I've told this story before but with the Wee Man's 70th birthday coming up and a tribute needed, I'll tell it again – how, and why, I wrote The Ballad of Bob Dylan.
I was living in Leek in Staffordshire in the late 80s. Like many Dylan fans, I'd resigned myself to the idea that the barrel had been truly scraped and we couldn't expect much more of the man. After all, we had so much to be grateful for, why carp and expect more? I'd barely heard his last few records and what I'd heard didn't inspire me to hear more. I was just getting to know the area and had played a tentative set at a couple of local folk clubs, impressing nobody including myself. My listening at the time, if I remember, was mainly the Proclaimers first album, Momus's Tender Pervert, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love and Paul Simon's Graceland.
One Saturday afternoon I was trying on some jeans in a shop in Leek when my attention was grabbed by a song on the radio. It sounded like Dylan, but it couldn't be – too well-produced, interesting ghostly backing vocals on the chorus. I sat down in the changing room and listened. It must be Dylan, it sounds so like him and the words are good. Then the presenter came on and said that was Tweeter and the Monkey Man from the Traveling Wilburys album, which had just been released. I made a 'well I never…' face and got on with buying jeans.
I passed a record shop on the way home, but they didn't have it. Later that night, family abed and some wine consumed, I picked up my guitar and tried to remember the song. I could remember the feel of it, not the chords or the story, but I knew it was a story. I used my tried and tested and best songwriting strategy – open your mouth and sing some words and see what comes out. I've got some of my best songs that way, absolutely no idea what was going to happen. 'Well he flew in from Miami with a bagful of bones' Eh? (Later I realised it was a cop from Back in the USSR 'Flew in from Miami beach BOAC'). I could tell there was a story here – bagful of bones? Well I guess I need a narrator and he must have been somewhere he could see this guy, so it must be the airport. What rhymes with bones? Loans. Keep that at the back of my mind. Keep going, guitar down now, and scribbling on paper. Face like an unmade bed. OK come back to that. But this guy needs to be important. He said his name was … what? I tried a few outlaw-sounding names and it all sounded lame. And I could hear the internal critics sneering 'sounds like another attempt at a Bob Dylan song' – voila! His name was Bob Dylan! I wonder if I could do this? Write a story, but don't worry too much about consistency or explanation, give it the feel of Dylan's great stories like Tangled Up in Blue. It pretty much wrote itself after that. I latched onto the idea of Dylan as the working country blues singer of the Never Ending Tour and Dylan the protest singer who gave up being a protest singer, and neither of them being the real Dylan. Some lines I wrote and enjoyed thoroughly (rhyming 'busking for cash' and 'fashion'), some were just suggested by rhymes ('what this kind of man might do' prompted 'they were looking in the zoo'). The line about the sixties ('we hadn't recognised them at the time') came, I think, from a Leonard Cohen interview where he said something like 'that was the sixties, only of course at the time we didn't know it was The Sixties'. The last verse is probably one of the best things I've ever written and you know what? I can't recall writing it at all, not a word. No first ideas, no editing, no crossing out, no glee, nothing. It's fitting, it was a gift.
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At the time I was really taken with Ian Hunter's song All American Alien Boy because it just overflows with words, rolling over each other, for seven minutes. I'd always wanted to sing something like that but my own words were eked out as if they were £50 notes. Now I had something which, if I could remember it all, might be fun to sing. An important milestone passed when I bought the Wilbury's album and assured myself I hadn't unconsciously plagiarised Tweeter. I trotted it out the local folk club a few weeks later, to much approval and one slightly critical comment which I took to heart as constructive criticism: 'It sounded like Dylan but the thing you missed was Dylan's timing – that's what makes him a great singer'. So I worked on it and gradually it became my 'greatest hit' (greatest as in only), winning me money in a songwriting competition, a place on an American compilation, a great painting by Lynsey Hutchinson, and an oblique request from a lady in Galashiels ('I hope you're gonny do that song about Elvis'). Strangest of all was about ten years later I was sent a newspaper article from the Leek local paper about how 'songwriter Norman Lamont wrote one of his most famous (sic) songs in a Leek shop!'
Happy birthday the Zim and thanks for the story!