"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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game