By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University
Among my literary acquisitions over the festive period was, from my brother, a copy of the Ladybird book The Mid-Life Crisis. Glossing over the lateness (by decades rather than years) of this offering, I did wonder if he’d hacked my web browser and knew that I’d only the previous week paid a ludicrous sum for tickets to see Bob Dylan in May.
If this sounds like I’d finally bought the toy I couldn’t have as a child, it wasn’t. Even though Dylan was undoubtedly part of the soundtrack of my youth (everybody has one), I was never a great fan. I found it hard to get past the wilfully off-key singing and the wayward guitar playing to hear what Simon Armitage calls the ‘metaphor, allegory, repetition, precise detail … too memorable to be anything less than crafted and composed’. Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
But what really piqued my interest was finally getting round to seeing Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Not only did it make me realise just how many great songs he’d given us, but I found Dylan presented himself (in middle age, but especially as a young man) as an engaging enigma. Despite attaining superstardom when barely out of his teens he was clearly never motivated by a need for fame – he appeared equally bewildered and dismissive of both the fans and the Judas-callers. Despite the ‘protest singer’ tag and some genuine acts of involvement it was just as clear that political principles were not behind the songs either. What drove the songs was the songs themselves: a determination to get them as right and as good and as true as they could be. This struck me as a very writerly position.
Other parts of his story struck me as writerly too: his need to compose and perform according to the idiom – American folk music – in which he had steeped himself, and as Andrew Motion puts it, to ‘stretch and extend that tradition’; his intent to follow the artists he most admired, most notably Woody Guthrie; and an extended early period at Joan Baez’s house in Carmel, spent just writing and writing and writing, an activity from which songs sometimes emerged as if by a simple twist of fate. This is starting to sound like my answer to the question, ‘Did Dylan deserve his Nobel prize for literature?’ I’ll leave that to the likes of Armitage and Motion, but I do think that as a writer he was eligible to be considered.
I’ve been warned not to expect too much in May, that every performance is different, often perversely so. What you get is what Bob wants you to get. But now I can see that that’s the point.
The Open University