The day I (nearly) met Bob Dylan

Ten years ago, John Harris was within seconds of a meeting Bob Dylan – until Eric Clapton stole him away. Now he talks to those who have been granted an audience with rock’s greatest enigma

John Harris

The Guardian, saturday, 14may2011

Imagine this: since you were 11 years old, you have been convincedBob Dylan is a genius. You own every album he has ever made, and your shelves are full of books whose titles attest to the great cloak of mystery that surrounds him: Behind the Shades, Wanted Man, Invisible Republic. You can quote his lyrics, and play dozens of his songs on the guitar. There are days when you find yourself revering him more than the Beatles, which is saying something.

And then it happens: someone points you in the direction of a set of stairs and says it’s time for you to meet him, which produces an attack of nerves so strong that you fear you might pass out.

As he winds down after playing in front of 10,000 people, what exactly are you going to say? “Hello Bob, you’re the reason I made a harmonica holder out of one of my mum’s coathangers in 1983 and tortured the neighbours with repeated renditions of Like a Rolling Stone, and I just wanted to say thanks”? No. “Hello Bob, I’ve always had trouble making narrative sense of your 1978 song Changing of the Guards, and wondered whether you could help?” Absolutely not. “Hello Bob, great show”? Please.

Sadly, to kill this shaggy dog story before it runs away with us, when the dressing room door eventually swung open, Dylan wasn’t there: he’d been spirited away by Eric Clapton, someone reckoned. Which makes 11 May 2002 – the day I nearly met Bob Dylan – nothing to tell the grandchildren about, really.

Thanks to favours pulled by a musician friend, I did, though, watch Dylan perform from the wings of the London Arena that night, and studied him as he left the stage. I noted that he was smaller than I imagined (5ft 7in, apparently), and that he walked with a strange gait, shuffling on his toes, almost like a boxer. He passed a foot or so in front of me: I nodded at him, and I think he nodded back. To me that was quite something, but that’s an indication of what hero-worship can do to you.

On 24 May, Dylan will turn 70, an occasion that has already given rise to celebration concerts, cover stories, radio shows and more. Maya Angelou has dutifully praised him as “a great American artist”. To Bruce Springsteen, Dylan is “the father of my country”. There is much more of this stuff to come – a renewed outpouring of the kind of questions that tantalise me, and the millions of people who have been profoundly touched by his music. Most of them boil down to two conundrums: Who is Bob Dylan? And what does he want?

Like most of the high-achieving musicians of his generation, Dylan will never quite escape the shadow of the 1960s, but he is one the few alumni of that decade whose new work still seems vital and interesting. His last album, 2009’s Together Through Life, had its moments, but if you really want to understand how great his recent-ish work has been, you should sample Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006): albums streaked with wit, existential insight and the rare sound of a rock musician building age and experience into every note they sing.

Dylan’s voice is now shot to pieces compared to how it sounded 40-odd years ago, but I think that’s part of what makes his latterday stuff so good. Mick Jagger shakes his bum and attempts to convince his audience that time has stood still since the mid-70s; Dylan confronts us with not just his own mortality, but ours, too.

As ever, he is surrounded by a cloud of ephemera and apocryphal chatter. No one really knows anything about his politics: he has expressed approving sentiments about Barack Obama, but recently caused howls of dismay when he played in China; yesterday, a very unexpected post appeared on bobdylan.com, in which he acknowledged that a collection of recent setlists had been given in advance to the authorities, claimed he hadn’t been censored (“we played all the songs that we intended to play”), and said nothing at all about whether he should have followed the advice of some outraged commentators and spoken at least a little truth to power while he was there. In 2000 I watched him in talkative mood at Wembley Arena, expressing his pleasure at being in the UK with reference to Britain’s efforts in the second world war. What he said probably had more to do with his Jewish upbringing than anything else, but they didn’t sound like the words of the liberal peacenik of common assumption: “We all know how Britain stood alone. That always meant a lot to the people I grew up with.”

Dylan has starred in ads for the lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret and for the iPod. He is said to have been married at least three times, although only one of those unions has been public. An infinite number of questions buzz around the internet, none of which are ever anwered: having embraced born-again Christianity circa 1978, but then apparently rediscovered his Judaism, where is his spiritual head at? Does he really leave his tour bus parked in motorway service stations and go for spontaneous moonlit rambles across fields? And did he really once consider relocating to Crouch End?

I can well remember the source of my idea of Dylan as a shadowy, unbelievably enigmatic presence: a BBC film titled Getting to Dylan, first screened in 1987, in which a team from the Omnibus programme followed him as he played the part of a faded rock star in a risible film called Hearts of Fire (also starring Rupert Everett). Weeks went by before he consented to be interviewed, but it eventually happened, in an on-set trailer near Toronto – and in 20 minutes, he allowed a rare glimpse of his essential condition. You can see the entire Getting to Dylan interview on YouTube (have a look for “BBC Dylan interview”): it remains an enduring portrait not just of who he was, but who he will probably always be, and what a strange and lonely business being Bob Dylan actually is.

So I place a call to his interviewer, Christopher Sykes, now 65, who has the rare distinction of being one of the only film-makers who has trained a camera on Dylan and asked him questions. (Though he directed the acclaimed Dylan documentary No Direction Home, not even Martin Scorsese managed that.)

“I really liked him,” Sykes tells me. “He was tremendously funny. Charming, I thought. And he is incredibly charismatic. You find yourself wondering: is this something about him, or is this something you bring to someone that famous? But sitting a few feet away from him is pretty scary. He’s got a way of looking at you that’s frightening. When he looks straight at you, you really do feel like he’s got some sort of x-ray vision; that he sees right through you.”

It was partly the memory of that look that threw me when I thought I was about to meet him.

“He looks like a … funny old Gypsy person,” Sykes continues. “You have this sense that he’s been around for an awfully long time. I remember thinking, ‘I bet if you look through medieval paintings, there’ll be a picture of him somewhere.’ It really does feel like he’s been around for ever.”

Sykes is nonplussed by suggestions that Dylan did the interview in a state of narcotic refreshment (“He liked drinking Johnny Walker black label, and I think he smoked dope”), and recalls a recent occasion when he had dinner in Los Angeles with Dylan’s son, Jesse – who was reminded of the interview, and offered a very telling question: “Was he kind to you?”

“Tender and really helpful,” is the verdict of the writer Adrian Deevoy, who was summoned to Philadelphia a few years later to interview Dylan for Q magazine. They ended up talking in the seaside town of Narragansett, Rhode Island – and Deevoy’s memories chime with one regular observation of Dylan’s lifestyle: that whereas some artists glide through a world of luxury, Dylan seems to live and work in a fascinatingly higgledy-piggledy way. “It sounds weird,” he tells me, “but we were all on a double bed in a very small motel room: Dylan, myself, his manager Jeff Rosen, a willowy Scandinavian woman, and a massive dog.”

Mike Scott, the singer and chief creative mind in the Waterboys, became a smitten Dylan fan at much the same age that I did, watching his appearance in the film of George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, and realising that “he was the great poet of the times”. In 1978, Scott and a friend went to see Dylan play at Earls Court, then followed his tour bus back to a hotel where they spied him sitting in the bar. “That was exciting,” he says. “‘Fucking hell! I’m going to meet Bob Dylan!’ We got half way across the bar, and these blurred, giant shapes suddenly appeared in front of us: bouncers, who escorted us off the premises.”

Seven years later, when Dylan was in London recording with the ex-Eurythmic and rock Zelig Dave Stewart, Scott and two of his band got a call, and were summoned to a north London recording studio. “That felt like crossing the other half of the room,” he says: the collected musicians spent two hours jamming, while Dylan spurned singing in favour of playing “burbling, non-stop lead guitar”. Scott recalls being perplexed by his refusal to step up to the microphone, but feeling thrilled when Dylan told him he was a fan of the Waterboys’ big hit The Whole of the Moon.

Some time later the phone rang again, and Scott found himself in a rented house in Holland Park. “We hung out with him for a couple of hours. He played us a record by the McPeak Family, folk musicians from Ulster, and he gave me a cassette of an American Indian poet called John Trudell.” And what was Dylan like? “Puckish. Humorous. In the studio, he’d been very quiet and closed in on himself. But now he was gregarious: exactly what I’d want Bob Dylan to be like. It was great.”

Dylan told them tales about the presence of Vikings in his native Minnesota, introduced Scott to his kids, and shared a herbal moment with him. “I don’t know whether you can say this,” says Scott, “but I’ve smoked a joint that Bob Dylan rolled, and he’s smoked a joint that I rolled.”

Self-evidently, I cannot compete with any of that, but still: during 30-odd years, Dylan has powerfully spoken to me about love, loss, life, death, sadness and contentment, and he still does. When I recently moved house, it rather pains me to admit that a freshly acquired set of his CDs, faithful to the original mono versions, came with me in the car, lest anything should happen to them. Thanks to a moment of carelessness in Mississippi, I am proud to say that I own a speeding ticket issued on Highway 61. The last book I finished was a collection of writing about Dylan by the American author and thinker Greil Marcus; I’m about to start an updated version of the aforementioned biography Behind the Shades, by Clinton Heylin – 902 pages, which seems to me a very satisfactory length indeed.

I have seen Dylan play at least 15 times, and I’ll probably keep doing so until his so-called Never Ending Tour comes to a close. It can be a frustrating business – certainly, I wish he wouldn’t endlessly change the phrasing of just about everything he sings, sometimes in the manner of a wheezing pub crooner. But in between the moments you’re left guessing which song he’s actually playing, there are always enough flashes of greatness to justify the effort, and occasions when just about everything aligns correctly.

In 1995, Dylan leapt on stage at the Brixton Academy without his guitar, sang while waggling his legs in the style of the young Elvis, and delivered a fantastically rambunctious show that had me laughing with pleasure. In 2001, I saw him at Stirling Castle: probably the single best concert I have seen him play, full of restraint and tenderness perfectly suited to a summer twilight. The essential thing, though, is this: whatever happens, you can surely take great delight in looking toward the stage and saying, “Look – it’s Bob Dylan.”

And then there is the excellence of so many of the songs he has written as he tumbles towards old age – such as Ain’t Talkin’, the final song from Modern Times: “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Through this weary world of woe,” he sings. “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/ No one on earth would ever know.”

How beautifully put, and how very true.