. In the same song he sings that the sky cracked its palms in naked wonder. When I first heard that I felt like leaping up in affirmation of a marvellously original image. Dylan’s official lyric book, however (itself full of errors), has the more obviously poetical and less poetic cracked its poems in naked wonder.
     My heart nearly broke when I found out that in Visions of Johanna, in which Dylan tries to preserve the memory of a woman he has lost against the spite of the woman he is with, the magnificent the harmonica plays the skeleton keys of the rain was in fact the skeleton keys and the rain. My mind had fused the two images into one because skeleton keys instantly struck me as such an evocative image for the mood of the song. The sound of rain hitting skylights, lofts, falling in silver streaks down the dark canyons of nocturnal New York City like the quality of mercy, drumming rooftops, an obligato unlocking guarded emotions. It’s all there. How could Dylan not make the same connection? The harmonica plays the skeleton keys of the rain coheres perfectly with the mood of the song whereas the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain is descriptive, poetical, but nonsensical.
     In the same song the most commonly mis-heard line is the description of Louise, the woman in the same room as the singer. Most hear it as she’s delicate and seems like veneer. The real simile is she’s delicate and seems like the mirror. In my opinion the latter image, denoting smoothness, artificiality, self-regard, is hackneyed. Delicate and veneer are better matched because veneer is artificial, decorative.
     Desolation Row is one of Dylan’s greatest achievements, yet I defy anyone to tell me, on first hearing, what Dylan sings after the line They are spoon-feeding Casanova...To me the next line sounds like to give him the field mora shock, which sounds like an implement of torture. The actual line is to get him to feel more assured. In this instance Dylan’s line perfectly sets up his terrific pay-off:-

                              Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence

                              After poisoning him with words... 

     On Tangled Up in Blue Dylan does not sing Jimmy, don’t I know your name? The line which the female stripper says is Tell me, don’t I know your name.
Dylan’s voice has varied in quality with age. I dislike the nasal whining, the grimacing, of the mid-1980s, but like the throaty gruffness of Time Out of Mind and  Love and Theft, his last two albums at the time of writing. Dylan has succeeded in finding a voice to fit the lyrics. He can no longer sing with the range and freedom that he had as a young man in the coffee houses of New York City. But what he has lost in range he has gained in experience. He no longer has to try to sound older than his years.


Dylan said that as he got older he had to learn to do consciously what he had been able to do unconsciously as a young man. All artists whose creativity survives the promise of its first flowering encounter the same problems: repeating themselves and trying too hard to find something new to say. The Bob Dylan of Freewheelin had little behind him to impede his progress. He had the energy and self-confidence of youth backed up, I suspect, by a very secure and loving upbringing. Young Robert Zimmerman had no reason to doubt his own strength of purpose. The Dylan of Desire, Oh! Mercy and Time Out of Mind, his 44th album, had an accumulating back catalogue and a consciousness of his own significance as an artist that had yet to be tested in 1961. Popular music, song writing itself, changed because of Dylan. As his stature as an artist grew Dylan had to contend with comparisons with what he had already created in the past as well as expectations about what he might do in the future. In such circumstances, writing with the carefree unconsciousness of youth is no longer possible; in a mature artist it is not even desirable, I would say.
     Writing to outwit the treachery of time may have induced Dylan to become too conscious about his artistic effects. In the mid-1970s he became a writer of words rather than a singer of them. The decline of his vocal powers did not help. The young Dylan could carry any tune he cared to write. Dylan singing Subterranean Homesick Blues in 1989 was somewhat embarrassing. The performances of his later years are marked by a tendency to gabble lines rather than sing them. Sometimes those lines are over-charged with imagery and ideas. Where allusion is too dense feeling is obscured by verbiage and meaning is lost. For me Jokerman and Changing of the Guard are examples. In both songs the tunes and the rhythm are great, but the listener is always behind the delivery of the words, trying to estimate the effect of what he has just heard. The problem is similar with It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), but in this song the rapid stockpiling of imagery is mitigated by Dylan’s clear delivery. This is Dylan’s State of the Union address, only the state that he is examining is the country’s state of mind. The formal structures of folk, question and response, have been abandoned because of the nature of Dylan’s artistic journey. In the 1970s, however, Dylan appears to have self-consciously graduated from metaphor to symbolism. Allusion has turned into elusiveness, as though Dylan has become someone else to avoid a description on a wanted poster.
     In American culture the outlaw is the equivalent to the European outsider, alienated from a corrupt society; a loner who learns to trust only to himself. In fictional guise, usually through the medium of movies, the outlaw is either the bad guy who was never anything else or the good guy gone wrong. American culture is permeated by outlaws and gangsters. In folk lore they are free beings who remain true to their own code of values, men who take risks and live by their wits in a society inherently crooked, corrupt and vengeful.
     In Dylan’s songs an outlaw might be the righteous John Wesley Hardin (Dylan added a ‘g’) or the uncompromising stand up truth teller Lenny Bruce. His work is replete with references to these outsiders and the deceitful civilisation that opposes them:-

The cops don’t need you and man they expect the same (Queen Jane Approximately)

The senator came down here showing everyone his gun

Handing out free tickets to the wedding of his son         (Stuck Inside of Mobile...)

The six white horse that you did promise

Were finally delivered to the penitentiary

But to live outside the law you must be honest

I know you always say that you agree                             (Absolutely Sweet Marie)

You’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks

With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks

You’ve been through all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books

You’re very well read it’s well known

But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr Jones?                                                            (Ballad of a Thin Man)

Now all of the criminals in their coats and their ties

Are free to drink martinis and to watch the sun rise

While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten foot cell

An innocent man in a living hell                                        (Hurricane)

He did ten years in Attica reading Nieztsche and Wilhelm Reich

They threw him in the hole one time for tryin’ to stop a strike

His closest friends were black men for they seemed to understand

What it’s like to be in society with a shackle on your hand                   (Joey)

Everyone lives by rules of some kind, outlaws and officers of the law included. Those who pretend to live within society’s rules are often hypocrites, people on the make, using honesty as a mask to conceal their real preoccupation:-

Steal a little and they throw you in jail

Steal a lot and they make you king                                     (Sweetheart Like You)

Dylan is easily the shrewdest commentator on the often crooked road of justice. He observes it with irony and sometimes with anger:-

And you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears

Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears
                                                                                              (Hattie Carroll)

The latter song is particularly angry in its howl against injustice. Dylan knows, he has always known, that all of us have to answer to somebody. Freedom may be a trap. To simply call Dylan  America’s great voice of freedom,” as Jack Nicholsoin did, is to do a great dis-service to a subtle and passionate intelligence.

The ultimate outlaw in Western culture is Christ. His trial was the same kind of pig circus endured by Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. He too was falsely tried and done to death by the authorities for expedient political ends. Dylan, as I have said before, was always a moralist; even at his hippest, his judging eye was always measuring words against deeds. Blonde on Blonde is full of it. I believe that Dylan has always felt the weight of the world on his shoulders; he probably feels like a character in a parable, that all of life is a parable, the meaning of which is being acted out every day. The ultimate purpose no man can fathom because God has ways of confounding the wise to remind them of their mortality. Sometimes, indeed, Satan may well come as a man of peace.
     If Dylan’s vision of judgement is sometimes severe, sometimes it is roused to pity. Licence to Kill is not an angry song, at least not in the way Dylan sings it: the tempo is far too mellow. Nevertheless, this, I believe, sums up what Dylan thinks of Mankind:-

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool

And when he sees his reflection he’s fulfilled

Oh, man is opposed to fair play

He wants it all and he wants it his way.

Now there’s a woman on my block

She just sit there as the night grows still

She say: Who gonna take away his licence to kill.

Dylan almost enunciates the last word as keel.
     Most of the time Dylan’s fans expect him to ramble round the circles of Hell on their behalf, occasionally reporting back on what he has found in a style that is both entertaining and illuminating. In 1986 he released Biograph, a triple set of recordings and out-takes. Every song is accompanied by Dylan’s memories and musings. The following is what he had to say about Every Grain of Sand, a wondrously touching meditation on mortality:-

Everything is crooked now and the signs all point you the wrong way – it’s like we’re living at the time of the Tower of Babel...The Bible says ‘Even a fool when he keeps his mouth shut is counted wise,’ but it comes from the Bible, so it can be cast off as too religious. Make something religious and people don’t have to deal with it, they can say it’s irrelevant. ‘Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ That scares the shit out of people...People are just parading around in disguises, wearing faces that don’t let you know what  they think...I’ll tell you this much – when you tell somebody your dreams and hopes you better make sure they love you like a brother or your dreams and hopes probably won’t come true...You got to be somewhat superstitious to survive...When did Abraham break his father’s idols? I think it was last Tuesday. God is still the judge and the devil still rules the world so what’s different? No matter how big you think you are history is gonna roll over you...To the aspiring songwriter and singer I say disregard all current stuff, forget it, you’re better off, read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. Movies too, I’ve seen hundreds of them, how many of them stay with you? Shane, Red River, On the Waterfront, Freaks? Maybe a handful of others...I just saw one the other night, as soon as it was over I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Seemed real important at the time though.

One could justifiably say something similar about half or more of Dylan’s back catalogue. The best songs that seemed real important when first heard still carry that weight even though we may not play them as often. Just the other day I played John Wesley Harding through and experienced the original thrill I felt upon a second or third playing. At the end – Dylan concludes with two gentle love songs – I was of the opinion that this album was among the greatest of his recording career and, overall, superior to Blood on the Tracks in every way – technique, consistency, surprise and artistry. These are like biblical prophetic songs, cautionary tales with messages: -

                                  The moral of this story, the moral of this song

                                  is simply that one should never be where one does not belong.

                                  So if you see a neighbour carryin’ somethin’

                                  help him with his load, and don’t go mistakin’ paradise

                                  for that home across the road...

                                 And if you don’t under-estimate me

                                 I won’t under-estimate you...

                                 And he was told but these few words which opened up his heart

                                 if you cannot bring good news then don’t bring any...

                                 But I did not trust my brother, I carried him to blame,

                                 which led me to this fatal doom to wander off in shame...

                                 I pity the poor immigrant when his gladness comes to pass...

                                Just then a bolt of lightning knocked the courthouse out of shape
                                And as everybody knelt to pray the drifter did escape...

The looser form inherent throughout Blood on the Tracks and Desire suggests to me a different intellectual environment, a more self-orientated climate. Few admirers of Dylan’s songs up to the mid-1970s were thrilled by his move from the East Coast to Malibu beach on the West Coast. Bringing more personal elements of his life into his songs, Dylan undoubtedly reached a larger audience. For myself, although I was in awe of his artistry and staying power - there seemed nothing that he could not do, no mood he could not render, in song  - I didn’t think of Dylan as being anything other than human. Therefore he is not infallible. I just don’t like him wearing his heart on his sleeve. You could say I want to see him remain at the pinnacle of his creativity, those incredible years from Freewheelin’ to John Wesley Harding. Despite the class work which he has continued to do to a greater or lesser degree since then, those years and those seven albums contain the essence of Bob Dylan’s protean art.

Bradford: September-October 2005 and November 2010.