The Double Life of Bob Dylan 2: On the road to creativity

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

by Tony Attwood

The Double Life of Bob Dylan by Clinton Heylin is a big book. Over 500 pages in fact, and it is only the first part of Heylin’s latest offering on Dylan.   But despite Heylin’s eminence as a Dylan commentator, it’s a book that I think misses the point.

Part 1 of my review was  The Double Life of Bob Dylan: a consideration. Part 1: Let’s ignore creativity.  Here’s part two.

Creativity is often taken to mean the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas or use old ideas in original ways   But it is a word that can often have a tighter meaning than that.   Because a person is only considered “creative” if the original and unusual ideas produced by the individual are valued by the on-looker.   Just being different in what one does, is not enough to gain the epithet “creative.”   What is also needed for someone to be called creative is for the person to show ingenuity and flair, or traits of that nature – and for the observer to value what the person produces.  In short the creative act is expected to make some sort of contribution that we value.
In his opening chapter of “The Double Life of Bob Dylan” Heylin describes a man who is behaving in an unusual, although not original way.  He is wandering from town to town, getting lifts where he can, going places on a whim.   He is also behaving in a way most of us would not approve of – “borrowing” records, taking other people’s hospitality without offering much in terturn, and generally thinking of himself.
Now a person who carries on in that way for a long time, but produces nothing that others value, is not going to be seen as creative.  Indeed after a way far from having any fans such a person would not have many friends.
So what Heylin is describing in the early stages of his book are the signs of a person struggling with a feeling that he could be creative but not quite knowing how he could achieve this, and not really impressing on other people the thought that his behaviour could be excused because of his creativity.
But then in May 1966 Dylan showed he had a hint of what was going on (and oddly Heylin quotes this without seeming to understand the implication), through the comment “Writing is nothing: anybody can write really… if they got dreams at an early age.”
That is true, but of course that is only true if no qualitative value is put on the writing.  Anyone can write – but that doesn’t mean anyone can write something others want to read, or in the case of music, hear.  It’s like building a sandcastle on the beach.  It might be original, it can be fun for the creator/s, but we don’t normally designate this as a creative act.
And because of this lack of focus on creativity (in the sense of originally, and of beauty or insight or other measure that we might introduce) Heylin does recognise (page 48) the creation of “Ballad for A  Friend” – but only with a passing interest.  It was already Bob’s 15th song of consequence (that is to say, the 15th song that was written down and the music recorded.  You might know one or two of the previous songs, or if you are a real scholar of early Dylan, you might know more, but not too many people value any of these earlier songs particularly.   Song to Woodie  became recognised because of its subject matter while Talkin New York  is noted as one of Dylan’s very early talking blues – a form he liked early on.   Man on the street  shows Bob’s sense of the tragedy of modern life and is notable because it was followed by a satire on that life Hard times in New York Town 
But then at the start of 1962 we get Ballad for a friend and now we do have something that moves us into another league.

This is an extraordinary piece of writing.  Each verse is just three lines.  Only two chords are implied throughout yet Bob puts across the desolation at watching the train take the body of his best friend for burial.  There is form in the guitar accompaniment, but it is varied, and that gives us a sense of edge, of uncertainty, which a lesser performer would never be able to consider let alone execute.   Together this remarkable performance delivers  a suggestion that the singer has something to be deeply ashamed of in terms of the death

Something happened to him that day,I thought I heard a stranger say,I hung my head and stole away
Did he leave his friend to die, did he not take care of his friend, was the accident that appears to have killed his friend, the singer’s fault in some way?  We don’t know but we feel the pain.
Heylin in “On the Road to Damascus” mentions the song in passing but sees no significance in it other than the fact that by the time he was 12 the young Bobby was yearning to be in another world.  But what he misses is that Bob wrote this song when he was 21 or 22 – and by that age he had managed to take his writing into another world.  If we devote ourselves to listening to the song we are there, we feel the pain, and we damn well don’t want Bob explaining that he got the words wrong.
Few songwriters – indeed few musicians – write music that is of lasting significance.   We might remember songs, but the deeper feeling with the song goes.  And yes of course I know about Mozart writing a symphony at the age of nine, and that Beethoven wrote “Variations for piano on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler” when he was 11, but these were child prodigies who were re-creating something that most people can’t recreate and those that can, can’t perform until their later teens.
Writing a song as memorable as “Ballad for a Friend” at the age of 21/22 is something special, and original.  By itself it does not mark out Dylan as a genius composer, but it does show an extraordinary insight in the possibilities of the blues when not trapped in the old 12 bar format.
And of course if you want to tell me about the first Lennon and McCartney song which was written in their teens you may.  And in return I would reply look at the lyrics
In spite of all the dangerIn spite of all that may be (Ah, ah, ah, ah)I'll do anything for youAnything you want me toIf you'll be true to me (Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah)
No, my point is not that this is Dylan’s first song, but it is his first mature song – an incredibly mature song in fact which anyone with a sense of the depth and feeling that can be produced in a song has to notice.

But with Heylin, by page 80 I felt I could have been reading about a guy who’d hang around garages because he loved cars and decided to open his own petrol [gas] station and eventually had one in every county.

Maybe it is true that by the time he was 15 Bob was telling everyone who would listen he was going to be a rock n roll star, and Heylin sees this as important because “At an age when many contemporaries were obsessing about girls, he was obsessing about music.”

And ok maybe it’s Bob (and me – and as I recall several of my school friends) being oddballs, for at 15 I recall I was obsessing about music, mostly the obscure music that never got played by the BBC – like Bob Dylan.  But it didn’t stop me obsessing about girls as well.   Or writing.  (I was writing my first novel at the time – thankfully long since lost).

The point here is that by mid-teens something of the future of our lives can be perceived in many of us.  That doesn’t mean that the teenager who steals a pen is going to be a thief, nor that the teenager who writes a song is going to be a genius composer, but such actions are hints of what might come later.  And the more and more the individual is focussed on this slightly unusual behaviour, the more likely that final outcome is.

So my point is that somehow, the young Bob Dylan was odd because he was so interested in music “at an age when many contemporaries were obsessing about girls”.  That doesn’t mean he was destined to be a genius songwriter (as witness the fact that six years later, I too had the desire to write songs).  But Dylan not only had the obsession, he clearly also had the talent, which drove him on.  The prime point is that he knew he had the talent and would let nothing get in the way of exploring that talent, and that is what gave him the development in his songwriting skills that produced Man on the Street and other songs…

… and just kept going.

The fact is that Bob appears to have adopted the blues songs as a way of life was because he found he had a direct link to the songs.  For whether he had lived the songs or not it sounded like he had lived them – or least he might have done.   And yes, as Heylin points out, he “only really seemed  to want to participate when he was the centre of attention and could play music” and that is the clue.  For he knew he had created interesting, original music and he knew that no one else in the room could do that.

I have a memory of playing a song that I had written in a folk club on the south coast of England, around the age of 17, and after my slot was finished one of my friends  told me that the people next to him, on hearing me announce it was a song I had written, said “I don’t believe he wrote that,” or words to that effect.  I didn’t know how to respond, except to go on writing more songs just to prove that I could.  Given how superior Bob’s songs were to mine, I suspect any sort of put down like that would have driven him on as well.  Only 100 times more so.

The series continues…


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