It was Jonny Levene – whose taste in music (if not quiffs) was way ahead of that of the rest of us – who first introduced me to the great man, circa 1983/4. And I still recall precisely where we stood – Hall Left (yet another brilliantly conceived name from that modest individual, who chose anonymity over acclaim, charged with such things at Hasmonean High School for Boys) – as Jonny handed over his Walkman for me to have my first taste of Bob Dylan.
And Neighborhood Bully, the pro-Israel track from his latest album, Infidels, was probably a more fitting introduction to Dylan for a frum 16-year old than anything from the three evangelical/gospel releases that preceded it, following his 1978 encounter with Yoshke. And after borrowing (and not returning) Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits – covering his early recordings (1962-66) – from another fellow Hasmonean (Saul Davis), I knew there was to be no going back to the Synthpop/New Wave that had permeated my early teens.
My all-time fave album cover: Bob and Suze Rotolo, Greenwich Village, February 1963
Since my enlightenment, I have acquired almost every Dylan album – there are over fifty – and I never allow more than a few months to pass without listening to all of them, from the very first, in chronological order. I don’t propose to explain here what makes Dylan great – you either ‘get’ the supreme originality of his poetry and turn of phrase, or you don’t – though I genuinely believe that Bob is both the greatest-ever singer-songwriter and living artist (however wide your interpretation of the word). For fans of Dylan (as of cricket, for example), one just never stops discovering.
In spite of all that, and numerous opportunities, I have never seen Bob ‘live’: I had heard the tales of disappointment, and always opted to leave him on my personal pedestal. When it was announced, however, some months ago, that Dylan would be visiting Israel for the third time – he performed here in 1987 and 1993 – in June, just a month after turning 70, I was sorely tempted to purchase a ticket for Ramat Gan Stadium: I had missed out on the visits of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen, and regretted both (“Mozza” especially).
I did not, however, in the end, relent, and – while I take no pleasure in I-told-you-sos . . . okay, just a little (especially when hundreds of shekels are involved!) – it came as no surprise when friend after friend reported how Dylan had played versions of songs which rendered them hardly recognizable and, though perhaps a blessing in the circumstances, refused to perform the de rigeur encore. Moreover, large screens, that should have enabled others than the wealthy/foolhardy (see Hanna below) to actually see something, projected the same, long-distance views that they already ‘enjoyed’: Bob had, apparently, prohibited the cameras from shooting him in close-up.
At the Western Wall for son Jesse's bar mitzvah, September 20, 1983
Most disappointing, however, even insulting, was Dylan’s total detachment from his audience: he didn’t so much as utter a “hello” or a “thank you,” far less a “shalom” or “toda.” Was it not reasonable to expect that Robert Allen Zimmerman would give Israel just that little bit extra? Or had Neighborhood Bully (lyrics) merely been hot air?
That Dylan is an odd Bob is not disputed. Working in the States, one summer, I heard firsthand from a colleague – who had been employed at John Mellencamp’s recording studio in Indiana – how Dylan had been due to visit, one day, to work on a Farm Aid track. Dave recalled how the studio phone eventually rang, and the person at the other end croaked merely “I’m at the Pizza Hut” and hung up. As a consequence, a dozen cars sped to every Pizza Hut within a twenty mile radius to find their esteemed visitor! (See also August 2009’s Mook of the Month.)
As for those who excuse him – as an artist, or merely as Bob – from showing basic etiquette, I don’t share their generosity of spirit: anyone who has penned songs with the depth, humanity and general sublimity of Dylan’s cannot pretend to feign ignorance of simple courtesy.
A friend, Hanna, having spent 1,000 shekels (around £180) on a ticket for the concert (and perhaps, therefore, not wanting to lose face), claimed that she did not feel cheated: while admitting that it took her a while to identify songs, she felt that Bob had “put on a real show,” and that the audience had “no right to expect any more, because Dylan talks through his music.”
The broad consensus, however, was that Dylan had taken the piss. And it is an odd paradox for me, worshipping the work, while considering the man, Bob, a bit of a knob.
Who knows? Perhaps 4th Time Around, Bob won’t just be Blowin’ in the Israeli Wind. Though I won’t be there. And my advice to the uninitiated is to start acquiring Dylan’s studio albums – even the ‘lesser’ ones would be considered masterpieces had they been released by anyone else – and to enjoy recorded genius in the ‘stadium’ of your living room . . .