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the essential bob dylan

5 december 2016

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, my social-media feed presented a range of views.

My own reaction was "Yay!" and I'll try to elaborate it. Since I only review books and stories here, I have to anchor my thoughts to some kind of text. I own a copy of the 2000 double CD "The Essential Bob Dylan," and I can use Bob Dylan's official website for texts of the songs included there.

Is the "Essential" really the essential – do the 30 songs on the double CD reflect what Dylan won the Nobel Prize for? You'd have to ask the Swedish Academy, but Bob Dylan himself has carefully managed the "canon" of his work. The songs on the 2000 "Essential" also form the core of the three earlier "Greatest Hits" albums (1967, 1971, 1994) and the two later compilations "The Best of Bob Dylan" (2005) and "Dylan" (2007) – give or take a few songs, naturally. From very early on, Dylan has devoted energy to culling a central playlist of and for himself.

I regret that "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" isn't on the 2000 double CD; nor are "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," or "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" – in fact the latter two don't appear on any of Dylan's compilations. But that's the way of ultra-successful acts: their relative castoffs would be the envy of many songwriters.

Some of the actual tracks on the "The Essential Bob Dylan" aren't imperishable: like many songwriters, from Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, Dylan often didn't make the best recording of his best songs. "Quinn the Eskimo" isn't even listenable-to in the version here; check out Manfred Mann if you want to hear a decent version. And so with "Blowin' in the Wind" (Peter, Paul, and Mary); "It Ain't Me, Babe" (the Cashes; or Joan Baez), "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (Eric Burdon and the Animals), and "If Not for You" (George Harrison, but even better, Olivia Newton-John!) Even Dylan admits, after hearing Jimi Hendrix, that its composer had no business playing "All Along the Watchtower." One tweet I read after the Prize was announced referred to Dylan as "just a good pop singer." Well, no.

And Dylan seems to define "essential" as songs that got a relative amount of airplay, whether in his own version or covers, even being heard on the milquetoasty pop stations I listened to as a kid in the 1970s: "Lay, Lady, Lay" or "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." These are memorable songs but I don't think they'd win you the Nobel Prize. What, then, would? Is "yay" not an appropriate reaction?

First off, I'll say that whether Dylan is a "real" poet or not doesn't interest me, or make him in my eyes more or less worthy of a big prize. He is the greatest living English-language songwriter: Leonard Cohen died not long after the Prize was announced, as if to underscore that point, but not before graciously congratulating Dylan. If you are open-minded enough to see songwriting as a kind of literature, you start at the top of the list and work down, and for once the Academy adopted that method.

The tougher question is why exactly Dylan's songs are great. Can they be seen critically in ways that acknowledge them as songs – fusions of music and words, not separable – and as vital, in their own way, as great novels, poems, or plays?

Because the detractors may have a point. Consider "Like a Rolling Stone," which by wide consensus is Dylan's greatest song (and for once his own version is iconic). In the middle of its blistering attack on the assumptions of privilege, its quintessential portrait of Sixties disillusionment, we hear this:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at …
The verse that of course goes next into the tremendous anger of "After he took from you everything he could steal": but powerful as that line is, what the heck is the diplomat doing with a Siamese cat on his shoulder? Is that the best rhyme you could find for "that" and "at" – and why are you rhyming "that" and "at" anyway, and why the slang cliché "where it's at" instead of something more precise?

Even at their best, Dylan's lyrics are shot through with a certain amount of randomness and lack of direction. Let me digress a second. I have a "Lady of 6,000 Songs" ability which does me no good and may actually impede my functionality. I know the words to hundreds of standards and show tunes, and of just about any pop song from the '60s and '70s that comes over oldies radio.

This is not a life skill, I hasten to add; it's closer to a kind of pathology. It's genetic; I got it from my father, who could sing anything he'd heard on the radio once in the 1940s. I also know lots of metrical and rhyming lyric poems by heart, while being able to remember no prose or free verse. And I can't remember Bob Dylan songs, either. For me they are in a category of verse like that of his namesake Dylan Thomas, or of the late Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne, equally impossible to memorize. All three of these writers tend to lay out an initial clever stanza form, usually with a catchy chorus, and then filling it with vivid individual lines that may not have the strongest internal relation to one another. Then they repeat the process, filling in the form with different lines. Then again and again, till they have a fairly long piece, much of which seems like it could go at any other place in the piece, even down to the level of the individual word.

I'm not saying "I can't remember Dylan songs, so Dylan sucks." That would be personally presumptuous but would also miss the point of my misremembering. Bob Dylan's songs are simply different from those of Cole Porter, or Pete Seeger, or Hank Williams, or Paul McCartney, or Taylor Swift, for that matter. They don't invoke a specific lived reality very often, they don't tell stories very often, they don't often progess in logical, or structural, or emotional ways. They're grab bags – "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," for instance, is written in pairs of contrasting couplets followed by a chorus; but the paired couplets could easily be re-paired in several different ways without any difference to the song's continuity. Hence, while I can remember a line here and a couplet there, I can rarely recall what comes next in a Dylan song, even after repeated listenings.

And I can't remember poems by John Ashbery either. It seems that artists like Dylan and Ashbery are qualitatively different, even cognitively different, from verbal artists like Ira Gershwin or Elizabeth Bishop. "Grab-bag" lyricists intend, and achieve, different effects, using different devices.

Bob Dylan's songs build a stylized world full of archetypal characters: vagabonds, deputies, preachers, carpenters' wives, Italian poets from the thirteenth century. The "I" of the songs is a troubadour who wanders through his cast of characters writing songs about how they briefly and portentously – and frankly, randomly – touch his life.

Chief among them is a stylized woman the singer has been attracted to and involved with, a relationship (or series of relationships) he now actively resents. This is true from the bitter "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" in 1962 to the haunted "Not Dark Yet" in 1997. The singer's attitude ranges from passive-aggressiveness in "Don't Think Twice"

I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right
to peevish irony ("Shelter from the Storm")
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm"
to sneering in "Like a Rolling Stone":
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it
If there's a reason to demur from the Nobel Academy's judgment, it might be the pervasive "beset manhood" of the speaker's sexuality: drawn tragically and inevitably to a series of the wrong women (or the same wrong woman), he hates them for attracting him and lashes out at them across a spectrum of reproach.

"Just Like a Woman" sounds the motif of resentment most clearly. The woman has been singled out by the singer's desire as special, but she isn't special; the world is full of desirable women. She comes to believe what the singer tells her about herself, and that draws the singer's contempt down on her: "Baby can't be blessed / Till she sees finally that she's like all the rest." He builds her up to the point where she must inevitably think she's too good for him, at which point all he wants anymore is to tear her down. "Please don't let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world / Ah, you fake just like a woman."

But for all that distilled ugliness, there's the recognition that the resented woman is at heart a child – a recognition that must come from empathy, from the corresponding recognition that we are all children within. "Just Like a Woman" has frequently been covered by women singers, and its chorus seems gendered but universal:

She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
And despite its empathy, the chorus balances the recognition that everybody's breakable – with the desire to break somebody.

There are happy moments in The Essential Bob Dylan: "Everybody must get stoned," "I shall be released," "May your hands always be busy / May your feet always be swift / May you have a strong foundation / When the winds of changes shift." There's the wonderful nonsense of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a set of improvisations on the theme "tomorrow's the day my bride's a-gonna come." But even the chirpy pop song "If Not For You" is cast entirely in the negative. "My sky would fall / Rain would gather too." Depression is always just a doorway away.

It's also a little hard to listen, in December 2016, to the great folk anthems that seemed so hopeful fifty years ago. "Admit that the waters / Around you have grown," Dylan sings in "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which today sounds like irreversible climate change. And though progressive victories came in cascades after Dylan sang that song in 1963, it's sobering to remember that it's not about arrows but about cycles:

Don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'
I seem to have expressed a mixed verdict. But great art, I think, is more about mixed verdicts than about feeling good about everything. For all its apparent surface randomness, Bob Dylan's œuvre is complicated, tentative, and resistant to conclusions. For me, his most beautiful song is one of his most complicated, and oddly enough, the one that became his greatest pop hit, in the somewhat affectless cover by the Byrds: "Mr. Tambourine Man." Unlike many of his abstract songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man" is unpopulated, except for the singer himself and the fairly unspecific title character. (The best recordings of the song, like one by Dylan at the 1964 Newport festival that pops up on YouTube from time to time, don't even feature a tambourine, so the "jingle-jangle" the song promises can be strangely muted.)

It's a song about confronting the wilderness within – perhaps with the help of substances, though it actually invokes simple sleep deprivation to account for its altered perceptions. Like some other great songs – like Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words," for instance – "Mr. Tambourine Man" is diffident about the power of language:

If you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind
It's just a shadow you're seein' that he's chasing
It takes a few listenings to realize that the singer is himself the "ragged clown," and that verse an injunction not to heed its own words.

As the singer goes deeper into himself, he reaches his goal of disappearance. The song concludes with a final stanza as powerful as anything by Wallace Stevens or Philip Larkin:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
And that, to me, is why Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize.

Dylan, Bob. The Essential Bob Dylan. New York: Sony [Columbia Records], 2000.