Bob Dylan in Brakpan

Jeremy Gordin on what the singer, and now Nobel laureate, meant to him growing up in apartheid South Africa

Bobby Came to Brakpan

You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows

The fourth-closest I ever came to Bob Dylan was, if memory serves, sometime in 1972. I was 20 or 21 and hitching from the north of Israel to Jerusalem, where I was in my second year at the Hebrew University. I was travelling from Achziv, the remains of a Canaanite city built in the second millennium BCE, but in the 1970s CE a hippie hangout where the dope and sex were of the highest quality. Somewhere on the road near Kibbutz Gezer, on the final stretch to Jerusalem, a man stopped his car and I clambered into it.

Blow me down with a feather, it was Leonard Cohen driving alone to Jerusalem. I had by then heard “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” and a few more of his songs, but I wasn’t especially keen on them. Cohen didn’t seem to care either way. He was pretty lugubrious actually – “intense” was the au courant word, I believe. He dropped me off at the entrance to Jerusalem and went wherever he was headed. Most likely you go your way (and I’ll go mine).

My point? Well, it’s like going to a shrink who was once analysed by, say, Melanie Klein. Or studying with a rabbi who’d received direct smichut (ordination) from Menachem Mendel Schneerson. You follow? There’s a connection across the ether; some of the aura, some of the geist, surely touches you. And, though I don’t know if Cohen knew Dylan then, he’d certainly get to know him later – and who says time runs chronologically? (The science students at UCT wouldn’t.)

The third-closest I got to Dylan was in 1973 (before the October war) or maybe it was ‘74. My friend Roy and I and the rest of our circle (Roy’s circle really; I wasn’t too sociable, then or now) frequented a couple of basement “coffee shops” at night, though I don’t recall coffee being the premier beverage consumed. There was also live music (“There was music in the cafés at night”) and one night we met a rather malodorous Hollander who was passing through Jerusalem, as were many folk in those days, on the way to India.

I don’t recall his name but remember he sported a giant handlebar moustache and played a mean 12-string. He told us he’d played with Dylan in Amsterdam – and, given his obvious talent and the amount of coffee we drank, we had no reason to disbelieve him.

Later about six of us repaired to Roy’s one-room basement on Rehov Ha’Madregot (Stairway Street) to jam a little (I played the drums – on a small bongo). “Jam” is a good word actually, because the place was so small that taking a shower, for example, required standing with one leg in the toilet. Anyway, it was soon apparent that to the Hollander the female members of our circle were more important than Dylan’s music. I left quite soon – with my hat.

Second-closest I came to Dylan was years later (1990? 1991?) in a place called George, Washington. No, not “George Washington” – George, in Washington state; smack dab in the middle actually. It boasts the Gorge Amphitheatre, called “The Gorge at George”. And there Bob Dylan, backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, resolved to hold a concert – in the middle of winter.

I was living and working in Seattle in those days and the sweet and winsome young woman, later to become my gorgeous wife, was visiting from Seffrica. My employer lent us a battered Peugeot station wagon, known affectionately as “the grunter,” for the journey.

So far, so good. Or so one would think. But I am told by people who have attended many Dylan concerts that a Dylan concert is either “absolutely fantastic” or “bloody awful”. Nothing in between. Well, Dylan was bloody awful that night – or the acoustics in George’s Gorge were – or we were too far from the right spot. Or our ears were too bloody cold to hear anything. The only bright spot during what seemed to be a very long and cold concert was that the opener was Tracy Chapman – who was wonderful.

Then, heading back to Seattle in the early hours, things took a serious turn for the worse. This genius (that’s me) had put “normal” gasoline into what was a diesel vehicle. (Hey! I came from Seffrica where other people put petrol in your car ....) We spent the night on the side of the road trying to sleep in the heaterless grunter. There were icicles hanging from the roof in the morning. My employer was less than happy.

But the time I actually got close to Dylan happened many years before all of the above – from 1966-69, when I was aged 14-17. It happened in my room in a famous Seffrican town called Brakpan.

Apartheid was rampant; a siren moaned at 10pm every night telling black folk they needed to be off the streets; frighteningly, the security police came to search the house once (the socialist sins of my father’s youth, it seems); I was going through a difficult adolescence, having to deal with sex, cigarettes and drinking but also athletics; I was being as lazy at school as Oblomov (and then some); my only friend was my bull terrier, Phidgity Fraser of Saigon; I wanted to be a writer (who didn’t?), etc.

But then I encountered Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. They were sold to me by a man, a former jazz musician, who, for his sins, had opened a record store in Voortrekker Street. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember his name, though it might have been Pete Smith. I played the LPs on a Motorola, with detachable speakers. It’d now be considered an antique – but never, let me tell you, has music ever sounded so good.

It was as though someone had switched on the lights in my life.

I could yammer on for hours about every single number on all those LPs but just think for a minute or three about Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s famous first “electric” album.

Ever heard a better, more acerbic, witty ditty than “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? Or love/infatuation/bitterness songs lovelier, more infatuated and bitterer than “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue”? “Maggie’s Farm” remains one of the finest proclamations of personal independence you’ll ever hear. Then there’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”: one of the best (and wittiest) history lessons ever given about the discovery and character of the United States. I don’t need to tell you about “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Enough now. Except for “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)”. “He not busy being born / Is busy dying”; “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”; “Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked”; “Money doesn't talk, it swears”; “If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

What gifts for a young man stuck inside of Brakpan with the apartheid blues again.