The first song by Bob Dylan I heard was Only a pawn in the game. I couldn’t believe that people wrote such songs, and bought all his albums since.
Dylan writes from a persona, derived from the old American folk scene of the Carter Family and others. He began writing topical songs of protest and then of love (of course). To me some of those earliest songs remain among his very best, especially Blowin in the wind and The times they are a-changing, but I also love his simpler, more straightforward early songs like To Ramona and I don’t believe you. I prefer Dylan at his most down-to-earth.
This is significant because, to the astute listener, there was always something a little odd about Dylan. ‘Trust the art, not the artist’ the old cliché runs, and I was always fairly clear that this described Dylan. One could never say this to his fans of course, but it came out in a quote right near the beginning of the biography Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin. He quotes Cesar Diaz, a Dylan insider for over five years:
I think the greatest masterpiece he has ever pulled off is the fact that he can make people believe that part of him is involved in the writing of those songs. To me each song is a play, a script, and he’ll be that guy from the song for that moment, but then he’ll change back to Bob. People make the mistake to think that he’s the guy that sings The times they are a-changing. But the guy that wrote that song only existed for that moment, for that righteous thought. It took me a while to realize that. But he actually convinces you that yes, it is me who is talking to you, and I’m being sincere about it… He is able to convince you that it is him at that point when he is singing the song when in reality he’s just singing a song and just playing. So he can never answer questions like ‘How do you feel when you sing Forever young?’ He cannot put himself in that position. He already did once when he wrote that song.
The earliest I noticed this oddity was the song Ballad in plain D. In this, Dylan was attempting to write in a more subjective way about an intimate relationship and without his persona to hide within. But the song is so one-sided and vindictive as to signal a major lack of personal and social awareness. There’s something obviously false about this song, strained and contrived, all disguised with appropriate poesy (or clichés such as ‘love’s ashes’ and ‘dream-lover’ as he felt fit) but with pretentiousness leaking from every pore.
I put it down to youth and thought nothing more of it, and as he moved into his symbolist period, emulating the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and others, I eagerly followed. I didn’t really get Mr Tambourine Man at first, but I loved it anyway, and It’s alright Ma was splendid. There were also A hard rains a’gonna fall and Farewell Angelina; absolutely wonderful stuff. Like a rolling stone was also among the fruits of this period, but while I applauded it I had no illusions about some of the metaphors on it (‘chrome horse’ for example), and on much of the rest of Highway 61 Revisited (‘passports painted brown’ and the like). My favourite from that album remains It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, a simple, down-to-earth, beautiful song. In fact, there’s a verse in this song that IMHO stands as an absolute monument to what can be achieved with the most simple and direct poetic language:
Don’t the moon look good Mama shining through the trees
Don’t the brakeman look good Mama flagging down the Double E
Don’t the sun look good going down over the sea
Don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me
There’s nothing cool or hip or pretentious or obscurantist or symbolist about this, just a simple statement of the joy of life and love. Truly wonderful to associate those joyous rich images, all natural ordinary observations, and then to bring them around to a personal statement about love. Beautiful!!!
But then came Positively 4th Street. Joni Mitchell has said that this song had a great effect upon her so I have to acknowledge its importance, but to me it remains a sickeningly unpleasant grossly-indulgent song. Perhaps in recognition of this nastiness, David Hajdu used the title again for a fairly unflinching book about Dylan’s early years that reminded us of his flaws (it’s on page 278).
But then came Blonde on blonde and the exquisite Visions of Johanna. The first verse of Visions is irresistible, with perhaps his finest-ever line: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet,” and the second verse continues at the same level. But the more I listened to the rest of the song the more I realised how negative it was. The third verse is a put down of a character he calls Little Boy Lost, the fourth verse attacks academics and ‘jelly-faced women,’ and the last verse implicitly (and explicitly) calls people parasites. Each of these verses is in some way redeemed by other more positive poetic lines (‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles’), but as one of his most promising songs I felt it was tainted by his smallness. The Stones have told of Dylan telling Mick Jagger words to the effect of “I could have written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Tambourine Man,” and Keith Richards has described Dylan as a “nasty little bugger.” Others have also commented on the angry, mocking tone in much of his output. Far too much pop psychology has been written about him and his songs and I shall not add to it, but the unnecessary obscurantism and negativity of some of his songs are real limitations for me.
Nevertheless, he’s an amazing song-writer who, at his best, is utterly unique. The songs from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde were a staggering achievement for a young man (he was only 25 when Blonde on Blonde came out). And some later songs like One more cup of coffee and Forever young from his middle period are quite as good as any from his earlier periods, though lately the quality has dropped off. Joni Mitchell has said that Dylan told her recently (it would have been in the early 2000s) that he hadn’t written a song in years. When she asked him where they came from he replied “The box.” It shows.
There was a brief clip on Youtube (it’s been pulled) of Dylan being interviewed and saying how he could no longer write songs like those of his earlier periods. He describes the “magic” of his opening verse in It’s alright Ma:
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.
It’s magical alright! Then he says that now he’s free to do other things; he’s done a lot of painting in recent years.
And then there is his Christianity. Biographer Paul Wllliams (in Bob Dylan: Watching the river) put this well:
Dylan has always believed, not unreasonably, in the power of women. When he finally lost faith in the ability of women to save him (and he seems to have explored the matter very thoroughly in and out of marriage in the years 1974 through 1978), his need for an alternative grew very great indeed, and he found what people in our culture most often find in such circumstances: the uncritical hospitality of Jesus Christ.
In his fearlessly frank autobiography Anyone who had a heart, Burt Bacharach, who was friendly with Dylan, by way of explaining one of his own greatest egotistical blunders, the breakdown of his relationship with Hal David, writes: “As we get older we’re supposed to learn and grow, but that only happens if you do some work on yourself. Otherwise, the flaws just get worse.” Dylan has clearly struggled, as indeed, many of us do, but he came from a wealthy, healthy middle-class family and he has received the adoration of many. Quite what the reason for his anger is remains unknown, or even if it’s really anger. Still, I think we have to grant that he’s managed himself well, not invested himself in any crazy causes, been fairly pro-social through his life, never regressed into paranoia or smug greed, and generally does and says the right things. Despite whatever struggles he has, he remains a decent spirit, despite the insanity of fame.
There is a story in the book Behind the shades by Clinton Heylin of Dylan and his band of that time holed up in some motel with a couple of hours to kill before going on-stage. A musician takes Dylan downstairs for a drink at a bar. It was a busy night and the bar was packed with drinkers so Dylan and his musician friend sat unobtrusively at the end of the bar. Gradually everyone in the bar fell silent and just stared at them. After about ten minutes they left but the musician commented something like “Imagine having to live with that.” In another interview Dylan has told of how strangers have come up to him in restaurants with questions like “Are you him?” “You’re not him really, are you?” “You’re sure?” “Go on, you are him…” What might that kind of fame do to anyone? He’s done alright Bob!
Finally, something I didn’t appreciate until I read Heylin’s biography was quite how commercially-attuned Dylan is. It seems that when the time comes to release an album he invariably puts an extraordinary amount of thought and time into getting the song-list and lyrics precisely right for the mood of the time. This confirmed something I’d often thought but which journalists seldom bring out in their interviews. To get to the level of stardom that a Dylan or a Leonard Cohen or a Paul Simon got to (and this applies to pretty much any star with an enduring career) you have to be gifted at self-promotion, a natural at image projection, comfortable with banter and calculating with flattery. You don’t last very long without that, and I suspect it’s one of the main reasons why many eventually leave the field – they can’t be bothered putting on the front anymore. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it is something that they sometimes down-play.