08 January 2001
He's Got You, From Cradle To Grave
Bono recently wrote a tribute to Bob Dylan for a special Bob Dylan magazine published by Q in the UK.
Below we carry Bono's article. You can find out more about Q by visiting http://www.q4music.com/
He's Got You, From Cradle To Grave
I was thinking about Bob Dylan the other day, trying to define what it was about him that I respect so much, and what came to me was a line by the poet Brendan Keneally from the Book of Judas, a line which I used for guidance on the Zoo TV tour but which I realised applies to Bob Dylan throughout his whole career. The line is: The best way to serve the age is to betray it. That is the essence of Bob Dylan: not just as simple as being on whatever the other side is, because that's just being a crank and cranks at the end of the day aren't very interesting, because you always know their position.
Dylan was at one point in time the very epitome of what was modern, and yet his was always a unique critique of modernity. Because in fact Dylan comes from an ancient place, almost medieval. It was there at the beginning, when he sang like an old geezer - this ancient voice in a young man's body.
The anachronism, really, is the '60s. For the rest of his life he's been howling from some sort of past that we seem to have forgotten but most not. That's it for me. He keeps undermining our urge to look into the future.
The first time I met him he completely disarmed me by asking to have his picture taken with me; a very Bob Dylan thing to do. But then he sat me down and started asking me about the McPeak Family. I was wondering whether this was a punk group from Arkansas but it transpired it was Irish folk music that I had never heard of.
This was 1985. U2 were making The Unforgettable Fire and feeling like we were from outer space, with no roots at all. Bob Dylan was playing Slane Castle and in one day made us reassess a lot of things. He was the one that sent us on this journey into the past that ended up with Rattle & Hum. He did that to us! Blame him! Anyway, Dylan asked us all these questions about Irish music. He then recited at least 10 out of the 13 verses to the Banks Of The Royal Canal (aka The Auld Triangle) by Brendan Behan and I realised he had total recall for old tunes. He told me that the ballad singer Liam Clancey was his hero and insisted that what the Irish had that the Americans and people all over the world were giving up was their past. Van Morrison was sitting with us and he understood completely what Dylan was on about, but I felt uncomfortable. My father listened almost exclusively to opera, partly because folk music had these Republican/Nationalistic connotations that, my father having married a Protestant girl, weren't very auspicious. So it was this conversation with Dylan and later, another with Keith Richards about the blues, that allowed U2 to rediscover our past.
Looking back of course, that feel that Bob Dylan has for Balladry and the biblical nature of much of his imagery, it was ingrained in Irish people. It was a language that we shouldn't really be familiar with, but instinctively we were. Maybe it's that little-known Irish/Jewish axis. My mother's family is called Rankin, and some of them contend that we are, in fact, part Jewish (they're researching a family tree right now).
Bob Dylan is there for you at every stage of your life. And there are songs that made no sense when you were 20 that suddenly become clear later on. Visions of Johanna is one of them. It's extraordinary. He writes this whole song seemingly about this one girl, with these remarkable descriptions of her, but this isn't the girl who's on his mind! It's somebody else! He does it again in Brownsville Girl, one of his most underrated songs and a song, I would suggest, that altered songwriting. It's a completely new kind of song and also has this spectacular line because he can always make you burst out laughing: If there's an original idea out there/I could really use it now. Again, Brownsville Girl is a beautiful rhapsody about this Hispanic woman with her teeth like pearls, and then, in the middle of the song he says, She ain't you, but she's here/And she's got that dark rhythm in her soul. Again, this song is not really about the Brownsville girl, but rather it's addressed to this other woman who seems to be his muse. And his muse, of course, he refers to obliquely in Tangled Up In Blue. He talks about the Italian poet whose every word came off the pages like burning coals. And at some point you realise that - of course! - this Italian poet is Dante. Every word that Dante wrote was for his muse, Beatrice, and there's a Beatrice there in most Bob Dylan songs. Whether she's real or imagined isn't important to me, but it's extraordinary. In your 20s you're not so much interested in ideas like that. In your 20's you're more interested in The Times They're A-Changin'.
But Bob Dylan's got you from the cradle to the grave. For instance, I loved Slow Training Coming. I even loved Saved. People thought Saved was his bumpersticker-Christianity album, but for me it sounds like a real cry for help. I don't know if he was in trouble, but it sounds like it. I think his journey into nursery rhyme - all that God gave names to all the animals stuff - is beautiful, like Picasso drawing with a marker pen. And really Picasso is the only character you can compare Bob Dylan to. So I adore his nursery rhyme digressions, the rhyming of 3bowl of soup2 with 3rolling hoop2 on Under A Red Sky. I also like the terse verse, the almost Raymond Carver anti-metaphor movement of recent times.
My favourite Bob Dylan album, for its exuberance, is Bringing It All Back Home, but the lines that I can't get out of my head are the opening lines of Visions Of Johanna: Ain't it funny how the night plays tricks on you when you're trying to get some quiet/We all sit here stranded, doing our best to deny it. That's as good as it gets, really, although Death Is Not The End from Down In The Groove comes close. It's staggering. And Every Grain of Sand (the Biograph version is better than the one on Shot of Love) is everything you should aspire to in popular music.
I went to see him open a casino in Las Vegas last year. He was shining in good health. He seemed really happy: you know how he flashes that smile occasionally from stage that seems so generous? Anyway, I noticed that the place wasn't full, and that it had been full earlier for The Blues Brothers, and I wondered how that must feel. And I looked at him and realised that at a very deep level he really, really didn't mind. And I thought, Now that's freedom. Having seen him perform for the Pope and having seen him perform in a casino, it struck me that this was again the very medieval idea of the troubadour: you pay, I'll play. It doesn't matter who turns up or how many. Your music is for whoever wishes to listen to it, from the saints to the damned.
Bob Dylan: suffice it to say I would carry his luggage. And as anyone in U2 will tell you, I'm not great with the old gear.