Now hear this Robert Zimmerman I wrote some words for you

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

(Changing of the Guard, by Bob Dylan)

 

HOW can I do justice in words to a writer and performer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?

And so began my simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet and musician of my generation.

That was three years ago, and so far my narrative Journey Though Dark Heat  is 8,000 words long, and I have only got to 1988!

Yesterday, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first ever songwriter to win the prestigious award.

The 75-year-old legend received the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

The balladeer, artist and actor is the first American to win since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

President Obama said the honour was “well-deserved”.

“Congratulations to one of my favourite poets,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Dylan had been chosen because he was “a great poet in the English speaking tradition”.

“For 54 years now he’s been at it reinventing himself, constantly creating a new identity,” she told reporters in Stockholm.

I have adored every step of Dylan’s words and music since I was a starry-eyed teenager. He has been the backdrop and soundtrack to my entire life.

I have over 200 CD albums of his music, numerous first pressings of his LPs, almost 100 books about him and a gallery of photos, ticket stubs and ephemera. Oh, and I have seen him perform live some 32 times over the past 38 years and even followed him around Europe on his 1989 tour.

Yes, I am a Bob Dylan obsessive.

So his Nobel prize award delighted me as it did millions of others. I have tears of joy running down my face as I write this.

Quite simply Bob Dylan is a living legend.

This morning, singer and his former partner Joan Baez went further when she said: “The Nobel Prize for Literature is yet another step towards immortality for Bob Dylan.

“The rebellious, reclusive, unpredictable artist/composer is exactly where the Nobel Prize for Literature needs to be.

“His gift with words is unsurpassable. Out of my repertoire spanning 60 years, no songs have been more moving and worthy in their depth, darkness, fury, mystery, beauty and humour than Bob’s.

“None has been more of a pleasure to sing. None will come again.”

But it is the poetry in his music that has earned him the literature world’s highest honour.

Former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion is among those to have previously praised Dylan’s lyrics, saying his songs “work as poems”.

“They have often extremely skilful rhyming aspects to them,” he told the BBC. “They’re often the best words in the best order.”

What makes a man who has only ever written three books a suitable winner of the Nobel Prize for literature?

Bob Dylan arguably made the lyrics more important than the music, but for many like me, the music and lyrics are inseparable.

Writer Salman Rushdie praised Dylan’s win, saying: “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”

Bruce Springsteen also congratulated Dylan by posting a passage from his autobiography on his website. In it, he described Dylan as “The father of my country”.

“Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived,” he wrote.

Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler wrote on Facebook he was “delighted” for Dylan.

He explained: “Bob Dylan has been a great songwriter since he was a teenager and nothing has stopped him in continuing to write and bring his gifts to the world.”

From his beginnings in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was the voice of his generation – the original singer-songwriter who both led and chronicled the social revolution that changed the world.

He has never had the greatest voice by traditional standards; indeed, that was part of his appeal. But he did create a new template for the singer as a poet and artist.

Allen Ginsberg called him the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th Century and former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion said he listens to Dylan almost every day.

Yesterday (Thursday) Per Wastberg, chair of the Nobel literature committee, said he is “probably the greatest living poet”.

Certainly no other rock musician has had their lyrics more analysed, anthologised and eulogised.

And he delved into his inner self to summon songs that set the blueprint for the confessional singer.

In a speech accepting the Musicares Person of the Year award last year, Dylan explained: “These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far.”

The young Dylan was heavily inspired by poets like Arthur Rimbaud and John Keats, and his poetic influence is even in his name.

When Robert Zimmerman began performing folk songs in coffee houses, he renamed himself after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

He was also influenced by dustbowl singers like Woody Guthrie and country star Hank Williams. Yet Dylan moved beyond their traditions.

When the Cold war was at its height and America was racked by internal turmoil as the burgeoning civil rights movement clashed with the conservative middle class… it was Dylan who would provide the musical backdrop to these troubled times.

Using simple chords and universal metaphors, Dylan managed to tap into the zeitgeist of the era like no other, bridging the gap between folk and mainstream pop with songs such as A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A-Changin’.

Tunes including Like a Rolling Stone, Just Like a Woman and Lay Lady Lay became iconic anthems which were covered by hundreds of artists.

When he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he horrified the assembled audience in one of the seminal moments in music history.

The sweet folk troubadour had transformed himself into a hedonistic rock star, with trademark dark glasses hiding eyes glazed by drink and drugs.

After a motorcycle accident and a subsequent seclusion following his 1966 world tour he made an unexpected comeback at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and the albums John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning.

The return of the troubadour culminated in 1975’s Blood on the Tracks album and hailed as a return to form, and for many, one of the greatest LPs ever recorded.

Three years later, after Dylan witnessed a vision of Christ in an Arizona hotel room, his lyrics became full of Biblical references and reflected themes of faith and morality.

 

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

His albums continued to be received with interest – if often mixed reviews – and in 1988 he began what came to be known as the Never-Ending Tour, constantly reinterpreting his own songs on stage.

Just as it seemed he was losing his relevance, his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, with its dark themes of mortality, proved another landmark release. It won three Grammys including best album.

In 2006, at 65, he became the oldest living artist to enter the Billboard chart at number one with Modern Times.

And his most recent albums Fallen Angels and Shadows in the Night has seen him slip seamlessly into an aged crooner of the great American Songbook.

His journey has come full circle.

Imbedded in legendary status, an avalanche of honours have now flowed – a Kennedy Center Honour, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, a Golden Globe and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now he can add a Nobel Prize to that list.

 

My Father’s House

dad

IN so many ways I really hate Father’s Day, as much for what I have lost with my own children, as for what might have been.

It is six and half years since my beloved father Ray died.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams regularly.

He was not the perfect father, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

His own life was full of obstacles. At four years old, he was knocked down by a car – one of only a few on the road in 1934 – suffered severe head injuries and had his left ear sewn back on. After three months in hospital he then had to learn to eat, read, write and talk again.

Later in life, he ruptured a kidney in a motorbike accident, came close to death with hepatitis in Egypt, was rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy while working in Munich and suffered osteoarthritis, glaucoma, temporal arteritis, cancer and a series of mini strokes. His later years were plagued by health problems… but he never complained, even when he was dying with Parkinson’s Disease.

On the counter-side, he enjoyed so many successes. He was one of the junior designers of Concorde, helped design many other aeroplanes too; he rebuilt windmills, worked on the earliest electronics for rechargeable batteries and later the development of ground-breaking microwave engineering.

At home, he made several small fortunes renovating houses and lost small fortunes with his obsession with buying and selling some perverse motorcars.

He took risks, made mistakes, won and lost and won again… he never gave up.

And I now hold to his example when my Dark Passenger of depression clings too close.

As an adult, I had to wait until I was battling cancer at the age of 31 to really understand my dad more fully. Apparently he cried himself to sleep the night before my first major operation …. I never saw my dad cry. And over those months, we bonded as father and son and shared many emotions. He was always there for me.

I will never forget the day, about eight years later, when I won my first major press award. At the awards dinner in Edinburgh, dad and mum shared a table with me. After I received my award I returned to our table and dad was the first to stand and hug me and say “well done, son”. That moment always stays with me.

Ironically, I could only repay him after he had passed away. The proudest moment of my life was conducting his funeral service in front of our family and friends.

Some of the words from my eulogy to him I recall now:

“When I think of Dad I think of a man of no compromise yet someone who would do anything and compromise for anyone. And if ever there were regrets in his life, he rarely if ever voiced them.

He always had time to live, laugh, love and work so incredibly hard for his home and his family, whom he adored.

Dad was, at times, the most annoyingly anti-social man you could meet.

With a vengeance he hated Bob Monkhouse, Bruce Forsyth, Margaret Thatcher, the man across the road with a twitch, those bloody long-haired pop singers, the guy with the beer belly who had more hair than him, the happy next door neighbour who would ask after his health, David Beckham, Eastenders, Terry Wogan, Prince Charles… the list could go on and on.

But he also had heroes, golfer Jack Nicklaus, Nat King Cole and Doris Day, and probably his biggest hero heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali – so it is sadly ironic that this magnificent sportsman too is fading with the same disease that took Dad.

Ain’t life a great leveller.

But despite dad’s pretence at anti-social behaviour, he was the most sociable and likeable man anyone could ever meet. In fact anyone who met him was immediately touched by him and loved him.

Count how many thousands of times we caught him happily chatting at the garden fence with a complete stranger, or the times he made a bird table for a neighbour or helped someone decorate or do their garden, or the dozens of times he helped us kids move house, knock down a chimney, lay a carpet, fix a roof, mend a car, drive us to a date, cover for our indiscretions … again the list goes on and on.

And now dad…. as we say goodbye, we will always remember you with love and so much affection… love and affection which we tried to bestow on you whenever we could.”

And we played out his coffin with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”

He is gone and I miss him. Especially today.

But he left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.

You’re the one that reached me you’re the one that I admired

blog tony benn
THE death of Tony Benn is a watershed in British politics.
He was the last truly great parliamentary socialist, and a man of courtesy, decency, principle, integrity and vision.
And he was a true hero of mine.
During my years as a newspaper journalist I was fortunate enough to interview Tony three times, and each interview was a joy.
Unlike many of his contemporaries – including former chancellor Denis Healey and ex PM Jim Callaghan – he did not waffle over his time in office or make excuses and like younger MPs he did not obscure with sound bites or spin.
Instead he told things as they were and imprinted his vision of equality and fairness in words of insight and candour.
The interviews were all in the 1990s, so during the latter time of his 50 years as a member of parliament, but he was still fresh and relished argument and fought for justice.
After each interview I felt like I had been speaking with a friend.
And I have another reason for loving Tony Benn.
In 1994, 41 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my year-long investigation into the link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells and local clusters of cancer.
The same tank shells provided a link to Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War.
Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour. A treasure I will keep till the grave.
Tony was true fighter for ordinary working people from the moment he was elected an MP in 1950. He was a privileged and educated aristocrat turned man of the people.
From his successful fight to remain in the Commons upon the death of his father Viscount Stansgate – a Viscountcy which Tony was to be forced to inherit – through to the Hovercraft, Concorde, TSR2, nuclear power, special edition postage stamps, tape-recording his own interviews and speeches, he was every inch the dashing, eloquent and unafraid hero.
Tony Benn was one of the few British politicians who became more left-wing after having actually served in government.
When Labour lost power in the 1979 General Election, Tony became the authentic voice of the radical left with the press coining the term Bennite to describe the policies espoused by those resisting attempts to move the Labour Party to the middle ground.
As such, he became a bogeyman for the right in British politics, with delegates to Conservative conferences displaying Ban the Benn badges in the style of CND’s Ban the Bomb logo.
Later in life he became a folk hero as well as a campaigner for a number of causes, particularly opposition to UK military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was blamed by many for contributing to Labour’s lack of electoral success during the 1980s.
Tony Benn was a totem for those who rejected the shift to the right widely seen as necessary if the party was to regain power.
This shift was eventually completed under Tony Blair, who pushed through the abandonment of clause IV and redefined Labour as a party comfortable with privatisation and free market economics.
Tony Benn was unrepentant in his opposition to the changes saying: “We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”
With a typically memorable turn of phrase, Tony then signalled the end of his parliamentary career in 1999, when he announced he would not be standing for re-election at the next general election. Asked whether he would be taking his place in the House of Lords, the former Viscount Stansgate replied: “Don’t be silly.”
His final speech to the House of Commons as MP was an appropriately eloquent farewell, in which he talked widely on his view of the role of parliament and the wider question of democracy.
He said: “In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person – Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates – ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
After his retirement from parliament, Tony became the public face of the Stop the War coalition.
In one edition of BBC TV’s Question Time, his exchanges with US Republican John Bolton included this broadside: “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”
He died and will forever live as the Honorary President of the Stop the War Coalition, leading the greatest mass movement in British history. He was the greatest leader Labour, and Great Britain, never had.
Tony’s legacy must now be a catalyst for the left and working people.
The UK is the sixth richest country on Earth, but now has half a million people dependent on food banks; wages haven’t fallen for so long since the Victorian era; the next generation faces being poorer for the first time in a century.
“The flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world” is what drives social change.
Appropriately Tony Benn once said: “Modern Britain does not lack anger, but the left’s real mission is surely hope. Charismatic and inspiring leaders will inevitably be mourned. But the injustices that drove them don’t die, and so neither will the need to continue their fight.”
Rest in Peace Tony, you were a legend in your own time.

Brief Encounter #11

Ovett
Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe’s granny
AS supreme middle distance runners in the late 1970s and early 1980s Steve Ovett and Seb Coe were inseparable.

Now, as subjects for this Brief Encounter, I have brought the duo together again… the encounters were separated by 15 years and in Coe’s case, his granny will have to suffice.
A bit of a tentative link, but journalists are always looking for an angle to a story!
The first part of this story lies on an Inter City train journey from Leeds to London.
It was the spring of 1977 and I was travelling home from university to see mum and dad, who lived on the south coast near the seaside town of Worthing. It was a hot day; thankfully the train carriage was only half full and I had a front facing seat to myself. But as the express pulled into Doncaster station, it started to fill up with others heading south. I glanced up to see a smart but elderly lady take the seat opposite me. She was struggling with her suitcase, so I jumped up and helped her store the case in the luggage area behind her.
As the train pulled out on its continued journey to London, I relaxed back into my seat to continue reading the paperback novel I had bought at the WH Smith store on Leeds station concourse. The lady opposite was glancing at a broadsheet newspaper and looking wistfully out the window at the passing countryside.
About 20 minutes passed before she suddenly asked where I was from and where I was going. I explained that I was a student going home for a weekend with my family. The lady asked about my university course and said she too was going home after visiting her son in Sheffield. We struck up a conversation, which lasted almost an hour and helped the journey pass more quickly. The lady told me she had been recently widowed and lived for visits to see her son and grandchildren. She said her grandson was at university at Loughborough and she saw less of him now he was away from home. She said he did a lot of running and was becoming quite good at it.
Before long the train had pulled into Kings Cross station. I lifted my rucksack onto my back and offered to carry the old lady’s suitcase along the platform. She thanked me warmly. As we said goodbye on the station concourse I glanced down at the luggage tag on her suitcase… it said simply: Violet Coe.
In 1977 Sebastian Coe was already becoming a top British 800 metre runner. Three years later he won 1500m gold at the Moscow Olympics… a feat he repeated at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
I had spent a memorable two hours with his proud granny.
My liaison with his rival Steve Ovett was much more straightforward.
Steve and I are the same age. We both grew up in the environs of Brighton and Hove, on the Sussex coast. In 1967 at age 11 we both began at high school. I went to the old fashioned – almost Victorian – Hove County Grammar School for Boys, whereas Steve started at the more modern and trendy Varndean School. My only brush with Steve at this time was in an inter-schools cross country race where I finished 37th and Steve probably won or came second!
Years later he became one of my two lifetime sporting idols – the other was former Brighton footballer Kit Napier – as he scorched the track to become (in my eyes at least) our greatest ever 1500 metre runner.
As the track rivalry between him and Sebastian Coe developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, my support was always 100% for Ovett. Not only was he a Brighton lad, but his anti-establishment air was the perfect rebuff to Coe’s smug arrogance, both on the track and in post-race TV interviews.
I leapt off the sofa, punching the air when Ovett won the 800 metre gold medal at the 1980 Olympics and sulked when he only took bronze at his favourite distance, the 1500 metres, a few days later.
When he retired from international athletics after his 5,000 metre gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, he was firmly established as a personal hero.
So when I was given the chance to interview him in 1992, it was an opportunity I would not miss.
At the time I was living and working in Mid Argyll on the west coast of Scotland and Steve had been invited by John Holt, the retired general secretary of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, to start a half marathon to help raise £500,000 to build a local swimming pool.
After the race, I joined Steve and John in the bar of a hotel in Lochgilphead for a pint and an interview.
Apart from a few smile lines and his rapidly disappearing hair, Steve hadn’t changed much in appearance since his glory years. He talked in detail how following his 1980 Olympic triumph, his 1982 season was wrecked by injury. When out training on the streets of Brighton in late 1981, he glanced across the road and ran into some railings at St John the Baptist Church on New Church Road and badly twisted his knee. It was a road and location we both knew well. He also talked about how bronchitis ruined his chances of any success in the 1984 Olympics.
But he was glad he had achieved so much in sport and when I asked him if he had any political ambitions like Sebastian Coe, he laughed out loud and said: “What do you think?”
He showed me his bandaged left thumb. “I did that last weekend with a bloody hammer, while renovating a cottage at our home,” he said, “That’s the limit of my ambitions! Although I am doing some TV punditry for Sky TV at the moment,” he added with a grin.
The formal interview lasted about 15 minutes before I mentioned to Steve where I grew up. We then spent another 45 minutes chatting about Brighton and Hove and mutual friends from our years as kids.
Steve was effusive and told me to pop by for a cup of tea, if ever I was passing his home near Annan, in south west Scotland.
As we shook hands to say goodbye I told him he was my hero. He almost blushed as he looked me in the eyes and said: “Thank you… but what a load of rubbish. I was born with an ability to run, that’s all, I am not different from you or anyone else in this pub.”