I went to a Bob Dylan concert once. It was 1977, in Auckland. I was with a bunch of stoned friends, and we were pretty excited, but whatever expectations I had, Bob Dylan failed to meet them. He didn't talk to the audience at all, and the songs all seemed different. He'd just recently taken up the electric guitar, and maybe he was expecting trouble. At any rate, Bob Dylan in the flesh was pretty forgettable.
My real Bob Dylan memory is about a place, and a time when I had practically my whole life still waiting to be lived.
The place was green, on a wet, bush clad hillside overlooking the sea. There were steep, broken steps that were slippery all year round. The weeds grew as fast as you could pull them out. The leaf litter under the big trees was always damp. You could hear the water at night, trickling down unknown waterways, dripping from the unguttered tin roof, leaking through the cracks in the rotten floorboards
On days it didn't rain, and the clouds were distant wisps skimming the huge blue of the sky, you could stand at the kitchen window and look right over the tops of the biggest trees, the puriri, and kauri, and kahikatea, the huge green spread of them full of native pigeons gorging themselves on berries, and tuis singing rich contralto arias, and vines growing so fast you could almost see them moving.. There was the harbour, huge, slate blue, flat and quiet, and streaked with sand bars when the tide was out. Sometimes you could watch the ships coming in through the heads, gliding straight across in front of you, loaded with cargo from unknown places, heading for Onehunga.
It was only a two room shack with a tacked on kitchen. All the furniture was bought from second hand shops. The dining room table had a huge puddle stain in the middle of it where a possum had pissed on it. The bean bag was the only thing that was new. Books sat on planks of wood supported by old bricks. Records were piled on the floor..
You could wake up in that place and start on something, but then the idea for something else entirely would strike you with the force of a revelation. You had to drive to the West Coast and meet the ocean. Or you had to make a pineapple upsidedown cake. Or you had to sit on the front step and write a poem about sitting on the front step writing a poem.
There wasn't much room for dancing, but I danced a lot. In this memory, I danced in a long green dress made of Indian cotton and bought in a London market. I danced round and round the tiny living space, and up and down the narrow passage between the old couch and the bookshelves. I danced to Deep Purple, and the Woodstock album, and Steeleye Span, and Joan Armatrading. But mostly I danced to Bob Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited.
I didn't know really what half the songs were about, but that didn't seem to matter. They seemed to speak to me personally, as if they had been written about me. Most of it was about hard times, weird people, having nothing, failure, misunderstandings, and regrets.
When you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose
How does it feel? To be on your own, a complete unknown?
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind..
When you want someone you don't have to speak to
I seemed to get all this, even though I had a career and friends, and food in the cupboard. I never wondered why songs about alienation and despair made me want to dance and sing. I just knew that they were about getting to the truth of things, about recognising the false promise of materialism, and escaping from everything that held back your spirit, especially old authority, and old ideas. They were about being young.
My mother said that that tuneless, gravelly voice wasn't singing at all, and she was right, but she entirely missed the point. He spoke. Directly. To me.
When I heard last week that he'd been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was bemused. There's clearly a huge body of work that came after the 70's, that I've never listened to. Certainly, there are lyrics on Highway 61 Revisited that are poetry. There's also an awful lot of repetition, and references to things that are entirely and deliberately mysterious.
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
I expect people argued and speculated about these onfuscating lyrics like they did over Don Mclean's American Pie. I didn't. I don't now. Either the poetry speaks to you, or it doesn't.
My Bob Dylan memory still makes me smile, for that place and time when I believed that what was in my heart was enough to live on, and feeling like a freak was normal. I'm much older now, and find I often believe more mundane things, such as that it's just common politeness to acknowledge a gift or an honour when you're given it.