Bob Dylan Essay - Dylan, Bob (Vol. 12)

Dylan, Bob (Vol. 12)

Introduction

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.)

Robert Shelton

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).

Gil Turner

[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).

Joseph Haas

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.

Nat Hentoff

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.

Israel G. Young

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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Thomas Meehan

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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Irwin Silber

[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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Ralph J. Gleason

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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Richard Goldstein

[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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O. B. Brummell

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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Jack Newfield

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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Ellen Willis

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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Charles E. Fager

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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Jean Strouse

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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Ellen Willis

["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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Albert Goldman

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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Michael Rogers

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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Wilfrid Mellers

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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Gene Bluestein

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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Peter Knobler

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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Jon Landau

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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Stephen Holden

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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Naomi Lindstrom

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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W. T. Lhamon, Jr.

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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Dave Marsh

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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Timothy Leary

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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Thomas S. Johnson

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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Tony Palmer

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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Andrew Ward

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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Greil Marcus

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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Jon Pareles

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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Mark Kidel

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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Alan Rinzler

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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John Wells

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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