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Lay down your weary tune

A celebration of Bob Dylan’s brilliance on his 80th birthday

Bob Dylan over the years: as a fresh-faced folk singer in the early-60s; in his electric phase in the mid-1960s; on the Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-70s; and as a legend in the 21st century.

DID William Shakespeare’s contemporaries realise that more than five centuries after his death, his plays would still be performed in dozens of languages every year, constantly reinterpreted and reinvented but never less relevant than when he first wrote them, their words and characters now ingrained into the English language?

Most likely, they did not. But we can safely say that the words and music of Bob Dylan will continue to be in usage long after both he and us are gone. Dylan is the Shakespeare of his time and we are privileged to have been been alive during his lifetime.

Thirty-nine albums, hundreds of songs and thousands performances over a recording career spanning almost 60 years. A man whose legacy of recordings and concerts is almost unequalled on its own; never mind the almost infinite number of reinterpretations of his songs and the immeasurable influence he has had on music and popular culture over that time.

Late last month — May 24 to be exact — he turned 80. He’s an old man, older than many of those who have been claimed by Covid-19 over the past year. His voice is a gravelly rasp and he reputedly is no longer able to play the guitar because of the arthritis in his fingers. But his mind is still sharp, his wit is still strong, with empathy drawn from a lifetime of experience and the approach of mortality. No longer the angry young man moving at the speed of light; now a wise elder.

Last year, out of nowhere he released a single lasting 16 minutes and 56 seconds, ‘Murder Most Foul’, which starts with the assassination of JFK and then weaves its way through a history of popular culture over the next half a century.

Of course, no-one has bestrode popular culture over the last six decades like Dylan himself, the ultimate shapeshifting chameleon. By the time Robert Zimmerman had arrived in New York City from Minnesota, he had already adopted the persona of Bob Dylan and invented his own mythology.

Emerging on the Greenwich Village coffee house scene as a baby faced imitator of Woody Guthrie in the very early-60s, he was at the vanguard of the protest singers who were synonymous with the Civil Rights and peace movements.

But the ever restless Dylan was never comfortable with the burden of being “the voice of his generation”, nor did he want to be pigeonholed as a folk singer. After “going electric” in 1965, his songwriting became more and more experimental, fueled by copious amounts of speed and LSD, infuriating his adoring folkie fans while opening new possibilities for rock music. The inevitable crash came in 1966, both literally and figuratively when a motorcycle accident forced him into seclusion in upstate New York, and again he changed direction, inventing Americana with The Band and absorbing country and bluegrass into the music he put out.

The 1970s and 1980s saw Dylan adopting multiple personas — actor, born again Christian, divorcee, travelling minstrel — and continuing to put out albums, some of them very good, others forgettable. In the 1990s, firmly entrenched in middle age, he released a couple of critically acclaimed records, the output continuing at a slower pace into the new millennium and beyond.

And all the time he was touring and the words have continued to pour out. Like Shakespeare, some of them are now part of our lexicon: “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”; “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”; “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”. Words that when combined with simple melodies acquire a kind of magic that can be reshaped by whoever sings them.

With his nasally whining voice and screeching harmonica, Dylan is not to everyone’s taste. He’s no virtuoso at any instrument, and he never set out to make easy listening or to be a pop star, so it takes persistence to appreciate him. The way he performs his own songs is not immediately catchy, which is why some of the most memorable versions of Dylan songs are by other people.

Sonically, Dylan has always been a traditionalist, drawing on the conventions of country, folk, blues and rock and roll. Unlike his contemporaries The Beatles, he was not interested in pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the recording studio. But that traditionalism is the reason why his songs have a timeless and universal quality, while so much else from his mid-sixties heyday can seem dated and almost anachronistic.

But Dylan’s greatest contribution is to incorporate into his writing the poetic stylings of the French symbolists and the American Beats, showing that rock music could be about adult themes like mortality, betrayal and redemption.

Owning just a dozen or so of his albums myself (most of them from the mid-60s heyday) and having only twice seen him play live, I’m no Dylanologist. Both the concerts I attended were in the company of a couple of true Dylan obsessives, the kind of people who can recall set lists from concerts they saw in the 1970s and have multiple shelves in their homes filled with bootlegs and boxed sets of his recordings. My knowledge can hardly compare with that, but in tribute to the most important and influential musician of the rock era, here are a few of his songs that provide a snapshot of his genius.

Masters of War

(from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy

‘The Times They Are A Changin’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ are the two early songs that established Dylan at the forefront of protest music and earned him the unwanted label of “spokesman of his generation”. It’s incredible to think that in the same period of 1962 and 1963, still aged just 22, he also wrote and recorded classics like ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Masters of War’. The latter is a timeless masterpiece, a seering critique not only of the military industrial complex but of the generation of his parents and their parents. Dylan almost spits out the lyrics over a traditional finger picked English folk melody to produce a political song as powerful as his better known standards.

Mr Tambourine Man

(The Byrds’ version, 1965)

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

This is the song that inspired a million teenagers to pick up a Rickenbacker 12 string and launched a thousand bands from Big Star to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, REM to Teenage Fanclub, along the way influencing The Beatles and convincing Dylan himself to go electric. Although released a month after Dylan’s own acoustic version on his March 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, The Byrds had first developed their own superior take after receiving an early acetate a year before. Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker gave the song its signature jingle-jangle and David Crosby and Jim Clark added the trademark harmonies that further sweetened the edges. Folk rock was born and nothing would ever be the same again.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

(from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

Get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance
Learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift

Imagine it’s the start of 1965, and you’ve bought Bob Dylan’s first four albums, each of them heavily indebted to traditional folk music and featuring little more than his voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica. You buy his new album with feverish anticipation of more of the same. The cover image of Bob cradling a cat with a beautiful dark haired woman in a red dress lounging on a couch in the background is a bit odd, but it is the swinging sixties after all. You let the needle drop into the groove on side one and what you hear is this: three minutes of Bob Dylan speed-rapping paranoid Beat poetry over a driving rock sound, electric guitars, drums, a total cacophony compared to his earlier recordings. With ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan didn’t just open the door to the next stage in his career, he kicked it down. Later that year, Dylan (with Allen Ginsberg in the background) would be filmed in a London alleyway for the opening sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, effectively inventing the concept of the music video.

Like A Rolling Stone

(live version from “The Royal Albert Hall Concert”, 1966)

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

Manchester Free Trade Hall, May 17, 1966, seven days before Bob Dylan’s 25th birthday: For the first half of the concert, Bob Dylan has given his adoring audience everything they could have wished for, delivering exquisite acoustic versions (albeit while heavily stoned) of seven songs, including three from his yet to be released Blonde On Blonde album. At times you could almost hear a pin drop. Once the acoustic set is over, his new band set up and that’s when things turn ugly. They paid their hard earned to hear the old Bob Dylan, the folkie, not this hippie with his Afro haircut and cool shades playing rock and roll music. Slowly the restless audience’s anger grows at this new “electric” Dylan: boos, slow hand claps, jeering. Eventually a heckler yells out “Judas!”, stopping Dylan in his tracks. “I don’t believe you,” he sneers into his microphone while strumming his black and white Telecaster as the band warms up for the next song. “You’re a liar.” He turns his back on the crowd and utters the immortal instructions to his band: “play it fucking loud”. And without a pause, the musicians take their cue and do exactly that.

Desolation Row

(from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Dylan’s sixth album (and second of 1965) begins with his most famous song, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and ends with one of his longest, the mesmerising 11 minute ‘Desolation Row’. In between are a succession of incredible tunes including the haunting ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, the raucous ‘Tombstone Blues’ and the circus-like title track. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, with its cascade of embittered lyrics about a poor little rich girl who has fallen from Grace (is it Joan Baez? Edie Sedgwick? Or was Dylan singing about his fans?) is consistently ranked among the greatest songs of all time more than half a century after it was recorded. And rightly so. But ‘Desolation Row’ is its equal. Just Dylan accompanied by Charlie McCoy’s delicate acoustic guitar trills and a light acoustic bass, it’s lyrics are awash with symbolism and populated by an array of exotic and grotesque characters who all find themselves thrown together in a bizarre urban wasteland. Was it a depiction of a post-nuclear dystopia or something else? Only Dylan knew, and he wasn’t saying.

Visions of Johanna

(from Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Many Dylanologists rank 1966’s Blonde on Blonde as his greatest album. It was recorded during a period when Dylan’s life was spiralling towards an amphetamine and LSD fuelled disaster (later that year he would have his famous motorcycle accident), but you wouldn’t know it from the effortless grace of many of the songs across the four sides of this sprawling double album. The sparse and atmospheric ‘Visions of Johanna’ is the album’s centrepiece, a seven-minute epic in which the author is haunted over a long, sleepless night in a New York loft by memories of a past lover. Dylan first recorded an upbeat version of the song with The Hawks (later to become The Band) in New York City before nailing this more countrified version on the second take of his first night of recording sessions in Nashville with a pick up band of local musicians. A solo recording was later captured on the iconic Royal Albert Hall bootleg.

All Along The Watchtower

(Jimi Hendrix version, 1968)

There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief

By 1968, many of Dylan’s songs had been covered by other artists, but no-one had ever interpreted one of his tunes in the way Jimi Hendrix did on ‘All Along The Watchtower’. In fact, so comprehensively did Hendrix remake the song that most people would not even know it was originally released by Dylan on his John Wesley Harding album six months before the electrifying version that appeared on Electric Ladyland. While Dylan’s version was an upbeat slice of country rock with acoustic guitars and harmonica, Hendrix transformed it into a howling psychedelic tornado, propelled by a driving shuffle beat and featuring three of the greatest guitar solos ever put down on tape. Even today, more than half a century later, the Hendrix version still sounds ahead of its time, something dropped on this planet by an alien visitor from the future.

I Shall Be Released

(The Band’s version, 1968)

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

The Hawks were an obscure Canadian bar band hired by Dylan when he needed backing musicians for his first “electric” tour of the US in 1965. They hit it off and the group — guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm and organist Garth Hudson — were at Dylan’s side sharing the boos and abuse from the audience throughout his tour of the UK in 1966. But apart from some cameos by individual members, they never successfully recorded with Dylan until the legendary basement tapes demo sessions in upstate New York while he was recuperating from his motorcycle accident. Throughout the summer of 1967, the musicians would gather every day in the basement of the big pink house rented by The Band, eventually recording 100 songs, many of them covers of blues, folk, country and rock standards, but half of them Dylan originals. Unwittingly, they were inventing Americana. The Band would go on to record three of the new Dylan songs on their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink: ‘Wheels On Fire’, ‘Tears of Rage’, and the anthemic ‘I Shall Be Released’, which was sung by Manuel to close off the album.

Lay Lady Lay

(from Nashville Skyline, 1969)

Lay, lady, lay
Lay across my big brass bed

In 1969, with America tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, race and civil rights, the ‘voice of a generation’ confounded his audience yet again by recording an album of simple country music in Nashville. Even the cover artwork of a bearded Dylan smiling sweetly into the camera seemed like a snub to those who wanted him to be leading the revolution. There is no mystery to ‘Lay Lady Lay’: just a basic song to a lover distinguished by Dylan’s new Southern croon (which he attributed to having given up smoking) and the pedal steel guitar of Nashville session musician Peter Drake, but perhaps its peaceful tone was just what was needed at the time.

Tangled Up In Blue

(from Blood On The Tracks, 1975)

So now I’m going back again
I got to get her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now

Considered one of his great comeback albums, 1975’s Blood On The Tracks is revered by Dylanologists almost as much as Blonde On Blonde. By the mid-70s — a decade after his creative peak — the songwriter’s star had begun to wane following a succession of middling albums, and his marriage had fallen apart. But Blood On The Tracks was a true return to form with the confessional, seemingly autobiographical opening track ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ — the story of a wandering man’s yearning for a lost love — setting the tone for what was to come.

Murder Most Foul

(from Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)

It’s typical of Dylan to herald the release of his 39th album, and first of original material in eight years, with a 16 minutes, 56 seconds epic, the longest single of his career. In the middle of a pandemic which has halted his never ending tour and is slaying others in his age group left, right and centre. As always, his timing and sense of drama is immaculate. Ostensibly a meditation on the assassination of JFK, it traverses the entire history of the second half of the 20th century, namechecking dozens of cultural icons and songs, including The Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont, ‘Crossroads’, Nightmare on Elm Street, Tommy, Patsy Cline, ‘Wake Up, Little Susie’, John Lee Hooker, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Parker, Shakespeare … the list goes on. By now, at the age of 79, Dylan’s voice is a spoken growl, but it has aged well, especially when accompanied by piano, violin and brushed drums in ‘Murder Most Foul’. A final masterpiece from the master himself.



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