Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2655
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.
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