There’s a fabulous photograph of Bob Dylan in Princes Street in 1966. He’s sporting shades even though the weather seems very Edinburgh and his stripey clown’s trousers and kinky suede boots are in marked contrast to the hodden grey of the citizenry.
You cannot see the face of the old-timer walking in the opposite direction but you might wonder if he’s squinting at the singer as they pass each other in front of a barber’s shop and muttering: “Get yourself in there.” Dylan displays a dandelion of fuzzy frizz; everyone else has short, back and sides, including the journalist with his notebook scuttling just behind, and everyone else is in collar and tie, including the lad with his autograph book who looks about my age in ’66 so I guess he could have been me.
Except that in ’66 the records which were rocking my world were the Ron Grainer Orchestra performing the theme to Steptoe & Son and the novelty nonsense “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Dylan. At first it was a non-relationship, a passive one based on ignorance. Then it turned active; I just couldn’t get into him.
But, as a Father’s Day present to myself, I bought his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways and can’t stop playing it. It’s playing right now and here comes a great couplet: “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds/I paint landscapes and I paint nudes.” There are lots of them on the record, which unless I’m mistaken is my first actual Dylan purchase. This is his 39th studio release and he’ll be 80 next birthday. What the hell took me so long?
When I couldn’t get into him, how hard did I try? Hmm, probably not very. Music at school was tribal and there was a race to claim acts as your own brilliant discoveries and saunter across the quad with their LPs under your arm. Others claimed Dylan so I couldn’t, and therefore had to disregard him. Daft, I know.
An absence of churning glam-rock chords
My father, an incorrigible folkie, owned a good number of Dylan albums and of course I had to rebel against Dad’s music as well. Sillier and sillier, because it wasn’t that he tried to indoctrinate me – far from it. He showed a kindly interest in my music and watched The South Bank Show’s profile of Talking Heads with me. After an hour’s affected mumbling from their Scots-born leader David Byrne, he asked: “So what is it you like about them?” “Er, dunno,” I replied.
I tried again with His Bobness. Yes, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter was really just Dylan in stack-heels, I could see that, but Mott had those churning glam-rock chords. Yes, David Bowie wrote Song for Bob Dylan but as Bowie remarked, Dylan had a voice “like sand and glue”. Yes, Bryan Ferry recorded Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall but when friends returned from university, having doubtless sat cross-legged at the joint-end of parties stroking their Bob bumfluff as they debated the sub-sub-subtext of his lyrics, hoping to impress girls almost as winsome as Suze Rotolo off the Freewheelin’ sleeve, and declared no, no, Zimmerman’s a stone-cold genius, I just thought: there must be some way outta here. There was: Dylan and me were never getting along and that was final.
I didn’t go to uni. I wasn’t at those parties. I didn’t read the classic texts which influenced Dylan. I was jealous of all of that so there was a perverseness to my disavowal of him. But I still thought my (so-called) pals were attitudinising and striking a pose. As if I’d never done that myself!
Wise, hilarious and profound
When my father died, I inherited his Dylan albums. A chum lent me Greatest Hits Vol II and, sorry Keith, I forgot to give it back. A girlfriend gave me Blood on the Tracks for my birthday and a short while later I finished with her, only learning later of its status as an all-time great break-up record. I began to like Bruce Springsteen (Dylan-influenced), then Steely Dan and Tom Waits (same). The man still lurked though I was adamant: he couldn’t sing for a bar of Cowan’s finest Highland brand.
But listen to him now: he’s speaking his lines and the effect is bewitching on lyrics like “I am the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life”. That’s not been his life, as any Dylan-denier would concede. His Rough and Rowdy Bobness has outlived most of the field and is currently out-writing the washed-up and worded-out. “I didn’t play guitar behind my head” could be aimed at those who’ve made a louder noise but said much less. Same with the line: “The size of your cock will get you nowhere.”
He’s always been the best, I think I should concede now. Possibly I knew this from investigating Dad’s Highway 61 Revisited while saving up for my next fashionable, frivolous platter but didn’t want to get involved with Dylan, fearing he’d take over.
Do Dylan-heads have anything else in their lives? You’d think not, reading the alarming book Dylanologists – I’ve always collected Dylan tomes – in which demented devotees fight over the high-chair he occupied as a tot and one will call round at the house of another to ask: “You own Bob’s old piano – could you find it in your heart to part with one of the screws from it?”
I could have been that completist, obsessing over thousands of bootlegs, but mercifully no longer have the time or money to go that deep. I’m perfectly happy with this album, wise, hilarious and profound – my first proper Dylan.
Unless of course it was somehow a Father’s Day gift from the old man…
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