The other night, my brother and I went to see Bob Dylan perform at Wembley. Our Dad was a Bob Dylan fanatic. I cannot highlight this enough. He was my Dad’s favourite artist by miles. Nobody came close. If my Dad were ever to go on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be Robert Allen Zimmerman. Although I hate the term, I suppose you could’ve called my old man a Bob Dylan “superfan.”
We grew up listening to Dylan’s cassettes, watched every available movie and documentary about him, bought Dad every CD as soon as they were released and watched grainy VHS recordings of his live gigs from the decades before we were born.
We spent so many hours of our life listening to Dylan with our Dad: on car journeys, in the background while we were chatting away, the 10-in-a-row he’s just put on the pub jukebox, or just stoned on the sofa drinking Southern Comfort on a Wednesday afternoon.
The first song I ever heard was Forever Young when I wasn’t even a week old. My Dad said the lyrics were what he hoped for me.
I started writing stories as a kid 1) because my Dad encouraged me and inspired me, and 2) because when I was younger my favourite Dylan songs were the ones that told stories, those 9-minute narrative masterpieces, particularly Hurricane and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. I didn’t understand most of his lyrics about politics, money, religion or war but I could follow his stories just fine, picturing the characters in my head: I remember being gobsmacked when my Dad told me that Hurricane is a true story.
This is how my Dad taught me that poetry exists in many different forms. I’d say, “But dad, they’re songs, not poems!!!” and he’d tell me that they were everything you wanted them to be: Dylan’s words were art because he made them so, and if even he didn’t intend them to be art, my Dad made them into art by interpreting them as art.
I didn’t quite believe my Dad when he told me that poems don’t have to rhyme or even make sense. I said, “I bet you can’t write a poem about that lady over there in the flowery dress,” and sure enough my Dad wrote a rude limerick about this poor innocent woman in under 2 minutes. Then I pointed to a helicopter flying overhead and sure enough, Dad wrote a little ditty about the helicopter which I remember started off sad but then had a funny twist at the end.
A week later, he gave me a book of nonsense poems. Then we would go through Bob Dylan’s big book of lyrics and I would pick out words that I didn’t know, and Dad would help me to look up the definitions. We’d put these “big new words” into a sentence, and turn all of these sentences into our own nonsense poem.
This changed everything for me. Once I discovered that if you care enough (or don’t care enough) you can make anything into a poem and then I learnt how much fun writing can be.
Throughout our early years, Dad introduced us to Dylan’s songs about love and songs about hate and songs about everything in between. When I was a teenager he introduced me to Dylan’s more complex songs, and off I went with new opinions on the Vietnam war and corporate bigwigs and atheism.
When I (embarrassingly) thought I was well and truly heartbroken at around age 15, my Dad talked me through Dylan songs of heartbreak and pain, how sex doesn’t always mean love and vice versa, how some lovers you never forget and others you don’t even remember by name, how some people will return to you but others won’t, how when you’re feeling in such a way you should “write it out.” (I still follow this advice now).
My Dad wrote poetry all of his adult life, from around age 17 to a year before his death. Most of his poetry was about love: unrequited, broken, tragic, glorious, magical, destructive, beautiful. He wrote a lot. He wrote songs too. And he would say, “I have spent 50 years trying to perfectly encapsulate the pain of losing someone you love. And all the while, Bob Dylan’s gone and done it in one fucking verse.”*
Then came the songs about drink and drugs and strangers and revolution and freedom and “all the fun things.” Dad and I would dance around his little flat, blaring All Along The Watchtower at an illegally-loud volume and spilling beer everywhere, and hang out of his window smoking and shouting at passersby, “EVVVVVERYBODY MUST GET STOOONED!”
My writing became more successful when I was 16, and it was a given that I would study English Literature if I got to university. We were allowed to choose our text for A-Level English language finals. I was desperate to analyse Dylan’s song It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). My teacher called the exam-board and it was a straight-up NO “because he’s not a real writer.” THIS WAS, AND STILL IS, ONE OF THE MOST BONKERS THINGS I HAVE EVER HEARD IN MY SHORT LIFE. I shit you not. That is what they said. My teacher agreed that this was ridiculous. I had to analyse Sylvia Plath instead. I went to my Dad’s flat after school and told him about it. He laughed and said he was certain that one day Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature (which he did, in 2016, and Dad and I were fucking delighted).
Bob Dylan’s songs became ever-present in my life as I got older, read more, wrote more, studied more, and spent as much time as humanly possible with my Dad. As Dad got sicker and less able to walk, he had come to terms with the possibility that he would never see Dylan perform live again. It just didn’t seem possible: tickets cost £100s, and with my £30 a week student allowance and Dad’s pension we could barely afford to buy 1 ticket.
Then we heard on the lunchtime news that Bob Dylan was performing at Finsbury Park (just down the road from us) in June 2011. We looked up tickets: waaaay out of our price range. We were gutted. Without telling my Dad, I spoke to the CEO of the event (always start at the top) and asked if there was any sort of student and/or OAP/disabled concession. I explained that we’re both skint, but how I am desperate for my Dad to see his hero one last time. Long story short: I ended up with 2 free press tickets (!)
We had the BEST fucking time! Even though it was so hard for my Dad to stand in a crowd and he was in excruciating pain by the end, it was such a special thing for us to see Bob Dylan together. Favourite memory = feeling the full effects of one of my Dad’s notoriously “loaded” hash cookies and singshouting, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEL?!” with my Dad and so many others. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. Of course, I felt bad that my brother couldn’t be there with us but I was taking the piss already by getting 2 free tickets and what was most important was that our Dad got to go.
4 years later, I had graduated with my degree in English Literature and was earning a bit of money. I was still spending as much time as possible with my Dad as his health declined further, mainly because he’s my best friend and I was his carer, but partly because we knew our days were numbered so every hour was important.
For over a decade my Dad had been living for “targets.” Reasons to keep fighting all of these illnesses. Things to focus on, to keep him keeping on through the pain. Birthdays, a trip down to Cornwall to see his own father and family, football matches, the release of the next Lee Child book or the next James Bond movie.
Then I got an email in the Spring saying that Bob Dylan was performing in London in the Autumn of 2015. I knew that I had to move fast so I got us 2 tickets straight away, with step-free disabled access. They cost more than I had anticipated, and I was now back in my overdraft, but no amount of money could stop me from giving my Dad an exciting new target.
I gave him the tickets for Father’s Day and he was so happy and surprised. He said, “If I’m not well enough, you take your brother with you, alright?” Of course. And he said, “I’m more worried about Dylan surviving until then, let alone me!” This was a valid point but we shared more excitement than nerves as the weeks and months disappeared and the concert drew closer.
Again, the transportation was an absolute bitch. My Dad was already “not feeling that great” when I picked him up from his flat. I was worried. I didn’t think he’d make it, I thought we’d make it part-way there and have to turn around and come home. He struggled. Really fucking struggled. It was painful to watch him in so much pain, and I felt terribly guilt like I’d forced him into this situation where he feels he has to go even though his body is telling him that he can’t. I felt so bad.
But we made it, and once there we were well looked-after by one of the managers. She made my Dad’s experience there so much easier and more comfortable, and made me less stressed and anxious. Thanks to her help we were able to enjoy a cracking show.
Fond memories include: Dad chuckling to himself when Dylan crooned through a Sinatra cover and saying, “Only Dylan could get away with this!”, Dad chatting away to fellow white-haired hippies, exchanging stories of gigs gone by, and Dad squeezing my hand in excitement every few minutes like a kid in a sweetshop.
In an unexpected turn, Bob Dylan also sang my suicide song Autumn Leaves which was an unbelievable moment for me. I felt like I was the only person in the room and his voice got inside my body, grating on my bones, it was disturbing and brilliant and surreal and spine-tingling and haunting and wonderful. It blew me away. It was definitely one of those life-changing moments for me. And it was all the more crazy for having my Dad there beside me. (I never thought we’d see Bob Dylan once, let alone twice!!!)
The morning after that concert my Dad (unknowingly) began the final year of his life.
The last coherent thing he said, the day before he died, was to the paramedic who noticed all of the Bob Dylan albums and books on the shelf and tried to chat to my Dad while they took his vitals. My Dad was very frightened and confused, he could barely speak, mumbling nonsensical things to me. And still the paramedic banged on about Dylan while I answered his questions on Dad’s behalf.
In the ambulance, on that final trip to the hospital, the paramedic said, “Go on then, tell us, what’s your all-time favourite Bob Dylan album?” My Dad pulled his oxygen mask off with trembling hands and a hell of a lot of effort and gave his certain albeit delayed answer. “Blonde on Blonde.” The paramedic replied, “Ohhhh, mine’s probably got to be Bringing It All Back Home.” My Dad nodded slowly in acknowledgement, with approval. Everything after that was horrible and confusing and scary.
We played Like A Rolling Stone at his cremation, of course. I don’t remember anything else.
We took our Dad’s ashes back to his hometown in Cornwall to be interred on Saturday 10th December 2016. Again, we played Rolling Stone. It was the same day that Bob Dylan was due to personally receive his Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm and give his acceptance speech. Dylan did not attend. We joked, “That’s because he’s here at our Dad’s funeral!”
A few days after we interred our Dad’s ashes in Cornwall and celebrated what would’ve been his 68th birthday, I bought 2 tickets to see Bob Dylan at Wembley Arena in May 2017. The next day I phoned my brother on his birthday and shouted, “WE’RE GOING TO SEE BOB DYLAN!!!”
He was buzzing, I was buzzing but the whole idea was tinged with sadness at the thought of experiencing this without Dad; while he may not have been well enough to attend in person, we would’ve called him from the venue and again straight afterwards to tell him all the details, and sent him photos and videos.
Instead, my brother and I downed (pre-mixed at home and brought along in a plastic water bottle) Southern Comfort and lemonade as we walked to the venue, toasting our drinks to our Dad. It still felt strange not to text him to say, “We’re here!”
I was worried that it would all be too much for me to bear. I thought it would be far too emotional and I would cry before, during, after the show. All the memories of Dad and growing up with Dylan and being with my brother but without our Dad and the lyrics and the intensity and all the people: I was destined for a mini-breakdown and then probably a full-blown breakdown at home. But I didn’t cry.
I did not cry. For a second, while Dylan was singing Highway 61 Revisited, a song which I so clearly remember Dad singing during our childhood road trips to Cornwall, I thought I was going to crack. I had tears in my eyes but my smile made them melt back to where they came from. And, again, Dylan sang Autumn Leaves. I thought, “Oh, God, I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” But it was completely different to last time, a lot shorter, less dramatic, less haunting, less personal. I was just able to enjoy it for what it was: Bob Dylan performing for us.
But really, I think I didn’t cry because my Dad was there. He was there. Not as a ghost sitting on an empty seat or haunting the staircases, nothing like that, but he was there, in my mind, in my brother’s mind, in Dylan’s words and so strongly in our hearts.
I couldn’t be sad because I was with my Dad. And I am forever indebted to Bob Dylan for letting me be with my Dad again, not just for those 2 hours but for every time I hear his songs, every time I read my Dad’s poems and every time I write my own: poetry is everywhere if you make it so.