I can’t do this really. I don’t know enough about Dylan. But then who does? The nerd Dylanologists. But that ain’t me, babe. You could devote your life to figuring him out only to be told you are almost entirely wrong. “You don’t know me darlin’/You never would guess.”
So all is conjecture. The person who played Dylan best was Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. The second best was Dylan himself in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue.
The person who really understood him, though, was Barack Obama. Dylan turned up at the White House. He did no rehearsal. He wanted no selfies with the president and first lady Michelle. He played “The Times they Are a-Changin’”, stepped off stage, shook the president’s hand, tipped his head, gave a small grin and then disappeared. That’s how you want him to be, wrote Obama, “a little sceptical about the whole enterprise”.
My favourite Dylan is now the latest: Rough and Rowdy Ways, made at age 79. I love it. Old blues guys don’t retire. Nor do poets. He is a fighter and a lover, all swagger and lewdness. The pugilism and the tenderness. How does he do that thing?
If pushed, Desire is my favourite album and “One More Cup of Coffee” my favourite track. The yearning, that Middle Eastern violin, that line “your loyalty is not to me but to the stars above” is about a woman, and maybe about himself. There waits the valley below.
The valley below is nearer now, and on this latest album he writes himself into myth, into the tower of song. Leonard Cohen said giving Dylan the Nobel Prize was like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.
“Murder Most Foul” is the song most up for deconstruction but what I really like is the sexy “False Prophet”. I like my Dylan lascivious as much as mysterious. “You girls mean business, and I do too.” It’s properly bluesy. “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.”
Take that line in his memoir, Chronicles: “I was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.” Sure Bobby, with your songs of love and betrayal… that’s all you were?
At 80, though, he possesses a braggadocio that is heroic and hilarious. “Well I’m the enemy of treason/Enemy of strife/I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life… I’m first among equals/Second to none/The last of the best.”
Does anyone want to argue about poetry and prophesy and personal details? Not me. “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” Yes, this man at 80 knows what he is. He knows what he does. He always did.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy