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Music

'New Morning': The defining moment of Bob Dylan’s second chapter

@TomTaylorFO

Bob Dylan’s initial impact on music is perhaps best summed up by the man who discovered him in the first place, John Hammond concisely boils it down to the following: “To me Bob means progress.” It’s a short statement, but the fewer words you use the less chance you have of them being wayward. Dylan catalysed counterculture and everything it entailed. The mixing pot of music was already moving forward, but it was a pinch of a vagabond wayfarer spawned in the bohemian dive bars of Greenwich Village that adrenalised the whole thing from a stroll to a sprint. 

This gingham-clad great human catalyst was then christened ‘The Voice of the Generation’ and boy oh boy did he despise that. With this fateful misnomer, he suddenly became a martyr against the world armed with only his own fierce introspection, a dog-eared acoustic six-string, and a rusty mouth organ. He was only just about 20 when John Hammond discovered him, when he changed the world with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he was only just about 22, and when he defied the folk scene and went electric he was only just about 24. In short, he was a twig shouldering the weight of a tree. He was a kid asked to hold the torch and lead the pack through the darkness into an illuminated future. This bewildering bestowment was met very simply by Dylan who proclaimed: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.”

Well according to John Hammond, ‘whoever that is’ “was a born rebel,” so while he was going his own way, he exhibited the most punk attitude that the world has seen since John the Baptist. After producing Dylan’s early albums, Hammond would look back and muse: “What I wanted to do with Bobby was just to get him to sound in the studio as natural, just as he was in person, and have that extraordinary personality come through…. After all, he’s not a great harmonica player, and he’s not a great guitar player, and he’s not a great singer. He just happens to be an original. And I just wanted to have that originality come through.” Thus, despite his disavowal of being ‘The Voice of a Generation’ he still drove the masses into the far-distance of the future by simply being himself, not because he was hailed as a spokesman but in spite of it.

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He was simply a hero who extolled virtues with brilliance and beauty like no other, everything else was secondary. Dylan himself once said: “I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Thus, when his own freedom was impeached upon by picketing masses, he withdrew in a bold reclamation of his youth and individualism; a move he had already foretold with the 1964 lyrics to ‘My Back Pages’ “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. In 1966, after a fateful motorbike accident, he disappeared from the world for 18 months. By 1970, he would make his lodgings on the outskirts of society a little more permanent. In his retreat, he produced the album New Morning, a notable second chapter in his discography

However, the withdrawal for Dylan was a difficult task. It was a move made for his own happiness but constantly being happy isn’t all that easy. In his later years, he would even muse: “Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I’m happy, I’m happy – and if I’m not, I don’t know the difference… Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy.”

Prior to making New Morning, Dylan vowed to write songs that avoided any implications beyond his own personal thoughts. The song ‘Sign on the Window’ plucks out a verse that elucidated the dichotomy of his condition: “Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me pa / That must be what it’s all about…” In many ways, this disavowing of any political connotations and ever-deepening existential introspection upheld an even grander universal truth than his earlier works within the rapidly modernising world – society may underpin freedom, but our lives are not governed by circumstance and even less so politics, but rather how we experience the world.

In New Morning, this simple and beautiful message soars to triumphant heights so lofty that even Dylan himself seemed surprised. He had been a complete unknown even when people were trying their darndest to define him and on New Morning he finally shrugged their grubby mitts off of his coat tails and found peace and a productive new page in the wilderness of creative freedom. 

However, as ever with Dylan, the brilliance is not merely in the fact that he embodied the hugely influential artistic tenet that David Bowie later gave voice to when he proclaimed: “Never play to the gallery. Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.” With New Morning, he transfigured that into some of the greatest songs he has ever written and produced a defining masterpiece in his ever-evolving march of progress. Now, he even had pause to throw in a few joyous ‘la-la-la’s’.