Category Archives: dylan

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

Bob Dylan did not attend the Nobel Banquet where his prize for Literature was celebrated on 10th December 2016 – but he did provide a speech which was read by the US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji:

“I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”

It’s a fine speech. I love the way he celebrates the working artist, the real-world artist who is not concerned only with artistic creation, but also with the practicalities of both life and art.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature

Yesterday, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Sara Danius announces that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

The reason stated was “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Of course I am delighted, as a long-time Dylan fan. I am not quite his generation, I was too young to take in what was happening in the sixties, but I was there for the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1974, among his best releases. In fact not having much money at the time, I won my copy from the local paper in a competition.

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I cannot therefore be objective about this award (and you can debate whether objectivity in literary criticism exists), but I do have some reflections.

First, this feels like some sort of establishment recognition that superlative literature has emerged from the popular music of my generation. In one sense Dylan stands as representative among others who could plausibly have been given this award, most obviously Leonard Cohen – who was a poet before he was a songwriter – but also Joni Mitchell and perhaps others, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Ray Davies, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, and I am sure you can add to this list.

That said, Dylan is both like and unlike others in this kind of list. Again, I cannot be objective, but it has always seems to me that Dylan’s ability to reinvent language, to innovate with words, is something that sets him apart. There are many examples; one that comes to mind is in Jokerman, where Dylan sings of:

False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
only a matter of time ‘til night comes steppin’ in

On a quick read this looks clichéd: judges spinning words, night stepping in. Then you look more closely. The judges are spinning webs, not words, and they are then caught like flies in the webs of their own making. It is a powerful image, and packs two meanings of “spin”, words and webs, into one thought.

And what about night stepping in, what is that about? It sounds like a cliché, but has anyone else used that image? And you can muse about the meaning of “stepping in”; does it mean imposing authority, like a teacher or policeman or God “stepping in”; or is it stepping in like a dancer, a beautiful, natural restoration of order?

There is no answer to these questions, but you can say that Dylan’s work, at its best, rewards study and reflection in a way that few can match.

Christopher Ricks, a Dylan critic with impeccable credentials (Professor of English at Bristol, Cambridge and now Boston University), is happy to make the comparison with Shakespeare:

"I think Shakespeare sought the widest possible constituency. One reason I keep mentioning Shakespeare is not because I think Dylan is a genius, which I do, but because I think that like Shakespeare he sought the widest possible constituency.

I believe the award to be merited then. I also acknowledge though that Dylan does not fit the norms of great writers. He is instinctive; he says he writes quickly, and it seems that he does not curate his own output with the care that characterises most poets.

There is also the awkward question of what the words mean, in many of his songs, and whether that matters. Trying to puzzle out meanings is part of the fun, but also gets you lost in a maze, wondering if Dylan is having some kind of joke at your expense.

In Tangled up in Blue, a woman:

opened up a book of poems and handed it to me
written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century
and every one of those words rang true
and glowed like burnin’ coal
pourin’ off of every page
like it was written in my soul from me to you

Which poet? Dante? Petrach (actually 14th century)? Dylan once told Craig McGregor it was Plutarch perhaps meaning Petrach? Then again he sometimes seems to sing “from the fifteenth century”. And often he changes the words completely, mentioning Charles Baudelaire, or the Bible, with various references from Jeremiah. And in London on 25 Oct 2015 he sang:

she opened up a book of poems and she said them to me slow, you know
memorise these lines and remember these rhymes
when you’re out there walking to and fro
Every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coals
pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you

We can conclude I think that Dylan did not care much about which book it was, or which poet. He cares more about the lines beginning “Every one of those words rang true”, which he uses in most variants, though many performances omit the verse entirely.

I mention this to show that Dylan is a slippery subject, and as a warning to anyone who purchases a book of his lyrics that they are not reading the whole story. In some cases, the printed lyrics are simply wrong, as in these words from Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try “No-Doz”

The lyric is actually “Don’t tie no bows” and we have evidence:

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It is true that one of the cards in the famous video for the song says No Dose:

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but those cards are a humorous counterpoint to the words, not a transcription of the lyrics, and probably written by Allen Ginsberg (the man on the left in the video) rather than Dylan.

Incidentally, the lack of any reference to “don’t tie no bows” is why I cancelled my order for the very expensive edition of the Lyrics since 1962, supposedly giving variations, published in 2014 and edited by Ricks and Lisa Nemrow. Someone needs to do a much better job, encompassing live performances as well as released albums.

You never know then when Dylan is playing with you, or just being careless, and sometimes he just throws words together in evocative ways and the search for explicit meaning is unrewarding.

I encourage anybody who has not done so to explore the work of Bob Dylan, though recognising that it is not for everyone, and some cannot get through the “voice like sand and glue”, as David Bowie put it.

The Nobel prize is deserved, but it is a curious body of work, and it will be a long time before we can get anything like a true perspective on it.

For me that does not matter; I am happy to enjoy it.

Shadows in the night by Bob dylan

shadows in the night

Dylan is a man of many moods. If you are looking for Dylan the folk singer, Dylan the prophet, Dylan the protestor, or the electric Dylan of Highway 61 revisited, you may not find this album to your taste. Instead, we are transported to the fifties, Frank Sinatra and the pensive small hours of the morning. Dylan is soulful and languid, singing standards from another era, songs of autumn, songs of night. The music is melodic, slow and recessed; the mood is reflective, the voice is tour-weary but tuneful (for Dylan) and articulate; Dylan has taken a lot of care with this album, nothing is thrown away, nothing breaks the mood, and the lyrics are full of meaning; even though others wrote them down, he makes them his own.

These are the songs of a man who has been everywhere, done everything, and has nothing left to prove. It feels like he is singing for himself and allowing us the privilege of listening in. Sometimes he is confessional; “I know I have sinned, I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,” he sings in Stay with Me; and “Show me that river, take me across and wash all my troubles away” in a magnificent performance of Lucky old Sun at the close. These are songs of yearning; “if my one wish comes true, my empty arms will be filled with you” he croons in Full Moon and Empty Arms.

As a Dylan fan of many years, and one lucky enough to have seen him perform on many occasions, I love the album. It is different but not different; as ever, he follows his artistic instinct, never mind what others think. “Let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown …. don’t you remember I was always your clown, why try to change me now?” he sings.

Thank you Bob for giving us an enchanted evening.

Mr Tambourine Man

I played this last night; for some reason the words just bowled me over.

The final verse is I think the most extraordinary:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

What is it about? It is about escape I suppose, a dream of freedom from this world of “crazy sorrow”. It is also about music as a gateway to another world. It is a spiritual song; we escape what is frozen and haunted and we arrive on the beach alongside the infinite sea. And then, brilliantly, a reminder that cold reality will return tomorrow.

Dylan’s gift is to come up with phrases that sound both striking and familiar – “the foggy ruins of time” – and yet, did anyone before put those words together in that order? I doubt it. Yet these phrases come tumbling out: “the jingle jangle morning”, “skippin’ reels of rhyme”, “to dance beneath the diamond sky”. You could write an entire song based on just one of these.

When I think of the song, two images come to mind. One is Dylan himself singing it; I was fortunate to hear him perform this at Brixton Academy in 1995. Another is a busker, any busker, sitting in the street strumming and singing this song as a way to transport himself and every passer by to a better place.

Fantastic.

Note: all the words are here.

On Quadrophenia, rock classics, tribute shows, and aging

The Who’s Quadrophenia is currently on tour in the UK – but it is not performed by The Who. No, this is the Quadrophenia Rock Show, Music Lyrics & Concept by Pete Townshed – stage adaption by Jeff Young, John O’Hara and Tom Critchley.

Quadrophenia is among my favourite albums – not for the daft story, but because the music and lyrics speak to me of the frustration and glory of being human, or something. But do I want to see it performed by musicians other than The Who? At one time I’d have said, no way. Why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing?

The trouble is, you can’t any more. Keith Moon died in 1978; John Entwistle in 2002. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend still tour and no doubt put on a good show from time to time – I saw The Who in January 2002, at which time Entwistle was still around, and enjoyed it tremendously. Still, at best with these aging bands there is always an element of “it’s amazing how good they are considering”, and at worst it can be embarrassing. I saw Jethro Tull in Derby in 2007, and while the musicianship was generally impressive, my memory is dominated by the failings of Ian Anderson’s voice, which spoilt most of the songs through no fault of his.

It is also rather strange to see bands whose music is laden with the sexual tension of youth performing the same songs at a later stage of life. What is “Hope I die before I get old” meant to mean, sung by a 65-year old Daltrey?

The bottom line is that I have mixed feelings about seeing performances like these. I still go to see Bob Dylan, who is even older, but that’s partly because I see it as a pilgrimage to see one of the greats, and partly because Dylan is more able to be his age, thanks to the songs he writes and continues to write, and the fact the he’s been fixin’ to die since his very first album in 1962.

So when I saw that the Quadrophenia show is on locally, I thought twice about it. Is it possible that tribute show of younger performers could put more energy into it than the current Who? Well, yes, it is possible. And once old rockers like The Who and The Rolling Stones hang up their touring boots for the last time, it will be this or nothing.

I’m also encouraged by knowing that Pete Townshend is involved to some degree in the show. He talks about it – or actually writes, since it’s an email interview, in an illuminating piece in The Times. He includes a comment pertinent to this post:

Have you ever been to see a rock musical based on a back-catalogue?

I live inside one. Musicals based on back-catalogues are becoming a saturated market. How can rock musicals avoid being watered-down exercises in asset-stripping?

Let me ask another question. When all those nostalgic for the music of their youth have moved on, will today’s revered rock classics ever be performed live? In most cases, I’m guessing the answer is no. In a few cases though, maybe an evening out to hear a performance of Blonde on Blonde or The Dark Side of the Moon or Quadrophenia will be accepted in the same way as we treat other music from composers long gone, who knows?

I’m booking to see Quadrophenia.

the charts they are not a’changing

Dylan is at number one with Together Through Life, reports the BBC, showing his enduring appeal:

Dylan now holds a record, previously held by Tom Jones, for the longest gap between solo number one albums.

No denying Dylan’s long-term appeal (and he deserves it), but I’m guessing it shows something else, too: that the age profile reflected in the charts is older than it has ever been, and album charts are no longer a reliable measure of musical taste.

Dylan’s Drawn Blank exhibition

Yesterday I attended the Bob Dylan – Drawn Blank exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery in London. This is a smart gallery near Bond Street; the exhibition is free but this is also a highly successful commercial enterprise.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and recommend it highly. It is open in London for a few more weeks; following which I gather there will be a world tour.

The origin of the pictures is unusual. Dylan drew some sketches while on tour (then again, he is always on tour) between 1989 and 1992. These were published by Random House under the title Drawn Blank. A museum curator called Ingrid Mössinger picked up on them in 2006 and got Dylan to agree to reworking them for an exhibition and for sale as originals and limited edition prints.

The original drawings were scanned, enlarged, and printed. Dylan then added colour by painting on them, mainly over a period of 8 months in 2007. Some, possibly most, of the drawings were painted several times; Dylan being Dylan, he used different colours each time.

This means that what you can buy is either an unique painted print, for sums of £25,000 and upwards, or a limited edition coloured print, for sums of around £2000 upwards. Note the “upwards”: the prices I saw were several times larger on many of the pictures. I also noticed that most of the paintings were already sold.

The exhibition is on several floors, with the paintings on the lower floors and the prints above. I spent a happy hour or two looking at them. I have no idea how they rate as art; I cannot separate them in my mind from the Bob Dylan I know as a singer and songwriter. The pictures have a certain naivety; but I found them rich in meaning as well.

He gets perspectives slightly wrong at times, but in a charming manner. For example, there is an image showing a timber porch and stairway beyond which you can see cars driving up a hill. They are like toy cars and one is at an especially odd angle, but it is quaint and humorous. Dylan seems interested in angles; he draws a car parallel to the banister of the stairway; we see pillars and telegraph poles leaning this way and that.

There are several images of train tracks which are highly evocative; there is also a rather sensual picture of two sisters which brings to mind Ballad in plain D “Of the two sisters, I loved the young…”

In a memorable quote on one of the walls Dylan recalls visiting an office and seeing a “blazing secretary”; who else would put together those two words? For me it evoked a woman with deep passions who keeps them constrained and hidden during her humdrum working day – though who knows if that was what Dylan meant?

If the prints had been a few hundred rather than a few thousand pounds I might have scraped together the money to buy one or two. As it was, I contented myself with the books. The hardback exhibition book is a well produced collection with nearly 300 pages in large format; at £39.95 it struck me as pretty good value. There is also a cheaper paperback which just has the prints. Being a fan, I bought one of each.

Is the rebel Dylan of the Sixties now totally owned by the establishment? I fear so; but it is a compliment as well.

Bowie on Bowie in the Mail on Sunday

Today’s Mail on Sunday has a giveaway CD with “David Bowie’s own choice of the 12 greatest tracks of his career.”

I couldn’t resist this even though I have pretty much everything already. It turned out to be worth it, if only for the two pages of new notes by the man himself within the paper. Completists will also want the CD for the reworked “Time will crawl”:

I’ve replaced the drum machine with true drums and added some crickety strings and remixed.

Any revelations here? Not really, though there are some touches of detail. Like how Life on Mars came together. He was sitting on the steps of a bandstand in a park in South London when the riff came to him “Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap”, couldn’t get it out of his head and rushed to work it up into a song at Haddon Hall in Southend Road.

Of the song Bewlay Brothers, which sounds autobiographical, Bowie says:

…this wasn’t just a song about brotherhood, so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it.

Bowie says that the aforementioned Time will Crawl was inspired by the Chernobyl, when a nuclear power station exploded:

A complicated crucible of impressions collected in my head, prompted by this insanity, any one of which could have become a song. I stuck them all in Time Will Crawl.

This echoes what Dylan said about his (incomparably greater) song A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall, which is also associated with nuclear threat. In the sleeve notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff recalls Dylan saying that Hard Rain was written during the Cuban missile crisis, and adding:

Every line in it is actually the start of a while song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.

Bowie says he chose “songs that I don’t seem to tire of”. There’s nothing from his iconic album Ziggy Stardust (unless you count the live Hang on to yourself); draw your own conclusions. Here is what he chose:

  1. Life on Mars
  2. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)
  3. The Bewlay Brothers
  4. Lady Grinning Soul
  5. Win
  6. Some Are
  7. Teenage Wildlife
  8. Repetition
  9. Fantastic Voyage
  10. Loving the Alien
  11. Time will crawl (MM Remix)
  12. Hang on to yourself (Live Santa Monica ‘72)

The full article is here.