Backstage, Bob Dylan, Earls Court, 1978. My friend Heather and I are chatting with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash. “So, what do you think?” asks Heather. Muttering and shrugs from the Clash boys. “No, come on, be honest. What do you think?”
They’re looking at the floor, avoiding our eyes.”Well, it’s ok, s’ppose, bit old hat”.
Heather’s tougher than me. She’s dealt with Art Garfunkel demanding a sofa, a private shower and top of the line hi fi on a British Rail train. (Seriously; when the rest of us were grateful simply that the train was there at the station, Art believed you should be able to custom design your own carriage).
So she looks at them like one of those stern school marms from 1950s black and white films and says: “Come on guys, it’s Bob Dylan!” And rather sheepishly, the rebellious boys of London Calling go: “Yeah, fuck it. It is, it’s Bob fucking Dylan.” And they smile, their cool gone, schoolboys caught eating sweets in the classroom.
Bob fucking Dylan wrote Blowing In The Wind when he was 21. Around the same time he also wrote Masters Of War.
“For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, You ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins”.
Is there a 21-year-old around today so indignant; so well read; so articulate; so politically and poetically literate; and so minded to put it out there without worrying about “the market”?
If there are such beings, I’ve yet to be pointed in their direction.
My mother used to say that if women ran the world there would be no wars. (Stick with me here. There’s a thread). Her female friends all agreed. So imagine my surprise when first Indira Ghandi, then Golda Meir, and then Margaret Thatcher all went to war.
There was another prevailing orthodoxy at the time which took a lot longer to shake off. This was the notion that if you could just sit people round a table, all problems could be solved, all conflict avoided. People, the argument ran, were fundamentally good and decent. All any of us need is a fair shake and we’ll put our weapons down.
You would have thought, given Neville Chamberlain’s experience with Hitler, and the horrors of Stalin’s Russia, that by the mid 60s we might have ditched this shibboleth.
But in fact, the hippy movement – which elevated Dylan to God-like status while ignoring the underlying philosophy of much of his writing – drip-fed this idea into the liberal mainstream until it became accepted wisdom.
Consequently, we’re only just now getting used to the idea that there are people in this world who cannot be negotiated with. They have an agenda which they largely keep to themselves. Talking doesn’t help. They’ll just lie to you, tell you what you want to hear. And then they’ll go and do as they damn well please. Hitler was the classic case. But more recently Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadaffi, Charles Taylor – the list goes on – have all proved the point in blood and murder. Now Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his murderous Islamic State are coming for us.
Thinking about this recently, a line from Blowing In The Wind popped into my head.
‘How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?’
But in my head it was:
‘How many roads must a man walk down before we call him bad?’
For decades we’ve made excuses for bad people, even blamed ourselves (our colonial past) for corruption and violence in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan.
We’ve also blamed ourselves for trouble in the Middle East (partition after WW1).
But the veneer of civilisation that has held together despite the Sadam Husseins and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads, is about to be stripped away. For competing versions of Islam – Shia vs Sunni – there is no reconciliation, no negotiation.
And then I thought of the Berlin Wall and the more recent West Bank wall and I thought: “What have we learned?” And there I had the beginnings of a song I couldn’t have written 30 years ago.
‘We’ve seen iron, we’ve seen fire, mothers waving across barbed wire; walls go up and walls come down and what have we learned?’
I couldn’t have written this song 30 years ago for the simple reason I didn’t think then like I do now. Back then I still had a vestige of faith in the basic goodness of humanity. No more. So this new song Iron & Fire is essentially pessimistic.
Another reason I can write this song now is that I’ve long since stopped worrying about the charts. It is wonderfully liberating to be able to write about any subject, not worrying whether there’s a hook, or even a chorus.
Bob Dylan knew this 50-odd years ago. He was a seriously old soul in new skin.
There’s no point me crying over spilt milk. I didn’t have Dylan’s sensibilities, awareness or talent when I was younger. (Neither do I now, just to be clear!).
But what I have developed is a sort of fearlessness about subject matter and form and production.
I hope there are proto-Dylans out there, developing their art in a similarly fearless way.
Competition in the pop world is more intense than ever, and getting more so. It’s never been more important to develop your own voice, and use social media to build your audience. The internet is your friend. The record industry will find you if you’re worth finding. There’s a pop star lives in my house and, honestly, she’s being found by someone new almost every week.
So don’t think you have to play the industry’s game. The record industry doesn’t have a game. It never really did. Sixty years ago it looked as if EMI and Decca had it all sewn up, and then their world fractured around them. The Beatles, then the Stones, the Who and countless others shook up the men in suits, and within five years indie labels started to proliferate – Island, Immediate, Apple, Polydor, Stax, Stiff, A&M, Elektra, Rak, Sire – and it didn’t really stop until the mid-90s when the current big three (Universal, Sony and Warner) began ingesting the plankton.
Two years ago it was four; but EMI got swallowed by Universal. Now, keen students of these things can see that it’s all fracturing again. Who knows whether the majors can hang on? I couldn’t give a fuck. Whatever bad happens to them, they deserve.
Meantime, the likes of me will do what we do in the full knowledge that the business model we once knew is over. Iron & Fire is a candle in the wind. It will never outsell Car 67, but I’m proud of it, and I think I’ll be happy to listen to it in 35 years, when I’m 100 years old. Think on that, you young whippersnappers.