When David Bowie died in January 2016, the tributes to his life and work flooded the internet. People of all ages from all over the world clamoured to pen the most romantic memorial Tweet, or divulge a juicy (occasionally dubious) anecdote, in a bid to prove they were the most heartbroken. That they were the biggest fan.
Private Eye naturally summed up this mournful stampede by running a feature on their cover titled: “Private Eye’s 94-page Tribute Special: The Bowie I Knew, p1. The Bowie Who Knew Me, p2. The Bowie Who I Didn’t Know, p3. The Bowie Who Didn’t Know Me But Would Have Liked Me If He Did, p4. The Bowie Who Influenced Me, p5. The Bowie Who I Influenced, p6. Bowie and Me, p7. Me and Bowie, p8. Me and Me, p9-94.”
As wonderful as it was to hear and read everyone’s Bowie tributes, there was a mist of competitive tension hanging over social media, brought on by people hungrily out-fanning each other. Watching it unfold sent a shiver of fear through me as my favourite – Bob Dylan – was still very much of this earth.
How would I cope when he died? On top of losing my all time favourite artists, salt would be vigorously rubbed into the wound by being unable to mourn in peace. It would be like the bereaved equivalent of trying but failing to get to the front of a crowd: I would be forced to endure everyone else’s grief alongside my own. In public.
Sometimes I imagine the news of his death being broken to me casually and by someone, I don’t really like. Imagine. And then how would I scramble to prove my allegiance? Which social media platform would I choose to utilise for my uninvited eulogy? No matter how loud I shouted, no matter what rare picture I found online or the wordier, more emotive post I wrote, no one would ever fully comprehend how I felt about losing him. Maybe I could just not do a post about him? But then, how would people know I loved him? They might think I just wasn’t a fan at all. Surely that’s worse? I sometimes picture myself in the days that will follow Bob Dylan’s death, wading through vast reams of emojis, hashtags of song titles, YouTube links to Blowin’ In the Wind (or worse, covers) and unimaginatively-chosen, low-res images of Bob uploaded by horrendous people I went to school with. Because I am haunted by these thoughts, I’ve made a half-promise to myself to, upon news of his passing, throw my Wifi router out of the window into next doors’ garden and not retrieve it for a week or two. Maybe put my phone in a Tupperware box and keep it in a nearby drain.
Because annoyingly, like Bowie and every other artist out there, Bob Dylan sort of belongs to everyone. And, like with most things that you adore and believe are yours, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable in sharing them. Writing this article about Bob Dylan is hypocritical because, as a childish, selfish Bob Dylan fan, I tend to avoid reading essays about him in case I discover that someone out there loves him more than me.
But then, perhaps it’s a forgivable offence to become possessive over someone who has soundtracked your entire existence. It is difficult to understand that the songs you relate to a person, or a place, or a time, can mean something totally different to someone else. Or worse, when they’re enjoyed by someone you dislike. Like when David Cameron eternally ruined Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue by choosing it as his Castaway’s Favourite on his Desert Island Discs.
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was. I imagine you’ll feel the same. Reading through a Bob Dylan discography is like flicking through a harmonica-accompanied photo album of my life: song titles and lyrics conjuring up flashing images of memories, places, moments, people. Some of the songs unlock a time travel by which I access corners of memory associated with his scratchy drawl. With God On Their Side is being seven years old on the floor of my bedroom. All Along the Watchtower sounds like the sensation of puberty finally subsiding. I Shall Be Free is the front wheel of my rusty Raleigh Shopper as I cycled through a drizzly town in my horrific, lonely first year of university. Standing in the Doorway is the soundtrack to me trying to impress a boy in a cramped bedroom. Changing Of The Guards is a brilliant summer spent doing not much at all in a friend’s flat in Shadwell. Boots of Spanish Leather is my mum singing in the car even when I told her to stop. Wigwam is a melancholy journey at sundown on a Megabus. Girl From the North Country is a hopeless unrequited love. As I Went Out One Morning is a frosty commute across the park from my mouldy house in Brixton. Mr Bojangles is my dad after too much red wine. Hearing just one chord of Hurricane or Black Diamond Bay and I can vividly smell a whiff of my crusty old blue Vauxhall Corsa as I sped through country lanes as a teenager with a brand new license.
Alongside Bob Dylan’s omniscient presence in my own personal history, it’s telling that I couldn’t tell you many of my friends’ dates of birth, but I could tell you their favourite Bob Dylan songs. In many cases, their memories have become my own. Now, when I hear certain Dylan songs, I am transported back to their memories. Time Passes Slowly #1 from Another Self Portrait whooshes me into a New York photography printing studio where my friend Lerryn worked, and which I never visited. Working Man’s Blues takes me to my Dad working in an office I never stepped inside. Song to Woody takes me to my friend Charlie’s adolescence, long before I knew him.
When musicians write songs, they pass them on to us to use as we see fit. They own the rights to the sound, but we have full creative license to take them and do with them what we wish. They give themselves and their songs to all of us. Being on the same planet at the same time as Bob Dylan, and having our lives so enriched with his output so that he becomes as ordinary as bedsheets, train platforms or Tuesdays, is an extraordinary gift. And like most gifts, it’s probably better shared. And when the day finally comes of his passing, I will gather together all of my friends who I know adore Bob Dylan as much as me, and we can hold our own private funeral for him. Listen to his music together, talk about him. Dress up in clothes from different Dylan eras. Look at photos. Maybe grow our thumbnails long in tribute. I’d be happy with that. But I’ll probably do an Instagram post as well, to be honest. Just in case. It’s what he would have wanted. #blowininthewind.