Sunday 29 May 2011: The folk rocker’s 70th was marked with much fanfare, but was it over-the-top? And is there a ‘blokey cult’ around all things Dylan? Two female commentators take up the issue
Kathryn Flett, writer and critic
I must say I found the mass outpouring of Bob-love for Dylan’s 70th birthday a bit baffling. Other than 10 years, is there any difference between Bob at 60 and Bob at 70, or are journalists simply so obsessed by an anniversary that that is enough in itself? Surely by now Bob’s body of work is an archive?
Musically, Bob Dylan‘s always been a bit “Morrissey” to me. By which I mean that a) it seems to be (primarily, though in your case obviously not) a bloke thing, and b) a very particular brand of musical Marmite… and if you just don’t “get” it you’re doomed to go through life, slightly apologetically, saying: “Sorry, not for me.” I don’t feel as though I should have to apologise for not “getting” Bob, but in some circles it would appear that to be anti-Bob, or even just Bob-meh, is to be anti-life; tantamount to saying” “I don’t really like music…” And I do like music, lots of different sorts – but not Bob. I really hate his voice.
But I grew up with a Dylan-obsessive for a dad. My pa is not only a songwriter for whom Bob’s lyrics have always been an inspiration but he and my mum saw the “Dylan goes electric” tour at the Albert Hall. They walked out, I believe. My father credits Bob with being one of the very few people (Brian Wilson another) who made him quit advertising and decide to write pop songs for a living. And while I always got the Brian Wilson thing, will there be a similar mass outpouring of media coverage when Brian turns 70 next year? And it’s not as if Brian doesn’t also have a back catalogue that changed the face of popular music or, come to that, just as varied a back catalogue of drug abuse. Needless to say I don’t own a single Dylan CD and do not feel as though my life is culturally impoverished because of that. However, if I was told I had to own one, it would be Blood on the Tracks. I was only 11 when it came out in 1975, but — probably due to exposure; my dad played it constantly — it was the closest I ever came to getting Bob.
Amy Raphael, writer and biographer
You start by saying that you really hate Dylan’s voice and yet, by the end, you are naming an album you like. Can I tentatively suggest that you don’t dislike him as much as you say? Perhaps you have been verbally bullied by too many male musos who have expected you to be encylopaedic in your knowledge of Bob and who are myopic when it comes to criticism. He’s not like a difficult novel that you have to pretend to enjoy, and I personally don’t think it makes you a musical leper if you don’t get him. It’s just a shame because I think you’re missing out.
You say you really hate his voice. I love it. David Bowie sang of Dylan having a voice “like sand and glue”; for me it can also be passionate, languorous and sexy as hell. I still get chills listening to “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “I Threw It All Away”.
You grew up with a Dylan-obsessive for a dad; so did I. For me it was a good thing. My first proper gig was Bob Dylan at Earls Court in 1978 or 1979 – I concede that a male fan would never be so vague – and even though he had bafflingly converted to Christianity and looked rather grizzly, I was smitten. I embrace the idea of celebrating each Dylan decade, if only because there’s a chance a new generation will be introduced to his work each time. And you can always turn off Radio 4 if their blanket coverage is driving you nuts. PS: I love Morrissey too!
KF Interesting. You may be right about the “bullying male musos”! Also in my case, if not yours, when my hormones kicked in I was predisposed to reject anything that had been parentally endorsed. There were a few exceptions — Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life remains my Desert Island long-player and I have a fondness for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, for example — but King Bob didn’t make the cut. Tough to be a rebellious teen when your parents have good taste (I wasn’t kicking against Des O’Connor, after all). However, punk was anathema to my parents, so… for a teenager from the burbs it was Berlin-era Bowie and the Clash who “spoke” to me, while Bob Zimmerman was just an old fossil from Over There. As far as I was concerned “Blowin’ in the Wind” was so much musical tumbleweed.
AR I was 10 in 1977 so just missed out on punk. I wasn’t remotely cool when it came to music; an early record was David Soul’s sappy “Don’t Give Up on Us” and I worshipped Abba. I don’t think music should be about cool, but what you actually like, not what you think you should like. There is certainly too much snobbery about Dylan. Music should be about visceral pleasure not about showing off. I would no more want to spend an evening with a Dylan obsessive than you would. The press love Dylan because he remains pretty much a mystery even after all these years and they can speculate endlessly about his literary lyrics.
KF I’m starting to think that maybe it’s the blokey Cult of Bob I’ve been kicking against, rather than Bob himself. I’m with you, too, on notions of cool. Other than for about 10 minutes when I was 15, I don’t think I ever really cared about — or had a handle on — musical cool. I just like good music, by anybody. But I also don’t have the kind of encyclopaedic and slightly autistic-spectrum knowledge of any artist — much less Dylan — that seems to particularly (and particularly infuriatingly) distinguish the Bob-fans from the also-fans. Now, though, maybe it’s time for a grown-up personal reappraisal. It’ll be tough getting past not loving his voice but maybe I’ll download Blood on the Tracks and take it from there.
AR Perhaps listen to 1969’s Nashville Skyline too – where you’ll find “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “I Threw It All Away” – as a kind of gentle reintroduction. It’s romantic and domestic and a departure from his usual vocal style. I don’t suppose Dylan ever set out to make music for men, it’s just that some men have ended up taking him very seriously. As have some women.
So let’s forget any kind of gender divide, let’s forget about competing or being completist and let’s just celebrate Dylan for the legend he is. My six-year-old daughter, who goes to sleep every single night listening to “The Times They Are a-Changin'” on her iPod, puts it quite well: “He’s just not like other pop stars.”