Bob Dylan

Nicholson Baker's book U and I is his love letter to John Updike, a tribute to a huge literary hero, an influence on his writing and life, a favourite author. The book also talks about the complexity of living under that influence, under the spell of the man. But later in the book, Baker starts to doubt himself. How much of a fan is he? Making a list, he is appalled to realise that he hasn't read all of the books. In fact, once he tots it up, he realises with horror he's read fewer than half of them.

As long as I can remember, Bob Dylan's always been there, the soundtrack to my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. My mum was and is and huge Dylan fan and pretty much all she played at home when I was growing up was Dylan (with occasional Leonard Cohen). Through the seventies, I remember the day that a new Dylan would come out and my mum would take me on a trip to HMV at Bond Street to get it. I can't remember not knowing Dylan's music. The music was always on and the songs flowed together and through me. They all seemed like one big song in a way. I rarely stopped to ask what particular songs were. In fact I've always had tremendous difficulty remembering which songs are on which records. 'When the Ship Comes In' - is that on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or The Times They Are A-Changing? I have a general sense of the shape of his career - folky>goes electric>Big Pink>country>what is this shit?>amazing comeback>goes Christian>badly produced>second amazing comeback>never-ending tours - and I know hundreds of his songs but I rarely actually sit down and listened to a whole album (Blood on the Tracks many times excepted).

So I thought I'd listen to all of Bob Dylan, in order. I like chronology and I kind of want to unbend the paper clip a bit and see how the shape was made.

I have no idea how far I will get with this. I may well give up halfway through this very blog, but here's what I will try to do. I'm going to listen to each album in order of release. I'll listen to some of the subsequently released archive material (mostly on the Bootleg Series) inserting that stuff into the chronological order. I'm not going to listen to any actual bootlegs because there are millions and I don't have them (unless you think there are unmissable ones I absolutely must hear in which case please feel free to send me a download link). And then I may write about it. And I'm going to start at the beginning.

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan (1962)

I don't honestly think ever I've listened to this album all the way through before. My first thought is that the stand-out song is 'Song for Woody', partly because it's one of only two originals on the record and this is more characteristic of what we know Dylan will become only a couple of years later. We feel like we're getting a glimpse of the tambourine man in it and lyrics like 'I'm seeing your world of people and things / Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings' hint at the semi-mythical world of 'All Along the Watchtower' and 'Changing of the Guards', even if in a much simplified form.

But that's all about retrospection and trying to see the future in the past. This album is plainly not about Dylan trying to launch himself as a songwriter; it's about him situating himself as an interpreter of the folk tradition. And by folk tradition I don't mean anything narrow: more like the astonishing range of music that you get on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), which, to my ears contains folk, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, jug bands, and more (and with which Dylan was very familiar). Indeed, there's quite a range of music on Dylan's first album; alongside the somewhat straight folk of 'Pretty Peggy-O', there's the New York hipster wit of 'Talkin' New York', gospel in 'Gospel Plow', blues in 'In My Time of Dyin'', 12-bar blues in 'Highway 51', and a fairly straight-up Jimmie Rodgers-style country yodel in 'Freight Train Blues'.

Dylan's voice is what gives it a certain unity but also a dispersed uncertainty. Dylan's voice was never smooth (except when he adopted that rather appealing croon on Nashville Skyline) and here his characteristic tone is in evidence, but on some of the songs like 'In My Time of Dyin'' he manages a really ferocious blues-shouter tone that gives the emotions in the songs heft and force. There is a hint of revivalist preacher in 'Gospel Plow' and in 'Fixin' to Die' he squashes his syllables like a grizzled old bluesman. These are tones of voice you rarely hear him essay again and by the next album his voice has found its own tone, the familiar whining nasal sound that was often imitated, often mocked but is simply one of the most acidically expressive instruments in modern music. Here though it feels like he's trying to fit in, to show he knows the styles and can creditably carry them off. Much of this is successful and impressive though it sounds like a young man trying to sound old and perhaps too readily adapting his style to music that is not his. This is part and parcel of the record's gleeful adoption of the iconography and mythology of the rambling folk rebel, jumping the mail trains and singing for his supper. This gives the record a slightly wandering feel, in both senses.

Of the outtakes, 'Man on the Street' is a Dylan original (albeit with an old tune) and a pretty good one. It tells, in very simple terms, the story of an old man found dead in the street. The story is anonymous; we never find out who the man was, who the narrator is, and how he knows the dead man (he seems to; he knows that 'he never done wrong'). It's a mysterious song in other ways: though peppered with implicit criticism of the public and police for their lack of care, the singer doesn't appear to have done any more to help him than anyone else (except, I guess, write a song about the dead man). Ultimately, it's unclear why he is so insistent on having us listen to this song (even if it isn't very long). Clinton Heylin loves 'The House Carpenter' and it's powerful but there are so many great versions of 'The House Carpenter' - my favourite being Natalie Merchant's - that I can't quite get excited about this one. 

To claim that 'Song to Woody' is an original is, of course, a bit of an overstatement. He's wholly nicked the tune from Woody Guthrie's '1913 Massacre' and there are scraps of other songs in the lyrics. Which might seem like a bit of a bloody cheek, except when you imagine Dylan visiting the dying Guthrie in hospital and playing it to him, at which point it's clearly an affectionate hommage, even a joke ('Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song' when the tune is Guthrie's is a pretty good face-to-face gag). It's rather like Loudon Wainwright's 'Talking New Bob Dylan' which wishes Dylan a happy fiftieth birthday - and even engages in a bit of ribbing - by borrowing aspects of 'Talkin' New York' from the present record. 

Otherwise, I don't think this LP particularly reveals Dylan's sense of humour. In the out-takes and concert recordings from the time there are much funnier songs, like the picaresque 'Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues' in which his persona is the hapless innocent abroad; it looks forward to the rambling comic narrative of 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream' from Bringing It All Back Home. There's also the rather more confrontational performance piece 'Talkin' Hava Nageileh Blues', which sneaks the Jewish folk song into performance, syllable by syllable, under the guise of something more traditionally American. Here, though, the humour is rather hipsterish; think of the knowing asides of 'Talkin' New York' or the little drop line at the beginning of 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down' ('I first heard this from Rick Von Schmidt/He lives in Cambridge/Rick's a blues guitar player/I met him one day in the green pastures... of Harvard University'). But these jokes are a bit in-crowd and oddly conformist; later he would become so much more generous and, simultaneously, acidic.

Dylan's guitar playing and arrangements sound great; it's a very well-recorded album, despite Dylan's notoriously unhelpful attitude to the sessions. The slide guitar on 'In My Time of Dyin'' (reputedly played with a lipstick) is fiercely brilliant, mistakes and all. There's a nice little descending run he is fond of here: C - B, then down to A playing the D on top of it which gives a nice little melancholy bass tension to the major. He uses it repeatedly in 'Man of Constant Sorrow' and it's right anchoring the verse of 'Song to Woody' ('Walking the roads other men have gone down'). There's a percussive slide down he uses in 'Fixin' to Die' and 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' which suggests live performance much more than something recorded carefully in a studio, which gives the record a sense of temporality, immediacy, provisionality, which is something one senses Dylan has wanted to find throughout his life. One of my favourite of the outtakes is his simple reading of 'He Was a Friend of Mine'; perhaps, though, its absence here is precisely because of the simplicity: Dylan hadn't really stamped his authority on the song, just rendered it well and, even here, that wasn't good enough for him.