Perhaps the greatest trick Bob Dylan ever played
was the elusive manner in which he ended up infiltrating your heart
On the cusp of young love, flirting with the newfound concepts of beauty, touch, kiss, and rush; in the throes of desire, grappling with the way scent and skin collide with such thrilling impetus; beneath the sway of a foreign city, firmly pulled along by its wayward charms and the secrets that reside within its cobble-stoned alleyways; between the ephemeral sigh of a night-long affair and the afterburn of a protracted relationship; at each pivotal step this heart takes in life, there he is. Sometimes, he’s nothing more than a casual lyric drifting in the wind, at other times, a smoky figure drawn from memory and poetry, hovering in the air like a drunken ghost. The hat crooked, the smile, even more so. Often as a young man, his hair running wild through a breeze trapped in nostalgia, but equally, in his older avatar, as the weatherworn savant doling out spirituality and redemption for the cracked and the broken. Bob, the saviour. Dylan, the instigator. Bob Dylan, custodian of hearts and hopes, in no particular order.
How exactly Dylan came to assume such significance in matters of the heart isn’t exactly clear. What’s clearer are the specific instances and episodes when he comes flooding into the picture. When I’m seventeen, for instance, and the rock chick in faded leather and I are writing out original lyrics on torn pieces of a napkin, a subtle foreplay in our youthful courtship. Undone by her collection of The Pixies and the tattoo on the edge of her neck, I’m struggling with my narrative. And then, as though my hand is being moved by forces unseen, the words
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?
She seems stunned. As she should be. This is Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands, after all, and I’m too consumed by the look in her eyes to come clean. Cut to when I’m twenty-three, for further proof, immersed in the sensual fabric of a Middle-Eastern city, trying hard to profess love for a relationship that has lasted all of thirty-seven days. The words are sincere, but I need some swagger to end things off. As if on command, in comes streaming
I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart
Unduly rhyme-y? Yes. Not his best? Yes. But is it unfit for the moment? An emphatic no, as an avalanche of kisses duly attests. By way of yet more proof, cutting to when I’m twenty-eight, enchanted by the smell and the allure of Istanbul, enchanted by the smell and the allure of this woman sitting across the table from me, a stranger a few days ago, and now, a persistent addiction. We’re in a dive bar where the smell of rough-edged nargileh smoke jostles with the eclectic selection of songs emanating from the 1930s jukebox – some jazz, some Turkish melodrama loaded in saccharine, some fleeting resonances of a famous Turkish chanteuse, et al. My mind begins to wander. It needs an anchor; it requires sustenance. Almost as if on cue, the jukebox whirrs and flips another record, before a familiar voice breaks through the mist with these Visions of Johanna, delivered purely for me
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Across an epochal career, Bob Dylan has assumed many roles and taken on many labels: Folk Hero, Rock Rebel, Folk-Rock Troubadour, Civil Rights Crusader, The Never Ending Tour Journeyman, Protest Messiah, the list goes on. In this maze of boxes and definitions, Dylan The Love Guru has never quite taken hold. Not that his obsessions with women and the tortured heart haven’t been well documented. After all, this is the man who’s worn his tattered heart on his impish sleeve often enough, his mood sometimes caustic, sometimes tender. This is the man who’s spit fury in 1975’s Blood on The Tracks, a separation from first wife Sara Lownds erupting in such vitriolic catharsis as Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe. This is the man who’s swayed between the schmaltzy innocence of Slow Train Coming’s Precious Angel and the fraught reminisces in Brownsville Girl, to the quiet affirmations of Blonde on Blonde’s I Want You and the one detour from Desire that still haunts – Sara.
But these are all deeply personal reverberations: Dylan charting the end of a private love or Dylan hissing away the insouciance of an Upper East Side ingénue or Dylan trying to come to terms with the fragility of a marriage. They certainly aren’t anthems meant to stretch out and envelop you, the listener. The voice, of course, might have something to do with it as well. Not with the Dylan the smooth insistence of a Bryan Ferry, the aural bliss accompanying Bono’s (admittedly annoying) vocals, the horny, stream-of-consciousness meanderings of a Morrison, or the anguish dissolving into ether essence of a Nina Simone. His has always been the rough undercurrent to love: the jagged edge that stabs away at you, the poetic lucidity that refuses to pretty things up, the “wild mercury sound” that’s just a step removed from acid. And yet, he’s always there.
And only now, at thirty-four, do I know exactly why. It’s because love itself is all of that, and more – a rough undercurrent, a jagged edge, a wild mercury sound reverberating through hearts. As a child of the ’90s, my compass initially only came anchored to that age and even love came filtered through Eddie Vedder howling at the moon or Jeff Buckley bleeding through an open heart. And yet, Dylan’s always been there. As he always will be. Dealing in Love and Theft, traversing Love Minus Zero, aiming for a Shooting Star, keeping an eye out for the girl in those Boots of Spanish Leather.
His only soul cousin, it dawns on me, would be the similarly afflicted Leonard Cohen. But with Cohen, love was always the be-all and end-all of his existence, the centrifugal force exploding in those rasps of impassioned, seductive anguish. With Dylan, the love affair remains more furtive. And yet, he’s always there. As are the songs, and those woman-fixated albums… and those words. On the ending of a relationship, I’ll often gravitate towards the naked vitriol of his “metallic bright gold”; on the commencement of a fresh rush, I’ll invariably hold on to the quiet adamancy of Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on; and in the glow of a new horizon or the lucid thrill of a foreign city unexplored thus far, I’ll reach for the dipped-in-sapphire romance of If You See Her, Say Hello. Like with the coattails of a dream, I just need to hold on tight, eyes closed, dreams wild; because he’s always there.
And I need you to play it again, Bob. I think I’m ready to go fall in love some more.