Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan turned 70 yesterday, if you didn’t know about it then you are likely to be more of a Steps fan than a Bobby D enthusiast. If like me you are a Dylan fan, you will have been waiting for this event for days, months, perhaps even years. In fact, even at work we had an email round of debate for a Bob Dylan week this week, all culminating in a Bobby D quiz on Friday, my face lit up at these round robin emails. However, if you are not a Dylan fan you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

Now there can be no doubt that the Dylan of late, is not the same Dylan that was producing some of music’s finest music in the 60s and 70s. The transition of Bob Dylan’s own mind-set and thought process took its toll on his musicality seeing the 80s religious phase, mid-life crisis, too much touring, personal problems, and who knows what else? His gift was always instinctive rather than entirely controlled. When it was easy for him, it was too easy; when it got hard, maybe he panicked.

As a recent poll of leading musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine suggests, all his signature songs are from the first 15 years of his career. Blood on the Tracks in 1975 marks the end of that period of unquestioned greatness. But Street Legal, released in 1978, shows a marked falling off. Music writer and Dylan specialist Greil Marcus immediately recognised its inauthenticity. The banal, mechanical rhyming underlines the diminishing energy, and not even the brilliant Señor can save it. Dylan’s muddled middle period was beginning.

In his memoir Chronicles, published to great acclaim in 2004, Bob Dylan said:

“I hadn’t actually disappeared from the scene, but the road had narrowed … I was lingering out on the pavement. There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him … I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck. Too much static in my head and I couldn’t dump the stuff. Wherever I am, I’m a 60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.”

There was no doubt that Dylan wouldn’t be confined to small venues for long. The official bootlegs won back the critics, and gave fans like me new cause for fascination. Then came the run of albums, beginning with Time Out of Mind in 1997, which suggested his gifts had returned, albeit in different form. He seemed to have found his voice again as he ruminated on mortality and communed with the ghosts of the great bluesmen.

Late Dylan is fascinating as well as sometimes cringe worthy: the darkness, the obsession with time draining away, the refusal to stop touring even with a voice as rough as sandpaper. It is here where Dylan, like another one of my other loves, Leonard Cohen, show that the joy in producing music and poems, like Dylan, is to get to play them to the world. Dylan is not as bad as a live Ian Brown; there can be very little acts out there in the musical sphere as bad as him live, but the voice is gravely going into the mire, but in the youthful bounding of seeing your favourite Bieber or whoever, Bobby D fans forget all these negatives and just watch and listen in blind admiration.

Dylan has been omnipresent for the past 50 years, yet we know next to nothing about him. Fat books pour forth, especially in this anniversary year, yet he still eludes us, this rolling stone. Todd Haynes’s clever, beautiful, moving film, I’m Not There, is a perfect summation of Dylan’s career, because he truly does not seem to have been there during those 50 years. The six Dylan personas incarnated by six different actors (including a black boy and a white woman) perfectly represent Dylan’s elusiveness, his partly deliberate evasiveness, his stolid evanescence.

I have one thing that I regret from my past relationship with a Russian / Swedish girl, Christina Legkova, that I gave her the Bobby D shrine. A series of limited edition photos in black and white of Dylan that took pride of place in our flat. It shows the madness that sometimes becomes us, like Dylan, I lost myself completely… I ended up with our Blondie image – seriously? Well what to do in times like this, put on “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, well Dylan hasn’t done anything wrong to me…

Bob Dylan at 70 in pictures: