Dylan’s ways, together through life

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Bob and I go back aways. He of course doesn’t know it. It’s strictly a one-way street.

Come to that I’m just one one-way street among millions branching off him. This far-off familiarity still allows me to call him Bob, as it does with most everyone else on a branch line. His name is Bob Dylan. Bob to me, to us. He turned 79 last month.

On Friday, he released his 39th studio album. It’s called Rough and Rowdy Ways. It’s in the old coin, a double album.

The first Bob album I bought was a double: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol II. It was released in 1971, though I can’t remember if I bought it in that year. It’s unlikely, bit too young, probably a couple of years later when the nascent teenage music rebel was emerging. Side three was my favourite: She Belongs to Me, All Along the Watchtower, The Mighty Quinn, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blue and A Hard Rain’s a’Gonna Fall.

I didn’t really know anything about Dylan at the time of purchase, apart from Blowin in the Wind and The Times They Are A-Changing. But in my teenage ears I heard a calling in his words to me. They were like a door opening to another world, a world of possibility. This was poetry to which I could relate, and it was set to a musical rhythm. It reached into the mind and soul and grabbed hold. This was something that just seemed impossible for the dusty incomprehensible words in the school texts to do.

I bought Michael Gray’s study of Dylan’s words: Song and Dance Man, the Art of Bob Dylan. I read it cover to cover and back again. Once for a school English exercise, everyone had to stand in front of your classmates and recite something. I took a breath and began: “Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon” and kept reading until “And if my thought-dreams could be seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only”. The silence was stunning or stunned.

If there is a template to his songs, it is simply the soul of a man.

To this day I can see myself reciting the phrase “watch waterfalls of pity roar”, remember the anxiety and determination to push on to the end. Perhaps the silence was really a waterfall of pity from my classmates to me.

I also found a copy Dylan’s work of fiction Tarantula in of all places a little bookshop next to the butcher in the local shopping centre. I still have it. I still don’t understand it. But then maybe that’s the point.

As Dylan was bringing out classics such as Blood on the Tracks and Desire, I was also mining material from a decade before: The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing it all Bach Home, Highway 61 Revisited and John Wesley Harding.

I also bought the sheet music to Bringing It All Back Home, tried to sing like Dylan in my bedroom (well how hard could it be I though?). “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government . . .” Neighbours loved me. I was as quiet as a mouse. A few years later I went electric . . . And everything changed.

I first saw Dylan in concert at Sydney Showground in 1978. He was wearing a white suit. This splendid sartorial choice must have been of acute disappointment to the many who had worn bandanas in honour of his, up to then, recent clothing accessory.

We were sitting on chairs in the mud, after Sydney had been deluged. Pity the concert wasn’t before the flood. The song that remains with me from the show is Girl from the North Country. If memory serves me well, he sang it without the band.

And then the split occurred. Dylan ‘‘found’’ God and I found I didn’t care for his discovery. From 1979 to 1985, there was darkness. Life didn’t stop of course. I travelled, worked in different parts of the world, and carried with me that bit of Dylan that spoke to me. Did I miss some good music? Undoubtedly. But music if nothing else, and possibly everything else, is the art of the personal going out into the universe and entering into another person, and their life. Multiply that by millions and you have Dylan’s art. And me.

Dylan and I met again with Empire Burlesque, not his greatest album, by pretty much universal critique, but it was the road back on a journey punctuated here and there by me taking the off ramp.

Knocked Out Loaded. Yes. Down in the Groove. No. Oh Mercy. Yes. Under the Red Sky. No. Anyway you get the drift. But then at the end of the ’90s, something happened. A run of albums appeared, and every one a gem: Time out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life. And then Dylan had to spoil it with a Christmas album. A Christmas album, like something Bing Crosby or Andy Williams would do. In 2012, came Tempest, and then beyond there lay nothing original until now.

Rough and Rowdy Ways, which includes the 17-minute Murder Most Foul, has been met with universal acclaim. Some say it’s his best recording for decades. When Murder Most Foul was released a few weeks back, I wrote:

“There’s no exhortation in Dylan’s voice to tell the world of justice gone wrong. Murder Most Foul is meditation and contemplation from a man of 78 years. Soft-spoken, barely sung, sun-gilded whispers of life, mortality and, perhaps, resignation. Dylan drifts from sun to the shadows, from the joys to the lows of being alive, and knowing that being alive leads to one day being dead. If there is a template to his songs, it is simply the soul of a man.

“Interesting? It’s alchemy. For 16 minutes and 54 seconds, Dylan takes the chemistry of words and music into the present day and back. Time is not linear, it is all around us. Murder Most Foul is allegory and Dylan is the master of the moving tableau. He gives you just enough to be compelled to peer deep into its heart, listen to it closely, hold your ear up to Dylan’s breath.”

Rough and Rowdy Ways is a writer at his prime, which is no mean feat when next year you turn 80. His songs are alive because they are dipped in the river of imperfect life. They drip blood and glory, human frailty and redemption. And love, in all its shapes and forms.

And I guess that’s why I’ve stayed with him. When he sings, cracked and tortured though sometimes his voice may be, it is both allusive and real. The poetry is in the painting that is the song. He’s an artist he doesn’t have to look back. I can, and it’s with gratitude.

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