B-SIDE MYSELF OVER BOB DYLAN
January 14, 2000
It’s hard to find what you want when you don’t know what you’re looking for and last night I was sitting in front of my computer screen with only a vague notion of what I was seeking.
Something odd, something entertaining, something unique – some bizarre site for my weekly Weird Web column in The Times.
I’d been browsing since 10pm and now it was past 2am. I’d found a lot, but not what I needed, and my wife Hanna had long gone to bed. To keep myself company, I put on a CD.
I chose Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks because it had been delivered that morning from an online music store. The first time I bought it was in a Greenwich Village store in 1975 – I don’t use my vinyl records much now because it’s hard to play a 33-and-a-third RPM disc on a computer. Gradually I’m replacing my favourites.
As I studied the track listing, I realised this album was only half a favourite. I don’t ever remember playing the b-side of the record. I wore out the first side – I know the lines of Tangled Up In Blue and Simple Twist Of Fate like a child knows prayers and nursery rhymes, almost like an instinct.
But that first side seemed a complete work of art and I never flipped it over. A CD has no second side. And as I kept clicking and searching in the Web, the familiar music ran out and songs I did not know began to play.
The last track was a revelation. It pulled me out of my virtual world, and I sat back in the flickering darkness of my study, and played that song over and over.
It is called Buckets Of Rain, and it sounds like a traditional folk song, and it also sounds very Seventies, like Cat Stevens. It has a loose, live feel, and a lyric which seemed to sum up all the friendships which have ebbed and flowed since I lived in New York a quarter of a century ago — and how Hanna has always been my rock:‘‘I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke, Friends will arrive, friends will disappear, If you want me, honey baby, I’ll be here.’’
When Dylan became a Christian evangelist in the late 70s, one fan I knew, an accountant in Los Angeles, threw out all his albums. He had everything the singer had released since 1961, some of it autographed, and he heaved the whole collection into a skip.
I told this man, Milton, he was acting like the Bible Belt fundamentalists had when they burned Beatles LPs in protest at John Lennon’s ‘we’re bigger than Jesus’ ad-lib.
Milt wrote to me: ‘‘How can I ever listen to Dylan’s stuff again? I’ve always loved it, it’s been the score of my whole adult life – student days, meeting my first wife, hippy peace marches, my first divorce, raising a family with Judith, then that divorce . . . I did it all to the sound of Dylan.
‘‘But now that man, my idol, who was born a Jew named Robert Zimmerman, is walking onto rock and roll stages and proclaiming, ‘Christ will return to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem. There really is a slow train coming and it is picking up speed. Satan has been defeated by the cross!’
‘‘It’s a betrayal. I feel tainted with hypocrisy. Dylan talked about emigrating to Israel – he went there repeatedly, he spent time on a kibbutz, he was photographed at the Wall. It’s like finding out someone you love has been lying to you all their life.
‘‘I have to deal with that, and dealing with it means dumping the records. That’s not a protest, it’s a defence mechanism.’’
Re-reading Milt’s letter has made me think hard about what fans can expect from their heroes. Dylan did not write his songs as a soundtrack for Milt’s adventures – he wrote them for himself. So it was unreasonable of Milt to hold his idol to his personal code of conduct.
I believe Milt could have kept listening to Blonde On Blonde and Freewheelin’, without turning Christian — and without the right to insist that Dylan stayed a Jew.
Frederic Chopin was an antisemite, and that doesn’t prevent me from loving the Nocturnes and Waltzes. I don’t hear a Jew-hater when I listen to the Ballade for Piano No 1, and I don’t hear a fire-and-brimstone evangelist when I listen to Hey Mr Tambourine Man.
In the mid-Eighties, Dylan was reportedly interested in Chassidic Judaism and the Lubavitch movement. I don’t hear that either in the songs I have just discovered on Blood On The Tracks. What I hear, as Milt heard, are the echoes of my own life. If I was a Buddhist, or a Moslem, these would be Zen songs or Islamic songs.
But I am Uri Geller – and right now, Buckets Of Rain is a uniquely Uri Geller song.
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