One of the (few) advantages of the last year has been the chance to fill in the blanks in my musical education. And one of the big blanks was Bob Dylan. How had I managed to not explore the premier poet of rock music in 56 years? Always more music than time I suppose. But coming to Dylan’s music later in life gives a different perspective to those of a couple of friends and colleagues who have worshipped him since they were teenagers.
Of course, you can’t avoid an artist like Dylan completely and I’d always had him filed away as someone to investigate when time allowed. So, what started me listening to him now? Hearing ‘Hurricane’ on the radio and listening to Emma Swift’s ‘Blonde on the Tracks’ contributed, and when ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ came out it felt like time to dig deeper.
I think Dylan is one of those artists that you have to practice listening to before you get to love him. His voice, as has been pointed out for the last 60 years or so, is hardly conventional, and I certainly had to spend time with it for the nuances to click. His phrasing in songs like ‘Tangled up in Blue’ has the same quality as a John Coltrane solo, always threatening to tip over into chaos but keeping just on track with occasional notes that are way off course but fit logically into the flow once the next note is played. For me, his attempts to sound more conventional, ‘Changing of the Guard’ on ‘Street Legal’ for instance, are where he sounds weakest. Even on ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ he is still reaching for notes that might sometimes seem to be out of reach but as in ‘I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You’ appear magically when he hits them.
I’m not sure I’m going to fall properly for early “folk” Dylan but having been listening to the Bootleg Series Vol 6 from Philharmonic Hall in 1964 you can understand why “going electric” was such a shock for many people. Alone with a guitar and harmonica he has a presence on record that must have been spellbinding in the flesh. In Joe Boyd’s autobiography “White Bicycles” there is a vivid description of the row at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan strapped on a Telecaster for the first time. It came as a surprise that someone with the reputation of Dylan felt the need to work with other lyricists, but for me his work with Robert Hunter and Jacques Levy still has that Dylan stamp, and includes songs like ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Silvio’ that are current favourites. This is I suppose the point of a catalogue as full as Dylan’s, there are always new songs and surprises.
An AUK colleague commented recently that Dylan’s songs are often best done by other people. In the case of an album like Swift’s ‘Blonde on the Tracks’. I would agree with that. But mixing the words with that voice creates something truly unique. So far, I have 14 Dylan albums on iTunes and plans for many more. So here starts a lifetime of listening…