It’s just barely possible that among the far-flung readers of this blog there is at least one person who will see the title of this post and say to her or himself, and silently to me, “You mean Dylan Thomas, do you?”
As the rest of us know – no. The namesake has overtaken the name. He who was once Robert Zimmerman is now, to virtually the entire planet, Bob Dylan, and he is the Dylan.
Dylan’s choice of a new name was geniunely inspired. As with the Welshman, the new Dylan has a way with words, a quickness, that is remarkable – by which I mean sets him apart. But in a career that now spans more than 50 years, he has not just outlasted the poet, but supplanted him.
He came to mind while I was writing my last post, on greatness, as I was dabbling away with Shakespeare, who was called the spirit of the age. If there is an artist who can earn this rubric in our time, it surely is Dylan.
Dylan’s gift is with words – words in English. But just as Shakespeare has survived translation to be loved and performed in every language, Dylan seems to get beyond the “limitations” of what I say is the world’s most adaptable language. He performs to crowds whose members, for the most part anyway, cannot possibly hope to understand him in his native tongue especially given the nuances each native English speaker often but imagines she or he divines.
There are people who really study Dylan – see the post entitled Something completely different. I am not one of those, and if an expert happens to be reading this, please forgive my failure to be up with the literature. That he attracts not just a devoted following but a coterie of analysts proves he deserves respect in ways other people working in his field do not and never will. They will never be “discovered” to have hidden meanings and artistic qualities previously unknown. Dylan not just now but not far into his career was already heaving with them.
In the 1960s I saw a poster of him that showed just how amazing a man he is: Dylan’s head was portrayed as a tree, with his many influences shown as roots: rock and roll, blues musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, country stars like Hank Williams, writers like Allen Ginsberg and many, many others, while in the leaves sat the birds he’s influenced, musicians like The Byrds, but many others. Somehow Dylan has managed to speak to so many people in so many different ways, that today, if the poster were done again, the tree’s roots would extend to take over the biggest yard in the world, and the birds would number in the thousands, and in the grandest sense, the tens of millions: Dylan’s influence goes far beyond other artists. He has, truly, changed the way we see the world.
I’m one of those twittering in the foliage, a tiny sparrow trying to escape the notice of the big predators, the eagles and vultures and owls…all the same, I’ve got my perch, and till I’m thrust off it, I’ll cling there, grimly…chirp when I feel in the mood…
Non-admirers like to knock Dylan. They complain about the simplicity of his music, the rawness of his voice, even his songs’ “tunelessness”. They see him not as an artist but an entertainer, and as an entertainer, for them he is so lacking in “talent” that their wonder is that he is such a star.
He is a star. But what he is beyond that, is a true artist. Like “greatness” that was the subject of my last post – and that partly provoked this one – “artist” is a word that needs some defining, and like greatness too, it’s not so easy as one might imagine. “Art” has a lot of nuances, and can be applied in many creative fields, from music to painting to literature, between and beyond. I don’t want to pretend to be an expert in this, but to me great artists creatively interpret the world in a way that changes it and changes the way we see the world – humanity in principle and if not universally typically personally in practice. No person, given the opportunity to listen to the popular music of the second half of the twentieth century, and to be further educated in it, would seriously be able to deny on the basis of this definition that Dylan is a great artist. What is acceptable, what can be stylish, how music can be performed, what sort of lyrics can be written – in all these, and beyond, Dylan has had a phenomenal impact, and it goes beyond music.
Dylan speaks to us in different ways, and some of those are perhaps unique in modern music – even all music. To me the most important is not what is easily understood, but what is difficult or even impossible to understand clearly. This is meant – fundamental to Dylan’s technique.
For example, the song All Along the Watchtower. Dear reader, you can look this up for yourself on the internet if you don’t know the words. This was released on an album back in the days when albums were the de rigeur and singles came off them rather than the other way around – Jimi Hendrix released a single of it. A review I read of this at the time said that Hendrix probably understood this song not at all but that it didn’t matter as he’d done a good job: Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist who somehow made the song his own.
We weren’t meant to understand that song, or many others Dylan has written over the years, in any kind of objective sense, in the sense of “this is what this song is about for everybody“, or that is what I say. Dylan’s genius was and is to write songs whose meaning is clear to each of us in a very personal way. We take deliberately ambiguous clues and give them sense in the contexts of our own understanding in our own lives.
Some songs are more clear than others but underlying the best of them, according to me, is this resonant ambiguity. “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you Mr Jones?” may have seemed a put down of the straight man in a wild hip party of the 60s, but who does not have something of the poor confused Jones in him? “You see somebody naked and you say ‘who is that man’? You try so hard but you just don’t understand what you will say when you get home…”
Some critics I’ve read have complained about this obscurity; they want a clarity that it seems to me would rob Dylan of his most significant contribution to modern art: he speaks to each of us individually. Our Dylan is OUR DYLAN and no one else’s. That he manages to do this, in often extremely sly and incredibly complex ways, is wonderful.
Here’s another example, that I like especially for its transformation in the course of a song from “You’re an idiot” to “We’re all idiots” but which begins “Some one’s got it in for me – they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will, I can only guess. They say I shot a man named Grey, and took his wife to Italy. She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
The tag line to this verse renders everything that came before it even more ambiguous than it was till it got there. Did the singer, who we know is not “Bob Dylan” but the narrator of a song which is being sung by Bob Dylan (who also happened to write the song), shoot the man named Grey? The stories in the press say so but that doesn’t make it so. It is strongly implied but not absolutely certain that he did go to Italy with Grey’s wife, and that she died and he got the million bucks she inherited from her husband. Did he also do in Grey’s wife? He can’t help it if he’s lucky…what is true and not true lives in a realm of possibility that can make sense to each of us quite differently, and for some, like me, there are no final answers – the very uncertainty lingers and is appealing in its uncertainty.
This is just one verse in one song. There are so many songs, and so many ways Dylan has incorporated this teasing, elusive sensibility into them, that his fans all have their favourites and their own ways of understanding. For many years, my favourite song of all by any musician was Positively Fourth Street, whose only positive feature was the word in the title. Arguably, it is the nastiest song ever written by anyone, and I loved it precisely for that. I have seen an interpretation that says it is an attack on his public, though I personally find that hard to believe – it just seems a put down on the New York scene in-groupies who snubbed him early in his career but suddenly wanted to be his mate when he’d made it – “when I was down, you just stood there grinning”. These people exist and I’ve seen them at work in other areas of life. Dylan’s rejection of the proffered friendship of those who’d once laughed at his failure is a testament to the power of hurt. When it’s his turn to twist the knife, he doesn’t pass it up…”I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you; yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes: you’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
Nowadays I still listen in my head to those words, and they still mean something to me, but I no longer regard it as the best song ever written. My Dylan, the Dylan who is in my heart and mind, has gone past that, as have I.
For a long time – about thirty years – I went away from Dylan. I didn’t listen and didn’t care that I didn’t. Jazz and classical consumed my musical interests, and Dylan fell away for me after Blood on the Tracks and Desire. These days I still listen to very little popular music.
But about five years ago I happened to pick up a CD by him at a garage sale in Wellington, New Zealand, Love and Theft, made early in the present century. It was and is brilliant. His voice has become more expressive and jazz inflected – the “theft” in the title could be taken to refer to singing like Fats Waller, which he does beautifully…but then the opening to another song is ah, Creedence’s Proud Mary…Bob and I were back together after all that time, all our different adventures…my Dylan…
Does Dylan affect my writing? Yes, but not in the sense that another writer might do, like Celine or Shakespeare, but nonetheless very definitely. If readers see in my writing some of the deliberately ambiguous prose I find in Dylan’s verses (and in the short pieces of prose I’ve read by him), that could very well be written from my perch in his greenery. Whether he is aware of Celine or not – I can’t imagine he isn’t as he palled around with some of the beat poets for a while, including Allen Ginsberg – his explosive lyrics show his sensibility has passed that way at some stage.
Most importantly for me in my writing, I hope through a kind of spareness to get something of the personal into my books that Dylan gets into his songs. It would thrill me if readers “filled in the gaps” as I would like them to and make my novels theirs. I don’t think I really succeed with this, or not as much as I would like, but when I am writing, it is an aim, always.
Recently I was watching Dylan sing in Hyde Park on YouTube…he sang among other songs, 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”)…he had a good band including Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and Al Kooper who was on his revolutionary album Highway 61 Revisited, and he showed he could sing and play the guitar. The clip was put up on YouTube by a German who called himself Ret Marut, with a message in German and a line in English wishing him well. Ret Marut was the early pen name of the man who later called himself B Traven, who is the subject of an earlier post. It seems there is a line of communication that runs through Dylan, a community of interest, that I share not only with this great musician, people I don’t know and never will, but now know exist. Nice meeting you, “Ret”.