A review of Bob Dylan in his own and other people's words
February 19, 2005 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Be careful what you wish for, the cliché goes. Having aspired from early youth to become stars, people who achieve that status suddenly find themselves imprisoned, unable to walk down the street without being importuned by strangers. The higher their name floats, the greater the levy imposed, the less of ordinary life they can enjoy. In his memoir, Bob Dylan never precisely articulates the ambition that brought him to New York City from northern Minnesota in 1961, maybe because it felt improbable even to him at the time. Nominally, he was angling for Leading Young Folksinger, which was a plausible goal then, when every college town had three or four coffeehouses and each one had its Hootenanny night, and when performers who wowed the crowds on that circuit went on to make records that sometimes sold in the thousands. But from the beginning Dylan had his sights set much higher: the world, glory, eternity—ambitions laughably incommensurate with the modest confines of American folk music. He got his wish, in spades... 'I Is Someone Else'
posted by y2karl (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Among the four fifths of the Basement Tapes material that remains officially unreleased is a song called "I'm Not There" (1956). It is glaringly unfinished—Dylan mumbles unintelligibly through parts of it, and throws together fragments of lyrics apparently at random—and yet it is one of his greatest songs. The hymn-like minor-key melody, rising from mournful to exalted, is certainly one reason for this, and another is the perfect accompaniment by three members of The Band, but the very discontinuity of the lyrics, in combination with Dylan's unflagging intensity, creates a powerful, tantalizing indeterminacy that is suddenly if provisionally resolved by every return of the refrain:
Now when I [unintelligible] I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom weighs so high above her
And I run but I race but it's not too fast or soon [?]
But I don't perceive her, I'm not there, I'm gone.
The third line is clearly filler; what can be made out of the first probably contains an echo of a Stevie Wonder song played on the radio that same summer; the second, for all that it does not lend itself to reasonable interpretation, rings the bell, and it pulls the previous and succeeding lines along with it into relief and down to the last line, which includes the refrain. Every verse is crowned by one or more such glowing fragments, which materialize, linger briefly, and then vanish, like urgent dispatches transmitted by a spirit medium. The song evades the intellect to address the emotions through underground passageways of memory and association—biblical, in the case of that second line—and it is a document of the artist in the very midst of the act of creation.

It is glaringly unfinished... and yet it is one of his greatest songs. I do so agree.
posted by y2karl at 4:25 PM on February 19, 2005

"Bye and Bye," for example, has a melody derived from "Blue Moon"

Perhaps in a larger and more nebulous sense, but, for a fact, the melody of Bye and Bye comes exactly and directly from Billie Holiday's Having Myself A Time.

Dylan drives critics mad, because while his vast range of sources can be endlessly itemized and dissected, the ways in which he puts things together teases rational explication before finally betraying it.

And here I must relink The Annotated Love And Theft in support of that statement.
posted by y2karl at 4:43 PM on February 19, 2005

Cool post, a lot of (what I assume is) interesting reading to bookmark.
I haven't read "Chronicles" yet, but I hear it's really something.
posted by mr.marx at 5:18 PM on February 19, 2005

Nice post...good ol' Bob, ever the mystery
posted by lobstah at 6:03 PM on February 19, 2005

I've never read anything insightful about Dylan as a person. There are anecdotes and great critiques of songs, but the man himself has always been a well-kept secret. I mean, we think BOTT is about his failing marriage and he claims it is based on Checkov short stories? The man doesn't want us to know him personally.

So Chronicles is forthright and honest? I'll believe it when I see (read) it.
posted by MotorNeuron at 6:17 PM on February 19, 2005

I'm Not There [mp3, 4.7mb]
posted by bitpart at 6:58 PM on February 19, 2005

Hey everyone, remember -= THE GAME =- ..

posted by pez_LPhiE at 8:13 PM on February 19, 2005

I have NEVER understood the fascination with Dylan. The man cannot sing to save his life; his songs are not musically inventive; his lyrics are hippie poetry, which I guess is not a bad thing in itself, but Dylan's delivery sends me scrambling for the remote to turn it off.

If you want hippie poetry, Love's Forever Changes is far more beautiful than anything Bob Dylan ever did. And Arthur Lee can actually sing, which helps, too.
posted by BoringPostcards at 9:08 PM on February 19, 2005

To quote ryvar, I should sue for the bruises I got rolling my eyes at that little screed. First you hurl the phrase hippie poetry and then you cite Arthur Lee and Forever Changes as beauty incarnate. Incense, velvet shirts and love beads to the tenth power of total incomprehensible paisley flapdoodle. And, for the record, Dylan hated hippies. So, who do you cite ? Acid casualty #81-Q. Yeah, Cheez Whiz really does taste better than aged brie. With the right drugs.
posted by y2karl at 10:16 PM on February 19, 2005

Arthur Lee = great

Bob Dylan = great(er?)

No sense in arguing over that. Dylan's clearly lapped Lee a hundred times in terms of prolificacy, and certainly, depth. 'Course he hasn't been spending time locked up the thug-jug either....

Thanks for the link, karl. I'm dying to read Chronicles, and just now finally bought "Don't Look Back" on DVD. Watching him type away (on new lyrics or a diary entry or a letter home) while Joan Baez pined for his attention is such an interesting scene. I wonder how many from the same era—Donovan, et al—thought he'd still be making sturdy albums at his age. Funny Berryman was referenced more than once. I always thought "Desolation Row" was something not too distant from Berryman's best.
posted by dhoyt at 11:10 PM on February 19, 2005

To live outside the law you must be honest.

If Dylan had written nothing else, he'd still be a genius.

This essay begins with, and quickly discards, any pretensions toward uncovering Dylan the man, in favor of analyzing Dylan the Method Songwriter. At least it knows its limitations.

The really interesting thing, though, is the bit about his losing for 25 years, by his own admission, his connection to his own process -- and then regaining it. I have a number of those interim volumes and they're decidedly problematic; being at odds against themselves is a good way to put it.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on February 19, 2005

Chronicles is amazingly good. Dylan is very honest in explaining how he writes and who inspired him. It seems obvious to me he headed to NYC to find Woody as well as to find all that he didn't know. The few rare record collections in MN exposed him to people like Woody and Ramblin Jack and he had to know more. He was a driven boy turning into an artist.

The middle section of Chronicles is as good an explanation as any on how the creative process works. The writing here could as well apply to Jackson Pollack, Rothko, possibly Picasso even. His descriptions of New Orleans are really lovely.

The one thing that really surprised me is how nice he writes about everyone he met. With one exception being Al Grossman.

As for Dylan's singing, it is like Pollack's or Twombly's painting. He explains a bit about how he picked up his style of singing, too.
posted by Walkingpercy at 11:50 PM on February 19, 2005

What's the best way to start appreciating Bob Dylan's music? I know nothing about him other than he's supposed to be a genius and he's the voice of his generation. I can't stand his singing voice.
posted by goofyfoot at 4:23 AM on February 20, 2005

goofyfoot, his singing voice is definitely an obstacle to a lot of people. It's sort of like Keith Jarrett's humming along with his playing; you have to get past it to appreciate the artistry. You're already about a mile ahead of BoringPostcards, who smugly assumes that anything he doesn't like/understand is ipso facto not worth a damn, and all those people who (pretend to) think otherwise are deluded fools; you realize you're missing out. All I can suggest is that you try to accustom yourself to his voice as you would to a strange-tasting food; I promise you that once you can get past the superficial reaction there's a lifetime's worth of poetry, music, and just plain soul there to revel in. Good luck.

And y2karl, great post -- thanks!
posted by languagehat at 5:18 AM on February 20, 2005

bp ... as a musician, dylan's limited ... i don't think much of his instrumental or compositional skills ... the only reason his vocals work at all is because they're expressive of his mental and emotional state

it's when we consider his lyrics that things get difficult ... he's written brilliant things ... and he's written lots of self-indulgent crap, sometimes within the same song ... in some ways, he happened to have the good luck to be the first person in the public eye to put sophisticated lyrics into rock and roll ... i feel that his "influence", like the beatles', was a case of something that would have happened anyway ... and there's quite a few songwriters who have better lyrical craft and more consistent writing ... but perhaps not the social impact

goofyfoot ... if highway 61, blonde on blonde or john welsey harding don't do something for you, then you may as well give up on dylan ... and you will have to get past his singing to get it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:31 AM on February 20, 2005

I'll check out Highway 61. I think Cassandra Wilson (my favorite living singer) might have sung a Dylan song, which gives me a sort of in to his work.

See, I can't appreciate his social impact (which may be what boring postcard is talking about) - I was born too late for him, and he's been shoved down the throat so much.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:11 AM on February 20, 2005

Spend a while listening to the people Dylan was listening to. I hated his singing too, and I thought his lyrics were nothing special. Then, I got into folk blues and old-time music and listened to that for a while, and when I went back to Dylan he made sense. (Or, well, more sense.)

Of course, it's possible you're gonna listen to Dock Boggs or Blind Lemon Jefferson and say "Jeezis, these guys sing even worse than Bob Dylan." Which, objectively, is true. You have to ease into the old stuff gently. I suggest starting out with Mississippi John Hurt or maybe Skip James and kind of working your way up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:42 AM on February 20, 2005

Goofyfoot, Cassandra Wilson sings 'Shelter From the Storm' on Belly of the Sun. It's not my favorite album of hers (I'm more partial to the free-jazzier M-Base stuff), but it's a great cover.

And another way to ease yourself into Bob Dylan's singing voice is to seek out albums like The Basement Tapes, where the people from The Band do much of the singing, and Nashville Skyline, where Dylan uses a softer version of his usual voice.
posted by box at 7:52 AM on February 20, 2005

I always thought "Desolation Row" was something not too distant from Berryman's best.

agreed. but for me it's Blood on the Tracks that makes me think of Berryman.

karl -- as always, thanks for the post.
posted by matteo at 9:13 AM on February 20, 2005

I second the suggestion of The Basement Tapes.
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on February 20, 2005

goofyfoot: I don't know if it's a great place to start or not, but I've always been fond of the John Wesley Harding album--it's pretty, traditional and haunting and I can't imagine it would be too alienating on first listen. Also he does a bit more singing—as opposed to speak-singing—and the results are nice. Your mileage might vary, of course.
posted by dhoyt at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2005

Oh, man, that song, I'm Not There (1956), is so good. Here are the lyrics as far as anyone can tell. I do improv poetry/singing and it's fairly typical in many ways of the genre (but much better than most of everyone can do). The weird misspoken lyrics:

It’s alone, it’s a crime
the way she moult me around
was she told for to hate me
by this dong fortaken clown

(there are many more examples)

The trawling of the memory for fragments to spin around (as mentioned in the fpp linked review). Those are hallmarks of improv poetry/singing.

I recommend that people try it, it's a load of fun.
posted by Kattullus at 10:02 AM on February 20, 2005

First you hurl the phrase hippie poetry and then you cite Arthur Lee and Forever Changes as beauty incarnate. Incense, velvet shirts and love beads to the tenth power of total incomprehensible paisley flapdoodle.

Ironically enough, Love's finest moment was their decidedly un-paisley garage cover of "My Little Red Book."

I'm a big Love fan, but you are correct that Dylan dwarfs Arthur Lee & the Boys.
posted by jonmc at 10:31 AM on February 20, 2005

Of course Dylan is mysterious. That is the way of all gods.

Another good album to try if you don't like nasal whine: the underrated "New Morning." And if you get a chance to see him in concert, jump at it.
posted by naomi at 10:35 AM on February 20, 2005

i'd never really thought of dylan and berryman as having things in common, but there's something to that idea ... thanks for saying it
posted by pyramid termite at 10:42 AM on February 20, 2005

goofyfoot: You will have to learn to love the voice, sooner or later, to really appreciate Dylan's genius. The tipping point for me was when I realized that Dylan's ragged, wheezy version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a thousand times more evocative than the Byrds' pretty-harmonies folk-rock spit-and-polish job could ever be. To start out, though, maybe acquaint yourself with a few of his more melodic numbers - "If Not For You," "Meet Me in the Morning," "Mississippi," "Tangled Up in Blue," the version of "It Ain't Me, Babe" on the Rolling Thunder Revue live disc - to get used to the voice.

And BoringPostcards, a misshapen, toothless troll of that sort ain't really worthy of much in the way of rebuttal, but if you think the following is hippie poetry, you know sweet fuck all about poetry (and hippies, for that matter):

Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

And if you think, after listening to Dylan's howling delivery of the final couplet in this stanza, that the man can't sing, in his way, then I just plain feel sorry for you.

And now I'm thinking of the night I sat up late into the night with a great friend of mine, stoned to the bejesus, trying in vain to decipher the symbolic universe of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," and it occurs to me to ask what's so bad about hippie poetry, anyway? (Bear in mind I was born in '73.)
posted by gompa at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2005

In "The Conversations" Walter Murch (sound/picture editor for Godfather and Apocalypse Now Redux) tells about cataloguing a radio station's classical music collection. Starting with the earliest music, after 3 weeks he is up to the 15th century. At that point he wanders into the studio and hears this terrible dissonant music. Holding his ears he asks What is this?

It was St. Matthew's Passion by J.S. Bach. His mind and ears had skipped 3 centuries forward and it was taking time to adjust.

Part of the reason Dylan IS a good singer is his habit of twisting around the sound of individual words and phrases.

As for Dylan live these days, I saw the Berkeley show last fall and his voice was not good. It could have been the acoustics in the arena. Or the fact that I had to stand in a line a mile long and missed the first 20 minutes.
posted by Walkingpercy at 11:22 AM on February 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

Another article worth revisiting is The Wanderer by Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, now available from his own The Rest Is Noise.

America is no country for old men. Pop culture is a pedophile's delight. What to do with a well-worn, middle-aged songwriter who gravitates toward the melancholy and the absurd? An artist, by contemporary definition, is one who displays himself in art, who shares felt emotion and lived experience, who meets and greets the audience. Art becomes Method acting; art, in various senses, becomes pathetic. With Dylan, the emotion has certainly been felt, at one time or another, but it wells up spontaneously in the songs themselves, in the tangle of words and music. Even at his most confessional, he withdraws his personality from the scene — usually by becoming beautifully vague — and lets the music rise. The highest emotion hits late, in the wordless windups of his greatest songs — from "Sad-Eyed Lady" to "Not Dark Yet" — when the band plays through the verse one more time and language sinks into silence.

I was at that same concert in Puyallup of which Ross writes. And in two weeks, thanks to a great kindness, I will see him for the fourth time--with Merle Haggard as an opening act. I am beside myself at that line up.
posted by y2karl at 11:41 AM on February 20, 2005

As for Dylan live these days, I saw the Berkeley show last fall and his voice was not good.

His voice is fairly ruined by years of smoking and carelessness, I think. One has to hear a song like Moonshiner from the Bootleg collection to appreciate how well he could sing in his prime.
posted by y2karl at 11:46 AM on February 20, 2005

"America is no country for old men. Pop culture is a pedophile's delight. What to do with a well-worn, middle-aged songwriter who gravitates toward the melancholy and the absurd?"

Sounds like he's talking about Mark Eitzel, too!

Thanks for post Karl! I swiped the "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" from an old roommate and have slowly begun to more appreciate the man's genius. I think Dylan deserves props simply for being around so long and giving the kids something to aim for!

(As an aside, I realized I'm becoming an old geezer when one of the kids on my office tried to tell me The White Stripes was better than X!! The nerve!)
posted by black8 at 12:02 PM on February 20, 2005

It is impossible for some people to recognize in Dylan what I see as greatness. I've come to accept that after trying to convert a lot of friends and only batting about .500. He may touch you and he may not. There is a Dylan appreciation gene and some folks, unfortunately, do not have it.

Here is my highly scientific method for detecting this gene:
Pick up the Bootleg Series (vol. 1-3). Realize that this is stuff that DIDN'T qualify as good enough to make the official releases (wow). By the time you listen to the entire thing (if you have the Dylan gene), you will be blown away (by everything, including his voice). If not, sorry -Bob's just not your uncle.
posted by MotorNeuron at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2005

a song called "I'm Not There" (1956)

Eh? and it "probably contains an echo of a Stevie Wonder song played on the radio that same summer"? I must have been more screwed up than I thought, back in the 50s.

I like both Love and Dylan, but I would not compare them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:27 PM on February 20, 2005

a song called "I'm Not There" (1956)

I never saw that (1956) appended to the title before this article--the version I first heard was on a vinyl bootleg I picked up in the early 70s and the title was simply I'm Not There sans (1956)--but the year in which the song itself was recorded was 1967.
posted by y2karl at 3:09 PM on February 20, 2005

Thanks for the thread and the multitiude of good links, y2karl - very timely, I just started Chronicles two days ago.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:02 PM on February 20, 2005

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