Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
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...
(The entire section contains 24797 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Bob Dylan study guide. You'll get access to all of the Bob Dylan content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
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.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223
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).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222
[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).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
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 sense of violence that is cloaked by a brilliant obscurity. It leaves you depressed and alone instead of wanting to join with others in life and song.
As Dylan gets further and further away from his original leanings, there is no question that his singing voice has improved. But he doesn't always use his "better" voice. It depends on the market he is singing for. So as not to miss out on any markets, he sings with two voices, clear and unclear, and, I might add, with two sets of costumes. If necessary, he'll sing songs he repudiated. For example, he sang many songs in England he no longer sings here because the English audience is two years behind his American image. Next year, he'll be writing rhythm-and-blues songs when they get high on the charts. The following year, the Polish polka will make it, and then he'll write them, too. By then, he'll be so mired in the popularity charts that he'll be safe enough for the State Department to have them send him to entertain troops at whatever battlefront we're on at the time. As much as he's popular, the American Public would love to see him fall, just like Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd or Marilyn Monroe in real life. I don't think it's worth it, Bob. If you don't watch out, you'll become commerical. (pp. 93-4)
Israel G. Young, "Frets and Flails," in Sing Out! (reprinted with permission from Sing Out!), November, 1965 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 93-4).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566
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 extraordinarily lyrical and traditional folksong style. (p. 133)
At the same time, oddly enough, mixing a traditional folksong style with the techniques of modern poetry, Dylan can at times be extremely obscure…. Those conditioned by the likes of "Red River Valley" to think of folk songs as simple and uncomplicated are inevitably confused by Dylan's songs. Dylan, however, claims that folk songs have always been difficult to comprehend.
[At] times his verses sound like those of a hillbilly W. H. Auden—specifically the earlier Auden of such poems as "September 1, 1939," as these lines from Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" might suggest:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human Gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark
Perhaps Dylan's principal appeal to the young (and to an increasing number of the not-so-young) is his rude defiance of all authority and scorn for the Establishment, which he puts down with unrelenting and unforgiving bitterness…. (pp. 133-34)
Those students who claim that Dylan is the best writer in America today point not only to his lyrics but also, curiously enough, to the copy Dylan writes for his record liners. This is usually a hundred lines or so of free verse, like [the] characteristic, somewhat Brechtian (with punctuation by Cummings) excerpts from the liner of the recent album "Bringing It All Back Home."… (p. 135)
Dylan's fellow poets tend … to be somewhat divided in their assessment of him, as in the opinions of:
Stanley Kunitz—"I listen with pleasure to Bob Dylan but I would term him a popular artist, a writer of verse rather than of poetry. All in all, though, I think the interest taken in him is a healthy sign, for there is no reason why popular art and a more selective, esoteric art can't cheerfully coexist. And popular art is the foundation on which fine art rests. Thus, the higher the level of taste there is in the popular arts, the more promising is the hope for the evolution of great fine art."
Louis Simpson—"I don't think Bob Dylan is a poet at all; he is an entertainer—the word poet is used these days to describe practically anybody. I am not surprised though, that American college students consider him their favorite poet—they don't know anything about poetry."
W. H. Auden—"I am afraid I don't know his work at all. But that doesn't mean much—one has so frightfully much to read anyway." (p. 136)
Thomas Meehan, "Public Writer No. 1?" in The New York Times Magazine (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1965, pp. 129-30, 132-36.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279
[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, sometimes couched in incredibly involved and frequently challenging symbolism.
Like it or not, by choice or necessity, Bob Dylan's thing is his message. Listening to Highway 61 Revisited, one realizes more clearly than ever before the essentially existentialist philosophy that Dylan represents, filtered, of course, through his own set of eye and brain images. Song after song adds up to the same basic statement: Life is an absurd conglomeration of meaningless events capsuled into the unnatural vacuum created by birth and completed by death; we are all living under a perpetual sentence of death and to seek meaning or purpose in life is as unrewarding as it is pointless; all your modern civilization does is further alienate man from his fellow man and from nature. (pp. 102-03)
Irwin Silber, "Topical Song: Polarization Sets In," in Sing Out! (reprinted with permission from Sing Out!), February-March, 1966 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 102-03).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
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 cares").
He is saying, in short, that the entire system of Western society, built upon Aristotelian logic, and upon a series of economic systems from Hobbes to Marx, does not work.
And mirable dictu what he is saying, is getting an unbelievably intense reaction from a generation thirsting for answers other than those in the college text books. (p. 174)
[Dylan] is the first poet of that all-American artifact, the juke box, the first American poet to touch everyone, to hit all walks of life in this great sprawling society. The first poet of mass media, if you will….
Is Dylan a poet? The only dissent comes from those who are not moved by him. But even his advocates do not think of him as the poet sublime, at least not completely. Allen Ginsberg says Dylan is still hung up having to rhyme words and Ferlinghetti wonders if Dylan would be effective as a poet without the guitar. (p. 176)
Dylan thinks of songs—all songs, his own included—as pictures. He's said that numerous times in one way or another and this, coupled with his remark about writing in "chains of flashing images" is a clue to the technique he uses.
Dylan's world is a nightmare world—except for his songs of wry romance and even some of them have touches of it. The world is like a dream…. Recurring figures in the Dylan poetry include the monk, the hunchback, the sideshow geek and clown and Napoleon. It's a gaudy, depressing, grotesquerie rivalled only by the inmates of "The Circus of Dr. Lao" or the images of Rimbaud's "Season in Hell."
For Dylan sees the world around him—and this is I suspect the core of his attraction for the young—as a world run by a vast machine and by men who are heartless men and part of that machine. He looks at this scene surrealistically, linking together his mosaics of images like a ceiling by El Greco. He sings of alienation, of the emptiness of the adult society; he is the clown, the Napoleon in rags, a Don Quixote of today riding across a neon-lighted jungle, across the moon country, past lines of empty drive-in movies showing vistavision pictures of what's happening. The vision is apocalyptical, the images glowing, and he is articulating the realignment of priorities first heralded by the wordless revolt of the jazzmen's horns. There's something in Dylan for everybody. "You who philosophize disgrace" he screams at the law-makers in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (a song about the fatal beating given a Negro servant by a Maryland farmer). He sneers at the groves of academe, "the old folks" home in the college," at religion, "utopian hermit monks," Madison avenue, "grey flannel dwarfs" and "propaganda all is phony"; the war machine "With God on Our Side" and hard work "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more … 'sing while you slave' and I just get bored."
The new generation is a lonely one ("it's always silent where I am," Dylan said at a press conference and at another time wrote "there is no love except in silence and silence doesn't say a word") born in the shadow of the Bomb and straining to make sense out of a life governed, stratified and resting upon assumptions of another age. Dylan dramatizes this—the growing realization of the surrealism of our real world has produced the novelist-turned-reporter like Ken Kesey and Joseph Heller and James Baldwin and the reporter-turned-poet like I. F. Stone. It has also produced Dylan. (pp. 177-78)
The magnetism that Dylan possesses for those under thirty (and remember the remark by Jack Weinberg of the Free Speech Movement—"they have a saying, in the movement, 'you can't trust anyone over thirty'") may very well be the fact that they, too, see the world as he sees it.
"Bob Dylan says the things I feel but don't know how to say" one college student wrote me. And when these young people find someone else describing the world around them as Dylan describes it (mystically, poetically, surrealistically) they say "Yes!" and "Amen!" and "Yes!" again. (p. 180)
One fundamental result of the acceleration of life in this technological society is to have begot a generation that is a lot smarter than its predecessors and a lot smarter than we give it credit for. And lines like Dylan's hit home immediately to the New Youth who sees all around him, everywhere from high to low position, pretense, dishonesty, absurdity, contradiction, cupidity, in fact, all the biblical sins of sloth, arrogance and greed. Dylan describes a world in which naturalness is forbidden, creativity is the enemy and beauty is assassinated. Youth, struggling to keep from growing up absurd in a land of TV commercials and high-rise rapacity, sees this world and sees, too, that we adult members accept it and then they hear Dylan describe it. And when he describes it, it is either in a voice reminiscent of the juke box or in words on paper in a language they understand. Youth knows intuitively, if not empirically, that this is a true state of the nation message. (p. 181)
Ralph J. Gleason, "The Children's Crusade," in Ramparts (copyright 1966 by Ramparts Magazine Inc.; reprinted by permission), March, 1966 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 173-91).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455
[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 too many Newports of the soul become Dylan's trademark?
The songs on this new LP are all about women (possibly many, possibly one) but they take us far beyond the J. D. Salinger phony-circuit. This work is in appreciation and—more important—in celebration. There is a softness of imagery, a mellowing of tone; even the voice is huskier. It is as though someone somewhere has sandpapered Dylan's sensibilities. But softness does not imply limpness. The message, and the impact, are as sharp as ever.
The most moving song on the LP is "Just Like a Woman." Like any good poem, it captures essences—almost scents—in a series of images that build until, by its conclusion, there is a sense of intimate knowledge. Like any good song, its refrain stings: "She takes just like a woman / She makes love just like a woman / She aches just like a woman / But she breaks just like a little girl."
"I Want You" should especially appeal to the teens in Dylan's growing audience because, while it remains complex in imagery, it expresses its theme in simple phrases like "I need you so bad." "Memphis Blues Again" and "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" come close to being putdowns, but even in these songs, we laugh rather than snicker.
A personal favorite is "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" because all that is necessary to appreciate the willowy beauty of its lyrics is to think closely of a personal sad-eyed lady and let the images do the rest. Critics who claim that Dylan's songs are a hodge-podge of his own associations, meaningless beyond the perimeter of Gramercy Park, should listen to the "Sad-Eyed Lady …" side….
It's good to see motion again, and it's good to see—in this LP—not a rehash but a reshaping. It's especially good because there can be no such thing as a poet of the put-down.
Richard Goldstein, "The Pop Bag," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1966), September 22, 1966, p. 18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258
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, harsh voice coupled with an asinine woolhat dialect—cheapened even these.
In "Blonde on Blonde" you won't find any songs of conscience…. Yet, there is one pure gem—a piece called Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, harking back in its imagery to the stylized metaphors of the Child Ballads. One entire side is devoted to this single song, etched against a calm instrumental backdrop, and I, for one, respond to it both emotionally and aesthetically. It is Dylan's finest achievement.
On balance, the album is a banal production. It spotlights all of Dylan's horrendous shortcomings. But, through one luminous selection, it reminds us that somewhere in the dross there may gleam a fugitive vein of gold.
O. B. Brummell, "Bob Dylan—A Far Cry from Aristotle," in High Fidelity (copyright © by ABC Leisure Magazines, Inc.), October, 1966, p. 125.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
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 century now there has been an angry subterranean brook cutting away the bedrock beneath the arid soil of the New Yorker. This bastard tradition goes back to Whitman and Poe, and includes Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, and now Bob Dylan. Its energy comes from slums, alleys, and jails, instead of libraries, classrooms, and editorial offices.
At the most obvious level of his impact, Dylan has "exploded" popular music the way critic Leslie Fieldler says William Burroughs has "exploded" the traditional form of the novel with his cut-outs and syntactical innovations…. [His] exploding of both form and content opened up folk and pop music to new plateaus for poetic, content-conscious songwriters. Dylan, as seminal innovator, has made Lennon and McCartney, Phil Ochs, and the Byrds possible, just as Lenny Bruce made Woody Allen possible. In so mass a media as juke boxes and records, Dylan's effect is already deeper and more durable than Sinatra's, Rodgers and Hammerstein's, and Presley's. Dylan Thomas put song back into poetry, and Bob Dylan has put poetry into song.
Some artists develop vertically, digging even deeper into the fiber of their own obsession. Hemingway, James Baldwin, and John Osborne fit this category. Other artists, more restless, mature horizontally, changing passions and styles like seasons; Picasso, Norman Mailer, and Dylan among them. (pp. 1, 12)
Dylan's transcendent vision [is] that life is absurd and the only way to endure in this mad and routinized society is to see everything as a meaningless game juggling reality and illusion constantly….
[Dylan's] writing is very uneven and undisciplined. He is capable of such silly lines as "walk a rugged mile" and "I'm weary as hell." Too often his compulsion to rhyme diminishes his imagery and music. He is hardly yet the equal of Lowell, Ginsberg, or John Ashbery.
But he has single-handedly revolutionized pop music and folk music. To a whole generation he has become the nation's number one public writer.
And he is a poet. If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar. (p. 12)
Jack Newfield, "Bob Dylan: Brecht of the Jukebox, Poet of Electric Guitar," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1967), January 26, 1967, pp. 1, 12.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1970
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 they hate being fooled. Illusion is fine, if quarantined and diagnosed as mild; otherwise it is potentially humiliating (is he laughing at me? conning me out of my money?). Some still discount Dylan as merely a popular culture hero (how can a teen-age idol be a serious artist—at most, perhaps, a serious demagogue). But the most tempting answer—forget his public presence, listen to his songs—won't do. For Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement. The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg…. Dylan has self-consciously explored the possibilities of mass communication just as the pop artists explored the possibilities of mass production. In the same sense that pop art is about commodities, Dylan's art is about celebrity.
This is not to deny the intrinsic value of Dylan's songs. Everyone interested in folk and popular music agrees on their importance, if not their merit. As composer, interpreter, most of all as lyricist, Dylan has made a revolution. He expanded folk idiom into a rich, figurative language, grafted literary and philosophical subtleties onto the protest song, revitalized folk vision by rejecting proletarian and ethnic sentimentality, then all but destroyed pure folk as a contemporary form by merging it with pop. (pp. 220-21)
Yet many of Dylan's fans—especially ex-fans—miss the point. Dylan is no apostle of the electronic age. Rather, he is a fifth-columnist from the past, shaped by personal and political nonconformity, by blues and modern poetry. He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture, his literacy on an illiterate music. He has used the publicity machine to demonstrate his belief in privacy. His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool, and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him. (p. 221)
"Rolling Stone" opened Dylan's first all-rock album, Highway 61 Revisited. More polished but less daring than Bringing It All Back Home, the album reworked familiar motifs. The title song, which depicted the highway as junkyard, temple, and arena for war, was Dylan's best face-of-America commentary since "Talking World War III Blues."… "Desolation Row" was Dylan's final tribute to the götterdämmerung strain in modern literature—an eleven-minute freak show whose cast of losers, goons and ghosts wandered around in a miasma of sexual repression and latent violence underscored by the electronic beat: "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood … / passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk / now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette / then he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet."
The violent hostility of traditionalists to Dylan's rock-and-roll made the uproar over "My Back Pages" seem mild. Not only orthodox leftists but bohemian radicals called him a sellout and a phony…. Actually, Dylan's work still bristled with messages; his "opportunism" had absorbed three years of his life and produced the finest extensions of traditional music since Guthrie. But the purists believed in it because they wanted to. Their passion told less about Dylan than about their own peculiar compound of aristocratic and proletarian sensitivities. (pp. 229-30)
It is a truism among Dylan's admirers that he is a poet using rock-and-roll to spread his art: as Jack Newfield put it in the Village Voice, "If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar." This misrepresentation has only served to discredit Dylan among intellectuals and draw predictable sniping from conscientious B-student poets like Louis Simpson and John Ciardi. Dylan has a lavish verbal imagination and a brilliant sense of irony, and many of his images—especially on the two Blonde on Blonde records—are memorable. But poetry also requires economy, coherence and discrimination, and Dylan has perpetrated prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought; at times he seems to believe one good image deserves five others, and he relies too much on rhyme. His chief literary vitue—sensitivity to psychological nuance—belongs to fiction more than poetry. His skill at creating character has made good lyrics out of terrible poetry, as in the pre-rock "Ballad in Plain D," whose portraits of the singer, his girl and her family redeem lines like: "With unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip / a magnificent mantelpiece though its heart being chipped."
Dylan is not always undisciplined. As early as Freewheelin', it was clear that he could control his material when he cared to. But his disciplines are song-writing and acting, not poetry; his words fit the needs of music and performance, not an intrinsic pattern. Words or rhymes that seem gratuitous in print often make good musical sense, and Dylan's voice, an extraordinary interpreter of emotion though (or more likely because) it is almost devoid of melody, makes vague lines clear. Dylan's music is not inspired. His melodies and arrangements are derivative, and his one technical accomplishment, a vivacious, evocative harmonica, does not approach the virtuosity of a Sonny Terry. His strength as a musician is his formidable eclecticism combined with a talent for choosing the right music to go with a given lyric. The result is a unity of sound and word that eludes most of his imitators.
Dylan is effective only when exploiting this unity, which is why his free verse album notes are interesting mainly as autobiography (or mythology) and why Tarantula is unlikely to be a masterpiece. When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean visionary…. With the rock songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan began trying to create an alternative to poetry. (pp. 233-34)
Formally, [Blonde on Blonde] was his finest achievement since Freewheelin', but while the appeal of the Freewheelin' songs was the illusion of spontaneous folk expression, the songs from Blonde on Blonde were clearly artifacts, lovingly and carefully made. The music was rock and Nashville country, with a sprinkling of blues runs and English-ballad arpeggios. Thematically, the album was a unity. It explored the sub-world pop was creating, an exotic milieu of velvet doors and scorpions, cool sex ("I saw you makin love with him, / you forgot to close the garage door"), zany fashions ("it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine, / your brand-new leopard-skin pill-box hat"), strange potions ("it strangled up my mind, / now people just get uglier and I have no sense of time"), neurotic women ("she's like all the rest / with her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls").
The songs did not preach: Dylan was no longer rebel but seismograph, registering his emotions—fascination, confusion, pity, annoyance, exuberance, anguish—with sardonic lucidity. (p. 235)
The fashionable, sybaritic denizens of Blonde on Blonde are the sort of people despised by radicals as apologists for the system. Yet in accepting the surface that system has produced, they subvert its assumptions…. Blonde on Blonde is about this love of surface.
Dylan's sensitivity to pop comes straight out of his folk background. Both folk and pop mentalities are leery of abstractions, and Dylan's appreciation of surface detail represents Guthriesque common sense—to Dylan, a television commercial was always a television commercial as well as a symbol of alienation. From the first, a basic pragmatism tempered his commitment to the passionate excesses of the revolutionist and the poète-maudit and set him apart from hipster heroes like James Dean. Like the beats, who admired the total revolt of the hipster from a safe distance, Dylan is essentially non-violent. Any vengefulness in his songs is either impersonal or funny, like the threats of a little boy to beat up the bad guys; more often, he is the bemused butt of slapstick cruelty. (pp. 235-36)
Dylan's basic rapport with reality has also saved him from the excesses of pop, kept him from merging, Warhol-like, into his public surface. John Wesley Harding, released after twenty months of silence, shows that Dylan is still intact in spirit as well as body. The songs are more impersonal—and in a way more inscrutable—than ever, yet the human being behind them has never seemed less mysterious. For they reveal Dylan not as the protean embodiment of some collective nerve, but as an alert artist responding to challenge from his peers. Dylan's first rock-and-roll songs were his reaction to the changes in life-style the new rock represented; John Wesley Harding is a reaction to the music itself as it has evolved since his accident. The album is comprehensible only in this context. (pp. 236-37)
The new melodies are absurdly simple, even for Dylan; the only instruments backing his guitar, piano and harmonica are a bass, a drum, and in two songs an extra guitar; the rock beat has faded out and the country and English ballad strains now dominate. The titles are all as straight as "John Wesley Harding": most are taken from the first lines of the songs. The lyrics are not only simple but understated in a way that shows Dylan has learned a trick or two from Lennon-McCartney, and they are folk lyrics. Or more precisely, affectionate comments on folk lyrics—the album is not a reversion to his early work but a kind of hymn to it. (pp. 237-38)
Several of the songs are folk-style fantasies. "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" is both a folk-ballad (based on another stock situation, the gambler on the road) and one of Dylan's surrealist dream songs; "As I Walked Out One Morning" describes a run-in with an Arthurian enchantress as if she were a revenue agent or the farmer's daughter. This juxtaposition of the conventional and the fantastic produces an unsettling gnomic effect, enhanced in some cases by truncated endings—in "The Drifter's Escape," the drifter's trial for some unknown offense ends abruptly when lightning strikes the courthouse, and he gets away in the confusion; "All Along the Watchtower" ends with a beginning, "Two riders are approaching, the wind began to howl." The aura of the uncanny that these songs create is probably what Dylan meant when he remarked, years ago, that folk songs grew out of mysteries.
But some of the album is sheer fun, especially "Down Along the Cove," a jaunty blues banged out on the piano, and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."…
John Wesley Harding does not measure up to Blonde on Blonde. It is basically a tour de force. But it serves its purpose, which is to liberate Dylan—and the rest of us—from the Sgt. Pepper straitjacket. Dylan is free now to work on his own terms. It would be foolish to predict what he will do next. But hopefully he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communications crisis, the true prophets are the translators. (p. 239)
Ellen Willis, "Dylan," in Cheetah (copyright © 1967 by Ellen Willis; reprinted by permission of Ellen Willis), March, 1967 (and reprinted in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor, Morrow, 1972, pp. 218-39).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342
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 three later ones. Two other songs, "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," are plainly exercises in simple musicianship, with straight lyrics and fetching, uncomplicated tunes that carry echoes of country and western—a new departure for Dylan. Five of the songs are third-person expositions of strange scenes and events. Of these, only "Drifter's Escape" moved me at all. If the rest have inner meaning, I missed it. The remaining songs are first-person pieces. Two of them—"I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and "Dear Landlord"—are impressive. The "I" of a third, "I am a Lonesome Hobo," cannot be Dylan: lonesome the young millionaire may be, but a hobo, no. In several songs there is what could be called a rudimentary religious element—something new for Dylan.
In general, I found too many of the songs to be far below the standards of powerful image and hunting sound that distinguished the better cuts on even the very personal Blonde on Blonde. Either that, or the new songs' meaning went completely over my head. Dylan has put out bad records before; notably his fourth, Another Side of Bob Dylan; so the conclusion that John Wesley Harding just doesn't make the grade is not disconcerting. I can wait until next time. (p. 821)
Charles E. Fager, in Criticism (copyright © 1965 by the Christian Century Foundation), June 19, 1968.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
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 conventions—ballad structures, allegorical characterizations, the epic distance of moral tales—with enigmatic Dylanisms. He is the master of the put-on as he sings narratives with no dramatic action, eluding meaning-seekers while drawing attention to the tone, imagery and assumptions of the voice he adopts. For example, "John Wesley Harding" is about an American Robin Hood, friend to the poor, who "never hurt an honest man." Dylan sings of the "time they talk about"—but skips the expected climax and we learn only that "he took a stand" and soon the situation was "all but straightened out." The only quality making Harding the hero of the song (and, as it is the title song, of the album) is his lawless goodness: he carries a gun in "every" hand but his virtues are gentle, even Christian…. Dylan's playful use of syntax here ("a gun in every hand") and of rhyme and pronunciation elsewhere (in "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" fright is pronounces "freight" to rhyme with sight pronounced "sate,") contrasts with clichés like "always lend a helping hand," trite rhymes like "moon … spoon" and tortured word orders for the sake of rhyme. Is Dylan mocking the rules and limitations of language, using them to move beyond convention—or is he simply hung up trying to find rhymes and meters for his thoughts so they will somehow become songs? There is no reason why he would have to use rhymes if felt they were only hanging him up. The rest of his verbal games are so sophisticated that this ineptitude seems to be part of a colossal and maybe defensive put-on. The attractive thing about put-ons is that you can wait for others' reactions before deciding how straight you want to play.
Dylan plays high on a tightrope strung out between richly religious, allusive moralizing and an arch tone of complete put-on. The Christian metaphors in "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" are used straight, without undercutting…. [The] final image of the speaker ("I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried") leaves a very real but mysterious sense of fear, guilt and aloneness: the old symbols work in vague emotional evocation, but any precise "interpretation" must follow the jaunty mockery of the harmonica's coda to a different end.
The sense of vague secular apocalypse is strongest in "All Along the Watchtower," a song that gets better all the time…. [It] condences and reflects much of the rest of the album…. Roughly paraphrased [the lyrics say]: society is a total assault on jokers and thieves (Shakespeare's fools, biblical outcasts, the outsiders-as-social critic;) but rather than bitter invective, the reaction here is a casual certainty of revolution. "We" out here just have to get ourselves together and it will happen; "they" (princes, their women and barefoot servants) in there are doomed. The magnificent vagueness of "the wind began to howl," which could be the beginning of the song, is totally unlike the lack of climax in "John Wesley Harding." The title song is in the past tense, and we are assured by the narrative voice that everything came out all right, and that the specific action is irrelevant where the style of the hero becomes morality and affirmation. But here the issue is a kind of religious belief—hippie faith in the drug revolution, political faith in the third world and guerrilla warfare—a hope for radical change in the future-present that becomes apocalyptic as one becomes increasingly committed to it. Still, the belief that "it" will happen is tempered here by the frozen imminence of apocalypse, and it remains as accessible to doubts and hopes as the present. (p. 407)
Jean Strouse, "Bob Dylan's Gentle Anarchy," in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co, Inc.), June 21, 1968, pp. 406-07.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346
["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 "John Wesley Harding," though here these concerns are treated more casually and playfully. (p. 161)
Dylan has always combined frankness about the power struggle between men and women with reticence about sex—an unusual combination. The conventional approach in pop music is to combine realism with a display of sexual power—indeed, to identify the two—or else to soften the whole male-female relationship with fantasy. The first tendency comes out of blues and is bound up with the myth of black sexuality; the second is the product of white music and puritanism. Before Dylan (and the Beatles), American bohemians and radicals who rebelled against the hypocrisies of white middle-class culture almost invariably used blackness as a central metaphor. Dylan never did. Like all the other folkies, he learned blues riffs and sang about Mississippi, but his radicalism was modelled on Woody Guthrie's and his bohemianism on Allen Ginsberg's, and blues sensibility contributed little to his melodies (diatonic and crude), his rhythms (English-cum-hillbilly), his lyrics, or his sexual attitude. Now he is discovering that romantic fantasy, staple of the white pop tradition, has its place. His attitude toward women, like his attitude toward everything else, has softened considerably. "Nashville Skyline" is an album of tender, humor-filled love songs—not a putdown in the lot. (pp. 161-62)
Ellen Willis, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 26, 1969.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423
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 of romantic cliches…. Has Dylan "matured," as a good many of the early reviewers happily report—or has he just gone soft as apple butter?
The test is clearly the tunes themselves, which in this album carry the weight once borne by Dylan's poetry. The songs range from the maudlin Girl from the North Country … through the lime-tart, gittar-twanging Country Pie to the deftly campy Peggy Day, all straw-hat throwaway lines and goony goony stee-el guitar glissandos. Every one of these songs is attractive, distinctive and skillfully sung (perhaps the word is "put over"), but the materials from which they have been made are paper thin and plainly derivative. Dylan's ditty bag is patched together from Country & Western clichés and his delivery is not quite good enough to be believed. He comes on either as a semipro entertainer lightheartedly recollecting Grand Ole Opry or he's a sand-lot lover self-consciously revealing a newly won masculinity that somehow seems to sit on Bob Dylan like the first growth of beard on a teen-age boy….
Significance is precisely what Nashville Skyline is packed with for people who are apprehensive about the drooping state of America pop music. If a performer of the shrewdness of Bob Dylan can delude himself into thinking his former style—tough, complex and wholly original—was merely the product of "big city" influences operating on a basically simple and bucolic temperament, then there is every reason to believe that the whole pop music scene may soon slide inexorably back into the slough of sentimentality from which it was lifted a number of years ago when the first hard rockers began their program of rural electrification.
Albert Goldman, "That Angry Kid Has Gone All Over Romantic," in Life (copyright © 1969 by Albert Goldman; reprinted by permission of The Sterling Lord Agency, Inc.), May 23, 1969, p. 18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476
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 very far out at the time. Today, Tarantula's close to 50 schismatic and disjointed "fables," "poems," "scenes," "hallucinations," whatever, suggest only an imitative fallacy, for they are literally about too much of nothing….
Suppose, as one anti-formalist critic does, that "art is simply what occurs in a setting and a situation appropriate to a certain kind of attention." Then, by that measure, what is there to attend to in Tarantula? It mirrors, of course, the Dylan world….
Tarantula often seems like the hallucination of a method-up poker player, rapidly dealing the cards, all of which reveal only parts of himself in a cosmically tricked deck.
The book suffers from hypertrophied images: "a bearded leprechaun … wearing a topless mafia cape" freak and goon show humor: Cunk selling "fake blisters at the world's fair," "a sauerkraut hits him in the face"; punchedout allegorical names: Plague the Kid, Weep the Greed, Tom the Wretched; and a wiseacre wit: "ed Sullivan and Fresh kid, a relative of Prince Rainier and visiting this country as a guest of Cong Long, a grandson of Huey Long—seen escaping with catcher's mitts."
There are, of course, stunning episodes, like the story of Simply That, or the section beginning "back betty, black bready" with its "blam de lam!" chorus….
Whereas writers like Lautreamont, Rimbaud, and William Burroughs insist on combining a careful delineation of the minute particulars of their demonic visions with a tone of insouciant, often lyrical cruelty, Dylan's Season in Hell reveals too often merely the fragments of an exploding conscience drifting away from any moral or esthetic center. His assaults against the "wall of dollar" and "the intoxicating ghosts of dogma" are rebuffed as his "hipster's dictionary" suffocates him with too many words.
Dylan, who in his songs has captured and distilled as true a representation of the American idiom as Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, or Chuck Berry, suffers in Tarantula from a case of self-inflicted tarantism a jittery, uncontrolled language dance. In a way, the book's manifest self-indulgence can be seen as a painful consequence of what must have been for Dylan a period of near self-abolition. (p. 52)
Michael Rogers, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1971.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1843
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 style. In the world of the "poor white," the grand modal themes survive, but the line becomes harder, tighter, the rhythm more cabined and confined in the metres of hymnody…. The happiness is eupeptic, even if also a bit euphoric: for the shutting out of pain involves a wilful hardening of sensibility.
The contrast with black folk music is pointed; and although Dylan is white, it is significant that in his art black and white sources are inextricably linked. Most basic among his black roots is the Negro holler—the unaccompanied, usually pentatonic, ululation which the black man chants to the empty fields. Scarcely less primitive is the talking blues which cannot aspire to song: the Negro mumbles to himself whilst vamping an accompaniment on guitar or piano. (pp. 398-99)
Bob Dylan, like Beethoven and the Beatles, has three periods: which correspond to an evolution towards music and a maturing of sensibility. In the first period the young mind and senses are preoccupied with the world OUTSIDE, which is regarded as at once separate and hostile: so that most of the songs are in some sense protest. In many songs of this phase music is minimal. Thus "Talking World War III Blues" has NO tune, no lyricism; the words are spoken against a rudimentary blues sequence on guitar, and the piece differs from a Negro talking blues mainly in that the words are sophisticated, acid in their comment on the plight of modern man, yet with a touch of fantasticality that distances the experience. The songs proper in the early period fall roughly into three types. The first is narrative, based on the American mutation of British balladry. A fine example is the "Ballad of Hollis Brown."… The music could hardly be more primitive, more deprived, counteracting the flashes of poetic metaphor in the verse: for it consists of an almost pre-pentatonic reiterated incantation, supported by an unchanging ostinato of tonic and dominant chords on guitar. (pp. 399-400)
In the second type of song protest hits back by way of satire and (sometimes) lyricism. "With God On Our Side" recounts American military history with savage humour; and unlike "Hollis Brown" it has a tune (related to the hillbilly waltz) which is memorable if not affecting. Despite the bitterness of the words, their wit and the tune's memorability make the song affirmative, even comic.
Because such songs are positive in total effect, they tie up with the third type of song from the early period, wherein satire is transcended into the apocalyptic. In these songs both words and tune are often a permutation of real folk sources. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is a recreation of the ballad of Lord Rendal. The poetic imagery has a genuine affinity with runic folk verse and there are lines of visionary splendour that recall Bunyan and Blake. The incremental treatment of the original tune is preserved, but the modality of the melody is translated into a diatonic hillbilly waltz.
Interestingly enough, these apocalyptic songs often spring from topical and local events: "Who killed Davey Moore?" for instance, deals with a real and specific human situation, but makes out of it an experience as universal as the Cockrobin rhyme it transmutes. Not surprisingly, it was these visionary songs that provided the transition from Dylan's first to his second period, wherein the drama turns within the mind. Wheareas his first phase had been a kind of antiliturgy, exorcising the devil in an unlyrical, even at times unmusical, rasping, cawing and talking style, raucous and rancid: the evolution from protest to acceptance is also a move towards lyricism and music. (pp. 400-01)
As Dylan explores within the mind, the key-songs of his second period contain the complementary poles of DREAM and NIGHTMARE. "Mr. Tambourine Man" is the first great Dylan tune, no longer definable in term of sources, though it has something in common with celtic folksong and American hillbilly, if little in common with the Negro blues. Far from being socially committed, it looks as though it might be an escape song, and is so, in that a tambourine man is a peddler of pot. Yet Dylan says he's "not sleepy," even though there ain't no place he's going to; and his pied piper myth encourages us to follow the unconscious where spontaneously it may lead us. This is subtly suggested by the wavery refrain and by the irregularity of both verbal and musical clauses, which pile or float up like smoke rings. As the rings unfurl, we are liberated: so the song turns out to be about recharging our spiritual batteries today in order to find life again tomorrow. The song is unexpectedly disturbing because its mythology plumbs unexpectedly deep.
But going back to the world of instinct means accepting everything that the mind contains; the Edenic dream of "Mr. Tambourine Man" couldn't be valid if Dylan hadn't also faced up to the mind's darker depths. So the great dream-songs are complemented by the songs of nightmare; and significantly, whereas "Mr. Tambourine Man" is folky, countrified, with natural guitar, "Ballad of a Thin Man" is in city-blues style, late Chicago vintage, with driving rhythm and electrophonic amplification…. Dylan is no longer outside his victim; the nightmare is both without and within: and the dark thread inherent in melody, harmony and the driving pulse is poles removed from the self righteous arrogance of the early protest songs.
So in his second phase Bob Dylan has turned from the world without to the world within; and has expressed this by complementary songs of dream and of nightmare. In the double album Blonde on Blonde—which provides a transition to his third period—dream and nightmare have become almost indistinguishable. All the songs would seem to be concerned with the drug experience and the rediscovery of identity; and the verses contain a fair proportion of what looks like "automatic" writing by free association. This release of "consciousness" leads to further musical enrichment; and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" stands with "Mr. Tambourine Man" as perhaps the most insidiously haunting pop song of our time. (pp. 401-02)
Dylan's third period is initiated with John Wesley Harding, for me his finest disc thus far. The songs' maturity comes from their fusion of the social commitment of the early phase with the commitment to the inner life manifest in the second period; the public and private manners become one, in a style that is all song. While the words have gained undertones and overtones from Dylan's submission to dream and nightmare, they're now always meaningful, if not unambiguously so. Complementarily, the tunes are more complex in organization; and the inter-relationship of line, rhythm and harmony powerfully "incarnates" the words. A relatively simple example is "Dear Landlord" in which the music directly expresses the equivocation of the title. Though we all know that landlords must be wicked and the adjective "dear" ironic, we end up feeling a wry compassion: the reason being partly melodic (the tune, lingering almost caressingly on the "dear," combines an upward aspiring tenderness with strength)—and partly harmonic (the sudden change, at the top of the phrase, from the triad of C to that of E is a revelation—our ears open in a tragi-comic wonder, if not dismay, at the realisation that Dylan and landlord might learn to accept one another). (p. 403)
John Wesley Harding … ends with "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," a simple song of heterosexual love: which is a two-way relationship between individuals. The point, if obvious, is important: for Dylan is no longer concerned with himself in opposition to the external world, nor with the mazes of his dream or nightmare; he's concerned with himself in relationship to another human being. Superficially, the music seems corny, ragtimely, almost cosy, whilst the quietly comic words forestall emotional indulgence. Yet the time, lyrically extended in the silence of the night, is so beautiful that in total effect the song, far from being comfortable, almost stills the breath. The music tells us that it's true that there's "no need to be afraid": that all the bleeding and dying and all minatory Thin Men are banished from this silent room and warm bed…. The song leaves us warm and at peace—yet also vulnerable; we live through the experience of love in a way it would hardly be extravagant to call magical. So the song, though it seems homelier, is really no less mysterious than Dylan's other great lyrical songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Sad Eyed Lady."
This song could have been written only by a young man; none the less its balance of stresses—between tenderness and irony, joy and pain—is remarkably mature. Perhaps Dylan has never equalled it since, though it's the spring-board from which most of his later songs derive. The disc Nashville Skyline effects a rebirth of country and western music, in which eroticism and heterosexual lovingness are experienced, not commercially manipulated. (pp. 404-05)
Dylan, unlike most pop artists, has grown up and offers potential for future development. His significance lies in the fact that he cannot be categorized. At bottom he's a traditional folk artist, a white drifter and outsider; yet he's seen this experience as directly relevant in an urban metropolis and in so doing has called upon industrial techniques and even "commercial" values. In this respect there are parallels between Dylan and the two pop composers of indubitable genius from an earlier generation, Gershwin and Ellington. Gershwin as Jewish Outsider, Ellington as Negro Outsider, "incarnated" values that denied Tin Pan Alley; yet they made it possible for their public to accept a range of experience which it didn't know it could apprehend, let alone believe in. Dylan began as the Adolescent Outsider, with Nashville substituting for Tin Pan Alley. He has an advantage over his predecessors in that he has a public that identifies with him and is (even intellectually) aware of what he stands for. It remains to be seen, however, whether Dylan's young public can grow older with him, or whether the superficially articulate militants will carry the day in maintaining that Dylan has been a Judas in moving from callow denunciation of other people's values to a recognition of mutual responsibility. (p. 406)
Wilfrid Mellers, "Bob Dylan: Freedom and Responsibility," in Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, edited by Craig McGregor (copyright © 1972 by Craig McGregor), William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 398-407.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203
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 dramatic narrative one expects in ballad tradition, Dylan provides a catalogue of apocalyptic images…. This is the mode Dylan has continued to develop, and although many of his efforts are what pop musicians call "message songs," the elements of protest are clearly subordinated to the exercise of a complex imagery which is notably different from the straightforward affirmations of Guthrie's songs. (pp. 146-47)
Gene Bluestein, in his The Voice of the Folk: Folklore and American Literary Theory (copyright © 1972 by the University of Massachusetts Press), University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1465
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 looking back to find how he arrived at the present before pressing forward. Dylan is no doubt at a crossroads now. He must have come close to accomplishing what drove him to his limits; he has been a known man, a celebrity, a Superstar, an international influence, a mover of men. There seems little doubt that on some level that's what he was after, and he got it. Long ago. At the same time he is young enough to remember individual insights, yet old enough to have the details blurred. The fact of retrieving all his work may have served to refreshen his memory, and either reinforce or temper his decisions. (p. 43)
If the book serves no other purpose than to bring Dylan records back into extensive currency, it has served well. But there is so much more here. One can see the development of a writer, from the bald yet insistent pounding of the "Ballad of Emmett Till" to the slightly more sophisticated "Only A Pawn In Their Game" and then (and this is the marvel of the book, the availability of comparison) in an incredible yet fully evident quantum leap to the brilliance of "Mr. Tambourine Man." The meter tightens and the words fall instead of being placed, but you can "hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme," and there is something to tracing a man's creative history which puts you in closer touch with his present and one's own hopes for the future.
The Dylan wit is very apparent throughout the book, strongest when Dylan is at his ambiguous best and fading when he tries too hard. Don't Look Back showed how he used it as a defense and a weapon, but on paper one can trace its growth from puppy dog snip to teething protest yowl to snarling amphetamine put-down to a final joke on himself. He had the presence of mind, for instance (and I missed this when the record came out), to follow "Chimes of Freedom," his densest, most complex and wondrous work to that date, with "I Shall Be Free No. 10," which starts, "I'm just average common too …" It was the pixie behind the prescience and it was part of Dylan's charm. Much of his appeal, in fact, was to join him (if you could) in his joke…. Right about then, around Another Side … when Dylan started putting young adult universals into enchanted language, was when people started tossing his phrases into their word-salad conversations like precious avocados. (pp. 44-5)
Dylan's intuition ran deep. He became in touch (on many levels, often below the conscious) with a gut consistency that if you had to define it you couldn't feel. He began it as a wise-ass kid when his songs refused to come unstuck in their rambling detail. He was linear, a story-teller ("Hattie Carroll," "North Country Blues," "Boots of Spanish Leather" and many others are detailed narratives with a tone at the core), but he could turn a phrase like a bandit and was topical on exactly the right topics. When he grew less linear, when the tone came forth and the narrative became oblique, it was this consistency which unified even the most frenetic images. He could throw words around like spangles in a wind and they'd have to mean something. They couldn't miss. He was in touch. (pp. 45-6)
Blonde on Blonde was the apex of that fragmented vision. His songs were regularly shattered like mirrors into jagged sections, each with its own unique yet truly reflective viewpoint. But interpretations did get out of hand, and the gut magic reached people with twisted guts and distorted like never before.
It was getting pretty crazy. With every step somehow accepted, there were no standards. Dylan could have been sloppy or tight and largely have gotten away with either. He was the biggest individual superstar since Elvis and had none of the seered guidelines rock idols can follow today. Even in coping with epic lunacy, Dylan led the way. (p. 46)
When he reemerged [after his motorcycle accident], there seemed a conscious denial of the past madness. Gone was the sardonic wit, replaced by an austere diction and entirely new symbol system which left many of his former devotees with no immediate grasp on exactly what he was saying. There were few concrete—no more honky-tonk lagoons or escapades out on the D train to latch on to. About the time you started wondering what all this meant, you realized your gut wasn't telling you. Dylan's magic gut consistency was gone.
John Wesley Harding was austere and deep like a quarry pool. It was a head album, Dylan's first. Nashville Skyline again steered clear of intuitive connections, Dylan preferring to sing about such universals as love and love's constancy without using concrete examples from anyone's life, including his own. As if to maintain the purity of his privacy, he offered no glimpse into his concrete world. Nashville Skyline could take place anywhere, or nowhere. Self Portrait was the same.
But there was a strange stirring, some forgotten shifting of stomach juices, when New Morning appeared unannounced one autumn afternoon. Dylan's voice seemed to rasp again, and there were some vaguely recognizable scenes set in language that brought sly grins to all my friends' faces. "Day of the Locusts" had a concrete base—you could feel Dylan's presence, his old ambivalence up-dated by the twin behemoths, security and maturity. The overtones were ominous—locusts buzzed alluringly throughout the song—but Dylan both braved them and escaped. Once again he was talking about a recognizable self and a personalized yet still universal fear. Once again a head was exploding, but this time it wasn't his.
"One More Weekend" was a married man's "Pledging My Time" in which Dylan introduced his kids, if only to leave them for a while. That was a first. He seemed remarkably forthcoming with his details, relaxed as he let them fall. The gem of the album, the song which spoke for the entire year, was "Went to See the Gypsy," in which Dylan visited a figure I assume to be Presley. The song has all the banter, the vague yet potentially decipherable phrasing of classic Dylan without the manic frightrush. In the song Dylan is again tempted, ambivalent. He admits implicitly to fear (of exposure? of a lunatic relapse?) and to the desire to break away from watching himself, to go "through the mirror." Ultimately he lets it ride, but he has to go all the way home to "that little Minnesota town" to do it. It seems he was feeling the stirrings too. (pp. 46-7)
The final two pages of writing faces "Watching the River Flow" with ["When I Paint My Masterpiece"]…. This wide-ranging book which includes Dylan at his most publicly profound is almost made to end with "I don't have much to say …" It's an irony not wasted on a man who has been criticized in his lifetime for saying both too little and too much, simultaneously.
But that tempting absurdity if flush against Dylan's statement that he's not finished. The masterpiece is not painted but not out of mind. Dylan wants it; he must or he wouldn't have called such final attention to it. But both of his latest works (each copyright 1971) are near parodies of that desire; they talk about tranquility and high art without ever achieving either. And no amount of joking will bring them closer. Dylan approached the peak of his powers during the madness of the amphetamine express. He can't be expected to return to those lunatic days, they almost did him in. But the thread which ran through Another Side …, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and which resurfaced for a continuing, fascinating moment in New Morning, is still potentially reachable. The urgency has been dulled but the core of the man remains. His concretes vary, and some could well inspire him. (pp. 47-8)
Peter Knobler, "Bob Dylan: A Gut Reaction," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1973 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Peter Knobler), September, 1973, pp. 42-8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
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 stood alone….
When I criticize Dylan now, it's not for his abilities as a singer or songwriter, which are extraordinary, but for his shortcomings as a record maker. Part of me believes that the completed record is the final measure of the pop musician's accomplishments. (p. 43)
If Dylan isn't a great rock artist per se, he is a great artist, period. He has transcended his limitations more successfully than anyone else in rock. He succeeded in making himself indispensable. The records may be indispensable in only the first moments in which they are perceived, but they can transmit as much force in those moments as others do in hours, days and years.
Dylan considered in total—as a man, myth, singer, writer and, yes, maker of records—hasn't been merely immediate and urgent: He's given rock its drama. He creates tensions within his audience beyond anyone else's reach. If he isn't as good a record maker as Chuck Berry, he's a much better actor. As an actor and as a personality, Dylan hasn't handled every role with equal skill….
Like James Dean and Marlon Brando, he was better at playing the rebel than the citizen, the outsider than the insider and the outlaw than the sheriff.
Much of the critical enthusiasm for Blood on the Tracks is really a sigh of relief that he's shaken off the role of contentment that Jonathan Cott also has found never rang true. But in returning to his role as disturber of the peace, Dylan hasn't revived any specific phase from the past, only a style that lets his emotions speak more freely and the state of mind in which he no longer denies the fires that are still raging within him and us. He is using elements of his past to make an album about his past….
The writing is the source of the record's power. It's been a long time since Dylan has composed a melody line as perfectly suited to his voice as "Tangled Up in Blue," and though the lyrics are both confessional and narrative, Dylan makes it all sound like direct address. There are times when he sounds closer, more intimate and more real than anyone else….
I like everything about it; the good, the bad and the ugly. It all matters: the title "Tangled Up in Blue"; and the way that song propels itself relentlessly forward (even though it is about the past) and always winds up leaving Dylan and us standing in the same place; the lines, "I helped her out of a jam, I guess / But I used a little too much force"; the way that the song sounds so right for the Byrds of 1965; the compassion, not rage, of "You're a Big Girl Now"; the lines "I can make it through / You can make it too"; the innocence and unqualified beauty of Dylan's reprise of his folk music roots on "Buckets of Rain"; the awkwardness of the music for "If You See Her, Say Hello"; the childishness (without any redeeming child-like wonder) of so much of "Idiot Wind"; the holiness of the last verse of "Shelter from the Storm"; the extension of the apocalyptic mood of his earlier work into something still forceful, but mellower, more understanding, more tolerant and more self-critical; the indifference to the subject of women as a generality and his involvement with women and love as something specific, and above all, the arrogance—that defiant indifference to whatever it is others think he ought to be doing. He still stands alone.
Blood on the Tracks will only sound like a great album for a while. Like most of Dylan, it is impermanent. But like the man who made it, the album answers to no one and was made for everyone. It is the work of someone who is not just seeing through himself, but looking through us—and still making us see things that we haven't seen before. (p. 51)
Jon Landau, "After the Flood," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission). Issue 182, March 13, 1975, pp. 43, 49, 51.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 138
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 triumphant exhilaration of having survived. It is outrageously great. (p. 53)
Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 182, March 13, 1975.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667
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 addressing himself, in tones of hesitation and only tentative approach, to a mysterious woman. From other lyrics one could eventually figure out that while the sad-eyed lady had had a great many men figure in her life, none of them was capable of offering her the sort of total commitment and support she demanded, an attitude on her part which might explain the singer's hesitancy to approach her. Describing the sad-eyed lady's hangers-on, an unsavory lot, the singer concluded brutally, "Who among them do you think would ever carry you?" After giving out only this much information, the song retreats into obscurity, effectively excluding the listener from deciphering it in its totality. It would be hard to think of a more effective refutation of the idea that song lyrics must render up their meanings on the spot in order to satisfy.
The reaction to, for instance, the Dylan songs on Blonde on Blonde was an almost overwhelming concern with thematics. One group of listeners seemed most intent on determining whether the narrative voice or any of the characters in a given song were under the influence of drugs or using drug-induced experiences as referents. Such a concern was not only somewhat reductive, but hopeless, since the lyrics were so ambiguous that various sets of referents could be plugged in. Other special-interest groups sifted through Dylan lyrics seeking statements on generational conflict, attitudes toward women, possible calls to revolution, deification of new heroes, and so forth. Naturally, there were those concerned that listening too often to Dylan might cause the listener to abandon his moral standards. (p. 133)
The major arguments against giving Dylan the status of poet seemed to be that he reelaborated the same to-hell-with-you material too often and that many of his Rimbaud-evoking songs used mere obscurity to give an impression of something profound going on, while the images in the poems were really thrown together quite arbitrarily, without regard for the total rhetoric of the song.
Certainly a tiny stock of themes has never prevented non-singing poets from being classified as such. The charge of incoherence and randomness makes more sense, for some Dylan texts are remarkably loose and fragmented, failing to satisfy because they give the listener no clue as to how he is to fit the barrage of images into some coherent system. However, most of Dylan's songs make an approximate sort of sense. The poetic I usually takes such a markedly emotional stance toward his subject, whether one of contempt, despair, or longing, as to provide evidence of what is supposed to be going on.
The arguments against Dylan-as-poet seem to be trying to disqualify him by applying to his work standards not used in cases where the poet refrains from singing his texts. This double standard suggests that what really bothers these objectors to Dylan-as-poet is that he violates the distinction between poetry and song. Many poets fail to make their signs sufficiently clear or to impart to their works a unified feel, but Dylan was a poet of modern times spreading his unsimplified work with a song. (p. 134)
Naomi Lindstrom, "Dylan: Song Returns to Poetry," in The Texas Quarterly (© 1976 by The University of Texas at Austin), Winter, 1976, pp. 131-36.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
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 interesting exactly because of the way the parts have a will of their own, a recalcitrance to Dylan's will. If in his affectionate liner notes Allen Ginsberg calls "One More Cup of Coffee" a "Hebraic cantillation never heard before in US song," there are few who can call him on the judgment. But perhaps I can add as a Tallahassee Texan that there's a whole heap of Country and Western hunkered down in the midst of that Jewish mysticism. And the point is that whoever this Jewish-poet-cowboy cantillating country music is, and whatever his song's stubborn parts, they all differ vastly from Hurricane Carter and his song, from Sara and hers; and these have only Dylan's compulsion, sense of national absurdity and consistent instrumentation tying them to the dying dreamer of "Romance in Durango," or to the sister of "Oh, Sister."
Preferring honest anarchy to pretended order, Dylan's new work senses without making, without constructing, without building a concrete structure, without giving audiences easy handles to hold…. [Many] people are going to claim that an album like Desire doesn't make sense. It doesn't. If there is any sense in the grooves, it will be private sense, drawn in on a gasp and breathed out in a sigh; it will be sensual. It will not be consensual. For at the heart of Dylan's work these days is the assumption that consensus values are really gone.
Nor shall they be replaced. This is an album of maturity, not of resignation but of acknowledgment—where desire is an everyday affliction, where dream-songs are written on rising before going back to sleep for 40 more winks, where apocalypses happen in nearly every tune only to be passed over casually. (pp. 23-4)
W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "Bicentennial Dylan," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 14, 1976, pp. 23-4.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890
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 return on Blood on the Tracks was one of the principle reasons why that album was believed to be a return to the golden age. The angels dominated from Nashville Skyline to Planet Waves, and there is reason to believe that Dylan still holds onto something of that vision: "Sara," one of two songs on Desire which he wrote alone, again speaks of his wife as a "sweet virgin angel." (p. 55)
But love songs aren't the focus of Desire, which is one of the things that differentiates it from Dylan's other post-rock work. On the best songs, Dylan returns to the fantastic images, weird characters and absurdist landscapes of the Sixties. The metaphors work on so many levels they're impossible to sift, and just when you think you have one firmly defined, it slips off into something else again. The crucial ideas are cinematic; in fact, one song, "Romance in Durango," seems to be an explicit parable about making Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973. There are the usual romances, the stories of hard-luck kids from rough slums, a couple of other westerns, even a bit of travelogue ("Mozambique"). Some of the songs, like "One More Cup of Coffee" (which is apparently based on a story Ramblin' Jack Elliott used to tell), seem ancient, as though Dylan were once more using the resources of traditional folk music for his melodies and themes.
But the bulk of the songs are nightmares, visions of a man on the run from something he can't define, or else stories about the fear of having nowhere to turn (as in "Oh, Sister" and "One More Cup of Coffee")…. In "Black Diamond Bay" this is carried to its extreme. In a madhouse hotel where suicidal Greeks are mistaken for Soviet diplomats, the terrified protagonist, running again from something unnamed, loses her identity—she can't even remember the face on her passport. Open a door, and like a Rube Goldberg contraption, the Greek is hung, a volcano explodes, the island falls into the sea. And the desk clerk, meanwhile, simply sits and smiles: he's seen it all before….
The record only falters, in fact, when it attempts to write or rewrite real history. I believe Dylan's confession about "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in "Sara" but I don't trust it. "Hurricane" is a setup. The whole thing is too improbable for real life, though … it did happen. Dylan even sings with a measure of disbelief and, in the end, his rage is rather impotent….
This problem presents itself most explicitly and awkwardly in "Joey," a hymm to Joey Gallo…. Dylan would obviously like to write an outlaw ballad, making a sort of Billy the Kid or Pretty Boy Floyd from a modern-day thug….
[Dylan rationalizes his lionizing of Joey] because he spent his time in prison "readin' Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich," because he came out of prison dressed like Jimmy Cagney. For this sense of style, Dylan is willing to forgive him his numbers and gambling rackets—even slyly attempting to deny that he ever was involved with such things. But his neatest ellipsis is to avoid all mention of the public execution of Joseph Colombo, which the evidence suggests the Gallo mob ordered. (p. 57)
Gallo was an outlaw, in fact, only in the sense that he refused to live by the rules of the mob—it's as hard to be sympathetic to him as it is to be comfortable with Robert De Niro's crazy Johnny in Mean Streets. Is an intellectual Mafioso really that much more heroic than an unlettered hood? This is elitist sophistry of the worst sort, contemptible even when it comes from an outlaw radlib like Bob Dylan.
Specious as it is, "Joey" is musically seductive. Its chorus is perhaps the most memorable on the album, and there's a passion in the singing and playing that is uplifting. This doesn't excuse the sophomoric idea that animates that passion but it does provide some kind of measure of Dylan's continued power as a songwriter and mythmonger. Liking Desire is hardly the point—there are those of us who will always believe that Dylan is copping out until he returns to the fiery rock & roll that drove his middle Sixties work, just as there are those who will never truly love his music again until he writes an album full of "Hurricanes." The test of Bob Dylan's talent is really that all of us continue to listen and hope. (p. 59)
Dave Marsh, "Desire under Fire: Mythic Images of Women and Outlaws," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 208, March 11, 1976, pp. 55-9.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
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 Homesick Blues." "It's All Right, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding."
The classic techniques of brainwashing are unconsciously employed in these albums. First, the dogmatic command, "Everybody Must Get Stoned," encourages a chemically induced state of neural receptivity. Note the semantics: stoned. Don't get high; don't space out; don't trip (with its multireality flexible implication); don't get blissed out. You "must get stoned," sung to a heavy, slow, plodding beat. And accompanied by the other nihilist hits that systematically converted a generation to neurotic complaint.
Read, if you dare, the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" and cringe at the deliberate trampling on hope and self-confidence. Barbiturate Barbarism. "How Does It Feel?" It feels like that Old Testament Masochism Bob.
The evil of the Zimmerman Effect is not just that it imprints destructive, nasty realities on young brains, but that it produces a fake alienation from direct experience. The Zimmerman Effect alienates because the media manipulator broadcasts about other people's experience, not his own. To an anonymous audience. Did Dylan stand on picket lines? Get his head busted by company police? March at Selma in the hard rain? Get tear-gassed at Chicago? Sleep in the mud at Woodstock (just down the road from his comfy retreat)? Lie on a roach-ridden mattress in a state prison? Put his body on the line in any real action? Live the fugitive Life? Go into exile? Or put his nervous system on the line in neuronaut exploration? Yes, we know what he was against. But what was he for? (Besides fake nostalgia.) When an entire generation was on the move, swirling into uncharted neurogenetic territory, where was the young millionaire waif? Protected, dear boy, in the arms of producer Al Grossman, promoter Bill Graham, Golda Meir, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, and a supporting brigade of mother figures.
Looking back at that wretched reality we see that Dylan truly never understood that it ain't no good to let other people get your kicks for you….
[There] are two factors that make the Zimmerman Effect a perversion of the ancient and honorable bardic role:
- Zimmerman portrays not the glory and the heroic pride of an evolving species, but the dark, craven themes of the loser cult.
- The true minstrel sings in person; wanders around in face-to-face contact with those he is influencing. He is forced into eyeball confrontations with Mr. Jones and Maggie's Father and everyone watches to see if he's for real or if he's all talk. It just ain't no good to let the agents, record producers, and tax lawyers take your kicks for you. You gotta get down and look into the eyes of the Squeaky Frommes you are urging into rebellion. (p. 390)
We can now speak frankly about the Zimmerman Effect because it is waning. We can now view with compassion, not only the passive, but the active casualties of Electroid Brainwash. Zimmerman, like Manson, was the original victim of the Effect, which occurs when electronic and chemical neural-vulnerabilities are ripped off by commercial exploiters. Dylan whined endlessly for himself and his own Lost Innocence. In recent statements and actions, however, it is clear that Dylan is beginning to sense that it was no accident that he was propelled into premature popstar status by forces he himself detests. He is beginning to discover that you can't look back. He now seems to be listening, learning. He seems able, at last, to sidestep the literary Mafia that sought to freeze him as a beatnik poet. (pp. 390, 410)
Timothy Leary, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 16, 1976.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3117
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 Dylan's work in this period, an attitude which proved untenable and which finally forced him out of rock altogether.
The common interpretation of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is that it describes a drug high, the Tambourine Man being the dealer, his song being a hint of the visions he will give the poet through drugs. The imagery of the song would tend to back this up. In the first verse the poet states his readiness to begin to trip out. In the second verse the actual high begins to take effect: the singer's hands and feet grow numb and "lose their grip," and he loses his hold on reality. In the third verse he is "laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun," and in the fourth verse he travels down through his mind, seeing the various things buried deep beneath the "waves" of his subconscious. Such specific imagery can be compounded and the song becomes simply the description of a drug high, but this does not explain everything in the lyric…. Throughout the song there is imagery referring to music and dancing and singing. In both verse one and three another obvious mood is that of wandering, searching. The entire song is operating in the imperative form of the verb: the poet asks the Tambourine Man to play his song, he demands "take me on a trip"—he is ready to go, and in the second verse he promises to go. In the last verse he says "take me disappearing," and "let me forget about today." The song ends with the repetition of the chorus, which is quite clearly calling on the Tambourine Man to play him a song, which he will follow, the spell of which he will go under…. This point of view of the singer in relation to the Tambourine Man is the key to the song. The imagery points to the feelings evoked by the singer's realization of his place and its implications and consequences for him.
Dylan begins the song, and presents his basic attitude, in the chorus. He is awake, waiting for somewhere to go. The first verse specifies his position—"evening's empire" has turned to sand that has slipped through his fingers, and he is blind, weary, stranded, alone on an empty street "too dead for dreaming." Evening's empire is the realm of dreams. (pp. 135-36)
In the second verse he points out his readiness to begin his trip, to fade "into my own parade." On the one hand this implies fading into his own mind, his own world. He also recognizes that what he needs is an idiom of his own, a "parade" moving down his own road, to replace the dead form he has worked in. Again the chorus, and he calls on the Tambourine Man for inspiration, to help him find his way.
The narrative point of view then shifts from the first person to an ironic second person. The point of view becomes that of the Tambourine Man as the poet conceives of him, and the third verse considers what the Tambourine Man must think of this poet and his songs. (pp. 136-37)
The singer then looks into himself to find what he will see, given the inspiration of the Tambourine Man. He wishes to delve into his mind to escape his consciousness and his subconscious fears, the "haunted frightened trees," the "foggy ruins of time," and the world he lives in, to realize a fresh elemental vision, represented by the setting of sea, sand, and sky. On the beach, confronting the sea, the primordial element of nature, he would drown memory, time, fate and its consequences, and experience a pure poetic vision….
The poet is on a street "too dead for dreaming." But with no dreaming there can be no new vision. There is no one on the street to lead him, and so he called on the Tambourine Man to help him. But the Tambourine Man exists in another world and either cannot or will not help him, and the poet on his own cannot make the leap into that world. Thus the cry at the end of the song is a cry of futility. (p. 137)
And so what is he to do now? He chooses to take a closer look around, both at the street and at the world just off of the street. The results are not edifying, for the remainder of this album and much of the next detail a catalog of grotesquery and nightmares almost unparalleled in contemporary poetry. A good example of this, and perhaps Dylan's most powerful single lyric, is "Desolation Row" on the Highway 61, Revisited album. (pp. 137-38)
In "Desolation Row" Dylan turns his back on drug visions and visionary hopes to face reality as he sees it, and he sees the world in the aspect of a carnival, specifically a freak show, with all the grotesques on prominent display. The lyric tells of the parade of grotesques that pass before the poet, a stream of images generated by a letter full of gossip he has just received from an old acquaintance.
The opening is primarily an impressionistic panoramic overview of the world around his street, setting the scene for the specific and deeper probings to follow. The first three phrases present three spot images, one of them grotesque postcards of a hanged man, reminiscent of the hanged god of The Waste Land, another failed symbol of fertility and redemption. The fourth phrase gives us the setting of the lyric: "The circus is in town." (p. 138)
There are two important women on the Row, Cinderella and Ophelia. Cinderella is a prostitute, confronting Romeo, the idealistic lover, who is told to leave. On this street there is no place for such a ridiculous adolescent. An ambulance carries away the dead Romeo, leaving Cinderella to her perennial task of sweeping up. There will be no Prince Charming here. Ophelia is just the opposite of Cinerella, a professional virgin. Although only twenty-two, she is already an old maid because she has sacrificed love and affection for her career, armored herself, and become one of the iron maidens of modern business. The iron vest she wears is a likely metaphor for the way she has armored her mind and body against love and sexuality.
Science and medicine fare about as well as sentimental love and affection here. Albert Einstein, the symbol of modern science and technology, is presented in the guise of Robin Hood, perhaps representing his symbolic position today as the bringer of the riches (and horrors) of modern living to the everyday man. For Dylan, all he can ultimately do is bum cigarettes, sniff drainpipes, recite the alphabet—absurd activities. Science and technology and all they involve, represented in this man, have become a meaningless and occasionally grotesque parody of humanity. (p. 139)
There is no hope even in the stars. The third verse, the first "Eliotesque" verse, so called because of allusions to The Waste Land in the figure of the fortune-teller, the mechanical lovemaking, and the motif of waiting for rain, begins with the blacking out of the stars and moon, standard symbols of romance and the aspirations of men. The fortuneteller has given up the ghost and gone inside—there is no fortune to tell without the stars. The only ones left who aren't waiting for release from their lives are Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the first an image of death and hate where there should be love, the second an image of ignorant and deformed love. The Good Samaritan is also dressing for the show—he too is now a freak, to go on display in the modern carnival freak show.
And so the stage is set for the presentation in verse seven of the main show of the carnival. The central figure is Casanova, standard representative of sexual energy, and the occasion is his punishment. His crime? Not his dissolute life, which in its essential sterility is in keeping with modern life, but rather his trip to Desolation Row. Casanova has been to the Row and as a result has lost his assurance, his potency. On Desolation Row he has experienced the nothingness of his life—the end of the road, the absolute nihilism, the knowledge of his irrelevance, which comes when he must face the fact of his own ultimate impotence. The result of this experience is that he must be spoon-fed if his illusions are to be revived and he is to become again one of the carnival's proper functionaries. He is not being killed and poisoned literally; rather his experience on Desolation Row, where he lost his self-confidence, must be purged by means of false self-confidence and the superficiality of words. This, to Dylan, is as good as death, because the loss of assurance is implicitly the beginning of true insight. (pp. 139-40)
The larger world is not pleasant looking. Verse eight is a Kafkaesque verse, with its dominating image of the castles. It is midnight, but instead of witches and werewolves, it is the agents, crew, and insurance men from the castles who sweep down to scour the land…. Their prey is anyone who rises above the common lot, anyone who has greater knowledge than they.
Carnival imagery is now of less importance. The song has expanded in its significance by positing a dark and mysterious power at the center of the world, the castles. What these castles are is not explicit, as was also true in the Kafka novel. The important thing is that they exist out there and threaten all aspects of contemporary life.
One escape route is posited by Dylan, however—the Titanic. In verse nine, the Titanic is to sail at dawn. In "Tambourine Man" dawn and the ship were to bring a new vision. Here they bring death and destruction to one of man's great creations. From this point on this can be seen as the second "Eliotesque" verse, with specific references to Eliot and Pound and to the calling mermaids of "Prufrock." The central image again refers to the dissolution of the poet's idiom or inspiration. One of Dylan's major influences is the poetry of these two men, but they are doomed without even realizing it, so caught up are they in their own petty arguments. With the sinking of the Titanic comes the death of the meaningfulness of Eliot's and Pound's poetic idiom. Fishermen and calypso singers laugh at the two men for their irrelevance to real life…. All of these people have ignored, in fact never really recognize, Desolation Row, and therefore are destined to irrelevance forever. (p. 141)
Since he was forced to give up the dream of the Tambourine Man, Dylan has forced himself to see the place where he stands for what it is, has moved toward the nadir point of his existence where old values, institutions, and aspirations are obliterated or distorted in an absolute negativity. He is surviving. The experience of all this is recounted in "Desolation Row," and this experience he has resolved into a tremendously powerful lyric. But he is not yet free. The experience has not been weighed, balanced, judged. Indeed it seems as though, given the poet's detached place in the song, it has not even been fully absorbed yet. It remains to be seen at this point whether he will find any resolution. He takes up this problem in "Visions of Johanna."
"Visions of Johanna" is probably Dylan's most difficult lyric, made up of a series of highly personal and shifting images and references. It is also filled with sexual and drug imagery, important vehicles in establishing the theme and motif of the song, the only song on the Blonde on Blonde album that uses this imagery in such concentration and profusion.
The motif of the song is the unstructured stream-of-consciousness thoughts of a young man (the poet) sitting in a room with a girl named Louie and her lover. The basic theme of the lyric would seem to be the poet's feelings of being abandoned, left alone to face the Visions of Johanna. The definition of these Visions is developed slowly through the poem. They are not the inspiration Dylan has been seeking since "Tambourine Man," for the world of this song is a bizarre one derived directly from "Desolation Row," even to the position of the poet in a room above a street of grotesques. They are visions of love prostituted, and of the negation of life and vitality this prostitution implies, all of which contrasts violently with an idealized love the poet recognizes he cannot have. The conflict throughout the lyric between visions of negation and of an idealized love lost and prostituted sets up a tension that leads to the final dissolution of the song. The ideal and the real are irreconcilable, and end by destroying each other.
This duality in "Visions of Johanna" is the result of the combination of two image patterns that have developed in previous songs. The idealized vision of the Tambourine Man, the poet's vision of an energizing relationship, is now conceived of in terms of a lost love relationship. The visions of the nihilism of life in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Desolation Row," also included here, imply the complete breakdown of the poet's world and by implication of his own mind. (pp. 142-43)
With this song, it would seem that Dylan was unable to pull out of the situation he found himself in on Desolation Row and in "Tambourine Man." He found no saving grace to reinject hope and vitality into his poetry. Negativity (as he saw in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") has resulted in a superabundance of grotesqueries, pornography, deviation. There has been no vision, and negativity did not see him through.
Dylan has sung his rock-song, and there is no Madonna waiting for him. And so he picks up his folk guitar and begins to sing again. The John Wesley Harding album is a reversion to a country-folk idiom, changed significantly because of his experiences through three albums, but still basically a return to a previous idiom. Yet before he steps back into folk music he has a few final remarks to make on it all.
In "All Along the Watchtower," the I-persona is abandoned for a third person narrative, but the concerns and theme follow directly from the songs I have been considering. It is constructed in three verses that continue one story straight through. The third verse suddenly cuts off the narrative, and the song is left unfinished. I believe this is so because Dylan was reviewing the same conflict he couldn't resolve previously, and dropped it in favor of his new-old idiom.
The setting and characters have an almost mythic quality. The place is a medieval castle, so distant from our time that it can take on an otherworldly aspect. The two main characters are a joker and a thief, both the disinherited of their society. The joker as a character in, for example, Shakespearean drama, always knew what was going on around him, in fact was frequently the only one who knew this, but was unable to act on his knowledge. (p. 145)
"'There must be some way out of there,' said the joker to the thief. / 'There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.'" The fragmented world and chaotic life his previous poetry dealt with is too much for him; he can't support it. None of the common people (plowmen or businessmen) can understand his problem. Wine is a conventional symbol of blood, and the businessmen drinking his wine are sucking his life, his creativity, out of him. Thus these common people actually become oppressors. And of course, as in previous lyrics, none of them know the real value of any of his work. At the end of the first verse Dylan's whole situation, running through all his rock lyrics, has been defined. He has been pushed around, drained, and wasted, turned into some kind of freak in his own freak show, and no one realizes what has been happening.
The thief replies to the joker. He understands the joker's position, and also sees life as a cruel joke (reminiscent of verse four of "Visions of Johanna"). But as he points out, the two of them are through all that confusion now, and there is another destiny awaiting them. Perhaps this is the thief that hung beside Christ, as some like to speculate. The joker then becomes a version of the hanged god (as in verse one of "Desolation Row") who brings fertility to the land through his death, and salvation to those who drink his blood. The late hour would be the hour of their death. Thus a hint of possible redemption enters the poem. (pp. 145-46)
What did it all mean? Dylan seems to have overthrown the question, and in the bedlam escaped the trials of it all with his drifter and headed for the tall timber ("The Drifter's Escape"). In John Wesley Harding, the rock medium was highly modified for the same reason the rock lyrics were modified—he found the less structured nature of his idiom insupportable just as he found the "real" world grotesque and unacceptable. The results of this clash in both music and lyrics was a return to a simpler, clearer, "cleaner" world, a return to a "primitivist" idiom, accompanied by a self-imposed exile. Dylan seems to have come to the conclusion that the ultimate truths were to be found in those things that "whisper a few simple things eternally."… Dylan's songs at this point seem to imply that the ultimate way a man should be is to have a simple humane concern for his fellow men, and that such basic human emotions are the sources of peace and order. (pp. 146-47)
Thomas S. Johnson, "Desolation Row Revisited: Bob Dylan's Rock Poetry," in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1977, pp. 135-47.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339
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 dirt farmer; "Oxford Town" concerned the ordeal of James Meredith; his recent return to activist singing, "Hurricane," is about a black prize fighter wrongly jailed (so it is claimed) for murder.
Dylan's protest songs are full of savage melancholy, flinty and drawling. Their subject matter is intolerance and the loss of liberty. (p. 208)
[His] lyrics have brought eloquence to an age that has little, dignity to a generation that tends to forget its meaning, and a terrible honesty to a society which prefers deceit. A prophet of reasoned defiance, he works in a medium where such an attitude had been virtually unknown among whites, though it is now seen as a cornerstone of future musical development. Like other folk artists, he steals from the past to revitalize the present. His debt to black music and to the blues in particular is often unacknowledged and damaging to both. But as a lyricist, his example stands as a warning to those who "go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road." (pp. 208-09)
Tony Palmer, in his All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music (copyright © Theatre Projects Film Productions Limited, EMI Television Productions Limited and Phonogram Limited, 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1977.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695
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 identified within the movie itself, you need to commit the credits to memory before the houselights dim. Bob Dylan plays Renaldo, a character in whiteface who seems to represent Dylan's poetic self. Ronnie Hawkins plays Bob Dylan as a celebrity. Mrs. Dylan plays Clara, a character I never quite got a handle on, unless she was Renaldo's wife and thus a female counterpart to Dylan's poetic self. Ronee Blakley plays Mrs. Dylan in her public manifestation, although she looks (as do most of the ladies in Dylan's entourage) like Joan Baez, who in turn appears as herself, as a whore, and as a mysterious Woman in White. During the course of the film various characters are mistaken for Bob Dylan, including Bob Neuwirth, who plays the Masked Tortilla….
During the course of the movie, Allen Ginsberg gets a shave and a woman carries a rope to a car. A bunch of morons in a greasy spoon talk about the decline of the Movement, and Joan Baez is traded for a pony. Dylan drives a van to a cathouse, and the Tuscarora nation has everyone over for lunch. Lourdes, Toronto, and Kerouac's grave are visited. A lot of brunettes wander around delivering roses and experiencing anxiety. Palms are read. An elderly woman accompanies herself on a ukelele.
But just when I found myself thinking that Dylan and his friends were listless, self-indulgent fools, Dylan would suddenly appear as the white-faced Renaldo in performances filmed during his brilliant Rolling Thunder Review concert tour, singing his greatest songs at the peak of his powers as if to ask, "If we're such fools, how do you account for all this amazing music?" In some of the most beautifully photographed concert footage I've ever seen, he performs his mad waltzes of retribution and redemption with the wild-eyed urgency of Jeremiah. (p. 125)
But not even the magnificent music could rescue the muddled bulk of Renaldo & Clara. Dylan has shown courage in making this film, and in championing it so fervently in interview after interview, but the film itself is tentative and parsimonious. His sense of privacy, which has served him so well as a songwriter, works against him as a director, for it prohibits him from manipulating his cast. Instead of exercising his poetic gifts, he too often allows his cast, as wooden offstage as it is electric onstage, to provide the dialogue. Dylan might have been better served by professional actors who would have demanded more from him as a director than knowing nods and smiles of reassurance, but improvised dialogue, with its hesitancies, is rarely convincing, even in the best of hands, and in Renaldo & Clara it is often downright silly. He seems to have made all his assertions in the editing room with coy flashbacks and jarring juxtapositions.
Dylan's movie is an ego trip, but that isn't its problem. Art consists of ego trips. The problem is that it obscures rather than illuminates his obsession. The best that can be said for it is that it records, however fitfully, some of his greatest performances, and has reportedly spurred him on to write a new album's worth of songs. What worries me is that Dylan actually believes he denuded himself in Renaldo & Clara, when all he wound up doing was disrobing in a fog. (pp. 125-26)
Andrew Ward, "Bob Dylan's Amateur Night," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1978, pp. 122, 125-26.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246
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 part of the title is the most inspired thing on the record—the lines, "Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled / Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field," are just a gesture, just a wave at the fans. Not that the effect of the lines can't hurt: it's hard not to hear the older songs now in terms of the new numbers that appear to resemble them, and then conclude that at bottom "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and "Highway 61 Revisited" are as empty as "Where are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)," even though that isn't remotely true. (p. 53)
Greil Marcus, "'Street-Legal': A Misdemeanor," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1978; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), August 24, 1978, pp. 51-3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
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 about Street-Legal is that Dylan's letting his mind ramble again, going further afield than he did on Blood on the Tracks, making Desire sound like setting-up exercises. It might be a conscious new direction: The opener, "Changing of the Guards," is about a revolution, and the closer, "Where Are You Tonight?," announces "There's a new day at dawn and I've finally arrived."…
Nothing is explained; foreboding is all. "Changing of the Guards," moving along at a forthright clip, is a montage with no discernible narrative, just mysterious scenes….
The final step is the transcendent merger of autobiography and imaginary epic; most recently consummated in "Tangled Up in Blue." "No Time to Think" makes the attempt; its allusive verses read like a spiritual diary:
You've murdered your vanity,
burned your sanity
For pleasure you must now resist
Lovers obey you but they cannot sway you
They're not even sure you exist
But the lyrics bog down with lists of abstract nouns ("Socialism, hypnotism / Patriotism, materialism"), and the music is a tiresome 18-verse sea chanty….
Dylan still needs a producer, still has his turgid moments, still shouts when he could be quiet and plays it cool when he could open up. Yet Street-Legal, for all its lapses, has kept the spark that makes Dylan irreplaceable.
John Pareles, "Untangling from the Blues," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1978 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Peter Knobler), September, 1978, p. 65.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458
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 image, which makes the film and its ridiculously self-effacing hero (he hardly speaks at all) so absorbing. Dylan has always preferred expressing himself in song rather than press interviews, preferring ambiguity to interrogation. The structure of the film—or perhaps more accurately its lack of structure, relying on echo and unsettling juxtaposition rather than simple and coherent narrative—reflects the same love of the oblique, an unwillingness to be trapped by easily digested clarity….
The deliberate confusion between drama and vérité scenes helps create an atmosphere which is free of illusion and pretence. Nothing is absolutely real or true—including the conventional fly-on-the-wall documentary material; there are only different levels of fantasy: masks, roles and games, myths which are played out, consciously or unconsciously.
The entire film has a dreamlike quality, flowing unpredictably, advancing and returning through time and space with no apparent logic. There are recurrent images of madness, magic and wild eccentricity….
Dylan is almost overshadowed by the beautiful women that surround him…. They haunt the film like a team of competing enchantresses. It is through his relationship with women 'who hold the keys', as the voice-over in the film declaims, that he will progress on his 'quest'. For Renaldo and Clara, like most of the road movies before it, is not just a simple travelogue. Kerouac, the first to chronicle his own drift towards self-discovery, is clearly acknowledged in a graveside pilgrimage made by Dylan and Ginsberg. The road is a very American search for freedom, but it is also symbolic of the spiritual path, the solitary suspension that Dylan has so clearly chosen in preference to the cosiness of conventional stardom.
In most of the concert sequences, Dylan sings with unnerving force…. There is also a deeply stirring and quite un-self-pitying openness and vulnerability: Dylan (and Renaldo) may not talk too much, but in his songs, and by extension this film, he has revealed far more of his personal feelings than most other rock musicians. (p. 308)
Mark Kidel, "On the Road," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 8, 1978.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2184
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 around him, was uncanny. And however mythic, two-dimensional, or adolescent these feelings were, he was usually able to rescue them with the brilliance of his music and his performance. (p. 19)
Most of the songs on [The Times They Are A-Changin'] are devastating in their power of political persuasion. The title song is a solemn, dead-serious sermon delivered in a flat, righteous voice with a heavy drone-like beat. And that name, the repeated litany of that declaration: The Times They Are A-Changin'. It sounds like an expression we've known all our lives or heard a lot somewhere, before. But we haven't. Dylan just made it up, the perfect expression of our sentiment, our innate desire. If ever a song crystallized the passions of a generation, it's this one. (p. 23)
[Another Side of Bob Dylan] is a conscious effort … to break free of any constricting stereotypes, get off the soapbox and turn inward. Consequently this album has an emphasis on love rather than rhetoric, on relationships rather than revolution. A full eight of the eleven songs are about women. Nevertheless there's still an undertone of anger and apocalypse to many of the songs and not only in those which are still overtly political…. (p. 31)
This album has attempted to back off from the near-caricature image of the "protest" singer deliberately constructed in The Times They Are A-Changin', and to a degree, it has succeeded. We are convinced Dylan isn't as simple as anything we've thought of him so far, that he's still searching, and that there's no telling where his quest will lead. (p. 36)
The title [of] Bringing It All Back Home accurately describes Dylan's intention: to escape the folk and protest music and return to his first love: rock 'n' roll. To bring back or withdraw his creativity and psychic energy from the public posture of folk purist or political dissident and return to his center, his home, his heart, the music he grew up with: rock 'n' roll. In fact the break is not so clean cut or simple. This is not completely a rock album but rather a transitional collection with some big electric sound as well as some acoustic compositions on Side Two. But the album is a departure, and it's amazing to consider how it shocked and outraged fans and critics at the time. (p. 39)
There's a lot of energy on [Highway 61 Revisited]: driving, burning, speeding, it's focused in feelings of bitterness and revenge. Actually, the underlying theme of this album is defiance and revenge. Dylan seems so angry, so tired of having to explain, so mad at lots of people … or is it that he is just plain mad….
People who'd never have listened during the blue-jeans and work-shirt days were now enormously turned on by his electric, hard-driving, violent songs of rebellion. In fact, Dylan was doing more to revolutionize and influence American society now, singing rock 'n' roll, than he had ever been able to accomplish as a folk-music protest singer. More individual, more personal, Dylan's songs nonetheless have stimulated self-understanding, change and revolution in each of us…. (p. 47)
The first cut [on Blonde on Blonde] sets the tone for many of the thirteen to follow: "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35" is a gas: a stoned-out shouter, a fine song for marching down the street. The music and the high-stepping beat and the vigorous performance are so full of camaraderie, humor, and fun, they contrast sharply with the words which, if read alone, sound like a paranoid fantasy—just the sort of ironic vision one might very well experience when stoned. (p. 51)
Blonde on Blonde marks the apex of Dylan's career as a rock 'n' roll star. At this point in his life he really was as big as Elvis Presley. Moreover, the content of Dylan's songs convinces many idolatrous fans that he knows, that he has some cosmic answer, that he can tell them the truth about their lives—an assumption which he himself both encourages and disdains. "Listen to me," he says; but "Don't listen to me…." The responsibility is too great, the pressure becomes immense. (p. 55)
John Wesley Harding is a sermon disguised as a series of narrative ballads. The songs on this album are like gentle admonitions, sung in a mellow and persuasive voice. Like all of Dylan's music, there's a lot between the lines. There is a message. But instead of beating us over the head, Dylan herein assumes the mantle of a teacher, a rabbi, and a patriarch who shows the way through example, through moral allegory, and through parable. Each of the songs is short and to the point. Dylan takes a position. He has reappeared, liberated from the madness that had surrounded him. Apparently he is also free of those personal devils that had plagued him: anger, jealousy, bitterness. He reincarnates himself before our very eyes, regroups his energy, which had been faint, and carefully applies it to a new position. For all his protestation to the contrary, Dylan tells us once again: this is it!
And what is it? The Bible. Mostly Old Testament…. Dylan's previous moralizing had been so adolescent and simplistic, so good-versus-bad, us-versus-them. Now he's saying something much subtler: he's older and matured; he's learned something from all those years in the crucible; now he's saying in these cunningly plain, simple songs—with no electricity, with understatement rather than hyperbole—now he's advising us to love each other and take responsibility for our lives. (pp. 57, 59)
Nashville Skyline is a hoot, a joyous celebration, a happy revelation. This has to be the happiest album Dylan has made till now: gentle, playful, calm, and serene. Everything about it conveys Dylan's new role of the family man, unperturbed, peaceful, patient, loving, and loved. What a difference between this country gentleman and the surly, angry, strung-out-looking guy on the front of his precrash albums Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan wants to tell us what's making him so happy, something he started to do on the last two cuts of John Wesley Harding. Let's count our blessings, he says, chief among which are our love and our loving families, the basic, mundane things in life—all the old eternal verities which country music has always been about. (p. 63)
There's a loose sort of foolin' around feeling on Self-Portrait, with some odd little fillips thrown in, as if to say: I'm all these things; this is me and this is me and, wait a second, this is me, too. Dylan feels good. He's asking for a little self-indulgence, a chance to relax after all these years, just for himself. He wants to be outrageous. And outrage was the general reaction to this album at the time. It drove people right up the wall. (p. 68)
As the dust settled and years passed, Self-Portrait has become more appreciated for what it is: experimental, self-indulgent, foolin' around, with peculiar lapses but odd flashes of brilliance and innovation. (p. 69)
The doubting Thomases crucified him for Self-Portrait—seen in historical perspective as a kind of busman's holiday. But Dylan quickly returns to deliver a new album full of light and love, tight energetic songs and some terrific piano playing. Not just romantic songs idealizing this love, but rather showing us how he's working out the snags and doubts and anxieties. Complexity, variety, clear-thinking, direct-saying, virtuoso musicality—the new, improved, renewed, risen again New Morning. (p. 77)
Planet Waves marks the beginning of a new cycle. It's a powerful, ambitious album, by far his best since New Morning. The entire project radiates high energy, tremendous intensity, and deliberate intent. Dylan wants to tell us something, and he's back to doing everything himself, just to make sure we get the message. These songs are Planet Waves; they're emanations from far within the earth, from the center: great washes and tides, powerful forces from deep inside of us and our world. As it says on the front of the album, these songs are cast-iron songs, sturdy, solid, permanent, tough, and well-built. And they're torch ballads of love—love with a fire, flaming passions, hot and sultry and burning. (p. 89)
Nine out of ten songs on Planet Waves are love songs, and a great deal of what they convey is gratitude coupled with desperation. This valedictory "Wedding Song" is the most confessional and explicit of them all, exposing most profoundly the singer's hunger, his continuing yearning and his anxiety….
Dylan has come a long way from the confidence and serenity of Nashville Skyline and New Morning. Those rosycolored love songs were much simpler and happier. There's been a change now, four years later: malaise, hunger, jealousy, and sadness burn throughout these torch ballads….
After a relatively long silence, he's given us a progress report, a state of the artist, a consolidated self-portrait of his mind and feelings and his intentions—his ambitions to renew, to continue his quest, to reiterate his moral and spiritual positions even more adamantly. Sober, determined, still hopeful in loving, he rides out again to do battle in his own life and to share, teach, exhort, and inspire us to do the same. (p. 95)
Blood on the Tracks could have been subtitled Love's Labor Lost. For whereas Planet Waves, released earlier the same year, was about hanging on to love, Blood on the Tracks takes place after the fall. The overwhelming theme of nearly every song on the record is lost love, breaking up, the dissolution of a very important relationship. What distinguishes this album from both other work on the same subject and from Dylan's previous love songs is that this group of ballads all approach the same subject from a variety of disparate angles. Dylan reacts to a cataclysmic event with all the complexity it deserves: he's mad, he's resigned, he's vindictive, he's forgiving, he's hurt and bitter, he's playful and ironic, he's understanding—he doesn't understand, he's filled with rage and frustration, he's philosophical, he's content, he's discontent. This album is a tour de force on the subject of breaking up with someone, someone with whom you've shared a whole lot of your life, someone who's always going to be very important, forever in your consciousness. (pp. 99-100)
[Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire] represent the most fully realized expressions of a great artist in his maturity. Because Desire, more than anything that has come before, explodes with Dylan's openhearted power in a rich variety of virtuoso styles over a broad spectrum of deeply felt emotions, flights of illumination, universal fantasy, and personal, gut-issue messages—from his heart to ours.
Dylan's greatness has always been his ability to express what we are experiencing; adolescent rebellion, sociopolitical apocalypticism and rampant naiveté, hot fucks, perhaps children, love paranoia, crazy speed, consciousness catapulting, hurt, rejection, the breakup of an important relationship or two, death nearby and coming closer, self-realization leading to doubt, ambivalence, vulnerability, compassion, empathy, diversity, flexibility, alternatives. Desire expresses all this; the album, the songs, the metaphor—the great East Indian holy men say we are all living now in the Desire World, that everything we do and feel is motivated by DESIRE. Freud said something like that, too, and certainly all the passions and issues on this album come from desire: for freedom and justice, for love, salvation, and fulfillment. But there's a subtitle to this album: Songs of Redemption. An interesting choice of words for a man who chooses his words very carefully. Redemption means to buy back, to liberate by payment, or on a more spiritual level, to free from the bondage of sin, to change for the better or REFORM; or, heavier yet, to atone for or expiate. Once again, as in "My Back Pages" and "I Am a Lonesome Hobo," Dylan seems to be in a mood for self-criticism, for paying some dues, for reevaluating his prior positions, and exposing his own process of change. (pp. 107-08)
Desire is an album by a mature artist at the height of his powers. Undiminished. Stronger than ever. Everything about this album is polished to a new level of perfection…. (p. 113)
[The] mood of Street-Legal—hard, strained, deliberate, depressing—may be as ephemeral as many others he has passed through. We hope for something more uplifting, more optimistic, more loving … and in the meantime we remain fascinated and attentive. (p. 120)
Alan Rinzler, in his Bob Dylan: The Illustrated Record (copyright © 1978 by Alan Rinzler; used by permission of Harmony Books), Harmony Books, 1978.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
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 particularly lends itself to the present discussion. (p. 39)
[Two] components of the term grotesque … are formed most frequently in Dylan's lyrics. These include elements of disharmony and alienation of the individual within a social milieu. In creating a fictional cosmos composed of many people who seem "bent out of shape from society's pliers," Dylan represents a picture of reality separated from its ordinary psychic underpinnings. His characters are often fantastic or distorted persons caught in a terrible moral drama. For Dylan in his surrealistic phase, the ordinary world and a nightmare madhouse are virtually undistinguishable.
In Bringing It All Back Home Dylan's songs reflect a man trapped in an insane world not quite of his own making. For example, in the song "Maggie's Farm" (which could easily be interpreted as modern society) the continuing refrain, "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more" echoes Dylan's resentment against a woman whose brother "hands you a nickel, hands you a dime, asks you with a grin, if you're having a good time." Here Dylan is wrestling under disturbing conditions superimposed upon his own sensibilities to the point where he just can not manage to function anymore. Maggie's farm is a grotesque place not only because it represents an overtly authoritarian locality, but offers a contradictory view of his existence. The normal routine patterns of life are juxtaposed against jumbled confusion. His attitude toward his "job" at Maggie's farm contradicts the excessive bureaucratic operations which rule our so-called familiar world. Disharmony and alienation arise through a desparate attempt to maintain his personal identity in the face of a world gone mad with the routinization of specialized, boring tasks. Dylan proclaims at the end of the song that he trys to be as he is, but everybody wants you to be like they are and while other people sing while they slave, Dylan just gets bored. A similar reaction, one even more grotesque, is displayed in "On the Road Again"…. Dylan's use of incongruent scenes and stark images are reminiscent of the French symbolist poets, particularly Rimbaud and Baudelaire. One of the key functions of these poets was to provoke their audience into a different kind of perception by presenting to the ordinary eye an object or person so dazzling that it would destroy the dominant temporal-spatial order and rational mode of consciousness. Indeed, Dylan's creations of grotesque disharmonies reveal a farcical universe not founded upon any systematic and logical representations….
Highway 61 Revisited contains some of the best poetic imagery Dylan has ever written. His blurring of reality and irreality in such songs as "Desolation Row," "Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Highway 61 Revisited" further challenges the familiar world to which we are accustomed. (p. 41)
In "Desolation Row" Dylan descends completely into the abyss of modern society. Here is a place inhabited by extremely grotesque figures in a cold cunning and mechanical environment. As he descends into this Dantesque netherworld he meets a riot squad who needs some place to go, sexless patients trying to blow-up a leather cup, Ophelia who is an old maid on her twenty-second birthday, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, the Titanic sailing at dawn, and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in a captain's tower. In one of the more chilling choruses Dylan declares:
Now at midnight all the agents and the
Come out and round up everyone that knows more
than they do
Obviously Dylan is experiencing a radically different kind of existence and the surrealistic images he projects cause one to shudder because they reflect a totally estranged world. It is his own season in hell and here especially the similarities between Dylan and Rimbaud are quite apparent. Rimbaud, almost a century earlier, experimented with all sorts of drugs, underwent hunger, exhaustion and other extreme physical deprivations to produce a "complete deregularization of the senses." Through this method Rimbaud hoped to achieve poetic visions which would loosen the moorings of ordinary consciousness through the dissolution of ordinary reality…. [Dylan makes] numerous references to drugs in his songs and one may safely say that he used some method similar to Rimbaud's to gain visionary insights and surrealistic chains of rhyming images devoid of any conscious control by a rationalistic state of mind. (pp. 41-2)
Blonde on Blonde has one song which somehow perfectly captures the grotesque disharmony and alienation themes with which we are dealing: … the superbly written "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again."… Dylan sings as if this is his last day on earth. When he delivers the repeated refrain of every chorus, "Oh Mama can this really be the end—to be struck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again", there is no doubt that this is a man crying from the utter depths of experience. It has been said that with the Beatles you thought you had a chance; with the Rolling Stones you knew you didn't want one. In this song Dylan confirms that you will never have a chance. This, as he says, is really the end.
After repeated listening one realizes that Mobile no longer just means being stuck in an Alabama city, but more symbolically, Mobile represents the grotesque turbulent world we all inhabit. In this song Dylan drinks some Texas medicine which strangles up his mind and experiences people getting uglier, loses his sense of time and wonders what price he has to pay for going through all these things twice…. Dylan may be stuck in an insane world, but he somehow maintains his sanity by not taking the world or himself too seriously. This may be a terrible place to live, but it is also something of a joke and if a person reaches the point where something has strangled up his mind, he has no sense of time, people just get uglier, and he wonders why he has to go through all these things twice then it is obvious that "normal reality" has no meaning whatsover. The world has become transformed and transformed into a grotesque madhouse. As Benjamin Nelson has noted [in an article he wrote in The Psycho-analytic Review], "Images of the grotesque … regularly seem to multiply when large numbers of people find it impossible to function, much less thrive, in their everyday worlds." This is why Dylan's work remains important from a sociological point of view. (p. 43)
John Wells, "Bent Out of Shape from Society's Pliers: A Sociological Study of the Grotesque in the Songs of Bob Dylan," in Popular Music and Society (copyright © 1978 by R. Serge Denisoff), Vol. VI, No. 1, 1978, pp. 39-43.