Why I Listen To Bob

At school, we lived in ‘Chambers’ during the day, around a dozen boys to a room, each with a wooden cubicle around a communal kitchen and fire. This sounds Medieval because it was Medieval. The College buildings of Winchester College, where scholarship boys like me lived, date from the 14th century. The interiors have been torn up, torn out and modernised many times since then, but the exterior and floor plan were given listed status long ago, so the privacies and comforts won by fee-paying pupils – your own bedsitter in a modern building with a garden view – were unavailable. The Churchmen and tutors who laid out the individual Chambers had certain things in mind – private study mixed with group interaction, conversation sacred and secular.

They didn’t plan for soundclashes. Music was communal, and the boy with the biggest stereo called the tunes. The economics of growing up meant this was usually an older, senior boy. We looked and lived like toy dons, walking on six-centuries old stones in long black gowns, eatings off wooden slabs, hierarchies set from the moment we arrived at College by our entrance examination placings. If you wanted to shut out the rest of the world – and at sixteen the idea was tempting – Winchester College was a fantastic place to do it. That went for music as much as anything else. If I seem particularly sensitive to the shifts and nuances in the tastes of some tiny critical grouplet or other, blame my schooldays. Outside movements and scenes came and went: inside the prevailing orthodoxy changed every September, with no points of reference, as a new top year of boys ran the Chambers, installed their stereo systems, and prepared to blast any opposition away.

I arrived at Winchester in September 1986. It took me two-and-a-half years to hear a house, or even disco, record played there, and two-and-a-half weeks to hear Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends…Emerson, Lake And Palmer. For my first two years, classic and prog rock ruled – by the time I took over the music picks in 1990 I was playing indie, pop and the more predictable end of hip-hop. I wouldn’t claim it was an improvement: the prog rockers were surely reacting themselves, against some lost generation of 1983 boys who’d been into rare groove or post punk or for all I knew klezmer. Anyway, once or twice one of the prog fans would play Bob Dylan.

The Dylan song of choice was “Everybody Must Get Stoned” (It has a proper title. I didn’t know that and didn’t care.). I hated it: under the influences of Morrissey, acne and shyness I realised that my chances of getting to a joint, or even a pint, were forever nil and I nursed a stunted, bottled-up puritanism. I viewed my pub-sneaking peers with horror, I sneered at errant friends, I gave up listening entirely to one singer who boasted in The Face of having taken coke. And Dylan was this bristle-voiced stoner who sang about dope!

I had an Uncle, who died. I didn’t know him. He died in a car crash, after my parents married but before I was born. He’d driven all the way from Rome to the Lake District, no stopping, to be at my parents’ wedding, and later in 1972 he died, aged 22. All I really know about him is that he was handsome and he loved rock music. There are photos of him, a beautiful English longhair boy with a beautiful English longhair girl, in an English garden. He used to listen to music a lot, I think, and long after he died my Gran gave my Dad of a box of tapes he’d made, copies of favourite albums for the car maybe.

In 1991, the Summer I left school, Dad gave me the tapes – Hendrix, Astral Weeks, Beefheart, The Who, and Dylan. And I listened to the old tape with the scrawled tracklisting and the spools that squeaked when you turned them, and became a fan forever. Or that would be the romantic version, except it wasn’t true. What happened is that I left my twelve-man fiefdom and went into the wide sticky world, and one of the first things I did was buy a Bob Dylan LP. By the time I heard my Uncle’s tapes I loved Bob already.

Why did I do a thing like that, though? I don’t know, honestly. It was Summer, I was on my own, I knew nobody in my hometown, my friends from Winchester were away, I wanted to talk to people, I wanted to talk to girls, I wanted to get laid. I felt like a jigsaw puzzle and the music I’d played and loved all the time back there was a piece which wouldn’t fit. I couldn’t talk about the newest Pixies album, or what the Stone Roses might do next, because who else would possibly care? I stopped buying the NME for the first time, and I bought Highway 61 Revisited, and the only reason I can think of now is that I wanted the sort of vast imagined public context that a classic rock record might give. I wouldn’t ever talk to the stranger on the street, the girl opposite me in the library, but at least they might know who Dylan was and I could walk by with him in my earphones and feel some kind of imaginary but comforting kinship. And if I couldn’t, I could feel the kinship with black-hearted Bob instead.

I listened to Highway 61 Revisited when I was picking raspberries for my Mum that Summer and feeling lonely. I listened to Blood On The Tracks every day that Autumn while I did sit-ups and press-ups and waited to go to my job in a supermarket. I listened to Blonde On Blonde on Winter mornings as I cycled round delivering papers, four years older than anyone else who did. So of course “Desolation Row” was dusty and hazy and long; “Tangled Up In Blue” was sad and stoical; “Absolutely Sweet Marie” was bright and cold. My dead Uncle’s tape turned out to be a compilation of favourites – it ended with “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” and when I made my first tape for my first girlfriend that did too, something which seems embarrassing, audacious, stupid now.

I sat down to write about Bob Dylan and I’ve ended up writing about me. Like everything else I like, I have proper, critical reasons for loving Bob Dylan records – the way his best bands sting, the way his voice and harmonica sound like a great tearing hole in his own music, often his atmosphere, often his hooks, sometimes even his lyrics. I could trot through those and end up saying nothing. I have personal reasons for loving the records too, reasons stuck in a time and place – those are the reasons I’ve put down here. In between is what Bob Dylan did for and to me.

The tape my Uncle made was heavy on the electric Dylan, with some folk stuff. There was nothing from New Morning, the last Dylan album he’d have had the chance to buy. Perhaps he’d lost interest by then. (The sudden thought that my never-known Uncle never heard Blood On The Tracks makes me sadder than anything else I’ve ever thought about him.). New Morning isn’t my favourite Dylan album – though it’s very good – but it is my favourite Dylan. On the cover he’s in a rustic white top and he has a silly, tangly black beard: he looks relaxed, and on the disc he sounds it, doodling his way though a dozen songs in a dozen styles, starting with the corny, homely, lovely title track – “Can’t you hear that / rooster crowin’?”. It’s the domestic Dylan, settled down and messing around, rolling on home to his wife and bed, politely refusing any efforts the recording men might make to re-fit any crown to his head. There’s no sense that this is the ‘real’ Bob Dylan any more than anything else he’s shown us is – and there’s nothing more wearying than speculation on those lines anyway. But this is the only Dylan I can look up to, the only one I might want to be.

Or is it? I didn’t hear New Morning until 1997, and by then Dylan had been part of my life for six years. I was getting something out of him before that, clearly. I like New Morning because it feels so un-Dylan-ish, too – everything else I’ve heard, for all its lyrical variety, seems recognisably the product of a single sensibility. The clue came when I started listening to indie music again and I suddenly saw in Dylan the birth – well, a birth – of the ‘alternative’. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is as frontal a hipster-to-square assault as rock had thrown up, lyricwise, but nowhere in the song is any sense that you, the listener, have any more concept than Mr.Jones of what’s “happening here”. This isn’t a song of complicity, it’s not us-against-them, it’s me-against-you. Everything you hear and know about the electric Dylan myth – the put-downs, the knock-off surrealist writing, the piss-take press conferences, the barrier-shades, the white-hot unpop noise – howls contempt at you, total misanthropic unstructured contempt for everything.

Which was and is incredibly attractive, when it’s executed as well as Dylan executes it. Like I said, at 16 in my 14th century cloisters I was a cynic and a puritan, convinced in some inarticulate depth that the world had gone wrong, in ways more fundamental than I could even name. And at the same time I wanted more than anything to be part of that world, which I had no experience of. I still feel both these things. It’s not surprising I found something to respond to in Dylan, who seemed to be wrestling with this kind of conflict even when the albums he made were rubbish. The compassion that wells up in New Morning, the willingness to settle for and in a fallen world, invigorated him, I like to think, and you hear it in the exhausted equivocations of Blood On The Tracks and in the comic apocalypse of Love And Theft too. (And when I say you hear it, I do not mean ‘you read it’ – Dylan is not his lyrics.) But the misanthropy, the contempt, never goes away – the Christian records are screaming the same thing as the sixties ones, just with a shot-to-hell voice and gospel backing. That’s why finding beauty in Dylan can be difficult – final track aside, I still have no time for the ugliness of Time Out Of Mind, a mean, worn-out trudge through a world of defeated blues.

I listen to Dylan because he is bad for me. I listen to him because – a record or two aside – the itch in his voice makes restlessness seem like an option, like the only option. I listen to his electric sixties records for weeks at a time, when I want to push against the world or when it’s not making any sense. He doesn’t help the world make sense of course, but at least he fits the mood. Then I stop listening to them for months, or longer. But other records – Blood On The Tracks, New Morning, quite possibly the new one – I listen to more often: something about them, about the sound and voice, brings me back. That something, I think, is compromise. Compromise between the flare of individuality and the slow, funny, huge, disappointing stuff that goes on outside your own skull; compromise between two people in love, or trying to be; compromise between being shut off from the world and letting it all crash in; compromise between being 16 or 22 and not being; compromise between hating everything and loving everything; compromise and how to manage it. Lots of music, and more art, does this: I just got to Bob Dylan first. I listen to Dylan because he is good for me.