I was in the upper sixth in 1963, the year made famous by Philip Larkin for the discovery of sex. Not in my world, it wasn’t. That took a few more years. A northern grammar school boy, what else could I be studying but Maths, Physics and Chemistry? Twenty miles down the road, the Beatles had broken through to mega-stardom, with the Mersey sound everywhere. There was some great stuff, along with classic pop coming from America with guys like Don and Phil, the Big O and Gene Pitney.
In these days before teenagers had learnt how to lie in until lunchtime, there was a two hour morning pop music programme, Saturday Club, on the Light Programme introduced by Brian Matthew. The Beatles were playing live, after which John Lennon was interviewed. “That Bob Dylan, he’s dead gear,” were the words as I remember them.
Once the show finished, I rushed out to the record shop to buy Freewheelin. I couldn’t get over how good it all was, head over heels at the wondrous ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. For me, everything after then, even the great British stuff that followed almost immediately like The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Spencer Davis and The Animals, would never claim my total allegiance.
I’ve bought every single Dylan album since during the last fifty-two years, as well as the one album out before Freewheelin’. We really have been together through life. In these years I’ve ploughed through science and divinity degrees, and had a long business career. I’ve also had a family, finally having learnt the game, if slowly, that Buddy Holly sang about. I’ve only just now written my novel, Where’s Sailor Jack?, so I certainly got to know my song well before I started singing.
At every stage Dylan has struck the chord. I was still catching up at Oxford when the savvy public school types listened to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ for drug references. I knew where I was from, so I was far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow anyway. I was friends with a few folkies, one of whom would have lent Pete Seeger her axe at Newport. I loved the electric stuff, happily paying whatever the price was to be ‘Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.
Into the seventies, I lived the pain in that incredible album Blood on the Tracks where every word was etched into my soul from him to me. In one of the concerts at Wembley Arena I went to, Bob wasn’t having his best night, but his acoustic version of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, apart perhaps from another concert when he did ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’.
His Christian phase didn’t faze me. I’m a lifelong unorthodox believer. Like Jesus, he only preached for three years. He saw that the lone soldier on the cross would win the war after losing every battle, the only sense to be made of life.
He’s taken all his songs with him into his old age. The devil might rule this world, but God is the judge, and he’s decided they’re eternal. No-one has written old age like Dylan. We’re all trying to get to heaven before they close the door. We stayed in Mississippi a day too long. None of us can go back, at least not all the way. We missed that moment when all old things became new again. So while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there.
But thanks to him, I’ve always had the murmur of his songs, like a prayer, in my soul.
John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.
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