Do you play Bob Dylan?
Well, that’s kind of a question that makes a headbanger lose her rhythm. Unless you are at a wrong kind of place. One of those musically nerdy joints where the precocious and the not-so-young droop and drawl.
Elsewhere, increasingly mostwhere, that request-guised-as-question makes bobbing heads freeze. Few come clean, with a stare: No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you. Others send a word to the DJ and the cross-fader lags in protest: Well, you give me the blues, I guess you’re satisfied.
Most Dylan fans, barring the diehard who would not deign to invoke Bob outside a gathering of the faithful, have had this experience with the rest of the world that knows he is great but not if he is good. In this age of fibreglass I’m searching for a gem. It feels smug. The Nobel though has sprung a new question. A question for Dylan fans to answer.
Do you read Bob Dylan?
Dylan fans, make no mistake, are a curious lot. Some have grown to be loyal to Fallen Angels. But most are in a time warp — once upon a time you sung so fine and you said you’d never compromise — and still swear by Bob the iconoclast. In the five decades that followed, Dylan dished out some spiritual stew — It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you’re gonna have to serve somebody — that made John Lennon go You got to serve yourself, Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you; made an embarrassing attempt at rapping with Kurtis Blow about greed, need and kids starving in Ethiopia; sold The times they are a-changin’ for a bank commercial; promoted Cadillac — Good car to drive after a war (1963) — and Pepsi and Victoria’s Secret – but then “Ladies undergarments” was his reply in 1965 to what might tempt him to sell out; and mutilated his lyrics many a hundred times on stage during the Never Ending Tour.
Phew! Dylan fans, they have endured a lot. Over five decades. For the occasional magic — Blood on the Tracks, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times. And Brownsville Girl?
Album for album, Bob Dylan has sold many a time more than Leonard Cohen. Minute for minute, Blowin’ in the wind has played much longer than Anthem. But there is no serious doubt over who has been a more powerful poet. Dylan’s thought-dreams that risk the guillotine are often captive, if poetic. Poetry comes to Cohen in (almost) every line, but like a refugee.
And yet, the power of Dylan’s words cry like fire — like no child, dreamer or lover ever did. They stand, every time, on the ocean until they start sinking. They walk to the depths of the deepest black forest. And take generations along. Walkin’, walkin’ with you in my head.
They are about passing time and fading love — said IBM and concurred Dylan. They are also, at times, constructed, almost conceited. I’ve been down on the bottom of the world full of lies / I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes. But mostly thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon.
And yet, they become poetry to fall in love with, when Dylan is not looking.
A tear goes down my day is real/ But your drying eye upon the shame/ Each needs a road for me from you/ What paradise? what can I do?/ That die for my and the day is dark
I can’t believe for your touch/ What I could find oh time is right/ If I fell in love to fall in love/ To fall in love with you
The award is declared. The questions are asked. So do you play Bob Dylan?
If you don’t, you may not know that it takes a train to cry. If you do, you are just too many mornings behind. And do you read Bob Dylan?
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’/ I just might tell you the truth. Nah!
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘A pawn in their game’)