As I have mentioned previously, there’s a certain irony to holding down a post as music correspondent when I’m of advanced years, set in my ways, effectively tone deaf, regard classical music as just a posh form of muzak (aka ‘elevator music’) that is played in supermarkets, public toilets & airports and hide my opinions on all musical artistes and their works behind the convenient fig-leaf “I know nothing about music, but know what I like”.
Whenever we are on our annual holiday together, my extended family takes with it a new ‘Pub Quiz’ book and likes to hold a general knowledge quiz every night after dinner. I’m, quite good at it because of a strange facility I have for retaining odd trivia facts about a wide range of subjects that, in terms of real academic depth and understanding, I actually know little or nothing about.
This definitely also applies when it comes to music.
That said, by nature I’m an ordinary fan who loves the notion that there are certain fellow human beings walking amongst us who, by the simple accident of being supernaturally talented at something or another, are ‘different’ to we average Joes.
In this respect, in the sports world I’d point to the likes of Muhammad Ali, George Best, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods (as was) and Donald Bradman … the list is endless … and in popular music I’d nominate artistes such as Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Van Morrison, Kate Bush, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
I’m not claiming I particularly worship these artistes, or indeed spend much of my precious time listening to their music – just that I acknowledge them to be talented and happily place them on a pedestal because they operate at a level, possibly several levels, above that to which I have been consigned.
I’m not a Dylan fanatic. I know well only a fraction of the songs he’s produced over the past fifty years but I revere him as a great figure of our time and someone who has – in some sense – changed the world. I also like the idea of him, almost to the extent that I’d be content to suggest that, if he hadn’t existed, someone ought to have invented him.
Dylan is one of those people who ploughs his own furrow, no matter what. He wears lightly the worship that millions around the world lay at his feet. He’s never rested upon his laurels or made money for the sake of it, e.g. touring the world churning out his old hits on the nostalgia circuit.
Instead he constantly tours the world ‘doing his own thing’, playing new songs and turning his old songs – when he does visit them – inside out so that they’re practically unrecognisable, thereby delighting and infuriating his followers in equal measure. In recent times, he’s produced a highly-acclaimed volume of memoirs (Chronicles: Volume One) and hosted a thought-provoking radio show between 2006 and 2009 (Theme Time Radio Hour) on which he played a host of eclectic but fascinating personal musical choices plucked from the past one hundred years seemingly at random.
Whenever I see a mention of Dylan in the media, I sit up and take notice, only because I continue to follow his career, despite so infrequently listening to his music.
He’s been in the news quite a lot recently and, as ever, living up to my image of him as a ‘different’ human being to me.
According to a report in The Times, he’s currently under consideration as a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature – an honour that the writer of the piece felt was not only justified, but long overdue.
Elsewhere, building up to the release of new albums, there has been a rash of publicity about the Basement Tapes era of Dylan’s career.
For the uninitiated, Dylan’s manic, drug-fuelled, mid-Sixties period came to an abrupt end in July 1966 when he allegedly suffered a broken neck in a motorbike accident near his home in Woodstock and as a result disappeared from public sight for a year. In terms of his general health, it was possibly a blessing in disguise because it enabled him to chill out and reassess his life’s direction.
Over the next eighteen months, working in the basement of his home with the musicians who later became famous as The Band, he wrote and then recorded versions of many new songs that he never released but instead offered to others (e.g. This Wheel’s On Fire and Mighty Quinn, which became hits for the Brian Auger Trinity and Manfred Mann respectively).
Subsequently rumours about the Basement Tapes grew and occasional bootleg versions of extracts of the sessions appeared. Finally, in June 1975 – eight years after their recording – Dylan released an official album of the Basement Tapes to huge acclaim.
Fast-forward to September 2014.
It has just been announced that in November a completist ‘Bootleg Series’ version of the complete Basement Tapes recordings is to be released. Rather than the official 1975 album of 24 tracks, it will consist of six CDs and no fewer than 138 tracks, 30 of which have never before been heard in public.
Apparently about a year ago, Dylan asked his manager to contact legendary producer T Bone Burnett and offer a box-worth of 24 sets of lyrics that he had written during the Basement Tapes era but never made into songs: would Burnett like to gather a group of musicians together to finish the job?
Burnett naturally said yes. Those contributing to the project, which will consist of 20 tracks, include Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Jim James.
Costello was quoted this week expressing his reverence at taking part, commenting upon his sense of awe as he first read the lyrics – “Nobody but Bob Dylan could hold back words like these for 47 years …”
Lastly, earlier this week there was a letter in the Daily Telegraph mentioning an exchange with the folk singer that took place during an interview.
Asked what his songs were all about, he replied deadpan: “They’re all about three minutes long”.
Way to go, Bob!