Robert Louis Stevenson and J.R.R. Tolkien taught me to love stories. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard made me want to write my own. But it was Bob Dylan that taught me the joy of playing with words.
My parents were both Bob Dylan fans, so I was exposed from an early age, but I never paid him any special attention until I was fourteen. That’s when I discovered his album, Highway 61 Revisited and particularly the song, Desolation Row.
Desolation Row is a peculiar piece. It’s eleven minutes long, has no refrain beyond the words ‘Desolation Row’, and basically makes no sense. A riot of literary and historical allusions fill the verses, woven into a rambling dystopian vision. After thirty years of listening to the song, I’m not sure if most people are trying to escape from or escape to Desolation Row.
I think the only way to explain why I love this song is to explain the effect it had on me. Up to that point in my life, I had always loved stories, and I was on the cusp of discovering the writers who would make me want to tell my own stories, but I didn’t really have any particular love of language itself. Then this song came along, and it opened up a door in my mind. I started carrying a notebook around school, and while I was supposed to be learning physics or math, I was instead creating new verses for Desolation Row.
Truly, it is a song that invites you to keep going after Dylan has finished singing. The verses have a simple poetic structure that is easy to replicate, while Dylan’s lyrics cascade about, saying ‘anything goes as long as it makes sense to you’. As I played around with my own verses, I found a joy in the English language I had not known before. Suddenly, it was important whether I used ‘this’ word or ‘that’ word. It became important how two words interacted together, and how that might change the meaning of either or both.
Of course, I soon discovered that Desolation Row is no fluke. This strange magic of word play saturates Dylan's career. When he wants, he can use it to tell a coherent story, such as in Hurricane, but my favourites have always been the semi-coherent, allusion-filled works such as Dignity and the incomplete She’s Your Lover Now. These songs carry me away to a place where words have a psychic force.
I know many people were bemused and befuddled when Bob Dylan won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2016, but personally I thought it was long overdue. Just to drive home the point, Dylan would (eventually) accept the award and deliver a speech that could only be understood by people who already understood why he’d been given the award.
So, while my other literary heroes are all authors who told fantastical tales, it has always been Dylan, more than any other, who taught me the pure joy of choosing words.