Bob Dylan smiled at me once. I remembered this last October when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That same night, October 13th in Las Vegas, he picked up the guitar, which he hasn't touched on stage since 2012, and played A simple twist of Fate. (Only to pick it up again on June 14th for his For Ramona during the concert in New York). I know these things, what can I say, and it started when I went to see the film of The Concert for Bangladesh. As a Beatles fan I wanted to see and hear George Harrison, but I was smitten by Bob Dylan. I walked out of the theater, with a head full of ideas, straight into a record store and bought More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits. It was 1971.
Bob Dylan smiled at me once. It was the summer of 1978 during his first concert in the Netherlands in the Feijenoord stadium in Rotterdam. It was the tour that would later produce the Bob Dylan at Budokan album. I had wormed my way right up to the stage and it had just started to rain when Bob sang the first lines of Just like a woman: “Nobody feels any pain, tonight as I stand inside the rain.” As the rain poured down my face he smiled at me and I smiled back at him.
Now that I am – at 65 - about to enter a new phase of my life, I look for a song to ease the passage. In Tombstone Blues he sings:
I wish I could write you a melody so plain
that could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
that could ease you and cool you and ease the pain
of your useless and pointless knowledge
I hit upon My Back Pages of his 1964 album, aptly titled Another side of Bob Dylan. Just to put things in perspective, Dylan was 23 years old at the time, this was his fourth album and he had already written Blowing in the wind, A hard rain is gonna fall, Don't think twice it's alright and The times they are a changin'. One year later he would write Like a rolling stone.
Another side of Bob Dylan has some amazing love songs on it, For Ramona, All I really want to do and It ain't me Babe, some very funny songs like Motorpsycho Nitemare. His iconic song Chimes of Freedom is on this album and every line is a gem:
“Tolling for the aching one whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse
And for every hung up person in the whole wide universe
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
The hardest or least accessible song on this album is My Back Pages. Most Dylan songs make sense even though they may be enigmatic and hard to follow, but this one is almost beyond grasp. The refrain is almost a gimmick, a brilliant thought: I was so much older then, I am younger than that now. Did I mention that the poet was only 23 when he thought that up? In the album he released 8 months earlier he had the audacity to warn the Masters of War that he would “Stand over their grave to make sure that you're dead”. He was much older then than the rest of his contemporaries. How young could he have been, writing My Back Pages in 1964?
There is heat in the first verse when he sings of the crimson flames tied through his ears. Is it the fever of youth? He is setting out, discovering what life is all about, learning on the way, avoiding traps on flaming roads and using his own ideas as a map.
Hot and sweaty, but proud, he meets someone and says: 'will meet on edges soon'. As so often in his songs, Dylan is leaving, changing direction, following another path. But he was so much older then. He's younger then that now.
In the second verse prejudice leaps forth and causes him to scream: 'Rip down all hate', and a voice in his skull tells a lie: everything in life is black and white. So instead he dreams romantically of musketeers. He was so much older then...
The path forward in so many young men's lives are often demarcated by faces of pretty girls. But rejections and regret lead you to think useless thoughts and you start memorizing politics of ancient history. He was so much older then...
On the move he listens to self-ordained professors who foolishly claim that liberty is just a quality in school. At first he is impressed and solemnly says the word 'Equality' as if a wedding vow. But he was so much older then...
He is still on the road, learning as he goes. It's a struggle and like a soldier he aims his hand at mongrel dogs who teach. He is not afraid to contradict himself when he starts speaking. On his travels he even follows boats who confuse him because there is mutiny from stern to bow. He was so much older then...
And then at last he makes his stand because abstract threats deceived him into thinking he had something to protect. He finally realizes it all comes down to good and bad, quite clear, no doubt somehow. But then again... he was so much older then, he is younger then that now.
So as I step into third age I can hear the echo of these lines, I recognize the road traveled, the wisdom gained, the useless and pointless knowledge. I am younger then that now, even though I am much older then I once was.
There are a few memorable performances by Dylan of My Back Pages. They're all different, have all a different urgency. At his 30th-anniversary-concert in 1992 he joins Roger McQuinn, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton and George Harrison on stage to perform this incredible song. Dylan stands back, strumming his guitar, aloof, unsmiling, focused, may be insecure. There are eight guitar players on stage. It is awesome. Each one of them sings one verse and Roger, Tom, Eric and even George are in awe of the lyrics. Only Neil has tremendous, electrifying fun, and maybe that's why he gets to play the last guitar solo, rather then Clapton or Harrison. Copy this link: https://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2014/feb/12/bob-dylan-performs-my-back-pages-30th-anniversary-concert-video
This performance in 1992 had to be rehearsed, of course, even geniuses need rehearsal, and believe it or not, that too is on YouTube. Same setting, but now in a gray studio and they all read their lines from paper. Except Dylan. They all dress up for the show, except Neil Young who couldn't be bothered to change his shirt. Endearing. You'll find it here:
The performances are easily found on YouTube if you're interested, but this is one of my favorites. Wait for 5:00 when he picks up his harp and does a heartbreaking duet with the violinist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTVYpJjLcIk