Bob Dylan At 80 – My Life With Dylan
An appreciation of an iconic artist
With Bob Dylan reaching the age of 80 on 24 May 2021, Ian Corbridge takes some time out of mind for a personal reflection on the impact of 45 years in the company of his music and performance and some of the key moments in the life of this iconic artist.
Bob Dylan reached the age of 80 on 24 May 2021. So what, I hear some of you say! To some that is considered quite a feat in the music industry for somebody of such stature. To others it will remain an unremarkable and irrelevant fact. Some may not know who he is, or not realise that songs they have heard are Dylan’s, or even that he is still alive. But there are many, like me, who will reflect on a musical career and impact which is almost beyond comparison. There will also be those who revere the man almost in religious terms and will use it as an opportunity to worship at the altar of Zimmerman once again.
Dylan, and I call him by his surname as a mark of the utmost respect, is an artist and song writer who has probably written more words than any other. But he is also an artist about whom more words have been written than any other. Since that fertile period from the early 60s through to the early 70s when he wrote a significant proportion of his classic and timeless material, his work and artistry have been endlessly dissected, analysed and interpreted by so many observers. His whole life has been told and retold so many times and his impact on the music industry, all the artists that have followed him and the wider popular and political culture has been both challenged and championed on so many occasions. So I am certainly not going to go over all that ground again.
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Dylan reaching this magnificent age has made me stand back and reflect on the man who has had such an impact on my own life, what I think, what I listen to and who has occupied more of my time listening to music than any other artist. I know I am not alone in this but what is it about him, a man who has been in the music business for my entire life, that makes him so significant and important to me?
Dylan is an artist who has always clearly divided music fans between those who maintain he cannot sing and has little in the way of commercial appeal, and those who acknowledge his absolute genius in composition, storytelling and phrasing in delivery. But what the hell is commercial appeal anyway and have you guys checked the figures recently? I guess it all comes down to what you are looking for in an artist and a song. But one thing is clear to me, no one tells a story as good as Dylan. And this is something this magnificent wordsmith has continued to prove to me right throughout his career.
My roots in music have always been in rock’n’roll. I started my journey in the early ‘70’s glam era before I found the Stones and then punk, my head being turned particularly by the New York Dolls and The Clash. Through these influences and my close affiliation with the John Peel generation my aural senses were widened by so many great bands, sounds, and in particular the musical heritage from which all of this was ultimately derived. So everything was game to me. And just as Jewish-born Dylan found Christianity in the late ‘70s, I found Dylan in 1976.
As my interest in music was developing through my early teenage years, I was aware of Dylan and had heard some of his songs. But somehow, at that time and with all the other great music that I was absorbing around me, it did not quite grab me. That was until I tuned into what I recall was a BBC Old Grey Whistle Test special featuring around 50 minutes of a Dylan concert from the Rolling Thunder Tour in 1976.
It was only years later when I realised what a significant and truly magnificent event the Rolling Thunder Tour was and how it is now reflected upon as one of the greatest tours by any artist. But what was certain then was that I had never seen or heard anyone perform with such authority, conviction and intensity as Dylan did at that time. And all from someone who had the look of a vagabond troubadour with a headband and what appeared to be a whole range of random musicians on stage who seemed to be just enjoying the moment. I was immediately transfixed, and I can point to the performance of One Too Many Mornings in particular as the song that stuck in my head and remains with me today as a key turning point in my life. I just had to know more about Dylan and what he had done and what he was going to do in the future.
Dylan had been going through a self-imposed hiatus in the late 60s and early 70s which probably contributed to the fact that he had appeared somewhat invisible in musical terms to a young teenager like myself. But I quickly learned that, as the 70s moved forward, he had started to reinvent himself once more and the interest in him and his work was growing exponentially at quite a startling rate. There was now no question that I was going to be part of this journey going forward and I was on board for the long haul.
The first Dylan albums I acquired cemented my views about what I had heard. The first was a greatest hits album (yes already!) which allowed me to catch up on some of the great songs he had written in those early years. The second was the infamous Royal Albert Hall bootleg from 1966 – the Judas concert. This bootleg had been notoriously mislabeled as it was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall where that incident occurred. But it was most definitely this latter album that stirred the emotions more than I could ever have anticipated.
Side one of the bootleg had the acoustic songs which formed the first part of the concert. However it was side two when Dylan went electric that really spoke to my rock’n’roll roots and hearing the sheer intensity of that version of Like A Rolling Stone was another turning point. Once heard, never ever forgotten and there was no going back now.
As I start to reflect further on my journey with Dylan that followed, I am immediately reminded of the introduction to Dylan’s live concerts that was first used in Hamburg on 15 August 2002 and which was apparently inspired by his response to an article that had appeared in a local newspaper. The announcement was read out by Dylan’s stage manager, Al Santos, and presented a short and succinct overview of his career spanning the first 4 decades of his career. It is worth recounting this announcement which went as follows:
“Ladies and gentlemen please welcome the poet laureate of rock’n’roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen – Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!.”
So there you have it – 40 years of a legend summarised in one paragraph. I have heard that announcement at so many concerts since it was first introduced but it always sent a tingle down my spine knowing what was to follow.
It is in the live arena when Dylan’s songs come alive and once I started going to see him perform I soon realised that no tour, indeed no gigs on each tour would ever sound the same where he is involved. Not only did Dylan change set lists massively from one night to the next – often half the set list would be different – but the arrangement of classic songs would differ on every tour. It seemed that Dylan took a view that when he recorded a song for an album, that was only really the starting point and he has continued to reinterpret songs in so many different ways throughout all these years of touring. So boredom or predictability have never been an issue.
I have now enjoyed Dylan live on 17 occasions and every single one has left its mark on me in different ways. My first live encounter was at London’s Earls Court on 29 June 1981. Myself and my brother Phil took the train to London as Dylan never seemed to play anywhere near Sheffield and at that time I had no transport of my own. This was during his new gospel phase but the shows had moved on from initially playing only his new songs to now including a number of classics as well. The performance was electric and the arrangements stunning. And of course, the classic songs sounded nothing like they had done 5 years before on that Rolling Thunder broadcast.
Move forward another 3 years and we were off to Wembley Stadium for a huge Dylan party and what would turn out to be one of his longest ever sets, with 26 songs clocking in at over two and a half hours. With the likes of Mick Taylor and Ian McLagon in Dylan’s band this one absolutely rocked from start to finish. He even brought on Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Chrissie Hynde as guests. This tour was seemingly hastily arranged due to another planned tour not going ahead, and Dylan’s performance and arrangements have always inevitably split the fanbase, but to my ears it was magnificent.
Dylan’s commitment to the road was cemented in the summer of 1988 when he commenced what has become known as the Never Ending Tour. And with Dylan now having played well over 3,000 gigs since that time, always being surrounded by bands full of stellar musicians, that title is appropriate. It is only due to the global pandemic that a full year gap has finally appeared in that schedule, but hopefully that will be rectified soon.
My next experience of Dylan live was a much more intimate affair in the confines of the Manchester Apollo in April 1995, the third of three nights which sold out very quickly, even in pre-internet days (yes, remember those!). I almost missed out on tickets and when I called the ticket agency they only had tickets for the final night left. Amusingly the seats upstairs had sold out but there were still standing tickets available downstairs near the stage – a stroke of luck and a no brainer for me, and perhaps a reflection of an ageing audience! Nonetheless it was awe-inspiring to see Dylan at such close quarters and it was another barnstorming night.
In June 1997 Dylan was hospitalized with a serious chest infection, histoplasmosis, leading to the cancellation of a European tour and the fear that he would be “seeing Elvis soon”. Fortunately, he was back on stage in October amid rave reviews for his new album Time Out Of Mind – the aforementioned “strongest material of his career”. And Dylan was back in the Manchester Arena in June 1998 for a simply blistering set which has always remained one of my all-time favourite gigs amid another electric atmosphere. There are always songs in his shows that stand out for various reasons and that night it was a totally unparalleled and sublime version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.
My next stop on the tour was Sheffield in 2000 and then onto a one-off show at Liverpool Summer Pops in the Kings Dock tent in July 2001 where I was literally rubbing shoulders with Elvis Costello in the audience. Another close encounter with the great man – oh and Elvis too.
Throughout the next decade, the gigs came thick and fast with a particular highlight being Brixton Academy in November 2005. After a gig at the Manchester Arena the week before I headed down to Brixton to attend the last of a five-night run at this more intimate venue. And what an experience it was standing by the front rail, stage left with Dylan right in front of me. And as he had done on at least one previous evening, Dylan started off his encore with the first verse of The Clash’s London Calling and the audience nearly took the roof off.
After a stop off in Sheffield in 2009, I headed to Liverpool Echo Arena which presented the assembled masses with a real highlight in only his second ever airing of Something by the Beatles, in homage to his present surroundings. Another momentous occasion to savour. Further shows in Manchester, Blackpool Opera House and then Manchester Apollo in 2015 followed. And now I wait in the hope of a return of the Never Ending Tour.
On those most recent tours, Dylan had turned towards singing standards from the Great American Songbook with his performance and delivery both surprising and confounding critics alike. However, in his most recent shows before the pandemic struck, Dylan had returned to more familiar territory and his vocals have been stronger than for some considerable time. A real renaissance indeed which has been further enhanced by his critically acclaimed album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, in 2020 including the magnificent Murder Most Foul which, through its extended form, provides a litany of his own cultural reference points.
If I am asked about my favourite songs or albums, those are questions that I can never answer as it will be different on any given day or week. Dylan has written songs for almost every mood and occasion and they have all evolved over time. Specific songs can take on a new meaning to me for no apparent reason and what’s not to like about that.
Looking back and thinking about what the real Dylan is like, I would always point towards the Scorsese documentary and interview that was released in 2005 as No Direction Home. I have always considered that this provided the most candid and personal view of Bob Dylan the man as well as the artist than anything else he has been involved in. It clearly demonstrated how Dylan never considered himself to be a protest singer, more someone who just got wrapped up in various movements, largely through his close association with Joan Baez in those early years who was most definitely a protest singer, by writing songs which merely documented current times and issues. Furthermore, he could never really understand the obsessive fervour which certain fans would direct towards him and his work and that need to dissect every single word to find those hidden meanings. I totally get that too.
Bob Dylan, the man from Duluth, Minnesota, has now been a significant figure in pop culture for the best part of 60 years and is one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century having sold over 100 million records. Through his songs, this well-read musical scholar has chronicled social and political issues so eloquently, with numerous songs becoming anthems for civil rights and anti-war movements. He has also received numerous Grammy, Academy, and Golden Globe awards, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan has also published numerous books and paintings.
I really cannot imagine a world without Dylan. But then again, his iconic status and musical legacy is so entrenched in popular culture that I do not believe that day will ever happen. His huge body of outstanding songwriting will provide a strong reference point for many generations to come. In the meantime, let’s just continue to enjoy this legend in his own lifetime and look forward to the re-ignition of the Never Ending Tour. Thanks for everything Bob and Happy Birthday!
All words and pics by Ian Corbridge. You can find more of his writing at his author profile.