Some are mathematicians

Or: of Dylan and Dylanophiles. Scorsese’s No Direction Home is glorious, although I think the BBC’s decision to show it in two halves is debatable; after Part One I was left wondering how, having got as far as 1966, they were going to fit the next 39 years of Dylan’s career into Part Two. I was still wondering when Part Two ended. Apparently what happened after 1966 was that Dylan had a motorbike accident and stopped touring; after that some other events may have taken place, but apparently we can’t be sure at this stage.

No Direction Home both was and wasn’t a revelation. I’ve been a Dylan fan in a small way for a long time, although ‘fan’ doesn’t seem quite the right word: he’s just there, monumentally. I realised during the programme that I’d heard far too little of his early stuff; album purchases are going to be required, but I can’t decide whether to start with Bob Dylan and make up the gaps chronologically, or just go straight for Blonde on blonde.

Still, hearing some of his stuff from 1965-6 for more or less the ahem first time koff had the advantage of giving me some idea just how strange a departure it must have seemed at the time. One point which Scorsese’s film underlined was that going electric wasn’t the only break Dylan made. In one of the many post-concert vox pops – some of which, to judge from the accents, must have been at the Free Trade Hall gig, although Manchester was never credited on the titles – a disgruntled fan curtly dismissed the second-half electric set before excoriating Dylan’s solo set at some length: his singing was out of tune, his rhythm was off and he kept playing that bloody harmonica… And, you felt, he kept playing those weird new songs. One telling moment during the electric set saw Bob pouring oil on troubled waters by announcing that the next number was a protest song. The effect was immediate: the booing died away; there was an anticipatory hush and some scattered cheering. Then the band started up. Playing “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat”. You’ve got to love him for that.

Which isn’t to say that ‘protest songs’ were a wrong turning for Dylan – any more than the repertoire of traditional songs that got him started, and led naturally into the ‘protest’ phase. On the contrary, Scorsese’s film suggested that breaking with the ‘protest’ repertoire was the single most important, and most creative, thing that Dylan ever did – but that the energy released by that break came only partly from Dylan’s discomfort with being seen as a ‘protest singer’; partly, it grew from his success in that role.

Clearly, I’m not the first person to notice that several of the songs on The times they are a-changin’ can be called political. Still, I think it’s worth stressing that they should be called political – particularly in the current climate of Arnoldian, high-culture Dylanophilia, which fits Dylan’s own claim to a kind of apolitical humanism only too well. (I’ll come back to last week’s Dylan tribute concert further on, but really – what was Barb Jungr doing? I’d come close to losing the will to listen during Odetta’s languid take on “Mr Tambourine Man” – not a particularly frisky song in the best of readings – but dear Lord, Jungr’s “Like A Rolling Stone”… How does it feel? It feels like I’m watching a rich kid’s drama school audition, actually.)

Retrospectively, anyway, Dylan likes to present himself as doing no more than stand up for universal values – for justice against injustice, freedom against tyranny – and perhaps some of his ‘protest songs’ can bear that reading; “Blowin’ in the Wind”, with that weirdly complacent dying fall closing each verse, for one. (Although, as Mavis Staples pointed out in Scorsese’s film, the first two lines meant something quite specific to Black Americans at the time.) But “The Times They Are A-Changin'”?

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Rhyming “heed the call” with “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall” – in other words, Heed the call and get out of the way – is not the work of a disengaged prophet of peace and freedom. And that’s not to mention “Masters of war” or “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”, let alone “Only a pawn in their game” – a deeply political response to the murder of Medgar Evers, one of the most scandalous events of those years. Dylan didn’t give a voice to a generation; he gave a voice to a movement, and the movement gave him the world he needed to write about. According to Joan Baez, Dylan wrote “When the ship comes in” in reaction to being refused a hotel room (very Pirate Jenny); but I think that very exorbitance – so familiar from his later work – only came to him in the first place through his engagement with something much bigger.

After that, and because of that, there was more he could do; the 1966 tour was when it started. The songs the Free Trade Hall audience wanted to hear were what enabled Dylan to write the songs he played there – and kept the audience from hearing them. It was extraordinary seeing those images of thousands of fans queuing to see Dylan, only to turn on him when he started playing. It would be silly to invoke the Golden Bough or Orpheus’s sparagmos, but still – there’s something singular, and singularly intense, about the anger of the betrayed fan. In after-show footage Dylan looked both shaken and perplexed – All the booing! Why are they booing, man? Most likely, from that point on, they’d go their way and he’d go his.

They weren’t just booing, mind you. At the Free Trade Hall, the legendary shout of “Judas!” was followed, from somewhere else in the auditorium, by “You pillock!” (This may have been aimed at the first heckler rather than Dylan, it’s hard to be sure.) On the Scorsese film, we heard one heckler call out “Go home, Bobby” (nasty little diminutive there); later, as Dylan settled himself at the piano and adjusted his vocal mike, somebody called out “Try switching it off.” (And yes, these were people who’d paid for tickets, queued up, etc – they’d probably queued up for tickets, come to that.) It may be a Manchester thing. In my experience, Manchester audiences have a good line in heckling; for some people it’s an integral part of the evening’s entertainment. I wasn’t into Dylan at the time of the 1966 tour and didn’t live in Manchester; otherwise I might have been at the Free Trade Hall that night, if only I’d been more than five years old. But I did see Robyn Hitchcock, years later, take the stage to be greeted immediately by a double-act of hecklers:

Heckler 1: “Here he is, the man himself.”
Heckler 2: “He’s got a beer-gut!”
H1: “He’s a footballer.”
H2: “And a very good one!”

I don’t think Robyn Hitchcock is easily fazed, but they did it. He quelled them later, though. The two of them had started outbidding each other in guesses as to the precise length of the grotesquely elongated legs of the hallucinated Scottie dogs encircling the protagonist’s deathbed in that night’s introduction to “The Yip song”. (As one might.) Robyn broke off to interrupt them (“Eight feet!” “Ten feet!”), saying with some dignity, “No – you can say that, but it doesn’t make it true. Because this is how it was.” They shut up after that.

Robyn, coincidentally, was one of the three best acts at the tribute concert last week, although for some unknown reason they limited him (uniquely) to one song; he did what I took, rather embarrassingly, for one of his own. (Still. Hands up who’s got Time out of mind…) The other two were Martin Carthy (his “Hattie Carroll” was dreadful, but he did a wonderful “Scarborough Fair”) and K T Tunstall, who played the first two tracks of Blood on the Tracks – yes, starting with “Tangled up in blue”. (She made a pretty good fist of it, I have to say, as well as disrupting an increasingly precious evening with some welcome amplification – 39 years on, had we learnt nothing?)

I confess I was outraged when KT announced “Tangled up in blue”: I couldn’t imagine anyone but Dylan singing it (it’s so personal, so autobiographical) Listening to the song and re-reading the lyrics afterwards, I realised that I’d been thinking of it as a straightforward narrative with a couple of flashbacks – and that it’s anything but. It’s actually quite hard to say what happens in “Tangled up in blue”, and it’s impossible to say in what order it happens. Even the one reasonably clear section (narrator goes to topless bar, gets picked up by waitress) is impossible to place: has he found “her” again or is this their first meeting? The dialogue suggests both, at one point in two successive lines –

“I thought you’d never say hallo,” she said,
“You look like the silent type”

– which makes it impossible to settle on either. Straight after that, we’re into

I lived with them on Montague Street

Them? She was married when we first met, which would fit – but We drove that car as far as we could… sounds like a different episode from She had to sell everything she owned… – and neither of them sounds like Her folks, they said our life together/Sure was going to be tough. (Is he even talking about the same woman?) It’s an extraordinary piece of writing: not so much like a story, more like knocking a box of slides on the floor and describing them as you pick them up – but with none of the tricksy coolness that image suggests.

What sticks in my mind from “Tangled up in blue”, apart from a couple of wonderful lines in the first verse, is the way it ends. We’ve had

music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air

and the narrator has… just kept on:

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on

Then there’s this strange writing-off of an entire scene, casual, almost playful in its phrasing, but at the same time stern and unmistakably final:

All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives

What they’re doing with their lives Living them, you feel like replying – and it got started when the movement circus left town (or got beaten, or got co-opted – either way, it wasn’t there any more). Living, is what they’re doing with their lives – it’s mundane and it’s limited, but what else are you going to do?

Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint

Yes, on one level it’s tired old rock troubadour imagery; yes, it would be interesting to compare it with the amount of time Dylan spent touring that year, let alone the time he spent on the road in any meaningful sense. But on another level, damn it, he’s right. Social movements change lives, both in the experience of the movement and more permanently: new forms of sociality, new forms of communication, new ways of conceiving and portraying the world can survive a movement’s ebb. Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and then returned to their studies (or their husband’s carpentry), unchanged by what had happened, had missed out on something. And they’d missed out in a way that Dylan (for all his self-seeking arrogance, for all his ambition) didn’t miss out. One of the many achievements of that movement was turning Bob Dylan into a poet.



  1. Norbert Trouser-Quandary
    Posted 6 October 2005 at 06:56 | Permalink | Reply

    Excellent stuff. Well done.

    Just one point, that bloke Jesus, wasn’t his mom a carpenter’s wife?

    The lyric, to me, has always carried that suggestion of there may be something on the verge of beginning there.

    But whether it is a good thing or a bad thing – I dunno.

  2. isakofsky
    Posted 6 October 2005 at 16:00 | Permalink | Reply

    There was also a strange piece of cultural self-negation going on. Accuse me of being a Jewish chauvinist if you like but Dylan came from a Jewish household, Jeff Rosen, his manager and interviewer in the film is Jewish, most of the club owners and music industry guys in the film are Jewish but no one wanted to say if being Jewish had anything to do with anything. Perhaps it doesn’t. I dunno. But usually it comes into the equation with Lenny Bruce or and Mel Brooks, so why not Dylan? After all, he did go all Jews-for-Jesus later in his life and there are loads of biblical references in his writing. There’s also the matter of what particular cultural interventions did non-religious, vaguely radical jews make in the 1960s and 70s? What was that about? Perhaps not of terrific interest to non-Jews, I concede, but not irrelevant to the socio-political make-up of the milieu surrounding and helping to produce Dylan the artist, no?

  3. Anonymous
    Posted 6 October 2005 at 16:09 | Permalink | Reply

    On Tangled Up in Blue; it may be relevant to note that over the last twenty or so years (the “never-ending tour”) Dylan played this some remarkable number of times – there was a period when it was there, night in night out. (In 1998, 109 times in 110 shows, poking around)

    Anyway, the point there is that, in this vast number of versions, the pronouns, the tense, keeps changing. (The one we all know and love is apparently pretty unique – almost all the others start in the third person) There’s probably a few Very Serious Scholarly Texts around somewhere about this – but the gist is that, as a story, it’s either v. tricky to follow consistently or it’s a set of independent stories…

    (Yes, I am a geek.)

  4. Phil
    Posted 6 October 2005 at 21:49 | Permalink | Reply

    Dylan came from a Jewish household, Jeff Rosen, his manager and interviewer in the film is Jewish, most of the club owners and music industry guys in the film are Jewish but no one wanted to say if being Jewish had anything to do with anything

    Absolutely. Parts of that early section looked like A Mighty Wind remade by the Zuckers (in their early, tasteless period). There was an early publicity shot of Peter, Paul and Mary that cracked me up (I’d had no idea what they looked like). Mary, of course, is a drippy blonde, but Peter & Paul both looked quite unbelievably Jewish. And then you had the Clancy brothers with their matching chunky jumpers and their rousing Fenian ballads…

    The scene was all about American roots, and yet it was an American Legion nightmare – you didn’t have to be Jewish or Irish (or a Communist), but it certainly didn’t hurt. It was a strange scene, in ways that Scorsese didn’t really bring out – too busy tracking Dylan’s ascending slipstream.

    “Never-ending tour” – you don’t mean he’s still on the road, etc? A friend saw a recent concert DVD and said it was quite unnerving – Dylan sits at a piano, side-on to the audience, and growls something into the microphone every few bars (the words are still coming but the voice has gone). Portrait of the Artist as Jimmy Durante…

  5. Posted 26 March 2008 at 16:14 | Permalink | Reply

    There was a short item about him on the news last night, massacring Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. This was not, however, quite as grim as a grotesque cover version of another song – Llegará La Tormenta – that a middle-of-the-road band called Amaral have produced to commemorate the Expo in Zaragoza. Apparently the Great Man has given his approval.

    I never liked Tangled Up In Blue all that much. Maybe the “revolution in the air” line got on my nerves for some reason unclear even to me. I love all the short songs that album, and none of the three longest ones.

    I assume the poet is Plutarch? The dates would be wrong but Dylan would of course have known that. I can imagine the bastard deliberately getting it wrong just so that people looked stupid for pointing it out.

  6. Posted 26 March 2008 at 16:18 | Permalink | Reply

    Incidentally, the “some are mathemticians” line echoes a similar line in Quinn The Eskimo, something more easily observed by the ludicrously insane.

  7. Posted 26 March 2008 at 21:58 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m not even sure what the third longest one is – “Simple twist of fate”? I heard someone do that at a folk club once and it seemed to go on all night. I used to hate “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, although I’ve come round to it now. But I’ve always loved “Tangled up in blue”, ever since a friend and I first listened to my sister’s new copy of Blood on the tracks with a friend (she didn’t care, she was at work or something). It took me a while to stop laughing at Dylan’s pitching, but even then I thought the song was great.

    “Llegará La Tormenta” is pretty awful, and I can’t even make out the words. That’s got to be high on the list of songs not to be covered at all without good reason. (I did it once, having said that, but I did it as spoken word. Got it done in three minutes flat.)

  8. Posted 27 March 2008 at 09:48 | Permalink | Reply

    Tangled up in Blue is the third longest. You may be missing Idiot Wind (which, if memory serves, plays a certain role in How Late It Was, How Late).

    Everything about the Amaral cover is grotesque but we can start with the title – what in the name of God is that about? “The Storm Will Arrive”? Dense language requires a dense translation or don’t bother at all. (I was in a restaurant the other day and the waitress was reading Ulises. I told her I once tried to rad it myself and she said it was “muy denso”. Good.) I sometimes wonder whether Spanish people get short-changed with film dialogue – what happens when they’re dubbing Tarantino, for instance. But I’d need to ask somebody who knew and appreciated the original English.

  9. Posted 27 March 2008 at 12:17 | Permalink | Reply

    I think what may piss me off about Tangled up in Blue is that it gives me a strong sense of Clinton Generation.

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