It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, and I wanted to listen to some of his music but my music collection is a mess and I don’t even know where the external CD drive is, so I headed online and found Love and Theft and went straight to my favourite song from the album, Sugar Baby, which is a song of loss and lack of redemption and sorrow and sadness and just keeping going.
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where we are
Some of those memories / you can learn to live with / and some of them you can't
It’s Idiot Wind, from an old man
I remember hearing it for the first time and feeling so strongly that it was a song from someone at or near the end. Every day for months after I expected to hear the news that Dylan had died.
He hasn’t (at the time of writing). I even saw him play Hyde Park in summer 2019, and today he is eighty and it feels like the whole internet and most of the BBC 6 Music is reflecting on his life in song.
But I had a shock as I was listening to Love and Theft, because the listing on Spotify said it was released in 2001. At first I didn’t believe it – music metadata is notoriously poor – so I checked. It was indeed released in September 2001. I was forty. Dylan was sixty. And today, listening to this song from an old man who looks back with some regret, I am the age he was as he wrote and sang Sugar Baby and Mississippi and Po’ Boy.
I don’t feel old. So he probably didn’t. But that’s ok because an artist has no control over the meaning of their work, whether a novel or a song on their thirty-first studio album, so if I heard these as an old man’s songs that’s about me, not him.
But when I reflect on who I was in 2001 I can see why these songs of time past and chances missed and things said and done and unsayable and undoable echoed with me so much. I was in the middle of getting divorced, in a small flat near my old house, with the kids staying with me half the week, freelancing for The Guardian and others, trying to figure out who I was, with a lot to regret and a lot that could not be unsaid. It’s not surprising that Love and Theft resonated – and at the time sixty was unimaginably old
I know you're sorry / I'm sorry too (Mississippi)
And I reflect that everything is relative, that the years matter less than the way we’re feeling about the time we have and what we’re doing with it.
Stick with me baby / Stick with me now / Things should start to get interesting / Right about now (Mississippi)
And indeed, they did.