- Bob Dylan was one of those artists who had a universal appeal amongst the Loyalist Prisoner population throughout my tenure at Her Majesties various establishments during the seventies and eighties.
When us young ones started getting turned on by the Zimm — that’s seventies hippy parlance by the way-in the wake of Dylan-Planet Waves and the Live Before the Flood which appeared in 1974 - Before The Fire - many of the auld hands let us know that Bobby D was in fact old hat and that they were humming his protest songs ten years earlier. They bored you with the stories that Dylan ripped the Seegers off or that he was poor man’s protest singer compared to Tom Paxton. We weren’t deterred. Of course we had our own recollections of the Byrds Tambourine Man or Blowin in the Wind by his auld flame Joan Baez. Come to think of it there was hardly a song of his she didn’t cover but that was the one that was best known I suppose.
By late 75 there were new songs in our rapidly filling Bob repertoire. From Planet Waves we were introduced to Forever Young and from the masterpiece Blood on the Tracks in early 75 you could have your pick of classic songs. If you overdosed on Shelter from the Storm or Idiot Wind sure you could always fall back on You’re a Big Girl Now-which of course could arguably contain one of the greatest lyrics of all time. “ –with a pain that stops and starts—-like a corkscrew to my heart” —a corkscrew to my heart …. You could almost feel it piercing your skin. A true wordsmith and genius at work.
There was talk in mid 1975 of a proposed massive tour coming later in the year. The Rolling Thunder Review. A huge tour with a wonderful ensemble of musicians - a travelling caravan of troubadours as it was described in one music magazine. The tour was split in two ... and the first half kicked off in the North West states and Canada in the autumn of 75. The southern states and the west coast welcomed the troupe in the Spring of 1976. In between times the epochal Desire was released-January 1976. It received the highest of critical acclaim and this was echoed through sales. Almost forty years later it continually ranks in the top ten of Dylan albums in polls. In 2013 a reader’s poll for the prestigious Rolling Stone magazine listed it as the 5th best Dylan album of all time.
There are no sub standard songs on Desire - many of the compositions on the album are character driven - either real or imaginary. There is an 11 minute biography of famed Mafia don Joey Gallo and the album closes with a tribute to Dylan’s long suffering wife Sara. Many of the songs were co-written with Jacques Levy - who was, amongst other things, a songwriter, a theatre director and a clinical psychologist. But it is the opening track that will linger longest in our retrospective catalogue. From the first, immediate staccato lyrics—“ “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night-enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall”- we are flung head first into that maelstrom of a night in The Lafayette Bar and Grill, Patterson New Jersey in 1966. For those of us who who didn’t know the background to the song it led us to search for that information. We revelled in the story that such was Dylan’s interest in Carter that he organised a concert in Clinton State Prison in December 1975. This led us to thinking that maybe we should request Clubsound or Big Tom and the Mainliners to play for us in Compound 21.
Soon we were experts in the injustice that Dylan sang about - of the racially motivated and wrongful conviction of a man who but for unlawful imprisonment could have been —“the Champion of the World”. According to The Bard. Hurricane became much more than a modern day protest song and developed into somewhat of an anthem. The 8 plus minutes provided enough snippets of catchy lyrics to satisfy the best of us. The song was a veritable timeline of Carter’s supposed crime, his trial and subsequent “false” imprisonment. In the early months of 1976 and stretching long into the summer the soaring strains of Scarlet Rivera’s violin could be heard swooping through the huts. The Dansette played on repeat - Desire and in particular Hurricane was rivalled only by The Eagles Greatest Hits and the tearful wrench of Lying’ Eyes.
One was favoured by the young, energetic and champions of the underdogs rights. The other by the Sad Sack brigade whilst writing letters back home. The energetic types used the track as a timer of sorts for a bout of activity in the gym - as they did with Bat Out of Hell a couple of years later - due to the length of the track. A sustained attack on the heavy bag reduced a man to a sweating, quivering rack by the time Hurricane morphed into the second track-Isis-a tale of unrequited love -the Mexican kind.
Hurricane sustained us and gave us our fix — many by now had fallen to this fresh addiction … like the junkies we were we went in search of the old tablets - the vinyl pills that would get us through. The Dylan register was exhausted.
Of course us new found Dylanites - or in the case of the more extreme Dylanologists - were open to stick from the more staid-old fashioned-side shade-checked shirt brigade, who taunted us with versions of Benny Hill’s Go Round Again. But do you know what? See even if you listened really closely to Benny ... and even if you admitted that he had a passable nasal twang ... and that he could cram loads of words into the one sentence ... he wasn’t a patch on the Master.