Bob Dylan is the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Good. I’m happy about that. As I wrote in a piece last year I have friends who have told me how much they hate Bob Dylan. I am still friends with these people but we are never going to agree on this one. In my view Dylan is simply the greatest songwriter of my lifetime.
I got to know his music unaided by friends or family. My family’s record collection (mostly bought by my mum) contained albums by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and soundtracks from musicals. The singles and 78s included more Elvis, a few Beatles 45s, one Rolling Stones disc (“19th Nervous Breakdown”, with “As tears goes by” on the B-side), dozens of less well-known tunes and two favourites that have made it onto more playlists and compilation CDs than any other songs: “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C Reilly and Sandy Posey’s “Single Girl”. There was literally nothing by Bob Dylan.
At university I bought (mostly on cassette – it was the 1980s) most of his 1960s output. I listened to them alone. “Highway 61 Revisited” is one of the three albums I have played most often in my lifetime. I am playing it now. Back then “Blood on the Tracks” was the only Dylan album from the 1970s that I owned. When asked (as I have been, many times in the last 30 years) which is his best album, I say that it’s one of these two.
Also in my student days the DA Pennebaker documentary “Don’t Look Back” was revived (paired with the 50-minute John Cooper Clarke movie “Ten years in an open-necked shirt”, a real treat). I saw it, more than once, at the ICA and was captivated by the live solo performances, especially the excerpt from “It’s alright ma, I’m only bleeding”. I had listened to his albums alone, and watched “Don’t Look Back” alone. Later I would meet other people who knew and loved his music. We could share lyrical references. “You’ve been through all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books” was an early example, finding that a woman I had just met recognized the line. She had also read all of Fitzgerald’s books. I could say, “You’re very well-read, it’s well known” and she got the reference.
I have been wondering, since hearing the news from the Nobel Committee, if I have a favourite piece of Bob Dylan poetry, from the thousands of lines that I have heard, read and sung. It’s probably this one, from “When the ship comes in”:
“And the sands will roll out a carpet of gold / For your weary toes to be touching / And the ship’s wise men will remind you once again / That the whole wide world is watching”
“When the ship comes in” is a Dylan recording that I return to frequently, and Clinton Heylin’s “Revolution in the air” tells me that he performed the song in concert only once after 1963. It was at Live Aid, with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood accompanying him. You can watch it here, and if you’re the kind of person who has never come to terms with Dylan’s voice and delivery you might struggle with it. I’m struggling with it myself, partly because he mucks up the line “And the sands will roll out a carpet of gold”. I’d recommend, instead, this clip of all the performances from “Don’t Look Back”, well worth 29 minutes and 22 seconds of your time, or if you’re a bit pushed head to 23:20 for the first verse and chorus from “It’s alright Ma”. His version of “It’s all over now, Baby Blue” for an understandably star-struck Donovan, at 19:20, is worth a look too. Come gather round, people.