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M A Y 1 9 9 9
by Francis Davis
"WISH I was Bob Dylan," Robert Creeley wrote in the late 1960s, a time when this seemed to be the wish of nearly everybody -- including, apparently, anthologized poets whose confinement to print gave them good reason to envy Dylan's immediacy and perceived social relevance. In the same poem ("In London," not one of the epigrammatic poems for which Creeley is famous but a series of notebook jottings whose loose tongue seems the result of Dylan's influence coupled with Allen Ginsberg's) Creeley also wished he could hear Dylan's "Tears of Rage" sung by the sweeter-voiced Joan Baez. This could be taken to mean that Creeley was one of the many who admired Dylan, even during his period of greatest influence and popularity, more as a songwriter than as a performer -- more as a voice than as a singer. If so, it hardly amounted to a slight. "He's got a subtle mind," Creeley decided in the poem, for all intents and purposes embracing Dylan as a fellow wordsmith, perhaps even a fellow poet.
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I happened upon "In London" while paging through Creeley in search of another
poem I recalled reading years ago, which darted to mind as I listened last fall
to Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65759), a concert recording from a
period when Dylan stood accused of betraying folk music -- and of jeopardizing
such folkie ideals as nuclear disarmament and Negro voter registration -- for the sin of cupping his hands to his mouth to shout his lyrics above the big bang of a rock-and-roll band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Not exactly a new release and not exactly a reissue, Live 1966 is the first authorized
edition of a performance in Manchester, England, that has been obtainable on
one bootleg or another almost continuously since at least 1971. The recording
location is so frequently misidentified as London's Royal Albert Hall that
Columbia/Legacy has given its two-disc set the subtitle "The 'Royal Albert
Hall' Concert," in an effort to assure potential customers that this is the one
they've heard so much about over the years. Like many rock bootlegs of the
1970s, the various pirate editions of Dylan's "Albert Hall" concert were often
packaged in plain white sleeves; you knew you had the right show if toward the
end, below the hum of the amplifiers and the snarl of Dylan and Robbie
Robertson tuning their electric guitars in preparation for "Like a Rolling
Stone," you heard an outraged audience member cry "Judas!" |
I FOUND the lines from Creeley I was looking for in "After": "I'll not write again/things a young man/thinks, not the words/of that feeling."
The fourth line should be read as "of that feeling," because Creeley tends to accent the second word or syllable of a line, like a jazz musician accenting the second and fourth beats of a measure. That feeling of what a young man thinks -- what I felt in listening to Dylan as a young man -- was something I found difficult to recapture in listening to Live 1966. To throw one of Dylan's most famous aphorisms back at him, he was so much older then (older than I was, at any rate). He's younger than that now: his recorded voice of thirty-odd years ago sounds almost younger than I can remember ever being.
As a college student I was one of those who stayed up late debating the meaning of Dylan's lyrics, as though arguing fine points of Christian theology or of hexagrams from the I Ching. In the absence of printed lyric sheets the subject of the debate would sometimes be what his lyrics actually were. I remember that when John Wesley Harding was released, an agitated fellow English major spotted me in a classroom and barged right in, interrupting the lecture to ask me what symbolism I found in the trees behind Dylan on the cover. (This same friend was the only person I knew who fell for the canard that smoking banana peels was a cheap, legal high. The last I heard, he was translating French poetry and teaching English.) I also remember thinking even then that the claims for Dylan as not just a poet but the poet of the second half of the twentieth century were greatly exaggerated, and that they ignored the true nature of his impact on American culture as a singer and songwriter -- not necessarily lesser crafts.
Dylan obviously saw himself as a poet. He was steeped in poetry, even if when he burst onto the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 as a University of Minnesota dropout he tried to give the impression that he was a guitar-slinging Tom Joad whose lyrics spoke the wisdom of the common man. True, Dylan's early topical songs -- the ones that got him published in the period's folk bible, Sing Out!, and signed by Columbia Records -- were diligently modeled on Woody Guthrie. But the wordier songs he soon became identified with, such as "Gates of Eden" and "Desolation Row," with their breath-length measures and apocalyptic imagery, owed more to Allen Ginsberg than to Guthrie or any other folk singer. With these songs -- and with "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in 1965 -- Dylan put folk music, and then pop, in touch with the bardic strain of one branch of American literature. This strain is usually traced to Walt Whitman, though its actual origins may lie in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, who took it verbatim from the Old Testament. To judge from the striking image of an orphan "crying like a fire in the sun," in "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Dylan also knew his French Symbolists, and in his 1971 novel Tarantula as well as in his song lyrics he often aspired to surrealism. Something about the English language -- or perhaps the American character -- must be unconducive to dreaming aloud: like most American writers who have taken a stab at surrealism, Dylan fell victim to logorrhea.
His most glaring weakness as a poet or songwriter, however, was his imperiousness, even after he stopped issuing political broadsides. I admit that certain of Dylan's lines have stuck with me over the years; frustrated by work or unfinished business in my personal life, I go to bed at night thinking, "Let me forget about today until tomorrow" -- Dylan's prayer for oblivion in "Mr. Tambourine Man." But powerful as they remain, such accusatory songs as "Positively 4th Street," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Like a Rolling Stone" might sting more and have greater emotional complexity if one suspected even for a moment that Dylan's putdowns were aimed at himself as well as at his unnamed foes -- if, for example, in telling an overly demanding woman that he isn't the man for her in "It Ain't Me, Babe," he sounded as if he wished the opposite were true. "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry," William Butler Yeats wrote in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. Dylan has never been able to tell the difference, and this is his greatest failure both as a songwriter and as a performer.
Just as in the late 1940s some jazz listeners thought Thelonious Monk wasn't a facile enough pianist to do justice to his own compositions, in the 1960s many preferred their Dylan sung by Joan Baez, the Byrds, or even Peter, Paul & Mary. These people objected chiefly to Dylan's unmellifluous voice. But the problem, I think, was something more subjective -- something perhaps best illustrated by example. One of Dylan's best songs, and one of only a handful you can whistle, is "Just Like a Woman," from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Its stop-and-start melody is a perfect match for its speechlike lyrics about an ex-lover who "takes just like a woman," "makes love just like a woman," and "fake[s] just like a woman" (orgasms?), but "breaks just like a little girl." Predictably, these lyrics earned Dylan a reputation as a misogynist: he delivers them almost too convincingly, his voice dripping disdain for the woman in question, with "her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls." Sexual politics notwithstanding, it's a great performance. Yet the singer who really did "Just Like a Woman" justice was Van Morrison, who never recorded it for commercial release but frequently performed it in the early 1970s, including as part of the live show captured on the bootleg Van the Man (good luck finding a copy).
Van Morrison Discography: Albums with Them
A complete listing of Morrison recordings with the group Them, including some lyrics and original liner notes.
Morrison, an Irishman whose version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," recorded
while he was still a member of the group Them, also trumped Dylan's, is a
"blacker" singer than Dylan, whose only noticeable debt to black music is a
harmonica style derived from Sonny Terry. With his better sense of time and
wider expressive range, Morrison transformed "Just Like a Woman" into a soul
ballad worthy of Al Green or James Brown; all that's missing is a horn section.
More to the point, Morrison evinces a thwarted need -- a hurt and an
anger -- unavailable to the self-satisfied Dylan. "My weariness amazes me," Dylan tells us in "Mr. Tambourine Man," one of the songs that he performs during his solo acoustic set on Live 1966. Everything about himself does, and this has always been to his detriment as an artist.
IT'S difficult not to talk about Dylan mostly in the past tense. In the same way that the blues is black music, rock-and-roll is youth music. Our relationship to what used to be our favorite rock songs changes as we get older, and a rock performer's relationship to his own material also changes. A subtext of Muddy Waters's early records for Chess was what it felt like to be black and poor and a recent arrival in Chicago from Mississippi. Decades later Waters could still perform those songs and similar ones with gusto; the South was far behind him, and he was no longer poor, but he was still black. Dylan and the other pop deities who fashioned a modern sensibility for rock-and-roll in the 1960s, often by striving for a wisdom beyond their years, are no longer young (Dylan is fifty-eight), and the shock of this realization has thrown most of them for a loop.
Middle age has been kinder to Dylan than to, say, Mick Jagger, who should think twice these days before singing "Sympathy for the Devil": younger fans might take him literally when he boasts of having been on hand for the Crucifixion. But Dylan no longer means to people what he once did, and his past dozen or so albums lack intensity, partly because not even his most loyal fans have much invested in him anymore.
Despite his identification with the insurrections of the 1960s, Dylan's appeal cut across ideological lines. In 1997, when he was honored at the Kennedy Center, the only politician who made a bigger fuss over Dylan than Bill Clinton was Newt Gingrich, whose pop futurism and delusions of grandeur as speaker of the House made him seem every bit as much a child of the sixties as Clinton -- the confessed adulterer and accused moral relativist whom Pat Robertson once condemned as that decade's "poster boy." Gingrich told reporters, "The sheer magic, for I think everyone in my generation, is to finally have our nation recognize Bob Dylan."
I doubt that Clinton or Gingrich or other fans still ponder Dylan's supposed meanings. For the past twenty years the only puzzle with each new Dylan album has been whether this serial monotheist is now a Christian or a Jew, and most people I know stopped caring long ago. His 1997 album Time Out of Mind was a decent piece of work, but hardly worthy of the nearly unanimous praise it received from rock critics; the notion that it recaptured the Dylan of the 1960s was itself a golden oldie -- a tune we'd heard countless times, beginning in 1974 with the release of Planet Waves. Time Out of Mind won a Grammy as album of the year, but the honor seemed more a lifetime-achievement award, especially since it followed Dylan's hospitalization for a potentially fatal heart infection.
DYLAN'S creative peak lasted only three years, roughly from the Mississippi Freedom Summer to the Summer of Love, or from Bringing It All Back Home to John Wesley Harding -- a period during which rock-and-roll gained intellectual credibility and folk music suffered an irreversible decline, largely as a result of Dylan's strapping on an electric guitar and rejecting the role of pamphleteer. Three years is nothing, yet in this brief span Dylan altered the course of popular music more fundamentally than even Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or the Beatles. As songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were surprisingly traditional; they brought a youthful cheekiness to pop, but in terms of lyrical sentiment and melodic structure their songs of the sixties merely updated Tin Pan Alley conventions. Dylan shifted the focus of lyric writing from craftsmanship to self-expression -- a concept once as alien to pop as it was to folk, whose modern-day practitioners were encouraged to speak their minds only about pressing social issues.
Folk purists had begun voicing displeasure with Dylan even before he plugged in. At issue was the increasingly personal nature of his lyrics and their diminished social relevance. Irwin Silber, the editor of Sing Out! and an early Dylan champion, was speaking for many in Greenwich Village folk circles in 1964 when he published an open letter to Dylan in which he argued that whereas "any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write 'protest' songs," Dylan's were becoming "all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self-conscious -- maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion."
Dylan issued no rebuttals, except in the form of "Positively 4th Street," a song from Highway 61 Revisited that begins "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend" and that Dylanologists have always believed targeted Silber. Nevertheless, the victor was the songwriter Silber believed was not living up to his responsibilities as a people's troubadour. By 1964 "folk" music, as Silber and other veterans of political struggles of the 1930s and 1940s understood it, was a dying form -- a casualty of mass technology which had been only briefly revitalized by young performers who, like Dylan, embraced folk less out of any abiding interest in it than out of a commitment to a progressive social agenda. These were people in their early twenties, Dylan included, who had spent their teenage years singing along to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly records; for many of them folk music amounted to a way of showing leftist elders like Silber and Pete Seeger how grown-up they were. Once the Beatles made it respectable for adults to like rock-and-roll, it was inevitable that Dylan would change his tune, having been a member of teenage rock bands in his native Minnesota and (as "Elston Gunnn," with three ns) having once talked his way into a job playing piano and singing for the Shadows, the backup band for the Holly-influenced teen idol Bobby Vee.
Some thirty years after Dylan's defection, "folk" no longer means traditional ballads and workers' songs. If it is still understood to mean anything, it means a sensitive young guy or girl with a guitar performing his or her own introspective songs. Folk music has become a pop subgenre, a style appropriated by unlikely advertisers. Dow Chemical, once a target of protests for manufacturing napalm and now a sponsor of This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, airs spots featuring a man or woman singing about "what good thinking can do" as though leading a hootenanny; you half expect Sam and Cokie, William Kristol, and the two Georges to come back from the break singing along.
Folk would probably have undergone this transformation even without Dylan. But rock-and-roll would not be the same had he not transformed it into a vehicle for creative writing. In a way, rock's evolution in the 1960s was similar to that of swing twenty years earlier. Some of the youngsters of the 1940s who did the lindy to the big bands eventually stopped dancing and began to crowd the bandstand -- the boys to concentrate on the virtuoso instrumentalists, the girls to get a closer look at the dreamy singers. In the sixties the boys still moved close to the stage to watch the soloists (likely to be guitarists rather than saxophonists or trumpeters), but now girls and boys alike paid rapt attention to the lyrics.
Songwriters everywhere sought to emulate this "Napoleon in rags and the language that he'd use," to quote a line from "Like a Rolling Stone" in which I'm reasonably sure Dylan was describing himself. The first of pop's major figures to try doing it Dylan's way was John Lennon, who started opening himself up more in his lyrics (far more than the guarded Dylan ever did) around the time the Beatles recorded the songs for the movie Help! With typical candor Lennon admitted Dylan's influence in a Rolling Stone interview, in which he dismissed his own early lyrics as those of "a stylized songwriter" who saved most literary and personal thoughts for "me books" -- In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Lennon even briefly took to wearing a railroad cap, like the one Dylan had worn on the cover of his first album. Though black audiences showed little interest in Dylan, black artists felt his influence: in addition to recording the definitive interpretation of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Jimi Hendrix wore his hair like Dylan's, in a cumulus of tendrils that was only incidentally an Afro. Even Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones began to cultivate a hitherto unsuspected poetic streak.
By 1967 the lead singers in anonymous bar bands had begun to imitate Dylan as slavishly as they had copied Jagger only a year or so before -- this time under the delusion of creativity rather than in a parasitic bid for sex appeal. Well into the 1970s, despite Dylan's waning cultural significance, record companies continued to position each new discovery whose songs were literate or just wordy as the new Dylan; among the performers initially burdened with this label were John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III, and Bruce Springsteen. Each eventually asserted his individuality, though audiences might not have known what to make of them without Dylan's prior example; Springsteen became famous for reasserting the element of social protest that Dylan had abandoned. Dylan's success also opened the door to a recording career for Leonard Cohen, a published poet whose prior credentials included several books of verse and two inscrutable novels. We have Dylan to thank for Patti Smith and Neil Young, and to blame for Janis Ian and Billy Joel.
There was no rock style of the late sixties or early seventies that Dylan didn't touch in some way, no matter how alien its aesthetic might have seemed to him. This includes even "glam" rock: on his 1971 breakthrough album Hunky Dory, David Bowie dedicated a song to Dylan, and Ian Hunter, the lead singer of Mott the Hoople, added his British accent to Dylan's hip sneer. Dylan's influence on pop has been so fundamental that it has never really diminished, just become indirect. It extends to countless performers who might not recognize him as an inspiration, and who might believe his music to be irrelevant to theirs for reasons of age, race, or sex. The late Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur were Dylan's offspring, and so are Jewel, Fiona Apple, and Alanis Morissette.
The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.
Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He recently received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for "The Man From Heaven," which appeared in the June, 1997, Atlantic.
Illustration by Janet Woolley
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Napoleon in Rags; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 108 - 117.