Saturday 18 November 2017

Sandpaper and rain: How Dylan captured my heart

As the music legend nears 70, Joseph O'Connor recalls how he fell in love with Bob Dylan's music

IN July of 1978, when I was 15 years old, I got a summer job on a building site in Dalkey making tea for the bricklayers. I remember that my rate of pay was 50p an hour, not a bad remunerative package in 1978, at least not if you happened to be 15.

A hierarchy operated on the site, and the bricklayers were near the top of it: skilled, experienced workers who could put up a wall in a morning. They were amiable men and they were generous with tips. They would send you down to the village of Dalkey, through the winding leafy lanes, for their newspapers or their sandwiches or a particular bar of chocolate, and if you brought back what had been ordered with speed and efficiency, your take-home pay could double.

The site was in the grounds of an old hotel. An apartment block stands there now. And every time I pass it, I remember one of those men, who was aged about 25 and had a certain sense of style, and who changed my life forever.

His name was Hubert -- a name you didn't encounter much -- and he hailed from the nearby neighbourhood of Sallynoggin.

At the time, like all my friends, I had an enthusiasm for punk rock. I loved The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and a band called X-Ray Spex; and I had a particular love for Dublin's own heroes, The Boomtown Rats, who were regarded as a bit dangerous and volatile. Hubert was a great man for the Rats. He had seen them play live, in Moran's Hotel in town. But one rainy day, as he and I took shelter in that half-finished apartment block, he said to me that punk rock was all very well -- it was wonderful, in fact -- but it wasn't exactly Bob Dylan.

I had never heard of this Bob Dylan. But Hubert said he was the business. I remember asking what was so special about him, and Hubert said Dylan wasn't just a musician; he was a poet and an extraordinary singer, with a voice once heard never forgotten. He picked up a piece of sandpaper one of the painters had been using. "Do you see that?" he said. "Well, Dylan's voice is like that. Only with the rain on the window too." In the decades that passed since, I have heard many descriptions of Dylan's voice, but none of them has ever come close to that one for truth.

A few months later I was in my friend Ciaran Farrell's house and his elder brother happened to be playing a cassette. Strangely, I already knew who was singing. I didn't need to be told. It could only be the sandpaper and rain man. He was singing a song called Isis, a strange story of a marriage. And the world seemed to unfurl into life, like a fruit. As he sang:

'The wind it was howlin

The snow was outrageous

We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn

When he died, I was hopin

It wasn't contagious,

But I made up my mind that I had to go on'

In every life, there are moments remembered in a kind of emotional slow motion. A first date. A first heartache. The first battle you lost. The time your glances met for one second too long and you knew the seasons of your life were changing.

Well, the first time I heard Bob Dylan is one of my moments. I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was taken away by his music when I was 15-years-old, with the passion and fervour only teenage love really knows.

No singer, no writer, has ever meant more to me than the man with the rain and sandpaper voice.

He took the music of immigrant America, the ballads, the blues, the songs of Woody Guthrie and The Clancy Brothers and Dominic Behan, the cadences of the bible, the imagery of William Blake and Bessie Smith, and fired them in the kiln of the most extraordinary single imagination ever to work in popular music.

He shunned fashion and fad, did his work, refused to follow, rarely gave interviews or even spoke on stage. With Bob Dylan it was the music and nothing much more. If you didn't like it, he didn't try to persuade you.

Like the narrator in Isis, the first song of his I ever heard, he made up his mind that he had to go on.

Bob Dylan will be 70 in May. Thankfully, he has decided to grow old disgracefully, his last few albums being crammed with dreamscapes and love-songs and visions, delivered in the voice of a battle-scarred old bluesman who refuses to trade on past glories.

But it is an old song, My Back Pages, that says everything about Dylan at 70; and everything about all of us who have been blessed by the gift of his magnificent work.

'Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

Too noble to neglect

Deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect.

Good and bad, I define these terms

Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.

Ah, but I was so much older then,

I'm younger than that now'

Joseph O'Connor's novel 'Ghost Light' has just been published in paperback and has been chosen as Dublin's 'One City One Book' novel for 2011. Concerts, readings, film screenings, plays and dozens more public events related to the novel will take place in the Dublin area throughout April. Full details at

Sunday Independent

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