[This post was originally written for the Spectator Arts Blog, on the occasion of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. It has disappeared from the Spectator website, however, and so I'm re-posting it here on normblog.]
As he turns 70 today, those of us who have been following Bob Dylan's music from the off are reminded of how old we are. In my 21st year I went home to Bulawayo for the Oxford summer vacation and in my suitcase, along with a bunch of philosophy books and some texts of classical Marxism, I carried a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I wanted to introduce him to my family. One of my more vivid early Dylan memories is of sitting around one evening in the house at 6 Birchenough Road, playing 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right', 'Talkin' World War III Blues' and the rest of those wonderful songs to a company that included one or two first-time-up sceptics. Never mind the songs, was the gist of their scepticism, but could the guy even sing, with that thin, not-quite-tuneful voice of his?
My, but could he sing. And could he write songs. For what this anniversary also brings home is how Dylan's albums and his lyrics have punctuated the lives of all those of us who have never stopped listening. Two years and a few months younger than he is, I can trace a line through times and events - from Oxford and Bulawayo to Manchester and, now, Cambridge - and associate them with the songs of Bob Dylan. Just over a year on from that Bulawayo gathering, in late 1965 I'm back in Oxford, in my first postgraduate year, Adèle and I have just started going out together, and the Dylan songs of that period are from Bringing It All Back Home. To this day it remains a usage of ours in appropriate circumstances - when one of us is on the point of leaving the house, for example - to ask, 'Do I have everything I need, am I an artist, do I not look back?' Those words of his, on each succeeding album. Those lines that would stick and never leave you. From the greatest song on Bringing It All Back Home, not only (most famously) 'But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked', but also 'he not busy being born is busy dying'. And also 'You discover that you'd just be one more / Person crying'.
How, before he's passed his first quarter century, can he know what some people need a lifetime to learn and others never learn at all? There's a song on Freewheelin' that I wouldn't till now have picked out as being among the best on that album; it's 'Bob Dylan's Dream'. Listening to it again a few days ago, I was taken aback to see that it makes more sense to a person who's passed 50 than it would to most people in their early 20s.
And so it has continued. Married, and living in a flat on Barlow Moor Road after we'd moved to Manchester, in 1967 we listened a lot, me and Adèle, to John Wesley Harding. That big fat moon sure was gonna shine like a spoon. Then, in the 1970s, a succession of further albums grabbed somewhere at one's imagination, each of them imprinting itself with a song or three - with a melody, a line, a way of phrasing: Planet Waves and Blood On The Tracks and Desire. Like all genius, it leaves you in a state of semi-shock. To do all this in so short a time. In our first house, in Mayville Drive, I listened to the two unforgettable love songs that close off Planet Waves. From 'Never Say Goodbye':
My dreams are made of iron and steel
With a big bouquet
Of roses hanging down
From the heavens to the ground.
A gem in its own right, this track serves merely as a prelude to the one that follows - 'Wedding Song' - which is a magnificent testimony to the infinity of love, whatever the future should hold. With Blood On The Tracks I was riveted by 'Idiot Wind', blowing 'like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol'; and after Desire how could you not want that 'one more cup of coffee before I go'? In the 1980s, in our second house, although by now I thought the best of Bob was behind him, I could still be bowled over by a track here or there. On Infidels 'Man Of Peace' was Dylan at the top of his game again: 'You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace' – and that remains a fact. 'I And I', likewise, I could listen to without ever exhausting it. I have listened and listened to it, more times than I know the number of. On each occasion I have a different thought about possible meanings.
In that second house, in Danesmoor Road where we lived for 27 years, both our daughters grew into adults. In due course they too started listening to the man and they drew my attention to things in his songs which I hadn't noticed. So much is there in them that each listener will tell you something new. That Dylan's music wasn't just of its time but would continue to captivate new generations my children soon made clear to me.
Can he do any wrong musically? Yes, he can, of course. Just over five years ago, I saw him live in Manchester and it wasn't the best musical experience I've had, not by far. It wasn't even the best Bob Dylan experience. The original songs are better than he sometimes sings them live. But relative to what he has done over the last five decades, this is a quibble. Shortly after I started blogging, I ran a poll on Dylan's best-loved songs. You only have to look through the titles listed in the results to get a measure of his achievement.
Out walking the other day in Cambridge, I listened again to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Those songs aren't merely wonderful; as a set of songs they are breathtaking.