He Changed My Life: Thirty Years With Bob Dylan (Part 1)


Zen people talk sometimes about sudden awakening. That’s awakening as in enlightenment. When the whole deal, the true nature of everything, is revealed to you in a flash like fireworks over Tokyo. There was one guy who became enlightened on the subway, not even a monk. I can’t remember who the hell it was but I know I read about him somewhere.

That’s the way it was with Bob Dylan and me. Bam, the whole midnight mental world I’d been living in since my breakdown of the year before lit up like high noon. I could see and I could understand. Before Dylan I’d been dying of sadness and confusion because I thought nobody loved me and nobody else could see how ugly everything had become. This all sounds crazy. Maybe it is. But it’s the truth at least and before I heard Dylan I don’t think I’d ever heard the truth.

The album was “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I bought it one day in Wellingborough because I had some money in my pocket and I was looking to try a new thing; I’d read Dylan’s name once in a biography of Clint Eastwood (seriously) and I knew he’d written “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” which Elvis Presley had covered. There was also this weird connection I made between him and Guy Clark. He was wearing a denim shirt on the album cover like Guy wore on the cover of “Old Number One.” Back when singers were all wearing jackets with padded shoulders, gold lame suits and shiny trousers, a denim shirt really meant something. If Dylan was half as great as Guy Clark I knew he’d be all right.

It happened on the second track, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Do you know the song? I guess if you’re reading about Dylan you probably do. But just in case there are some newcomers out there, it’s the story of a starving farmer who kills his wife, his children and then himself. They didn’t say anything like that on "Top of the Pops." I’d never heard it in the country songs I loved either. They were dark sometimes, but this was brutal. And nestling right in the middle of this terrible tale of human suffering were lines that hit a penniless, lonely, fucked-up kid like a punch in the stomach:

You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
Your empty pockets tell you
That you ain't a-got no friend

Like I said, the truth. That was how it was. Your worth as a human being was measured in the kind of shoes you had on your feet, and if you couldn’t make it in the world on those terms, you might as well go and kill yourself.

Now, you may be asking yourself what possible consolation I could have found in this. I’d been hurting for a long time, largely because of a college love affair that didn’t work out the way it wanted to; and that seems insignificant now – or if not insignificant, then definitely less than it was. Then it was everything. I’d withdrawn to my bedroom at my mother’s house, dropped out of college and become completely severed from the world. How was it helping to find a singer who would sit with me in my room and say, effectively, “You’re right, it’s all shit?”

The answer is that by identifying the shit, especially in such excoriating tones, you can expose it and make it go away. Like Blake, who I hadn’t read at that point, says, “This I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal." I’d had a lifetime of people smoothing things over, hiding the pain, pretending it was all ok when it wasn’t. My parents did it when their marriage was in trouble. My teachers did it at school when other kids beat the shit out of me and nothing ever happened about it. And they did it in society, where people were living like dogs under the misrule of Margaret Thatcher but every time you turned the tv on there she was, or there one of her minions was, telling you everything was going fine and everyone except the crazies was having the party of the century, freed now from the constraints of socialism.

A new world opened up for me the day I heard that album. I didn’t know who I was (or even what I was) before “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” beat me out of my daydream, but pretty soon after that I had decided I was going to be a poet and a writer, and that’s what I’ve been for thirty years now. So in a sense Dylan gave me my life. I would have had another one if I hadn’t come across him, but I can’t imagine doing anything other than writing. Whether I’m any good at it or not history will have to decide, but it’s all I’ve ever loved (if you take my lover, my friends, peanut butter, coffee, and rock and roll out of the picture). Bob made writing look like the only game in town by being smarter, more stylish and more honest than everybody else. He could make me weep and nobody else could even make me feel. And I made a thousand different connections through him that have enriched my experience beyond measure.

In the weeks after I bought “The Times They Are A-Changin’” I stayed up to watch all four hours of his “Renaldo and Clara." That was back when British tv had the guts to show such things uncut; and in that I’d seen Allen Ginsberg reading a long mad poem about (or so it seemed) his mother’s vagina in front of an audience of what looked like affronted Jewish matriarchs. With his long black beard and his unapologetic geekiness Allen embodied everything that I had formerly rejected in myself. I knew I wasn’t like everybody else, but I tried to be. Allen didn’t even try (he had done once, of course, but I didn’t know that then). In my favourite scene in the movie Dylan and Ginsberg are in the graveyard in Lowell where Jack Kerouac is buried. Ginsberg points at one grave – it may even be Jack’s, I can’t remember – and says, “So, that’s what’s gonna happen to you?”

It was another, lesser awakening. How could anybody be that flippant about another man’s death? But then, on the other hand, why shouldn’t he be? We all know we’re going to die. Why be grave about it (ho ho). And Dylan wasn’t ruffled by Ginsberg’s comment, not at all (although Ginsberg had offered him a beseeching chuckle, as if to say, “No offence, Gregory would get it”). Bob just answered calmly, matter-of-factly, “No, I wanna be in an unmarked grave.” Which he might have meant sincerely at the time, but I can’t see it happening.

Once I’d seen “Renaldo and Clara” I went away and bought Ginsberg’s Collected Poems as well; and once I’d read that I bought “On The Road” and “The Dharma Bums,” all of Corso, William Blake. And I tracked down a Woody Guthrie album because I kept hearing that Bob was inspired by Woody. I didn’t like him as much as all the others at first, for some reason. It took me a few years after I first encountered Bob to get into Woody properly. Something silly to do with the fact that he looked a little like my grandfather. I don’t know, even saying it sounds ridiculous. But Bob’s political songs had also helped me to understand how the systems of oppression that our society was groaning under worked and as a consequence I’d gone into street level political activity: handing out leaflets, collecting for striking miners and ambulance workers, going on marches. When I did that and started hearing the stories of suffering people from out of their own mouths instead of a poet's, that’s when I got Woody Guthrie. I still haven’t finished “Bound for Glory” though.

This essay, part two of which will appear at the weekend, was written last year for a big book about Dylan's impact on admirers around the world. Sadly the project foundered for reasons too complex to go into here, so rather than waste a good piece of writing, I'm sharing it with "Suffolk Punch" readers.