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Last Updated: Friday, 23 September 2005, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Bob Dylan - why the fuss?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

To millions he's the greatest songwriter ever. But to others, Bob Dylan has always just been a shambolic bloke who sounds like he sings through his nose. So, what are the faithful on about?

A word of advice to anyone who knows a Bob Dylan fan - don't go making any hasty arrangements for a night out with them next week. They will probably be hunkered down in front of the TV.

September has turned into an unofficial Bob Dylan season, which centres on a new two-part documentary by the celebrated Hollywood director Martin Scorsese, to be shown on the BBC in the UK and on PBS in the US.

Those who know his music will probably tell you Bob Dylan is one of the titans of popular music, his vast influence matched only by Elvis and the Beatles.

But while the King and the Fabs remain, first and foremost, pop stars, Dylan's disciples have always liked to elevate their man to an altogether higher plane - that of poet, activist, seer, Messiah and, somewhat notoriously, Judas.

Yet what about all those who have never fallen under Dylan's spell? Formidable reputations tend to turn people off as much as they do switch them on.

Bob Dylan, London, 1965

What are Dylanologists - yes, his followers even have their own tag - always getting so excited about?

Above all, it's his lyrics. Words have always been Dylan's strong suit, which has in turn earned him some pretty literary fans. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion listens to Dylan almost every day and picked the 1966 track Visions of Johanna as his favourite lyric.

At the time, Dylan's lyrics had become pretty opaque, but as far as one can work out the song starts by describing a group of people in an apartment at night. The imagery is sumptuous with Dylan describing heat pipes that "cough" and the "ghost of 'lectricity" that "howls in the bones of her face".

The song features on Dylan's album Blonde on Blonde, which rounded off a string of three records in two years that chart his evolution from acoustic one-man band to leader of a fevered rock and roll outfit.

Most Dylan fans would cite this period of intense creativity as his most exciting work.

"There was no one to touch him at that time. He had lightning in his pocket," says DJ Andy Kershaw. "What were the Rolling Stones doing in '66... the Beatles were just about getting there and the Beach Boys too, but Dylan was way ahead of the pack."

The mythologizing starts

Indeed, Dylan's influence on the Mop Tops is well documented.

Until 1965 Dylan had been the toast of the folk music scene - an earnest young artist with a guitar and harmonica and a precocious song-writing talent.

Well, I got a woman sleeps on a cot,
She yells and hollers and squeals a lot.
Licks my face and tickles my ear,
Bends me over and buys me beer.

I Shall be Free (1963)

Although he is always caricatured in that era as a protest singer - the civil rights movement and the Cold War being his chief themes - the young twenty-something Dylan turned out some supremely romantic love songs (Girl from the North Country and Boots of Spanish Leather) and had a talent for surreal comedy (see lyrics, right).

Always something of an enigma, Dylan's trading in of his acoustic guitar for an electric one is where the mythologising really steps up a gear. The folkies booed him, and at one gig in Manchester a particularly aggrieved fan yelled out "Judas!"

This of course, did the Dylan hype machine no harm whatsoever.

But while pop history is littered with arrogant young bucks who have overstepped their limited talent, Dylan's gift - to marry poetic lyrics with catchy tunes and a pinpoint phrasing - shone through. Only now the words were more abstract and the music more frenetic.

Any dissenters?

This, says Kershaw, was "the birth of rock music".

Howard Sounes, one of Dylan's many unofficial biographers, places him in rarefied company.

Howard Sounes recommends the Blood on the Tracks album
Barney Hoskyns suggests 1966's Blonde on Blonde
Andy Kershaw plumps for Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Bob Dylan Live '66
"There are giant figures in art who are sublimely good - Mozart, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Shakespeare, Dickens. Dylan ranks alongside these artists as simply awesome. We are blessed to be living at the same time.

"He sings with such passion, feeling and conviction that you think this is my life, this is everyone's life, this is what it is to be a human being."

"The way he turns a lyric, it's as if, to paraphrase Dylan himself, every word rings true and glows like burning coal, pouring off of every page as if it was written in his soul."

The lyric in question comes from Tangled Up in Blue, on Dylan's 1975 album Blood on the Tracks - by consensus his other great record. For Sounes, this is the ideal starting place for any Dylan virgin, the lyrics being more explicit - and utterly heart-wrenching - than during his mid-60s run.

Dissenters from that view are few and far between in the music world.

Sacred cow

"I don't know anyone who would write seriously about music who would not regard Dylan as great," says critic John Aizlewood.

Street sign
Immortality at last - Hibbing, Minnesota, honours its famous son
Author Barney Hoskyns is one of the few willing to stick his head above the parapet, despite still being a Dylan fan.

"Dylan is one of the ultimate sacred cows, followed by the Beatles, Otis Redding... I find him dazzling without being moving."

"His sneering, anger and bile are great, but I'm not sure we are talking about someone who has the same real musical empathy and compassion as, say, Neil Young, who works with a bigger emotional palette."

Andy Kershaw falls somewhere in between these two points of view, revering Dylan's work up until 1976, after which it's no good.

"He's washed up. His voice is shot," says Kershaw, who cautions newcomers to beware of the hype that surrounds his later works.

"I'd recommend anyone coming new to Dylan to watch the documentaries on Monday and Tuesday and pay particular attention to the Newport Folk Festival in '65, the moment he went electric. That's rock music at its most magnificent."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

When you're famous you're up there to be both revered AND reviled so it's no surprise Dylan gets that treatment. I just like listening to his music.
John Brittles, England

Quite simply, Bob's a genius. I challenge anyone to feel unmoved by Masters of War or Just Like a Woman. And his voice isn't shot. It's just, erm, mature. Ok, maybe it is shot. But I'm still paying the earth to go and see him in November. Why? Because to be in the same (admittedly enormous) room as him is an honour and a privilege.
Kenny G (No, not that one), Scotland

He just sounds so depressing that I've never bothered to listen to the lyrics and he doesn't sing just sort of mumbles.
Sue, UK

Isn't he dead yet? Please! He sounds like a cat being strangled. People say his lyrics are brilliant but what's the point if all you can hear is that God-awful whining?
Ros, UK

He may have had a voice like sand and glue, lyrics as opaque as my bathroom window and a haircut which makes Bob Geldof look like Aled Jones, but his music and influence will leave a legacy far greater than any one of his contemporaries.
Omri Stephenson, UK

His lyrics are still unmatched, and he certainly made his mark as a poet. But musically a lot of his work was based around simple 12-bar blues. "Highway 61 Revisited" is praised to high heaven, but it's all repetitive 12 bar blues. He didn't cut it for me, musically. Not on a par with great tunesmiths such as Lennon and McCartney.
Andrew Thomas, Swansea, Wales

The lad who shouted 'Judas' was ahead of his time - Dylan's new album is on sale only at Starbucks.

I've never understood all the hype and hero worship that surrounds Dylan, but for me the final straw came during his Live Aid performance back in 1985. "Wouldn't it be good if some of this money went to our Farmers" he whinged. As Bob Geldof, I think, pointed out afterward, the Farmers were fighting for their livelihoods, not their lives, a distinction that the "great" Dylan seemed unable to grasp.
Darren Parker, Southend on Sea, Essex

So Andy Kershaw thinks Dylan was washed up after 1976? Bunkum. On 1983 album Infidels, the track Licence to Kill, provides the best psychological profile of a suicide bomber I've read. "Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused, / And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill. / All he believes are his eyes / And his eyes, they just tell him lies."
Ed Douglas, United Kingdom

I don't know if I'm alone in finding the music of The Band, Dylan's backers on his early electric tours and on/off collaborators, more satisfying and uplifting than Dylan himself. And the Byrds take many of his songs further than he did in terms of subtlety and impact. Maybe he's a better visionary than artist.
guy matthews, uk

Forty years practicing and he still can't get a tune out of that bloody harmonica.
Andrew Thomas, UK

I am not a Dylan nut but I do feel his carrer has been one of the most rewarding to have followed, his body of work is second to none.
Alan, Scotland

I just love him,listerning to him makes me feel real
Laura Lewis, UK

Never really got it with Dylan. Voice sounds terrible and some of his "Best" tunes sound pretty poor to me. I think he's written some good songs but ultimately they were done justice by other people, Hendrix, The Byrds.
Paul, UK

I'm a fan of Bob Dylan. But is he in the same league as Mozart, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Shakespeare, Dickens ? Much of Dylan's stuff is "of its time" and will probably be hard to understand a century from now.
M Burton, UK

What's far more interesting than the hysterical Mancunian's shout of "Judas!" is Dylan's less often reported, but marvellously opaque, reply - "I don't believe you."
Jim Smith, UK

Dylan has such a legend hanging over him, that I can't really listen to his work fairly. I don't think he lives up to the 'sacred cow' status; there are some much better songwriters out there (Townes Van Zandt, Jaques Brel). But then some of his moments are outstanding.
Shane, UK

It must be an age thing - I'm 35 and have never thought anymore of Dylan than he's a bloke with a whiney voice that sang a few good songs.
Sarah D, England

As someone who grew up with a father signing Dylan almost everyday, it was inevitable that he ended up playing a major part in my musical life. But he does more than that, inspiring me when I'm down and giving me a reality check when I'm toO high. That is the sign of an artist, someone who can relatate and be related to life itself.
Jon Klaff, UK

As for his voice, its like Marmite, you either love it or you don't. For me it reinforces the lyrics and atmosphere.
Sam Sharpe, London, UK

Myself and my sisters (I'm a triplet) grew up listening to Bob Dylan as my dad is a massive fan. We never real got what he saw in him until we all went away to university and really started to listen to his music. We have all been converted and will certainly be tuning in to next weeks programmes. There is no other performer quite like him.
Kerry, Guildford

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See clips from Scorsese's documentary on Dylan


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