To attempt to explain in a few lines what the music of Bob Dylan means to me could be impossible, but since today marks his 80th birthday I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the subject, not all-encompassing but entirely my own opinion.
I remember a few years back having a conversation with an acquaintance who was in the music business over a pint or two in a Camden establishment and while talking about music, we inevitably drifted into the subject of what we liked – and what we didn’t.
We agreed on some things, disagreed on others but there was one subject where there was no argument and that was Bob Dylan.
In an effort to describe Dylan we settled on the expression “a greatness”.
I like to think that Bob, famous himself for disliking being pigeonholed or for being praised to the hilt, would at least settle for this, most pithy of descriptions.
In truth, he wouldn’t care what I or anybody else thinks, but where music is concerned, Dylan really is a greatness.
That attitude and approach to recording and performing is indeed part of what makes him so.
Most people know a Dylan song or two, some without even realising.
His influence is genuinely massive in rock music history, probably second only to Elvis – you could debate that forever – but behind all the accolades, awards and recognition there stands a phenomenal amount of recorded material.
His studio albums showcase his undeniable talent for song-writing on a level again, arguably higher than pretty much anyone else and if push comes to shove, I’d comfortably suggest he’s the best there’s ever been.
I’m not going to reel off extensive lists of songs or albums – it would take too long and you can discover them for yourself, but it’s safe to say that his output from the 1960s alone would be more than enough for most artists – and it doesn’t stop there.
Dylan is often regarded as a “words” writer, as if to suggest that his songs are primarily about the lyrical content and okay, maybe a lot of them are but, this is to disregard some of the wonderful tunes he also wrote.
I defy anyone to listen to A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and not be blown away by the words (Allen Ginsberg famously wept on hearing it for the first time) and yes, it’s a great poem, but it’s also a catchy tune.
He did it time and again throughout his career and one thing is certain where Bob is concerned – just when you think he can’t possibly do it again, he does.
There are no real definitive templates for rock stars as they age – some handle it better than others and in Dylan’s case he seems to have grown into his voice.
Ah, yes, the voice.
“He can’t sing” I’ve heard people say.
This always makes me chuckle.
Anyone assessing Bob Dylan on the timbre of his vocals is entirely missing the point.
You have to get over that.
Personally, I love Dylan’s vocal style(s).
Whether it be the raspy, Guthrie-inspired delivery of the early stuff, the sneered, attitude-laden attack of the mid-60s, the smooth, cigarette-free croon of the early 70s, the earnest bark from later in that decade or the gravelly drawl of more recent years, there is one common denominator in that voice and that is the passion.
Add to the mix an incomparable talent for song-writing and just a little more than a sprinkling of cool and you get Bob Dylan.
You ‘get’ Bob Dylan.
Once described as “the hippest man on the planet” – in a business where competition for that kind of status is pretty fierce.
I have no doubt that the man in a genius.
That famous quote from Springsteen about Like A Rolling Stone “kicking down the doors to his mind” (or something like that) is a moment I can relate to – the same thing happened to me when I first heard it.
Easily a contender for the greatest single ever in my view (I wrestle with that one constantly) and also probably the greatest album opener out there… but really just another one of Dylan’s dynamite records from the mid-60s.
I’ve always found it staggering that he managed to churn out so many era-defining records at the rate he did during that decade.
When one thinks of the 1960s naturally (and rightly), one thinks of The Beatles.
But let’s remember that The Beatles benefitted from the output of two and latterly three major song-writing forces, while Dylan had to rely on his own single brain to keep producing the goods.
And, yes, there were other acts in the 60s, believe it or not.
I would suggest you’d struggle to find any single artist to match Dylan’s output from The Freewheelin’ through to Nashville Skyline – hell, the guy is on fire over these eight albums.
Each one is an absolute masterpiece.
Anything released after this, you’d have thought, might struggle to ever recapture this level of quality?
Not so, as we’ve seen over the decades.
The man wouldn’t be human if he hadn’t put out one or two lesser-quality efforts over the years, but he has consistently defied expectations and produced a gem, just when you thought there might be nothing left.
Obviously, Blood On The Tracks is the record everyone points to as Dylan’s 1970s high-water mark and the record that most of his subsequent work is always compared to.
There’s no point in arguing with this either, as albums go, Blood On The Tracks is probably as near-perfect as anyone is likely to get.
It is a storming monster of an LP, one which I play frequently and never tire of.
Each time I listen, I have a new experience, a new feeling.
The words are so powerful, so emotive and the tunes so memorable that this album really deserves its reputation as something special.
Again though, he doesn’t only do this on one album… Infidels, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, all released over following decades, all possess this magic, others besides.
Somehow, Bob Dylan manages to write about every kind of emotion and present it in a distilled, ordered way which strikes an immediate chord in your soul.
It’s a rare gift which others possess too, but Dylan’s done it so many times that it is clear he is the real deal.
Then there’s his live output.
Oh my goodness.
Where to start with this?
I’ve seen Dylan live a number of times and each time it’s a new experience.
To say that he defies expectation would be an understatement.
Most artists would be content to give the audience what they want.
Not this man.
He gives the audience what he wants or, more specifically, whatever he happens to be feeling in that moment.
Carefully crafted, note-perfect renditions are the speciality of other performers.
When you see Dylan live, you have to accept that you’re getting a new presentation of something you know.
Like the man said, “It used to go like that, now it goes like this…”
Once you’ve accepted that Bob is going to do things his way, you can begin to explore the wealth of live material out there.
The concerts he did in the 60s after the shock of “going electric” are the stuff of legend and whenever that “Albert Hall” concert is mentioned, (actually the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but never mind, there is an Albert Hall one too) we are endlessly reminded of the infamous “Judas” shout from the crowd before he and the band blast them and the sound system away with that version of Like A Rolling Stone.
Yes, the electric set is gloriously… electric.
Call it what you like.
I’d call it pure attitude – pure (what is now thought of as) rock and roll.
Weirdly, I’ve always enjoyed the acoustic set even more from this performance.
I think – and I’m really sticking my neck out here – the acoustic performance is probably my favourite ‘live’ turn from anybody, ever.
The tunes may have been tinkered with a bit to make them complete on the official release (Bootleg Series Volume 4, a superb album – get it if you haven’t already), I don’t remember exactly and who cares really?
The drama created by one man with an acoustic guitar, harmonica and hauntingly beautiful vocals on those songs is spine-tingling.
His version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue from this show is astonishingly powerful and better than the original (which is also great).
When I first heard it, it literally occupied my music brain for weeks… the tune endlessly flying around my head, the sheer power of the imagery firing my imagination like nothing had before… or since probably.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there have been stupendously great live performances by other artists – Jimi Hendrix, for example, one could argue the case for convincingly, but there’s something about this era of live Dylan which stands out for me.
It is an entirely subjective matter of course.
And Dylan is not the only artist to have wowed an audience (or upset them).
He has done it so beautifully for all these years though and we are indeed lucky to have him with us as he charts what will undoubtedly be a unique path into his eighties.
So, many happy returns to the greatness that is Bob Dylan, without whom music as we know and love it, would not exist today, whether the man himself believes that or not.
And what does Bob Dylan’s musical output mean to me?
Everything that makes rock and roll.
(There – I said it in six words).