It is Bob Dylan’s 73rd birthday on May 24. Robyn Hitchcock reflects.
When Bob Dylan turned 25 in May 1966 he was on tour in England, only a few miles from me, climaxing his most innovative period. I had just become addicted to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ but had no idea he was in the neighborhood. You can see Dylan chugging through our chilly spring landscape on one of our last official steam trains on extracts from Eat The Document on YouTube. Smoking like an engine, burning up the coal in his mind. Soon to be modified, like the British railway system.
On the cover of Scorsese’s No Direction Home, the May 1966 Dylan is snapped standing by his limo awaiting the Aust Ferry, which took cars from Bristol to South Wales across the river Severn.
By the time I watched Queen Elizabeth II open that bridge, Bob Dylan was off the map. He had recently been hurt in a motorcycle accident – nobody seemed to know how badly – and had cancelled all further engagements. Like a child spinning round with his arms out, he had put himself into a spiral of activity that flung him with centrifugal force into silence. I was in the sea when I heard of his accident; two Maltese girls swam up and told me that Dylan had had a car crash and was dying in hospital. I began to light candles in my mind for my new hero, and pray godlessly for his recovery.
News travelled slower before the internet, and Dylan did his best to make sure there wasn’t much. As I turned 14 and gradually learned to tune my first guitar, all that emerged in the music press was that the still-convalescent troubadour had been ‘recording’. There were no cell-phone clips, tweets, or mp3’s to enlighten us further; just CBS records (in the UK) releasing back catalogue to exploit his master’s absence. Devotedly, I scanned the scant music press of the day, for any bubbles about Dylan that might break the surface.
In the autumn of 1967, against a musical landscape that had mushroomed into floral bliss with Sergeant Pepper & his platoon, a few substantial bubbles did appear. ‘Exclusive – Melody Maker listens to seven secret tapes’! OMG – were the tablets finally coming down from the mountain? Again and again my eyes devoured the review of the new material – leaked, apparently, by Dylan’s UK publishers, Whitmark & Sons.
Dylan’s voice was less cruel, less cynical, apparently (note to self – be less cruel, less cynical): one song was ‘ever-so-slightly like ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry’ from Highway 61 Revisited. Another new one, ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, had already been a hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary in the US, apparently – now they told us! This buried treasure was intended for the ears of other recording artists only, it seemed. As I couldn’t hear the songs, all I could do was memorize the article.
At least it proved that Bob Dyan was still alive and creating and, presumably, as profound as ever. His 18-months in limbo had sanctified Dylan as never before. His next record would most likely tell us, definitively, what life was all about. He was forgiven for going electric, forgiven for abandoning ‘protest’, forgiven for growing hair more anarchic than the Beatles: only please, Bob – won’t you just come back to us?
Which he suddenly did, in the bleak January of 1968, with the stark, short-haired John Wesley Harding. There were no bubbles or harbingers or rumours of this record: it just appeared in the shops, and sold out instantly. No tour, no press, no fanfare; it was a Biblical collection of brief, acoustic-driven parables, which seemed to be both a message – grow a beard, raise a family, simplify your goals & live happy ever after – and a wry commentary on people who looked for messages in songs.
But none of the seven secret songs were on this collection. Over the next couple of years, those seven became 14, known as The Basement Tapes, and they drifted into our lives on the first ‘rock’ bootleg album, The Great White Wonder. They were the missing link between the psychotic visionary Bob in flaming hair & sunglasses, and the sober, bearded family man who gave us John Wesley Harding. These Basement songs were short: some of them sad, some of them fun, some of them both. Dylan sang in a serpentine, soulful voice that owed something to Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of his simpatico backing group, The Band.
These songs were riddles rather than answers to the questions of the adolescent world, but they condensed, distilled and refracted Bob Dylan’s accelerated career so far: his momentum years. I could muse on them forever, and have done, since before I heard them; but Greil Marcus, among others, has already done a fine job of this. And although I never got hold of copy in 1967 from Whitmark & Sons I have now learned to play them all, a mere 47 years after I first tuned my first guitar.
By Robyn Hitchcock