Friday 27 May 2011

Blowin’ in the Mind: Bob Dylan at 70

Yes, I know this is late but I’ve had a busy week. Anyone who doesn’t know that Bob Dylan was 70 last Tuesday must be living on Desolation Row or something.

The BBC ran a number of programmes on the man who arguably changed an entire generation. The Beatles – in particular John Lennon – were all influenced by Dylan. Without him I seriously doubt that Revolver or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would have ever come into existence. Dylan himself drew inspiration from those who had gone before. Listen to Dylan’s early albums and you can’t miss the echoes of The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry. Poets, novelists, artists and mystics are there too; T.S.Eliot, Rimbaud, Picasso, Salvador Dali and William Blake.

It was in the summer of 1965 that I first heard Bob Dylan. I had heard his name but never heard him until Subterranean Homesick Blues came on the radio while I was at a friend’s house: “Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine/I’m on the pavement thinkin’ about the government...” Then came Like a Rolling Stone, a song so long you wondered how it fit on a 45rpm single (if you can remember those things). Positively Fourth Street went boldly where no pop song had gone before; it was a venomous, vitriolic tirade against an unnamed false friend with which millions of teenagers could readily identify.

Until Dylan, almost all pop songs were two and a half minutes long and about how the singer was going to love the girl of his/her fancy forever. Dylan, as is well known, changed all that.

Dylan, it is said, kept an open Bible on a lectern in his study/workroom. When Paul Stookey of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary was going through severe personal problems and called on Dylan for advice, Dylan’s counsel was, apparently, “Read the Bible, man.”

It is interesting to see how the Bible, including the New Testament, has always had an attraction for the Jewish boy from Hibbing , Minnesota (as it has for Jewish artists such as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond). Dylan’s eponymous first album featured Gospel Plough and In my time of Dyin’, and biblical imagery has been a constant feature of all his best songs from Blowin’ in the Wind to Thunder on the Mountain.

I can never make up my mind if Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is a Picasso portrait of his first wife Sarah, or if it is Dylan’s “Song of Songs”. Maybe it’s both.

The early eighties was Dylan’s “born again” period and Christians still ask me (as though I have inside knowledge) if Dylan still is, or ever was, a true believer. I don’t know.

All I do know is that some remarkable and moving songs come from that period. Every Grain of Sand touches me deep inside and never fails to moisten my eyes. I find it hard to understand how someone devoid of true faith could have composed songs like Serve Somebody, which is like a J C Ryle sermon set to music.

It is interesting to see that Jesus and Christian imagery still feature in his music. In his 1984 post born-again, retrospective, under-appreciated album Real Live, Dylan performs Masters of War in which he omits the verse in which he assures the Masters: “There's one thing I know/Though I'm younger than you/That even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do.”

Towards the end of the eighties, I saw a recording of an Australian concert in which he informed the audience that the song In the Garden was about his hero: “When they came for Him in the garden, did they know/ …He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord? When He rose from the dead, did they believe?/He said, ‘All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth.’/Did they know right then and there what that power was worth?”

Those are remarkable words for an “unbeliever” to sing.

About the same time, I saw Dylan perform I Shall be Released with modified lyrics. Instead of “I see my light come shining from the west unto the east”, he sang, “I don’t need a doctor or a priest.”

Was it a statement that his relationship with God was in good shape or was it a signal that Dylan had turned his back on Christianity? Who knows? Dylan has always been as enigmatic as his lyrics and will probably remain so.

I pray that as "his Bobness" has reached the significant biblical “threescore years and ten”, in his mind he will recall that almost half a lifetime ago he sang that he was going to change his way of thinking and get himself a “different set of rules”.

1 comment:

  1. He's not always THAT enigmatic. When he released his charity Christmas album "Christmas in the Heart" in 2009, an interviewer told him he sang "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" like a true believer. And he said, "Well, I am a true believer."