Updated: Aug 12, 2022
It’s Judith’s fault. A British magazine flew me to Cannes to join their staff to cover the film festival. And, each night when the last stories were filed, we went en masse to a restaurant to eat dinner, European style – two to three hours at table and a few bottles of wine. There were about six of us and dinner in this family-run joint, festooned with football pennants, was about 25 bucks, miraculous when a sandwich on the beach cost $15.
Somehow, every night after dinner, I ended up in the passenger seat of my editor Judith’s two-seater sports car she had brought over from London. We careened through the hills above Cannes, slightly tipsy, Judith with one hand on the wheel, the other out the door to conduct every word of every song on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
She sang as passionately as she drove. We were both married and except for a late-night clench in the warm waters of the Mediterranean, our version of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's sodden hug in the incoming tide in From Here to Eternity, we kept our hands to ourselves, as Dylan explored lust, love and death in song after song on her car’s stereo.
I had bought the disc long before my nightly excursions with Judith, and arrogantly dismissed it. Dylan was about iconoclasm, hard rain, winds that carried truth, denigrating masters of war. Blood on the Tracks was romance, not what I expected or wanted from Dylan. Until those nights with Judith, where I listened as she sang harmonies on what are not so much songs as mini film scripts he planted in the imagination.
He woke up, the room was bare He didn't see her anywhere He told himself he didn't care Pushed the window open wide Felt an emptiness inside To which he just could not relate Brought on by a simple twist of fate
He hears the ticking of the clocks And walks along with a parrot that talks Hunts her down by the waterfront docks Where the sailors all come in Maybe she'll pick him out again How long must he wait? One more time for a simple twist of fate
Years earlier, he had toured with The Band when he decided he needed to up the amperage and I became an ardent fan of The Band, but Dylan still didn’t do it to me, though the songs on the studio record he made with them, Planet Waves, got me.
Grandma said, “Boy, go and follow your heart And you’ll be fine at the end of the line All that’s gold isn’t meant to shine Don’t you and your one true love ever part”
I been walkin’ the road I been livin’ on the edge Now, I’ve just got to go Before I get to the ledge So I’m going, I’m just going, I’m gone
We’ve all lived on the edge and we’ve all feared the ledge and who hasn’t invested heart and soul in fool’s gold?
I wore out several copies of Blood on the Tracks after my Cannes sojourn and then several CDs after. Time Out of Mind is in the car today:
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Yes, it is.
Forever young, forever young
A siren call for immortality
In an early interview he described himself as “a song and dance man,” not as flippant as it seems. He was a showman, not a prophet. He wrote songs he admitted he didn’t know the meaning of and didn’t care. They just sounded good, he told a reporter in the 80s. And he didn’t know how he wrote the songs he did in the 60s and couldn’t do it again.
Dylan changed the way popular songs could be written. One couplet didn’t have to have anything to do with the previous couplet; one line didn’t have to follow another.
Well, I'm forty miles from the mill, I'm dropping it into overdrive I'm forty miles from the mill, I'm dropping it into overdrive Set my dial on the radio, I wish my mother was still alive
I got a cravin' love for blazing speed, got a hopped up Mustang Ford Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard
Repetition of familiar phrases, Shelter from the Storm, When the Deal Goes Down, Most of the Time became anthemic song titles.
People wanted to classify him, worship him, torture him, have him expound on organic farming. They dug through his garbage for clues to the meaning of life. Fans didn’t buy he was only a song and dance man.
I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind
Fans wanted a god with a guitar and harmonica. Dylan was a chameleon, trying on new personas, costumes, makeup, singing styles, subject matter, and you could buy it or not, he didn’t seem to care. His elevation to deity in the 60s and 70s, coupled with a motorcycle accident that almost killed him, turned him into a near recluse, little time or patience for the press or fans, appearing for interviews rarely and never with a smile. Everyone wanted a piece of him.
Joan Baez, former lover who toured with him for a time, told a filmmaker he was a pain in the ass to work with, his mood, as well as the way he played a tune, changed from show to show. The late Tom Petty, who toured with Dylan, said you never knew what Dylan was going to do next, you just had to hang on and hope for the best. Tempos, beats to the bar, keys, were a toss of the dice. All that mattered to Dylan was the song and the hunt for the myriad ways it could be interpreted. You could play along or pack it up and go home.
Dylan is on a three-year world tour that ends in 2024, and picks up again in Sept. in Oslo.
His fidelity will be to the tunes. People have demanded his soul –
“I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul, don’t think twice, it’s all right”
– but all he would give was the song, sometimes from under a hat and behind whiteface. You never knew what the song would sound like. You weren’t sure what he would look like.
He has said we spend our lives trying to figure out who we are. Or at least he has. Some of us are too busy watching TV and/or hating each other but Dylan keeps exploring. At 81, darkness is coming, but it doesn’t stop him from touring. He has given close to 4,000 concerts, if Google is to be believed, and he’s still on the road. He is still searching. Though, we know, he’s just a song and dance man, a song and dance man who may change his tune but can always break your heart. Over and over again.
Thank you, Judith. I hope you are well. I owe you.