I listen to Bob Dylan when I write. He's always there, and he always seems to know exactly what to say. Today I spent five hours working on a section of my novel-in-progress, with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", the breathtakingly beautiful closing track on Bob's sublime 'Blonde On Blonde' album, locked in a continuous loop. Like so many of Dylan's lyrical masterpieces, this song astonishes me, more so with every listen, in fact. I adore the way I never fully feel as if I have a full understanding of his songs, even though I have lived with them virtually my entire life. It is their mystery that intrigues, I think.
There are plenty who dispute Dylan's status as a poet. I would never claim to be an authority on poetry but I have to say that no other writer's words have ever moved me quite as much as Bob's do. So maybe he is not a poet, but if not then he is something deeper than that.
It has long been my experience that when it comes to appreciating his songs slow ingestion is best. He writes them and sings them, and they are out there for us, to grow into when we are ready.
I remember when his late-90s masterpiece, 'Time Out Of Mind', was released. I listened to the album incessantly, and I remember thrilling over so many of the songs, such as "Not Dark Yet", "Standing In The Doorway" and "Trying To Get To Heaven". Lost in the mix, or somehow overlooked by me, was what had seems a lightweight number, "To Make You Feel My Love". Cover versions of the song were getting some heavy airplay, by big hitters such as Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, but for some reason I just didn't get it. That was my failing, of course, not the song's. And then, about three years ago, I was listening to the album for the umpteenth thousand time, and suddenly it was as if the noise of the whole world stopped. It's rarely anything tangible, just some inner shifting of rusty cogs, and there it is, the magic, unfurling in all its mysterious glory. More than words, more than melody, the entire thing just gets into your bloodstream. I think I didn't get the song because I wasn't yet ready to get it, my life hadn't yet reached the necessary point in its trails. It was a small Damascus moment, and one that left me wondering what other songs in Bob's vast pantheon of work have yet to properly reveal themselves to me.
A new album is always an event. Since 1997's 'Time Out Of Mind', critical acclaim for Dylan has been absolute, with 'Love and Theft' and 'Modern Times' both receiving lavish praise. Now we have another album of new material, 'Together Through Life', to ingest. The reflex action is always to love the latest work or to be disappointed that, in your mind, it falls some way short of his best stuff, 'Blood On The Tracks' or 'Bringing It All Back Home' or 'Freewheelin', or whichever album it is that turns your wheels. I try to be more cautious. For me, 'Love and Theft', initially, was a letdown, but now I understand that the weakness was mine, not the songs. So when Amazon (finally) delivers to my door, I will sit and listen, over and over and probably over again, and I'll take what Bob has chosen, for now, to give. But I won't rush anything, because I'll know that there are years worth of detail waiting to be discovered, in these songs and in all the others, but only when the time is right.
I can't help it if I'm lucky...