An inquiry into His Bobness

What’s So Great About... Bob Dylan?
Radio 4, Saturday, June 28

It has been ages since Lenny Henry made a good programme. I think the last one was probably Tiswas, the weekend kids’ show which ran out of steam some time in 1982.

Yet this Radio 4 nugget contained all sorts of things you do not normally associate with Henry — it was intelligent, thought-provoking, articulate — and there was not a single silly voice in the entire half-hour.

The question in the title is not a new one — almost everyone not in thrall to the music of His Bobness has been asking themselves the same thing for more than 40 years. It does however demand an answer.

What is it that people see in this Jewish boy from Hibbing , Minnesota, who can barely sing, who has always looked slightly strange, whose music has a tendency to be dirgy and whose concerts can be, well, a little unpredictable?

And yet everyone goes on about what a genius he is. Like Henry, I always had my doubts about Dylan. Plenty of my friends at university would play Blonde on Blonde while smoking suspect cigarettes, whereas I always preferred Blondie — or The Smiths.

So is he great? He clearly has something, otherwise the fact that he can’t sing, isn’t a genius guitarist and looks strange would have put people off by now.

Maybe Poet Laureate Andrew Motion could shed some light on Dylan’s mysteriously enduring popularity. It turned out Motion had strong views on the subject: “One of the reasons I am glad to be alive now is that Dylan’s life has overlapped with mine. I think he’s the most important living artist of any type.”

He added that his influence was comparable to Shakespeare, surely something that Henry — like the Bard, a West Midlander — could appreciate.

It was music writer Paul Morley whose incisive insight cut to the chase. “It’s his voice isn’t it. You basically can’t get past his voice.”

Morley suggested Henry listen to Dylan’s Radio 4 show, Theme Time Radio, for the real freewheeling Bob Dylan — indeed it is true that the man’s speaking voice is compelling and listenable to, whereas his singing voice has been known to bring on migraines.

One can argue about how Dylan sounds but one can’t argue about his influence. The songs are out there and they have been covered by just about everyone from Bryan Ferry to Hendrix — even Marlene Dietrich did a version of Blowin’ in the Wind.

Ferry, one of the talking heads interviewed by Henry, admitted that “back then I didn’t really get it”, but later he too became obsessed by the great man to the point that he released an album of Dylan covers. Kris Kristofferson who worked with Dylan on Blonde on Blonde thought he was “the Shakespeare of our time” (these guys had obviously been conferring beforehand).

It is certainly true that Dylan revolutionised pop lyrics which, as Kristofferson reminded us, had featured gems like “How Much is the Doggy in the Window” 10 years previously.

He also implied that, without Dylan, the Beatles might still have been doing I Wanna Hold Your Hand in 1967 rather than A Day in the Life.

Jools Holland also came up with some sage advice for Henry. He advised him to listen to others singing Dylan songs (indeed, Henry’s all-time favourite Stevie Wonder has covered Dylan).

In the end Henry was convinced — or perhaps browbeaten — into admitting that, yes, that Dylan did have something after all, that he was a musical polymath. “It pains me to say this but the guy’s got something.”

And indeed he has, but he is no Morrissey.

    Last updated: 12:20pm, July 7 2008