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Bob Dylan on the live act who “blew his brains out”

@TomTaylorFO

The live experience that Bob Dylan delivers is perhaps best summed up by none other than Jimmy Page. “In May 1965 I experienced the genius of Bob at the Albert Hall,” Page wrote as part of an Instagram post. “He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and cascaded images and words from such songs as ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ to a mesmerised audience. It was life-changing”.

A few years earlier, this powerful one-man orchestra already had begun captivating the folks of Greenwich Village. As Joan Baez recalled: “People had told me about this incredible guy writing these incredible songs. He was just scruffier than I had pictured. He was just scruffy. But what they had told me about the songwriting was true. I guess I saw him for the first time in Gerdy’s Folk City which is where one went in New York to hear local folk music and he sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that night, so history makes itself.”

However, nothing creatively is borne without inspiration and behind Dylan’s humble prowess was a live act that stirred in Dylan with the same strange Promethean force that he would whip up in others. When speaking with Rolling Stone Dylan recalled the first live shows that had an impact on him. “I like Charles Aznavour a lot,” Dylan began, “I saw him in sixty-something, at Carnegie Hall, and he just blew my brains out. I went there with somebody who was French, not knowing what I was getting myself into.” 

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Aznavour was a French-Armenian singer and lyricist known for his billowing tenor voice. He was a troubadour in the traditional sense and the performer, often touted as the counterpart to Edith Piaf, clearly wowed the unsuspecting Dylan. The ‘Hurricane’ singer would later comment: “Charles Aznavour, often described as the Frank Sinatra of France. He’s made more than a hundred records. Has appeared in sixty movies. Sings in six languages. French, English, Italian. He’s written over a thousand songs. I only know about half of them.”

As a tribute to the man who Dylan described as one of the two greatest live acts he has ever seen (the other being Howlin’ Wolf), Dylan has covered the star on several occasions, most notably ‘The Times We’ve Known’ which was his English language version of the Aznavour song ‘Les bons Moments’. Albeit Dylan isn’t quite the silken crooner that Sinatra may have been, the connection between Aznavour and himself lingers in the subtle way that both could rattle the rafters with their songs.

Aznavour would frequently finish a song on stage with a flummoxed look upon his face and Dylan felt the same about creativity. In fact, Dylan once borrowed the following Hoagy Carmichael quote to describe the way he felt: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” He then adds, “I know just what he meant.”

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