by Dave Allen
Tempest opens with a verse of 40s-style Western Swing, pedal steel guitar and light on drum & bass, as recordings of that period are. Then the drummer strikes as that full-throated voice recites an autobiographical fiction of trains, gambling and complex relationships. When Bob Dylan sings of the whistle blowing “like never before” all kinds of old American songs flicker across our memory screens – or do they?
I think it depends on just who “we” are. I have a good friend, a much-respected academic cultural historian and equally fine singer of American blues and soul music who tells me he doesn’t really get Bob Dylan because he believes “you had to be there” – and he wasn’t, at least not when it all started almost precisely fifty years ago.
I was, and I do recall the excitement about this young American ‘folk’ singer on what was then a thriving folk club scene across Britain, including Portsmouth. At times there were five or six local clubs in pubs and coffee bars and a variety of performers who had turned their backs on the establishment but sought an ‘authenticity’ beyond early sixties ‘pop’. Folk, blues and jazz seemed the answer and when Dylan folded in a political dimension a generation of youthful idealists found ‘their’ voice. But of course every time we thought we’d pinned him down, he shifted somewhere else, as someone else.
These days he seems more settled. Through the last decade, Bob Dylan has functioned like those pre-‘pop’ musicians whose music he grew up with – he’s an old-fashioned working musician who plays regular live gigs at an age when most of his original fans are enjoying (the last-ever?) age of retirement.
Bob and his band are the consummate craftsmen, displaying a sharpness that enables them to recreate approximations of most of the key genres that informed their early years. But by approximations I don’t mean performances that are ‘quite’ good or ‘reasonably’ close to the original. I mean performances that echo earlier styles and songs but also transcend them – most obviously perhaps but not solely through Dylan’s lyrical brilliance.
So on the new album the band hit a groove, which is almost Bo Diddley’s seminal “I’m a Man” – and percussively it’s more that than its fellow Chess piece “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters – but the sparseness of the original is enhanced by a soulful Hammond riff and then on top, Zydeco accordion. But unlike Bo and Muddy, Dylan’s song is not a display of sexual bravado but a strange narrative called “Early Roman Kings”. Is it a song about ancient civilisations? Is it about the Mafia? Is it about Bob or perhaps the music business? Or is it yet another example of his imagination thriving on what Greil Marcus described as “the old weird America”?
This is a world of vernacular rather than ‘pop’ culture, American of course but with roots deep into Europe and the UK. Bob encountered this world more than fifty years ago in the musical collections of the abstract artist and filmmaker Harry Smith and as we move further away from that predominantly rural, pre-corporate, mysterious universe, Bob Dylan is one of the few major international figures who keeps those myths and legends alive – and more than that, re-works and develops them.
It’s all here on Tempest with songs that might be fifty, sixty, seventy years old – Doo Wop, Blues, Western Swing, even a 14-minute country waltz about the Titanic tragedy – but, while they seem to be old friends there is always something contemporary too. They’re new friends that remind you of the best of old friends.
This sense of ‘now’ is achieved partly through the high production values and excellent playing that is almost commonplace in the modern world but it’s also achieved by the most controversial element of Bob’s style – his voice. So, many people who will admit to admiring his songs will add “but …”.
Yet Bob Dylan’s voice is one of his essential defining characteristics; it is his and only his. Unlike hundreds of young white singers in the past half-century he’s never tried and failed in hopeless imitations of the old blues and folk singers. In addition, in recent years, he has freed himself from the kind of obligation that restricts McCartney and others as they are asked to reprise endlessly the songs of their youth through a once youthful voice that has long fallen through the floor. Dylan writes new songs and sings them now in today’s rough old but still tuneful voice. If he sings the old songs he re-works them so that they are almost unrecognisable.
I don’t mind whether you can hear that or not. I’m content in the utter pleasure I get from finding in Bob Dylan these days the musician I would have loved to be had I possessed the imagination. If you won’t believe me, consider the verdict of Paul Morley on BBC’s Late Show who described Tempest as a “work of art” and Bob as “a psychedelic historian”. In The Times, Will Hodgkinson praised Bob’s voice as “a beautiful thing” through which he sings “old-time American music, heavily rhythmic and unobtrusive enough to let the storytelling shine”. David Fricke in Mojo gave it a maximum five stars under the heading “The Perfect Storm” although he suggested on the final track – a tribute to John Lennon – that Dylan “sounds his age: weathered, weary and alone in his tempest”. That’s right, so right. But as someone who was there back then and is still there with him, I’m grateful for that too. Dylan is a contemporary singer/musician who can evoke old age with no nips, no tucks and not a facelift in sight. Even if you weren’t there then, you can be there now.
Dave Allen is an Old Portmuthian. Visit his blog at http://pompeypop.wordpress.com/
Read The Old Weird America , a roadmap for exploring American folk music