Bob Dylan at 70 // a personal reflection…

“At times in my life the only place I have been happy is when I am on stage.”

Bob Dylan gets about as excited as he can these days at the 53rd Grammy Awards, Feb 13 2011

So today, May 24th, Bob Dylan turns 70 years of age.

Wasn’t really sure what to post for his birthday. I figure 70 isn’t a massive landmark by any stretch of the imagination, but the media seems to have gone mad for it so who am I not to play along. But 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his first shows in New York City, which is a real landmark event worth celebrating.

So I’m only 26 and and in the grand scheme of things, a relative newcomer to Dylan. I don’t have any of those real inertial stories like the people who were breastfed his music growing up. As best as I can recall, my first exposure to him was seeing Jenny playing Blowin’ in the Wind butt-naked in 1994’s Forrest Gump. I was 10 at the time and thought it was a pretty catchy. And the fact she had no clothes on was probably what really got my pre-pubescent attention.

Forrest Gump and Jenny Curran - both clothed

Over the next 6 or 7 years, I only have fragments of memories. I’ve a pretty solid recollection of seeing a news item of Dylan meeting the Pope in 1997. The story goes that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, didn’t want him to perform, but JPII over-ruled him. Cool, eh. Other than that weird encounter between two old guys who didn’t mean anything to me at the time, nothing ever really stuck out.

Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits" (UK Stereo Release - 1967)

This all changed in late 2001 when, on a whim, I picked up the original Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. The CD was part of a classic HMV 2 for £20 offer, which now sounds presposterously expensive. This compilation was a UK collection, released in 1967 comprising of 12 of his most popular songs from 1963 – 1966.

After that, discovering Dylan became the gift that just kept on giving. After the Greatest Hits came Blonde on Blonde, Freewheelin’, Blood on the Tracks, Bootleg Series Vol IV: Live 1966 and Another Side of... After that things get hazy and I’m at the point now where I have 41 of his official releases on CD or vinyl, having just had to do a head count on to confirm. For the record it’s the critically berated quarter of Dylan, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove and Real Live which I only have as mp3s.

At a show a few years ago I over-heard some long-time fans saying they considered a Bob Dylan show as being more important than attending Sunday worship and “I get to this church more than the other one these days anyway, and this one is way more fun“. With that in mind, I’ve “been to church” 11 times since seeing Bob at Dublin’s old Point Depot on November 17th 2003.

This first foray into live Dylan came just 2 months after I’d started university and I attended with my younger sister and a similarly enlightened new college friend, though it was her parents who had done the groundwork of her fandom! The show was pretty entertaining stuff with The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll and Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum being the stand-out memories. Knowing that you’re not going to get “1960s Bob Dylan” standing front and centre pontificating with his acoustic guitar was also a help. Instead seeing an old guy bopping along at a piano having a damn good time for an hour and a half was awesome. I also got a commemorative poster (“wow it says Dublin!” – first time I’d seen that done at a show) as evidence I’d seen Robert Allen Zimmerman live and in person. One of my favourite t-shirts was also purchased at the show. Neat! Though less neat, but quite funny, was seeing three people walking around college with the exact same shirt the next morning.

Bob Dylan LOOK OUT!' shirt at a Green Lights birthday BBQ at 516 Collins Avenue - Dutch Gold, under-cooked burgers, HP sauce, broken chairs, Daniel and Colin out of shot - June 8th 2006.

Having officially caught the bug, there was no stopping me. Over the next few five years I got to 11 more shows, bringing me up to 12.

Ticket stubs from various Dylan shows 2003-09

These dirty dozen shows have been a fantastically mixed bag.

Nov 17, 2003 // Dublin, Ireland // The Point Depot
Jun 27, 2004 // Galway, Ireland // Pearse Stadium
Nov 21, 2005 // London, UK // Brixton Academy
Nov 22, 2005 // London, UK // Brixton Academy
Nov 27, 2005 // Dublin, Ireland // The Point Depot
Jun 24, 2006 // Kilkenny, Ireland // Nowlan Park
Jun 25, 2006 // Cork, Ireland // The Marquee
Apr 5, 2007 // Münster, Germany // Halle Münster
Apr 6, 2007 // Brussels, Belgium // Vorst Nationaal
Apr 25, 2009 // London, England // O2 Arena
May 6, 2009 // Dublin, Ireland // O2 Arena
May 5, 2009 // Dublin, Ireland // O2 Arena

There’s a lot of happy memories in that list, having seen him in various countries and shared the experience with so many close friends and loved ones. But right now, over two years after last seeing him, I don’t really have any huge aching desire to see him ever again… Blasphemy!

Now let me clarify that a little. I enjoy looking at setlists and seeing if he’s finally started to play all of Desire from start to finish, but the last Dublin shows taught me that, in a weird way, what people expect from a Dylan show is so radically different than any other concert they go to. I’ve often dragged numerous people to the show on the pretence that “it might be the last time you have to see him…“. I think what you’ve got now is a guy who takes as much enjoyment from bringing his songs to a new audience as he does servicing/humouring the old fans. Instead of drawing on his ridiculous back catalogue, he’s just happy to roll out the same old favourites night after night. Now he can still do the tender songs incredibly well when he wants to, but all too often it’s just the same southern blues rock sound taking over so many of his classics.

Bob Dylan, Philadephia, 1974 - Debuting the snood. He also invented folk rock. He used to be such an innovator.

For years I was fine with that approach, but now I have to admit Modern Bob is bugging just me a little. I have been present for some truly memorable moments (November 21 2005’s Brixton Academy show is legendary among fans for seeing the only live performance of Basement Tapes’ Million Dollar Bash and an impromptu few verses of London Calling in tribute to The Clash), but I think most of those moments are in the past as things become increasingly stale and repetitive. For the most part you end up coming out of the venue thinking the same things as you would after visiting an elderly grand-parent…

“Yeah he didn’t talk to us very much, but he seemed to enjoying himself and moving around the place a lot. And I think he smiled at your sister. His breathing seems to be improving too!”

Bob Dylan and band kick back with some cards. Bobby is obviously cheating, you can see it in the little eyes...

Speaking of the live act, I guess I better mention bootlegs. This is the more, eh, embarrassing side of being a Bob fan. And something I’m kinda glad I’ve managed to leave behind. I don’t have a clue how many discs I’ve accumulated over the years, and bearing in mind they’re sitting in big CD wallets in our attic in Drogheda that haven’t been touched in 2 or 3 years, maybe it’s best not to touch them. I may have something like 300 or so, but don’t dare to even think about it.

So, there is a wealth of fascinating material out there. This has all been released by small independent bootleg-labels on CD or LP and sold at record fairs or markets. The 1969 release Great White Wonder is considered by many to be the first ever bootleg record, and for years was all fans ever heard of Dylan’s 1967 “basement tape” sessions with The Band.

These bootlegs may be collections of un-released rarites or field recordings, though never anything officially released – that’d make these bootleggers pirates, a crucial distinction. After years of offering copies of these releases for trade in the classified sections of the music weeklies, the internet allowed people to share them online, usually for trade via message-boards.

When I first started collecting them it was all done by a practice of “Blanks and Postage”. These involved setting up a trade with someone on a message-board and posting them a blank CD for the actual recording, and then 2 or 3 extras to cover the price of postage. The same rule applies for DVDs, at the time a fledging technology! I just did a search and my old video trade list is still online over at dvdylan, along with reviews of the one and only DVD I ever re-mastered and authored which is kind of nice and makes me feel a little bit nostalgic for simpler times.

An insight into fandom: a search for +Bob +Dylan on torrent site (click to view full-size)

Unsurprisingly all this postal trading has now been replaced by downloading. A member’s-only torrent site called dimeadozen was one of the few places you could get top-quality audio boots. Here you’ll be able to get with an audience recording of almost every single show Dylan plays. Which is wonderful for someone to have a memento of the concert they were just at, but soon it becomes a way of enabling dylanologists, fanatics and impressionable young completists like me…

With the popularisation of youtube and file hosting services like yousendit and rapidshare, it became a lot easier to see and hear a lot more of Bob Dylan. And this may be the crux of the problem.

Somehow his increased profile and instant-availability of his music seemed to made everything considerably less meaningful to me. Add to this the fact his weakest album in 20 years, 2009’s Together Through Life, became his first number one album since 1970, and things made even less sense to me. All of a sudden, I was left feeling a little disillusioned as a bobcat.

Bob Dylan watching television at his home in Woodstock, 1964. - He's so nonchalant about his live show these days, he probably brings that rocking chair with him.

Chronicles Volume 1 was published seven years ago.

But what does still fascinate me is the man himself. His Theme Time Radio Hour satellite radio shows were a real joy to listen to as we got a bit of an insight into his inspirations which ranged from the obvious (The Carter Family, Fats Domino) to the surprising (Blur, Clannad, Prince).

I also can’t wait for Chronicles Volume II, the follow-up to the first part of his memoir released in 2004. And considering all the media hyperbole, any time he sits down for an interview (happens every 2-3 years), is always a joy too.

But… I guess the thing that means I’ll always be a die-hard Bob Dylan fan is something that I’ve actually barely mentioned here…

The tunes.

If I go a couple of weeks without listening to any of his music and he something sneaks into a crazy “shuffle my entire library randomly please” playlist, I’m always reminded why the hell I ever allowed myself to get so damn obsessed with Dylan. This happened just a few weeks ago with the original version of the heart-breaking If you see her, say hello. Cue renewed interest and excitement about the songs. Hell maybe I may even buy him a birthday cake.

Maybe in a few years things will turn around again and I’ll actually go back to über-fandom and elevate things to stalkerish levels, but for now, weird as it sounds Bobby almost feels like a really cool uncle with some good stories who I can hang out with every few months.

Oh and he kicked his heroin addiction. Take that Cobain!

Bob Dylan, Mariposa Folk Festival, 1972 - I have never seen his look so uncool.

Around the web…

Audio slideshow: Bob Dylan at 70 [bbc]
70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history [The Independent]
To my fans and followers []
Bob Dylan 70 – The Bob Dylan Story at 70 [BBC 6 music on iPlayer]
Guardian Music Weekly Podcast: Bob Dylan Special []

Also Guess who also celebrates a birthday today?

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