B is for Bob Dylan
“What music do you like?”
“Bob Dylan,” I said.
“That’s not a type of music,” she said gently. “That’s a musician.”
I first encountered Dylan in the early winter of 1997. I had just gone to England to study. It was half-term and I was staying with my mother’s cousin and his family in Luton. One afternoon, while he and his wife were out at work, I wandered into their bedroom where the music system was. My father doesn’t like music - mental, I know, but true, that’s literally what he says: I don’t like music - so it wasn’t a huge part of my life growing up. But I had nothing to do, so I chose a CD (kids, ask your parents) at random and stuck it into the player and sat down on the carpet in front of it.
A gravelly, nasal voice came not floating but spitting out the speakers.
Come gather round, people, whereever you roam
What was this strange magic?
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone …
I sat there and listened and as soon as the song was finished I pressed back and listened to it again. And then again. Over and over and over again. Finally, I made myself move on to the next song.
How may roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
And then more. I listened to the entire album - I realised later that it was a compilation rather than an actual album - and then I listened to it again. As soon as the adults were gone, I would go up to the bedroom and put Dylan on and listen.
Dylan led to more Dylan, to the endless back catalogue, to the music that in the days before mp3’s and the internet was difficult to discover and therefore valued more. Dylan also led away from Dylan, first to other musicians and then to completely different styles of music. But Bob Dylan was always something apart.
To see him play live was a long-held dream of mine. I use dream advisedly. It was not the sort of thing that seemed real or realistically achievable. It was a kind of fantasy.
It turned out - and hey, who knows, maybe this is a moral about dreams in general - that the dream was surprisingly easy to realise. Dylan toured the world extensively. All I had to do was buy tickets when he was near me and go.
When I got my first job, I bought my parents dinner. And then I bought tickets to go see Bob Dylan at Wembley. I bought the tickets in August and he was playing in December. It was a long wait and as the days passed my excitement built. Finally! I was finally going to see Dylan play live!
He was shit.
Like, really shit.
Reader, I cannot over-emphasise how shit he was. I have a son, 18 months old, and Dylan’s performance was like if Rahi stood at a mic and half-mumbled half-screamed into it.
God it was bad. It was so bad that people got genuinely angry. Some started booing. People near me were swearing. And through it all, that fucker continued mumbling and screaming.
For about 2 hours, Dylan resolutely refused to play any of the songs I loved. He played none of his back catalogue, i.e., none of the songs that people had come to see him play. He played some dogshit new music of his, songs no one knew or liked.
Finally, at the first end of the performance, after the crowd had given him some sullen applause, and as people shouted out names of his classic songs, almost begging him to play them, he shuffled back on stage and played Mr. Tambourine Man.
Except, it wasn’t Mr. Tambourine Man. It had the same words, as far as I could tell, but it wasn’t the song I knew. He jerked out the words, half a line in one rhythm, the next half in a completely different rhythm. Then he did Like A Rolling Stone and it was even worse. The crowd booed and he walked off and didn’t come back. The concert was finished.
What to make of this?
That night, and in the days that followed, I was very angry with Dylan. I felt he had a responsibility to his audience, to the fans who had spent time and money to come see him, a responsibility to me, goddamnit. We had a legitimate expectation that he would play at least some of the songs for which he was famous; i.e., some of the songs that had made us fans in the first place. Dylan had not only disappointed this expectation, he had been extremely rude while doing so. It was unprofessional and impolite.
All of that is true. But there’s also another way of looking at it, and as my anger dissipated and as I myself began trying to find my voice and express it, I began to appreciate that other perspective.
Briefly, it’s this. For most of the audience at Wembley, and certainly for me, Dylan was in a sense dead. He had been preserved in balm in 1963 or 1967 or whenever it was he wrote the songs that we loved. And what we wanted from him was that he came and gave us the dead, embalmed Dylan. We didn't want Dylan. We wanted our memories of Dylan.
But Dylan was neither a museum piece nor a mummy. He was a living being, a real human, and real humans change. To the extent that his art came from something real inside him, this meant his art had to change too. And to the extent that he was an honest artist, he had to play the art that was real. What we thought of it was not ultimately his business.
The easy road, artistically and performatively, would have been to simply satisfy the expectations of his audience. Everyone would have cheered and gone home happy. He would have received their adulation and their love instead of this sullen disapproval.
But he took the much harder road. He valued his integrity and his growth as an artist more than he valued the cheers of the crowd. There’s honour in that.
The memory continues to inspire me today. In many things I do, small and big (well, they’re all small, really, just some of them seem big from close-up), I face the equivalent of Dylan’s choice. Am I going to satisfy expectations or am I going to stay true to whatever that thing is inside me that’s real? Am I willing to risk disapproval?
In fact, when you get right down to it, the choice facing Dylan that night was a choice between life and death. He could play what was alive or he could play what was dead.
There’s something that’s both liberating and daunting about seeing the choice in those terms. The daunting thing is that you have to keep making the choice. You can’t just make it once and then fix it forever. Each time, you have to choose: am I going to live or am I going to die? And this is also the thing that’s liberating. Each time, you get to choose. You may have chosen death last time, but you can choose to live now.
That night in Wembley, Dylan chose to remain alive. Instead of allowing the crowd to freeze him in their nostalgia, he insisted that he would live.
It’s hard to condemn him for that.*
*Still wish he’d sung the fucking songs properly, though.