A couple of months back I went to see Dylan in concert in Melbourne. (Well, I also saw him in Adelaide but I’m not going to admit that I indulged and saw him twice, am I?)
I’ve been a fan since my school days. A friend played me his Budokan album and that year I bought (yes, I’ll admit it) a pirate cassette from Ampang Park or Pertama Complex, I think. I heard songs that got my mind spinning, my head questioning and my heart wondering.
His songs lay phrases we often use. For you know the times are changing, for strange things are blowing in the wind and pretty soon when we’re knockin’ on heaven’s door, our memories will be going, going, gone. I’m a poet I know it, I hope I don’t blow it. Something like that, anyway.
Dylan stands as one of the greatest song writers and literary figures of the 20th century. That’s a big claim. But I’m willing to say it. His songs are poems filled with sarcasm, humour, subversion, love and provide a different, sharper, edgier way of looking at life.
There are ‘stories’ (Spanish Boots, Hurricane, Jack of Hearts). There are tales of places so real we can smell the air (Desolation Row, Empty Mining Towns, Hibbing). He creates characters (Hobo Sailors, Persian drunkards, Mr Jones) we don’t dare meet. He gives us fantastic images like Ezra Pound and T.S.Elliot fighting in the captain’s tower or such memorable phrases like “The ghost of ‘lectricity howl in the bones of her face”.
But it’s his latest trilogy of albums Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times(2006), stands as some of his best works. He’s about 65 now, so I take heart from this. Age should not limit creativity. It’s not too late to start. And those who have begun or established themselves can carry on with hope knowing we ply our trade for many more years.
Sure there will be low periods, like in the 80s for Dylan which he readily discusses in his autobiography Chronicles Volume I (2004). He felt alienated from his earlier work. He couldn’t make them breath.
But he’s back with us, creating stuff that’ll make you want to turn the volume up. For no real reason, his trilogy brings these random quotes to mind:
“Have you ever seen a ghost? No. But you have heard about them.”
“Don’t know how it looked to others, but I never slept with her, not even once.”
“For in a the human heart, an evil spirit dwells.”
“I’ve sucked up milk from a thousand cows.”
“In every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
” ‘You don’t read women authors do you?’ ‘Read Erica Jong’ “
“Everyday your memory goes dimmer. You don’t haunt me like you did before.”
“I’m staying with Aunty Sally. But you know she’s not really my aunt.”
“I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps. Some of these women here they give me the creeps.”
“I’ve been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.”
(I really have to stop myself here!)
Bob Dylan is trouble. He’ll engage your brain, set your mind reeling, your heart aflame. No bad thing for writers.
In Adelaide, his ultimate song was ‘Blowing in the Wind’. It was so deconstructed that I only recognised it half way through! The opening number in Melbourne was that great karaoke song Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35. (I wonder if he’ll be banned in Malaysia?) He hardly repeated any tunes in the 2 concerts. He played some obscure ones that a lot of people, including myself, didn’t know. Or perhaps he had just deconstructed them out of recognition. There was an anti-war flavour too with “Masters of War” and “John Brown”.
But Dylan is Dylan. And he didn’t say “Hello” to the audience either. No, not even once.
Dylan’s not here to be polite. He’s also got “a voice like sand and glue” says a particular rock star in “Song for Bob Dylan”.
I find Dylan’s got a voice full of depth and character. But it’s not to everybody’s taste. Dylan never has been. And never will be.