As a poet, I'm supposed to be attracted to Bob Dylan as a lyricist. Even as a fellow poet. That's the received wisdom, and it's certainly true that I've come to Dylan through a series of recommendations and tips, nearly always from other writers. It was the poet Matthew Sweeney who first explained to me that Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited were the two albums I shouldn't be able to exist without and, as an example of Dylan's songwriting genius, went on to recite the whole of "Gates of Eden". He was word-perfect, give or take.
And it was Glyn Maxwell who explained to me that the best of Dylan didn't stop with Blood on the Tracks. Arriving early at his house in Welwyn Garden City one morning, I sat on the front step listening to "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" from a steamy bathroom window, with Maxwell himself on backing vocals, his voice bouncing off the tiles, drowning out the doorbell. He also let me in on a fact that all Dylan fans have committed to memory. Namely, a man hasn't found true love until he finds the woman who will hang on to his arm the way Suze Rotolo hangs on to Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. No one else will do.
To have grown up when Dylan was emerging as a musical icon must have been a compelling experience, and the spell that Dylan still casts over his most diehard fans goes back some 40 years. The image that persists is not Dylan as he is now, a chewed-up and grisly old granddad, but the Dylan of the Sixties. It's amazing how many people who are old enough to know better are still wearing that look. But because I arrived late, I feel neither possessed by him nor possessive of him. I wouldn't want to be Bob Dylan; I don't fancy him. If he came to the house one day looking for Dave Stewart and I was out, it wouldn't kill me. I have never asked what I can do for Dylan, only what he can do for me.
He has to earn his place in my house, typically alongside some obscure collective of skinny, Northern, white, drug-addled noiseniks whose first and only album was made for 200 quid in an outside toilet in Hebden Bridge (what did become of Bogshed?).
So there he is, sitting on the shelves not between Bo Diddley and Duane Eddy, and certainly not betwixt Dryden and Eliot, but sandwiched by Dexy's Midnight Runners and Echo and the Bunnymen, within The Divine Comedy (the band, not the book) and The Fall (ditto). It's in that field I position Dylan, in that company I rate him, and in that context I prefer to speak about him.
For me, 1984 was the turning-point. Morrissey was going stale, Paddy McAloon was going soft, Ian McCulloch had gone over the top, Mark E Smith was going through one of his phases, and my giro had just arrived. I'd heard Slow Train Coming at someone's house, and even though it banged on about Jesus and trundled forwards like the locomotive of its title, I thought there was something in it. I was also coming round to realising that the days of turning up at a disco or club with a bunch of gladioli in my back pocket were numbered, and that not everyone wanted to hear "Hexen Definitive/ Strife Knot" on return from the pub. …