Whose Bob Dylan?
There are still those who would deny him any claim. He can't sing, they say. At all. He can't play really guitar. (There are "reputable" jazz musicians who still say similar things about Monk, too, preferring "smooth" jazz or explaining Monk's "angular" and "difficult" melodies by citing his late-life mental problems.)
Or sometimes you get this: Dylan used to be great, but his voice is shot.
Are they kidding? People complained about his voice from the very beginning. "That's the worst excuse for singing I ever heard," a record producer told me in 1965, when I tried to play a Dylan album for him.
"Who is that? Is that Jerry Lewis?" wondered my mother, hearing My Back Pages.
"I couldn't tell one song from another," a man who went to see him on the Never-Ending Tour wrote me, "and I'm not even sure I ever figured out which one was supposed to be Bob Dylan."
There are people who've written books about Dylan who could say the same thing.
Like most things American, Dylan is a self-creation.
First he reinvented himself, both by name and by story. And then almost immediately he began "Shedding off one more layer of skin," as he would say later in Jokerman.
Step right up and pick your own Dylan.
Start with Dylan the folksinger. He turned folk music inside-out, re-inventing not only songs and traditions but an entire genre. Masterpieces of this period include Masters of War, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Girl from the North Country.
Then he turned it upside-down at Newport. The folk singers still haven't forgiven him for moving on. "Judas!" they called him. He was supposed to be one of them, but when he exchanged their meager coffee-house-and-festival following for a planetary stage, he left them far behind.
Dylan the protest singer turned politics and social change inside-out, with the whole world singing his unforgettable anthems: Blowin' in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin', With God on Our Side.
Some "movement" people still think of him as a traitor: the "wouldn't-be" weatherman, who ducked down the alley while the times were still a-changing.
Then there was Dylan the Visionary, who gazed upon the Chimes of Freedom flashin', saw the Gates of Eden, danced beneath the diamond sky with one hand wavin' free and told people to "forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you."
Or try Dylan the Holy Fool. Jews still wince at the memory of his forays into Gospel music (although Leonard Cohen has rightly observed that those songs are quite the best ever written in the genre). As for Christian fans, they still scramble for the merest hint that Dylan might actually share their dogma. Yet he had written as early as Highway 61Revisited that there was a slow train coming.
You don't hear as much about Dylan the Celebrity anymore. He keeps to himself, and there are those who, attracted mainly to fame, write off anyone who isn't constantly present on radio and tv. If they think of Dylan at all, they think of him as "odd" or "eccentric."
In an age of feminism, there was Dylan the love troubadour completely re-defining romantic relationships for anyone who was listening: Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. It Ain't Me, Babe. Shooting Star. I'll Remember You. "I always kinda wondered if you ever made it through."
More recently it's been Dylan the Old Blues Man, singing Blind Willie McTell, Love Sick and the late masterpiece Not Dark Yet, while re-creating his early songs as blues numbers. (The first thing you learn about Dylan is that everything he creates wears its own disguise, especially the songs. Try his bluegrass version of Masters of War.)
Bluegrass Dylan, Country Pie Dylan, Straw Hat Dylan . . . Each time Dylan has shed a skin and moved on, he's left behind an ironic calling card. To the folk purists, he left Positively 4th Street: "You've got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend."
To the protest movement, he left My Back Pages and these slam-the-door abrupt lines from Planet Waves:
It's never been my
To the sixties rockers, he left an entire Self Portrait that conspicuously omitted them. Disappearing entirely from the opening number, he re-appeared sounding more like Jimmy Wakely than the blurred icon of Blonde on Blonde.
To the Gospel hopeful, he left The Groom['s] Still Waiting at the Altar, not to mention Lenny Bruce Is Dead.
Is Things Have Changed his farewell to the blues?
There's one last Dylan I haven't yet mentioned: Dylan the Great Poet. Nobel Prize Nominee. Oscar-Wilde-like darling of an academic minority who champion his cause to an academic majority that doesn't dare embrace him. To do so would be to admit that you got everything wrong.
To "recite" Dylan's work or, worse, read it silently on the printed page, is tantamount to reading Chaucer in modern prose versions or re-writing Shakespearean tragedy into closet drama with happy endings. Academics who recite Dylan's songs aloud to "prove" they aren't really poetry remind me of Steve Allen reciting the words to "Be-Bop-A-Lula" with amused contempt on 1950s television to discredit rock and roll. They deserve a special chapter in my magnum opus, provisionally entitled On Not Getting It. It's about context, stupid. Try reading it on a rolling river. In a jerking boat.
Novelists and poets repeatedly insist that their work must be read aloud to be understood, but academics who read fiction (whole novels of it) aloud are rare and academics who read current poetry at all appear to exist only in the ideal imagination.
I once heard a respected Full Professor of American Literature ask Robert Penn Warren, then at age 75, if he had "ever tried his hand at poetry." "I have," replied Warren, looking down into his glass, "I don't know what luck I've had."
"I come in through such a back door," says Dylan. Yes. But he got the door open and went through it.
Bob Dylan has done the same thing to literature that he did to folk music and all the other disguises. First, he "betrayed" and "abandoned" it by appearing to ignore it and by breaking its most cherished rules (never mind that John Wesley Harding is the Well-Tempered Clavier of ballad cycles) and writing almost nothing that can be safely dislodged from its referential context.
He is by far the most important American writer of the last 100 years. He may well be the most important American.
Love, Theft & Evidence
Let's say you woke up on Sept. 11 and saw the World Trade Towers collapse on television. Later that morning, numbed and confused, you tried to get back to normal life so you went out and bought Love and Theft, the new Bob Dylan album. You didn't feel much like listening to music, but you put it on anyway. And soon you were asking yourself:
Did he write these songs this morning?!? How could he get this album in the stores within moments after these things happened?
Maybe you picked up the Village Voice, where Greg Tate was asking, "What did Dylan know, and when did he know it?"
Man, he knew it before we were born.
"Things are breaking up out there," he sings. Unbelievable. But you better believe it.
"My Captain, he's decorated. He's well-school, and he's skilled," he sings. "He's not sentimental. Doesn't bother him at all, how many of his pals have been killed."
Incredible. He released an album about what's going on today, and somehow he did it today.
But you'd have felt the same way, wouldn't you, had he released it on July 5, or August 9 -- or March 12, 2012.
This record will sound prophetic a hundred years from now. That's what prophets are all about. It's not that they predict what will happen tomorrow. Anyone can claim to do that. It's that they show you what's coming down right now.
"One day, you'll open up your eyes, and you'll see where we are," he sings.
You will, too. Might even be today.
And who's that singing "meet me in the moonlight, alone"? Is it Dylan? Is it some gentleman in a dustcoat (whose voice is dry and faint as in a dream)? Is it Death who kindly stops his carriage? Satan your Adversary? Tiny Tim? Bin Laden? Zorro?
"I know when the time is right to strike," he sings.
Something's happening here, and you still don't know what it is.
But you know one thing: Shakespeare is our co-pilot. And Charley Patton. And Spencer Tracy, too.
"I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down," he sings. It's a bad day in Black Rock, and you've stayed in Mississippi a day too long, and it's your turn to cry awhile.
It's not that he turns out some new phrases that instantly enter the language like they owned it. It's more that he shows you what's been there all the time, if you could only hear it.
High water everywhere. And poison wine, and sugar-coated rhyme.
"The game's the same, it's just up on another level," he sings. And you know there's no one else on this level, no one at all. You hear that voice and you know that any other voice would be utterly humbled by these songs. Who else is going to sing them? Who else could have built up all that tension in those guitars and never released it, never spilled it, never let it dissipate?
And who but Dylan could have released a masterpiece on September 11, of all days?
"I can see what everybody in the world is up against," he sings, but not like a man boasting, no, not at all.
Besides, you have
Copyright 2002 by David Vest. All rights reserved.