I heard a DJ earlier today use the phrase “the ongoing saga of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize”, as if it wasn’t to be expected. The power Donald Trump believes he has looking down cameras and telling the criminals of America to “stop it” is a fraction of the power Dylan really has. If you think this statement may be farfetched, name me any other artist who consistently delivers musically sub-par (and sometimes awful, speaking from experience) performances and yet still is constantly on tour, constantly selling tickets and constantly regarded as one of the greats. Go on, I dare you.
My first memory of being a Dylan fan was when I was four years old. On my way to Tanglewoods, my nursery, Tangled Up in Blue was played on the radio and it became my theme tune (other songs I loved at this age thanks to Terry Wogan’s breakfast show include Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Janis Joplin’s Mercedez Benz. A little while later The Maverick’s Dance the Night Away also became one of my favourites). However, my history with Dylan actually goes back further than this. My full name is ‘Martha Joe’, not because my mum wanted me to aspire to be a country music star, but because really she wanted to call me ‘Joey’ after the Dylan song. Instead, I was born Martha Joe on 24th May – Bob Dylan’s birthday.
Up until my teenage years, Dylan existed mostly in the background (though I was very proud the day I realized Like a Rolling Stone was not about The Rolling Stones). Sometime around the age of fifteen I became obsessed with Dylan, and went through a period where I would carry a Dylan discography around with me. I stole my mum’s vinyl Blood on the Tracks and adopted her spare copy of Nashville Skyline on CD. I read Suze Rotolo’s autobiography, envying her on the front cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and developed a hatred for Joan Baez upon finding out that she was Dylan’s bit on the side when that photo was taken. Actually, my hatred of Joan Baez goes deeper than that but there’s no reason for anyone to have to hear or read about why I despise her warble-y voice…
I saw Dylan twice in 2011 and got to experience the best and worst of his performances in the space of a couple of months. Saying that, even during the better of the two performances it was a guessing game as to what songs he was (aiming to be) playing. Maybe this is half the fun? If you never have your hopes up for a performer, they’re never going to disappoint.
Plus, half the fun with Dylan isn’t in Dylan: the performer, but rather Dylan: the experience*. The first time I saw Dylan, Ronnie Wood was lurking backstage in an all-white suit, giving the crowd an occasional wave. Meanwhile, in the audience families, friends and lone rangers of every age, nationality and race awaited eagerly. Bruce Springsteen, in my experience, also draws a similar crowd. It’s a pilgrimage, something that has to be done just in case something spiritual happens to you. The difference between Springsteen and Dylan, however, is a religious experience at a Springsteen gig is the stuff of musical myths and legends; Paul McCartney joining The Boss on stage just as the Hyde Park curfew kicked in, causing the crowd of thousands to fall silent for long enough to be able to hear the music from the stage across the park.
Saying that, I did have a moment of enlightenment at a Dylan gig. I finally worked out that he was playing Simple Twist of Fate just in time for the song to finish. Doesn’t matter though, moments like that are (probably) worth worshipping and waiting for.