A voice like sand and glue

On Bob Dylan's 80th, confessions of a Bob-cat

SOON AFTER the Swedish Academy announced the roster of Nobel prizes for 2016, President Obama hosted the American winners to tea in the Oval office. At the morning press briefing, the president’s spokesman listed the eminent scientists who would arrive that afternoon. Bob Dylan wasn’t coming, he noted: “So everyone can relax”.

That seems like a polite way of acknowledging that the singer-songwriter previously known as Robert Zimmerman, who turned 80 today on May 24, has a reputation for being awkward company. “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all,” he sang in Love Minus Zero (1965). Burdened with sudden fame in the bright dawn of the US civil rights era, and - worse - the impossible mantle of “spokesman for a generation”, the folksy former protest singer from Duluth, Minnesota, has long seemed intent on sabotaging his own image. 

A recent article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph by Neil McCormick, the paper’s pop critic, begins: “We live in the age of Bob Dylan”. From the house journal of British conservatives, that’s a measure of improbable reach and reputation. For all his efforts, Dylan has never shaken off the prophet's mantle he refused.

It’s the fans, the self-described Bob-cats, who suffer the consequences. For the best part of a decade, Dylan refused even to greet the audiences who flocked to see him. That ambivalent relationship dates at least from his cutting references to the scribes, pundits and writers in Ballad Of A Thin Man (1965): 

You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand / You see somebody naked, you say: who is that man? / You try so hard, but you don’t understand / Just what you will say when you get home. / Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is / Do you Mr Jones?

Mr Jones might have been one Jeffrey Owen Jones, a music journalist and later film professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who died in 2007. Or so he often claimed. Then again, what would Professor Jones have known? Among other interpretations, the pencil-wielding ingenue is an everyman, a figure for the struggling singer with naïve hopes of what success might bring. This kind of debate can - and does - go on indefinitely.

Dylan is a captivating but routinely unreliable narrator. In a recording sampled for Verbatim, a remarkable new BBC radio documentary, he can be heard elaborating long ago on his process. Songs need “structure, strategems, codes and stability,” he said. De-coding those strategies can be a life’s work for diligent Bob-cats.

Dylan shifts mode within a single song: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press,” he growls in the opening to Idiot Wind (1975). Its waspy, vituperative protest warms into a ballad, then resolves in a healing note of (possibly) Christian redemption:

There’s a lone soldier on the cross, / smoke pouring out of a box car door. / You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done / but in the final end we won the war / after losing every battle 

Fame is a core concept in Dylan’s life-long performance. “Everybody who does my job exists in the shadow of Bob Dylan,” songwriter Steve Earle told GQ magazine, “There are two categories: Dylan and everybody else. It's as simple as that, and it's going to be that way until he dies”.

In 2000, admiring Dutch Bob-cats gathered in Amsterdam to advocate for a Nobel prize with a mix of karaoke, idolatry and learned discourse. How else? Every rock star is preoccupied with his or her own shape-shifting persona - that’s the job, how could they not? But the epochal and prophetic dimensions of Dylan's meta-celebrity make the price of fame for him somehow different.

“I do it because I can do it, and I think I’m good at it,” he said in the archive recording uncovered by the BBC. With more than 100 million album sales, constant tours, feature films - and some hotly debated television commercials (more on this later) - the business side is a sprawling operation. “Bob Dylan is as interested in money as any person I've known in my life,” said David Geffen, a record producer and film studio executive. 

Admirably, this commercial conglomerate never quashed the individual, the maverick. At the peak of Dylan’s earning power, for example, he refused managers' plans for a lucrative tour of the world’s stadiums, choosing instead to drive across the US with a bohemian cavalcade in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. Archive footage from those performances, scheduled in little-known and minimally advertised venues, was memorably reconstructed in Martin Scorcese’s 2019 documentary.  

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Ambivalence and idolatry

Fame, false gods, hypocrisies ancient and modern - and love: for all Dylan’s vagaries, there is consistency to his recurring themes. Rage, romance and redemption are the staples; often, all three combined. These are fodder for countless artists, of course - yet Dylan has no peers. “He flirts with the sort of meaninglessness poets flirt with, rather than the sort pop singers flirt with,” wrote Sam Leith, a literary journalist. 

A magnetic appeal to the so-called Eng Lit crowd - the university graduates in English literature who came of age with his songs and “had the chops” to appreciate them - helped to establish Dylan's intellectual stature. But Bob-cats are a more diverse crowd than that narrow band of literary-minded admirers, united only by the unrequited pursuit of their hero. Among recent biographies, aspects of this appeal are referenced by harnessing lyrics as titles: A Restless Hungry Feeling, by Clinton Heylin; You Lose Yourself, You Reappear, by Paul Morley.

With Dylan, the words need the tunes. And vice-versa. The elusive rock star poet with his disobliging snarl has conspired to have his cake and to eat it. “A song lyric is designed to work with – and sometimes against – the music,” writes Leith. “Poetry works against silence. That makes a difference. You might not know from the lyrics alone, for instance, that Idiot Wind is a love song.” 

Bob-cats learn to expect rejection. Dylan’s fans have to take it or leave it, enduring his tendency to self-cannibalisation, the rough ride of nihilism before the smooth balm of romance. Much like the protagonists in the songs.

Consider the exiled figure in Shelter From The Storm, who came in from the wilderness - “hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn” - to find the solace in love:  

I’ve heard newborn babies wailing like a mourning dove / and old men with broken teeth, stranded without love. / Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn? / Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

At the risk of self-indulgence (nope, that’s mandatory), Bob-cats rise and fall with these evocative accounts of love and lovelessness. The ‘bad’ periods in Dylan’s career felt like a kind of mockery. To many, his evangelical Christian phase of the early 1980s travestied both his old self and the loyalty of fans. Heylin’s new biography cites an eight-minute live version of New Morning performed in Stuttgart in 1991, when not a single word of Dylan’s drone was decipherable - a kind of cruelty to Bob-cats hanging on every one of those words.

We should know better than to take offence. Bob-cats invariably learn to love the stuff they once hated. “What is this shit?” wrote Greil Marcus in a much-debated review of the double-album Self Portrait (1970) in Rolling Stone (an opinion he refused to revise, which may have contributed to his departure from the magazine). Even Marianne Faithfull - who worshipped Dylan’s rapping “thought fragments” and sang covers of his songs for her entire career - complained that the “gangling Rimbaud of rock” was “not terribly witty”.

Set against the unfolding arc of time, these kinds of disappointments are part-and-parcel of a Bob-cat's long-term relationship to Dylan. His unreliability, while painful, paid off in the new century trilogy of Love and Theft (2001) - “a pre-rock masterpiece”, Modern Times (2006), and Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). With each performance on the so-called ‘Never Ending Tour’ that has taken up the larger part of his career, Dylan plumbs new meanings from the depths of material new and old. 

The songs are re-worked and revisited; they come alive again, slippery, and - occasionally, in retrospect - still prophetic. Consider, for example, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall: first performed in this acoustic version in summer 1962, electrified in this 1976 version from the Rolling Thunder Revue. The song is overpowering still, an anthem both apocalyptic and apocryphal, as Patti Smith demonstrated in this 2016 tribute at the bejewelled Nobel prize dinner in Stockholm.

After the facts

Sixteen years after the Dutch fans pitched for a Nobel prize, the Swedish Academy concurred. The citation recognised “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” a claim that echoed Greil Marcus, for whom Dylan has “drawn upon and reinvented the landscape of traditional American song, its myths and choruses, heroes and villains”.

This too is a partial assessment. Richard F. Thomas, a classics professor who taught a course in Dylan at Harvard, makes a case in his 2017 book, Why Dylan Matters, for moving Dylan from the rock-'n'-roll hall of fame into “the pantheon of classical poets”. For Thomas, Dylan’s sheer lyrical density - the “skipping reels of rhyme” - belongs to the universal narrative of Ovid, Virgil and Dante. Mr. Tambourine Man is worthy of the Greeks, and Dylan himself has become Odysseus.  

And if you hear vague traces, of skipping reels of rhyme / To your tambourine in time, I wouldn't pay it any mind / It's just a ragged clown behind. / And if to you he looks blind / I wouldn't worry, it's just a shadow that you are seeing that he's chasing

This is just the kind of accolade that Dylan likes to run away from. For months, he didn’t even acknowledge the prize (although his audio lecture, submitted in lieu of a physical appearance, was recorded just inside the deadline - predictably enough, being a condition for the almost one million dollars in prize money). But Thomas is a scholar, whose position in the canon of mainstream Dylanology is unusual.

In his view, Dylan is really “a conservative”. 

Not in the Republican sense, but for his concern to cherish and to preserve. He has been called a “nostalgic modernist”, perhaps hinting at the same idea. Dylan seems always impatient, on the edge of boredom. It’s easy to conceive of his impish mischief-making as a yearning for what is absent, eternal. His songs long ago abandoned the ephemeral, the surface of things. He confirmed as much in an interview, uncovered by Heylin, with a student from Cambridge University from 1965:

Question: What do you mean when you say you don’t write about anything?

Bob Dylan: I write inside out + sometimes the dimensions cross. I can’t write about the tree, I must write of the tree.

When I started to think this way, the evidence of Dylan’s disdain for mere facts piled up. The sleeve notes to Biograph, a box set of 53 tracks released by Colombia Records in 1985, include an account of a party where every guest dressed as a character from a Dylan song. Reading this as a teenager, I was struck by the image of a man with “twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest” - quoting Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, on the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Now I think this line evokes the burden of wasted arguments, of mere facts accumulating over time: the weight of all the old headlines.

For Bob-cats of a certain pedigree - such as contributors to the rewardingly eclectic Is It Rolling, Bob? Talking Dylan podcast - biographical details of any kind can start to feel irrelevant. There’s not much to glean in the laundry lists from Dylan’s marriages (two known), speculation over his children (four known, of a reputed 10), his alleged addictions (speed, alcohol, some dark days with opiates). Why did he make that perplexing lingerie advert for Victoria’s Secret in 2004? Was his appearance in an advertisement for Chrysler cars, played during the 2014 Superbowl, a sell-out? Bob-cats no longer bother with these questions.

You lose yourself, you reappear / suddenly find you got nothing to fear - It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Which is a strange irony, while liberals across the world complain vociferously about the evils of our post-truth media. Surely the facts matter to understanding Dylan. Like Marianne Faithful’s account of him tearing up a poem he had written for her because she refused to sleep with him. Or a motorcycle accident in 1966, requiring a slow convalescence after the adrenaline-and-dope-fuelled mania of his move from acoustic to electric sound: a contemporary scandal which prompted, famously, the cry of “Judas!” from a jeering fan.

After the motorcycle crash, wrote journalist David Keenan, Dylan was self-medicating: it was in this period that his art de-coupled from the rational terrain of the “programmatic” protest song: a journey he could never reverse, from Logos to Mythos, suggests Keenan. His first marriage brought brief stability. I think of Sara Lownds listening offstage in the wings of Madison Square Garden, while her husband evoked their disintegrating marriage in Sara (1975). Then I remember - it’s a fact - that Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands wasn’t written in New York, despite a reference in Sara to “staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writing sad-eyed lady of the lowlands for you”. 

Interrogating the lyrics for the facts from his life is a fool’s errand. Facts are surplus to requirements in Dylan. Even the ecstatic tilt of his religious conversions and corrections requires no corroborating dates. Their relationship to the songs is never more than tangential. In Rolling Thunder, Scorcese adds interviews with fictional characters - plus a nonsense from Sharon Stone, the actor - twisting the historical record to construct a mood, a moment. The manipulation feels cavalier with the truth, but in an authentic way.

In the haphazard early years, Dylan’s ferocious talent erupted in moments of sudden force: “Some words had truthful vengeance / That could pin us to the floor,” sang David Bowie in Song For Bob Dylan (1971). That “strange young man called Dylan, with a voice like sand and glue” outgrew the clarion calls of protest. Or as yesterday’s headline in the Irish Times put it: He was so much older then, he’s younger than that now - paraphrasing My Back Pages (1964). 

Dylan’s muse drew him instead to the nature of life and death, to questions of what survives beyond the sand and the glue. The not-protest-singer became innately separate. Dylan’s reality, catalysed by the rush of early stardom, was reinforced by his sense of otherness. Celebrity made him someone whose presence altered the environment, he complained. People in restaurants stopped acting normally.

Larger forces had been unleashed. “Dylan simply no longer wants to talk about ‘meaning’,” observed Keenan, “He is in the grip of his own muse so completely that his creations have become inexplicable to him”. 

And also to us. 

Bob-cats are grateful for it. That’s the nature of our bond. In some small way, we have travelled his road, passing the obvious material domain. After the facts, or before them. In his varieties of truth are sounds of the universal and the spirit worlds, outside history, where a Bob-cat hears that familiar rasping nasal whine, modulated through the years, still holding it together.

In loving memory of my father Ron Ashurst (July 15, 1939 - May 23, 2014), who really listened.

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