Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan When you're drunk at 3am. Knowing that the chances are, No matter what, you'll never write like him So sings the American artist Rodney Crowell at the beginning of his outstanding song Beautiful Despair on his 2005 release The Outsider. The self-deprecating tone no doubt struck a chord with songwriters, established or would-be. Crowell, unsure whether to laugh or cry, later resorts to a passable rendition of Shelter From The Storm with Emmylou Harris, though it might have sounded even better without the modulation and the spoken verse.
No one covers Bob Dylan like the man himself, even though The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens made a fair attempt. It has been the story since the incomparable one’s early troubadour days. My Back Pages was written in 1964, appearing on his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, but was not performed live by the writer until 1988. On the album he delivers the song – with lone reedy voice and unadorned acoustic guitar – in a style similar to his earlier protest material but he is clearly now disillusioned with the civil liberties movement, or more accurately his reluctant role in it.
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand At the mongrel dogs who teach Fearing not that I’d become my enemy In the instant that I preach My existence led by confusion boats Mutiny from stern to bow Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now
This is a watershed moment: the championed voice of the Sixties is turning his back on politics. Dylan, as the title suggests, is consigning his formative chapter to history and moving on, leaving some of his disciples-turned-critics behind in the irony of that two-lined refrain, towards a more abstract style in which symbolism would enhance his enigma and leave us scratching our heads in beloved bewilderment.
I recall in my grammar school days in Liverpool in the Sixties gathering at a friend’s house at lunchtime listening to reel-to-reel tapes of Dylan’s early albums via a machine plugged in to the ceiling light socket. The elder brother of a friend had brought them back from business in America. We had loved Elvis and were besotted with The Beatles. But we had heard nothing like this.
The singer seemed to be singing to us, opening our ears and eyes to a new art form, a new way of looking at the world. We all agreed that My Back Pages, in the guise of Dylan’s earlier protest songs but signalling a turning point we did not fully appreciate at the time, sounded rather like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.
It was not only the subject matter that entranced us. It was Dylan’s impeccable phrasing that became even more exceptional when you heard others attempting to do justice to his work. Crowell’s Shelter From The Storm is a case in point.
My Back Pages proved a hit single for The Byrds, taken from their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday but minus the original’s second verse to reduce the playing time. It is a tribute to Roger McGuinn and company that Dylan chose the Byrds’ jingle-jangle Tambourine Man-style version at a 30th anniversary concert in his honour at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1992.
The six verses were there in all their glory, McGuinn singing the first, followed by Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, the great man himself with the crucial one reproduced above, and finally George Harrison. There were two guitar solos too, by Clapton and Young, with the house band of Booker T & the MGs driving a sound captured memorably on DVD in 2014.
As a former sports journalist, I had the notion of adopting this song as a badge for my working life. But these back pages were far more profound and thought-provoking. Ah, but we were so much younger then.