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‘I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings’
– Bob Dylan, Song to Woody
And so, on 19 March 1962, via his tribute to great American folk singer Woody Guthrie, the words and music of Bob Dylan, were released to an unsuspecting world. His eponymous debut album, ‘Bob Dylan’, hinted at an astounding talent. But no-one could have anticipated the extraordinary impact this poet-cum-troubadour would have around the globe over the next 54 years.
That ensuing journey of song and poetry reached a culmination of sorts this month when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (the first musician to win the accolade). His name now stands alongside the likes of Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, Eugene O’Neill, Gabriela Mistral, Herman Hesse, William Faulkner, Pär Fabian Lagerkvist, Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Harold Pinter, Orhan Pamuk and numerous other giants of literature.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. In the traditionally elegant understatement of the Noble Prize committee, they got it just right. Incredibly, phenomenally, magnificently, Bob Dylan has woven his music, lyrics and persona into the collective consciousness of the world for over half a century, all the time ceaselessly reinventing himself and his genre.
Every Dylan aficionado has a story of how they discovered his genius; of their favourite song; of his often bizarre concert appearances when songs invariably bear little relation to their original recording.
My journey began in the early 70s late on a balmy summer’s night looking out over the Pacific Ocean from Sumner beach in my home village in Christchurch, New Zealand. I was carrying a transistor radio (iPods would not be invented for another 29 years…) when a tune came on featuring a sneering, snarling male singer playing simple chords on an acoustic guitar. The effect was startling. That voice…. and the words. I had heard nothing like it.
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.
It was the constant refrain that got me. “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”
I didn’t know it yet but the words represented one of Dylan’s many personal reinventions, the reflection of his mounting disdain with the 60s folk protest genre, for which he had already been claimed as the flagbearer. It was a recantation.
On the Monday I raced into my local record store and tracked down the song. It was on an album called Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth. I still have the original vinyl, a personal treasure, added to since by everything this prolific poet has ever done.
As I write this Blog I am permitting myself a whole weekend’s pure indulgence by listening to every Dylan album in my collection. Right now I’m on his second (and first great) collection – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Even back then the man’s lyrics were probing, prescient, profound.
On it you’ll find Masters of War. It was released in 1963, yet it could have been penned 40 years later in honour of those 21st century monsters of war, George W. Bush and Tony Blair and their many blood-stained (but always with that of others) successors.
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.
Like countless journalists and writers down the years I often reach for a Dylan quote to embellish a story, knowing full well that one’s own words will be made to look puny, insufficient, even banal in comparison. There are so very many choices.
Lyrics of love:
My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her
Lyrics of love combined with loss, like ‘Sara’ from the magnificent album Desire:
I laid on a dune, I looked at the sky
When the children were babies and played on the beach
You came up behind me, I saw you go by
You were always so close and still within reach
And the lovely ‘If you see her say hello’ off the seminal Blood on the Tracks:
If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier
She left here last early Spring, is livin’ there, I hear
Say for me that I’m all right though things get kind of slow
She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so
Lyrics of introspection (When the Night comes falling from the Sky):
In your teardrops, I can see my own reflection
It was on the northern border of Texas where I crossed the line
I don’t want to be a fool starving for affection
I don’t want to drown in someone else’s wine
Lyrics of economic decline and poverty (Workingman’s blues):
Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues
Lyrics about mortality (Not dark yet):
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
Lyrics of protest, of course. This…
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
And lyrics that simply make you want to dance with joy at their sheer, poetic magic…
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Mr Tambourine Man, of course. Does it get any better? 54 years of lyricism. Capped by the apt, wonderful recognition of a poet with a million expressions.