Bob Dylan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

It’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve listened through The Times They Are A-Changing 1964) twice, John Wesley Harding (1967) twice, Bringing it All Back Home (1965) four times, Blood on the Tracks (1975) eight times, and Slow Train Coming (1979) maybe half a dozen times. So a decent selection of Dylan albums from most of his major periods, all given a real chance, and I have been waiting and waiting for the “Oooohhh … I get it” lightning to strike. It’s not happened, and after twenty opportunities I am beginning to despair that it ever will.


So I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am just never going to like Dylan and I should give up trying.

And yet, and yet …

I’m reluctant to accept it for four reasons.

First, a lot of people whose musical taste I otherwise share think Dylan is brilliant, and it’s easier to believe I’m missing it than that they are all hallucinating. When people refuse to see the glory of prog rock, I know that they are mistaken, because I do see it. So on the same basis, if they see the glory of Dylan and I don’t, isn’t it parsimonious to conclude that I’m mistaken?

Second, his influence is so vast. It’s seen most obviously in Dylan-impersonation songs like Paul Simon’s Simple Desultory Philippic and John Lennon’s You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. But of course it goes much deeper than that: for example, it’s widely felt that the whole of the Beatles’ Help! album was recorded under the influence of Dylan, and I absolutely love that album.

Third, I do like quite a few of other people’s versions of Dylan songs: for example, Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, Adele’s Make You Feel My Love, and World Party’s All I Really Want to Do. So there must be something in there that has an appeal for me.

And fourth, it took a long while before I could see what the point of Hendrix was, but then a moment came when it suddenly all swam into focus and then he was all I listened to for a year. So I can’t quite free myself from the idea that one day, I will have a Dylan-swims-into-focus moment.

I don’t know. What do you think? Should I give him another spin?

24 responses to “Bob Dylan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

  1. Time out of Mind was what did it for me. His vocals are perhaps the worst i’ve ever heard them (not counting a couple of live concerts), but i listened, and suddenly i “understood”. After that i progressed to “Love and Theft”, along with “Modern Times”, and suddenly the old stuff also made a lot of sense.

  2. I’m kind of struggling with old Gob. Loads of people think he’s cool, but I just don’t get him, in much the same way that I don’t get emacs: there’s just no natural connection going on there and I wonder if it’s a sort of fundamental aspect of the universe and therefore one I’m not going to conquer. I get the same thing when I try to listen to Rush or Gentle Giant, and however many times I try, I just keep on thinking “I don’t understand and nor do I like it. Please make it stop.”

    There’s admittedly been plenty of other bands I’ve struggled to get into, I mean King Crimson are not noted for being the most accessible, and I admit that much of there catalogue is still a shadowy realm for me. But that was years ago.

    On the other hand, 32 years after playing bass, I’ve finally relented and decided that my bass collection needs a Jazz. I’ve always sneered at Jazzes for being a bit newfangled and fancy and fixing a problem that doesn’t need to be fixed. Maybe in my old age I’m starting to develop an appreciation for the finer things. Maybe one day I will get Gob. But he’s kinda poetic and I’m autistic and it makes my brain hurt. Bring me the knotted handkerchief.

  3. Dylan does a fun turn as an actor in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid movie. Maybe you can practice liking that. He does some of the music, but in a Hollywood soundtrack mode that disciplines his quirkier edges.

  4. I’ve never “got” it either. I gave up and summarised it thus: Bob Dylan: Superb songwriter; terrible singer.

  5. I’ve heard this “superb songwriter, terrible singer” idea from a few people. I am not sure how it ties in with couplets like:

    The waitress he was handsome
    He wore a powder blue cape
    I ordered some suzette, I said
    “Could you please make that crepe”

    if that’s the work of a songwriting genius, I am not seeing it.

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  7. All the stanza you quote tells us is that he is, among many other things, capable of humour. You might not find it funny, but that’s fine.

    And maybe also that he can sometimes go for the rhyme over meaning. But that’s OK too.

    Should you give him another try? Hell, yes. I’d recommend Highway 61 Revisited, especially the last track, “Desolation Row”.

    I love that song, but didn’t really start to get it properly, or really, Dylan as a whole, till I discovered it was the source of the quote at the start of episode 1 of Watchmen. Before then I was of the “cover versions are always better” school of thought.

    Maybe we just need a trigger.

  8. Maybe we just need a trigger.

    That’s what I keep thinking. In my case, Purple Haze and the rest didn’t grab me; but for some reason, Love or Confusion did; and once I had that, I went roaring back through the Hendrix catalogue. I am basically waiting for my Bob Dylan Love or Confusion.

    (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream is still rubbish, though.)

  9. andrewrilstone

    I have quoted before the story about the guy who said he loved nearly all alcoholic drinks, but didn’t see the point of whisky… And yet everyone says that a good single malt is the finest liquor money (quite a lot of money, sometimes) can buy. Did he need to go to a tutored tasting? Were there “entry level” whiskeys he needed to try first? Was he doing it wrong by not watering it down?

    “Maybe” said someone helpfully “You just don’t like whisky.”

    My blind spot is jazz. Not at a “ooo make it stop” level, but at an “I suppose this is a vaguely pleasant sound but I don’t know why people are so excited about it” level. I’ve been to folk-jazz hybrids where the song is interrupted by someone doing something vaguely musical on the double base, and my mind wanders for five minutes, and the rest of the audience break into spontaneous applause. Don’t get it.

    And this is fine. Provided, of course, you are not tempted to say, even very quietly and under your breath “and of course, no-one else gets jazz either; everyone knows it’s nonsense; but some people pretend to like it because they think they will come across as cool” or “and of course, foolish people get taken in by the fireworks in Dylans lyrics, but us clever ones can see right through them. Remember the story about the naked king?” I don’t think either you or me would be tempted to say that, but astonishing numbers of people do.

    Of course you should occasionally listen to a Dylan record to see if you still don’t like him, in the same way you should occasionally eat an olive to find out if they are still horrible. If you don’t get on with Blood on the Tracks, then there you probably wouldn’t like Blonde on Blonde either; if you don’t like Time They Are a Changin’ you probably wouldn’t like Freewheelin’. Yes, you should definitely give Highway 61 Revisited a listen. Maybe just possibly try Good As I Been To You — he dealt with a period of writers block by doing an album of traditional folksongs, things like Jim Jones in Botany Bay and Hard Times Come Again No More.

    It isn’t quite fair to quote lines of song lyrics out of context and ask where there merit is. I mean Shakespeare wrote “Oh never was there such a tale of woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” and Wordsworth wrote “I measured it from side to side ’twas three feet long and five feet wide” (both of which are entirely justifiable in context.) Writing doesn’t have to be tricksy and elaborate to be great. Dylan’s 115 Dream isn’t the greatest thing he ever did, but talkin’ blues is a venerable song format, and it actually contains some great vignettes.

    The man says ‘Get out of here or I’ll tear you limb from limb’
    I said “You know they refused Jesus too?” He said ‘You’re not Him.’

    Are there ANY songs which do it for you? What do you think of the very early protesty things like Emmet Tell and Hattie Carrol?


  10. Thanks for chipping in, Andrew. The whisky analogy is a good one, and I it nearly persuades me to just walk away from Dylan and call it done; were it not that I had such a similar experience with not liking brandy until one day I tasted one which I loved, then found that through that gateway I came to love all the other brandies as well, and my life was richer for it. (I don’t mean brandy, I mean Hendrix.)

    Do I like any Dylan songs? Yes, a few. From Bringing it All Back Home, I quite like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. From Blood on the Tracks, I quite like “Tangled Up in Blue”. From this, we can conclude that I like songs whose titles begin with “It’s” and end with “Blue”, and that my ultimate Dylan song is “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Also, “Idiot Wind”, which is probably my favourite.

  11. … Although I must admit I am about ready for “It’s Alright Ma” to finish several dozen minutes before it actually does.

  12. BTW., how do you get on with Paul Simon?

  13. andrewrilstone

    Largely unacquainted with Paul Simon. Know and like the 60s Simon and Garfunkle stuff, of course. (Heard him live at Glasto, a few years ago, on the big stage, doing entirely Graceland and later, which left me and the audience cold. On the other hand, this year, I heard Art Garfunkle, on a slightly smaller stage, running through Bright Eyes and Bridge Over Troubled Water and he’s now my favourite person in the world. How that fits in with my enthusiasm for Dylan’s legendarily obscure lives sets I couldn’t say.)

  14. andrewrilstone

    How do you regard Woody Guthrie?

  15. Try listening to Bob Dylan’s two most famous and critically-acclaimed albums of all time. Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. I don’t understand how you could try to like Bob Dylan without listening to those two albums first.

  16. Robert (if that is your real name), I regard the double album Blonde on Blonde with some trepidation, especially eleven straight minutes of Sad-Eyed Lady. I might take a stab at Highway 61 Revisited, but are the four albums I listed also not famous and critically acclaimed?

  17. Andrew, I don’t think I’ve heard a single Woody Guthrie song (though I have seen a rather affecting video of Arlo Guthrie singing I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You). I’ve made a pretty solid effort at listening to Pete Seeger, but while I respect him tremendously as a person, I just can’t enjoy that kind of music. I think I have too much respect for craftsmanship — which may be why Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell score so highly for me.

  18. Robert Zimmerman

    Hey Mike. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks are the four most famous and critically-acclaimed Bob Dylan albums. They’re all considered classics. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is not nearly as well-respected, but is still one of his better early folk albums even if The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan crushes it like a grape. John Wesley Harding is pretty good, but it’s definitely a drop off in quality after his three greatest albums of the 60s. I’m a bit puzzled as to why you would listen to Slow Train Coming as one of your first Dylan albums. His born-again Christian phase is very reviled among fans and critics alike.

    You should definitely try to listen to Highway 61 Revisited when you have the chance. That’s the one with “Like a Rolling Stone”. It’s my personal favourite out of his entire discography. I can certainly understand your trepidation at listening to a double album with an eleven-minute closing track if Dylan has not proven to be your cup of tea so far, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. I love it so much. It’s one of the Top 3 finest double albums in the history of rock in my humble opinion.

    Anyway, you don’t have to force yourself to like anything. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, but even I can understand why he might not be for everyone. I’ve been a regular reader of your blog for a few years now and I know that you have a very nice taste in music overall. Good luck and happy listening.

    P.S. No. Robert Zimmerman is not actually my real name. You got me there. :) It’s Bob Dylan’s birth name. Well done on catching that.

  19. I recognised Dylan’s birth name. After all, does he not tell us himself that “You may call me Zimmy” in You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody? :-)

    OK, just for you, I will listed to Highway 61 Revisited. You never know. It might be The One.

    I listened to Slow Train Coming back in the day not because it was a Dylan album but because it was a Christian album. Being a Christian myself, I know all too well how anodyne much Christian music is, and Slow Train was better than most, even if most Dylan fans are not impressed.

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