Foreword to the Paolo Vites book: Bob Dylan – 1962-2002: 40 Years of Songs
(Editori Riuniti, Italy)
The Picasso of Rock and Roll By Elliott Murphy Foreword to the Paolo Vites book: Bob Dylan – 1962-2002: 40 Years of Songs (Editori Riuniti, Italy) I probably should not be writing this foreword, as I’m sure there are others more qualified and more knowledgeable than myself when it comes to the recorded work of Bob Dylan. Besides, my memory is lousy and I tend to confuse dates/places/times. Was I driving a Thunderbird down Sunset Strip in Los Angeles around 1975 when I first heard Blood On The Tracks or was it during a botched honeymoon on the island of Barbados or neither place at all? I do know I first listened to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the Garden City Music Store when my friend Jack Farrell handed me the headphones and said “Be there or be square!” Jack ended his short life some years later diving through a plate glass window high on who-knows-what while I took a left turn and used Bob Dylan as a torch to light my way down Music Business Boulevard. I have known murderers and thieves and Harvard graduates all of whom found redemption in Bob Dylan’s music; all of whom could probably tell you more than I can. For I still have a debt to pay to the man and his music that still inhibits and impresses me and I lose my words as easily as change in a pocket full of holes.
But still I do have a few qualifications that might lend some credence to my obviously biased report. To begin with I have followed his music, been a fan of his music since that December morning when I ripped off wrapping paper full of reindeers and Santa Claus and opened the gift my older sister Michelle had hidden under the Christmas tree for me. I found myself holding Bob Dylan’s self titled first album, with that big photo of his almost smiling boyish face. I must have played the record that very day so I discovered Bob Dylan on Christmas morning and it must have been 1962 or 1963 and I was about 12 years old I suppose.
I was already playing the guitar and struggling with bar chords and steel strings and sore fingers and above all I was looking to that instrument to take me far away from the Long Island suburbs where I lived. And, you know what, eventually it did. But back then in the pre-Beatles early 60’s Kennedy was king and Folk Music was in the air and I was singing songs by The Kingston Trio and cowboy songs too but when I heard Dylan sing “House of The Rising Sun” I knew that he was coming from someplace else, no lonesome prairie, someplace scary and authentic, someplace between New Orleans and New York, someplace my parents wouldn’t want me to go. Besides, the cover was so cool to begin with and I liked the way the guitar strings were shiny his hat was corduroy.
The music took hold very quickly and my schoolwork suffered as a result. No mater, I never earned a cent doing Geometry but the guitar has bought me more than a few dinners. I played in surf bands and Beatles cover bands and Blues bands but for some reason I was always the one who sang “Like A Rolling Stone” at the shows. I remember one night playing at the 305 Lounge in Hempstead, Long Island and there was a rumour: a New York talent scout was hiding in the crowd because he had heard that there was a 16-year-old surfer kid who sang “…Rolling Stone” with some kind of flare I suppose. He never showed himself to me. Maybe it was John Hammond. I don’t know, I just always related to the song. Still for me, “Like A Rolling Stone” is the national anthem of an expatriate wherever you are.
Nowadays, Bob Dylan is more than an idol or inspiration – he is a motivation and above all a teacher. And still after all these years in the spotlight he remains a myth: I heard he knows thousands of folk songs by heart, I heard he rarely talks, I heard he is an excellent guitar player although he rarely shows it, I heard he guards his private life like gold and his religious beliefs are as strong as ever, I heard he likes to ride motorcycles and play cards and can still spontaneously come up with the most incredible lyrics under the sun. I heard, I heard, I heard, and yet I don’t know if any of this is true or if it matters if it is true. The French writer Flaubert believed that the writer’s life was inconsequential to his works and biographers should stop digging for clues. And as a songwriter myself I can tell you that sometimes the songs know more about me than I know about the songs. Was Bob Dylan ever lost in the rain in Juarez during Easter? Or was he in Hibbing, Minnesota?
Somebody said that Bob Dylan is larger than life and I imagine his work will live on long after him. In fact, he will live on as well because he is a man who has become his work; the artist is the art and the transformation is complete. The fact that most everything we know about him, about what he thinks, comes from something he said sometime or other…in a song is an amazing testament to the power of his work. Do we know what Picasso thinks from looking at “Guernica” or Beethoven’s intentions after sitting through a symphony? And yet when I listen to “Visions of Johanna” I am there with him while the heat pipes cough and there’s really nothing to turn off…
I was born at the right time, I know that, because I fell in love with the guitar and rock and roll and I have walked on this planet in the shadow of Elvis Presley and the footsteps of Bob Dylan. Elvis never changed, he only got better or worse depending upon his demons hunger. But Bob has been both a chameleon and alchemist and the driver of his demons. Once, he was the ultimate folk singing drifter with rolled up sleeves singing at Civil Rights marches and then he is the isolated rock star in the back of a stretch limousine with his shades and cruising down Desolation Row, and a family man in Woodstock with a whole new wholesome voice last seen smiling on the cover with John Wesley Harding and doing duets with Johnny Cash and than these two incredible musical novels: Desire and Blood on the Tracks, so dense and angry and unforgiving, like Steinbeck, like Kerouac, and for a short time a gospel preacher almost ranting the coming of the pocalypse between songs and yet even then we took him more seriously than any of the others, and we listened and tried to make sense. Which is always a mistake…
I have never met Bob Dylan and maybe that will change – maybe even before this book is even published. I would like to meet the man, shake his hand and look him in the eye, ask him how his dinner was, where he buys his boots. What else could I say? Where would I start? He has made it possible for me to march to the same drum. I was never the new Bob Dylan – nobody was – but he opened the gates, changed the rules and made it a game that was interesting enough for me to play. Such a strange business, where you can find Bob Dylan’s work in the same store as this year’s boys band. But then again you can find Cook Books next to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I hear that this book is about Bob Dylan the recording artist and that is a fascinating subject in itself for no one has created such mystery out of such a sterile environment as a recording studio. Kind of like painting in the operating room of a hospital, no? For some reason I think Bob Dylan’s relationship with the studio has been similar to my own: distrustful yet knowing that this was his place, the only place to make it all bigger than life, to make it count and last. Funny, but way back when I began the recording studio was only the bridge to get what you did live to the radio for when you hear your song coming out of the radio that’s when you know its real. (I have recorded and jammed with musicians who have played with Bob Dylan both in and out of the studio. They rarely betray the honour and tell little gossip. All I know is that he is professional and sometimes obtuse and (so they say) asked Slash to play like Django Reinhardt.) Today, Recording studios are capable of great art and high treachery; of making you believe in singers who can’t sing, drummers who never breathed. But this has nothing to do with Bob Dylan. He is the master chef in the Kitchen who makes it look so easy, who cracks eggs with one hand and never measures his ingredients. He just…puts it in just right. Let me tell you a rumour: I heard that Time Out of Mind was recorded three times before the final released version. Fascinating eh? What went wrong? What was he looking for that took him so long to find? I almost trust his artistic judgement more than my own and yet, why did he leave “Dignity” (or was it “Series of Dreams”) off of Oh Mercy? Why did he leave “Blind Willie McTell” off of Infidels? Why did he not include the original acoustic version of “Idiot Wind” on Blood On The Tracks? Why does he sing all the classics so differently now on stage? (And yet what once was so shocking and jarring is now only the more interesting.) But I tend to believe like he said of John Wesley Harding that he never made a foolish move.
Bob has seemed to work with producers who brought out the best in him; music men like Tom Wilson, Bob Johnston, Jerry Wexler, and Daniel Lanois…or did they? And now he produces himself and what does he come up with? A masterpiece – “Love and Theft” and a voice that never sounded more authentic, more broken and strong. And his performances today are often more interesting than the albums from which the old songs came from. I once saw a film on Picasso in which he painted on a glass plate and covered it with overlapping images and people in the audience would stand and flash photos to catch the moment before he painted over it and began something else. Bob Dylan’s concerts are something like that now. You can’t afford to miss one because tonight could be the night… I am biased about Bob Dylan. If I had to choose 5 albums it would certainly be Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft…and yet you see? Maybe the best is still yet to come?
And than there are those albums which re-blossom like buried tulip bulbs: Street Legal, so damned at first and now held up to the light again and we see it shines majestically, circus-like. Even Under the Red Sky holds hidden moments of pure beauty and I love the cover and his boots and the desert. Bob Dylan taught us more about America than we ever wanted to know and yet he is a nation unto himself; he is a wordsmith par excellence and yet his songs cross the language barriers as easy as an opera by Verdi. I am not a Christian and yet I loved Slow Train Coming and Saved; I am not a folk purist yet World Gone Wrong is am album I could listen to a hundred times. And Self Portrait was never what I wanted from him and still if you put it on today I would sit down and smile. Because you see I know no more about Bob Dylan than you do. His mystery is complete and satisfying and never ending. I have heard that he has been nominated for the Nobel Price a few times and is yet to win. Pity. I truly hope it will happen in my lifetime. I don’t know what it will mean to him but it will only validate what I have always felt: he is the Picasso of Rock and Roll.
© 1996-2003 Elliott Murphy