In case you missed it, Bob Dylan has a new album out. It is the latest in a series of albums dating back to 1997 that has seen Dylan exploring the connections between the folk and blues traditions (as much the Scottish borders as the Deep South) on the one hand and the modern world on the other. In a recent Rolling Stone interview the rather hapless interviewer asked Dylan
Don’t you think you’re a particularly American voice – for how your songs reference our history, or have commented on it?
To which Dylan replied
They’re historical. But they’re also biographical and geographical. They represent a particular state of mind. A particular territory.
(Rolling Stone, 27 September 2012, p46)
It was somewhere between Infidels and Empire Burlesque that I got to know Dylan. I was introduced to him by my girlfriend at the time. We met in college, I was studying geography and she was a mathematician. I had never knowingly listened to Dylan. She had many albums – mostly the old folky ones. She lived in a big house in Park Town in North Oxford, over the road from Ian McEwen. I remember my first visit to that house. It had three floors with high ceilings. It was in a state of permanent asymmetry unlike my parent’s house which was, for the most part, symmetrical, dusted, repainted every two years, matching. This house had valuable paintings (not prints) by some Penrose or other, propped against the wall – not even hung up. There were piles of books everywhere. Her father was an astrophysicist (who had a hand in the education of Stephen Hawking) and her mother an anthropologist. Everything was casually valuable. Furniture looked antique. That is where I learned what an artichoke looked like and how to peel it away until you reached the hairy, dangerous choke. That is where I saw what seemed like whole shrubs of rosemary attached to hunks of lamb out of the oven and on to the thick wood table in the kitchen. That is where I learned that salad could be a separate course. I wanted to live like that. But most of all, after a few months of this, I wanted to be Dylan on the front of Freewheelin’ with my Suze Rotolo on my arm. I inherited her dad’s old sheepskin jacket and it kind of looked the same colour as Dylan’s.
Dylan became part of a ‘particular territory’ for me – a territory that included Kerouac and Sam Shepherd. It included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I started to dream of American expanses of tumble weed and wooden shacks and weathered travellers. It seemed a long way from my parent’s home on the edge of the Cotswolds or the grey November London. I started to plan my escape enthused by the sounds and words of Girl From the North Country “where the wind hits heavy on the borderline”, “snowflakes storm” and “rivers freeze”.
The first time I saw Dylan was at Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, shortly after my arrival. I was there to undertake my Masters degree and PhD in cultural geography. It must have been 1989. The large cavern of a building was half empty. These were Dylan’s barren years. I went with the folksinging roommate I has managed to find on arrival in Madison, Wisconsin. He had sat in the house we shared (a kind of shotgun shack of a house) and played You’re Gonne Make Me Lonesome When You Go to my girlfriend and I just as she was about to leave. We had just travelled around the US on Greyhound buses, starting in New York and ending in Madison (avoiding the middle of the country as best we could). Along the way I had been to Washington DC, Brunswick, Georgia, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Antonio, El Paso, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Yellowstone. We had also sat in buses as the road headed endlessly forward just as it does in the movies. Riding from Jackson Hole to Madison via Bismark, Butte, Billings, Minneapolis/St Paul was a new experience of geography – an experience of space that did not seem to stop. I was going to get to Madison (where Dylan has briefly lived on his way from Hibbing, Minnesota to New York City), wait for by girlfriend to head back to Oxford and buy a motorbike. Yes – that was the plan.
Anyway – Bennett and I went to see Dylan and it was bad. I recognized a few songs. It was in the days that Dylan liked to wear a leather waistcoat and long dangly earrings.
I could hear geography in Dylan’s words and music. It was a geography far removed from the home counties. I could hear the iron range of northern Minnesota where Dylan grew up. I could hear the Midwest and New York City’s Greenwich Village. In later albums the country opened up panoramically. By the time of Desire Dylan was in the southwest with its cantinas, mesas and buttes, its lonely pine hanging on to the cliffs of Mount Zion National Park against all odds. I could hear the borderlands with Mexico. Before that Dylan had opened up the continental landscape in Blood on the Tracks – a landscape designed to match the particular biography of Dylan’s marriage breakdown. He was on the road, heading for another joint. Tangled up in Blue is, if nothing else, an extraordinary travelogue of resonating place names – Montague Street where music played in cafes at night and there was revolution in the air. Delacriox, where Dylan’s narrator got a job on a fishing boat, turns out to be the ends of the earth, where the Louisiana swamp (so well captured in Oh Mercy) met the Gulf of Mexico. Dylan has always had a talent with place names. But it was his voice that most captured a territory – it had, as he put it in the pretty decent 2009 album, Together Through Life– “the blood of the land” in his voice.
Rue Morgue Avenue – in Juarez. That was my day in Mexico – crossing over from El Paso for the day, experiencing the sudden drop in the price of Coke and everything else. “They’ve got some hungry women there” Dylan sang, “and they really make a mess out of you”.
During our road trip, in San Antonio I think, I had bought Knocked out Loaded. I had found the cassette tape in Tower Records and put it in my Walkman (a post graduation present to myself). It has a strange picture of a seemingly western scene of a buxom woman, scantily dressed in a yellow dress, about to break a large terracotta urn over the head of a man in a hat with a bullet belt around him, trying to strangle the living daylights of a handsome looking man I presumed to be her beau. It looked like it might have happened somewhere near the Alamo, somewhere near where I bought it. It was one of Dylan’s truly dreadful albums, full of forgettable songs, many of which he did not write. One stands out. Brownsville Girl is long, rambling shaggy dog story co written with Sam Shepherd and, for the most part spoken by Dylan. The narrative switched between standing in line to see a movie starring Gregory Peck – a western – and a long road trip.
The song passed through San Antonio and the Alamo – just down the road from the flea infested hostel on the outside of town that has mattresses on the floor that, the owner informed, us, he could rent by the hour. “Hot beds” he said. Much better to put the headphones on:
I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert In your busted down Ford and your platform heels I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel.
Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’ And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft. Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back. I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off.
How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh. ”We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn, ’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.” Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”
This being the second Dylan album I had bought on, or close to, its release, I listened to it non-stop for the rest of the trip waiting for Brownsville Girl. At one point I was sitting in Union Square in San Francisco just as Macy’s was beginning to close. A young punk was hanging out trying to be cool and hard at the same time. I was in Dylan’s world. A homeless man came up to rummage through the trash. He smelled bad. The punk was unable to cope and ran off leaving me and Dylan in San Francisco –imagine that.
The first album of Dylan’s to be released in my period as a Dylan fan was Empire Burlesque. I lived in Crouch End. I remember getting up and throwing on jeans over my pyjamas – racing around to the kind of independent record store that is probably not there anymore. I brought the record back to the ground floor room I shared with a friend and (probably to his disgust) put on the 1980s Dylan trying for the only time in his life to be modern and up to date complete with famous producer and electronic instruments. Dylan was on the front dressed as though he was auditioning for Duran Duran. Dylan, it turns out, had been in the neighbourhood, jamming with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, who owned a studio in a converted church nearby. There has been sightings of Dylan in the local Tandoori. I had dreams of bumping into Dylan and inviting him around for a cup of tea. It was later that I heard the often told story of Dylan in Crouch End. Apparently Dave Stewert had invited Dylan to drop in at his recording studio on Crouch Hill at any time. Dylan took him for his word and asked a taxi to take him there. He was dropped off at the nearby Crouch End Hill by mistake. He knocked on a door and asked for Dave. The woman who answered the door told him that Dave was out but would be back soon. She sat him down and made him a cup of tea. Twenty minutes later Dave returned – Dave the plumber, not Dave the musician – to find Bob Dylan in his living room drinking tea.
Anyway – Empire Burlesque was not a high point of Dylan’s career. But it did have one beautiful little, un-produced, non-electronic song called Dark Eyes at the end. This made it worth it.
The second time I saw Dylan was at Merriweather Post Pavilion just outside Washington DC. It was July 1989. I was in love again and wanted to share my love of Dylan with my new partner (later to be my wife, mother of my children etc…). I desperately wanted her to like him. She found a coupon on a Betty Crocker dessert that got us two-for-one tickets. These still were not good times for Dylan. We took a blanket and sat on the grass in the humid summer. Carol was not impressed, she couldn’t hear the words in the mix and, anyway, she didn’t like his voice. Still doesn’t. I remember him playing Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine). He hasn’t played that for a while.
To be continued