By Peter Craven
August 11, 2018
For a lot of people who were young in the 1960s and starting to think of themselves as adults, Bob Dylan was a kind of god. And the funny thing is that this image of him as a sort of dynamised genius, a cross between Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, has never really gone away. We thought of him as a great songwriter who was also a great performer and, in a thrilling way, a great poet. And somehow this atmosphere of awe remains.
Dylan released what is probably his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, in mid-1966 — 52 years ago — yet on his present Australian tour (his first was, you guessed it, in 1966) a lot of bright young kids, millennials aged 22 or so, who are a bit bored with Shakespeare and a bit vague about Brando, will be there along with contingents of their parents or grandparents.
Rock music is partly a domain of classic fashion and no one is going to shift Dylan’s status because, in its contemporary aspect, Dylan created it. As he said to Keith Richards, that old villain of the Rolling Stones, “I could’ve written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Desolation Row.” Is that why they gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago? The fact he could write a 12-minute rock song that could include lines such as:
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
Is it that with Dylan, and especially the Dylan of those great records when the singer went electric (though Desolation Row is plucked out on an acoustic guitar with only the lamentation of the harmonica by way of accompaniment), rock music had thrown up a figure with the courage to trail the greatest artistic pretensions like a cloak?
Think of those mermaids in this long, deliberate monstrosity of a song, so lame with the limitations of musical talent and so grand and sepulchral in the way it overcomes them. Do the mermaids deliberately invoke TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”)?
Who knows? You could almost say who cares, as the logic of Desolation Row is annihilating because — whether by design or accident — it’s a pop-art replica of Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s as if Dylan has revised and rewritten Eliot’s poem and turned it into his own.
All of which is weird beyond belief. Dylan is the singer-songwriter with the highest reputation in the history of rock music, if not the whole of popular music, yet this reputation depends pretty absolutely on a few hours of music that he wrote in the 60s — between his second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963 and John Wesley Harding in 1967, where he is already tending towards lean meditations on the bare bones of country music.
The only other album for which the very highest claims continue to be made is Blood on the Tracks,which dates from 1975 and is venerated by many enthusiasts, but which to the diehards sounds a bit like Dylan imitating himself, whatever claims you make for songs such as Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, and however endearing it is to hear Dylan throw off lines like “Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”.
You can make a case that Dylan is very like Rimbaud — the French teenager who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the later 19th century — not in his relationships but in his relation to language. Like the French adolescent prodigy he took the poetic diction of our tradition — in its further reach, Western civilisation — and remade it in his own image.
So, in one way he’s like Rimbaud because he blazed so young, so briefly and so brilliantly, and lived to outlive his genius. Though it’s odd in a way to think that with Dylan, as with the casualties of rock 50 years ago (such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), the reputation depends on the early work.
Then again, that’s some kind of norm, isn’t it? Think of how much the Rolling Stones trade on the vigour of what they wrote 50 or more years ago.
The 60s were when popular music upped its ante. Philosopher Raimond Gaita said to me once that before Dylan, anyone at a university was expected to educate themselves in classical music, according to their limits, but afterwards not. It helped of course that Dylan burst on the world in the early 60s with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, so that he’s still sometimes thought of as a folk singer and a protest singer.
Poet Robert Lowell, who thought Dylan wrote some great lines though not sustained poems, said he had “a Caruso voice”, and it’s true that he had a voice — and in some sense still does — of such overpowering individuality that it haunts or harrows the soul.
He created his early music by sounding the depths of what he could learn from Woody Guthrie and the blues, but he gave it a grave monumentality that was at the same time radically individual — it sounded like nothing on earth, it didn’t sound like anything that was ordinarily called singing — yet it seemed, too, to speak for the folk, so that when he says in With God on Our Side “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest”, you believe him.
In fact, as “the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” — as Joan Baez, his one-time lover and very beautiful vocal interpreter once called him — Dylan crisscrosses the US. But in his work from the mid-60s — in particular in the great songs on Blonde on Blonde such as Visions of Johanna(“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”) — he sings in a New York accent.
It’s the voice of the greatest of urban metropolises that enunciates that great line from Just Like a Woman — “I was hungry and it was your world”.
How could he dare to write with that kind of plainness and that kind of grandeur? And how could he create such an opalescent, allusive and elusive thing as the side-long, 11-minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? Perhaps it’s an image of the eternally mourning woman, widowed by life: “And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — as much a transcendence of the popular culture it plays on as the very greatest of Warhol.
And that’s the trick with Dylan: he inhabits the form of an idiom he is re-creating. He sounds grounded in the deepest folk tradition yet the inimitable voice is the voice of something that a lifetime ago was a form of rock ’n’ roll. Think of the stately ravaged opening of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Easter time, too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through …” It sounds pretentious to say this sounds like Baudelaire, but it does.
Dylan’s idiom — a language that was at once streetwise and capable of literary reference — also had extraordinary emotional range. Think of the blistering invective of Positively 4th Street and then place it against the lyricism of Love Minus Zero/No Limit (“My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire …”) There’s a dazzling simplicity in that but the juxtaposition of “ideals” and “violence” is completely new in the world of popular music.
The times were a-changing and there’s a symbolic sense in which Dylan changed them. Quite early on he could write a song such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll that had as its refrain “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” where “philosophise” is used in the sense of rationalise but the upshot has a Shakespearean effect; it’s as if Dylan bypasses ordinary literary language to create a kind of sung poetry shorn of artifice.
And it’s there in the most lushly romantic and dreamy of Dylan’s songs, Mr Tambourine Man, perhaps the clearest example of why he is such a great songwriter, why he was once such a dazzling singer and why he is a poet.
In Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan derides someone who has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books and is described as having discussed lepers and crooks with great lawyers.
I once discussed Dylan with one of the world’s great literary critics, Christopher Ricks — the man who did the knockout edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and who wrote the knockdown defence of Milton against his modernist critics. Ricks is one of Dylan’s most formidable admirers. He believes that when you put Dylan’s words together with music, he is an extraordinary maker of worlds out of words.
Dylan created for the rock music of the baby boomer generation a poetic language equal to its hubris in thinking it could discover a new heaven and a new earth, that it could encompass a radical new politics and some kind of derangement of the senses that might open up a new spirituality.
It may be that all these things were delusions or potential traps, but the language he used to shape and shade them has outlasted its occasion. That’s why it speaks to the millennials. That’s why they’ll be there in droves to see the grand old man of rock who is also so much more.
Dylan changed the language in which we think and feel.
Decades ago I gave up rock music and tried my way with classical music. But Dylan’s words and music have never left my mind.
When we shore up the ruins of what we have made Western civilisation, how could he not have a high and mighty place? Who do we think could compare with him?