Joe O’Connor: Bob Dylan the punk and me
Discovering Dylan about the same time I discovered punk felt right. He’s like punk’s secret grandfather
Bob Dylan: on his 1966 British tour he binned the dungarees and lumberjack shirts of the Greenwich Village years and stocked up in the boutiques of Carnaby Street. Photograph: Ochs/Getty
Forty years ago I got a summer job on a building site near Dalkey, that picturesque coastal village in south Co Dublin, making tea and running errands for the construction workers. My pay was 50p an hour and a can of Fanta a day – not a bad remunerative package in 1978 if you were 15. Dalkey’s little streets and ruined castle cast an otherworldly air over old-fashioned shops and 19th-century pubs. Cyclists sometimes got their wheels caught in the Victorian tram lines that still ran along Castle Street. Single cigarettes could be purchased (illegally, by children or by anyone else) for 10p each, in the newsagent run by the warm-hearted old granny whose smile was like an innocent sunbeam.
A hierarchy operated on the building site, and the bricklayers were near the apex: skilled, experienced craftsmen who could put up a wall in a morning. They were amiable, quiet, possessed of a certain princely aura, sunburnt and generous with tips. On no account were they ever to be irritated, inconvenienced or displeased. In construction-site terms they were aristocrats. The foreman, nominally their superior, was terribly afraid of them, a fear I enjoyed observing.
I asked Hughie if Bob Dylan was up there with Bob Geldof. His response was a gnomic smile
They would send me down to the village, through the winding leafy lanes, past the Georgian or Victorian villas and the neat rows of ivy-covered cottages with roses in the window boxes, for newspapers or sandwiches or a particular bar of chocolate, on one occasion to deliver a note to a local publican’s daughter, whose loveliness one helpless brickie was smitten by. The sea in the distance was the eternal blue of youthful summer. The coconut aroma of gorse filled the air. 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 cluster 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 James Dean, ample of quiff and leather of jacket. His name was Hughie – often abbreviated by the other bricklayers to H, or mock-expanded to Hubert – and he hailed from nearby Sallynoggin.
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 devotion to Dún Laoghaire’s own heroes, The Boomtown Rats, who were regarded as dangerous in the Ireland of the era, a country of murderous innocence. Hughie was a great man altogether for the Rats. He had seen them play live, in the basement of Moran’s Hotel in Dublin’s north inner city. They were scum. (“They don’t even fukken wash themselves,” he would say with a smile, 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 of 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 had never heard him sing. Hughie assured me that Dylan was “the business”, “a protest singer” with a voice once heard never forgotten. Dylan was a major poet, too. Dylan had once been a soldier in the American army, Hughie attested (incorrectly), and the horrors of war had turned him into “a crusader for peace”. His protest songs “pointed the finger” at something that was wrong in society: an injustice, a failing, a cruelty. And he had a voice made for protesting, rough, “a bit uncivilised”; he’s no “Donny Osmond, that’s for sure”.
I was initially interested in protest songs because of my beloved Rats. Their frontman, Bob Geldof, was a Caruso of protest; his mix of Jaggery moves and angry, sullen Dublinisms had already made him a hero to every kid I knew. He attacked the institutionalised hypocrisies of Ireland with fury, skill and ragamuffin zeal. I asked Hughie if Bob Dylan was up there with Geldof. His response was a gnomic smile.
A few days later I walked into a pal’s house and his elder brother happened to be playing a cassette. Strangely, I already knew who was singing. He was doing a song I’d later discover was called Isis, a strange story of a marriage, from the album Desire. It wasn’t a protest song, by Hughie’s definitions, yet it seemed to protest about the notion of the love song itself. As he sang, the world seemed to unfurl.
The French phrase coup de foudre means “a flash of lightning” or “love at first sight”. The first time I heard Dylan’s voice is one of my coups de foudre. A new era was born: AD.
Dylan and punk
Discovering Dylan around the same time as I discovered punk felt right. For me there was no contradiction. Among the photographs of him I had seen were those taken on his 1966 British tour, when he binned the dungarees and lumberjack shirts that had adorned the Greenwich Village years and stocked up in the boutiques of Carnaby Street, favouring Kinks-style mod threads, black shades and hair that appeared as though its wearer had recently awoken in a builder’s skip. I think of him as punk’s secret grandfather, the Easter Island statue by whose stern shadow all must be measured.
I find it hard to listen to my idol Patti Smith and not hear Dylan’s after-presence in some of her phrasings, that antediluvian snarl and yelped, assertive bark, every consonant and spat syllable. And it must seem evident to anyone with ears that John Lydon was influenced by Smith’s scornflake style of vocal projection, perhaps even by Dylan himself. Surely Dylan’s magisterially judgmental “How does it feeeeel?” is the grandfather of Johnny’s “I am an Antichrrrrist!”
In his Chronicles: Volume One Dylan refers to his youthful self as a “young punk folksinger” and wishes Mick Jones, “the quintessential guitarist from The Clash”, were in his band. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols guests on Dylan’s 1988 album, Down in the Groove. Siouxsie and the Banshees covered Dylan and Rick Danko’s This Wheel’s on Fire, and the punk supremo Johnny Thunders did Like a Rolling Stone. Richard Hell’s adenoidal croak on Blank Generation, The Kid with the Replaceable Head and Love Comes in Spurts is pure Dylan; Hell and his band The Voidoids covered Going Going Gone. The Swedish prog-punk band Rävjunk have recorded All Along the Watchtower. In a 1984 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman Dylan’s backing group included the drummer Charlie Quintana and the bassist Tony Marsico, of the Los Angeles Latino-punk band The Plugz. They performed high-octane versions of Jokerman and License to Kill, both from Dylan’s then recently released album Infidels (1983), and a neurotically supercharged cover of the bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic braggadocio strut, Don’t Start Me Talking, that was punk to the nth degree.
But Dylan the punk had always been there. Anyone who wants to hear him need only listen to the in-your-face sneer of Subterranean Homesick Blues or the version of 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. The communal roar produced by the line “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked!” is one of the most exciting sounds I’ve ever heard.
From the beginning of his remarkable career Dylan resisted all attempts to portray him as a spokesman. In a famous interview in San Francisco in December 1965 he remarked, “I prefer to think of myself as just a song-and-dance man.” In the same year the film-maker DA Pennebaker documented (in Don’t Look Back) Dylan’s irked encounter with an unfortunate reporter, Horace Judson. Asked to explain why he wrote his songs, Dylan responded, “I just write them. I don’t write them for any reason. There’s no great message. If you want to tell other people that, go ahead and tell them. But I’m not going to have to answer to it . . . I don’t need Time magazine.”
In February 1966 Dylan gave an interview in which he demonstrated his growing restlessness with the labels and expectations of protest:
Would it be unfair to say, then, as some have, that you were motivated commercially rather than creatively in writing the kind of songs that made you popular?
But this is all very constipated. I do know what my songs are about.
And what’s that?
Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.
Can’t you be a bit more informative?
Johnny in the basement was thinking about the government, but about many other things too. But, despite Dylan’s often-repeated and perhaps self-defensive insistence on not being a writer of protest songs, the body of work speaks for itself. In less than nine years he wrote Oxford Town, With God on our Side, Chimes of Freedom, When the Ship Comes In, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Only a Pawn in Their Game, George Jackson, Talkin’ World War III Blues, Gates of Eden, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Emmet Till, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Maggie’s Farm and Masters of War.
Maggie’s Farm, a proto-punk protest song that may be read as protesting against protest songs, would become a countercultural anthem during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership of Britain, being covered by The Blues Band (who altered the lyric to include scathing reference to the London Metropolitan Police) and many others. The Specials recorded and often performed it and also amended the lyrics – Dylan’s “National Guard” became “National Front”. The Specials’ leader, Jerry Dammers, wrote one of the most powerful (and arguably the most successful) protest songs of his era, Nelson Mandela.
Maggie’s Farm has been covered by many other artists, including Solomon Burke, U2, Muse, Tin Machine, Richie Havens, Toots Hibbert, Rage Against the Machine and the Catalan band Mazoni. The Beastie Boys track Johnny Ryall contains the lyrics: “Washing windows on the Bowery at a quarter to four, ’Cause he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Maggie’s Farm was also the name of a cartoon strip by the satirical artist Steve Bell that ran in the London magazine City Limits throughout Thatcher’s premiership.
So Dylan and leftist politics, or at least countercultural stances, had long been on terms. In a fine essay the critic Paul Slade of the website planetslade.com points out that Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend from 1961 to 1964, was the daughter of two communist activists, and writes fascinatingly of the explicitly political background to Dylan’s work at this time: “As with many of Dylan’s early songs, Pawn’s words and music were first published in Broadside, a tiny Greenwich Village magazine whose mimeographed pages were filled with radical songs. Broadside wanted songs which ‘mirrored an America becoming ever more deeply involved with the great national struggles of war or peace, civil rights and . . . the plight of the unemployed and poor’. Songs like these, the editors added, should ‘reflect an America of still increasing violence and death, inflicted especially on the Negro people and their white allies’.”
In January 1962, when Broadside made its debut, that meant contemporary American folk music, and for a while Dylan was very happy to follow Broadside’s agenda. In the magazine’s first 18 months alone he gave them 15 new songs.
Among those songs was The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, perhaps the greatest of all Dylan’s protest songs – certainly the most technically sophisticated. In the space of a few dozen lines Dylan moves us around the important scenes and settings of the story, as a movie director would do. The song is a lesson in storytelling craft because it is constantly unrolling and evolving, deploying assonance, half-rhyme, vowel chimes and alliteration with great subtlety and assurance while never losing contact with the juiciness of popular speech. It is a charged and careful piece of writing disguised as spontaneous utterance. Little wonder that it has lasted so long.
Proto-punk to born-again Christian
The punchy iconoclasm and narrative suppleness of the early proto-punk songs resurface in the early-1980s born-again-Christian era of Dylan’s creative and personal life, but often with problematic results. The putting of new wine into old bottles did not always produce sweet outcomes.
However, it’s a phase that saw the appearance of some beautiful songs, such as 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. But not all of the Christian-era songs are so poised and hopeful. Indeed, some are chilling. Anger, vengefulness, bitterness, self-hatred, misanthropy, raging regret, foreboding, a shadow of imminent doom and, in particular, a deep sense of the utter untrustworthiness of friends are emotional hallmarks of so many of the born-again songs that the listener becomes uneasy.
There is a self-flaying suspicion, and its ugly cousin arrogance. In Gotta Serve Somebody it becomes essential to serve either “the devil” or “the Lord”, with no other options, a theme revisited in Precious Angel, in which “Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground”. When You Gonna Wake Up continues the bleak Manichaean hectoring. The spirit of protest indeed animates the born-again Dylan, but it’s sometimes hard to listen when God’s on his side.
The subsequent years and decades saw fewer explicitly protest songs, although pieces like Union Sundown, from Infidels, and Early Roman Kings, from Tempest (2012), have roots in the brisk scepticism of the early work. But, increasingly, a sort of Whitmanesque sensibility emerged, a dreamy lyricism less weighted and freighted than The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, descended from Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, perhaps, with the associated strengths and shortcomings.
Did his protest songs achieve anything? Do anyone’s? “Poetry makes nothing happen,” WH Auden wrote in his great 1939 poem on the death of WB Yeats. While that may be true – and it also may not be – it must be added that the call to moral attentiveness is one of the most plausible reasons for the existence of art. In the UK throughout the 1980s the campaigning work of Red Wedge and Rock Against Racism changed perceptions and outlooks, and therefore self-definitions and actions, altering a landscape in which the National Front was organised in every city and racist attacks were an everyday occurrence.
In the cauldron of political debate or cultural contesting the protest song at least provides a shared means of expression, a point around which to rally, a lingua franca. And if the protest song has a tendency to preach to the converted, so what? Don’t the converted deserve to be preached to now and again? Some will call the protest song a form of virtue signalling and little more. But virtue is rare enough and should be signalled more than it is, in a world where stupidity, loutishness, ignorance and malice trumpet themselves with such breezy regularity.
Some years have elapsed since we last heard a new Dylan song. There are those who feel the one-time rebel has been annexed by the establishment: the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and the Nobel Prize in Literature would have seemed distant indeed to the threadbare young heir of Woody Guthrie who rambled into New York town six decades ago. Others feel that the establishment has lowered its guard and admitted one of the barbarians. Dylan’s Nobel award led to icy and sometimes lofty phrasemaking by certain commentators and stirred a controversy that had long been quietly festering. The poet Vona Groarke remarked: “What, have they run out of writers? Next, they’ll be giving Sportsperson of the Year to Margaret Atwood. Or the Man Booker Prize to Bono. We’ve waited so long for a winner from the US, and with all the possible winners out there (Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo?), they’ve only gone and wasted it on Bob Dylan.”
The memoirist Blake Morrison described the Nobel jury’s decision as “the oddest since 1953”, when the prize was awarded to Winston Churchill. The poet Edna Longley said it was “a ridiculous decision, and an insult to real poets” while Ian Sansom wrote, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan is more than unjust. It is absurd. It’s a category error. It’s like a race horse winning Crufts.”
For his own part, predictably, the honoree said little about winning the world’s highest accolade for literature and intimated that he might not show up to collect it. Dylan fans enjoyed and understood the tease, feeling the particular joy of the insider who knows when a tongue is firmly in cheek. Those who had long seen him as a secret founder of punk relished the fact that the artist who stood in for him and performed at the announcement ceremony was none other than the peerless Patti Smith.
The troubadour is still donning and discarding the masks, crooning one moment, blues-barking the next, refusing to utter a word to his adoring live audiences
Recent Dylan albums have included Christmas carols and extracts from the great American songbook. The troubadour is still donning and discarding the masks, crooning one moment, blues-barking the next, refusing to utter a word to his adoring live audiences, unbothered by notions of propriety. Several weeks into Dylan’s long delay before contacting the Nobel committee to say whether he would attend the prizegiving in Stockholm, committeeman Per Wästberg publicly criticised him as “arrogant and impolite”, a moment so replete with delicious ironies that it would lead one to think Wästberg had somehow never heard Like a Rolling Stone.
The mischievousness is still there, the sense that play and protest might be forms of one another, each a refusal of convention but sometimes an ethical necessity. It’s a recognition I first encountered as a 15-year-old kid, those songs buzzing in my head and heart as I walked the summer lanes of an Irish coastal village 40 years ago, and it still moves me, four decades later.
One of Dylan’s unique achievements was not merely to write a songs that redefined the genre forever but to see the formal limitations that would have to be broken down and replaced, to go further, in cleverer ways, while staying quieter. He knew that a song is a pillow as well as a passport, a powerful form of private consolation and sustenance as well as a weapon in the struggle. His ultimate protest might be silence as style, resistance as rejuvenation. As the chorus of the great shape-shifter’s early manifesto My Back Pages has it: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”