"I'm younger than that now": Dylan on ageing

A top-five list of his lyrics on growing old, to celebrate his 71st birthday.

Bob Dylan turns 71 today. On 29 May, the song-and-dance man will receive the Presidential Medal of Honour at the White House alongside the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the novelist Toni Morrison. The Bobcat rumour mill, meanwhile, continues to spin, grinding out theories about a new album expected later this year. (A Mexican influence? A song about the sinking of the Titanic?)

Despite his recent(ish) return to form that began with the 1997 album Time Out of Mind – and despite the Oscar and Golden Globe he received for the song "Things Have Changed" in 2001, the acclaim heaped upon the first volume of his memoirs, his painting exhibitions, his radio shows and his 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Being Bob Dylan – he seems far from ready to go gently into the night. Where he once urged his listeners to stay "forever young", however, he now more readily admits: "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

In a 2006 interview, Dylan said: "I always wanted to stop when I was on top. I didn't want to fade away. I didn't want to be a has-been, I wanted to be somebody who'd never be forgotten." With fading away out of the question, one major cause for reflection seems to be the ageing process. The mind can remain alive to the world; but what of the physical body? 

Below is a top-five list of his Grand Statements on Growing Older, chosen somewhat undemocratically by me. Do use the comments section below if you can think of any better.

5. From "Highlands" (Time Out of Mind, 1997):

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright-colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I’d trade places with any of them in a minute, if I could

4. From "My Back Pages" (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964):

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

3. From "Bob Dylan’s Dream" (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963):

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

2. From "Red River Shore" (Tell Tale Signs, 2008):

Well we're living in the shadows of a fading past
Trapped in the fires of time
I've tried not to ever hurt anybody
And to stay out of the life of crime
And when it's all been said and done
I never did know the score
One more day is another day away
From the girl from the red river shore

1. From "Floater (Too Much to Ask)" ("Love and Theft", 2001):   

The old men ’round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end
 
Jokerman: Dylan in performance in April 2011. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser