I wasn’t absolutely sure until he spoke.
‘Excuse me,’ came that voice like sand and glue, ‘Do you know if they stock fresh turmeric?’
I have to say, the chances of coming across the Greatest Living Songwriter in the fruit and vegetable aisle – or indeed, any other aisle, up to and including the meat counter – of our local branch of Morrison’s, might seem astronomical. Indeed, you might consider all of this a tall tale, and I could hardly blame you.
And yet there he was, as large as life, and looking for fresh turmeric.
‘They did stock it for a while, but I’ve not seen it recently. Not much demand for it in Glenrothes, I suspect,’ I said, trying to act as if encountering international recording artists – not to say long-term heroes – loitering near the parsnips in a Fife supermarket was part of my everyday experience. ‘Do you use it a lot?’
‘Yeah, for sure,’ Dylan said, suddenly looking animated. ‘Do you know the kind of health benefits they say that stuff has?’
By sheer chance, I had been reading recently of the putative merits of the roots of Curcuma longa, but, fearing my show of insouciance was about to crumble, I just shrugged and shook my head. Dylan smiled, like a man happy to find another convert to his latest beliefs.
‘Man, you gotta get some of it,’ he said. ‘It’s argued by many to be the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Its many proven benefits,’ he chuntered on, with a use of syntax raising the suspicion of direct quotation from some website or other, ‘include the slowing and prevention of blood clots, reducing symptoms of depression, fighting inflammation, boosting the immune system, promoting skin health, and even reducing or preventing many common forms of cancer. I mean,’ he concluded, moving a little sideways to allow a fellow shopper to get access to the celeriac, ‘I’ve been on it for 6 months, and look at me!’
I looked at him. He looked like a scruffy seventy-something with questionable dress sense and the kind of three day stubble that only looks good on the likes of George Clooney. He also, unquestionably, looked the dead spit of Bob Dylan.
He clearly had much more to get off his chest on the topic of turmeric. ‘Another study suggests..’ he said, but I had heard enough. ‘Look, Bob,’ I said. ‘You are Bob Dylan, aren’t you?’
‘I go by many names…’ he started to say, but I cut across him. ‘I’ve just one question for you, as a long term fan. When are you going to stop doing all these Sinatra covers and get back to the good stuff?’
It was out before I could help myself. I looked at Dylan as he rocked back on his heels, surprised at the vehemence of my tone perhaps. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Wait a minute. You don’t work for CBS, do you? Those bastards are always trying to get me to dial back on the American Standards. Well, you can tell them from me…’
‘No, no!’ By this time, we had, jostled by other shoppers in search of various types of root vegetables, ended up in a far corner of the store by the less popular end of the deli counter. Overcome with guilt at upsetting my hero, I outlined to him my early devotion to him, bordering on fanaticism in my student years, now tempered into a more mellow appreciation of his absolute mastery of the songwriting craft.
I may have gone on a bit. ‘Okay, enough already,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Let’s see how true a fan you are. Favourite Blonde on Blonde song?’
‘Visions of Johanna,’ I countered easily.
‘Hmm, pretty good. Favourite live album?’
‘Well, I started out on Budokan, but I still think Hard Rain is greatly underrated,’ I said.
‘Hmm,’ he said again, stroking his chin and casting an appreciative eye over Morrison’s range of prepared pizzas in the chiller cabinet behind him. ‘You’re right. It is greatly underrated. Okay. You seem like a decent fellow that’s not going to share secret information with the world at large, so, just between us, I’ll tell you why I’m doing all this Sinatra nonsense.’ He glanced left and right, but it was just us and the pizzas. ‘It’s a contractual obligation to my real employer, the Devil.’
‘You’ve heard of Robert Johnson, right? Going down to the crossroads to trade his soul for musical ability?’ I nodded. ‘Well, I out Johnsoned Johnson, man. I been to those crossroads twice.’
‘What d’you mean, Bob?’
His eyes took on a faraway look. ‘Well, you know, all those years ago … 1961 was the first time. Came up to New York and realised I couldn’t play guitar half as well as Dave Van Ronk and all these other folksingers at the Gaslight. So I took myself down to those crossroads. All I wanted was the guitar chops: but Old Nick, he threw in some songwriting ability, too. There was just one condition.’
A passing shopper gave us a curious look as she reached for the barbecue chicken with cheese combo 12 inch, before heading off back towards the soft fruit.
‘Yeah. He insisted I worked my way through all the genres. He was very clear about that. It’s why I had to keep changing styles throughout my career: folk, rock, blues, country… by the early Eighties I’d just about run out of genres, so I asked him about gospel. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘go for it.’ Dangerous strategy on his part, of course. Before I knew it I’d got in a situation with one of my backing singers, who was religiously inclined, and she got me to renounce the Devil and all his works. Safe to say he wasn’t best pleased about it.’
Things were beginning to dawn on me. ‘So that explains your mid-Eighties career slump. You lost the ability to write a decent song.’
Dylan nodded grimly. ‘Yep. Totally blocked. Wasn’t till I went down to New Orleans to record that album with Lanois, Oh Mercy, that I could get back down to those crossroads and rework the deal. Even then, it took a while to get the songwriting back in the package.’
‘You’re telling me,’ I said. ‘Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong…‘
He gave me the kind of look only a Greatest Living Songwriter can give you when you’ve overstepped the mark. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe I didn’t have the best lawyer in the world, what with the Devil having the best of them.’
I nodded, guiltily. ‘Sure, Bob. Sorry…’
‘Well, things got back on track, with albums like Time Out of Mind. Then Old Nick, he started hassling me about doing American Standards. I mean, those Rat Pack guys – Frankie, Dino, Sammy and the rest – they were his people, man. So I’ve been stuck with doing them ever since.
‘That’s why I need to keep going on the turmeric, see. I’ve just about fulfilled my contractual obligations on these crooner favourites with him, so if I can keep myself healthy enough for long enough, I can go back to the good stuff before I go down into the flames. Plus I’ve just hired a new lawyer who thinks he’s found a get out clause.’
I could tell my time with the Greatest Living Songwriter was coming to an end: mainly by the way he was edging away from me in the direction of the speciality cheeses. I was racking my brains for something short and pithy that would encapsulate my undying admiration for his life’s work, only enhanced now by knowledge of his very real battles with his inner and outer demons. However, he had his own parting statement ready.
‘Uh, I really like that ballad you did about me, by the way. Very good. All that shifting perspective stuff. I approve.’
‘You know. ‘Twenty miles away, in a high-security hospital…’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You’re confusing me with my friend, the singer-songwriter Norman Lamont. It’s his song. I’m still waiting to write something that good. By the way, do you have an address for those crossroads?’
Nothing to see down here. Not even a crossroads.