Bob Dylan 1941-
(born Robert Allen Zimmerman) American singer, songwriter, and musician.
The most influential singer-songwriter of his era, Bob Dylan demonstrated that rock and roll lyrics, once known for their lightheartedness, could be rich, serious, and meaningful. Combining forms borrowed from folk ballad verse, blues, country and western, and gospel music and techniques gained from French symbolists and beat poets, Dylan revitalized the popular song and inspired other musicians to follow his lead in self-expression. Songs such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” endeared him to antiwar demonstrators and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was commonly referred to as the spokesman for his generation, a title he disavowed. As Dylan restlessly ventured from folk music to electrically amplified rock music to country music to gospel to blues to bluegrass, his audiences followed. In the course of a career that began professionally in 1961, Dylan has written more than three hundred songs, released more than forty albums, and performed live in more than two thousand concerts. Among his most celebrated songs are “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Blues,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” Dylan has garnered widespread praise for the literary merit of his lyrical compositions; his merits as a poet have been repeatedly compared to the likes of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Dylan has received numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award, and was named by Life magazine as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the 20th century.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, into a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota. His father was co-owner of Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Co. In 1947, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan started writing poetry at age ten and taught himself the guitar at age fourteen. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Little Richard, Dylan formed several bands in high school, one called the Golden Chords, which played country music and rhythm and blues. Dylan won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in 1959, and was introduced to Bound for Glory, the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Dylan was greatly affected by the book and soon learned dozens of Guthrie's songs. He performed many of them at local coffeehouses, appearing for the first time under the adopted name Bob Dylan (legally changed in 1962.) His renditions of folk songs were charged with the influence of his rock and roll background. After some months in Madison, Wisconsin, and later in Chicago, Dylan borrowed a ride to New York at the end of 1960. He played folk music in clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and visited the ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital. As an opening act Dylan received an ecstatic review from The New York Times. The next day, at a studio session as a harmonica player, he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond. Although his debut album Bob Dylan (1962), sold a respectable 5000 copies, his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), gained him cult status because it included “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin' in the Wind.” Peter, Paul and Mary's cover of “Blowin' in the Wind” was phenomenally successful and popularized the socially aware folk song. Dylan became the favorite of the counterculture movement and gave them eloquent voice and an anthem with the title song of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964). Dylan was quickly overwhelmed by his political status and turned inward with Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). In one of its songs, “My Back Pages,” Dylan signals a break from his past: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now.” Dylan further broke from folk purists and political activists when he performed a loud, electrically amplified set of new compositions at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Although he lost some of his fans in the transition, he gained many more and in the same year had a hit single with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him a pop superstar. Exhausted from international concert tours and the pressures of stardom, Dylan used a motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to step back from his career. Although he continued to write and record new material, he would perform in public only a few times until 1974, when he held a record-shattering comeback tour. At the end of the year he recorded what is considered one of his finest albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), followed by the chart-topping Desire (1976). Dylan's conversion to Christianity brought more controversy in 1979. Many fans were outraged that Dylan refused to perform any of his classic songs written before his religious conversion and became even more offended by his on-stage proselytizing, but he had another hit single with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won him a Grammy Award in 1980. Dylan began performing his earlier classics again by the end of the year. In 1982 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Also in the early 1980s, Dylan converted from Christianity to Hasidic Judaism. In 1988 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, with fellow music stars George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, formed a group called the Traveling Wilburys; their debut album delighted both critics and the public. Dylan accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1993 he sang “Chimes of Freedom” as part of President Clinton's inaugural celebration. In 1997 he performed for Pope John Paul II in Italy. Time Out of Mind (1997) received rave reviews and earned him three Grammy awards for Album of the Year, Male Rock Performance, and Contemporary Folk Album. Later that year Dylan was presented by the President with the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 Dylan received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys. His latest album, “Love and Theft” (2001) received a rare five-star, immediate classic, rating from Rolling Stone magazine.
Bob Dylan includes only two Dylan originals, one of which, “Song to Woody,” demonstrates the influence of his one-time idol. His second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan contains only two songs which are not Dylan originals, and includes such protest songs as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” which capture the mood and spirit of the counterculture of the early 1960s, as well as “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,” which remains one of his most popular songs of lost love. His third album, The Times They Are A-Changin', also contains many classic folk-protest and socially-conscious songs hailed as masterpieces, including “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The liner notes showcase his first widely circulated poetry, “11 Outlined Epitaphs.” The title of his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, indicates his shift from political to more personal lyrics. This turning inward produced songs that demonstrate the influence of beat poetry and psychedelic drugs. “Chimes of Freedom” expresses his spiritual side, which eventually earned him the label of visionary. The first half of his next album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), surprised everyone with its electric guitars. Again the songs express social and political alienation rather than activism. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” voices distrust of authority and sees convention as stifling and oppressive to the individual. “Maggie's Farm” expresses the impulse to “drop out” of the workaday world with the assertion, “I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more.” “It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding),” which was included on the soundtrack to the quintessential counterculture film Easy Rider (1969), further expresses the cruelty of mainstream society. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” one of his most enduring songs, expresses the sense of freedom and joy which comes from renouncing social mores in favor of creativity and artistic release. In the liner notes Dylan offers an explanation of himself and his work: “my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion / divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness-seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself / i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person... some people say that i am a poet.”
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) solidified his transition from political folksinger to alienated rock musician, still critical of society but without any specific political agenda. The double album Blonde on Blonde (1966), often considered his finest work, contains mostly songs of love or of the bitterness of failed relationships, including the hit “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.” The Biblically-inspired John Wesley Harding (1968), Dylan's first album of new songs to be released after his motorcycle accident, returns to acoustic material. Quiet and thoughtful, the album is widely considered a response to the excesses of rock music as typified by the Beatles with their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band release. Dylan's next two albums were heavily influenced by country music: Nashville Skyline (1969), which includes a duet with Johnny Cash, and Self Portrait (1970), a double album, largely consisting of covers, which was panned by critics. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) started a trend in the music industry with its inclusion of several previously unreleased songs. Dylan wrote the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and accepted a bit role in the movie. Also in that year Dylan released Writings and Drawings; he had never included the lyrics to his songs in his albums and thus this large hardback book containing all of his published songs and many unpublished ones was met with great acclaim and became a bestseller. (It was updated in 1985 with the publication of Lyrics, 1962-1985.) Planet Waves (1974) was released in conjunction with Dylan's highly anticipated return to touring across America, a tour represented by the double album Before the Flood (1974). Blood on the Tracks is widely considered his best or second best album. Its impact on listeners was indicated by Rolling Stone's devotion of their entire record review section to this one album, with numerous essayists expressing their individual assessments. The same magazine awarded it album of the year, tied with another album of the year, also by Dylan, The Basement Tapes. Although The Basement Tapes was not released until 1975, it dates from 1967 when he was recuperating. Desire includes, as Allen Ginsberg states in the liner notes, “songs of redemption,” and remains Dylan's biggest seller upon initial release, at some two million copies. Street Legal (1978) was released during his return to world touring and featured a saxophone player and three female backing vocalists. The three albums of Dylan's Christian phase include Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Infidels (1983) continues with expressions of faith in God, although more subtly and with the influence of Hasidic Judaism, then favored by Dylan.
Biograph is a five-LP or 3-CD box set containing not only dozens of his greatest hits but a dozen and a half previously uncirculated works from recording studios and concert halls. It spawned dozens of similar sets by other artists. After the seemingly career-capping release of Biograph, Dylan faltered with Knocked Out Loaded (1986), generally considered one of his weakest efforts and Down in the Groove (1988). Although The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One (1988) and Oh Mercy (1989) were viewed as returns to fine form, the release of Under the Red Sky (1990) and the follow-up Wilburys album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990) showed a drifting and disengaged Dylan. The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991) was comprised of 3 CDs of previously unheard songs and performances, but with its necessary emphasis on the past, some critics were eager to interpret it as evidence of Dylan being a has-been. The following years gave more fodder to Dylan's detractors. Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were solo acoustic albums of mostly traditional songs, with no Dylan originals, and neither Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) or MTV Unplugged (1995), gathered from two live performances, could take the place of new, original material. Not until 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind, were fans treated to an album of all new songs. 1998 saw the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966, a 2-CD recording of a legendary performance in England, often considered the finest rock concert ever given by any artist. “Love and Theft” continued to build Dylan's reputation as a vital, creative force in popular music.
As early as 1965 media critics were acknowledging Dylan's status not only as a popular music star but as a poet of substantial literary merit. Dylan has generally treated his critics with derision, stating that they do not understand what he is trying to express. Dylan has always confounded reviewers by refusing to explain the meaning of his songs, however, insisting that they stand for themselves. Because many of his songs hold up well as poetry, separated from their music, they are natural choices for study by critics specializing in contemporary language arts, who compare them to the works of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself proclaimed Dylan to be among the greatest poets of the century. Dylan usually avoids discussion of his works as poems or talk of himself as anything but a performing songwriter: “Poets drown in lakes,” he told Paul Zollo in a 1991 interview. Zollo explains that Dylan “broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.” Such well-crafted songs include “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” which are examined for their visionary symbolism and imagery. “Like a Rolling Stone” is praised for its lyrical qualities and the emotional force of the repeated refrain, “How does it feel?” and its powerful expression of alienation. “Desolation Row” which portrays a dark, apocalyptic vision of the fate of human society, is another favorite of critics. Dylan's work fell below his own classic standard during parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Not until Time Out of Mind did critics once again overwhelmingly praise Dylan's lyrics as startlingly fresh compositions, equal to his most critically acclaimed songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Music writer Bill Flanagan was present at a party held in 1985 to honor Dylan's accomplishments. When television reporters asked him to explain Dylan's significance, he explained that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock and roll and thus showed everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas. Flanagan relates a conversation he had with musician Pete Townshend, who also attended the party. “He joked about the futility of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan's significance. ‘They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me,’ he said. ‘That's like asking how I was influenced by being born.’” Dylan's popular base continues to increase as he performs worldwide in live concerts more than one hundred times per year.
Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1962
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1963
The Times They Are A-Changin' (musical recording) 1964
Another Side of Bob Dylan (musical recording) 1964
Bringing It All Back Home (musical recording) 1965
Highway 61 Revisited (musical recording) 1965
Blonde on Blonde (musical recording) 1966
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (musical recording) 1967
John Wesley Harding (musical recording) 1968
Nashville Skyline (musical recording) 1969
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SOURCE: Monaghan, David. “Taking Bob Dylan Seriously: The Wasteland Tradition.” English Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Summer 1973): 165-70.
[In the following essay, Monaghan asserts that the songs of Bob Dylan, while remaining at the center of popular culture, also belong within the tradition of twentieth-century literature. Monaghan analyses Dylan's song “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues,” noting that it bears the influence of T. S. Eliot’s poems.]
“JUST LIKE TOM THUMB'S BLUES”
When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, And it's Easter time too, And your gravity fails And negativity won't pull you through, Don't put on any airs when you're...
(The entire section is 2188 words.)
SOURCE: Johnson, Thomas S. “Desolation Row Revisited: Bob Dylan's Rock Poetry.” Southwest Review 62, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 135-47.
[In the following essay, Johnson analyzes several of Dylan's mid-career songs in an attempt to understand his motivations for moving away from the folk-protest idiom and into rock music.]
What was Bob Dylan doing when he moved into rock music in mid-career? His first albums were in a folk-protest idiom. His later albums tended to return to a folk-country idiom close to his first albums. But the latter were markedly different because of three central albums that intervened: Bringing It All Back Home; Highway 61 Revisited;...
(The entire section is 5580 words.)
SOURCE: Wells, John. “Bent Out of Shape from Society's Pliers: A Sociological Study of the Grotesque in the Songs of Bob Dylan.” Popular Music in Society 6, no. 1 (1978): 39-44.
[In the following essay, Wells examines Dylan's song lyrics from a sociological perspective, viewing the recurring imagery of the grotesque in many of Dylan's songs as expressive of the individual alienated from society.]
I accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me.
Although Bob Dylan is widely known for his musical and lyrical contributions to the rock culture, few attempts have been made to examine...
(The entire section is 2994 words.)
SOURCE: Sumner, Carolyn. “The Ballad of Dylan and Bob.” Southwest Review 66, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 41-54.
[In the following essay, Sumner discusses the recurring imagery and themes found in Bob Dylan’s songs as they relate to his own personal experiences.]
A striking feature of Bob Dylan's art, and one which suggests the possibility of analysis, is the continuity over the years of certain imagery in his lyrics. His songs grow out of a few consistently held concerns which have gathered about them clusters of repeated images. These images, and the themes that grow from them, emerge primarily from the material of his own life, most dramatically from his...
(The entire section is 6126 words.)
SOURCE: Scobie, Stephen. “The Text of Bob Dylan.” In Alias Bob Dylan, pp. 29-46. Red Deer College Press, Alberta, Canada: Red Deer College Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpted chapter, Scobie discusses the ways in which the meaning of Bob Dylan's songs can change, depending on the style and context in which they are presented.]
THE TEXT OF BOB DYLAN
In April, 1987, Bob Dylan joined the Irish group U2 on stage in one of their concerts and sang ‘Knockin' on Heaven's Door’ with them. In the middle of the song, U2's lead singer, Bono, starts improvising a new verse: ‘Well, the time has come / For this wounded world to start changing....
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SOURCE: Klier, Ron. “Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and the Anxiety of Influence.” The Midwest Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 334-50.
[In the following essay, Klier describes Bob Dylan as the most recent in a line of popular American poets, from Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie, who are “singers of democracy.”]
Hank Lazer has written that “because of the range, ambition, freedom, and magnitude of Walt Whitman's work, as well as the attractive model of Whitman's persistence as a poet, it is to be expected that nearly every contemporary poet of some stature will, at one time or another, bow respectfully to Walt Whitman's direction” (1). In “Walt...
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Santoro, Gene. “Blowin' in His Own Wind.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 18-22.
A review of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, a biography by Howard Sounes.
Turner, Steve. “Watered-down Love.” Christianity Today 45, no. 7 (21 May 2001): 89-90.
A review of the book Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, by Howard Sounes, from a Christian perspective.
Bloom, Fred. “Seeing Dylan Seeing.” Yale Review 71, no. 2 (Winter 1982): 304-20.
A personal account of the significance of Dylan's music...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman)
Dylan, Bob (Pseudonym of Robert Zimmerman) 1941–
Dylan, an American singer, songwriter, and poet, is considered the founder of the folk-rock revolution in popular music. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
We don't have many wise men left, you know. We have seen our incredible confidence and our surfeit of intelligence lead us only to loneliness and rationalization. We are able to be so much, yet we are so little able to understand what it is we are supposed to be. We are learning to run faster and faster. Into the abyss. And we are leaving behind the few who might give us a hint of what to do when we get there.
Like the rest of us, Bob Dylan faces a universe that science discovers to be more and more a deterministic unity no part of which has meaning without reference to every other part. To the dispossessed this universe seems to be inhabited not by free agents in a world of free will, but by the living, irrelevant effects of an infinite number of causes. To a man who yearns for meaning, the thought that life is merely playing out directions imprinted before birth, or given in childhood, or decreed by an alien society, is intolerable unless it is a part of a master plan. The songs of Bob Dylan, a few of them, speak of such a master plan.
Bob Dylan is a mystic. His importance lies not in the perversion of his words into a politicism he ridicules as irrelevant or in the symbols that once filled the lesser social protest songs of his late adolescence. His only relevance is that, in a world which has lost faith that it is infused with godliness, he sings of a transcendent reality that makes it all make sense again.
The mystical experience is, by its very nature, indescribable. Dylan's genius is that he is able to give us some clues. (p. 43)
[The] mystical truth that "life is pain" is not in the slightest nihilistic, but an acknowledgment that all the separate joys that this world has to offer contain the basic pain of our seeming separation from the One. Only the mystical experience, an experience which I believe pervades all that Dylan has written in the past six years, can overcome that basic pain. Only in the life that is illuminated by the afterglow of this experience is there the possibility of salvation.
Salvation means many things in Dylan's songs. On one level it is the conquest of guilt, ambition, impatience, and all the other obsessive states of egotistic confusion in which we set ourselves apart from the natural flow of things. On another it is the supremely free flight of the will. On still another it is faith, an acceptance of a transcendent, omnipresent godhead without which we are lost.
This is why Dylan merits our most serious attention. For he stands at the vortex: When the philosophical, psychological, and scientific lines of thought are followed to the point where each becomes a cul-de-sac, as logic without faith eventually must, Dylan is there to sing his songs. (pp. 43-4)
It was not until 1964, when he wrote "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "My Back Pages," that Dylan gave indication that he was about ready to discard the security which one can find in symbols….
It was at this point that Dylan was preparing to become an artist in the Zen sense; he was searching for the courage to release his grasp on all the layers of distinctions that give us meaning, but, by virtue of their inevitably setting us apart from the lifeflow, preclude our salvation. All such distinctions, from petty jealousies and arbitrary cultural values to the massive, but ultimately irrelevant, confusions engendered by psychological problems, all the endless repetitions that those without faith grasp in order to avoid their own existence—all of these had to be released. The strength, the faith, necessary for this release was to be a major theme of Dylan's for the next three years. In "Mr. Tambourine Man," an invocation to his muse, he seeks the last bit of will necessary for such strength.
In "Gates of Eden" Dylan is well into his own parade. He has found his mystical fixed point and is attempting to illuminate it. As is the case with the other songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan's vision has developed at a far more rapid rate than has his talent. As a result, his cosmology is stated more concretely (if not as poetically) than in his later songs. In "Gates of Eden" Dylan's kinship to Blake becomes apparent. Like Blake, Dylan relegates experience to eternal subordination to innocence….
Dylan's conception of a transcendence that flows through man is similar to Blake's, and the compassion it generates is later to suffuse Dylan's work with a humanity it lacks at this point. For now Dylan is struggling to express his newly discovered Oceanus….
Those who are particularly concerned with a separation of form and content are most likely to look unfavorably upon Dylan's poetry. It is difficult to imagine, however, any poet more capable of speaking to his given time than is Dylan, or a time more in need of someone capable of speaking to it.
With respect to form, Dylan faces the same problems that face all artists. His creations must give form and order to apparent chaos. In an attempt to catch the tune of a universal melody, mere awareness of the melody is not enough. (p. 44)
Dylan does not teach, neither does he proselytize. At most he merely affirms the existence of The Way. His effect is limited, of course, by the inherent inadequacy of words that inevitably prohibits communication of the mystical experience. It is further limited by the fact that, while we are all capable of salvation, it is a relatively rare man who is an embodiment of the particular complex of psyche, intelligence, sensitivity, courage, and coincidence from which the mystical experience and salvation can erupt. Dylan can effect only the last; "take what you have gathered from coincidence," he tells Baby Blue. At most all that any artist or prophet can hope for is to ignite our faith. Dylan, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, is capable of the words that can ignite this faith. If language's impotence is in its inability to convey the melody of the universe, its strength is its power to reproduce the harmonics at least of that infinitely beautiful melody. (pp. 44-5)
While Dylan was not to achieve the complete suffusion of vision with compassion until John Wesley Harding, in Highway 61 Revisited he did begin to feel that the eternally incommunicable nature of the religious experience did not render human contact irrelevant. If his attentions were not loving, at least he was attempting to reconcile man's existence with his vision…. "Like a Rolling Stone," which is probably Dylan's finest song and most certainly his quintessential work, is addressed to a victim who has spent a lifetime being successfully seduced by the temptations that enable one to avoid facing his own existence. (p. 45)
There are no "messages" in Dylan's songs, neither is there ideology. The flight of a supreme imagination, the ability to tap into the highest levels of truth, preclude the artist's accepting the simplistic artificiality that is necessary for ideology's goal of widespread acceptance. If an artist is capable of no greater vision than the rest of us, then of what value is he? By imprisoning Dylan's songs in a context of political ideology we play the barbarian as surely as if we were to hammer Rodin's Thinker into a huge metal peace symbol. Dylan may well be upset by contemporary America; on one level "Tears of Rage" would seem to indicate this. Much of Dylan's anger, however, is directed not at any political entity (politics must forever play a secondary role in his universe) but at the young themselves—many of whom have used his words to avoid fighting the battles of their own existences. It is ironic, but not surprising, that Weatherman, a group of individuals who channel their own confusions into violence, take their name from the song of a man who ridicules all forms of escape through symbol and evasion.
In itself, Dylan's political philosophy is irrelevant; he sees both philosophy and politics as evasive concern with the repetition of cause and effect that can never lead one to the Light which shines within him. Indeed, Dylan ridicules all codes and moralities that claim holy sanction. His vision concerns the God within and without. Society is left to shift for itself.
It is quite conceivable, therefore, that, when he bothers with politics at all, Dylan's political outlook is conservative. His emphasis on personal, as opposed to societal, salvation could very possibly leave him feeling most at home with a political philosophy that emphasizes the individual's right to be left alone to his own search for God. (pp. 45-6)
I must admit to skepticism concerning how many of Dylan's youthful followers have even the vaguest conception of what he is singing about. Many look no deeper than the level of his very fine rock music, while others are merely in the market for political slogans…. No doubt many of them are at least aware that Dylan is sending out clues. Dylan's art is capable of igniting their faith. In any age that is a considerable artistic achievement; in the lonely world of the contemporary young it would seem almost a miracle….
As the final step in Dylan's search for God,… [Nashville Skyline] is a lovely paean, Dylan's acknowledgment of the joy of a life suffused with compassion and God…. He has heard the universal melody through the galaxies of chaos and has found that the galaxies were a part of the melody. The essence that Dylan had discovered and explored is a part of him at last. There will be no more bitterness, no more intellectualization, no more explanation. There will be only Dylan's existence and the joyous songs which flow naturally from it. (p. 57)
Steven Goldberg, "Bob Dylan and the Poetry of Salvation," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 30, 1970, pp. 43-6, 57.
Dylan's view of the world, and his expression of that view, are powerfully coherent and richly complex. At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that the issue central to Dylan's work is that of trust in the universe, generally expressed through the metaphor of love. Will those Chimes of Freedom chime? Will God, humankind, or your lover desert you? Once deserted, how do you deal with the then apparently hostile universe? How does one love (as one must) in an apparently loveless cosmos? These are the questions that Dylan deals with, and his changing attitudes and answers, moving from the backed-off irony of Desolation Row to the personal commitment of "If Not for You," serve to trace his personal and artistic development.
Steven Goldberg [above] describes Dylan as a mystic poet, and while I am not altogether happy with that description,… the term "mystic" is certainly applicable, at least to the extent that it describes the poet's ability to hold contradictions calmly in the palm of his hand, to discover unity in chaos. The surrealistic lines that we tend to remember ("She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all") strike us at once as being logically absurd, and philosophically correct. Dylan's poetry is often a poetry of negative statement, and his language is frequently the language of silence. Indeed, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" provides a dialectic of silence ("My love she speaks like silence"), pitting the talkers against the whisperers and winkers. The lines quoted above (success/failure) present opposite conceptions of reality, opposed approaches to the possibilities for action in the world. To fail in mundane dime-store/bus-station terms is to succeed in fire and ice terms; yet the world is one of ideals, violence, quotations, promises, and dime-stores; fire melts ice; ice extinguishes fire; and failure remains failure, no matter how faithful or true one might be. (p. 55)
Opposed to [a] vision of universal violence is a vision of universal love. The reference to the nativity ("all the gifts that wise men bring") recalls the limitless love of the song's title, love minus zero, love lacking nothing, love complete. The relationship between the singer and the loved one is implicit throughout the song, and we have no doubt that the wounded bird will be cared for, and that at least some human beings are capable of the kind of selfless love symbolized by Christ.
The dialectic of silence involves a double vision of life in the world, and yet there is a third viewpoint, a third voice present. One can be trapped in meaningless and self indulgent social chatter, like the banker's nieces, or one can remain silent, like the lover, or one can sing about silence, like the poet (by which I mean the poet as character in the poem, not necessarily Dylan himself). Thesis (sound) and antithesis (silence) give way to synthesis (song). There is music to be made out of discord (this song ["Love Minus Zero/No Limit"] is melodically one of Dylan's finest, powerfully and insistently self assured), and apparent chaos gives way to concrete form. Thus what appears at first as a paradox becomes a hymn to the orthodox. But, like Bergman, Dylan does not allow orthodox ideas to become bad art. The song may imply Christian love as an answer, but there are no illusions left us. The threat made by a success and money oriented society is fully envisioned, fully experienced, and thus positive value is tempered and made valid by the presentation of negative reality, which is what I meant when I said that Dylan is a poet of negative statement. (pp. 55-6)
[Goldberg leaves] unclear his definition of Dylan as a mystic in the Zen tradition. There are certainly striking similarities between Buddhist thought and Dylan's songs, but Buddhists generally know they are Buddhists, and I doubt Dylan would acknowledge or accept any such specifically ideological or religious labels. (p. 57)
Leland A. Poague, "Dylan as 'Auteur': Theoretical Notes, and an Analysis of 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit'," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1974 by Ray B. Browne), Summer, 1974, pp. 54-8.
We were so much older then, when Bob Dylan first impinged upon our consciousness. Our view of the world was the view held by those before us.
But Dylan changed all that with his songs, with his poetic images. "Chains of flashing images" he called them. He made us dream everything, as Sainte-Beuve said poetry must do.
So one after another they came, those songs by the Minnesota minstrel, and they changed our lives, even in ways we have yet to understand….
As I have said before, I think it literally true that no one who absorbed that first body of work—jigging veins of rhythmic mother wits, as Marlowe once described poetry—was ever again to view the state of the union and its history in the old, classroom civics course terms. Dylan changed that.
But there came an end, not only to the overt message, but in a deeper sense to the dramatic contrast that message could make. In one way, Dylan was a victim of relativity. He had trained an audience to wait for cataclysmic revelations and then he gave them simple beauty instead. They were not ready.
Dylan's situation now is that great numbers of his former audience have abandoned him, convinced he is a sell-out to commercial interests, his creative flame gone and able only to echo his old achievements.
There are some among us, though, who continue to find his work of deep, even expanding impact, a living thing that defies description but still contains "those brave translunary things" once said of Marlowe's poetry. It is increasingly interesting how, for every echelon of audience which leaves him, Dylan seems to attract a new one, and—this is no accident—it is an audience more interested in poetry than in politics, for all the two may ultimately meet.
Ralph J. Gleason, "The Blood of a Poet," in Rolling Stone (© 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1975, p. 22.
After years of cold war and cold poetry, Bob Dylan, in the appropriately titled Bringing It All Back Home, decided to earth the lightning in himself. Following the homeopathic poetic principles of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he absorbed and refined the poisons of subterranean homesick life, inoculating himself with the disease in order to protect himself from it….
Like few other persons of the mid-Sixties, however, Dylan was right in time with the times. People used his poisons as a tonic and elixir, finding safety in his sickness. The fact that some even took enough courage from his songs to explore new ways of dealing with the world led them to picture Dylan as a bellwether for the Sixties counterculture.
But Dylan, unlike Rimbaud, did not want to transform the human condition—"giving blind advice to unknown eyes," as he once wrote in 11 Outlined Epitaphs. Having become his own sacrifice, he was both "exposed" and a subject of countless exposés. And in response to one too many slanted questions and reporters' whims—as Dylan himself complained in Epitaphs—he made his famous pronouncement: "My songs don't mean nothin'." (They had, of course, come to mean "everything" to his admirers.) And it was just at the moment of his greatest cultural (if not commercial) influence that Bob Dylan rejected the poison, sheared himself of his Blonde on Blonde personality, and—choosing neither to build bombs (like the Weathermen) nor to run guns (like Rimbaud in Africa)—withdrew in the style of the landed gentry to Woodstock, New York.
Dylan had learned that in order to bear the word, one must be totally bare: "A poem is a naked person," he had written on the liner notes for Bringing It All Back Home. And it is interesting—especially for someone whose songs meant nothing—that during this period of retreat or reintegration (depending on your perspective), Dylan, in my opinion, must have been meditating on the images and themes of Shakespeare's King Lear, the play in which "something" comes exactly from "nothing": on the naked king and his wheel of fire, who banished the true and preferred the false; on blind Gloucester, who ended his life between joy and grief; and on the loving Cordelia, a soul in bliss, whose word of rejection—"Nothing"—ultimately reveals the world of truth….
For those who had valued Dylan for his attentiveness, for the exacting ways in which he described and charted the feelings, as Kafka put it, of being "seasick on dry land," his change of heart, as represented by Self Portrait, signaled Dylan's contraction and withdrawal from the world and from himself—much as Jewish mystics had pictured God withdrawing from his creation, leaving both himself and man in exile. This cosmic drama took a turn for the comic when someone like A. J. Weberman began to rifle the husks of Dylan's garbage, thinking he could redeem Dylan from his exile. (p. 43)
Dylan has always understood the contradictory nature of the truth and his best songs resulted in part from the acceptance of this awareness, his worst from his denial of it. Those songs mostly took the form of pictures of a world of family and country solitude that he called peace. There is, of course, a great pastoral poetic tradition that succeeds in conveying exactly this kind of repose, but Dylan's extraordinary gifts as a romantic and visionary poet often went against the grain of this gentler mode. (p. 45)
Rarely has Dylan's presence seemed so full and moving as on Blood on the Tracks…. Dylan's candent and wonderfully phrased harmonica, mandolin and guitar work and … his beautifully articulated and glowing lyrics [are] strengths … much like those of the 13th century poem whose book of verse he reads in "Tangled Up in Blue"….
Could it have been the verse of Guido Cavalcanti the singer was reading, the verse in which images become particles passing through the chambers of the mind; or the poetry of Dante, written when he was in exile both from his home and from his rejecting lady—knowing that sublunary love itself is a form of exile—and inescapable…? (p. 47)
Jonathan Cott, "Back Inside the Rain," in Rolling Stone (© 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1975, pp. 43-7.
The story of Dylan's art and poetry in the 1960's is the story of a personal quest and dialogue in which Dylan led an entire generation of American and Western European youth toward the realization of a pastoral vision of life—a vision in which man would live in harmony with himself, with his fellows and with his natural environment. But Dylan's quest was most essentially a search for personal identity carried out as an ever-expanding dialogue between the many facets of his own personality; between Dylan and his various audiences; between Dylan and American myth; and, on the highest level, between Dylan and those poets and visionaries who have recognized man's universal and tragic fate. (p. 696)
The fascinating thing about reviewing Dylan's career is that we have in his music and poetry a virtual moment by moment account not only of his own quest, but also of the quest of an entire generation of American and Western European youth toward a renewed vision of authenticity and human dignity. Music and poetry have often played an important, if not essential, role in a people's self-definition, especially when they are setting out on new historical or revolutionary roles. Thus primitive Christians created their own music, Luther wrote hymns for the Protestant Reformation, and the Puritan Revolution was fueled by the poetry and music of its visionaries. The youth of the 1960's, no less than primitive Christians, Lutheran reformers or Puritan revolutionaries, was on a quest for redemption and salvation—a quest individual, collective and communal that was heralded and reflected in the changing musical modes of that decade. (p. 697)
Dylan and other artists of the counter-culture have drawn upon non-middle class, non-Anglo or non-liberal sources for their visions of renewed possibility. Dylan like his forebears the Negro Bluesmen and the country-western singers, accepts the ultimate mystery and tragedy of life. Like Huck Finn and Ishmael, he accepts daemons and death as integral aspects of life. And like Hawthorne, and Melville, and Faulkner, Dylan and other artists of the counter-culture are telling us that if there is no historical progress, if man cannot achieve salvation through the ever-escalating domination of self, fellows and nature, then the important thing, the essential thing, the only truly human and noble course is to attempt to live a flawed life in communion and harmony with one's fellows and one's natural environment. (p. 703)
From the benign co-opting of hippie fashions to the malignant exploitation of hard drugs; from the fact that the music and the musicians had to be packaged, produced and marketed, to the knowledge that the flower children participated as narcissistically in self-destruction as their elders (though their style was different), one recognizes that the "counter-culture" exemplified all the con, hype, aggression and hostility of the dominant liberal technocratic society. (p. 704)
Dylan certainly was the vanguard of the counter-culture. But if the counter-culture is only a sub-cultural variant of the dominant society, then Dylan becomes some thing other than a revolutionary prophet or transcendent visionary. He becomes one of the leading or cutting edges of the dominant society.
It is difficult and perhaps unjust, to draw a line between Bob Dylan and Archie Bunker, but when one assesses Dylan's material since John Wesley Harding—the aggressive maintenance of the status quo, the concern for the personal, the celebration of things past—one is left with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It is even possible to acknowledge now that "Watching The River Flow" no longer brings to mind images of Siddhartha, but is more akin to Louie Armstrong's "Gone Fishin'."
Certainly there is a consistent and important strain of mysticism in Dylan's music that becomes more pronounced with John Wesley Harding ["an apocalyptic album in which Dylan realizes his pastoral vision," according to Campbell] and completely dominates New Morning. Perhaps this mysticism is essentially Jewish and possibly even Hasidic as some have attempted to document. But one does not have to be Hasidic or even Jewish to employ Biblical metaphors and syntax—witness, William Faulkner, Herman Melville or William Blake. When we assess Dylan's mysticism since 1968, however, we are left neither with a sense of Blakeian transcendence nor Job-like wisdom, but rather with a stoical acceptance if not affirmation of the status quo that has always been indigenous to both the blues and the country-western traditions. Dylan was a cowboy before he recognized his Jewishness, and perhaps like Elliot "Ramblin' Jack" Adnopoz, he will remain more a cowboy than a Jew. (pp. 704-05)
Dylan's genius is now quiescent. The pastoral vision is now swamped in a malaise of complacency. But perhaps this is only to acknowledge as William Irwin Thompson has postulated, that historical development is more like a switchback than an escalator. Perhaps this is only an incubation period; a time when we are generating and nurturing those values that will allow us to meet the challenge of the twenty-first century.
In all this conjecture, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. By challenging the dominant American style of power, arrogance and hubris in the 1950's and 1960's, Bob Dylan and the flower children called America back to that which was most worthy and essential in its tradition and left an artistic statement and an ethical legacy worthy of Melville, Twain or Faulkner. We can ask no more of any individual nor of any generation. (pp. 705-06)
Gregg M. Campbell, "Bob Dylan and the Pastoral Apocalypse," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1975 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1975, pp. 696-707.
Dylan…, more than anyone else, saw how to go beyond copying the pop staples of blues, ballads and country in order to create a newly distinctive idiom.
Dylan's role in the '60s was to expand the limits of popular song. He stood beyond the pale and called us to an outlaw reality. But now he's returned to deepen rock's cultural center. Quarreling with society in personal terms, he simultaneously sings of self and society in a way that profoundly enriches all our anguish about being separate from—yet within—our inevitable institutions. His new songs are about continued anger and acceptance, about continued hatred and love, and about "the howling beast on the borderline that separates" his lover from himself, his audience from his voice, his country from his ideas [or vice versa], and audiences everywhere from performers everywhere. When he kisses that howling beast goodbye, as he says he finally has, the gain is not a solipsistic turn to himself and his lady alone. Rather he turns to a mature knotting with his audience and the sensibility he helped create: a stand-off embrace. (pp. 23-4)
W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "A Cut Above," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 5, 1975, pp. 23-4.
Dylan, Bob (Vol. 12)
Bob Dylan 1941–
(Born Robert Zimmerman) Songwriter, singer, poet, musician, novelist, and screenwriter. Dylan was the voice of the sixties, writing songs which defied middle-class mores and expressed feelings of isolation, anxiety, and the quest for self-identity. Starting as a composer of ballads and protest songs of an unmistakable literary bent, his works eventually transformed the genre of popular music with their combination of the lyrical, the obscure, and the daring. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota and grew up in Hibbing, a tiny iron-ore mining town. Dissatisfied with what he considered a staid, middle-class life, he ran away from home repeatedly. While wandering and working a variety of jobs he also cultivated an interest in music, teaching himself to play piano, guitar, harmonica, and autoharp. By the time he was twenty, he was living in New York City, singing in coffeehouses, and recording with Columbia. His first album, Bob Dylan, included little of his own material and was not immediately popular. There were two deciding factors which catapulted him to success: a favorable review of his performance by Robert Shelton for the New York Times and the release of "Blowin' in the Wind" performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Critics have cited scores of songwriters and musicians as being influential in Dylan's stylistic evolution. His music is said to contain elements reminiscent of Chuck Berry, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, and others. But Dylan's work is very much his own. Rooted in the tradition of folk music with its local color and diction, his songs are also characteristically modern. In fact, this hybrid effect has been called "folk-rock" and Dylan is considered by many the creator and high priest of this genre. Idolized as much more than a musician/composer, Dylan rose to his greatest popularity during the sixties as a result of highly imaginative, symbolic lyrics on timely subjects and emotions. Equally important as his lyrics, his singing voice—raspy with the intonations of the southern folk singers he emulated—made Dylan's appeal incredibly widespread. Some of his recent projects have not achieved universal popularity. The film Renaldo and Clara and several of his recent albums have been criticized for their lack of clarity and cohesion. However, the power, variety, influence, and literary quality of Dylan's works have assured his position as one of his generation's most gifted contemporary musicians. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)
A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde's Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months…. Mr. Dylan is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor on the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues: "Talking Bear Mountain" lampoons the overcrowding of an excursion boat, "Talking New York" satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and "Talking Havah Nagilah" burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself. (p. 17)
Mr. Dylan's highly personalized approach toward folk song is still evolving. He has been sopping up influences like a sponge. At times, the drama he aims at is off-target melodrama and his stylization threatens to topple over as a mannered excess.
But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up. (p. 18)
Robert Shelton, "Boy Dylan: A Distinctive Folk-Song Stylist," in The New York Times (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1961 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor, William Morrow and Company, 1972, pp. 17-18).
[Dylan's] vocal style is rough and unpolished, reflecting a conscious effort to recapture the earthy realism of the rural country blues. It is a distinctive, highly personalized style combining many musical influences and innovations….
Bob Dylan, while capturing some really superb performances, does not show the breadth of his talent. It contains only one humorous selection—a talking blues about some of his own composition, "Song to Woody." With this relatively minor reservation, the record can be wholeheartedly endorsed as an excellent first album…. (p. 24)
While Bob is a noteworthy folk performer with a bright future, I believe his most significant and lasting contribution will be in the songs he writes…. Dylan avoids the terms "write" or "compose" in connection with his songs. "The songs are there. They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn't do it, somebody else would." His method of writing places the emphasis on the words, the tune almost always being borrowed or adapted from one he has heard somewhere, usually a traditional one. (p. 25)
Gil Turner, "Bob Dylan—A New Voice Singing New Songs," in Sing Out! (reprinted with permission from Sing Out!), October-November, 1962 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor. William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 22-7).
There are few healthier signs of our times than that many of our young people heed and respect the grim pessimism of Bob Dylan. This drawn and weary balladeer writes songs as timely and as real as the gunshot that murdered Medgar Evers or the poverty that drove Hollis Brown to destroy his wife, his five children and himself.
Dylan is becoming a one-young-man Grecian chorus chanting of our sins of pride and prejudice and warning that the gods have struck down men for less—if there are any gods, of course. Dylan seems, in his gloomy cynicism, even to question the validity of such a comforting notion….
Dylan's style, admittedly, isn't easy to take for someone who is accustomed to pop singing, especially of the folkum variety. His voice is flat, nasal and limited in range, and he has confined his guitar and harmonica accompaniment to skeletal chording or a raw country blues framework. But he has style, unmistakably his own and ideally suited to his raw, outspoken material.
Some may question his right to set himself up as a conscience of society. After all, he's only 21 or so, with not much more than a high school education, and he dresses like a beatnik. But really, what other credentials does he need than talent, sensitivity, the gift of poetry, and the validity of his judgments—by these criteria, he more than justifies his right to be heard.
His ballad, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, is hardly more than simple reporting of a Maryland killing…. It would be difficult to achieve greater impact in reporting this story than Dylan has done with his plain ballad.
The tragedy of The Ballad of Hollis Brown is in the meaninglessness of it and the seeming indifference of god and man to Brown's insurmountable poverty. After the poor South Dakota farmer has slaughtered his family and himself, Dylan finds the ideal line to emphasize the awful absurdity of the deaths: "Somewhere in the distance, there's seven new people born…." (p. xx)
Joseph Haas, in Chicago Daily News (reprinted with permission of Field Enterprises, Inc.), March 7, 1964.
It is Dylan's work as a composer … that has won him a wider audience than his singing alone might have. Whether concerned with cosmic spectres or personal conundrums, Dylan's lyrics are pungently idiomatic. He has a superb ear for speech rhythms, a generally astute sense of selective detail, and a natural storyteller's command of narrative pacing. His songs sound as if they were being created out of oral street history rather than carefully written in tranquillity. (p. 78)
Nat Hentoff, "The Crackin', Shakin', Breakin' Sounds," in The New Yorker (© 1964 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 24, 1964, pp. 64-90.
Bob Dylan has become a pawn in his own game. He has ceased his Quest for a Universal Sound and had settled for a liaison with the music trade's Top Forty Hit Parade. He has worked his way through dozens of singers and poets on both sides of the Atlantic, and he has left them all behind. Because he is a Genius, he need not, and does not, give credit to anyone—all the way from Jack Elliott to Allen Ginsberg. He has given up his companions for the companionship of the Charts. Currently, the Charts require him to write rock-and-roll; and he does. And he is no mere imitator. Where there is life, vivacity, statement, and protest in the original, Dylan has added a bitterness and loneliness that can't be helped. He adds a...
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Most of Dylan's reputation rests on his talents as a performer and a writer of lyrics rather than as a composer, for his melodies are fairly ordinary and decidedly derivative—although perhaps unique in that they mix for the first time the sounds of Negro blues with the twang of Nashville country music….
As a literary stylist, he seems something of an anachronism, for many of his songs are written in a manner reminiscent of the protest "Waiting for Lefty" pseudo poetry of the thirties. (p. 132)
On the other hand, future Ph.D. candidates in English, writing their theses on Dylan, will not find him that easy to pigeonhole, for he tends to write in a number of styles, among them an...
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[Highway 61 Revisited] is the logical extension of [Bob Dylan's] last three LPs. Somehow, I feel that most critics (and admirers) of the "new" Dylan have missed the main point. They have made Dylan's electrification the point of demarcation between the old and the new. The fact is that "Desolation Row" is not less (or more) "folk music" than "The Death of Hattie Carroll." Whether what Dylan does should or shouldn't be called "folk" is about the most unimportant question one can ask. (p. 102)
No, it is not by amplification or vocal technique that audiences have ever responded to (or rejected) Bob Dylan. It has always been by the substance of what he had to say—sometimes clearly articulated,...
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With hit recordings blaring forth from every radio, with his songs being sung by individual vocalists and played by rock 'n' roll groups everywhere, Dylan is telling the American audience (and through that audience telling the world) that it is better to make love than to make war, that the only loyalty is to oneself ("it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to") that politics are irrelevant ("you say nothin's perfect and i tell you again there are no politics") that the leadership cult of the Great Society is a fraud ("don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters") that the old fashioned virtues of hard work and thrift and a clean tongue are obsolete ("money doesn't talk it swears: obscenity who really...
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[The sound of "Blonde On Blonde"] is neither mysterious nor forbidding. "Blonde On Blonde" is Dylan's least esoteric work. At the same time, it signifies a major step in his development as an entertainer and folk-poet. It belongs with "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Bringing It All Back Home," as key albums in the Dylan momentum.
With "Blonde On Blonde," Dylan buries the put-down song, a genre he perfected in "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively Fourth Street," and then lost in unsuccessful songs like "Please Crawl Out of Your Window." There was an increasing sense of futility in listening to this Dylan because, even when he destroyed with acid skill, the question lingered stubbornly—would...
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Bob Dylan and his peers exist on the fringes of music, on the fringes of entertainment and, above all, on the fringes of political potency. And somehow they all participate in the delusion that they ride the eye of the hurricane. Dylan's poetry is ridiculously inept; his voice is as bad as his guitar playing, which is abysmal. Only his ballads, and very few of these, have any value. And his total impact on the course of America and the world measures nil—even though he and his coterie, perhaps mercifully, believe otherwise. Some of his early songs, notably Blowin' in the Wind and With God on Our Side, wrenched the heart. But his own incredibly mannered interpretations—the consciously antimusical,...
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Dylan, the Brecht of the juke box, has already won this generation of rebels, just as Kerouac and Camus have won earlier generations. Dylan's words, values, imagery, even his eccentric life-style, are grooved into more under-30 brains than any other writer's. And the miracle of it is that almost nobody over 30 in the literary and intellectual establishments even pays attention to his electronic guitar-coated nightmare visions of America…. (p. 1)
Two cultural traditions have grown up in America, one enshrined in respectability and the other quarantined by its illegitimacy. One is the university and the fashionable periodicals and it runs from T. S. Eliot to Edmund Wilson to Saul Bellow. But for a...
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Dylan's refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity's ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image—roving minstrel, poet of alienation, spokesman for youth—in lieu of the "real" Bob Dylan. But his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let's pretend, and it conjures up nightmares of madness, mutilation, death. (pp. 219-20)
Many people hate Bob Dylan because...
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John Wesley Harding is, on the surface at least, utterly different from Blonde on Blonde. Gone is electricity, except for a discreet, subdued steel guitar in one or two cuts. Gone is the sense of opaque interior monologue; most of the songs are so apparently uncomplicated that they almost defy interpretation. And, most surprising, gone are the striking verbal images that were practically the hallmark of his style.
Small wonder, then, that Dylan fans haven't been able to make sense of their hero's new effort. Only one of the Harding songs, "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," sounds much like anything that went before, and it is reminiscent of Dylan's second and third albums, not of the...
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Bob Dylan's new album, John Wesley Harding, is like the feeling left long after seeing "Bonnie and Clyde": gently anarchic. It is the anarchy of everyone doing his own thing, assuming that freedom can exist only outside the laws and layers of society. The outsiders—outlaw, hobo, immigrant, joker, thief, girl in chains, drifter, saint—form an existential community simply in reaction to them". But Dylan is hardly simplistic: the album is a collection of narratives in precise moods and voices, and its affirmation lies in the community between artist and audience, in the poet's certainty that his vision is shared by those capable of understanding it. (p. 406)
The lyrics combine various formal...
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["Nashville Skyline" is Dylan's tribute to the game of country music.] The usual relationship between Dylan's words and his melodies is reversed. "Nashville Skyline" is primarily sound—country sound of several varieties. Most of the lyrics are pastiches of country-western and pop clichés ("I was cruel. / I treated her like a fool. / I threw it all away") whose function is to provide the proper setting for the music. In the past, Dylan has used country music as a vehicle for self-expression; in this album he subordinates self to genre. (pp. 157-58)
Dylan's mood of acceptance, his use of clichés in the attempt to fashion "generic" songs, his revived interest in his past were all evident on...
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Nashville Skyline is Bob Dylan through rose-tinted shades….
What is most remarkable about this metempsychotic album is not simply the change it has wrought in Dylan's image but the revolution it has made in his art. Dylan of yore was possessed of glossolalia, afflicted with logorrhea: he used more words per song than any man since W. S. Gilbert. His music and his singing were just a rough-skinned conveyer belt on which he heaped the riches of his verbal imagination. Snarling and hollering, fleering and jeering, he cranked out more symbols and myths, more allegories and apothegms than a whole Bowery of Beat poets. Now he's lost the gift of gab. Rock's greatest rhetorician has become a mouther...
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Once in a while, you can cross a street, walking down the backward abysm of time, and hear the sounds of early Byrds, Meet the Beatles, Bringing It All Back Home. Today, after having seen the succession of Dylan's new faces on Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning, you might again feel the mystery of time's reversing warp as the beautiful, and androgynous, light-dark 1966 Dylan face stares in bookstores out through the cover of his five-year-old Tarantula….
It's difficult to know how Tarantula would have read five years ago. The relationship between cultural disintegration and its literary exemplification in Tarantula might have been considered...
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While Dylan's originality is his strength, his art has roots, and these are a strength also. Primarily, one looks to the words, since the significance of early Dylan is inseparable from his articulateness. The basic source is the traditional folk ballad, both in its British origins and in its American permutations. Closely allied to the ballad are children's rhymes, British and American; Negro blues poetry; the Bible, the mythology of which permeates the American mid-west; and runic verses of all kinds, reminding us of, and possibly even including, the lyrical poems of Blake.
Dylan's musical sources are both white and black. Most fundamental is the American transmutation of British ballad...
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Dylan became a major innovator by immersing himself in Whitman's "swimmy waters." That is, he initiated the movement toward an Emersonian esthetic, adapting the most sophisticated verse techniques to a basically folk style, thus reproducing on the level of popular song what had been a major literary approach since Whitman. The resulting style is sometimes called folk-rock and is exemplified in the work of Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and a great many imitators. Folk-rock relies heavily on a Waste Land imagery that attempts to expose the alienation and absurdity of modern civilization…. Dylan's song, "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall," begins with lines that recall the old ballad, "Lord Randall"; but in place of the...
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Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan … contains all of the works, except Tarantula, which individually have comprised the whole of the public Dylan, and through it one can trace the development of a public figure and a private sensibility….
But why now? This is an important step; one doesn't collect his life's work on a whim…. Is Dylan closing an era, in effect saying, "This is what it was when it was"?…
Possible, but not very likely. Writing, singing and playing music has been what he's done best. It would be hard to shelve your strength, no matter how interesting your weakness, and Dylan still hasn't painted his "masterpiece."
It could be a...
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Bob Dylan may be the Charlie Chaplin of rock & roll. Both men are regarded as geniuses by their entire audience. Both were proclaimed revolutionaries for their early work and subjected to exhaustive attack when later works were thought to be inferior. Both developed their art without so much as a nodding glance toward their peers. Both are multitalented: Chaplin as a director, actor, writer and musician; Dylan as a recording artist, singer, songwriter, prose writer and poet. Both superimpose their personalities over the techniques of their art forms. They rejected the peculiarly 20th century notion that confuses the advancement of the techniques and mechanics of an art form with the growth of art itself. They have...
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Blood on the Tracks is easily Bob Dylan's strongest, most moving album since Blonde on Blonde. Like no other singer/poet, Dylan at his best transmutes personal frustration, anger, self-pity and moral intolerance into an inspired litany of rage and remorse, and Blood contains not one less than excellent song. My favorite is "Idiot Wind," whose overlapping metaphors and jumbled images work because of, not in spite of, their crudity; its intensity scares me. The same holds for Dylan's singing, which integrates the shouting self-parody of Before the Flood with the gruff sensitivity of his preelectric albums…. Blood on the Tracks, though suffused with pain, also bursts alive with the...
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Certainly it is not possible that a mutation in the human brain caused people to be able to take in poetry just as fast as it could be sung. Yet by the sixties it was accepted, at least by those who were willing to listen to Bob Dylan, that a Dylan song might contain such a welter of images, discontinuous narrative, curious metaphors, and phrases so hermetic as to exclude every listener except Dylan, that, even after hearing it through more than once, a listener might have only a vague notion of what it was about. Lines such as "My penthouse has your Arabian drum / shall I leave it now beside your gate / or, sad-eyed lady, shall I wait?" left listeners with nothing more definite than that the poetic I was...
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Desire has about it the feel of a State of the Disunion message, sung, chanted and talked by a man with great power, if indirect, and greater integrity, certainly, than most of the people addressing us this year. When he hears from his partner in "Isis" that they will return from their odyssey to the North "by the fourth," and replies, that's the "best news I've ever heard"—then that suggests one attitude toward America. But when he sings, in "Black Diamond Bay," that "there's really nothing anyone can say" about the land's hard luck stories—that tells something different. Would-be patriotism and resigned cynicism are the oil and water of this record. (p. 23)
Desire grows more...
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Desire is a very special album, although Bob Dylan's adamantly antimusical approach keeps it from greatness. Somehow, though, Dylan's antimusic winds up being very seductive….
[It's hard] to determine who is responsible for the most meaningful change in Dylan's writing, which is expressed in the songs concerning women. Previously, Dylan has recognized only two kinds of women: "angels," whose function was to save man (from the women themselves as often as not), and "bitches," whose function was to let him down, if not by overt attempts to ruin and confuse, at least by their failure to save. The bitches enjoyed their heyday during the "Just like a Woman" period, of course, and their prominent...
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The post-Hiroshima generation was the first completely electroid generation. At exactly the time when this enormous genetic wave opened to receive a post-Einsteinian reality, SHAZAM!… 4,000 years of Old Testament pessimism popped up in the person of the Electronic Pad-Trip Evangelist.
The one song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" probably caused more biological and philosophical suicides than any poem in Western history. This is a tribute, not to the dismal poet, but to electronic amplification.
Give a close reading, if you can, to the Zimmerman lyrics of the 1960s—snarling, whining, scorning, mocking. "Just like a Woman." "No, No, No, It Ain't Me, Babe." "Subterranean...
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What was Bob Dylan doing when he moved into rock music in mid-career? His first albums were in a folk-protest idiom. His later albums tended to return to a folk-country idiom close to his first albums. But the latter were markedly different because of three central albums that intervened: Bringing It All Back Home; Highway 61, Revisited; and Blonde on Blonde. Perhaps now, knowing where his music went, we can begin to look back and try to understand what were the underlying motives for that excursion. There are certain songs on these three albums that stand out from the rest as highly individualistic even within Dylan's own canon. They establish a continuity and developing attitude that seems to underlie...
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Without question, the most important figure in the protest renaissance of the 1960s was Bob Dylan. Like his idol Woody Guthrie, Dylan believed he was "trying to be a singer without a dictionary, and a poet not bound with shelves of books." He had a voice caught in barbed wire, he looked like a cross between Harpo Marx and the younger Beethoven. "What I do," he said, "is write songs and sing them and perform them. Anything else trying to get on top of it, making something out of it which it isn't first, brings me down." Yet his song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" was about, or at least inspired by, the 1962 Cuban Missile confrontation; the "Ballad of Hollis Brown" commemorated a particularly bloody killing of a Dakota...
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It is a shame … that so few are going to forgive Bob Dylan for Renaldo & Clara. I am afraid it is only going to alienate further those whose irritation with Dylan's incarnations has kept them from turning out the lights and trying to understand his music. Perhaps the uninitiated do not concern Dylan particularly, and perhaps they shouldn't, but even for his most fanatic fans, Renaldo & Clara is a long and bumpy ride.
The sudden transformations of self that have sparked Dylan's songs over the years do not seem to work in film, or at least not in this film. Throughout Renaldo & Clara identities shift, overlap, and collide.
Since no one is positively...
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Most of the stuff here [on Street-Legal] is dead air, or close to it. (p. 51)
The most interesting—if that's the word—aspect of Street-Legal is its lyrics, which often pretend to the supposed impenetrability of Dylan's mid-Sixties albums, the albums on which his reputation still rests. But the return is false; you may not have known why Dylan was singing about a "Panamanian moon" in "Memphis Blues Again" (or, for that matter, have had any idea why the blues were Memphian rather than Bostonian), but you knew what "Your debutante just knows what you need / But I know what you want" meant, and it meant a lot. In Street-Legal's "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)"—the parenthetical...
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When Bob Dylan writes from his wounded heart, he can be eloquent. When he writes from the head, he can be clairvoyant. And when Dylan the man teams with Dylan the yarn-spinner, lines are written that could serve as epigraphs to whole lives: "If you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise / Just remind me to show you the scars." Regardless of Dylan's musical trappings, people still search his albums for lines that strong; I know I do. Street-Legal has quite a few….
The Dylan I respect … is the free associator, the crazed doggerel genius whose songs make sense a hundred different ways. A lot of fools write love songs, but there's only one "Highway 61 Revisited." The best thing...
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Renaldo and Clara is not a straight movie. It is a tortuous and uncompromising film, unlikely to appeal to anyone but those already captured by Bob Dylan's magic and susceptible to the many mythological references scattered throughout the 3 hours 52 minutes of its length. The portrait of the artist as a rock musician on the road … might at first appear self-indulgent and narcissistic, given that the epic was written and directed by Dylan himself. No other rock musician, after all, has ever dared present his audience with a similar self-portrait.
Dylan succeeds however, because he has refused, in characteristic style, to define himself: it is this mutability, the absence of a recognisable...
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After the more deferential, less personal politesse of his first album [Bob Dylan],… Freewheelin' Bob Dylan throws open all the windows and tears the sheets off the furniture…. [There is] an immortal spiritual anthem which made him famous everywhere and opens up this album: "Blowin' in the Wind."
"Blowin' in the Wind" has withstood the test of time. It stands as a song not just for a special period or generation but for all time and every generation. (p. 15)
The range of Freewheelin' is tremendous: humor, anger, bombast, wit; loveliness, loneliness, irony, and spit…. His ability to reflect not only his own feelings but some simpler, more general emotions he felt...
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Dylan is an important artist whose writings portray unique societal themes, symbolic representations and structures of consciousness found in contemporary society. Furthermore, these topics are deeply rooted within a socio-historical context and provide linkages to similar themes throughout other historical settings.
This essay does not attempt a total evaluation of Dylan's lyrics from this standpoint, but more specifically it concentrates on a re-occurring theme in his work: the notion of the grotesque through his dramatic representation of a fictional cosmos….
[The period between 1965 and 1966] can be considered the "surrealistic chains of rhyming images" phase of his career and...
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Dylan, Bob (Vol. 3)
Dylan, Bob 1941–
Dylan, an American songwriter, singer, and poet, led the movement toward serious lyrical content in rock and roll music. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
Bob Dylan, who began by abandoning Folk Music with left-wing protest overtones in favor of electronic Rock and Roll, finally succeeded in creating inside that form a kind of Pop surrealist poetry, passionate, mysterious, and quite complex; complex enough, in fact, to prompt a score of scholarly articles on his "art." [More] recently, however, he has returned to "acoustic" instruments and to the most naïve traditions of country music—apparently out of a sense that he had grown too "arty," and had once more to close the gap by backtracking across the border he had earlier lost his first audience by crossing. It is a spectacular case of the new artist as Double Agent.
Leslie Fiedler, "Cross the Border-Close the Gap," in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Volume II (copyright © 1971 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1971, p. 479.
Imagine Bob Dylan as a shiny lipstick-colored book, big as a nursery primer, inked alternately in bold black (for songs) and faded grey (for other verses) and illustrated with dopey pen-and-ink sketches fit for a coloring book. Yes, these are Dylan's "writings and drawings," including the lyrics to his famous songs. Yet this book ["Writings and Drawings"] bears no more resemblance to those songs than would one of those quarter magazines we once bought at the local drugstore with the "words to all your favorite tunes."
Dylan's lyrics, of course, belong to the oral tradition—like Lenny Bruce's raps, and the Last Poets' chants, and the sublimely verbose monologues of Lord Buckley. They are lyrics designed not only to be sung but to be performed by an inimitable voice, armed by a canny mind, and backed up by the strident sounds and emphatic rhythms of guitar, harmonica and juke band.
Stamped flat on the printed page, they lose their urgency. They sputter and stutter with the clumsiness and monotony of bad beat poetry, phony folksongs, home-made surrealism and sentimental, side-of-the-mouth valentine verse. Judged as a writer, Dylan is a duffer. His verse is either too strict (like a limerick); or too loose (like a letter); too rich (like a thesaurus); or too drab (like newspaper copy). Like all amateur writers, he rarely gets it all together. When he does—buoyed by some momentary wind of inspiration—he soon loses his poetic coordination and goes swerving off course….
Reared in the cliché-ridden tradition of the American folk song and in the sloppy kindergarten school of beat prosody, Dylan writes like the kids who mark up subway trains, grabbing the brightest colors, the boldest lines and the most bizarrely individualizing strokes he can muster. Mimicking the inconsequence of dreams and drug states, where some things stand clear but the connections are murky, he evolved (during his greatest years) a vein of vinyl prophecy that matches a minatory tone with a wryly inconsequent and humorous stream of images: as in that much quoted couplet, "Don't follow leaders/Watch the parkin' meters."…
Dylan's other notable accomplishment, his pioneering of a complex and unsentimental love song in the modern idiom, is also only dimly adumbrated on the printed page….
If Dylan's anger and his peculiar vindictiveness toward women are diminished in print, much more is lost of his subtler, less definable moods….
I find it hard to believe that anybody is going to wade through these 300 pages of gimpy verse. Or even fasten, with fond and familiar gaze, upon the most celebrated pieces. The book is a bummer. It's only real value is the opportunity it provides—now it's so late nobody gives a damn!—to clarify the language of those word-clotted tunes that used to baffle us as they came ranting out of the car radio.
Albert Goldman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1973, pp. 42-3.
Dylan [is] the elusive, reclusive poet-songwriter whose songs of protest and love sparked, sensitized and inspired an entire generation….
For years, city kids had been sitting on the floors at parties, picking guitars and singing folk songs. Dylan took this urban-folk semitradition, married it to the emerging rock beat and turned out a stream of songs that told an uneasy young generation why the American dream had turned into "Desolation Row."
Like a poet laureate, in the early '60s Dylan found the words that expressed a prophecy and a state of mind: "A hard rain's gonna fall …" "Something's happening here. You don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"….
Maureen Orth, "Dylan-Rolling Again," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1974, pp. 46-9.
Allen Ginsberg once called Dylan "the Walt Whitman of the jukebox," but actually, he was the Allen Ginsberg of the jukebox, adapting the scathing chant of poems like "Howl," and appropriating the syntax of beat poetry. All through the fifties and sixties, the beats had been reading their work in front of jazz combos, but they could never really create a unified form because they had no genuine feeling for jazz; they used the music as a kind of tonal dildo. And then along comes Dylan, the ultimate hustler of forms, and suddenly it's the beat dream come true: Dylan borrows melodies from the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, a vocal delivery out of acoustic folk and blues; and a set of lyrics which recapitulate the novels of Mailer, the sociology of Paul Goodman, the poetry of Ginsberg (all Jewish-American existentialists)….
Dylan has always resented his mystique, but he fed it by his refusal to acknowledge his own significance. There was a deft opacity to Dylan's work which functioned as a kind of counterpoint, adding a tension of denial to whatever he said, so that you could never really commit yourself to an interpretation without feeling like a fool. It was frustrating because he was really such a didactic writer, who couldn't produce a simple love song which did not contain advice. And so you tried to decipher the lyrics like literature, and they yielded up the broad theme of social and personal flux: the pain of oppression, incapacity, growth … he who is not busy being born is busy dying. There has always been a message in Dylan's songs. It is the central existentialist message, honed by insight and experience: change is real, attachment is futile—stand alone.
Richard Goldstein, "Growing Up with Bob Dylan," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Richard Goldstein), January 28, 1974, pp. 47-50.
[The] songs of Bob Dylan are thick with all the contradictions, all the weirdness and schizophrenia of growing up middle-class, of looking for romance in poverty, on the highway, or bumming around and returning to from whence [one] … came….
If there is one thing true about Bob Dylan over the years, it's that he is in never ending state of flux. There is no new Dylan or old Dylan or country Dylan or Edge Dylan. There is simply Dylan, and listening to him live gives one some idea of the dimensions of his brilliance, fallibility, strength, weakness, pain, and triumphs. He has been constantly growing and expanding, just as he grew in concert from a faulty, uncertain start to an incredible, fiery end. If he at times disappoints his critics, he never has ceased to amaze them.
Lucian K. Truscott, IV, "Bob Dylan Comes Back from the Edge," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), February 7, 1974, pp. 1, 32-4.
We had breakfast Thursday morning with two friends (one blond, the other dark-haired, both recently turned thirty) who had been to the Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden the night before…. "… All through his career,[" said our dark-haired friend, "]Dylan has been a highly elusive figure. He always manages to free himself from the expectations of his audience. When they were expecting folk songs about the struggles of the thirties, he gave them folk songs about the struggles of the sixties. When they were expecting a revolutionary anthem with all the answers, he gave them a revolutionary anthem that was all questions. 'The answer is blowin' in the wind'—was there ever a better summing up of the intuitive, improvisatory, unreflective approach of what we used to call 'the Movement'? When people expected acoustic, he gave them electric. When they expected funk, he gave them mysticism. When they expected psychedelia, he gave them simple country love tunes. When they finally learned not to expect anything in particular except genius, he gave them mediocrity …"….
"Personally," our blond friend said, "when it comes to mythic figures I prefer the ones like Elvis Presley, who stay mythic in spite of themselves. Dylan was never really a successful archetype, if you know what I mean. He was only someone who seemed to be somewhere we thought we ought to be. That's why people worried so much about his changes of style. People worried about where Dylan was and what he was doing because they wanted to know where they should be and what they should be doing…."
The New Yorker, February 11, 1974, pp. 32-3.
By now, we ought to know better than to judge Dylan's words on paper; it is his singing that makes the difference…. The polish of "Nashville Skyline" and "New Morning" has been abandoned in favor of a crude expressiveness that undercuts the lyrical banalities—which on closer inspection often turn out to be not so banal after all….
As he often does, Dylan is using clichés, or apparent clichés, to camouflage innovation…. Dylan has always tended to get sticky about women—to classify them as goddesses to be idolized or bitches to be mercilessly trashed. Yet his conviction that he has been saved by love is so poignant and so obviously genuine that it transcends the stereotype. Which is, in a sense, what popular culture is all about.
Ellen Willis, "Dylan and Fans: Looking Back, Going On," in The New Yorker, February 18, 1974, pp. 108-10.
Dylan, Bob (Vol. 4)
Dylan, Bob 1941–
Dylan, an American folksinger and songwriter, pioneered the "complex and unsentimental love song in the modern idiom." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
[The] stylistic presentation [of Tarantula] is diffuse and unusual, though the book cannot be categorized as a novel. There are no chapter divisions nor a story line; it is a conglomeration of poems, letters and other writings, full of imagery, symbolism, allusion, satire, cant, argot, and jargon. The line of demarcation between reality and fancy is very inexact, leaving the reader halfway informed about people and places of our time, halfway entertained, and short on inspiration to change the world around us. Dylan's fusion of panorama and organic form could be better understood (if not enjoyed), if a catalog were provided. "Tarantula" loses something through the passage of time which it perhaps would not if it were a work of greater literary merit….
Where was Bob Dylan's head when he put together Tarantula?
Denise R. Majkut, "'Tarantula,'" in Best Sellers, October 1, 1971, p. 299.
Tarantula didn't work. Dylan was doing songs and albums, going on the road a lot and taking his typewriter with him to write the book, and very upset that he had a deadline. It became a drag for him. It grew less lucid as he went along, more stream of consciousness that both defied meaning and lacked the emotion of poetry. Much of it was absurdist word-play. Dylan was unhappy with it, but still he plunged ahead, forcing himself to write. There was a feeling among some friends that he was seeking some sort of approval from the literary establishment which had ignored him.
Anthony Scaduto, in his Bob Dylan (copyright © 1971 by Anthony Scaduto), Grosset & Dunlap, 1971, p. 185.
Bob Dylan certainly deserves considerable credit for having, almost single-handed, made both symbolism and verbal complexity acceptable in pop music. But that he should be considered a part of a wider avant-garde is merely a measure of how far popular song has lagged behind the development of literature, for his achievement consisted of introducing into the former art techniques which had been commonplace in the latter for forty years or more. If some poets find Dylan or John Lennon genuinely important influences on their own art, they are testifying only to the extent to which they have lost touch with the poetic tradition. An indication of serious defects in our society and its culture, certainly; but scarcely a fact that should lead us in itself to expect anything very new in their writing.
Grevel Lindop, in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1972, pp. 92-3.
[There] are three strands to Dylan's work I'd like to [say] something about.
One is its Jewishness. No one can come from a Jewish background without being profoundly influenced by it, whether the process is one of acceptance, compromise or rejection. Dylan is no exception, and one doesn't need to know much about his change of name or his contradictory, carefully disguised relationship with his parents to realize it….
Recently Dylan seems to have been rediscovering his Jewishness all over again, coming to terms with it. But the important thing is what it means for his music. It explains, I think, a certain self-pity which slops over into sentimentality in some of his songs (pace Albert Grossman); except for his very early work, and one or two songs on [his album] John Wesley Harding, Dylan has always reserved most of his compassion for himself. Its most obvious effect, however, has been to make religion one of the major themes—perhaps the major theme—in Dylan's music. Not only does he make use of Biblical symbolism and allusions throughout his work; the central problem of what one is to believe, of Man's relationship to God, recurs in song after song….
A second strand to Dylan's music which has been largely undiscussed is its "gay" component. It's almost as though the critics have maintained a conspiracy of silence about this….
Dylan is a master of masks. If any proof were needed, his skillful manipulation of the mass media and his deliberate choosing among images to present to the public are sufficient. More importantly, Dylan uses masks in his songs as well. In many of them he seems to be writing about himself in the second or third person, as though distancing himself from and then addressing himself; so that the "you" in the song is really "I." It's a common enough device in literature and everyday speech, but Dylan has taken it further by seeming to create an alternative persona; and often the persona he chooses is a woman…. Of course, Dylan's songs characteristically work at different levels of meaning; like any great work of art, the best of them set up reverberations which defy reduction to a single, unalterable explanation. And often it is impossible to separate the man from the mask. Dylan's involvement in, or response to, the gay scene has probably enriched and deepened his music, though it may also have introduced an unnecessary obscurity. And it may also explain why, like Jagger's, some of its sexuality rings a little false.
Finally, it's worth emphasizing again the personal nature of Dylan's music. Those who try to force him into one ideological straightjacket or another don't realize that Dylan has never been a political thinker, that if anything he is both anti-political and anti-intellectual; he seems to work more by instinct than anything else, and what we value about him are his insights and his poetry, his artist's ability to distill and shape, not to order. Some critics accept this, but foist a substitute title upon him: that of Culture Hero, or Spokesman For His Generation. Fans search his latest songs for messages to the world, commentators with stethoscopes search for the heartbeat of the counter-culture. But Dylan has always insisted he writes only for himself. Throughout his career he has shrugged off old roles and adopted new ones like sport jackets; those who hunger after his old declamatory songs of dissent, or the apocalyptic visions of the mid-sixties, are demanding from him a consistency which he has never claimed.
Craig McGregor, "Introduction," to Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor (abridged by permission of William Morrow & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1972 by Craig McGregor), William Morrow, 1972, pp. 11-15.
It seems to me that Dylan first revealed the individual directions of his creative career in his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; his first album, as we know, was more a record of Dylan as performer (of the songs of others) than of Dylan as a "song poet." But in Freewheelin', Dylan presented his own songs largely, and it was here that he sang love lyrics, such as "Girl from the North Country," that he sang "Blowin' in the Wind," which became so useful to freedom movements; and it was also on this record that Dylan sang "Hard Rain." And the substance of these three songs, but significantly not the style, suggested the contents of all subsequent Dylan albums. The love songs were not to dominate any album—until Blonde on Blonde, perhaps—but the protest songs and the songs which can be called apocalyptic songs, in keeping with the temper of the times—songs which prophesied and described violent destruction and some sort of eschatological revelation—were to take turns at dominating individual albums, the particular emphasis in each case depending entirely on the evolution of Dylan's mind, emotions, and concerns. The upshot is that Freewheelin' can be seen as an announcement of balanced possibilities and as a presentation of thematic concerns. But the album which followed it, The Times They Are A-Changin', was his most striking protest album, while Dylan's sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, was the most apocalyptic. Overall, the perceptible shift from protest to apocalyptic—and later to the personal—was a shift from public to private, from the temporal to the universal to the more narrowly personal….
In the time between "Hard Rain" and Highway 61, Dylan himself seems to have undergone more than a sea change. He moved through his period of public protest to a discovery that for himself the devastation he had been trying to sing about and the wasteland he had seen were really internal and personal. He discovered that apocalyptic imagery said more about an individual's soul than about what happens to the physical world. It was a Romantic discovery in the same way that many other poets, from William Blake and Coleridge to Eliot, Hart Crane, and Richard Wilbur, have discovered the significance of apocalypse for the human imagination. It is no accident that songs listed on this album—for example, "Tombstone Blues," "Desolation Row," and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"—are greatly indebted to the wasteland imagery of the early poems of T. S. Eliot: "Gerontion," "The Hollow Men," and, of course,… The Waste Land.
It is The Waste Land which provides source and background for much of "Just Like Tom [Thumb's] Blues" with its Easter rain and aura of spiritual malaise. And it is The Waste Land, crossed with Tennessee Williams' apocalpytic play Camino Real which provides principles of structure and considerable substance for the brilliant song "Desolation Row," with its death dance of characters and circus vignettes…. Circus, and dance of death, and ship of fools. But there is still another twist. For Dylan's apocalyptic songs are something that Eliot's apocalyptic lines are not—they are comic, discordant, and ultimately absurd. It is true that there is imagery and incident in The Waste Land that border on the comic, but they are always directed in some way to the purpose of satirizing social types and society at large. The apocalyptic imagery in the latter portions of Eliot's poem is another matter, for it is traditional and singularly uncomic. Still, Dylan's admixture of the apocalyptic and the comically absurd, if not anticipated by Eliot, is nevertheless not unprecedented. "Desolation Row," for example, as I have noted, owes as much, in imagery, character, and structure, to Tennessee Williams' Camino Real as it does to Eliot. This song, and others, moreover, owe more, one might even venture, to the theater of Jean Genet, than they do to any of Dylan's generously acknowledged debts to folk and popular performers.
Even more significantly, however, I should like to propose that these apocalyptic songs constitute the most recent contribution to and manifestation of that American literary tradition defined by R. W. B. Lewis as stemming from Herman Melville's novel of disguises and metamorphoses, The Confidence Man (1857), and a tradition given new impetus through the absurd visions of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (with its title borrowed from Revelation), and renewed quite possibly by such novels as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon's V, and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood….
[It] is apparent to me that no poet has worked the comic apocalypse with as much success as the "song poet" Dylan has. His success in this vein makes Highway 61 Revisited, in my opinion, his most valuable single album to date, his most original contribution. And a genuine understanding of the "literary" content of these songs and of their place in a discernible literary tradition helps to explain still another phenomenon.
In their evocation of the comically but absurdly apocalyptic vision, these songs, despite the gaiety and the jauntiness of much of the music—but perhaps in part because of these very qualities—are disturbing, disconcerting, even frightening….
[It] was in his apocalyptic songs that Dylan expressed, and undoubtedly faced, the terrifying truths of his own imagination and psyche. But the rub is that it could not end with his own confrontation with the reaches of the self. In rejecting songs of protest against munitions manufacturers, and in attacking those righteous people who wage war, confident that God is with them; in rejecting all songs which project society into an externalized villain, standing somewhere out there to be overcome, Dylan unleashed for the multitudes what in the past, historically, was available only to a handful of readers. For in the "electric age" of instant communication through oral and visual image, these ideas are no longer the province of literature exclusively; they are no longer by necessity limited, in their most artistic forms (and propagandistic forms, too), to the initiates of a literate culture.
George Monteiro, "Dylan in the Sixties," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Spring, 1974, pp. 160-72.
Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self-Portrait did have some moments of invention and purity, but what passed for mellowness did so only by pathetic comparison, and was mostly bland and monotonic.
Now Dylan has come alive again. In Planet Waves (Asylum Records) he incorporates the density of his nightmare vision of America with a new sweet richness, a credible romanticism, a hope. The reality of this time is not contained in his lyrics, which are more subtle than the "moon/June" period of New Morning—though still a little too close for comfort—but in the revived brilliance of his music….
[If] the lyrics are still not consistently up to his earlier visionary lyrics, this is only to say that Dylan, thank God, is not complete. His longings, his hopes, mostly about love, are evident; a separate peace also contains its own warfare, and clarity is purchased not by running away from reality but by finding within it the strength to go on, to go through, with energy and style, and not to quit by abdicating one's humanity. He is not, like so many ashram seekers these days, "blissed out"; he is, we might say, "blissed in"—alive not at the price of mind and emotions, but within them. "It's never been my duty to remake the world at large/Nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge," he sings. Does he protest a tiny bit too much? His energy speaks for itself, and where there is intelligent energy these days there is a battle charge of sorts, like it or not. His love-visions, especially in the two versions of "Forever Young," in "You Angel You," "Something There Is About You," and "Wedding Song," have the stuff of lived life in them. Where so much of contemporary mass culture, especially Hollywood, tries to short-circuit the traumas of love with utter cynicism, Dylan embraces the effort of love. So his declarations of love have weight precisely because we know they have not come easily. The sweet wistfulness of "Forever Young"—a '70s version of Kipling's "If," and more to the contemporary point—is all the more poignant when set against the luminous mournfulness of "Dirge" ("I Hate Myself for Loving You"). With several dimensions rippling through Planet Waves, each becomes more than what it, by itself, would amount to. Even "Dirge" is multidimensional, moving from "You were just a painted face on a trip down suicide row" through "In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem" to "I paid the price of solitude but at least I'm out of debt," and then "No use to apologize, what difference would it make?" Even the most tender "Wedding Song" admits: "What's lost is lost, we can't regain what went down in the flood." Like Paul Simon, whose Here Comes Rhymin' Simon is one of the loveliest albums of the '70s, Dylan has survived with his clarity and imagination intact.
In the '60s Dylan helped make anxiety, desperation, vision, the will to transcend and combativeness credible in the culture. Now he helps make faith credible: not blind faith, but faith that sees. As Auden said of Yeats, in the prison of his days he teaches the free man how to praise.
Todd Gitlin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 20, 1974, p. 25.