An occasional series on rediscovered treasures
When I was young and even more foolish, me and a chum tried to smuggle quotes from Bob Dylan songs into our English homework. We got away with ‘blowing in the wind’, ‘when the ship comes in’ and a few more. But when I tried ‘the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ the response was a lot of red ink and See Me in the margin.
He’s always been there, Bob. Familiar, like the Beatles and the Stones, strong tea and Scarborough Castle.
But by the time I acquired a transistor radio tuned to Radio One Dylan was already electric, turning out fabulous, ragged, elusive, poetic albums: Blonde on Blonde, Desire, Blood on the Tracks. Religion and lazy 12-bars still years away.
Gradually, as I slipped away from glam and prog rock and discovered folk, roots and blues, I explored him backwards. Into the early 1960s, when he was absorbing all sorts of similar influences.
The times they are a-changin’ is Dylan’s third album, recorded in 1964; it’s the first to contain nothing but material he’d written himself.
It’s solo Dylan: voice, guitar, harmonica. No piano till the next album, no band till the one after that. So rhythmically it’s loose and free, the voice leading the accompaniment.
There’s still plenty of Dylan the folk-singer — Restless Farewell adopts the familiar tune of Parting Glass. Boots of Spanish Leather is understated, poignant and perfect (and oh how I wish I could go back to to hear Nic Jones play it again, Hertford College Oxford in about 1979).
It’s protest Dylan: the gathering doom of Hollis Brown; the contempt for casually murderous William Zanzinger in Hattie Carroll, the verses lengthening as the outrage rises. With God on our Side skewers the complacent and self-righteous, and title track tells the older folk ‘get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand.’
It’s not yet the Dylan who contains multitudes. The beat-poetry sleeve-notes give a big hint of what’s to come, but most of the songs are specific and somehow finite:
‘Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town with his wife and five children and his cabin broken down’ or ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled round his diamond-ringed fingers’
Powerful stuff, but not yet the final butterfly. We grasp what’s he’s saying. Only a couple of years later he’d be singing: ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’ And we all knew exactly what he was getting at, even though we didn’t have a clue what he meant.