In Which We Opine on the Godfather of All Songwriters, One Bob Dylan

On Bob D.

I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
Someone’s always yelling turn it down
Feel like I’m drifting
Drifting from scene the scene
I’m wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean?

There is the question of what to do with music, and there is the question of what to do with Bob Dylan.

During one of my workshops here at the New School, the class was in disagreement over a particular sentence of a story. I said, “Aurally, it sounds very good.” This was dismissed by our professor as inconsequential, which in this case it may well have been. Ironically he is himself a musician. There are many writers I have not understood until I have heard themselves or someone else read their work aloud: Richard Powers, Robert Creeley, Thalia Field, Diane Williams, Paul Hoover, Paul Auster, all the little thin things Paul. An friend of mine used to read Harold Brodkey’s “Innocence” to his girlfriend before they made love. As much as this disgusted me, I certainly saw its utility. John Ashbery made very little sense to me before I heard his work aloud. Someone played “A Blessing in Disguise” for me, and I said, “Who is this?” Then there is the matter of my classmate Brian asking what exactly is our assignment this week, just to listen to music? I like Brian—this was still of course a source of great humor for me. For some, I’m sure, it’s not exactly the easiest question. Music is perhaps the art form that hinges the most on taste. This is why even artists who have no clue what came before or after them can survive, even excel in their appeal in the field of music. Certainly there are writers who have achieved commercial success in this fashion, but never artistic success. And it is difficult to have as amorphous a relationship to a book or a painting as it is to a song. It just is.

Then there is the notion of celebrity, which clouds everything, and makes everything that follows diminished by that light. It seems to me, as someone who never took immediately to Bob Dylan’s work because of his voice, that Bob has handled this very well and not very well, alternating between the two. That’s not important of course, what’s important is what he did as an artist when he did it.

Some writers literally run out of steam. Former lead singer of The Verve, Richard Ashcroft, got very boring and mellow once he married his wife and settled down. This is starting to happen to a lot of people I know. This is in no sense a consequence of marriage. It may be one of aging. Dylan’s mind is relentless with curiousity. His interest in aboriginal forms in itself the marker of a fine mind. His sincerity of purpose in not hailing how intellectual he is may be an even better marker. In 1991 Dylan told Paul Zollo:

“there was a time when the songs would come three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone…Once in awhile, the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written. But most of them are rejected out of my mind right away. You get caught up in wondering if anyone really needs to hear it. Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them.”

The matter of Dylan’s voice is a big issue. It’s old and new, it’s Jewish and Gentile, it’s white and black. It’s the ultimate barrier to the enjoyment of his melodies, and yet it is the key to his melodies. One can certainly become accustomed to it, as one might with Joanna Newsom’s voice, or Rufus Wainwright’s. It’s a voice that even in its insistent nasal tonality is amorphous, like it could just as soon do the rootsy, blues rock of “Modern Times” as the sentimentality and mortality of “Not Dark Yet” (I know it looks like I’m moving but I’m standing still.)

“Time Out of Mind” is my favorite of these albums, and it’s not particularly close. It feels like it’s the most worked on (perhaps because he had somewhere to come back from). It’s probably the most conventional. The songs work because they work, they don’t have to hinge on anything. It’s my own preference that I like the folkier Bob, even the poppier Bob. But there’s Bob for all different times. There is no need to embrace one Bob now, when you might really need to embrace a different one later on.

To have to reinvent yourself publicly…or perhaps reinvent is not the right term. To not be able to move within your own artistic expression with any freedom of thought, or capability for mistake. Dylan—

Behind every beautiful thing there’s some kinda pain

To speak of something that is American, is to be a part of black history as well. There is no American history without the enslavement of African peoples in it. There is no history of American music without the enslavement of African peoples in it. Because he is able to square the circle, acknowledge his debt, perform the compunction, as a Jewish person to write for everyone, to exceed Judaism itself. There has always been a Jewish purity movement afoot. To exclude the non-religious Jew, to exclude Bob Dylan? There is also, always, an American purity movement afoot. Last night I saw Damien Rice at the Beacon. There is no person he owes more to than Bob Dylan, in a theater that I believe Dylan has played many times.

These tracks from the Anthology of American Folk Music make Dylan’s folk songs sound better. They improve his songs because they give a context for what he’s doing. They require critical appreciation, & activation on the part of the listener. My favorite is the Dick Justice opener “Henry Lee”, especially the guitar. It’s as if this old folk were showing Dylan the guitar can do this, and this, and this, and you will know the words. These songs enrich all folk music, in fact. I feel stupid for not knowing them, for thinking Rice’s “Eskimo” could stand on its own, without being processed for all the things it was and could have been.

I guess it happens to you by degrees. You don’t just wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs…opportunities may come along for you to convert something, something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it.

You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular.
Chronicles, Vol. 1

Because there is always something personal about music, there is always something personal in it, we could see this as a way through to writing. Not to be more keen to write about ourselves, our own lives. Or even to push through more ancestral forms and find what’s affecting, now, today, for us. But more that anything written could have a personal place out there in the world, could be understood at some point besides the point at which it appears. Charles Olson wrote ahead of time, Dylan did too. Ashbery may be writing for people who haven’t yet appeared. (Berryman was writing for my father, not me.) We have explored these poets each of them, and not so much the time in which they lived, or who they were, perhaps the most senseless things in the case of Dylan, whose appettite for his own mystery and mythology was strong. But instead, how their work lived, how it was, who it was. The song, Brian. It can be called upon.

“Visions of Johanna” — Bob Dylan (YouSendIt)

“I Was Young When I Left Home” — Bob Dylan

“Most of the Time” — Bob Dylan (right click and save as, I think)

4 thoughts on “In Which We Opine on the Godfather of All Songwriters, One Bob Dylan

  1. Right on. I’ve always felt that in some way Dylan’s reinvention/recreation process is almost more interesting than the music itself.

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