Last week I wrote about one ancient Bob; this week I’ll write about another.
On Monday, I took my usual seat on on my usual cross-legged cushion for my usual Chess Club match-up with my confederate-cum-competitor. There are only three rules of Chess Club. The first rule of Chess Club is snacks, but the second is music.
Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Nick Mulvey. That sort of thing.
I wasn’t expecting Bob Dylan.
Between the years of about 2004 and 2015, I listened to very little other recorded music but Bob Dylan. Then, on his seventy-fifth birthday, I played a couple of his songs live. Overnight, my life changed. And I stopped listening to Bob Dylan.
A fool such as I.
Back in May, Bob Dylan turned eighty and, on Monday, I was turned on again.
His Bobness will always be an important artist for me, not because of what he is—not because he’s the Voice Of A Generation or a Nobel Prize winner (although he is certainly one of those things)—but because of what he is not.
He’s not a great guitarist. He’s not a great singer. He’s not even a great harmonica player. He’s not a great poet. He’s not a great painter. He’s not a great prose writer. He’s not even always a great lyric writer.
And yet his life could be an instruction manual on how to get the most out of what you’ve (not) got.
Work fucking hard!
In 1965, Bob went to Newport Folk Festival and plugged in his electric guitar. He made such a racket that people booed. In fact, his entire electric tour of North America and (most famously) England got booed and heckled.
This all culminated in his performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where, just before playing the last track (Like A Rolling Stone), a man stands up and shouts, ‘Judas!’
Dylan sneers back, ‘I don’t believe you.’ His voice rises in hysteria: ‘You’re a liar!’ Then he turns to his band and screams—‘Play it fucking loud!’
Grammarians: Good spot—I’ve changed tense because you can hear all this for yourself, as if live, on The Bootleg Series 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert Disc 2.
I tell you this little side story because the entirety of Dylan’s artistic method boils down—if I can paraphrase the man himself here—to one maxim: work fucking hard.
How many songs?
When he didn’t include Blind Willie McTell on Infidels, one of the diabolical albums he released in the 1980s, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:
Relax. It’s just an album—I’ve done thirty of them.
Bob’s record record now stands at an impressive thirty-nine—and that’s just the studio albums.
Some are exquisite (Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind); some are execrable (Empire Burlesque, Infidels, Saved, Shot of Love, Knocked Out Loaded); but you can deny the existence of none.
Wikipedia reckons Bob has written or co-written 736 songs, lending credence to his claim to ‘write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away’.
Empire Burlesque seems to exemplify this philosophy—just without the throwing away part.
Nine overproduced synth-laden atrocities are wholly justified by Dark Eyes, a sublime Bob plus guitar plus harmonica love song. Don’t get me wrong: the musicianship on Dark Eyes is Dylan-level incompetent, but the song itself is wonderful.
You could make a superb album from the songs that Dylan actually did throw away. How about this?
- Paths of Victory, hiked from The Times They Are A-Changin’
- Seven Curses, doomed to be unreleased in 1963
- Mama, You Been On My Mind, forgotten in 1964
- Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, ****ed off in 1967
- On A Rainy Afternoon, never properly dried off in 1966
- She’s Your Lover Now, kissed off from Blonde on Blonde
- The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, jilted from Shot of Love
- Abandoned Love, left on the doorstep of Desire
- Foot of Pride, stamped out of Infidels
- Blind Willie McTell, overlooked from Infidels
In fact, since 1991, Colombia Records have been releasing, not one, but a dazzling series of albums from abandoned songs such as these. And, arguably, the so called Bootleg Sessions series, now into Volume 15, are a grander setting for many songs than the albums they might have once adorned.
How many gigs?
On June 7 1988, Bob Dylan went on tour with his band and, basically, never stopped playing shows.
In the three-odd decades since, Dylan has, according to the frighteningly forensic histories of Olof Björner, played no fewer than 3,064 shows. That’s roughly 100 shows a year.
For comparison, between 2014 and 2019, modern chart-toppers Arctic Monkeys played about 50 shows a year. About half the work rate of an eighty-year-old.
Dylan’s hyperactive schedule has been called the Never Ending Tour—a title Dylan himself rejects because it romanticises instead of normalises the hard work that goes into being a touring musician.
Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? … These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.
For some reason, a lot of musicians get to a certain point and stop writing and performing. Maybe life gets in the way. Maybe they run out of money. Maybe they get bored. Maybe the fame that comes with musical success was the end goal. Who knows? It’s none of Bob’s business.
Bob Dylan sees his music as a job. One that he’s lucky to have. So he does nothing more than what a person lucky to have a job does: he shows up for work every day. If he were a carpenter, he’d plane wood and make dovetail joints. Instead, he writes songs and plays them.
How many masks?
Dylan prickly reaction to the Never Ending Tour media moniker hints at something he has fought against from the beginning: the desire of journalists, fans and even fellow musicians to burden him with responsibilities and expectations.
You only have to watch a few of Bob’s interviews to see how doggedly he evades the ribbons and bows that journalists want to pin on him.
MR JONES: What about being a role model for so many of the people who are doing music today?
BOB DYLAN: No, no, no. Not a role model.
MR JONES: What are you, then?
BOB DYLAN: I’m just me.
Creativity isn’t a fixed trait. It’s not something that you are born with. It’s not something that you have or don’t have, like electrical current running through a lightbulb. It’s not that.
It’s something else. Something more ethereal, something that would suffer under the weight of responsibilities and expectations. Dylan seems to know that, if he accepts and believes media titles like ‘Voice of a Generation’, the creativity would vanish.
Instead, throughout his whole career, Dylan has played a succession of roles. Just when an interviewer thinks they’ve pinned him down as a protest singer, he goes electric. When they’ve finally caught up with the rock’n’roller, he’s a Nashville country singer.
And so it goes, through a dizzying repertoire of acts that encompasses carnival ringleader, born again Christian, Delta bluesman, big band crooner and even Christmas entertainer.
Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.
Dylan told us the secret back in 1964. While getting ready to play If You Gotta Go, Go Now at a concert on Halloween at the Philharmonic Hall in New York, he messes up the tuning and hits a bum note:
Don’t let that scare you! It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m mask-erading, ha ha ha!
Dylan defends his creativity against the frozen fixities of responsibility and expectation by masquerading, playing a succession of characters behind the chrysalis of the Bob Dylan mask.
Everything else—the genius, the mystery, the doctrinaire Platonism so beloved of outsiders—he determinedly and consistently downplays, much to the annoyance of the press.
From the same 1986 interview I mentioned earlier, this is how he answers a question about why his work has meant so much to so many people:
I guess it’s been inspiring. I know it’s been inspiring for me to write it. Outside of that, I wouldn’t know.
When the hapless journalist presses Dylan on the matter, the mood turns to frustration for both parties:
I don’t know. I just don’t. I’m still trying to make sense of it to me.
Dylan’s honesty is too simple, too personal, too Stoic.
Back in the sixties, there was a mania to understand Dylan’s ‘message’. In Dont Look Back, a documentary filmed on Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK, one journalist asks him what his ‘real message’ is.
‘My real message?’ Dylan replies. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.’
For me, Dylan’s real message is that there is no such thing as personal creative genius, only persistence and hard work.
And, through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame.
Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.
This piece emerged from something I wrote about a hundred years ago called What Bob Dylan Means to Me in Twenty-Five Words. If you’d like me to rewrite this 10,000 word masterwork, then you’d better become a paying subscriber or email me or something.
Oh, and, no, I’m not telling you what the third rule of Chess Club is.
UPDATE: 16 July 2021
For those of you asking for my all-time favourite Bob Dylan songs, I found two lists that I made during what I’ll call The Rabid Dylan Years. The first, made in 2009, turned Dylan’s songs into a knockout tournament. These songs made up the semi-finals:
- Idiot Wind
- Maggie’s Farm
- Subterranean Homesick Blues
- Tangled Up In Blue
Two songs from Bringing It All Back Home; two from Blood on the Tracks. It was impossible for my 2009 brain to pick a winner.
Then, in 2012, I compiled a list of my most played Dylan songs, going back a year or so. This was the top four:
- Things Have Changed
- Tell Ol’ Bill [Alternate Version]
- Blind Willie McTell
Two things to note. Firstly, only three years later, the list is completely different. Things have changed indeed. In fact, none of the four from 2009 are among the twenty most played songs of 2012. Secondly: both lists would be completely different again in 2021.
As a topper, only three of these eight songs make the top thirty of this 2020 Rolling Stone list and two of them don’t even make the top hundred. The catalogue is fathomless.