So Bob Dylan is in his 80s. Bet he never thought that would happen, back when he was blowing’ in the winds of change during the fragile 1960s. Most people then were pessimistic about longevity, what with the threat of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War. “Hope I die before I get old,” as The Who put it in one of their less inspired moments.
I was there, in London during the Swinging Sixties, though I didn’t really notice. It all seemed pretty unremarkable to me, and I never thought those nuclear attacks would happen. I lived to start with in a bedsit in Stamford Hill, in a road that was predominately the home of Orthodox Jews. Not much swinging there. I had a Jewish doctor, who was great. You could see him face to face.
I did go to a few parties, but I don’t remember much about them. That may or may not be a bad sign. I was working five days a week and at university four evenings a week, which didn’t leave a lot of time for exploring inner space, with or without mushrooms.
It wasn’t as boring as it sounds, partly because London is never less than interesting, and I listened to Bob Dylan a lot. I don’t want to beat about the bush: in my opinion Dylan was a totally brilliant singer-songwriter, outstanding in a time of many talented songwriters and performers. Was? He still is, of course. I never expected that.
I bought his first record, Freewheelin’ (actually his second, but the first that was entirely self-composed) without ever having heard him, on the recommendation of a friend. At the time we were visiting Coventry, where I had lived a few years as a child, and I remember going back to the friend’s house where we were staying, taking the record up to the bedroom, where for some reason there was a portable record player, and putting it on. I had to be hauled down to supper. I was mesmerised. I couldn’t believe how good it was.
Up to then I had been a big fan of Buddy Holly, who really did die before he got old – or even middle-aged – and through no fault of his own. But Dylan was something else. Everything about the songs was wonderful. The words, the music, the timing.
Needless to say, I now have a large collection of Dylan records.
He is human, of course, and he has written some poor songs. Not many, though – and they are eclipsed by the sheer weight of the brilliant ones. I bought the double album Blonde on Blonde in Minneapolis when I was on a brief visit to the States, and it contains probably my all-time favourite, Visions of Johanna. But then Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on the same album is also exceptional, and there there is Like a Rolling Stone, of course, and All Along the Watchtower – the only one of his songs I can think of that someone else (Jimi Hendrix) performed even better than he did.
Chimes of Freedom was always underestimated, and later on we had the stunning Hurricane, Jokerman, Mississippi, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and more recently Not Dark Yet and Things Have Changed. Not to mention the last album, with its tour de force, Murder Most Foul. There are so many more, it’s actually laughable to pick those out.
These are songs that lift the spirits, and you just wish that the younger generation would give them a shot. But of course the younger generation rarely does. When I was young, my parents and their friends loved musicals, crooners and big bands, and really never “got” rock and roll, or Bob Dylan. I never got the ones they loved, and I probably still don’t.
There are exceptions to this rule. When my son went to university in the early 1990s, he used to bring home albums and play them to us. Some of them I quite liked. But then he brought home Counting Crows’ album, August and Everything After. I loved it. It was brilliant. It reminded me of Bob Dylan. And to be fair, my son likes Bob Dylan too.
At this point the analogy breaks down. All analogies do, eventually. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. Dylan said that.