I've got a secret for you. Whisper it, because there are people who would happily see me lynched or certified (or both) for saying it, but I don't enjoy the music of Bob Dylan. I know what you are saying to yourself: "Bloody hell, this bloke has got some nerve. First he wanks lyrical about Ned's Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker and now he's going to tell us Bob Dylan is shit". I know, I know, but I just don’t GET him. What is it exactly people see in his music? At a push, I can understand his importance as an artist and how important his influence is on popular music and all that. But really, what is it? It can't be his voice. All nasal and brown paper thin. I'm not saying you have to have Jeff Buckley's voice to make your songs worth listening to, but bloody hell.
It can't be his live shows. Who in their right mind would pay £45 to watch their hero play in an air craft hangar and spend an hour and a half trying to work out which song is being performed? Are they masochists? Maybe that’s the crux. They are not paying to see the man perform; they are just there to SEE him. To share the same air as their idol. This, it could be argued, is fair enough. I've paid good money to see my idol, Morrissey. The difference being that Moz's voice was crystal clear and the passion and verve of the music was worth every penny. And I'm not being biased here, honest. If it got to the point where I realised half way through a song (sat on my tiny plastic 'seat', eating one of those tiny tubes of Pringles that I had wasted a fiver on) "oh, I think it's Hairdresser on Fire" I would think the gig shit and happily say so.
And it can't be his song writing either. I have a mistrust of protest songs that lack real anger. I don't like lyrics that say nothing, yet fool men with bits of pork pie in their beards that there is some kind of message. The answer's blowin' in the wind is it Bob? Cheers for that.
Obviously, he can write a tune. But he's written nothing that deserves all the credit he gets. I have a theory, and it's quite unique insomuch that it's an idea that popped into my head during a drunken argument in the pub and I still thought it made sense when I sobered up in the morning. The theory is this: Bob Dylan has never written a song half as good as 'Nothing Compares 2 U' by Prince. I'm not even a fan of Prince. I don't own a Prince album. But that song is fantastic. There is no-one, I think, who cannot relate to the lyrics. Everyone has felt the heartache of a relationship ending. I don't know you, but I would happily bet a pint on the fact that you have never been stuck inside of Mobil. And even if you have, you have never experienced the Memphis blues even once, never mind it occurring again. The way the song (the Prince one) flows and goes exactly where it should do is wonderful. It seems so easy, but we know of course, that it isn't.
Too me, Bob Dylan represents being let down. By people, music magazines and books and even musicians who trump up his royal Bobness. By his adoring but boring fans. Fans who completely fail to appreciate the joy and humour and quiet sadness that music can bring, but make up for it by owning a bootleg of Dylan farting in a harmonica during the Bum Fluff sessions of '64. And then sneer because you don't own it. Bores one and all.
Realising Bob Dylan isn't half as good as people make out is not my only musical disappointment. There is two more that have shaped me like a line in a circle of crop. The first one was seeing the Sex Pistols live. They had reformed in July 1996, and played The Phoenix festival two months after my nineteenth birthday. Being a kid into music, the Pistols were almost untouchable, something of legend up there with the Beatles and the Who and all the rest of the Mojo hall of fame, the bands that you had drilled into would never be touched in your life time or that of your children. And, almost unthinkably, I was going to see this myth, this testament to youth, power, politics and art in the flesh. Was I excited? Just a bit.
But they were awful. Fat and middle aged, (forgivable in body, but not in mind) they put the painting of Dorian Gray on the stage rather than the man. 'Rotten' called us hippies, and then we would boo him. Then they butchered another classic. Then again. Then again. Like the junk yard dog in Stand by Me, it was the first time myth had gone up against reality and lost. And it hurt.
The Second, and most damning, was in book form. I went through I minor obsession with The Doors, initially triggered by the (actually awful) Oliver Stone film and then crystallised by the Danny Sugarman book No one Gets Out Of Here Alive. It’s still a great book, a byword for gentle myth making, a tale told with the right mix of love and awe. And of course with Morrison being dead I couldn't blow it being seeing them old and boring, they would forever be framed, young, poetic and exciting. It’s a laughable book to some, dumbed down and lumpen, but to a 15 year old boy in a quiet tiny town, it meant the world.
I was talking to an older friend about how much I loved it, and he recommended Hammer of the Gods, the Led-Zep bio. I look back at that, and wonder if that moment has done me more harm than good, and it’s the latter. Just.
I got bored by the constant justification of the bands art by the number of tickets sold. I was disenfranchised by Pages 'dabbling' with Satanism. By the time I got to the part where he kidnaps and fucks a 14 year old girl, a tale told with such reverence and glee that this should be his ticket to some sort of rock and roll immortality, I felt sick to my guts. But that moment, on my bed at my parents’ house, sunlight illuminating the blue curtain as I lie on my belly and read, would hold me in good stead. I would not be fooled again.
What I learned by that episode is what I liked about music. Not what Johnny Marr calls "Harley Davidson rock", something with purity and heart. Bands and writers who perform to exorcise and communicate. Basically, people with more brains than cool and more fire than skill.
My favourite example of this is the song Try Again by Big Star, a song that takes the major theme of not fitting in or being comfortable and in your own skin, being continually chased by demons, and doesn't scream it in pain, but sings it with a hush in quiet, defiant acceptance.
"Lord I’ve been trying to be understood
And Lord I’ve being to trying to do as you would
But each time it gets a little harder
I feel the pain
But I’ll try again"
A song that proves you don't have to scream to be heard. That the best music, they best way of easing an idea into our souls, is music that comes from the heart not the head. When you listen to a Bob Dylan record, it's hard not to get the feeling that the point he is trying to put across is how great, how bright, Bob Dylan is. That he is somehow above us and trying to hand these ideas down. But for me, it doesn't work. Give me a song that conveys something I have thought or felt. Give me 'Sensitive' by the Field Mice or 'What do we do now?' by Just Joan’s. Honest, real, song writing.
The people I most look up to and admire in the world of music are John Peel, Tony Wilson and Alan McGee. The reason for this is that they have all on their own way realised that the person listening to the record is just as, or even more, important than the person making it. It takes real skill to truly appreciate a good record, a skill that’s sadly undervalued and is even maybe dying out thanks to the new order of clicking and owning. Records should be held against a chest in pride, in defiance, not stored in neat digital rows in a virtual records shelf. Music should be about the record, not the song. Maybe I’m turning into a sour old man, but I’m damn sure that a kid listening to a 79p download on a P.C. will not get the rush I did when listening to the 7" of This Charming Man.
The first time I heard Start Again by Big Star was at a house party. Techno boomed downstairs while people snogged each other amongst the empty cider cans and spilled ashtrays. Fair enough I thought, but I retreated to a back bedroom with a few people to drink and talk and listen to records. The moment the Big Star L.P. crackled round to this track I was spell bound. I made a note of the name of the album and had to send off to receive it via mail order. The week wait while it winged its way to my door was one of the longest I’ve experienced. The song starting to fade from my memory like the face of someone you have a crush on, turning more and more abstract and smoke like the more you try to concentrate on it. Happily, the song sounded just as good the second time I heard it, if not better, and has stayed with me ever since. Maybe the wait made it better. Maybe if I downloaded it as soon as I got home I would not be writing this now.
These songs are ours, as they play out our lives. Songs about making mistakes, not fitting in, of finding being afraid by love as natural as being consumed by it. Songs of romance, lust and shy danger. These are the songs of my life and of yours. I'm not living on a prayer. I’ve never been welcomed to a jungle. I don't know what a radio gaga is.
'Start Again' like countless others, was written and performed by shy misfits and the kids who didn't make the team. Written not to impress or self fulfil, but because they had too. Songs are like love affairs. The one's that really matter don’t come along as often as perhaps we might like them too. So when they do, for gods sake hold onto them.