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Bob Dylan: His back pages

As Bob Dylan becomes the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Meagher revisits the songwriter's life in lyrics

Published 15/10/2016

Times are a-changing: Bob Dylan has won a Nobel Prize
Times are a-changing: Bob Dylan has won a Nobel Prize

I happened to be listening to his "return-to-folk" album, John Wesley Harding, when the Bob Dylan news came through. Happily, in this year that's robbed us of icons like David Bowie and Prince, it wasn't sad news - but the ultimate recognition of poetic genius. All Along the Watchtower struck up as I read the words and the song sounded all the sweeter when refracted through the prism of a Nobel Prize in Literature.

This most lauded of accolades has never been awarded to a singer before (although James Joyce fans will say that he was a fine vocalist and should have been a Nobel winner), but it doesn't seem even remotely odd that Dylan should join the ranks of Heaney and Yeats. When one thinks of the high-water mark of lyrics in song, his, surely, is the first name summoned.

"We regard it as an award for poetry and the recognition of Dylan as a performance poet," said Maureen Kennelly, director of Poetry Ireland. "People often compare him to Walt Whitman and he says himself that he is influenced by the late Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets.

"He's always held huge fascination for writers, especially for poets. Many Irish poets, like Paul Muldoon, say that, on the page, the best of Dylan's lyrics stand up as poems."

Few could argue with that. Dylan left a mark on popular song in the second half of the 20th century that's so indelible, it's impossible to quantify, and he continues to assert his rare gifts well into this one.

He has not become a figure who has embarrassed himself late in life, or one content to go through the motions: he still delivers tracks to burrow their way into your heart and soul, just as there was in 1962 when the fresh-faced kid from Minnesota released that first, self-titled album.

His body of work, spanning six decades, is among the most significant in music history, and his lofty reputation is epitomised by a 36-CD box-set Columbia Records is bringing out in November, documenting every moment of his 1966 world tour.

Even seasoned Dylan aficionados might baulk at such exhaustive detail, but it's impossible for anyone who cares about music and popular culture to ignore his astonishing run of albums from 1962 to 1975 - Bob Dylan to Blood on the Tracks - and at least half a dozen albums since then.

And while he may not have advanced the sound of music in quite the way the Beatles or Kraftwerk or Bowie did, no one else has consistently written lyrics as expressive, angry, evocative, tender, sad, meaningful and downright quotable as he has.

He was just 23 in 1964 when he wrote The Times They Are A Changin', an era-defining masterwork boasting a line that's worth taking with us through our lives: "Don't criticise what you can't understand." It's also rooted in time and place. "Your sons and daughters are beyond your command", would become a catchphrase for those opposed to the Vietnam War.

Or how about these words from Maggie's Farm in 1965? "I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them".

While there's no shortage of verse espousing the joys of being in love - listen to the sentiment imparted on I'll Be Your Baby Tonight (and try not to think of the UB40/Robert Palmer cover version) - there's always been a prickliness to his songs.

That's certainly the case on Like A Rolling Stone - selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest song ever written - in which he sneers at a Becky Sharp-type who has fallen from grace: "You never turned around to see the frowns/ On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you."

He could be embittered, too, as he was on Idiot Wind, in 1975, in which the beauty of his rhyming couplets can't disguise the anger beneath: "Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth/ You're an idiot, babe/ It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe".

And yet, on the same album, Blood on the Tracks, he could reduce grown men to tears with the love-lorn If You See Her Say Hello: "And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart/ She still lives inside of me, we've never been apart".

Not everything penned by Dylan stands up to such scrutiny. Many fans - myself included - tend to bypass the born-again Christian phase that influenced much of his output in the 1980s. And his prose-poetry book, Tarantula - published 60 years ago - flummoxed me when I attempted it in my early-20s. Perhaps I needed to smoke the sort of stuff Dylan allegedly did when writing it.

All the greats have off-days - even Dylan.

But when on form - as he's been for so many of his 75 years on earth - his gorgeously honed verse stands out on its own.

Belfast Telegraph

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