In the first of his new weekly columns,reflects on the genius that is Bob Dylan.
“DID you really see him? Did you really see Dylan, the Nobel Prize-winning genius, in the flesh?” the children on their day trip to my care home will ask.
“Yes,” I will reply, sagely.
“Madison Square Gardens, was it, or somewhere exotic?”
I might hesitate here. “Em, Nowlan Park, actually.”
“An amphitheatre, was it?”
“A hurling stadium.”
I might return to the pleasures of my sucky sweet at that point. No sense in burdening the young folk with tales of the beer queue, the 45 minutes of my life that I will never get back, of people prodding me and saying, “That should be you up there, Tom!” or “Do you not have someone to queue for you?”
I endured that, missing a fair bit of Elvis Costello, but when my chance came, I grabbed it: “Four pints, please,” I demanded, not knowing how I would carry them back.
On my return, my wife had been joined by two friends. “Tom got you a drink!” she declared, breezily. My heart sank. Our friends were delighted, having only just arrived and having no idea at all that there was a queue for drinks. I passed over the containers, knowing I would not see drink again that day.
Dylan was on stage by then, but our guests eyed him warily. “Will he not play something we all know?”
I looked on, aghast. “This actually is one we all know,” I said, quietly. “It’s called ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.”
I made my way to the front. I stood next to a man in a Tipperary GAA jersey. Dylan looked like somebody you would give money to on the street. In fairness, you had to dig deep to recognise the songs you loved. But that was them: Disguised, but still some of the greatest songs that would ever be written, being played live in a hurling stadium in Kilkenny!
It was incongruous to see him here, like seeing Picasso as a guest on RTÉ afternoon TV. Given his genius, given the fact that he was not of this world, but actually a white light from God, you expected more pomp. You didn’t expect to see Smithwick’s on stage.
I looked on and marvelled. The ’60s would still have happened without Dylan, but they would have been so unbelievably different. He brought such edge, such insight, such awareness, such poetry. Without him, would The Beatles have written ‘A Day in the Life’?
But in later years, it seemed like that Dylan was gone. In 2004, in an interview on the CBS show 60 Minutes, they played him a clip of the searing brilliance of ‘It’s alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding)’. It seemed to unsettle him. “I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” he said. “Those early songs were almost magically written.”
When asked could he do it again, he replied that, no, he couldn’t: “I can do other things now, but I can’t do that.” Which made the unexpected release of ‘Murder Most Foul’, his 17-minute rumination on the JFK assassination, and what came next, all the more startling. It and the new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, mark a sudden, unexpected, and wonderful return to form.
Someone once told me that writing a great song is akin to flipping a coin into a glass from across the room. When you do it, it looks easy, but then, suddenly, you can’t do it at all. Dylan’s glass, long silent, is clinking again. Dylan is back in the zone.
I cannot describe how happy this makes me, and particularly how ‘Murder Most Foul’s’ run through the music and cultural touchstones of the 20th century — The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Anne Frank — lifts me.
It somehow reminds me of something my mother once said. Determined that I should grow up a bit faster than I seemed inclined to, she beseeched me to, “Throw out them old records!”
I never did and listening to this latest album, I am so glad I didn’t. ‘It is only music,’ some might say. ‘It won’t actually solve problems, or bring people back.’
But what can I say? In troubled times, it helps enormously. It might not be the solution to the world’s problems, but it will do until one gets here.
Dylan, the Nobel-Prize winning genius, is alive in the world and releasing music. We should not take that for granted. We are blessed to be witnessing this, a master at work. Now, enough: I need vinyl and I need wine.