Posts filed under ‘bob dylan’

forever young – bob now and then

dylan ... now  dylan ... then  The man turned 65 yesterday.  That's when normal people are retiring, or when people normally retire.  But Dylan is neither normal, nor does he show any signs of retiring.  "You should be able to go on for as long as you want to go on", he once told an interviewer.  Bob clearly wants to go on going on.  This is the man who wrote Forever Young – his prayer for a generation that cared.  "May you build a ladder to the stars/and climb on ever'y rung/and may you stay/forever young!"  Bob wasn't into everlasting life for just anybody.  It's a prayer for people who thought the world ought to be changed and could be changed.  It's his prayer for the generation that set out to make a difference on behalf of others.  Listen to the words!  "May God bless and keep you always/may your wishes all come true/may you always do for others/and let others do for you …"  Not for Bob the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) self-obssession of post-Thatcher western life and culture!  If you're not up for changing the world, this ain't a prayer for you!  Bob the Ruthless: "…the order is rapidly changin'/so get out of the new road if you can't lend a hand/for the times, they are a-changin'!"

When he wrote those words (bob … then), the train of the new world was just around the corner.  He could hear the whistle and the tracks were humming.  Some years later, newly converted to Christianity, Bob realised the train was perhaps a little further away than he'd anticipated.  It was a Slow Train – but it was "comin' down the tracks".  Only now, the Train was Jesus.  You see, sadly, Bob found Jesus … and lost the world!  If only he'd found the Jesus of the gospels, rather than the Jesus of right-wing American fundamentalism!  I reckon Bob and Jesus have a lot in common when it comes to the state of the world.  Both of them get highly pissed off with injustice, war and prejudice.  Jesus is far more likely to listen to All Along the Watchtower than All Things Bright and Beautiful.   He's got to like Ring Them Bells more than The Old Rugged Cross!  And John Brown vs Onward Christian Soldiers?  I mean, are you seriously suggesting there's a competition here???  Dylan "gets" Jesus on the world far better than most Christians.  He just falls apart when he goes into "Christian" mode!  Bob's at his most Christian when he's at his angriest and saddest with the way the world is.

And bob … now?  He's given up neither on Jesus nor the world.  Still hasn't got the necessary connection between the two, mind, but he's definitely on the side of the angels!  Everyone's allowed some blindspots – especially when you're young!  And Dylan's forever young – which suits me fine!  Way to go, Bob!  Happy 65th birthday!

25 May, 2006 at 12:41 pm Leave a comment

his bobness: what would the boy say to the man?

Surfing through bobdylan.com, I found some of his rare performances (http://bobdylan.com/performances/). Have a listen to his April 17 rendition of "I dreamed I saw St Augustine", from the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, Mass. Here is Bob singing one of his greatest songs – in a way I've never heard him do it before. The words are often indistinct. He sounds as though he's recovering from a sore throat – or hasn't quite hit recovery yet! – and slips into his lazy performance-mode "talkie-sing" mode (ie when he's coasting and just can't be bothered to interpret his material). And yet … it's great! It's beautiful and moving. He sings it with the love of the familiar – he's lived long with the song. It's never blase, although it hovers on the edge. Instead, he manages to hold on to that dynamic of a familiarity that speaks of deep, deep knowledge, and yet is aware of further mystery. But Bob is the Gnostic – these are secrets only he knows, and he almost plays with us, exciting our envy and longing for a similar depth knowledge.

Ok, ok, this is sounding far too … something! Pretentious? Sentimental? I mean, it's just a man singing a song. And yet Bob manages to do that sort of stuff with his music, doesn't he? Listening to Bob sing his old songs is to be drawn into the narrative of his journey with the music. There's a crossover somewhere: Bob interprets the songs/the songs interpret Bob. What the songs become is what Dylan himself has become.

So I found myself listening to an old man sing an old song, while looking at a photo of him at the Newport Festival. And I wondered what the young Dylan would say to the man he's become? Would he like him? Would he regret the way it all turned out? If he knew how he'd sound 40 years down the road … would he do it all differently?

Now, call me sentimental and uncritical, but I reckon he'd be fine with it all. He started out knowing he had something to say – and found that he didn't have a clue as to just how much! He's "followed the river down to the sea" and the beach is pretty good. He's learned to live with his regrets (more than a few, and certainly enough to merit more than just a mention!). You can hear it in the songs. The world ain't what he probably hoped it would become, but it's a better place for having given him space and recognition. He's "just tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door" – and that ought to do just fine!

8 March, 2006 at 10:17 pm Leave a comment

bob the articulate? must be some mistake, surely …


Did you watch His Bobness on BBC2 at 9pm last night? What a treat! Nearly 2 hours of Dylan's early years. It was great to watch classic footage of the early Dylan – highlights for me being Newport and the 1966 tour – but also to see his musical biography come to life. There was Pete Seeger, who's grown into the thoughtful, softly-spoken, articulate yet committed gentleman he always threatened to become. And Suzie Rotolo, talking with her hands – the girl from that album cover who hasn't lost her impish mischief or obvious affection for The Man over the years. The biggest treat, though, was to see Joan Baez, then and now, who is always conspicuously absent from these bobfests and yet was so seminal to the emergence of Dylan's own writing voice. The chemistry was obvious and a joy to see – not least because Dylan we got to see plenty of those rare events: Dylan actually enjoying himself!

The reprise of those early years drove home just how enormous a change Dylan not only lived through but effected. Michael Gray and others who insist that the music scene must be divided into two eras – Before Dylan and After Dylan – are right. The Greenwich Village scene that hosted the young waif in Cafe Wha transformed itself within a remarkably short space of time. Dylan was both the catalyst and the prophet who showed the way.

Most surprising, though, was Dylan himself, as interviewee and commentator. He was uncharacteristically giving and articulate. He gave straight answers to straight questions. The familiar irony and multiple masks behind which he hides when being asked to talk about his work were notably absent. Dylan talked about music – and about his music. He spoke about what grabbed him and didn't. He talked about what he was trying to do with his music.

Two things struck me forcibly. When Dylan spoke of his first album – a collection of covers which were planned in the studio as he was recording – he talked of the dynamic in him that instinctively held back what was most important to him and best in terms of what he had to offer. What distinguishes this album is the absence of original material (though not arrangements). This is surprising because Dylan was already writing prolifically, constantly and easily. It wasn't shyness that silenced the (lyrically) unique voice of Dylan (the man who is held up as the voice of his and subsequent generations), but an instinctive dis-ease with self-disclosure. Dylan writes and plays primarily for himself and for other musicians. He is hyper aware of the fickleness of the general public and their appetite for the banal (if any proof was needed, we had only to listen to some of the huge number of anodyne covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" that sold more than Dylan's own punchy, uncomfortable renditions). It struck me again how, if we want to "listen" to Dylan, we ought not to try and force him into the straitjacket of second-order commentary. The Man is not the explanation for the Songs – if for no other reason that he cannot and will not be!

The second related point was the refrain that ran through nearly every point at which Dylan spoke about musicians he admired and what musicians were about. He kept saying, "(S)he was really saying something – and I wanted to say it!" Dylan writes and performs to say something. Music is his chosen vehicle of expression. Music doesn't exist to be frozen in time and space like a photograph. It exists to say something. The beauty for Dylan is its polyvalence and acapacity for reinterpretation – to say something new to a new context. Hence Bob's refusal to bow to audience pressure and recreate the recordings in performance. Dylan, as has often been noted, constantly reinterprets his songs rather than re-performing them. He changes lyrics, beat, tune, accompaniment, tone, phrasing and emphasis to the bewilderment and fury of his fans. It was wonderfully ironic to watch that bewilderment surface when he went electric in 1966. Devotees of the man's music spoke on screen of their anger at Dylan for daring to own and rework his own songs. Dylan had broken the contract. That's not how music "worked"! Performers were supposed to create something that the public liked – and then it became public property! The job of the live performer was just that – to perform to order. Reproduce the recordings like some live hologram. And that was how it was Before Dylan. It was Bob who broke the mould.

Dylan has always "said something". He's always insisted, too, that "the songs are the message". You can't penetrate behind the songs to get at a "deeper truth". The truth is inextricable from the medium – the song, which is the lyrics, the music, Dylan's voice … and Dylan himself! Those of us who whine at his lack of self-giving have simply not got that point. If it's Bob we want, we must go to the songs. It is Dylan's presence and re-interpretation that make Dylan's music an encounter with The Man himself – even when he's having an off-day or an off-decade or two! Scorcese managed a rare feat. He got Dylan to talk easily about himself and his music. Yet did he "penetrate behind the mask"? Or was this articulate, comfortable-with-biography Dylan just another mask for the inexhaustively re-inventive Bob, created to deliver what was needed? I didn't learn anything "new" about Bob from Bob. It was a joy to listen to him, but it was commentary, not self-disclosure. He still peddled some of the old myths of origin that he'd created in the first place – or at least, made no corrections to them! He didn't contradict or shape what was said about his musical development – he merely commented. For me, I'm prepared to buy what he's always said. "The Songs are the Message!" That's when I "get" Dylan (as much as I ever do) and when I'm constantly delighted, surprised and shocked. That's when I feel the power of the untameable and recalcitrant genius of the man, and when I reckon I get closest to whoever Bob Dylan really is. I buy into it as an act of faith and appreciation. And hey … it works for me!

27 September, 2005 at 11:08 am 4 comments

it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there …

Did anyone else see Amazon's 10th Anniversary Concert online yesterday, or catch the last chance to see it today? If you get this in time (today only!) go to www.amazon.com (ie the US site) and navigate from the ad on the RHS of the page. It featured Bob and Norah Jones – their two highest selling singers.

I felt profoundly sad, watching it. Dylan's getting old. He still makes music – wonderfully and generously – but his voice is going. Of course, there are those who maintain that he never had a voice, but that's to misunderstand what he does. There have always been three vital elements to Dylan – the lyrics, the music and the voice. Dylan uses his voice as an instrument to interpret his songs. He plays with his voice as others play a guitar or piano. If you've ever admired what Clapton can make a guitar do, and how he can change the mood or feel of something, then you'll undertand how Dylan does the same thing with his voice. He can snarl, sneer, beg, mock, woo, entrance, and terrify. Or he could. That's what makes the man so astoundingly versatile and infuriating. Dylan is probably the one perfomer who has always maintained absolute rights to his own music. He will change the tune, the lyrics, or reinterpret the songs radically. You never know what Dylan in concert is going to do with his songs. One of the audience's favourite games is "Guess the song" from the instrumental introduction. It beats "Who wants to be a millionaire?" for unpredictability!

This is part of what makes his music truly great – but not as others count greatness. Bob has never pandered to fans' demands to hear the songs again and again "just like on the record" (Lawrence, you're showing your age here, mate!) His songs endure because they mean constantly new things to Bob. Listen to "Just like a woman". The young Dylan howls and sneers. The older Dylan makes it drip with irony. My desert island disc selection would include at least two versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" – cos they're two different songs!

[I'm not going to miss the chance to observe that the enduring newness of his songs and the open-endedness and polyvalence of the lyrics – the ability to say something new and fresh in a different time and context – is pretty much how I think the Bible functions as Living Word. Nor am I going to miss the chance to invite you folk to come to Rock & Redemption at the Windermere Centre to come and do some serious theology through the music of Dylan, Cohen and Springsteen! But this is by way of parenthesis.]

So Bob getting old and losing his voice is much, much more than just an issue about what the singing sounds like. It means he's losing control over his own creations. His versatility gave him the means to reinterpret his work; to remould the songs; to say something new with old words. So it was heartbreaking to watch him limited by his voice. The spark was gone. The songs were singing Bob. I could hardly bear to listen to "Maggie's Farm", not because it was bad (it was!) but because he was powerless to do it differently. It might be ok to listen to Sir Paul struggling – and failing – to hit the notes in the classic numbers he did for Live8, cos it's wonderfully nostalgic. Audience memory does what the voice fails to do, and we hear "The Long and Winding Road" filtered through years of sameness. Not so with Bob. You can't sit there and smile indulgently, or wash away on a wave of nostalgia seeing His Bobness do the good ol' numbers, cos he's never done that and they've never been old! Always forever young!

It was all the more poignant because when he hit the harp, you could see the gawky young singer of 45 years ago. Dylan's always looked awkward and anally retentive when he moves to music on stage. As though there's an Elvis inside a wooden puppet trying to get out. But that just made it all the harder to watch.

His voice warmed up and gained in strength. "Blind Willie McTell" still gave me goosebumps. He dripped vintage bob-sarc at the pretensions of Mr Jones. "Lay Lady Lay" was great – I found myself wondering (as in full of wonder) at how an old man could sing a young man's song and make it mean something absolutely different but relevant. But then, I guess it isn't difficult to sing that particular number if you have a libido and a score card like Dylan maintains. When he donned his cowboy hat, he was in Love & Theft territory and completely at home there. He made that music for and with his voice as it is today.

He was generous with the harmonica. Now, I've always maintained that Bob uses the harmonica on songs that are really important to him. It's a cue for what matters. And he also uses it as a gift to audiences (Dylan's notoriously ungenerous to audiences, getting positively surly, curt and churlish with them as he's got older). So I rate his perfomance as generous. He gave what he had to give. He'd obviously refused to allow the cameras to zoom in on him. Oh, and he ought to have sacked his band – or rehearsed more! But he was generous. And none more so when he called Norah Jones onstage to do a duet with him – "I Shall be Released" (gives me a fresh set of goosebumps just remembering that!). Who can forget Bob Dylan and Joan Baez doing that one together? It was an anthem for a generation. They were its voice. And he gave it to Norah. He really did give it to her, because his singing was quite deliberately instrumental. You could see that Norah knew it, too. She didn't take it and try to own it – she did it beautifully, with just the right amount of deference and awe in the face of the gift's significance.

It's getting dark. And it's shaken me. Dylan is part of the fabric of my universe. Just as my world is constituted by the fact that my parents are still alive, and I don't have ultimately to stop the buck just yet, so it is with Dylan. I go to Dylan to be awed, and puzzled, and challenged. I go to hear Dylan articulate my thoughts and values, my dreams for the world and my anger at what's wrong. He says them far better than I ever could. His conscience has been a guide. And he's never rested – he's always pressing on, experimenting. His grasp of literature and the Bible and poetry is astounding and his range is monumental. So is his musical knowledge. He's like Mandela. He can't die – mustn't die – because memories aren't enough. Dylan's power is never only in what he's done, but in the vitality of what he's doing now and will do tomorrow. His tomorrow's are running out. Like those of my parents. And Mandela. And where then will be the voices that we desperately need to hear?

17 July, 2005 at 8:45 pm 6 comments


Time to move …

... to my own hosted site on http://mustardseeds.wolsblog.com. See you there.

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