Forty banners united over the field
Where my life lives and grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves
HOW can I do justice in words to a writer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?
So I will not try to even pass close to justice. Instead just a simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet of my generation.
I came to Bob Dylan by way of a detour through David Bowie. I discussed some of the details in my recent eulogy to Lou Reed. It was one song by Bowie on his 1971 album Hunky Dory that provided my own Highway 61. The song was unsurprisingly titled: Song for Bob Dylan!
The lyrics are a refrain to my life:
Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more.
After playing this one song more than a dozen times in the first week I bought Hunky Dory, there was an inner need to discover more and answer some unanswered questions. Sure, I had heard Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone on the radio when I was younger, but what makes this guy Dylan so important that my hero Bowie writes a whole song to him? And what was I missing?
The answers came quite soon.
It was late 1972 and a lad in our upper sixth form was a Bob Dylan fanatic – he even had hair like him and was forever being reprimanded by teachers for not wearing a tie! So I asked him why… he eagerly lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on vinyl LP and suggested I should get a copy of Blonde on Blonde to discover the real Dylan.
Then two related events overtook me. First I bought a copy of More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits simply because 21 tracks seemed like good value. Then CBS suddenly released the film soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and the single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door made the UK charts!
Now armed with two albums, plus the Heaven’s Door single I was beginning to discover Bob Dylan and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. His voice like sand and glue and words of truthful vengeance had me pinned to the floor, and like those before me I started to dissect his lyrics and find a new meaning to living.
More Greatest Hits was a delight. From Watching the River Flow to Crash on the Levee I was entering into his world of music and poetry. Two songs in particular drew me in… the wonderful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and the forgiving Tomorrow is a Long Time.
If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
I spent the rest of my sixth form and university years buying up Dylan’s back catalogue of albums on cassette tape and allowing his music and words to become the soundtrack to all I did. Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin’ led me to discover folk music and in turn Fairport Convention, while the awesome Planet Waves and Desire wrapped me up in stories, vignettes, lyrics and emotion I had never previously known.
On its own Forever Young became the anthem to my life, which I have played to each of my children in turn:
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
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
These years also included the magnificent Blood on the Tracks, but more about that later in this narrative. He had already lit a burner on my stove and brightened my life.
And suddenly it was 1978… an important and pivotal year.
For the first time in my life I was working – as a trainee psychiatric nurse – and earning money. It was the first disposable income I could really call my own. So apart from buying Dylan’s latest LP Street Legal I also got to my first gig.
It was life changing.
I bought the ticket for one night at Earls Court in London after queuing for hours at an over-the-counter box office in Brighton. For weeks afterwards I was sweating with anticipation. At the age of 22 I had been blessed to have seen some amazing live acts; David Bowie (twice), Roxy Music, the Average White Band, Al Stewart and The Stranglers to name just a few. But as Dylan had not gigged in the UK since 1966, I – like thousands of others – had to wait to see my hero live.
Saturday, 17 June 1978 dawned like no other day in my life. I had hardly slept the previous night and was up at the crack of dawn with my ticket clenched firmly in my wallet. My father gave me a lift to our local railway station on his way to work, and I hopped a commuter train to Brighton and then a connecting express to London, Victoria. I arrived in the capital just before mid-day, grabbed a coffee and had hours to wait until the evening performance… but I was not going to miss this life event.
I spent most of the day in and around Oxford Street browsing record shops and at one side street outlet was a breath away from buying my first Bob Dylan bootleg… but that would have to wait. At around 6pm I met a friend from my university days and together we shared a couple of beers and our mutual excitement. The tension was palpable. It was Dylan’s third night at Earls Court so he should be relaxed and well in tune… we hoped.
And our hope was rewarded.
By 7pm we were in the venue and took our seats way back in the auditorium. Suddenly something was happening… the opening number was an instrumental Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, with sax and keyboards blasting the arrangement and pinning us back, waiting to hear the voice of the man himself. There he was singing an (at the time) unknown number Love Her with a Feeling, complete with female backing vocalists. He was live in front our eyes and invading our senses.
Dylan was awesome. The sound and the view weren’t great from our seats; but when he sang “You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man babe, now you’re back where you belong,” it didn’t matter… this was amazing, and yes “the sun was always shining”.
Sure I had heard his 1975 live album Hard Rain, but to listen to new interpretations of his songs straight from his mouth and guitar in the same room where I sat was without precedence. I had bargained for salvation and here he was giving me a lethal dose.
Dylan was this tiny figure in a waistcoat singing for me. His voice was strong and his harmonica electric. Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan.
The highlights were many: Tangled Up in Blue was sung like never before, almost a hymn, and after about 45 minutes Like a Rolling Stone had me on my feet singing back How Does it Feel? I was tangled up by every song and by the time he sang All Along the Watchtower I was enveloped by tears of emotion.
The full setlist that evening was: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Love Her With a Feeling; Baby, Stop Crying; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter From the Storm; Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Tangled Up in Blue; Ballad of a Thin Man; Maggie’s Farm; I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); Like a Rolling Stone; I Shall Be Released; Going, Going, Gone; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later); You’re a Big Girl Now; One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); Blowin’ in the Wind; I Want You; Señor (Tales of Yankee Power); Masters of War; Just Like a Woman; Simple Twist of Fate; All Along the Watchtower; All I Really Want to Do; It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Forever Young; The Times They Are A-Changin’.
We left exhausted and exhilarated… my love affair with Bob had entered a new dimension and I vowed to see him again, and again, and again.
I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you
The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times
Bob was no longer invisible but he still had secrets to conceal.
To be continued