By David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter on the planet. Period.
Call him the voice of a generation. Or the Poet Laureate of Rock n Roll. Just know that he views those superlatives as shackles. It’s the burden of expectation he’d eventually learn was better answered with more music and obtuse off-stage answers. It’s better to think of Dylan as the ultimate shape-shifter. A chameleon. A kind of music escape artist as apt as Harry Houdini. He’s an old-world trickster, donning any guise that helps him create music. Dylan has played the hobo traversing the rails, a beatnik’s vessel for peace, a street-wise Shakespeare, a carnival showman, a bullshitter of the first order, a scorned savior with a thorn in his side, a waiting lover, a clown, a caustic wretch, and an angel warning of a wave large enough to drown the whole world.
Everyone has their own version of Dylan. So, whatever you do, don’t expect to find him lurking in his songs or beneath his own myth-building smokescreens. In the end, you’re only going to find yourself, refracted in his visions and revisions. Dylan, on the other hand, is only there for a moment and then he’s gone, shedding off just one more layer of skin. He’s as containable as cloud cumulus. All that being said, it’s time to put poet W.H. Auden’s verse to action, “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” On Dylan’s 70th birthday, it feels like the right time to praise the man whose name has become synonymous with great songwriting: Dylanesque. It’s time to take measure of the mystery tramp, this diminutive, enigmatic singer fueled by the furies, whose nasally-sung words can sting like a swarm of angry bees or swell with a love so tender it breaks your heart. It’s time to ask, what is it exactly that sets this man’s music apart from all the noise of the world?
At his best, Dylan’s songs contain golden litanies, unforgettable aphorisms, holy rants and rare moments of beauty moving from the poignantly sublime to preposterously nonsensical. A song like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays like the rambling of a paranoid underground vigilante, with its comically written villains — government men in trench coats and a man with a coon-skin cap always asking for one more dollar than you’ve got in your pocket. The song is both a serious assessment of a country where everyone is presumed guilty of something and yet it’s sung with a humor told in grotesque caricature, a dam-break of poetic one-liners doled out as quickly as a Vegas dealer tossing out playing cards: “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters”, “Don’t wanna be a bum / You better chew gum” or “Walk on your tiptoes / Don’t try “No-Doz.” It’s a country where everything has a rule or law.
Often Dylan’s songwriting strength simply lies in the wonder of the sounds of the words he strings together like an incantation or magic spell. They don’t need to be figured out or unraveled. At other times, he’s in storytelling mode, like in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. But he’s quietly fierce when he sings in allegory. There’s a section in Dylan’s song “Highlands”, from the album “Time Out of Mind” (1997), that may serve as metaphor for how the older Dylan views his listeners. The song’s protagonist is eating in a Boston diner and a waitress recognizes he’s an artist and asks him to draw her image on a napkin. He politely and humorously tries to get out of it, suggesting “I don’t do sketches from memory” and that he’s misplaced his pencil. He eventually gives in, draws her image, and shows her the finished picture. Then we get this wonderful piece of reflection on the relationship between the artist and the artist’s conjuring:
“I make a few lines, and show it for her to see.
Well, she takes a napkin, and throws it back
and says, ‘That don’t look a thing like me.’
I say, ‘Oh, kind miss, it most certainly does.’
She says, ‘You must be jokin’.’
I said, ‘I wish I was.'”
It’s not Dylan’s best piece of songwriting, maybe a bit too literal, but as with much of Dylan’s music — there’s truth in it. For years, Dylan’s been placing images of ourselves under our noses whether we like what we see or not. With classic bravado, Dylan says as much in the song. To listen to Dylan’s best music is to be confronted with ourselves — the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s this same complex notion of art and self-recognition that lies at the heart of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Man With the Blue Guitar”, where Stevens imagines Picasso’s painting, called “The Old Guitarist”, as if it had come to life. Stevens sees a crowd gathering around the man and talking to him:
“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, you do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, “Things as they are, are changed upon the blue guitar.’
And they said then, ‘But play, you must, a tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar, Of things exactly as they are.”
What the people in Stevens’ poem fail to understand is that the world filtered through the artist’s art isn’t meant to be a replica. It’s an alteration. A beauty ballooned. It’s a leaf turned metaphor that reveals more than the surface of things. “Highlands” is just one track on an album that feels like a wise but spent old man disappointed with having to continually remind the world exactly what it is. There’s something about Dylan’s music that works like a dam against the world’s degenerative inclination and yet still remains a part of the world itself too. His music is that tune beyond us, yet ourselves. On an appreciable level, it’s Dylan holding up a mirror to the traditionalists of folk music back in 1965, causing the most memorable fissure of his career. They were anointing him as their prime representative after he’d already left them behind. He knew what they had yet to discover — that every group starts to become a parody of itself. It’s a Catch-22. The very appreciation for acoustic hipsterism, middle-America values, and activism had itself become its own tragic flaw. That’s when a group begins to wear its best qualities with the comfortable ease of a well-worn shoe. Culture deteriorates just as easily as fashion or music. Just think of how disco’s expressive openness fell prey to excess. Just as the garage slacker-dom of 90s grunge fell underneath the weight of lackadaisical youth and musical elitism. All good things must come to an end. It’s only the music that becomes everlasting.
Dylan wasn’t just blasting his former folk companions. His electric-turn seemed aimed at all people, groups, institutions that found comfort in being stationary and unchanging. It’s as if Dylan went back to the street, a loner once again, armed with two razor-sharp switchblades called “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is …” Dylan started singing these new songs, the latter with its menacing piano chords and verses flung out like bawled fists, and fans as well as friends certainly sensed they were now on the other side of these songs. The communal nature of the music shifted. He wasn’t singing with or as part of his audience, but rather he was singing at them, just as he earlier aimed “Only a Pawn In Their Game” and the sublime “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” at the avaricious, the suits, and the warmongers.
Dylan’s ingenuity could also be heard on a much more low-key level too. On lesser-heard marvels like “Clothes Line Saga”, a song seemingly so careless in its story of everyday-ness. It might be the greatest song written about absolutely nothing. But that nothing is everything. It’s about a regular rural family in a state of quotidian numbness. It’s a song about the cold-chill of losing touch with everything. The mother in the song enters the house after hanging clothes out on the line: “Mama come in and picked up a book / An’ Papa asked her what it was / Someone else asked, ‘What do you care?’ / Papa said, ‘Well, just because.'” Even the father’s slightest bit of inquisitiveness is feigned curiosity. The song is sung with a slow drawl, and the lazy-waltzing sway of an acoustic guitar and bass. Part of the beauty of “Clothes Line Saga” is how the song appears to be so haphazardly presented it doesn’t even come with a real beginning or end. It begins en media res, then ends dully, as if lopped off with a cleaver. The presentation, ingeniously, mimics the very thing it appears to be mocking.
But there’s more to Dylan’s music than vatic missives and beautiful, albeit didactic, lessons. He’s also written some of the most beautifully open-hearted love songs around. Who else could write an 11-minute, 23-second devotional to their wife, like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” with its mystic might of “missionary mouths”, eyes swimming of moonlight, a “saintlike face”, and a “geranium kiss”? Or just think of the purple-hued majesty of “Boots of Spanish Leather”: “Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night /And the diamonds from the deepest ocean /I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss.” Or the wild Biblically-charged lyricism of “Sweetheart Like You” a sort of love song to someone undetermined: “And that smile’s so hard to resist / But what’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”
It’s Dylan’s writing acumen that has inadvertently helped to mold some of the world’s best musicians. Literary critic Harold Bloom’s theory of “anxiety of influence” is evident all around — Dylan leaving an enormous wake of musicians behind him. Bloom’s theory is all poets and writers have precursors, who they admire and try their best to surpass. Some fall under the pressure and that shapes their style or way of expression. Others advance past their precursors, and in the end, help to form one large poem, forever attaching itself to what came before it. In essence, you’re shaped, consciously or subconsciously, by the writers you find better than yourself. Think of Bruce Springsteen mimicking Dylan in his romantically-poetic early demos like “War Nurse” or the word-soup wonderland of “Wizard imps and sweat sock pimps, interstellar mongrel nymphs” in the chorus-less classic “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?”, or David Bowie penning “Song for Bob Dylan”, or Counting Crows’ lead singer Adam Duritz singing about wanting to be Dylan in “Mr. Jones”, just as TheThe’s Matt Johnson sang of wanting to be Dylan in “Another Boy Drowning”. Or what about Bright Eyes and The Tallest Man On Earth? Or try imagining Elvis Costello’s “Let ‘Em Dangle” without its ultimate precursor, “Hurricane” — a song where Dylan chastises both the whites that tried to lynch an innocent man and the African-Americans who cast off Rubin Carter as “just some crazy nigger.”
So who are Dylan’s precursors? In part, they’re the weird, old America written about by music writer Marcus Greil. A quick listen to one or two of Dylan’s own 100 “Theme Time Radio Hour” shows will give you a clue about the singers he admires like Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Skip James. You’ll also find shades of writers like Arthur Rimbaud, and Shakespeare in his work. Dylan’s precursors are no joke. His favorite seems to be the Bible, as he saves his best riddles, and grandest writing gifts for the great book itself — like some Jacob who has finished wrestling angels and now is looking to tangle with God. That’s when we get lines like this one from “Sweetheart Like You”: “They say in your father’s house, there are many mansions / Each one of them got a fireproof floor.” In a song Dylan claims to dislike, “Jokerman”, he sings of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the laws of the jungle and a shadowy world winning over once again. Everything human, demonic and saintly gets pressed into one indistinguishable force, where the rifleman’s task is no different than a priest’s motive. And then all hell breaks loose, seemingly in wait of some doomsday to come: “Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks / Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain / False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin / Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in.”
It’s interesting that some casual Dylan listeners now think of him as a relic of the past. But anyone who has heard “Things Have Changed” knows it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written, a dark ode that could have fit comfortably on “Time Out of Mind”. It’s about a man who could care less about trying to change anything, because the world is as the world is. He seems to ask, what’s left to prove in a world without standards? “Things Have Changed” contains so many lyrical characteristics Dylan diehards have come to appreciate in his music — the stunning flow and sounds of his words dressed as sinister description: “Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes / I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies”, the blue-mood lyricism of a world gone wrong: “People are crazy and times are strange / I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range / I used to care, but things have changed”, the Biblical forecasting: “I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road / If the Bible is right, the world will explode”, the lighthearted, absurd humor: “Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet / Putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street”; and the full-circle realization that everything is propaganda, all is phony: “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie” — a line echoing the exact sentiment of a verse from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and a theme evident in “Everything is Broken”.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Dylan and not discuss the words, roll them around in your hands like clay, trying to form the terra firma of a singer’s consciousness as it exists in among his countless masterpieces and even his mediocrities. Dylan’s words appeal to the learned as well as the unlettered. He recklessly combines subtlety and vulgarity, politics and poetry, astuteness and buffoonery — all with the flick of the wrist.