The Bob Dylan Mysteries We'll Never Solve

Dylan's life, music and lyrics have always been mysterious. To obsessive Dylanologists the enigma is bitter-sweet . Lifelong fan Liam Blake has stopped analysing and realised it's better not knowing.
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Dylan's life, music and lyrics have always been mysterious. To obsessive Dylanologists the enigma is bitter-sweet . Lifelong fan Liam Blake has stopped analysing and realised it's better not knowing.

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Dylan has always been honest about his vocal talent.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ does just what it says on the tin, though it rolled to a temporary halt in London at the fag end of last year. Not the end of the road, for sure, but like the man says, ‘it’s not dark yet… but it’s getting there.’ And for as long as it lasts we can be sure of one thing – aside from the songs themselves and a courteous introduction on behalf of an impeccably tight band, we won’t be getting a peep out of him. Nada, zilch… diddlysquat.

I know Bob Dylan about as well as Bob Dylan knows me, and that’s the way we both like it. To borrow his words, ‘nobody knows me and I don’t know them.’ It’s not as if there’s a wealth of reliable biographical information to turn to even if I wanted it; and he’s unlikely to break the habit of a lifetime and cut a deal with Hello magazine anytime soon. His own Chronicles will continue – in his own good time, of course, leaving us snatching at shadows; and that’s the closest we’ll be getting.

The music press fawns obligingly, and in the broadsheets and Sunday supplements we’ll be periodically teased by coverage along the lines of ‘in search of…’ You can even read about ‘the day I nearly met Dylan’ - never mind ‘the day I met Dylan’. Presumably few have. He’s had even the most dogged music journalists chasing their tales for five decades now, and the less fortunate find themselves writing about those lucky enough to have found themselves in the presence. I would join in but the closest I can get is ‘the day my mate stood next to Dylan in the urinals when he played Berkeley.’ What would be the point? In the ceaseless tide of coverage, it would be as useful as a woollen boat.

The answer he got probably wasn’t the one he or the tantalised legions of Dylanologists were seeking – ‘Well, I can’t tell you that because I’m not God, you know? I just write them.’

Most interviewers who got anywhere with him did so knowing that his private life was exactly that. Documentary maker Christopher Sykes took on the task of Getting To Dylan for the BBC’s Omnibus in 1986, and received a blunt warning when he eventually made it into his quarry’s trailer – ‘I’m not going to say anything that you’re gonna get any revelations about… not gonna happen.’ Diligently humble and occasionally awed, Sykes remained true to his earnest quest for meaning nonetheless – ‘where do your songs come from?’ The answer he got probably wasn’t the one he or the tantalised legions of Dylanologists were seeking – ‘Well, I can’t tell you that because I’m not God, you know? I just write them.’

Our man from the BBC carries on gamely but Dylan refuses the role of compliant interviewee, sketching his interrogator all the while with pen and paper. After some initial fencing, he becomes more accommodating and Sykes takes the opportunity to turn to the songs – what do they mean? ‘They’re whatever they are to whoever’s listening to them,’ – again, hardly manna from Heaven for the obsessive.

On then to the subject of live performance, and Dylan’s reluctance to utter word one between songs in concert. He eschews to this day the whole ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ shtick – I’ve not had the time of day from him at any of the gigs I’ve been at. But then I’m not showing for the chat and I know he surely isn’t either. For one thing, what is there to say? As perhaps the most exhaustively analysed artist of this century or the last, he knows better than anyone that, ‘no matter what you say, it’s not enough.’ If talk is what you want, there’s always one hundred episodes of his own Theme-Time Radio Hour to turn to - hardly the work of a curmudgeon.

He’s not a needy performer; he doesn’t need the love of the crowd any more than he needs their money – ‘I’ve got enough love around me, you know? So I don’t need no peoples’ love.’ And let’s not mistake the lack of banter for disdain – as he’s said more recently, ‘I don't want to get harsh and say I don't care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn't be there.’

Complaining that the Dylan can’t sing is like suggesting that Picasso can’t paint – it’s simply missing the point.

I don’t watch Dylan to hear him account for himself or pass the time of day; I go for the music that’s spoken for itself throughout my entire adult life. And while his delivery can confound and bemuse you – you’ll see even the most well-versed fans swapping quizzical looks as they take a moment or two to recognise a particular track – there’s always a moment of magic to take with you until the next time he’s in town.

I ‘got’ Dylan second time around. My first encounter came courtesy of a barely playable vinyl copy of Blood On The Tracks inherited from an older sibling, and wasted on nine year-old ears. His raw, untrained voice rasped through cheap speakers, snarling and tearing through the crackle and distortion. It was as unwelcome at that point in my life as an olive or an anchovy is to the palate of the average child. But the taste was acquired a decade later, along with olives and anchovies, and precisely because it did sound raw and untrained. Author Joyce Carol Oates once remarked, a tad harshly perhaps, that it sounded ‘as if sandpaper could sing.’ But as he’s aged so too has the voice – worn down and battered by years of cigarettes and liquor, years of life on the road, years of love and loss. It’s as rich a voice as you could hope to hear – and that’s just when he speaks. Complaining that the Dylan can’t sing is like suggesting that Picasso can’t paint – it’s simply missing the point.

Dylan’s work is labyrinthine, and listening to it throughout the course of a lifetime is like becoming familiar with a city as vast as London – something somewhere is forever waiting to be discovered, or discovered anew. It doesn’t need commentary, just exploring. We’ve been seduced to the point of obsession with the meanings and the why and the wherefore of so much we listen to or otherwise consume, but as he sang himself, there is nothing to be gained by any explanation, ‘there are no words that need to be said.’

On stage at the Hammersmith Apollo he snatches and tears at lyrics revered for decades, his voice lacerating the air; but looking around, it’s clear that no one gives a stuff. At the end of the latest leg of the tour with no end and in the autumn of his years, this is party time for Mr. Dylan. Tottering spritely from KORG to centre stage and back like an impish MC, he looks like a guy who’s learnt a secret. There’s a fifties classic titled Enjoy Yourself, penned by Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson and covered since by Doris Day, The Specials and far too many acts to mention in between. A favourite on Theme Time, it seems the lesson (and the warning) of the song has been heeded and taken to heart by Bob – ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…’ He’s never taken himself remotely as seriously as we’ve taken him down the years, thank God, and this old song and dance man is visibly delighted just to be ‘strumming on my gay guitar, smoking on a cheap cigar.’ Perhaps he has the wisdom to realize that’s the best he can ask for, and maybe it’s the best we can ask for too…

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