Bob Dylan - Son of man

(This article was first posted on the now defunct Word Magazine blog)

A pistol shot rang out in a room one night. Enter John Cordwell on the second balcony of the Manchester Free Trade Hall.


The attempt on Dylan’s life happened on the 17th of May, 1966. The shot avoided hitting any vital organs, but the bullet lodged deep within the famed wordsmith’s psyche, and it remains there to this day.

“I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” says Dylan, but he is speaking to no one but himself. The biggest fraud in the room that night was about to launch into a blistering version of Like a Rolling Stone.

“How does it feel to be on your own, a complete unknown with no direction home?”

I don’t know, Bobby. You tell us.

Bob Dylan has betrayed millions, and continues to do so. The tragedy is that he knows it, and there is not a thing he can do to put it right. In some bizarre twist of biblical proportions it is the man who couldn’t even hang himself right that got hailed as the long-awaited Messiah. The cord broke, he fell, his body burst and his guts spilled out on rock. Satan wasn’t going to let this one go so easily. It must seem to Robert Zimmerman that he really did sell his soul to the Devil out on Highway 61.

Even if his cack-handed attempt to end it all two months later had been successful, the damage was already done. His three-and-a-half-year ministry was enough to seal his fate. All anybody ever really wants to talk about is the holy trinity of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Even his mid-seventies revival was just repeat performance using the same formula, only this time with a dose of bleeding heart. Blood on the Tracks was like the second coming. He surrounded himself with an entourage, a killer band, and some father-figure poets, and let rip with some of the most enduring music in the history of rock’n’roll.

Then he stumbled back out to the wilderness to do penance. His immediate pilgrimage into Christian rock was a form of repentance, another act from a man full of regret. He couldn’t stop himself from drinking from the poisoned well, and then he spends the next few years racked with guilt and self-hatred. Perhaps his Judas could find forgiveness yet.

It all started out as a bit of a joke and it turned into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. Little Bobby Zimmerman steps off the train and assumes the guise of a Guthrie-esque ramblin’ man. He ingratiates himself on to the folk scene. Listening to recordings from 1961 you can hear a witty and endearing entertainer. The boy is an obvious talent. But, he is a lyricist, a poet, not a musician - that’s why the majority of his work is made up of regurgitated blues riffs. His first act of stealing from the money box was to take the name of Dylan. But you don’t get recognised just by being a poet. You can’t win the approval of your earthly father unless you can really stand up and be seen. Go back and listen to his 1962 recording sessions with Cynthia Gooding and hear the number of times he asks, “Did you like that one?” The boy just wants his father’s approval, and in the absence of the real thing he’ll go to any lengths to manufacture it.

So, he knows an easy meal ticket when he sees one. He reckons on folk lovers being needy and gullible. By 1964, in his concert at Philharmonic Hall, you can hear him laughing at the audience. These people are ridiculous. By 1966 he despises them. He took a mere ten minutes to jot down the anthem for which he will be forever remembered. That fraudulent action alone constantly gnaws away at him. Time and again he has tried to downplay the dramatic impact of Blowin’ in the Wind, but they just will not listen. He never wanted to be a poster boy for the revolution. He was just taking the piss. He had to be dragged into the studio to record a handful of words to We Are the World, for heaven’s sake.

He tries to make them go away by plugging it in and playing it “f-ing loud”, but it only makes them want it more. However many he lost in his crossover to electric he made up for a thousand-fold. Such a nice looking boy turns up with big hair, slim cut suits, and shades, and it instantly becomes an iconic look. If they want dense lyrical compositions they can have them. Joan Baez tells the story of Dylan pecking away at his typewriter, giggling at how what he is writing will drive them crazy. The lyrics mean nothing. And now there’s even a encyclopaedia dedicated to his works. He thought he’d made some headway when Greil Marcus famously dismissed Self Portrait with a one-word review, only to have Ryan Adams force a reassessment when he declared that “he'd be proud to make an album as good as Self Portrait.” Since the early-90s he has taken to singing his songs in a monotonous growl, systematically murdering his music night after night. It’s bloody carnage up there as he lacerates his melodies. It takes the merest shred of a lyric to dislodge some distant memory of what song he is singing, and yet his shows refuse to stop selling out. If they could only touch the fringes of his garments.

He tried to use Martin Scorsese’s aptly titled documentary as a platform for a last ditch attempt at a sort of apology, because deep in the heart of this grotesque monstrosity is the cherubic Robert Zimmerman wondering how the hell things managed to get so out of hand. He couldn’t admit to his betrayal even if he wanted to. They simply wouldn’t believe it. He couldn’t retreat into obscurity, either. They would seek him out and sit in permanent vigil outside his gates.

Not that he would dare to anyway. He has to keep up the never-ending performance. If he stops even for a moment, if he is left on his own, the enormity of what he has done would engulf him. He would be completely overwhelmed by his most frightening demons. He’d put a rope around his neck, and this time he’d make damn sure to get the job done right.

(In response to several favourable and some mixed comments, I posted this follow up:)

I don’t think it is ever just about the music...

We are all driven by something deeper, something rooted in our past. The only person that really knows what that is, is us - and even then most of us have never made ourselves aware of it.

I’m sure a fascinating study could be made about the psychology of Elvis. Somewhere I read, “Imagine if Elvis had carried on being a truck driver he wouldn't have realised his dream etc etc...” Yeah, I imagine he might still be alive.

Look at John Lennon and the things written about his past. (And relax, Black Type, I’m not about to go out and buy a revolver.)

Neil Young is another artist who in his older years has felt himself moved to make a veiled apology about the way he has treated people, using them and leaving them in order to advance his own career.

Yet, I feel more sympathy for Dylan. The “grotesque monstrosity” is the machine it has become. The industry, the registered trade-mark of “Bob Dylan”. It has taken on a life of its own. He has no life of which to speak. Robert Zimmerman sacrificed his life to appease his father.
“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
He has no more control - like a carpenter from Nazareth who could do nothing about the Christ furore that followed his death - this kid from Hibbing, Minnesota has no control over "Dylan". But, ultimately, he is still only a man, probably still only a kid.

One of the definitions of “betray” is “to deceive (the innocent and trustful); to seduce” and I think that pretty much sums up the point that is being made. It happened in those crucial first few years, and he has been running from it ever since. Everything about Bob Dylan is all about Robert Zimmerman. I used to be curious about all the elements of Tombstone Blues or Desolation Row, but then I realised the answer to both of those is in the final verses. So much barely contained vitriol:
“Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.”

“Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row”
Of course all of this is pure speculation - “complete bollocks”, though I think “complete” is a bit too extreme. There might be some bollocks, but, on the other hand, I might be right on the money.

Having said all this, I have a great deal of affection for Dylan because of this view I have concocted of him. It was like a personal revelation about the man, so it only really matters to me. It has been rattling away in my mind for quite some time, and I thought, “oh what the hell, here goes nothing” and I posted it here “just because”. I think it is a marvellous thing, Word Magazine making this public platform available. It's great fun, this site, with a rambunctious little community. You have actually been very kind in response to this bit of self-indulgence (and one of you I could hug). I won't deny being slightly trepidatious about coming back and seeing how it was received, but I needn't have worried.