This week a couple of musical stalwarts were honoured when Bob Dylan (75) received the Nobel Prize in (not “for”…in) Literature & Rod Stewart (71) picked up his knighthood, adding to the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (sheesh !) he already had. Sir Rod loves all that guff, has done since he left Faces & trotted off to La-La Land with Britt Ekland. Our new Laureate has remained admirably silent while the world’s journalists, some unable to name more than 3 of his songs, expound on whether he “deserves” his accolade. I’m not going to get into the whys & the wherefores of my generation (hoped we died before we got old ?) turning into our parents because that leads to shit that’s serious & seriously depressing. I will though invoke that adage of Groucho Marx, the funniest man of the twentieth century, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”. A shout out too to Jean-Paul Sartre who declined his Nobel offer because “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form”.
I got lucky & got in early with Bob Dylan. The kid I sat next to at school was learning to play guitar (he became one of the UK’s most outstanding Folk artists) & he had the eponymous 1962 debut LP. The Beatles introduced me to Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters & Chuck Berry came through the Stones & this was my entry into Country Blues. He only wrote 2 songs on that first record, there are plenty of “trad, arranged by” & tunes credited to Jesse Fuller, Bukka White & Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Freewheelin'” was packed with originals. Not just instant folk standards like “Blowing in the Wind” & “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” but really hard ones like “Masters of War” & “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” which were a different cup of meat. There was more going on here than “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In fact our hip young English teacher played us “Oxford Town”, the song inspired by events at the University of Mississippi on the enrolment of James Meredith, its first black student, to kickstart a discussion on civil rights in the US.
I heard the influence this new lyrical sensibility had on the Beat merchants, in their own compositions & the covers of Dylan’s. I could also hear that, before Woody Guthrie & the Alan Lomax field recordings, Bob was listening to the same Rock & Roll & R&B so close to the hearts of my musical heroes. It weren’t no thing at all for us when Dylan “went electric”. Something was happening, we knew what it was & so did he, while the Folk purists fumed we welcomed him over to our side of the tracks. He was really good at the new music. His rocking Folk-Blues, enhanced by Al Kooper’s distinctive organ sound, gave an epic quality to his intricate poetry. The 3 LPs “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” & “Blonde On Blonde” were a major contribution to popular music’s increasingly serious treatment. He was indeed very popular, the first “Greatest Hits” collection being released in 1967.
Life as an international pop star was bad craziness & a motorcycle accident allowed him to step away from the rigmarole of being regarded as a spokesman for his generation. His return to recording found Bob to be more lyrically contemplative, musically less strident. The classic songs continued, his basement demos provided material for Julie Driscoll (“This Wheel’s on Fire”), Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) & others. Dylanology, a bookcase full of, well…books, forensically pored over his intricate poetry looking for clues that may or may not be there. “John Wesley Harding” (1967), which included “All Along the Watchtower”, featured “The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest”, with the moral “that one should never be where one does not belong”. Plenty of people wanted Dylan to be plenty of things but when he came back he did what he liked, liked what he did & really didn’t care what was written & said about him. Of course there were still great songs to come, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Hurricane”, “Sara”, it’s a very long list.
In the 1960s Sir Rod found himself Rock & Roll bands that needed a helping hand from a raspy Blues shouter, first with Steampacket, a revue of many talents, then with guitarist Jeff Beck’s group who made a bigger impression in the US than here. His standing gained him a solo recording contract & the greater freedom provided showed that there was possibly more to Rod the Mod than previously suspected. Rod had been a soulboy & the influence of Sam Cooke added a warmth to his vocals. He had been a teenage beatnik, busking around Europe until he was busted for vagrancy & deported from Spain in 1963. The addition of these Folk roots to the mix made for a very attractive, potent brew. A combination of Rod’s own songs with astute & appropriate cover versions helped too.Two LPs, perhaps regarded in the UK as moonlighting from his day job as lead singer of Faces, set the scene before “Every Picture Tells A Story” took over the world & Rod became a very big deal.
“Every Picture…” is an almost perfect record, self-produced, assistance from Ron Wood, drums by Micky Waller. On all 5 of his first LPs there’s a song he got from Bob Dylan (I’m including “Man of Constant Sorrow” here). These were selections by a fan, no obvious choices. “Only A Hobo”, a song with a tender social conscience, was an outtake from “The Times They Are a-Changin'” sessions in 1963. “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, the only Dylan composition to be recorded by Elvis Presley, had been taken up by many on the Folk scene while the original remained unreleased. “Mama You Been on My Mind” was another tune that Bob recorded, discarded & passed on to other artists. Dylan’s songs have been covered by so many others, everyone has a different list of favourites which all include Jimi Hendrix. Sir Rod, particularly with “Tomorrow…” has made a notable contribution to a large body of work.
By 1975 he had signed with Warner Brothers & was an ex-Face. The laddish flash seemed more based on conspicuous consumption, less grounded in his North London roots, the music less individual. “Atlantic Crossing” was his 4th #1 album in the UK but I wasn’t listening too closely. It was the first one not to include a Dylan song…just saying.
Both of them are still going, Bob on his endless tour, Sir Rod with his stream of covers. Bob released an album of cover versions (taking a pop at Rod’s) while they have both recorded Xmas collections. In 1988 Sir Rod wrote a song “Forever Young” & it was pointed out that it shared more than a title with Dylan’s song from “Planet Waves” (1974). He ran it by the future Nobel winner & it became the only song where the two share composing credits. We’ll go for the original here because it’s another one for the ages from a master songwriter.
I knew people who thought that modern music was Bob Dylan then everybody else below. I remember the excitement when someone walked into the house with “George Jackson” (1971), a return to the protest form. There may have been 136 or 142 protest singers (Ha !) but he was the one that mattered. The last of his records to make an impression round here was “Love & Theft” (2001), that’s a good set. Dylan is the greatest songwriter of his generation. Back then he needed no deification & now no Nobel recognition to change that. He’s written 136 or 142 great songs.
“Well, I set my monkey on the log & ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head & he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky”
“I’m just average, common too I’m just like him, the same as you I’m everybody’s brother and son I ain’t different from anyone It ain’t no use a-talking to me It’s just the same as talking to you,”
Verses from the proto-rap “I Shall Be Free #10” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964) a record I could only afford by sneaking it into the 50p (60 cents) bin at the local market.
“Everybody must get stoned”, that’s another one of his.