With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, who is that man?
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"
-- Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965
Over four decades later, and Mr Bob Dylan knew something was happening in America on a recent fateful night in November. The thin man was backstage before his encore at a show in Northrop, Minnesota.
Earlier, Dylan had sung It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) -- reworked slightly into "an exuberant blues number and was a real treat to hear", according to music critic Erik Thompson -- as the crowd hooted their approval for the lines: "Goodness hides behind its gates/But even the president of the United States sometimes must have/To stand naked."
Dylan was just about to walk back onstage when he heard the news: a Democratic senator by the name of Barack had just been elected the first black president of the United States. When Dylan finally walked onstage, he immediately broke into a sparse version of Like A Rolling Stone.
The normally Sphinx-like singer then broke with protocol and actually spoke to the audience. "I was born in 1941," he began. "That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now."
He then performed what one onlooker described as an almost unrecognisable rendition of Blowin' in the Wind. By the end of the song, Dylan picked up his harmonica and skipped across the stage. If Dylan was excited, he wasn't as fired up as the crowd who by this stage were chanting: "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma."
It doesn't take much cop-on culturally or politically to realise Robert Zimmerman has known what way the wind is blowing for decades now. His insights into the human heart and human alienation -- to say nothing of the vagaries of passion and memory -- have had him compared to everyone from Byron to Keats, Yeats and Shakespeare, to Milton, Beckett and TS Eliot. Such luminaries as Bono and Bruce Springsteen have devoted long eulogies to him.
I have listened to a recent opus of Dylan's, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume 8, possibly so many times as to make me consider professional psychological assistance. When I listen to Mississippi or Dignity or Everything Is Broken or God Knows, the world just doesn't seem so screwed up a place. (And I forget about Dylan's appearance in a Victoria's Secret commercial.)
So the news that the American Bard is playing The 02 in Dublin on May 5 has raised my spirits even more. Even allowing for dizzy music journalist exaggerations, Bob Dylan is the Mozart of Minnesota -- and as such it is a joy and a privilege to get to watch and see him perform. God knows what the master will decide to perform. I'm sure not even Bob Dylan himself knows.
The election night show in Northrop opened with Cat's In The Well followed by The Times They Are A-Changin', Summer Days, This Wheel's on Fire, Tangled Up in Blue and then The Masters of War; the following week in Ottawa, he opened up with Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat followed by Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight and then Visions Of Johanna.
Either way, I would love to see Bono and Dylan reacquaint themselves. One of the most surreal interviews I ever read was in the summer of 1984 when the young U2 singer interviewed Dylan at his Slane Castle concert. Not least the mad moment when Bono, perhaps a bit nervous, went into a surreal (even for Bono) spiel: "Do you know the Monty Python team?" Bono asked Bob. "They're comedians. They have a sketch that reminds me of you guys -- sitting back talking of days gone by. You tell that to the young people of today and they'd never believe you. But you can't go backwards, you must go forward. You try to bring the values that were back there, you know, the strength, and if you see something that was lost, you got to find a new way to capture that same strength. Have you any idea of how to do that? I think you've done it by the way. I think Shot of Love, that opening track has that."
Dylan looked at him like he was the young Christ: "I think so too, you're one of the few people to say that to me about that record, to mention that record to me.''
"That has that feeling," Bono added.
And doubtless on May 5 in Dublin, Dylan will still have that feeling.
Tickets go on sale tomorrow