Music, News & Commentary

Dylan is still painting his masterpiece

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It takes quite a feat of longevity, quite probably unmatched in the music industry, to celebrate your first No.1 single on the Billboard charts at the ripe old age of 78. 

Step onto the stage Bob Dylan.

Except by nearly all measures, except those of Dylan’s, the songwriter’s Murder Most Foul does not fit the bill as a single. First, it is a few seconds off 17 minutes.  Second, it does not have the killer hook or even verse, verse, chorus, verse framework of a chart single. It heads on down the highway throwing up signposts of the cultural and musical history of his country within the context of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and it doesn’t stop travelling until it reaches its destination.

Which is where?  Everywhere you look. The present is just the past moving through to the future.

At the time of writing, Murder Most Foul as a digital release has had three million views and received more than 15,000 comments.

It’s a far cry, and a million miles from his first single, Mixed-Up Confusion, which was released in 1962, almost 60 years ago, and failed to chart.

Of course, the level of chart success in an artist’s career and the output and quality of an artist’s work are not the same thing. There are different scales at work. You cannot weigh one against the other. And you cannot weigh song against song. Tutti-Frutti against Chimes of Freedom? It’s not a boxing match. Whatever the creator intended is the rule to run over it. And given it’s almost impossible to know that, unless it is explicitly stated, everything is hostage to subjectivity.

That being so, purely subjectively, what other Dylan songs should have done better in the charts? Everyone will have a different opinion. Dylan did have early success through others covering his songs, notably Peter, Paul and Mary with Blowin’ in the Wind,  The Byrds with Mr Tambourine Man, even Olivia Newton-John with If Not For You, and of course Jimi Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower. The list of those who have covered Dylan rises to the moon. Dylan’s strike rate is much better with albums, which you would expect, and anyway how much would it matter to him, the Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature? 

Perhaps a better way to approach the task is to ask, well what would you like, just on a purely personal note, to have been more popular than say ABBA’s Waterloo or Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion

There is something of a Dylanesque zealotry in the exercise. As if one is looking into the barbarian hordes and beseeching, Look world, all you non-believers, you are missing something important, something magical, something beyond entertainment, in your lives. How can you live without this? It’s important, man. It’s Bob Dylan.

People wanted him to be the messiah in the sixties, they wanted answers, but he said he was just a song and dance man. What were his songs about, he was asked. ‘‘Some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12,’’ he replied.

Basically, he’s not the universal dictionary for people to find meaning in their lives. The songs with the greatest meaning are those that resonate in some part of a person, the heart, the head, the memory, the hope. They’re a tuning fork, the call and response of a word, a melody, a chord, a grace note. It’s not a definition of a life. 

Dylan’s a songwriter. It’s just that he’s a songwriter without peer. Everyone who calls themselves such writes in his shadow, owes him a debt.

For mine, the world would be a better place if more knew of these songs, in no particular order:

All Along the Watchtower (either version, Hendrix’s spark and fire, or the original on John Wesley Harding, low key and ominous), Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, A Hard Rain’s a’Gonna Fall, Things Have Changed, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, Mississippi, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Blind Willie McTell, Masters of War, Girl From the North Country, With God on our Side, Highlands, Gotta Serve Somebody and Licence to Kill.

And that’s the shortlist.

Dylan turns 79 on May 24. Who knows, perhaps there’ll be another 17-minute onslaught on the charts. After all, He not busy being born is busy dying.

CODA: Dylan has just released another new song, I Contain Multitudes. It’s only four minutes long.

2 responses to “Dylan is still painting his masterpiece

  1. What a great article. Thanks Warwick. For anyone who’s interested, as a bit of isolation fun, I’m listening to Bob’s albums in chronological order and posting something about each one on my Facebook account. It sure beats remote teaching. I’m up to ‘Blood on The Tracks’.

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