Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1707
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.
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