I have been for the best part of two decades something of a follower of the life and music of Bob Dylan. I note this at the outset because I am long past the point at which I could have written about his music with any sense of objectivity. Dylan’s music is too wound up in my life, like an old cassette tape tangled in the wheels and cogs of my brain, so much so that writing about him with any element of detachment is impossible. His music was in my ears as I walked towards first jobs, first dates, found failure and celebrated successes.
Because of this, I don’t tend to write about him. There is nothing worse than a devotee of something endlessly harping on about how wonderful it is and how you should be liking it too. I sometimes think that only the music that you find by yourself, and learn to love by yourself, tends to stick around in your life for keeps. Recommendations from others always amass baggage as the years go by, so I’ve stopped giving them. A beloved band recommended by a former girlfriend will remind you of the break up. A recommendation from a late relative will remind you of their death. You ultimately look at recommended music through the eyes of the giver, whereas the music you find for yourself is truly your own.
So, why am I writing about Bob Dylan now? Well, largely for myself. To get it out of my system. And, to put on the page an experience that I want to remember: going to see Bob Dylan at the London Palladium on October 20th 2022, for what I feel could be the last time.
As I sat in the theatre, waiting for the show to start, phone shorn from my hand and sealed in a magnetically locked pouch to stop people surreptitiously filming the famously truculent Dylan, I gazed up at the dusty gold leafed masonry of the Palladium, the closest thing that British light entertainment has to an Athenian temple. As I waited I wondered at the fact that the very same stones that made up the theatre’s proscenium arch, would have been the very same that my grandparents might have looked at as they sat in their front room in Shaw back in the 1960s and watched Bruce Forsyth perform on the same stage on Tonight at the London Palladium on ITV.
It was on the very same stage that John Lennon, as he performed with the Beatles on the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, asked the largely aristocratic audience to rattle their jewellery. This was perhaps one of the more subtly subversive comments to be made by a culturally prominent British person in the presence of royalty, and Dylan, as he introduced his band on the first night of a four night residency, referenced it by asking the audience if this is the place where you rattle your jewellery? Which is basically the equivalent of me staring up at the theatre’s bricks and wondering about my grandparents.
As you read this, it is about now that you may realise that I have written 600 words and barely any are devoted to Dylan’s music. That’s probably because, like I said, I can’t write about him. I don’t know how to distil what makes him appealing to me. Developing a deep connection with music is a mysterious alchemic reaction that no doubt has something to do with chemicals in the brain or the make-up of the soul. In other words it is not something that lends itself easily to description. It would be like when Victorian Egyptologists would open an old tomb – the dust and the spells quickly scatter when they see the light of day.
I’ve seen Dylan three times in the past. Once in Manchester (home of the Judas shout) once in Liverpool and now twice in London. I didn’t have to see him again. I knew exactly the songs he would perform because he never changes his set list anymore. And yet I had to go. I had to hunt down a ticket for a sold out concert, because I had to see him one last time.
Why? Because despite his new found penchant for predictability vis-à-vis his set list, he still remains extraordinarily unpredictable and at 81, vocally sprightly. In fact during the time I was in his company at the Palladium, I was given perhaps the best example of raging against the dying of the light that I have ever seen in an artistic sense. His voice was often strong and echoed around the theatre, transporting us all back to the days of the Rolling Thunder Revue, when he would spit out the words of Isis like bullets from a gun.
Amazingly, for an artist now in his 82nd year, it was his new songs that I wanted to hear him perform from his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was released during the pandemic and became a rare ray of sunshine during those grim months. The melodies captured on that 2020 disc to songs like Key West ( Philosopher Pirate) and Mother of Muses, have largely been altered by Dylan in the time that has followed, yet they remain sparse and, when performed live, are powered along by his hypnotic whispered phrasing.
Dylan has always employed jerky Chaplinesque movements when walking and performing and this now twinned with the stiffness of old age has lent him a frail and hunched frame, often barely moving from the cover of his piano at which he stands for the most part, while tending to sit down during instrumental breaks. At one point, towards the end of the set, he signaled towards a twitching red backcloth for a cup of liquid, which was swiftly delivered to him by a stagehand.
I came away bewitched by the current paradox of Dylan, the paradox of his current on-stage appearance, that despite appearing older than I’ve ever seen him, his voice seems to have found some kind rejuvenation.
A great singer, as has often been said much more eloquently than I am about to, does not have to sound conventionally good to be a considered great. Instead, a great singer can tell the story of a lifetime within the quality of a single phrase of a song. A great singer can carry you along with every emotion-drenched line, every word marinated in character and infused with the zest of an exciting life and it is these ingredients that have surely led to the latter-day re-birth of Dylan’s voice.
As I made my way to Oxford Street underground station, Dylan, true to form, had fled the theatre quickly and his tour bus roared past me, up Regent Street, as I headed home. If there is a pithy short phrase that describes the Dylan philosophy it has to be ‘don’t look back’ – keep moving forwards. It is a difficult philosophy to follow, especially as one gets older and becomes more susceptible to sentimentality and reminiscing. Despite being a former acolyte of the aforementioned ‘Dylan philosophy’, I must admit, I am finding the task more difficult these days and I felt a wave of emotion wash over me as I watched his bus disappear towards the BBC building, The Langham Hotel and his next date somewhere else across the country.
I doubt our paths will cross again, but it was a joy to see him one last time and pass on my thanks through a round of applause for a life well lived.