Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bob Dylan, the great enchanter

Seeing as how this blog is currently named after a Bob Dylan song, I thought it would be pungent to start off by writing about the man who is currently one of my favourite artists and entertainers, not to mention a rather inspiring figure. A word of warning, this will be a fairly noncritical and praise-filled treatise: if you do not wish to see me gush, then pray, avert thine eyes!

I’ll be the first to admit the music of Bob Dylan, born as mister Robert Zimmerman (no, you can't call him that), isn’t the type that’s going to appeal to everyone, especially in this day and age. The elitist in me wants to lament how much of a shame this is. That if you don’t ‘get’ Bob Dylan you simply don’t ‘get’ music. Of course at the end of the day that’s all rather subjective. It just means that you look for other things in music than I do. That’s perfectly alright.

And of course. I understand. That particular blend of blues and folk rock that characterizes the majority old Bob’s oeuvre isn’t the sort of thing likely to be heard blasting out of the speakers tuned into your local radio station. That corny old-fashioned harmonica, the often rather scarce and sober production values and especially those bizarre, unpolished vocals aren’t necessarily easy to get into. They’re an acquired taste.

Indeed, when you take a purely analytical approach to Bob Dylan’s music, when you start picking apart the various elements and putting ‘em under a magnifying glass it’ll quickly start to seem that most of it really isn’t all that special. While certainly proficient with his guitar and harmonica he’s not that outstandingly skilled at ‘em for anyone to take special notice. His melodies are uncomplicated and repetitive (and derivative, I hear, but I don’t know dat music too well on a technical level so stop asking). This isn’t King Crimson or Yes we’re talking, this is pretty simple stuff. Grab any old busker off the street, give him a scrap of sheet music with a Dylan song on it and a bit of time, and he could likely play a serviceable impression. And veritable bibles’ve been written about Bob’s infamous singing voice, that wheezy, rasping, nasal whine that sounds like a dying dog’s last desperate cry transmitted through a barbed wire microphone and an amplifier made of polystyrene. 

But doggonit, you can’t be purely analytical with something that tugs at our heartstrings quite as much as music and you can’t be purely analytical with Dylan. A while ago I said I doubt anyone can really put their finger on what it is that makes him quite so good and quite so fascinating. Indeed, there is something elusive and mystical about his power, but I think I can still say a thing or two about it.

Dylan's iconic mid-60's image: a thin tiny fellow in shades, a strange look for a big music star at the time compared to say, The Beatles or The Beach Boys. 

Of course the simple (and probably too easy) answer is that rarely the greater than the sum of its parts argument has been more relevant than with mister Zimmerman. Sure, his playing is fairly basic, sure, his music is rather simple, and sure, his voice tends to sound like he gurgles with a cup of shrapnel every morning. But when you put it all together something special happens. There’s a sincerity and an authenticity there that transcends those shortcomings, the way it all blends together to form the Dylan we (well, I, at least) know and love is quite unique. 

And while I’ve spent a paragraph and a half lambasting aspects of his music (purely out of rhetorical reasons, I swear) the one part of Dylan I think no one should truly complain of are his lyrics. With the Zimm-meister, the main driving force has always been the words. That’s why you’ll find nary a purely instrumental track by him, and if you do it’s not going to be very interesting. It’s about the words man, it’s all about the words!

And those words, well, they’re a doozy. In a letter to a lady friend I recently wrote that I consider Dylan to be a great poet. To some this might at first seem an overblown label to apply to a 'mere' musician, but it’s true. Dylan was one of the first musicians, and certainly the most significant and influential, to truly marry art with popular music, showing us that it could be about more than simply hot cars and fast women (or were those adjectives the other way around?), that it could be significant, that it could mean something to us. At the dawn of time (of the modern music industry, that is) it was Bob Dylan, not The Beatles, who was the first to really bring the art, the poetry, into popular music.

As I write this, I’m listening to Dylan’s 1965 album Blonde on Blonde. It’s not quite my favourite Dylan album, that title still goes to Blood on the Tracks (which I should blog about in full at some later point in time). But as much as I love Blood on a personal level, one has to admit that his Bobness’ finest work as a lyricist is to be found in his 60’s catalogue, of which Blonde on Blonde provides some of the best examples. This is Dylan the enchanter at his greatest and most mystical, this is him taking the enchantment to its highest level. “Visions of Johanna” is often seen as being his crowning lyrical achievement, so it might be rather chewed out to reference it here, but it’s cited as an ur example of his magic for a reason. If you’ve never heard it, go ahead and listen to it. Run along. I’ll wait.

Ah, you’re back. Excellent. Wasn’t that beautiful? But what of those words, you ask? What of those lyrics? Surely when you get down to it most of it's nonsense, it doesn't actually mean anything? But ah, young grass eater, herein lies the power of poetry, herein lies the power of Bob Dylan! 

 The cover for Blonde on Blonde, the album said by Dylan to be the closest he ever got to the sound he hears in his mind: "that thin, wild mercury sound".

Only a few months after recording Blonde on Blonde Dylan went and suffered a mysterious motorcycle accident, and it’s tempting to think this busted his brains so badly he was never able to produce anything quite as artistically immaculate afterwards. The truth however is probably that in those early years of his career he was simply graced with some sort of divine inspiration. He claims to have written the enchanting “Blowing in the Wind” in ten minutes. I’m inclined to believe him. It's likely that he was simply on some sort of creative high that just had to fade with time, that no mortal man could have sustained for long. Just look at the opening lyrics for “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” off of his first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home:

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

What the shit does that even mean? Hell if I know, and I’m pretty sure old Bob wouldn’t be able to answer the question any better. There likely is some kind of sense and logic to these lyrics that might be plumbed with time and rigorous analysis, but at a casual listen, it really sounds like nothing more than silly, senseless raving. Yet when set to that dreary guitar line and spoken with that gruff and honest voice of his, it simply works. If you or me tried to write something like that we’d end up with gibberish, but Dylan pulls it off magnificently. Even the most seasoned of professors would have trouble untangling the knots of songs like “Visions of Johanna” and the title track on Highway 61 Revisited, at least if it’s any sort of clear meaning we’re looking for. But, of course, those songs don’t actually mean anything, not in any concrete sort of way. Dylan's poetry isn’t meant to convey something grounded in reality but an emotional mood, a state of mind, perhaps an abstract idea. What these songs mean is what Bob feels and thinks as he writes them, as he sings them, what we feel and think as we listen to them. That effect, that’s the mark of a true poet.

Of course in the early to mid 60’s Bobbo wasn’t just writing pseudo-mystical word salad poetry devoid of any concrete meaning. One of the main criteria often given for art (which I don’t entirely agree with, but that’s a topic for another day) is that it has to be invested with a certain social consciousness, the urge to bring about a change in society. This is certainly strongly present in a lot of Dylan’s songs: indeed, it was by penning protest songs (although he personally disliked the term) that his Bobness first achieved widespread fame and notoriety. I could name several examples here but let's suffice with what is probably my favourite Dylan song in this category, “Masters of War” off of The Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan. This song is arguably as relevant today as the day it was written. It’s a fantastic piece of work simply for how downright spiteful and venomous it is. Just look at those words. They send a chill down my spine, that they do, a chill at the righteous anger Dylan must’ve felt when he wrote them:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

That’s not to say his records after the mid-60’s should be binned and forgotten, far from it. My praise doesn’t merely apply to his early work. I’ll give that the general consensus is that there’s certainly a lot of chaff among his later output (his trilogy of Christian rock records from the early 80's, his so-called "born-again period", comes to mind). However I’ve already said Blood on the Tracks is my favourite album of his, and that one’s from 1975. And by all means, check out some of his more recent stuff! The ones I’ve heard are Modern Times and Time Out of Mind, and they’re good fun, with the latter being something of a minor masterpiece in my opinion (if you can stand the singing, which has gone from merely a nasal wheeze to a deep, gravel-like growl like coming from some sort of monstrous rock golem – I think it’s great though, he’s become a real dishevelled old bluesman now). It’s all not as mystical or innovative as some of his earlier outings but there’s lots of enjoyment and above all lots of stories to be had, because I think Bob is perhaps above all a great teller of stories through music. Blood’s tantalizing kaleidoscope of tales of love lost and hearts broken is a fantastic example of this. And in this Dylan once again proves his ability as a poet, for while one often gets the sense these stories are highly personal they are usually presented as abstracts, we feel they could be anyone’s, they’re as much his as they are ours.

His Bobness singing at the 2011 Grammy Award ceremony, backed by rising folk stars Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. 

With that, though, I feel we haven’t quite entirely put our finger on the magic. His words and how they operate are a big part of it, but that's not the entire story. It’s in the complete package, the way all the parts come together, as I already mentioned earlier. And what characterizes said complete package most of all in my opinion is just that rough edge, that lack of sophistication, that ordinariness for which one might condemn it. 
Let’s go back to Bob’s singing voice for a moment. While many people have condemned it for being whiny, grating and sometimes downright unlistenable, frankly I think it’s great. Author Joyce Carol Oates described it as being “as if sandpaper could sing”. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Just think what it’d be like if sandpaper could sing. Think of the things it might sing of. If it’d be anything like the things Bob Dylan sings of, then I think that would be downright marvellous. What makes his singing so attractive is exactly that lack of training, that hoarseness, that everydayness. Like this could be the voice of any of us. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk expressed the desire to be able to write sentences that any man might have written, yet imbue them with weight and significance in a way only a single man out of an entire generation could. If we substitute “sentences” for the vocal instrument (because indeed, not just anyone could write the stuff old Bob wrote) then we might have a good characterization of Bob Dylan’s singing. It’s the voice of the everyman singing words and meanings that are completely and utterly unique, combining the everyday with the mystical. 
Indeed, this might be where the magic, the enchantment can be found. The music of Robert Zimmerman is so captivating because of the distinct lack of pretense and artificiality through which it reaches us. Bob Dylan has never been particularly interested in blowing away his audience. Listening to his music you never really feel yourself awstruck or humbled by its magnificent splendor. Instead Bob himself is the humble one, as if he's saying: these songs're all I got, they may not amount to much, but won't you listen to what a guy's got on his mind? At the start of this blog I said you could pluck any old busker off the street and he'd probably be able to do a decent cover of a Dylan song after a bit of practice. But of course his Bobness himself started out mostly playing in clubs and cafes and on street corners, and he never really shed the feel and image of the simple street musician. Listening to his records you get the idea that this is the sort of man you might imagine playing his heart out in an alley somewhere, in a grimy little basement bar or even in your own living room. And you think that yeah, this guy is one of us, he shares in our worries, in our hopes and in our dreams. He may be more skilled at expressing them than we are, but listening to his music it never seems like he lets his skill, his creativity, his genius go to his head. His music is never self-indulgent or pretentious. Instead it is intimate, personal and always extremely sincere. We can find ourselves in his words and the images and feelings they invoke in us. Thus his voice is our voice and can remain our voice. 

 Dylan during the mid-70's Rolling Thunder Revue: more a fool or vagrant than a rock star. 

To conclude, one factor of Bob’s music I haven’t really touched on here is that while I find it deep, moving and beautiful it’s often also hilarious – mister Zimmerman’s obviously always had a good sense’a humor. In an interview he once responded to the question “what makes you laugh?” by saying “oh… something funny”, after which he flashed the interviewer a sly grin. So I’ll leave you with the to me most amusing Dylan lines I’ve come across so far, from the aforementioned “Highway 61 Revisited”:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”


  1. Welp, my apologies. I lied! The funniest Dylan lines're not actually from "Highway 61" but from "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" (off of Blonde on Blonde, go figure):

    You know it balances on your head
    Just like a mattress balances
    On a bottle of wine
    Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

  2. That Hardly rivals
    So I forced my hands in my pockets
    And felt with my thumbs
    And gallantly handed her
    My very last piece of gum
    (and halfway the next stanza:)
    She said, “No, dear”
    I said, “Your words aren’t clear
    You’d better spit out your gum”
    (immediately followed by:)
    She screamed till her face got so red
    Then she fell on the floor
    And I covered her up and then
    Thought I’d go look through her drawer

  3. PS: from 4th time around (Blonde on Blonde)