Don’t follow leaders: Dylan has long disliked the media’s “fancy labels”. Photo: Rex
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Why Bob Dylan can never shake off his fans

By the mid-1980s, Dylan had long been playing down the notion that he was the “voice of a generation”. Such strategies failed in the long run. 

In 1986, Bob Dylan sat in his trailer, his face worn and his nose running. It was early evening, just bright enough to inspire the singer to pick up a pen and start a scratchy portrait of his latest media adversary – a BBC interviewer called Christopher Sykes. “I’m not going to say anything you’re gonna get any revelations about,” he warned, his attention divided between doodle and interlocutor. Sykes, undeterred, asked Dylan about his fans’ conviction that he had all the answers – that he was “some kind of shaman”. A withering glance. “Shaman? I don’t know,” Dylan replied. “I don’t like that scene.”

By the mid-1980s, Dylan had long been playing down the notion that he was the “voice of a generation”; as early as 1965, he was exhausted by the “fancy labels” the media would place on him. “They got all these preconceived ideas about me,” he moaned. His often desperate attempts to shed that burden ranged from expressing identification with Lee Harvey Oswald while accepting a civil liberties award, weeks after JFK’s assassination, to releasing a deliberately patchy album “to get people off my back”. “The reason [1970’s Self Portrait] was put out [was] so people would . . . stop buying my records,” he later confessed.

Such strategies failed in the long run. “Don’t follow leaders,” he snarled in one lyric. “Trust yourself,” he exhorted in another. But as David Kinney confirms in his new book, The Dylanologists, the singer’s biggest fans are only too willing to be led. Collectors would search out relics, from school yearbooks featuring the young Robert Zimmerman to Baby Bobby’s high chair; the “Dylan pilgrim” Bill Pagel bought his childhood home in Duluth. A woman who masqueraded as Dylan’s sister led an itinerant life, following her idol on tour, and one day vanished, seemingly the victim of a serial killer operating in California.

Dylan has been unkind to his most loyal fans – having concert queues reversed, for instance, so that those who have waited longest get in after the stragglers. In his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, he dismissed his old audience as “past its prime”. But he, too, has always been a fan – of Woody Guthrie, of Elvis, of contemporaries such as John Lennon (whom he eulogised in the 2012 song “Roll On John”).

This month, Dylan released his version of a 1945 Sinatra tune, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” – a swoon of a recording that is unabashed about its indebtedness to Frank, to the extent that he even struggles to get his pitching right at the same tricky note (“The moon is there . . .”) that confounded Sinatra. It’s a beautiful performance that has had Bobcats in a flutter, speculating about a possible album that may or may not be due this August. And it will have them thinking: “He’s one of us!” For, as every Blonde on Blonde-quoting waistcoat-wearer in shades knows, emulation is the surest sign of fandom.

Yo Zushi's new album "It Never Entered My Mind" is released in July by Eidola Records. The single "Bye Bye Blackbird" is available now

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

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage