I almost lasted the full two hours of the first part of Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary last night (BBC2). That I did so was due to the shock of seeing Dylan himself actually speaking, even if he said little of great interest, plus the archive concert footage from the Sixties.
There was far too much of the folk and country music that influenced Dylan for my taste. I've never really liked folk music, a feeling reinforced when I went to a folk session in the basement of a pub and was not allowed to enter until there was a break in the singing. Later, when I whispered to my friend that I'd get some more drinks, I was shushed by those nearby. It was like a meeting of some fundamentalist religious sect.
But I never thought of Dylan as a folk singer although at 14 I probably thought of him as a God. It's arguable that he was the first singer from the folk music tradition to cross over into the mainstream. Certainly the first to do that without being a fabricated, emasculated, saccharine act like Peter, Paul and Mary.
The programme included an old interview with Dylan in which he denied that the 'hard rain' in the famous song was atomic rain. It was just....well, hard rain. At the time, anyone who'd denied that the song was a protest against the expected nuclear armageddon would have been laughed at. But, assuming that Dylan wasn't winding up the interviewer, which he seemed prone to doing, the song is even more beautiful when shorn of its political dimension.
Something else that made you sit up was the sight of all those teenagers at his British concerts in the Sixties dressed in suits and ties, many of them furious that electricity had contributed to the music making. They looked like those young Mormons who used to go round knocking on doors but who are mercifully less common today. Although jeans and casual clothes were already common then, I suppose young men would usually don a suit and tie to go the theatre even if it was to see an icon of protest and rebellion.
My own reverence for Dylan pretty much begins and ends with Like A Rolling Stone, which still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as soon as I hear that opening drum beat. But I wrote about that song here about a year ago so I musn't repeat myself, apart from saying that I still have no idea what makes it the greatest rock song ever.
But Dylan, like most artists, also wrote a great deal of rubbish and some of it was on display last night. The same man who wrote some of the greatest lyrics ever written also wrote lyrics that are impenetrable gibberish. Similarly, Lennon and McCartney wrote Love Me Do and I Want to Hold Your Hand, in my humble opinion two of the worst pop songs ever written, both musically and lyrically.
One other lingering question from last night's documentary is how did Dylan become so thin? It came as a shock to see how chubby he was as both a child and an early teenager. Then suddenly he metamorphosed into a stick insect. Maybe he wasn't eating properly when he was first on the road before he became famous. But the transformation was so dramatic that today he'd have been able to make millions from the 'Bob Dylan Diet'. Or maybe not. A diet that featured heavy smoking and probably other stimulants that you can't buy in WalMart wouldn't play well with corporate America.