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‘Every Dylan song could be improved’: is perfection possible, or even desirable?
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‘Every Dylan song could be improved’: is perfection possible, or even desirable?

I’m not one to boast but on a recent Sunday morning I achieved perfection. To be precise – and there is no perfection without precision – I was half of something perfectly achieved. On the second version of the song Love Sick – which only saw the light of day last year as part of the continuing series of official Bootleg releases – Bob Dylan says he’s “struggling, striving / For perfection”. Proof of the struggle and strife is the way that this declaration was absent from the first take and deleted from the subsequent version selected for the album Time Out of Mind (1997). Despite what he claims, Dylan is not – and never has been – interested in perfection. He’s always been plunging on to the next line, the next verse, the next song. Yes, he looks forward, in another song, to the day when he’ll paint his masterpiece but on several occasions potential masterpieces were abandoned – She’s Your Lover Now, I’m Not There – because other imperfect masterpieces were soon jostling for attention.

Bob Dylan sitting at a piano, wearing sunglassesView image in fullscreen

Dylan has written more great songs than anyone in history but a condition of that greatness is that he was not hung up on perfecting any of them. Every version of every Dylan song could be improved. For each enhancement made to a song’s lyrics there’s a corresponding loss. He throws in wonderful lines, chucks out great lines and leaves terrible ones intact. His constant tampering with the lyrics is evidence not of perfectionism but of a restless hunger that is in some ways its opposite. In this respect he’s similar to the photographer Robert Frank, who said that a book of photographs by Hermann Eidenbenz (in whose studio he worked) “put me off perfection for life”.

Instead, the photographs in Frank’s landmark 1959 volume, The Americans – introduced, appropriately, by Jack Kerouac, who was committed to the imperfect and potentially ruinous creed of “first thought, best thought” – were so blurrily off the cuff that they reconfigured notions of what might constitute an important photograph. Thereafter, many of the things hitherto considered flaws became folded into the idea of photographic excellence.

There is no perfection in art, music or literature. You can edit down your body of work in the name of ruthlessly high standards of quality but perfection proves elusive. (It’s rare enough for a book to appear without any typos!) Philip Larkin published only three books of mature verse but even these slim volumes contain a lot of filler – as he was the first to acknowledge. Where, then, can perfection be found?

I vaguely remember the profound satisfaction, when I was 15, of doing maths homework and getting equations and algebra right: the sense of something fitting exactly into place. I am guessing that every mathematical proof is a kind of perfection but, knowing little of that abstract realm, I’ll move on to the corporeal world of sport.

In most sports, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously pointed out, everything is complicated by the opponent or the opposing team. There are so many variables, so many moving parts and people, as to render perfection impossible. In football there have been lots of great goals but there can never be a perfect goal. This is linguistically inscribed in rugby, where the ideal, for which players are willing to go through extraordinary levels of physical punishment, is called a mere try. While the documentary about John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open is called In the Realm of Perfection, it resides in the realm of frustration precisely – that word again – because perfection proves not only unattainable but a form of self-impediment.

Even when judges award a gymnast a perfect 10 – as happened to Nadia Comaneci on the asymmetric bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 – the achievement contains within it the trembling possibility of further improvement: another twist, an extra somersault, a still more graceful landing. Gravity imposes a limit on what can be done but the frontier of the possible is constantly advancing, in various directions. What was once the preserve of a single athlete – after whom a signature gymnastic move is named – becomes, within a few years, part of the generational repertoire.

Unimprovable perfection resides in those sports – in segments of certain sports – where the players, although in competition, do not physically interfere with one other. In snooker there is the maximum break of 147. While this is in progress the opponent’s role is to sit there, hoping for – probably willing on – a mistake. The maximum break temporarily eliminates the opponent, rendering him redundant except as a mutely stewing witness. The equivalent in darts is more complicated, as the players take turns to throw even as one of them inches towards a nine-dart finish (typically comprising seven triple 20s, a triple 19 and a double 12). Whereas in snooker one of the players is spectating, in darts they alternate at fixed intervals, changing places at the oche every 10 seconds or so. There’s no physical contact but psychologically they’re going toe to toe.

Luke Littler throwing a dart in the foreground with Nathan Aspinall behind him with his back turned to the camera. View image in fullscreen

As the Sky Sports commentator expressed it when Luke Littler was two-thirds of the way into his nine-dart finish against Nathan Aspinall in Bahrain earlier this year: “They’re supposed to be friends and he’s tearing into ’im!” There was an even better sequence of commentary in 2021 as Willie Borland stepped up to take what were potentially his three final throws of the entire match: “Pure drama, pure theatre, pure darts…” – and then, for good measure, as the last dart thunked into the double 12, came the double affirmation: “…Pure darts!” Yes, perfection is pure. That’s why there’s an almost religious feeling about it. And that’s why the opponent invariably celebrates a nine-darter even when, to paraphrase Dostoevsky in The Idiot, all his hopes and faith have been shattered (as happened when the defeated Bradley Brooks applauded and embraced Borland).

The nearest we come to perfection in sports where the actions of one player or team have a direct physical impact on what the opposition does, is in cricket. Four times Malcolm Nash bowls to Sir Garfield Sobers in Swansea in 1968 and four times Sobers belts him for a six. On the fifth ball, Sobers is caught but the fielder falls backwards over the boundary; the umpire declares Sobers not out and indicates that another six has been scored. That bit of luck brings us to the expectant threshold of perfection: the sixth and final ball of the over – which Sobers wallops not simply beyond the boundary but out of the ground. Six sixes from six balls.

That’s incredibly rare but another bit of perfection in cricket is so common that we take it for granted: a catch. Not all catches are perfect – but a one-handed catch always is. (There is no such thing as a perfect catch in baseball; it’s compromised by the mitt, which simply collects the ball, while a fielder in cricket has, so to speak, to clinch the point.) It may not be proof but a symptom of this is the way that a catch is unphotographable. With no narrative ability, a still photograph shows someone holding the ball. Moving footage is needed for a catch to make sense, to become a catch.

Which brings us back to where we started: a Sunday morning in Bombay Beach, a semi-derelict town on the Salton Sea in California. Bright blue sky – the necessarily perfect backdrop for perfection. I was standing in the door of my trailer. My friends Patrick and Adam were sitting at a table about 20ft away. I asked if they would like a blood orange San Pellegrino. Adam declined, Patrick said yes. I took a cold tin from the fridge. Patrick remained seated. I lobbed it to him underarm. Because he was seated there was little room for error; the tin had to come within a foot of him. The orange tin arced through the blue air. He stretched up an arm, plucked it from the sky and, in a single movement, opened it and took a swig.

The glory was his but I deserve exactly half of the credit for this moment of shared perfection. The throw was actually so good that he had to catch it as it would otherwise have crash-landed in his face so there was an added element of grace under pressure. It’s also a reminder that a great catch does not have to take place in exalted circumstances. Perfection can be perfectly ordinary.

  • Geoff Dyer’s most recent book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, is published by Canongate (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com