Touring New Zealand from August, Bob Dylan’s genius, his lyrics, and his undying cool continue to endure.
My love affair with Bob Dylan started late. I’d always cast him off as a rather boring folkie for Dads, lumping him together with other such earnest acts as Crosby, Stills and Nash or prog-rock. It was the insistence of a mate which finally got through to me. He was always sure Dylan was the greatest—not Lennon, not Yorke, not Cobain, not Strummer whom I’d previously championed. So one night he basically did the equivalent of force-feeding a severe anorexic, and played album after album in a quest to convert. It started off slow. It was a line or two which would initially pique my interest. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea … let me forget about today, until tomorrow,” a rarely optimistic Dylan opined on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (a song which I maintain is far superior to oft-celebrated Byrds’ cover).
But it was one line which initially totally floored me. “You just kinda wasted my precious time,” Dylan snarled at an ex-girlfriend in ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. I hadn’t then, and still haven’t heard a better delivered fuck you line in music—it was the build-up of regret, the beautiful strumming, the quiet malevolence, and the sheer chutzpah of flicking off a relationship with that line. It was gloriously arrogant. It was totally her fault. It felt more punk than anything the likes of Johnny Rotten ever constructed. And I was won. And to horribly paraphrase Joan Baez, if you like Dylan’s music, it goes way deep.
Suddenly the lines started coming thick and fast. “But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” “She’s sixty-eight but she says she’s fifty-four.” Or of course, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” No-one has matched lyrics like this in popular music. No-one’s come even close. Metaphors, allusions, intertextual references, alliteration, metre—no wonder his lyrics are analysed in poetry classes. No wonder English lecturers discuss the relationship of ‘Desolation Row’ to T. S. Eliot. You only have to listen to ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ to wonder if Dylan was applying a blowtorch to today’s society. Was ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the first Jewish popular rap song (move over Beasties)? Even that track displays more lyrical control than most contemporary hip-hop MCs. There was also his rather underrated control of melody (something we can probably thank the Beatles for) ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’. ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. After this, no one else seemed intellectual and musical enough.
All this is probably why music journalists are constantly on the search for the new Bob Dylan. But no one ever seems to find one. You don’t really hear a new band with the overwhelmingly impossible burden of being the new Beatles or the new Rolling Stones. Whereas these two supergroups are firmly tied into an era (frankly, the Rolling Stones’ rebellion seems quaint today and Beatles experiments, while still excellent, have arguably descended into commercial cliché), Bob Dylan remains as prescient as ever. There’s also the fact that many of the music icons of the 20th Century were scrambling in Dylan’s wake. Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Neil Young. His music hasn’t dated like the others have singing about LSD or spending the night together—hell, I can’t even tell the difference between digitally re-mastered Bob and analogue Bob, but even if I could, it wouldn’t mean a thing.
But perhaps it’s the authenticity, a concept that hipsters for generations have clung to as the barometer to separate good art from the commercial. He could sell his albums in Starbucks, do incessant world tours, become a rather odd born-again Christian, or totally renounce the 1960s—it wouldn’t really matter. A man with a guitar doesn’t seem to date. But a man with words, well. No one will ever accuse Shakespeare of being dated despite his anachronistic subject matter.
But his authenticity comes from the fact he wasn’t perfect—he could claim that they were just lyrics, but they weren’t. While I wouldn’t want to write a book on analysing the lyrics to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, I can understand why someone would want to. But it was for me the fact that he always nakedly revealed all his contradictions, warts, hopes, frustrations. He was an everyman who could tap into a consciousness whether it was political or personal.
But then again he wasn’t a mere human. He was cooler than cool, more punk than punk. He said he didn’t care what others really thought, and you believed him. He was smarter than regular folk and he was never modest enough to deny it. If you couldn’t be Bob Dylan, you’d settle for doing him. When the dust settles, and the nostalgia of the original 60s generations are slowly extinguished, he will remain the mythic figure of 20th century popular culture. It took me a while to realise all this. Was Dylan a genius? Undoubtedly. The greatest popular music figure? Yep.