Every now and again something special happens; an individual comes along who transcends their field and becomes something bigger and more wonderful than their field of operation. For me in film it was Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, in boxing Muhammad Ali, in soccer George Best, in Folk Music Woody Guthrie, in politics Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Mandela, and in literature Jack Kerouac. But there was one man who was more influential for me than any of them and that was Bob Dylan.
The story started way back in Bob’s bedroom with a bunch of school kids bashing out Little Richard numbers and dreaming of running off to be in his band and become a Rock Star. By the early sixties Robert Zimmerman had left home, dropped out, changed his name and invented a whole personal history for himself. He no longer rocked but had been moved by the songs of the mighty Woody Guthrie. Unlike most people he was not content to idolise from afar but had to get to see the man. He hitched into New York with a guitar, busked the clubs and did get to regularly meet up with Woody who was hospitalised and suffering from Huntingdon’s disease.
Bob, like many others, was a Woody Guthrie impersonator; he even took to looking like the man with his cap, checked shirt and dungarees. He made a bit of a splash with his Guthrie songs and fresh-faced Chaplinesque performances but nothing special. Woody impersonators were ten a penny.
Then something magical happened. Perhaps he visited Robert Johnson’s crossroads? More likely it was the fairy dust of Woody mixing with the sensitivities of his girlfriend Suzie Rotollo. He began to write songs. Not just ordinary songs but songs that were wondrous, that told stories; songs like nobody had ever written. Those songs were full of fire and fury at social injustice, war and civil rights. They were songs that rang in the ears and rattled the brain. They were songs that woke people up. Something new had been unleashed into the world. These songs were streaming with poetry that summoned up images, sent emotions storming and set eyes afire.
Over three albums Bob poured his soul into a set of poetic visions that sent dragons rampaging through people’s hearts. He wakened the slumbering feelings of a generation and put into words what people did not know they were thinking. He nudged their awareness, poked their compassion, tapped in to their outrage and roused them from their trance. His words were like bullets, his images paintings and films that played in your head.
They told him that he was the spokesperson for a generation. He told them he was a song and dance man.
Then he walked away from it. He turned his back on the civil rights, anti-war and social awareness; turned away from Woody, tossed his hat out the window and grew his hair, donned a polka-dot shirt and shades and became a Rock Star.
Embracing the more surreal and melding it to the stream of consciousness of the Beat Generation he spat forth his poetry like a machine gun on acid. His amphetamine fuelled diatribes ripped to the kernel of truth with barbed invective as he shone the light of his imagination into every crevice of society. There was anger and fury, savage and pointed. There was a railing and underground imagery that spoke of underdogs, eccentrics and a people who lived outside of society looking in – the poets, painters and vagabonds, the trampled, dispossessed and misfits – and he made them real, gave them characters and brought them to life.
Over three albums he brought his music to new heights with his wild mercury sound that, like his words, created a totally new landscape of melody.
And we grew with him and waited with bated breath for the next episode, for him to take us forward once more.
Then came the crash in 66. He, always the mad driver, mangled his triumph motorbike and broke a vertebra.
It gave him the perspective and got him out of the mad carnival his life had become. He was married. He got off his addictions. He had a family. There were new priorities. As Dylan said ‘it got me out of the rat race’.
But for us the story wasn’t over. We were addicted to that mind-blowing burst of genius that had pierced us to the bone and sparked our brains into overdrive, startled our sleeping ears to hear and thrilled us into action.
But that star had fallen, that man was gone. All we could do was wait and hope for the return.
This year I saw him perform in Liverpool. He performed.
Outside the arena a busker played those early songs with fire and fury as a large crowd gathered round and cheered at the echoes of the incandescent passion that had set us all alight. It still burned.