Man walks into a column, no.47: Dylan

For me to say ‘I love Bob Dylan’ seems as nonsensical as saying ‘I talk too much’ or ‘I like books’: so obvious as to be redundant. But as I’ve blogged about before, putting the experience of listening to Bob into words – listening to anyone, in fact – seems like a fruitless task anyway. Writing about music is like etching about sex: the medium does not match the act.

And so it was with some considerable pleasure and no little surprise that I read novelist Edward Docx‘ article in Prospect magazine which somehow, miraculously, managed to capture the experience pretty darn well. I’d like to think this is the exception that proves my ‘rule’. In general the writing about Dylan (acres and acres of the stuff) is turgid, pseudo-scholarly and pretentious.

Like Mr Docx (what a great name, and not even a nom de plume) and most other Dylan fans, I discovered the music of the Weirdest Wilbury in my early teens. There was and still is something utterly other about the Sound of Dylan and it’s that, rather than the subject of his lyrics or the anger in his voice (neither of which are consistent features anyway) that mark his out as revolutionary protest music. Perfect for a teenager, basically.

Anyhow, reflecting the fact that I am no Docx or Dylan, best to give column space over to a much better writer. And as a bonus (also a nod to the fact that I’ve been woefully poor in supplying YouTuneage recently on this blog) here’s a video of a live performance that I feel reflects the experience of Dylan in full flow. Consider it an early Christmas present.

(For those poor souls who have somehow missed the chance to see Bob and crew – he does 100 dates a year for chrissakes – the Dylan that Docx is describing is that weird new beast ‘Old Man Dylan’, several regenerations on from the ‘Preacher Dylan’ shown in the video.)

The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing. I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.