More from Nick Hornby's 2003 Songbook, this time on Bob Dylan's music:
There's a density and a gravity to a Dylan song that you can't find anywhere else. But even more than I regret mining the seam for all it's worth (or all it's worth to me), I regret never having heard any of the songs at the right age, in the right year.
What must it have been like, to listen to "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1966, aged nineteen or twenty? I heard "White Riot" and "Anarchy in the UK" in 1976, aged nineteen, but the enormous power those records had then has mostly been lost now. Much of the shock came from their volume and speed and brevity, and records consequently became louder and faster and shorter; listening to them a quarter of a century later is like watching film of Jesse Owens running. You can see that the won his races, but all sense of pace has been wiped away by Maurice Green.
"Like a Rolling Stone," however, still sounds perfect. It just doesn't sound fresh anymore. In Victorian London they used to burn phosphorus at seances in an attempt to see ghosts, and I suspect that the pop-music equivalent is our obsession with B-sides and alternate versions and unreleased material.
If you can hear Dylan and The Beatles being unmistakably themselves at their peak---but unmistakably themselves in a way we haven't heard a thousand, a million times before---then suddenly you get a small but thrilling flash of their spirit, and it's as close as we'll ever get, those of us born in the wrong time, to knowing what it must have been like to have those great records burst out of the radio at you when you weren't expecting them, or anything like them.
"Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" is, I accept, a minor Dylan track, one of his snarly (and less than poetic) put-downs, but it is from my favorite period (electric, with the crisp, clean organ sound), and I haven't heard it a million times before, so it sneaks its way on to car tapes now. And "Rain" is a great Beatles song from a great year in their career, the year that Oasis has been trying to live in for the last ten years, and it's wonderful to listen to a Lennon/McCartney song that hasn't quite had all the pulp sucked from it.
I'll get sick of both these songs in the end, of course---they just don't last long enough to keep their mystery and magic forever. But they'll do for now.