Man who stops 'real life'

A YOUNG woman was walking along a street in New York City when a large car pulled up alongside her. She was carrying a violin-case.A man's voice from inside the car asked: “Can you play that thing?”She could and said so - and within weeks her fiddle was creating the most distinctive sound of one of the 1970s' finest records, an album that still sounds fresh and still sells more than 30 years later.

A YOUNG woman was walking along a street in New York City when a large car pulled up alongside her. She was carrying a violin-case.

A man's voice from inside the car asked: “Can you play that thing?”

She could and said so - and within weeks her fiddle was creating the most distinctive sound of one of the 1970s' finest records, an album that still sounds fresh and still sells more than 30 years later.

The woman, whose waist-length black hair may have been what drew the man's attention, was Scarlet Rivera. She had never been in a recording studio before playing on the album, Desire.


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And she had never played on a public stage before finding herself on a world tour of huge venues with the man, Bob Dylan.

My own more prosaic relationship with Dylan - not with the man himself, but with his works - began more than 40 years ago.

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His wonderful early albums The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home were given to me when I was seven. Their scintillating lyrics were stitched deeply into my consciousness and I can still sing along with every word of both.

Not all his records have been so stimulating. From 1979 to 1992 he churned out a series of stinkers, though the first Official Bootlegs revealed that his best work of that decade had not been on the albums.

But I own them all - brilliant, bad and indifferent, 61 discs of officially released material, and several unofficial ones too.

His gig at Blackbushe airfield in Surrey in 1978 remains the unsurpassed highlight of my concert-going career.

Each time he's been back to the UK since, I've missed him for one reason or another. Last time I told myself that if there was ever another chance, I'd make sure I got to see him again.

So I'll be at Wembley Arena on Sunday. I don't know when I last looked forward to a concert so much, or for so long.

He's 65 now, and looks older, but over the last three albums he's been back to near his best as a writer and performer.

I'll be happy, though, to keep the relationship strictly the impersonal, distant one of artist and punter.

In one sense the Scarlet Rivera story seems like a fairytale. In another it's fairly typical of the way Dylan has gone through his career, picking people up, and dropping them again.

For a man whose songs have touched many millions of people, his real human relationships have mostly been strange, stilted, ultimately unsatisfying.

Perhaps like most hard-driven people - not just artists - he has often seemed merely to use others to further his own ends. When he has deemed their usefulness to be over, he has dropped them, often quite callously.

Or that, at least, is how it has often seemed to them.

One man who walked away from the Dylan entourage of his own volition was his former road manager Gary Shafner. He did so because Dylan had “stolen” his girlfriend for a brief fling.

Shafner told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes: “As an artist, I respect the guy.”

Ouch. But there's more to it than that suggests, even if Bob is indeed the egotist many suggest, as sexist and as naïve as some of his worst lyrics suggest.

True to rock-star expectations, the twice-married Dylan has been a womaniser on an almost heroic scale. His love-life really has been Tangled Up in Blue - the title of one of his finest songs, obliquely chronicling the break-up of his first marriage.

One of his longer-term relationships was with Carole Childs, who summed up wistfully: “Maybe if he wasn't so important, life would have been easier.”

Overall, Sounes's fascinating book Down The Highway paints a picture of an essentially shy man trapped by his own fame.

There's a sad description of Dylan passing a bar, seeing “real life” going on behind its windows. As soon as he walks in, that real life stops.

It's one of very few times in the book that we get to see through Dylan's own eyes, rather than hearing from those who have known him.

Yet even so the picture emerges clearly of a man surrounded by sycophantic men and too-easily-seduced women.

That sort of attention might sound appealing until you have it, but I'm sure it would soon wear very thin indeed.

The book might serve as a warning to that seemingly growing number of people who appear to crave fame for its own sake.

One of the most poignant moments is related by drummer Winston Watson.

When Dylan was seriously ill in 1997 with a heart infection, Watson - whom he had sacked a few months before - sent a get-well letter.

“He later told me hadn't gotten many letters from people he worked with,” said Watson. “In fact, none.”

Perhaps that says something about Dylan's treatment of his musicians and other employees. But perhaps it says something too about their attitude and expectations.

Either way, he is arguably the greatest artist of our times and certainly the one who has influenced and entertained me the most.

Long may he continue.

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