An open letter to Bob Dylan from Joseph O’Connor
Joseph O’Connor remembers a wintry walk on Dún Laoghaire pier with his first girlfriend and a presence from a car radio late at night as he drove the streets of London
Shape shifter: Bob Dylan in 1963, before the release of the album Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Photograph: Sony Music
Shape shifter: Bob Dylan as drawn by Milton Glaser for the poster included with the album Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, in 1967. Photograph courtesy of Milton Glaser
Shape shifter: Bob Dylan performs on Late Show with David Letterman in 2015. Photograph: Jeffrey R Staab/CBS
Dear Bob, in July of 1978, when I was 15 years old, I got a summer job on a building site near Killiney, in Dublin, making tea for the construction workers. My pay was 50p an hour and a can of Fanta a day – not a bad remunerative package in 1978, at least not if you happened to be 15.
A hierarchy operated on the site, and the bricklayers were very near the top of it: skilled, experienced craftsmen who could put up a wall in a morning. They were amiable, quiet, possessed of a certain aura, sunburnt and generous with tips. They would send me down to the lovely village of Dalkey, through the winding leafy lanes, for their newspapers or their sandwiches or a particular bar of chocolate, and if you brought back what had been ordered with speed and efficiency your take-home pay could be doubled.
The site was in the grounds of an old hotel on Sorrento Road. A line of apartment blocks stands there now. Every time I pass it I remember one of those men, who was aged about 25 and dressed like a rocker, strong of arm and leather of jacket. His name was Hughie – often abbreviated by the other bricklayers to H, or mock expanded to Hubert – and in my memory he hailed from the nearby neighbourhood of Sallynoggin, although perhaps that wasn’t so.
At the time, like my friends, I had an enthusiasm for punk rock. I loved The Clash, The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, The Stranglers, and I had a particular and abiding devotion to Dún Laoghaire’s own heroes, The Boomtown Rats, who were regarded as dangerous and volatile. Hughie was a great man altogether for the Rats. He had seen them play live, in the basement of Moran’s Hotel in town. (“They don’t even wash themselves,” he would say, smiling contentedly, although how he was in a position to know such a thing was, perhaps mercifully, not revealed.) But one rainy day, as he and I took shelter (yes, from the storm) in the as yet doorless shell of one of those half-finished apartment blocks, Hughie said to me that punk rock was all very well – it was wonderful, in fact – but it wasn’t Dylan.
I had heard of this Dylan character, but I had never heard him sing. Hughie assured me you were “the business”. Hughie said you weren’t just a musician; you were a poet and a storyteller, with a voice once heard, never forgotten. He picked up a piece of old sandpaper one of the painters had been using on a doorframe. “See that?” he said. “Well, Dylan’s voice is like that. Only with the rain on the window, too.”
A few days later I walked into my pal Ciaran Farrell’s house, and his elder brother happened to be playing a cassette. Strangely, I already knew who was singing. You were doing a song I’d later discover was called Isis, a strange story of a marriage, from your album Desire. And the world seemed to unfurl as you sang:
The wind it was howlin’,
The snow was outrageous,
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn.
When he died, I was hopin’
It wasn’t contagious,
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.
The French phrase “coup de foudre” means a bolt of lightning or thunder, and it is also used to mean love at first sight. The first time I heard your voice, Bob, is one of my coup de foudre moments. An era was born: AD.
I don’t know how many times I’ve since listened to Desire, but it must be hundreds. As for Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Saved, the magnificent Street Legal, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Time Out of Mind: they were part of the soundtrack to my life. You’re a wintry walk on Dún Laoghaire pier with my first girlfriend, you’re a voice in a student bedsit at dawn, then a presence from a car radio late at night as I drive the streets of London with my baby son, to help him sleep. (You were right: it’s just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be quiet.) You’re a look, a mop of curls, a pair of shades, a sharp suit, a face painted white, a scowl. No singer, no writer, has ever meant more to me than the man with the rain and sandpaper.
You took the musics of immigrant America, the ballads, the blues, the rambles of Woody Guthrie and The Clancy Brothers and Dominic Behan, the cadences of gospel, the imagery of William Blake and Bessie Smith, the amphetamine-fuelled poetry of bebop Greenwich Village and the windblown mournfulness of the lonesome prairie, and fired them in the kiln of the most extraordinary single imagination ever to work in popular music.
“I do know what my songs are about,” you once remarked. “Some are about four minutes, some are about five minutes and some, believe it or not, are about 11.”
You were hip, square, folkie, protopunk, troubadour, song’n’dance man, high holy roller. Some people drive the train. You, Bob, built the tracks. You saw the song tradition as a pack of tarot cards flung in the air, catching them as they fell, remaking, reshaping. You were capable of conveying in one opening line or couplet an atmosphere, an invitation, a summons. “Darkness at the break of noon.” “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll.” “Pistol shots ring out in the bar-room night.” “Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when / Opened up his eyes, to the sound of an accordion.” “Who killed Davy Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?”
Even the titles of your songs were like nobody else’s. Positively 4th Street. What did it mean? You shunned fashion and fad, did your work, refused to follow, rarely gave interviews or even spoke on stage. Like the central character in Tangled Up in Blue, you were the silent type. With you it was the songs and nothing much more. If we didn’t like them you didn’t try to persuade. You once quipped to a Halloween-night audience in New York that you were “wearing a Bob Dylan mask”, and there’s no doubt you shifted shape a number of times, as all the greats have done, from Yeats to The Beatles. But you were always there, too. Like the narrator in Isis, the first song of yours I ever heard, you decided you had to go on.
You’re 75 on Tuesday. Thankfully, you appear to be growing old disgracefully, your last few records crammed with dreamscapes and love songs and Whitmanesque visions, delivered in the rasp of a battle-scarred old bluesman who refuses to trade on past glories. It delights me that the baby I drove around London while listening to Time Out of Mind is now the 16-year-old who discovered you through Adele’s cover of To Make You Feel My Love. I recently heard him inform a school pal that in Subterranean Homesick Blues you invented rap. “Dad, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” he tells me sometimes. I can’t tell you the fierce joy of that.
Anyhow, Bob, I’d better go. Let us not talk falsely now the hour is getting late. It’s an old song, My Back Pages, that says everything about you at 75, and everything about all of us who have been blessed by the gift of your magnificent work. God bless and keep you always. What a journey. Happy birthday, Mr D.
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect.
Good and bad, I define these terms,
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.
Knockin’ on heaven’s door: 10 great Bob Dylan songs
Brownsville Girl From Knocked Out Loaded (1986) Written with the playwright Sam Shepard, this 11-minute epic is a wistful, shimmering, cinematic piece of extraordinarily vivid storytelling.
Every Grain of Sand From Shot of Love (1981) Reworking lines from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, this is Dylan at his most sublimely joyous, with a gorgeous harmonica solo.
Blind Willie McTell From Dylan (2007) and The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3 (1991) Borrows part of its melody from the old blues standard St James’s Infirmary while leading the listener on a dream voyage through the highways of American history.
Sara From Desire (1976) Perhaps Dylan’s most emotionally naked song, as beautiful an expression of the preciousness and frailty of human love as has ever been put on a record.
It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) From Before the Flood (1974) This live album recorded with The Band captures an explosively powerful onstage Dylan driving the crowd to a frenzy.
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands From Blonde on Blonde (1966) Imagine a novella by Salvador Dalí, Virginia Woolf and Gerard Manley Hopkins and you’d be close to this cavalcade of tumbling images and surreal, kaleidoscopic metaphors, assembled, as Dylan put it, while “stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel”.
Scarlet Town From Tempest (2012) In a voice as elemental as the rocks, Uncle Bob remakes the ballad Barbara Allen, or Sweet William on His Deathbed Lay.
Visions of Johanna From Blonde on Blonde (1966) Contains the lyrics “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” and “Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial”, lines that WH Auden would have been proud to have written.
Girl from the North Country From Nashville Skyline (1969) Recorded with Johnny Cash, this gorgeous duet is dark and regretful as all get-out, yet shot through with redemptive empathy.
Tangled Up in Blue From Blood on the Tracks (1974) Sheer, dizzying, heartbreaking brilliance. Nothing more to be said.
Joseph O’Connor is professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick and will lead the UL/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School in New York in July. Bob Dylan appears as a character in his latest novel, The Thrill of It All (Vintage)