The world is digging in for Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. As this article appears it will be just one in an avalanche of Dylan celebrations, much of the hoopla resonant with a strange wonder that we, the punters, the audience, have come so far on the journey: 60 years of Bob, and counting. This is a major event of the kind that reminds us that we, or he, may not see such a day again. Not another full decade anyway, God forbid perhaps no other anniversary at all.
Dylan played his first paying gig in early 1961. Since then we’ve seen the assassination of Presidents, the landings on the moon, the imminent collapse of the UK union and now the pandemic, while Dylan has worked away, making music, recording new albums (that are mostly not like the ones before) and touring incessantly, surfing the vast wave that took him from the Tom Paine Award in 1963 all the way to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
Famously, he has been touring non-stop since 1988, meaning a hundred plus gigs a year, over 3,000 in all, a so-called Never-Ending Tour, a term Dylan doesn’t like perhaps because it stands pretty well as a metaphor for life itself. It’s never-ending until it’s not.
He’s written over 500 songs and released 39 studio albums, 11 live albums and, as best as I could count, some 128 CDs of further material, most of it worthwhile, much of it startling. He’s directed two films and appeared in several more, produced a gallery load of paintings, some of them not at all bad, and had his huge archive of material taken on for research and exhibition by the University of Tulsa.
May you climb a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young
from Planet Waves 1973
As an artist, the distance between his achievement and the next level is incalculable. If you tried to count any scores you might be surprised to find that none of the people you’d want to compare him with would disagree. You still get a few outliers (cloth-eared eejits admittedly) who say Dylan’s voice is bad or they don’t get this or that, but there are no artists working who don’t understand how Bob Dylan moved their mountains and marked their cards. Unexpected as it was when he got the Nobel, was there anyone who cavilled? No. As Noel Gallagher offered when someone told him Dylan couldn’t sing: “What do you mean he can’t sing? He’s Bob Dylan, that’s what singing is”.
My own first definitive memory of Dylan is seeing some sheet music for Blowin’ in the Wind in the school music room in probably 1963 or 1964. There was just something distinctive about the picture of that intense skinny kid in his scruffy flannel shirt. I bought my first Dylan album in 1968 and at 32/6 in old money that was a big deal for a 15-year-old. Since then I have seen it all (the mornings, evenings, afternoons) and I have measured out my life with Bob Dylan albums, as TS Eliot would’ve said, if he’d been asked.
Of course, just as Dylan has an echo in nearly every modern subject of consequence (check out last month’s Irish Grand National). He even has at least a footnote in the recent cultural history of Sussex. As the never-ending tour has crossed the world, time and time again, it has on occasion landed on our own little square on the board game of life. I haven’t counted how many times I’ve seen Dylan, and anyway I would be a bit shy to say, but if you check you’ll find he has played in Brighton twice, on 26 March 1995 and again on 4 May 2002.
The records will also tell you, of course, that Dylan has a special and much longer association with the UK, going back right to his folk beginnings. His first British appearance was at the King and Queen’s pub off Tottenham Court Road in December 1962 and there are fantastic pictures to prove it, the young whippersnapper trying too hard to impress a roomful of sceptical traditionalists.
He also played at the Troubadour Club in Earls Court and there are pictures of that too. From then on the pace got faster and the gigs got bigger and more intense: the Festival Hall in 1964, eight shows in UK concert halls in 1965, then 13 shows on the world-bestriding 1966 electric tour, climaxing in the lion’s den of Manchester Free Trade hall with scenes of mayhem so disturbing and strange that one fan was recorded for all posterity shouting ‘Judas’ at the top of his voice while a future critic reckoned this to be a pivotal moment in music in the 20th Century, on a par with the riot in Paris during Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
My best friend said, ‘now didn’t I warn ya,
Brighton girls are like the moon‘
from New Morning 1970
And then, of course, the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, the one show nearly everyone of any age knows something about. Dylan, curious, he claimed, about the home of Tennyson, was lured out from three years of seclusion to play to 250,000 hippies in a field at Wootton with three of the Beatles sitting coolly at the front of the stage. I missed that because I was too young to go and I missed out again in 1978; six era-defining shows at the huge Earls Court Exhibition Centre, because I was living in the Caribbean and, in those days, nobody I knew would have dreamt of even considering flying across the Atlantic to see a gig, however painful the FOMO was.
After that we are into something akin to the modern age and further tours and one-offs roll across the years before the Never-Ending Tour really even gets going. Later, when Dylan came to the south coast and played here, at the Brighton Centre, in 1995 that seemed to be something of a statement. He was venturing further out, into the regions and away from the stadiums and the metropolis. Then it was Bournemouth in 1997. Bournemouth FFS! And he must have liked it because he played there two more times, in 2002 and 2017. He played a couple of fantastic nights in Portsmouth in 2000 (and I had a seat at the front of the balcony for one of them).
On another leg of the tour, two years after that, and three days before my son was born, I abandoned my expectant partner in a tiny garret in Shepherds Bush and headed down to Brighton for his second appearance here. A cracker it was too. I don’t keep much memorabilia and I thought I didn’t have a ticket stub, but I do! Brighton-based polymath Alexis Petridis writing in the Guardian gave the show a 4-star review: “Dylan’s voice was “a terrifying croak; live it is literally beyond language… Legendary songs go on for minutes without a flicker of audience recognition”. But everyone loved it. Why would they not? And thanks to the wonders of YouTube you can even see and hear the terrifying croak for yourself.
Bob was old then, but he’s even older than that now. At 80 he has lived a third of his country’s history. And, of course, he’s missing some of the fire that burned his hands for a while but he hasn’t lost his magic or his twinkle. And he keeps on keeping on. It’s an article of faith for him. The artist works. Since turning 70 he played three years in a row at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent. He played Southampton in 2015. His last appearance in the UK was a show in Hyde Park with Neil Young in July 2019. Here’s a picture I took there, the entertainer, the song and dance man treading the boards one more time. Good head of hair too!
Now, with Covid, there is a serious chance that that could have been his last UK gig, maybe among his last shows anywhere. He’s about to turn 80 for heaven’s sake. Then again, who knows? As we emerge out of lockdown and into the light, perhaps he will suddenly pop up again, just as before, on the road, heading for another joint. What chance a one-off show for the Brighton Festival this month? A few impromptu numbers when no one is looking? Look, this is the guy who wrote ‘Brighton girls are like the moon’. This was before he’d been in Brighton. How did he even know?
As it happens, Brighton Girls is putting on gigs for the festival. Really. They are. Check the link. In fact I’m going to one of their shows: the estimable Craig Brown, talking about his Beatles book. And there seems to be a space in the listings calendar on 24 May, Bobby’s big day.
Can I start a rumour? C’mon Brighton Festival organisers, this is too good an opportunity. Fix it up! Meanwhile, as we wait, it’s Happy Birthday, Mr Bob. Many Happy Returns.
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