Dylan & Me
Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Is he a true genius who changed music forever or an unloveable musician whose songs sounds better when sung by someone else? Alex Turner, Emmylou Harris and others tell TONY CLAYTON-LEA what Dylan means to them
I came to him late – the 1960s bypassed me, totally. I just wasn’t interested, and in the 1970s, glam and punk dominated. I was very aware of reluctantly liking Dylan through the likes of Desire, but it wasn’t until you’d be travelling around in vans, getting from one gig to the next, where you really listened to music.
The calibre of his writing alone is unquestionable, though. What used to mystify me more was not his political stuff, but how such a young man knew so much about relationships, women, love, life, death. It was just so profound.
He’s seen as a lyricist primarily, but the melodies to the songs are superb. There have been a few odd little albums he’s released where you go, what’s going on here? But I think he has stood the test of time. This is a man whose songs you have heard loads of times, but he’s pushing and pushing different tempos and recordings all the time. I remember talking to record producer Daniel Lanois about this, and he told me that Dylan would do loads of different versions – jazz, blues, swing, rock’n’roll – of the same song. He’d constantly hone in on the lyric, first and foremost. Also, that small ballad from Time Out Of Mind – Make You Feel My Love–was covered by Adele, and it’s now an X Factoranthem, yet that was just a little love song tucked away on an album.
The voice? Well, he’s got limitations as a classic folk/country/pop vocalist, but that doesn’t matter to me. The fact that he’s 70 and his voice appears broken gives it more poignancy. To me, it’s like an old whiskey; besides, there’s something incredibly strong about being true to oneself.
Dylan was a huge influence on me. When I started really seeing the seriousness of music, it was probably Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, during the folk explosion in the 1960s. I was in high school at that time, and I got my first guitar and I just couldn’t get enough of the music. It was a very inspiring time for me.
I think he will always come up with good material; it’s wonderful to see that, and so we feed off of him, and want to hear those words. I also think he’s a brilliant singer – his phrasing is great, the way he rolls over those lyrics, and that’s what makes a great singer. He owns those songs, not just because he wrote them, but also because of the way he uses language. He was the blueprint, really, wasn’t he? He changed the way we think about the English language. He changed the possibilities of songwriting in that we now know it doesn’t have to be a verse, chorus, bridge, and so on. In his hands it works; I still believe in structure, which is, I think, your friend in the context of songwriting, but there are times when you have to break those rules in order to tell the story you want to tell. Dylan did and does that. The fearlessness of his writing!
I first heard him on the radio, a college radio station that played folk music from 7pm to midnight, and that’s where my church was. I listened to that every night. I remember the first time hearing him – it changed me forever.
I met someone recently to whom I admitted I wasn’t a Bob Dylan fan. This person smiled instantly and it was clear that we should immediately exchange a bonding “high-five” hand gesture. There was no need for words. It was a beautiful moment – like meeting fellow prisoners of war at a POW reunion after not having seen them for 50 years.
I appreciate Dylan – “The Icon” – and I avidly watched all of Martin Scorsese’s definitive documentary, No Direction Home. The Zimmer Frame was obviously an important figure in the 1960s – and also, it must be said, looked dead cool. But his music has never meant anything to me. I have always suspected that when he first arrived on the scene, he appealed mostly to the more serious-minded, duffel coat-wearing music lover who may have thought Elvis and the Beatles were, well, a little bit silly.
The iconic early Dylan sound – acoustic guitar and mouth organ – repels me. That said, Like A Rolling Stone is undeniably brilliant, and I like Subterranean Homesick Blues, although it owes so much to Chuck Berry. But Dylan – “the great songwriter”?
I listened to Positively 4th Streetrecently (actually 10 minutes ago). Surely a “great songwriter” should at least attempt to write a song that contains more than a verse repeating itself over and over. It seems to be lacking in both chorus and middle eight – I bet he just couldn’t think of anything.
Dylan is unique in pop music in that a cover version of a Dylan tune is always, always better than the original. A quick list of songs I’ve been listening to recently, and what I like about them: Strange Fruitby Hefner – charm; The Bakeryby Arctic Monkeys – wistful heartbreak; My Girlby The Temptations – joy and beauty; Who’s Gonna Tell Mary?by The Moondogs – silly, endearing, playful teenage energy. I don’t get any of that in Dylan.
He deserves credit for being probably the first to make mainstream pop songs’ lyrics “intelligent”, and to move things away from the “I want to hold your hand” banality of the early 1960s. But I don’t want to listen to his music – what I love in music I’ve never got from Bob Dylan.
ALEX TURNER, ARCTIC MONKEYS
I pay quite a lot of attention to songwriters as good as Bob Dylan. In fact, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve listened to his music quite a lot. When I was in New York, I used to listen to Desire quite often, and I really got into that song, One More Cup of Coffee.I’d never really got into that album – years before, I’d listen more to the likes of Highway 61 Revisited or the other early albums, which I’m very familiar with. But that Desire album is something else. But, yeah, a brilliant songwriter, no question.
Dylan has a way with words, and I reckon he speaks the truth. He puts a story together where I can see it – I’m right there in the song with him.
He’s clever, but he’s clever with emotion. Some songwriters are clever but it can be all cerebral, whereas Dylan has a great mixture of both the head and the heart.
His melodies are simple, potent, honest, and even though he looks grumpy – I’ve never met him – he’s not jaded. He does his radio show, he still tours, and I like the fact that he still seems to be a bit of a mystery.
I also like the fact that he doesn’t mouth off all the time. I’m intrigued by him. What a character! He’s an oddball . . . It’s just my idea of him, but he seems like someone who wouldn’t outwardly show a lot of love if you were to meet him, yet you hear it in the songs. It seems like he saves it up for those.
His voice? I saw him about three years ago in London, and I have to say I was disappointed. I’d never seen him before – I recognised some of the songs, but they were mostly strange versions performed, well, strangely. I thought, fair enough . . . He’s a force to be reckoned with, though, an immense talent; songs like Girl From the North Countryjust break my heart.