April 7, 2011

The Inscrutable Occidental

From the LA Times, a story that cracked me up not because of the politics but because of trying to imagine the puzzlement of the Chinese audience over why they had paid all this money for tickets to see this guy.
At a time when many other American performers have been banned from China, Bob Dylan was allowed to play Wednesday night in Beijing, but with a program that omitted Dylan's most famous ballads of dissent. Conspicuously absent from the program at the Workers' Gymnasium were "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan's set list had to be sanctioned beforehand by the Ministry of Culture, which in its formal invitation decreed that he would have to "conduct the performance strictly according to the approved program." 
Still, the 69-year-old musician, clad in a white panama hat and drainpipe trousers, sung and strummed before a welcoming crowd of 6,000. He worked his way through a repertoire that included "Tangled up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate." The only time Dylan paused in the workmanlike performance to address the audience was when he introduced the members of his band. ... 
Dylan is so unknown in China that one newspaper, the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News, ran a story about his upcoming concerts alongside a big photograph of country music star Willie Nelson. 
During the height of Dylan's popularity in the 1960s, China was entirely closed off to the West. Only in the 1980s did social and economic liberalization allow Chinese to hear rock music. But none of Dylan's albums have ever been officially released in China. 
At the Beijing concert Wednesday, many Chinese attendees admitted they knew little of Dylan's music or legacy. "His music is OK. But I don't speak English, so I can't understand what he's singing," Gao Mingwen said outside the stadium. "I hear he's very famous though."

I saw Dylan 25 years ago when he toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his band. The pairing sounded good in theory, but Petty's good-natured showmanship just made Dylan look bad. Petty is no giant of American culture, but he works hard to entertain his audience, which Dylan didn't. He just stood there and wheezed. And I can't imagine that Dylan has become a more dynamic performer as he's aged.

"Tangled Up in Blue" from as late as 1974 is a great, great song, but to appreciate Dylan as fully as his American acolytes do, you kinda had to be there in the pivotal year of 1965, which the Chinese most definitely weren't.

108 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've seen Dylan twice recently and can confirm that the political commissars have nothing to worry about, it's almost impossible to make out the words to any of his songs. But I must defend his lack of stage banter. I choose to see it as humility or deference. In this, he is the anti-Bono. I once saw him perform after a mediocre warm-up band had assailed the audience with anti-war slogans and other topical political commentary. Dylan's aloof ('what would I know?') attitude was a blessing by contrast.
Gilbert Pinfold.

Anonymous said...

Saw him a few years ago. No one could understand what he was saying.

Syncretism said...

What pathetic circumstances for Dylan to perform under. Though, the tickets wouldn't have been a total waste if he played "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You".

Great song.

elvisd said...

Both times I saw him he did not speak at all. When I saw him in the 80s he was horrible. The show I saw about 8 years ago was much better.

My father saw him in Memphis in '65, and we was blown away.

Gordon C said...

I'm a native English speaker, and saw a live concert of his a few years back. English speaker or no, the guy has apparently fried his brain since the 60s beyond the point of comprehensible speech, because I couldn't make out most of the gibberish spoken. Maybe its a crazy stroke of genius- now he can play his act in any language and its equally unintelligible everywhere!

Bill said...

"His music is OK. But I don't speak English, so I can't understand what he's singing,"

-A Chinese


This Chinese is just being polite. I went to a Dylan concert with a Jewish girlfriend years ago, and I couldn't understand him either.

Shortly after I first arrived in China, John Denver died in that plane crash, and much to my bemusement all the Chinese I knew offered me their condolences. John Denver was very popular in Beijing.

I like both Denver and Dylan, but really, a guy like Bob Dylan just isn't going to have very widespread appeal outside of the US. Kind of makes one wonder whether this so-called "cosmopolitanism" and internationalism of a certain tribe isn't way overblown.

Anonymous said...

I heard Tom Petty was a huge Byrds fan, and of course some of Byrds' best songs were by Dylan. Maybe Petty was paying tribute, but Dylan always had to be his own man.
Pretty Petty and Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It's just wrong.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you about Dylan's lack of performance ability. He was a real bore.

Anonymous said...

"Saw him a few years ago. No one could understand what he was saying."

On a thrill basis, it made no sense to see Dylan on stage since the late 70s. His voice was shot by the 80s and his body had grown creaky.

But he was a hellishly dynamo performer in the 60s: feline, vulgar, perverse, funny, nasty, charming, cute, original, playful, witty, etc. He found a distinct way of snarling and whining, moaning and mourning, at the same time. He could be very romantic too, with songs like LOVE MINUS ZERO/NO LIMIT and ONE OF US MUST KNOW.

Though Dylan's value as a performer was gone by the 80s, he released two fine albums in the 80s--INFIDELS and EMPIRE BURLESQUE--and one great one in the nineties--TIME OUT OF MIND.

What I respect about Dylan is the courage to grow and change as a man and artist. In youth, he was a rebel and maverick. In middle age, he expressed the sentiments borne of experience. As an old man, he hasn't been afraid to express his weariness. He makes peace and explores the changing stages of his life. (But even as a young man, he had pre-sentiments about old age and death, not least because he was steeped in the entirety of American musical tradition; you can find in it songs like LAY DOWN YOUR WEARY TUNE--great cover by Byrds--, I SHALL BE RELEASED--great cover by the Band--, TEARS OF RAGE.)
Jagger, on the other hand, still acts like he's 19. And McCartney is still in Romeo loverboy mode.
Brian Wilson never outgrew his surfer phase, great as he was/is.
Dylan understood and accepted music as the fountain of experience, even wisdom, than of permanent youth and narcissism.

The thing about bluesmen and country singers was they weren't afraid to grow old. The emotional range of their music was broad, from youthful passion to elderly reflection. Because Dylan's interests were broader--in music and non-musical arts and issues--than most rockers, he aged like a country singer or bluesman though he's basically known to be a rocker. A rich personal artist. I haven't liked his stuff since TIME OUT OF MIND, but I respect his acceptance of life, aging, and change.
He once sang TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGING, and he accepted the same fate for himself.

airtommy said...

That reminds me of the old SNL skit where Dennis Miller is interviewing Dylan but can't understand him, so they bring in Tom Petty to translate what Dylan is saying. He can't understand him either, so they bring in Keith Richards to translate Petty.

Steve Sailer said...

"But he was a hellishly dynamo performer in the 60s:"

He suffered a terrible motorcycle accident in 1966. Perhaps his body never really recovered?

Anonymous said...

Byrds were the best Dylan interpretators, though the Band was great too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmhpyxPU4qY

MY BACK PAGES is an interesting song, with an ironic twist on the paradoxical nature of time:

"Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FUGzwUTN80

And speaking of Chinese..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJZehMEE5AE

'your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me, I took his flute, no I wasn't that cute to him, was I?'

Well, I guess it's all even now. Dylan took their flute and the Chinese took his freedom. But the joke is on the Chinese since Dylan gave up his protest stuff ages ago!
And it is ironic that a government claiming to represent the revolutionary spirit of the masses should be worried about a song like BLOWING IN THE WIND.

East Wind Prevails over the West but aint nothing blowing in the wind.

Anonymous said...

"But he was a hellishly dynamo performer in the 60s:"

"He suffered a terrible motorcycle accident in 1966. Perhaps his body never really recovered?"

This is stil shrouded in mystery. Some say he was seriously injured, some say he faked it to hide from the public. Interestingly enough, after the accident, he went to his manager's house than going straight to the hospital. My guess he fell off the bike and got hurt somewhat--but nothing Godard's motorbike accident which nearly killed him--, but it was nothing major.
He dropped out from the scene in the late 60s because..

1. He was contrarian by nature and didn't want to play the media's game as 'the spokesman of his generation'.

2. He did too much drugs which made him doubt his life and art, which is why he turned to rustic family life.

3. He felt guilty about the death of his father, which could be the inspiration for TEARS OF RAGE.

4. He wanted to remain one step ahead of everyone else. He turned rock music into an artform, but now that everyone was being artsy in 67, he reversed course and returned to the 'simpler', 'purer', and more organic sources of American music, working on stuff like BASEMENT TAPES--just when most rockers were into stuff like SGT PEPPER and SATANIC MAJESTIES.
Dylan proved prescient again, for by the late 60s and early 70s, the big thing was returning to the roots--rock n roll, country, etc.

He came back to perform really hard in the 70s, quite evident in BEFORE THE FLOOD album, where he actually rocks a bit too hard, even with soft ballads.

But then, combination of drugs, alcohol, marriage breakup, smoking, and etc really took something out of him by the 80s. But, his life became his music.

Nanonymous said...

It doesn't apply to singing but Dylan wrote some great songs in the past decade. E.g., Ain't Talkin'.

Anonymous said...

"The Inscrutable Occidental"


When I first glanced at that headline, I thought that maybe this piece would be about the young Indonesian, Barry Soetoro, receiving foreign-student aid money as a freshman in college.

elvisd said...

"But he was a hellishly dynamo performer in the 60s:"

He suffered a terrible motorcycle
accident in 1966. Perhaps his body never really recovered?

Maybe so, but just talked to my father (i mentioned in above post he saw him in '65.) He apparently saw him again in '74 during the Rolling Thunder tour and remembers his voice being a bit better (though he admits that might have been due to a better PA).

ben tillman said...

I saw him with the Dead in Foxboro and at JFK in July '87, at Chastain Park in Atlanta on my birthday in '89, and once in Dallas maybe 6 or 8 years ago.

Saw him a few years ago. No one could understand what he was saying.

I just played a couple tracks from the Foxboro '87 show, and my stepson had the same complaint.

Anonymous said...

Shortly after I first arrived in China, John Denver died in that plane crash, and much to my bemusement all the Chinese I knew offered me their condolences. John Denver was very popular in Beijing.

A little off topic, but was John Denver the last man [in popular music] to sing a sweet, kind, gentle song, without any funky blues notes, or any cynicism, or any allusions to violence, or any bathroom/toilet/boudouir lyrics?

Before Hollyweird and Madison Avenue and the Universities and the MPAA/RIAA were just hopelessly perverted by the Gramscians & the Frankfurt School, singers actually sang those kinds of songs for a living.

E.g. as recently as about 70 years ago, a man could still make a career out of singing songs like Sur le Pont, d'Avignon or You Are My Sunshine.

Vandelay said...

In Dylan's defense, I've heard from several friends who've been to shows in North America over the past decade, and setlists were extremely sparse as far as the old hits went.

He probably wasn't seeking to be sanctioned by anybody

anony-mouse said...

Okay, okay, I get it. Dylan isn't great on stage. But he's not famous for his stage act. Too bad Liberace is dead. A lot of people here would have loved him (not literally).

Dylan was an innovator in music. There are few of them still around. If you like Tom Petty (or Mellenkamp or Springsteen or too many others to name) you have Dylan to thank, although you won't.

And if the Chinese like syrup balladeers like John Denver, as has been mentioned, well good for them. Some of us might like something a wee bit, as the HBD'ers say, more intelligent.

Texas First! said...

Pretty Petty and Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It's just wrong.

Weren't they both in The Traveling Wilburys?

Anonymous said...

He sounds like Buckwheat. His whole schtick is being inscrutable. He's a sphinx w/o a secret. The Emporer wears no clothes... O'Tay!

The baby boomers were seriously ingorant people. No disrespect intended, of course.

Brent Lane said...

Thanks for posting the live performance of "Tangled Up In Blue", I'd never seen that one, clearly from the Rolling Thunder Revue (one of the all-time great tour names, BTW). It's interesting to compare it with the studio version on Blood On The Tracks and hear the subtle differences in lyrics - particularly how he changed it from more or less second person to first person when he recorded it (he sort of drifts in and out of perspective during the vid).

I agree with the poster above about how Dylan has allowed himself to reflect his actual age, as opposed to pretending it's still 1965. An apparent by-product of that aging includes a lack of energy in his live performances.

For those who haven't seen it, one of his better semi-recent tunes is "Things Have Changed", which forms a nice bookend to "The Times They Are A-Changin'". In the video, in which Mr Zimmerman is interspersed with footage from Wonder Boys, you get the idea that Dylan would be happier in front of a camera than on a stage.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Dylan still remains 'inscrutable' to many Occidentals as well. I don't think most kids today would dig his music: certainly not metalheads, rappers, teen idol and American idol fans, techno fans, rave fans, etc.

Many people say.. Dylan couldn't sing, Dylan couldn't dance, you can't make out to his music, you can't get down to his music, his music doesn't celebrate stuff(like SCHOOOOOOL'S OUT FOR SUMMER!) And Dylan wasn't much of a stud and looked funny.

This is all true. Technically, Dylan wasn't good in the 'conventional' sense. What stood out was his unique vision, originality, strangeness. To clarify, it's true that many artists could draw 'better' than Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. But there's a difference between mere proficiency and maverick singularity. Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso were 'one of a kind'.
This goes for Dylan too, the greatest personal artist in rock music. Not the best singer, best guitarist, best harmonica player, best dancer, best etc. But he was richest and deepest at using music as a vehicle for his feelings, dreams, ideas. Like him or not, Dylan was Dylan.

If Dylanology--ridiculous academic cult--has turned Dylan into some kind of demigod to study like the Bible, many people just don't 'get' Dylan.

Chinese understand music as propaganda--East is Red--, music as entertainment--silly pop idols--, music as respectability--Lang Lang and classical music--, music as tradition--Peking Opera--, music as dance music--at discos--, music as folk songs--every locality has it--, music as youth culture--rap is big there too--but many still don't understand music as personal expression. Neither does Amy Chua, it seems.

A personal artist has a vision, explores its depths and perimeters, and puts it before others to consider. It may be good, it may be bad. But he's not just playing to the audience--giving people what they want--but challenging the audience with private symbols within his own mind. Dylan was greatly inspired by the Symbolists.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/19th-century_French_literature#Symbolism_and_the_Birth_of_the_Modern

There's no guarantee that personal art will be any good--Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is his most personal work and also his most ridiculous--, but it is a valid, powerful, and necessary form of creativity, more so than ever in our age of McDonaldization.
The great thing about Dylan was not only his personalism but his respect, indeed even reverence, for folk art, forgotten music, local culture, etc. If Chinese are to learn anything from Dylan, it's that they too have a historical, cultural, and musical tradition, and it can and should serve as the creative material for personal artists.
Consider... so many Wasps forgot their own culture and rich tradition, listening to Perry Como and Andy Williams in the 1950s while the Jewish Dylan had a great interest in all facets of American culture and music, bringing it all back home and reminding Americans of their own rich heritage.

Luke Lea said...

"I saw Dylan 25 years ago"

You were 20 years too late. His genius burned bright but not long. I recommend The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965

http://www.amazon.com/Other-Side-Mirror-Festival-1963-1965/dp/B000W1V5TM/ref=sr_1_5?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1302230261&sr=1-5

Anonymous said...

6,000 in Worker's Stadium? Sounds pretty empty. I wonder how many tickets were complementary.

silly girl said...

I am sorry, but this is a pretty cool move on the part of the Chinese. They bring in a guy who is allegedly considered awesome in the USA, and the audience is profoundly underwhelmed!!

Beautiful.

This is like when I let my kids save up buy toys that will seriously disappoint them. Then they learn not to be duped into buying crap hyped by marketers.

Anonymous said...

"And if the Chinese like syrup balladeers like John Denver, as has been mentioned, well good for them. Some of us might like something a wee bit, as the HBD'ers say, more intelligent."

I've read a few dozen pages of the memoir he released a few years back. Intelligent it wasn't.

"Dylan was an innovator in music."

He's not even an innovator in BS. I remember a quote of his from a documentary I once saw about writing up nonsense and then laughing about the dupes who will attempt to find meaning in it. There's nothing new in that. Whining and playing the guitar badly - also old.

Anonymous said...

"He sounds like Buckwheat. His whole schtick is being inscrutable. He's a sphinx w/o a secret. The Emporer wears no clothes... O'Tay!

The baby boomers were seriously ingorant people. No disrespect intended, of course."

Who Buckwheat? Can you list, oh say, 50 great Buckwheat songs so we can get a handle on the comparison?
Gilbert Pinfold.

Steve Sailer said...

In the video, is Dylan's nose covered with suntan lotion, or did he, like Tony Montana in "Scarface," pass out face first in a giant pile of blow?

Steve Sailer said...

The best Dylan line is actually Greil Marcus's in describing Dylan as a student of "the old, weird America."

Nanonymous said...

Steve wrote:
to appreciate Dylan as fully as his American acolytes do, you kinda had to be there in the pivotal year of 1965

Really? How old were you in 1965? Six? Seven? Well then, if someone was three years old in 1965, would that be enough? If not, it probably doesn't mean that you don't appreciate Dylan, does it?

Good stuff is good stuff. Millieu and context can be important but they are not necessarily defining. People born after 1965 can fully appreciate Dylan just fine.

Dennis Dale said...

Dylan's stream-of-consciousness lyrics and ironic delivery were revelatory, inspiring countless artists great in their own right, such as Hendrix. You don't have to like him. Respect due. F the Chinese. If they had a Dylan they locked him up long ago.

agnostic said...

Bob Dylan is one of those who's famous for laying the ground for superior artists, someone you have to know just to see where some trends started.

As for introspective, personal, visionary singers, he was not so hot. Others had these qualities but could sing well, rock out on guitar, and become possessed on stage.

Marc Bolan from T.Rex, just to pick an example from before the mid-'70s when pop music really began to hit its stride. Billy Idol too, although he only sang. Tom Scholz for Boston's Third Stage album. Bryan Ferry. Hall and Oates.

Dylan was a bit overly personal, overly brooding, overly bla bla bla. Those guys struck a much better balance.

Probably the greatest one in terms of getting the balance right between lyrical and epic, withdrawn and crowd-shaking, brooding and onward-marching, was Rob Halford from Judas Priest. And although a virtuoso, he never overdoes it or flaunt / showboat his skill.

Anonymous said...

"Who Buckwheat? Can you list, oh say, 50 great Buckwheat songs so we can get a handle on the comparison?"

But of course! Glad you axed! Thanks to our good friens at youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wo1-sI7MOQ

Black Sea said...

"No one is important for a long time without becoming a fool."
--Nicolás Gómez Dávila

nooffensebut said...

“you kinda had to be there in the pivotal year of 1965”

So, you just had to be there. In that way, Dylan is like a sorry excuse for a bad joke. A rock critic once wrote that the Velvet Underground was the first cool rock band and that everything before that was just music to make baby boomers feel like they are wild and crazy. I think that David Bowie was the first actually interesting rock musician, and his work actually does go back to the late sixties.

Anonymous said...

You got me good, Buckwheat.
GP

Anonymous said...

"He sounds like Buckwheat. His whole schtick is being inscrutable. He's a sphinx w/o a secret. The Emporer wears no clothes... O'Tay!"

Who said Buckwheat aint an artist? He had a great cameo in DIRTY HARRY too, when Callahan asked, 'was it six shot or only five?'

Pissed Off Chinaman said...

What the hell is the point of letting Dylan play if he isn't allowed to sing his political songs? The censors in Beijing are such God Damn pricks.

Anonymous said...

There's a certain irony here. The US media are accusing Dylan of having sold out, but didn't we hear that one before... in 65 at Newport when Dylan went electric? Progressives then expected Dylan to be political, to sing about The People, and lead the folk movement. Instead, he showed up at Newport with an electric guitar and some Negro bluesmen to jam! And the progressives just freaked out. Where was the conscientious 'protest' Dylan? Didn't he know that he was supposed to be the heir of Pete Seeger and lead the cultural revolution? Dylan had other ideas and pissed off a lot of people.

Now, Dylan is 70 yr old, yet the same progressives in the media are ragging about Dylan not singing protest songs again. I mean give it up!! Dylan stopped being a political propagandist ages ago. And this is all very ironic since the liberals who are pissing on Dylan were the same people who were singing hosannas to Red China when Mao was actually killing millions.

Not that I have a problem with artists and entertainers protesting abuses in China. I can understand why Richard Gere, a devotee of the Dalai, would speak up for Tibet. I respect McCartney's refusal to play in China for its treatment of animals. But I say leave Dylan alone(though not quite in a Chris Crocker way).

Maybe Dylan saw this as a straight gig. Or maybe he's still devious and clever enough to manipulate the media to stir up yet another controversy; free publicity is always welcome.
Dylan always played peekaboo with the media and audience. Bob Spitz's biography is hilarious the way it begins. Dylan is in Israel for the first time, and the Jews greet him like their messiah. But in the first concert, he just slums it and the Jews feel betrayed. But in the next concert, he really rocks and turns them into believers again. I think Jesus played mind-games too, sometimes acting 'radical', sometimes saying stuff like 'give unto Caesar what's his'.

Even his stunt at Newport was both an act of 'selling out' and an act of protest. 'Selling out' by going 'commercial' and protesting by pissing off his biggest fans. For folkies, PROTEST meant everyone in the movement conforming to the same ideals and working in unison to protest evil, 'racist', capitalist, ipperialist America. They were supposed to subvert the 'powers that be', but Dylan subverted the subversives... and many were pissed. They thought they owned protest and subversion as THEIR weapon; no one was supposed to do it to THEM. But Dylan did it to them. Even as late as 66, people were calling him 'Judas' for playing rock.

Dylan also pulled a similar stunt when he was awarded with the Tom Paine Award. The radicals expected him to be their good little folkie pet dog 'protest singer', but he acted out-of-order and pissed them off. It's either the crazy or comic side of Dylan. He likes to push buttons, like Randall McMurphy. So, even when he's being a good boy, is he being a good boy?
I think Oliver Stone is the same way. Many conservatives were fooled that WTC was a traditional gungho patriotic film. But look at it closely, and the traditionally gung-ho guys are trapped under the rubble and helpless(like pregnant women in labor)while the women in the movie are most active. It is a kinda subversive movie when it comes to sexual dynamics, but the likes of Cal Thomas didn't see it.

Anonymous said...

"Bob Dylan is one of those who's famous for laying the ground for superior artists, someone you have to know just to see where some trends started."

Ridiculous. I doubt if BLONDE ON BLONDE could ever be surpassed.

Anonymous said...

"Dylan is like a sorry excuse for a bad joke. A rock critic once wrote that the Velvet Underground was the first cool rock band and that everything before that was just music to make baby boomers feel like they are wild and crazy. I think that David Bowie was the first actually interesting rock musician, and his work actually does go back to the late sixties."

Never mind rock critics. They were interesting in the 60s but destroyed rock music in the 70s. The great thing about 60s rock was it developed WITHOUT rock critics. Sure, people wrote passionately about rock, but rock criticism as an established artform hadn't developed until the late 60s.
But, once rock criticism began to exert influence on what rock music should be, talentless idiots like Patti Smith were turned into 'important artists'. The effect of this was the masses lost interest in rock as serious music while the elite members of rock culture fetishized cultism and conceit over all else.

VU was a cool rock band but burnt out fast and tended to rely on fashion/style over substance. Some of their stuff is really good, espcially songs written for Nico, but 'heroin' doesn't do much for me.

I agree Bowie was an interesting rock artist, but he owes much to Dylan. Songs like LIFE ON MARS and QUICKSAND--his two best--would be inconceivable without Dylan's influence.

Bowie was notable as one of the few genuinely great arty rockers. In most cases, artiness in rock was just a pompous shortcut to seriousness. Moody Blues, Yes, and early Genesis are good examples of this. They did some good work, but they fooled a lot of people by overlaying their music with classical strings, lush orchestration, and stylistic flourishes. Of course, the problem wasn't artiness per se--it worked perfectly fine for songs like ELEANOR RIGBY, DAY IN THE LIFE, KASHMIR, etc--but artiness as fancy garb for tripe, a case of 'Clothes have no emperor'.
Bowie, at his best, could be both arty and very original. Same with Pink Floyd.

I would still say Dylan was the singularly great rock artist because he didn't rely on artiness at all(except for maybe Desolation Row and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands) but produced the deepest, richest, and most complex art. He never had to 'fake' it. Dylan's sweat, piss, and blood had a unique scent. Maybe it even stank a bit but it was strange and fascinating. He didn't need no perfume it up.
Take a song like IT'S ALL OVER NOW BABY BLUE and ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER. Simple, blunt, and brutal yet also poetic, suggestive, and subtle. They offer a glimpse of a new order, revolution but there's also the Yeatsian premonition of chaos, anarchy, doom. Such richness and complexity without relying on the crutch of artiness. Now, that is a real artist.

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Dylan, most great artists esp. rock artists, paint their masterpiece, so to speak, when they're in their youth not when they're in middle age or older. I can't name any great rock artist who was at their best when s/he was older. Dylan, The Beatles, Bowie, The Band, etc. etc. The music of probably my favorite band, The Stones, I still listen to but none it was made before Emotional Rescue which was in the early 80s.

Anonymous said...

"He's not even an innovator in BS. I remember a quote of his from a documentary I once saw about writing up nonsense and then laughing about the dupes who will attempt to find meaning in it. There's nothing new in that. Whining and playing the guitar badly - also old."

Writing meaningful nonsense isn't easy. Ask Lewis Carroll, one of the masters of nonsense poetry.

There was a BS element in Dylan, no doubt about it. In a way, he was being an 'asshole', but in another way, he was poking people to wake up already! In the movie DON'T LOOK BACK, the young people are deathly silent and reverent as they listen to him perform. They hang onto every word for significance. Dylan was cracking up at this. He was a bohemian hipster with beatnik tricks up his sleeves, and all these white kids were treating him as the prophet-poet of truth.

Dylan always had a great sense of humor and loved to play tricks on people, and there is an element of this in some of his lyrics.
But even his nonsense lyrics are suggestive and symbolic of social and psychological archetypes, rich in permutations of meaning for every listener. 'Ballad of a Thin Man' is musically interesting but never worked for me. But 'Memphis Blues Again' is like one of those old tall-tales updated for the beatnik era and filtered through opiate haze. As in a dream, the imagery is both nonsensical and vivid(meaningful within its own surreal logic). And its characters and events are evocative of Americana.

"Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine
And I said 'Oh I didn't know that
But then again there's only one I've met
And he just smoked my eyelids
And punched my cigarette'
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.
Grandpa died last week
And now he's buried in the rocks
But everybody still talks about
How badly they were shocked
But me, I expected it to happen
I knew he'd lost control
When he built a fire on Main Street
And shot it full of holes"

You see, you don't know what he's REALLY saying, but you kinda get where he's coming from. It has the verve, noise, stink of life.

And 'smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette' or 'built a fire on main street and shot it full of holes'.
Brilliantly zany, nonsensical, but 'subconsciously' meaningful too. Fire and gun are both evocative of American expression of rage.
Dylan also assembled some fantastic musicians and guided/inspired them to create aural mixtures unheard of before.

The thing is, the meaning of Dylan's songs cannot be understood on a word by word basis, just like one cannot appreciate jazz on a note by note basis. As with abstract painting, things have to be seen in relation to the whole.

Though Dylan excelled in 'nonsense poetry' in some of his zanier songs, he devoted a great time and effort in his most personal works. He wasn't kidding with stuff like I DREAMED I SAW ST. AUGUSTINE, JUST LIKE A WOMAN, and ONE OF US MUST KNOW.
But he was a great kidder when he wanted to be. I'm not sure what TINY MONTGOMERY and MILLION DOLLAR MASH are about but they are weird, flavorful, and funny.

Ted Plank said...

As someone who found Dylan's entire oeuvre from "Desire" up to "Time Out Of Mind" barren except for the odd tune, I've found his last 3 albums ("Love And Theft" [released on September 11, 2001], "Modern Times" [2006] and "Together Through Life" [2009])to be excellent, the work of an elder statesman who needs to impress no one. His voice has a Gollum like quality to it that many young Goth / Death Metal types would be happy to call their own.

Having seen him a few times over the years, I've generally been satisfied with the shows. You either get him or you don't. John Denver will be remembered by a handful of people for about 3 or 4 songs, Dylan will be remembered by a lot of people for dozens of great songs. My nephews (in their teens and early 20's) are big fans. They "get" it. The Velvet Underground and David Bowie both owe a lot to Mr. Zimmerman, and, hey, Lou Reed makes him look like Ezio Pinza!

I can't see how anyone here wouldn't be impressed by his enraging of the Pete Seeger and Joan Baez crowd. That took balls. Not long after that, he played Paris, where the Frenchies were expecting an angry young poet in the vein of Rimbaud or Artaud. Dylan came on stage at the Olympia with a giant Old Glory behind him, which really put their undies in a bunch.

His partial autobiography "Chronicles, Volume 1" is a gripping read, full of various vignettes from different periods of his career. Surrealistic imagery of playing folk tunes for John Wayne on a battleship in Pearl Harbor, cadging meals with Tiny Tim at Folk City, giving the Beatles only a cryptic but appreciative mention while out on a motorcycle lark in the swamps of Louisiana. Above all, you get a sense of an artist in love with America, who pulled various strands of the nation's heritage together like no one else has done before or since.

As a youth he talks of the menfolk returning from World War II, an epic that resonated as loudly as any Greek mythology. Later he talks about raiding fellow folkie Dave Van Ronk's book collection in the West Village, reading everything he can get his hands on about the Civil War.

A few years back he had a weekly radio program on XM satellite radio, where he narrated a wide variety of different songs on various topics, from The Carter Family to The Ramones, with amusing and informative between song banter. It was as good as anything on the radio anywhere, unfortunately he quit the shows in 2009. They are worth tracking down on the newsgroups or various shady websites.

He used to have a house in the Garden District of New Orleans, maybe he still does. On the front of his house hung a large American flag, the only one on the block. He's a great artist that remembers his roots.

This Chinese trip sounds like another odd chapter in an already odd life. Maybe it will make it into "Chronicles, Volume 2". I can't wait!

Anonymous said...

"As someone who found Dylan's entire oeuvre from 'Desire' up to 'Time Out Of Mind' barren except for the odd tune..."

You're being way too harsh. It may be somewhat true if we were employ the highest standard of Dylan's best work--in that case, I would also include DESIRE in the barren category, especially coming after the epochal BLOOD ON THE TRACKS--but not if we use the standard of what generally passes for rock.

'Changing of the Guards' on STREET LEGAL is gutsy and soulful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1rc_y2cLPg

Though critics intially trashed SLOW TRAIN COMING, many now acknowledge it as heartfelt and inspired.

Jokerman, Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight, and Sweetheart Like You may not be major Dylan but wonderful songs just the same. Sweetheart is especially nice, though hated by feminists and the politically correct. Never mind Dylan wasn't talking about ALL women but a kind of woman(and even a kind of man by implication; after all, he too came back 'home' to family and his roots many times after wandering in the wilderness).

Dylan's voice was really shot by the time of EMPIRE BURLESQUE--and it has an awful album cover--but it is a solid album. It could have been major with stronger voice and different instrumentals--80s polish and glitz were wrong for Dylan. TIME OUT OF MIND works better emotionally because Dylan wrote songs that suited his worn withered voice.

And 'Series of Dreams' is breezy fun.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgqGUBP3Cx0

Anonymous said...

"Above all, you get a sense of an artist in love with America, who pulled various strands of the nation's heritage together like no one else has done before or since."

Yes, he loves America, but his view of America is still Judeo-centric. Bruce Springsteen loves America, but the America they love may be at odds with the America we love.

At any rate, his love of America seems to be cultural and historical than necessarily political, which is good for an artist.

And though he loves America, he's not always a trustworthy or reliable lover.

http://www.amazon.com/Down-Highway-Life-Bob-Dylan/dp/0802116868

Sounes' bio is probably the best updated version though it's already been more than 10 yrs since its publication. Dylan certainly is a very secretive person. He was married to a black woman for some 10 yrs in the 80s and 90s.

Dylan is like a poker player who will play everyone. So, everyone feels like a friend, but everyone gets taken for a ride too.
So, Dylan is to be admired and appreciated but never trusted. It's like the character Nick in HOUSE OF GAMES. He will play with you, but never forget what his game is.

Anonymous said...

Dylan, the predominant musical figure in the second half of American history.

David Mamet, same thing for Theatre.

Both Jewish, both politically ambiguous, and both fascinated with gamblers and hustlers.

HOUSE OF GAMES:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0eFfE8oa98

Dylan's song 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest'

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwm-5ABSIs0

Interestingly, Leonard Cohen, another Jewish musician, wrote the great song The Gambler.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLq7Aqd_H7g

Always gotta keep one's wits when dealing with these guys.

Lucille said...

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/017/144saagx.asp?pg=1

This sums up my feelings on Bob Dylan. I'm perfectly capable of enjoying music that was before my time, but Dylan is quite overrated.

John Denver Fan said...

"John Denver will be remembered by a handful of people for about 3 or 4 songs, Dylan will be remembered by a lot of people for dozens of great songs. My nephews (in their teens and early 20's) are big fans. They "get" it."

Ugh! The only thing worse than boomers are echo boomers. Can't Dylan retire or die already? If he had something to say you'd be able to paraphrase it rather than allude to it.

Anonymous said...

The Chinese Bob Dylan lived something like a thousand years ago, and his name was Su Tung-p'o. Read the "Two Prose Poems on the Visit to Red Cliff" some time and be amazed. Burton Watson did a fine translation. A few centuries before Su, there was another Chinese Dylan, whose name was Li Po.

I think Dylan's ostensibly 'political' work became 'politically' irrelevant roughly six months after he recorded it on average... but his great mysterious stuff like "Desolation Row" or "Visions of Johanna" (catch the Kerouac undertaste?) has a near-infinite shelf life. "John Wesley Harding" is an absolutely sublime piece of work, but there's no reason to expect your average twentysomething Chinese to understand it, the same way you wouldn't expect some teenage Detroit b-baller to "get" Su Tung-p'o -- I mean he might, it's not impossible, but you won't be astounded if he doesn't.

Dylan in his genuinely great phase ('61 to '69, basically) is one of those weird American virtues that only we as a people are really gonna get. Even the French will be stupefied by it, though they'll probably pretend they understand. But foreigners aren't really even gonna understand something like "Smokin' in the Boys Room" by Brownsville Station, let alone "Rainy Day Women". If you're a non-multicultural bona fide historical yank, just be glad you're part of the club. And only listen to "Gates of Eden" or "Down Along the Cove" when it's 4 a.m.

uneasy listening said...

"saw him perform after a mediocre warm-up band had assailed the audience with anti-war slogans and other topical political commentary. Dylan's aloof ('what would I know?') attitude was a blessing by contrast."

I once heard a warm up act from England fronting an Irish called Clannad. The warm-up guy sang "protest" songs with themes that would have fit in an early 60s "protest song" sort of thing, with no particular melody to offset the absurd disjunctive feeling. I find that a lot of foreigners seemed to default on 60s themes when it comes to the U.S. In the case of "people of color" that means "civil rights" stuff. I felt embarrassed -- for him.

uneasy listening said...

"Dylan's aloof ('what would I know?') attitude was a blessing by contrast."

One thing that never came out about him till recently is that he was not really on the side of the anti-war demonstrators in the 60s, at least not entirely. He actually admired the U.S. victory in WII (well, he would, be Jewish) and was more often supportive of military actions. He once asked a sponsoring group that wanted him to perform, what sort of music they wanted. I think that was when he penned "Masters of War." He was a showman in his own way. Worked better when he was young and pretty and mysterious looking than it does now. Among the gravely voiced oldsters I vastly prefer Leonard Cohen who truly possesses genius for ageless melody and lyrics that are poetic but which made sense.

"Shortly after I first arrived in China, John Denver died in that plane crash, and much to my bemusement all the Chinese I knew offered me their condolences. John Denver was very popular in Beijing."

A Vietnamese guy once told me that country music is popular among Asians. That was a jaw-dropper for me, but then I thought about. The music is kind of twangy, bounces along sort of like some Asians beats, and the lyrics are understandable and deal with everyday life. It was educational for me.

Luke Lea said...

BTW, that Dylan at Newport DVD is extraordinary in two different ways: the sound quality is almost too good to be believed, and the views of the white, middle-class kids in the audience, still with short hair, is a window into a vanished America.

As a cultural document alone you really should see it.

http://www.amazon.com/Other-Side-Mirror-Festival-1963-1965/dp/B000W1V5TM/ref=sr_1_5?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1302230261&sr=1-5

Luke Lea said...

For those who doubt LSD had a lot to do with the 60's I recommend this video:

http://www.boingboing.net/2011/01/16/housewifes-lsd-trip.html

jimbo said...

You saw him at his low point in the 80s. Nowadays, he can be hit or miss, but there is still something gripping about seeing a man who really doesn't care what you think of him up there playing around with his old songs, sometimes completely rearranging them to suit his own tastes of the moment. And he generally as the best backup band in the business.

And whoever said that the kids wouldn't be into him: every time I've seen him the past 20 years, the audience has been mostly kids in their teens and 20s. He had a short moment of "pop stardom" back in the 60s, but he's always been a selective taste, and always will be.

Anonymous said...

The cops in New Jersey were as bad as the Chinese a couple years ago when they picked up Bob Dylan, out for a stroll before a show, for being a hobo:

http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Police-Ask-Bob-Dylan-For-Identification-After-Reports-Of-Scruffy-Old-Man-in-Long-Branch-New-Jersey/Article/200908315361725?lpos=World_News_First_Home_Article%20_Teaser_Region_5&lid=ARTICLE_15361725_Police_Ask_Bob_Dylan_For_Iden%20tification_After_Reports_Of_Scruffy_Old_Man_in_Lon%20g_Branch_New_Jersey

Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan is hugely overrated.

VG said...

Incomprehensible or not, there's a good chance Dylan is big in China. Don't underestimate the power of the pirated music industry.

Pat Shuff said...

Embedding unique and original coinages in the popular vernacular is a neat trick, Shakespearean, oughta try it some time. And like Shakespeare, where unattributed quotes are common currency, often far or opposite from original context and meaning (like sea change.) Dylan somehow messed with the myths, legends up there in metaphysical realms and is as or more mystified by the phenomenom as anyone. Time for change between the placid flows then the whitewater rapids, some poor fool gets strapped into the saddle and stir-ups (from 'voice of a generation' to the second coming)
and rocketed into explosive fireworks of heady celebrity.
Do not try this at home (Scorcese-no direction home.) Some greats (van Gogh) are scarcely recognized in their own time, others (Melville) only posthumously when the world catches up. Seems an injustice but then so does recognition where monstrous talent is something one is more had by than had and if unrequitted devours alive without mercy, a pity. To the frequently heard 'can't sing' I always reply in mock sign language.

VG said...

This post reminded me of what a friend of mine once said about Dylan's songs. "What great songs, as long as they're sung by somebody else!"

kurt9 said...

I've never been a Dylan fan. I've never liked his voice. Anyways, I'm a 70's rock guy. However, I agree with some of the other posters here that, as a rocker, he has handled the "aging thing" better than most.

ZZ Top is another band that has handled the aging thing better than most. Unlike most classic rock, ZZ Top's music is more blues like and can therefor age well.

Then there's Rush. I wonder if the Beijing commissars would ever be comfortable letting Rush perform in China. Talk about subversive music.

Pat Shuff said...

From his worst record, maybe amongst the worst records of all time, Self Portrait, the opener All the Tired Horses. That one flew by the critics by just a few parsecs, they still haven't got the parallax calibrated. Slyest humor around, can take twenty, thirty years to get the joke if ever, a real standup comic.

http://tinyurl.com/3f5d6f9

Polymath said...

Forget about the concerts. The records are what matter (though so many of his songs have been well-covered by other artists that Dylan would be recognized as incomparably the greatest songwriter in English in his lifetime even if he had never made a record).

On the records, you can hear the words.

And I find that the later his work, the better I like it -- I hardly ever listen to his records from the 60's (though they were great). From the 70's, the trilogy "Blood on The Tracks", "Desire", and "Street Legal" is unsurpassed for complexity, musicality, and performance. His Christian albums that followed were very good; he his a bad patch in the mid-80's but 1989's "Oh Mercy" and the late trilogy "Time Out of Mind", "Love and Theft", and "Modern Times" are also great. In this later work he achieved a timelessness in which all eras of American music are simultaneously present, and attempting to categorize the music only diminishes it. Also essential are the compendia "Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3" (especially the 3rd disk) and "Tell Tale Signs".

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed watching The American last night. Clooney like many lefties embarrasses himself with his ignorance of guns so this story about a professional assassin lacks a certain verisimilitude. But it was a Blu-ray disk and my screen in eight feet wide. Bella Italia was just that. It was maybe the most gorgeous screen scenery since Lawrence of Arabia. I loved it.

Decades ago I built my own Hi-Fi amplifier and speakers.

I like the transmission medium to be accurate and intrinsically beautiful. That's why in the sixties I told Calvin that I preferred Gigli, Simoneau, or Björling as male vocalists. Calvin raved about Dylan's lyrics and ignored his quite dreadful voice. He sneered at the idea of mere vocal beauty.

I have posted about Calvin before. He's the white guy who went to Africa to help establish new nations. He chose Uganda. I always suspected that he wound up in one of Idi Amin's stew pots.

Maybe he was humming a Dylan song as the water came up to temperature.

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

Whatever else you want to say about Bob Dylan, the man wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.". Those are more than enough for any mortal to claim. Comparisons with the ludicrous Leonard Cohen simply will not do. Dylan sits in the expensive seats, along with John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Cole Porter -- the latter who, if we really want to be strict about it, wrote the best song in English of the whole 20th century -- "I Get a Kick Out of You."

The only other serious contender is "Moritat/ The Ballad of Mackie the Knife/ Mack the Knife", which is an amazing cross-cultural German-English-black English collaboration between Bert Brecht, Kurt Weil, Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darren, only reaching full perfection in its final phase after like 30 years. Think of a song like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" being reworked by say Peter Handke and Bono, and then translated into Chinese where it then becomes a standard. That's what "Mack the Knife" is like. But Dylan (at least so far) isn't so wide reaching; Dylan is grad-school Buddy Holly, he belongs squarely to a tradition that's strictly American.

Not everything has to be multicultural.

Anonymous said...

"This post reminded me of what a friend of mine once said about Dylan's songs. 'What great songs, as long as they're sung by somebody else!'"

This is sometimes true. ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN has terrific songs but terrible performances. Dylan sounds like he just woke up and feels crabby, song after song, except on maybe two cuts. 'Spanish Harlem Incident' by Byrds is much better.

But some of his songs are so personal that they lose meaning if sung by others, especially in an impersonally professional voice. It's like Cassavetes' HUSBANDS might look more pleasing and 'professional' directed by someone else--maybe Ron Howard--, but its power owes everything to Cassavetes' personality and signature style. What may seem like its 'flaws' are actually integral to its milieu and meaning.

Some Dylan songs are generic enough to be sung by anyone. I never liked BLOWING IN THE WIND and don't much care who sings it.
But there are songs where Dylan is clearly saying 'this is how I feel', 'this is how I see things', 'this is what I am'. Those songs have to be sung by him to retain full meaning. It's like it wouldn't make much sense for someone else to remake Bergman's PERSONA.
Dylan often touched on dream reality, and dreams belong to the person who dreamt them.

Ted Plank said...

Another point worth mentioning is that with all the current crop of Paul Krugman / Jonathan Chait / Adam Nagourney et al. - "Jews who are repelled by Anglo / Celtic / Teuton / Scandinavian culture, and would like to neuter it as much as possible", Dylan belongs squarely in the old Irving Berlin / George Gershwin / Aaron Copland camp, "Jewish patriots entranced by the possibilities of America, and who shamelessly celebrate it in their art". For that aspect alone he deserves reverence, even among those who find his vocals grating (which I do not).

Maybe on his next album he'll toss Sarah Palin into the mix, in the spirit of the Stones excruciating 2005 attempt to be politically relevant, "Sweet Neo-Con".

I had a buddy who played bass with him on a tour a few years back. Apparently his hooded sweatshirt is his main communication device. Hood down, unzipped = anyone can approach. Hood down, zipped up = only management or band members are welcome. Hood up, zipped up = no one can approach.

And how can anyone not enjoy THIS:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8qE6WQmNus

If I'm that endearingly odd in my Senior Citizen years, I'll be happy.

Anonymous said...

"One thing that never came out about him till recently is that he was not really on the side of the anti-war demonstrators in the 60s, at least not entirely. He actually admired the U.S. victory in WII (well, he would, be Jewish) and was more often supportive of military actions."

Politically, I think he was more or less on the Left back in the early 60s, not least because the Right back then still defined by the legacy of Joe McCarthy and Wasp blandness in shows like FATHER KNOWS BEST. And naturally, Dylan, a great fan of black music, was bound to sympathize with the Civil Rights Movement when he saw rednecks attacking blacks on TV.

But contrarian by nature, Dylan never liked to follow the herd. He felt closer to the beatniks and cynics than to the idealists and do-gooders, whom he found to be kinda... naive, dimwit, or simple-minded. But he was sentimental and 'spiritual' enough to avoid the pitfall of total cynicism. In a way, he probably thought overly cynical people were also innocent--or cynnocent--in their own way, using pervasive distrust as an all-purpose crutch; rejection of all dogmas and 'truths' itself turns into a kind of dogma.

Although he was part of the folk movement, he also stood apart. What he really liked about folk music culture was the music, the tradition, and the legends. It wasn't so much Guthrie's politics him but the romantic story of him as a traveling man, a kind of modern minstrel. For Seeger and his ilk, the main worth of Guthrie and Steinbeck was their politics. For Dylan, it was the rich narratives, the myths. Dylan loved CANNERY ROW and other Steinbeck novels in his youth. They opened the door to other parts of America, a forgotten mythical America, the dreams, hopes, and tragedies of individuals. Dylan's approach was always more artistic and cultural(and historical) than political or ideological, which he found narrow and limiting.

Folk Movement of the late 50s and early 60s was somewhat bogus--though ostensibly about The People, it had snob appeal among college students(who were too good for pop music and rock n roll) and urbanites, especially in the NY bohemian area(the sort of people who'd never been to the country, small town, or seen a real hillbilly or rustic Negro). And much of folk music was pretty, bleached, and whitebread: Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Denver, Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, Joan Baez, etc. For music pretending to be authentic, it lacked fiber, roughage, grit. It was antiseptic and washed behind the ears. In contrast, there was a rough-and-gruff quality about Dylan, a certain odor, which though offensive at times, was also pungent, sharp, different--the sort of thing one finds in the Westerns of Peckinpan and mafia films of Coppola and Scorsese(who know a thing or two about the real culture and manners of Italian-Americans).
Dylan stood out among the folkies because there was a genuine air of hobo and hillbilly about him. Part of this was a put-on, but part of it was real or real enough. Unlike most Jews and other liberals in NY, he really came from the smalltown backwater nowhere--Hibbing Minnesota. He really grew up among 'folks'. A quick learner, he soon out-city-slicked the city slickers in NY, but his background wasn't typical among Jewish intellectuals or artists, most of whom grew up around the NY area or in LA(Hollywood). So, unlike most Jews, Dylan did have a genuine and direct link with American 'folks'.

Anonymous said...

Since American conservatism in the 50s and early 60s was defined by respectable middle class tastes and values, it disdained much of the folkish elements. Though many new members of the middle class of the postwar era has folkish roots--Okies who made the great trek to California--, many Americans were embarrassed by their humble past and and tried to bury it. A kind of cultural amnesia prevailed where everyone kept up with the Joneses.

Folk movement, one could say, was a rebellion against such conformism, but it created its own conformism, which is why Dylan never felt comfortable. I think Dylan had a liberal streak(Jewish and urban), conservative streak(rustic and rural), and a libertarian-contrarian streak(I did it my way).

The interesting thing about Dylan was he was both genuinely more hill-billy-ish and also genuinely more intellectual and sophisticated(avarious reader and researcher of various topics)than your average folkie singer(mostly city or college kids).

There may be an interesting parallel with Kubrick who also never finished college but was probably the most intellectual and broadly knowledgeable(and curious)among all filmmakers. And like Dylan, Kubrick also had a 'reclusive' streak during long periods. And he was also politically ambiguous.

Anonymous said...

agnostic:

Marc Bolan from T.Rex, just to pick an example from before the mid-'70s when pop music really began to hit its stride

Bolan and T. Rex had the uncanny ability to sign about the most uncool stuff (spaceships, robots, elves) and make the cool dudes like him for it.

slumber_j said...

John C. Reilly being Dewey Cox being Bob Dylan in Walk Hard:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u5x9pdInTU

"What do *your* parents think about my protest songs, Mr. Time Magazine?"

Matt said...

Dylan peaked not in the mid-sixties, as people often assume, but in the period between 1978 and 1988. During that time, his voice was better, his hooks catchier, his lyrics more fascinating (but still very much his own thing, which many dislike), and his performance style superior to anything before or since. Infidels and Empire Burlesque are up there with any album by anyone, ever.

This all escaped notice, because by this point he had turned off all of his sixties fans while not making any concerted effort to seek out new ones.

These days, he takes the focus off of himself and lets his excellent band take the lead while he sort of barks to the rhythm of his hits and noodles on an electric keyboard that's set up to sound like a ballpark organ. I've seen it twice, and would go again. It's a pity the Chinese are getting introduced to him with no context.

Anonymous said...

Obviously Dylan read Kerouac and it shows; I'm sort of curious whether he also read Frank O'Hara, as the similarities seem easy to trace (Dylan seems on the face of it to have more in common with the puckish, good-humored, stand-offish surrealist O'Hara than with the committed, fake-prophetic, grandstanding Whitmanesque Allen Ginsberg who we know he hung out with); on the one hand, O'Hara was an obscure coterie writer whom it woulda been pretty easy to miss at the time, but on the other hand Dylan was a hipster, and since Ginsberg and O'Hara were friends, it stands to reason...

When I hear early Dylan (up to say '66), what I sort of hear is Kerouac and Frank O'Hara set to a weird kind of "classic" American folk/country/blues...

Anonymous said...

"Dylan peaked not in the mid-sixties, as people often assume, but in the period between 1978 and 1988. During that time, his voice was better, his hooks catchier, his lyrics more fascinating (but still very much his own thing, which many dislike), and his performance style superior to anything before or since. Infidels and Empire Burlesque are up there with any album by anyone, ever.
This all escaped notice, because by this point he had turned off all of his sixties fans while not making any concerted effort to seek out new ones."

Contrarian views are welcome, and Dylan's post 70s career calls for revision, but I think you're going too far. INFIDELS is a solid and very professional but not a major album. EMPIRE BURLESQUE has elements of greatness but lacks something like real passion. Initially, EB was greeted with much fanfare--TIME magazine gave it quite a write up--and Columbia Records spent quite a sum to promote it, but Dylan wasn't a hot item anymore--and the boomers had other interests. It's still interesting as a statement of middle-age-ness--no longer the cutting edge maverick but not ready to retire from stardom yet.

Because of Dylan's legendary status in the 60s, his every 70s and 80s album--except during the Born Again period--was awaited with great expectation, and most of them--NEW MORNING, PLANET WAVES, DESIRE, EMPIRE BURLESQUE--were initially over-praised, if only in the hope that Dylan had finally returned to form. (During this period, when Dylan wasn't living up to being Dylan, every new singer-songwriter was hailed as the New Dylan, a kiss of death for most of them.) The exceptions were SELF-PORTRAIT, which was booed from day one, and BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, whose great reputation survived over the yrs; it was the one Dylan album of the 70s and 80s that didn't suffer a major backlash following the initial enthusiasm. SLOW TRAIN COMING, on the other hand, was aptly titled. Initially underrated and even trashed, critical opinion slowly came around to its side.

As great as BLOOD ON THE TRACK is, I still think Dylan's most crucial works are HIGHWAY 61 RESIVITED, BLONDE AND BLONDE, and BASEMENT TAPES. Because of his reputation as a lyricist, many have gone so far as to say Dylan's metier was words than music. While it's true that Dylan didn't rock as hard as some others and didn't have the melodic sense of McCartney or Joni Mitchell, Dylan's greatest achievement was in creating a new sound, especially in HIGHWAY, BLONDE, and BASEMENT. Dylan wove a whole new aural fabric songs like LIKE A ROLLING STONE, I WANT YOU, VISIONS OF JOHANNA, ONE OF US MUST KNOW, QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY, MEMPHIS BLUES AGAIN, etc.
It was rough, dense, malevolent yet also rich, dreamy, cheery; multi-faceted, multi-colored, multi-shaped. They are like the musical equivalents of Chagall's paintings, with their themes and qualities of beauty and ugliness, rustic simplicity and cosmopolitan sophistication, Jewishness and Christianity, realism and dreaminess, etc. Most pop and rock songs, no matter how good, tend to be about one thing or other: beauty, sadness, longing, rage, love, nostalgia, hipsterism, hardness, or softness. But in the songs on H61R, BOB, and BT, the elements are mixed and brewed in some magic melting pot. It's not always pleasant, but the alchemy is amazing. When Dylan sings about a woman, she's not just the madonna OR the whore, or even madonna AND the whore; she is madonna and the whore AND everything in between.

Anonymous said...

There's a strange Jewish family in Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER, pawnbrokers with a rich array of treasures, oddities, and junk in their store basement. There is something of this in Dylan's approach to music, culture, and identity. In a way, he was a Jewish junkman of music but with a gimlet eye for lost treasures abandoned as worthless by the mainstream. Along with the junk, we find jewelry, trinkets, pearls, mementos, heirlooms. Kinda like the Antique Roadshow but emotional and organic than dry and commercial.

And songs like I WANT YOU have the liquid metallic quality, music as brassy quicksilver. It's like Dylan as the goldsmith of music, as if he materialized sounds into substances--melting, hardening, tinkling, dripping.

Emotionally, LIKE A ROLLING STONE is nasty and even trite, even with its far-out lyrics. But the sound is a densely packed maelstrom of anarchic energy, an incredible tower of babel of emotions, a song that should fall apart but miraculously maintains its unwieldly structure, almost by a force of insane will.
Dylan's vocals just beat up on the girl, but the hurricane of sounds beats up on Dylan too. What might have been a simple rant turns into a circus of emotions, mocking the girl, mocking Dylan mocking the girl, laughing and growling WITH Dylan, laughing and growling AT Dylan, etc. It most certainly had an influence on one of Stones' best songs: GIMME SHELTER, woven with dense thickets of sound.

There was nothing like H61R and BOB in rock or pop music before or even since. They were maybe the greatest single leaps in popular American music. Though Dylan took inspiration from earlier artists, he went far beyond what anyone had imagined possible, just like Kubrick with 2001(for science fiction) and Eisenstein with BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN(for mise-en-scene and montage).
Other than high IQ, maybe it helped tha Jews developed a middle-man mentality. Unlike settled communities, middlemen folks traveled more, saw more, haggled more, wheeled and dealt more, sharpened their wits more, and at the end of the day, all the sounds and images that entered their heads from dealing in so many different lands and with so many different peoples were bound to produce a view of the world that was different and even at odds with the worldview of more settled communities. Anglos explored and moved around the world too, but their ideal was to create a stable community in which to settle once and for all. The Jewish ideal was to be a middleman community WITHIN a settled community and between settled communities. So, Dylan's mind was more apt at negotiating, navigating, dealing, playing, and even cheating the various ideas, styles, forms, and methods that entered his eyes, ears, mind.

Anonymous said...

OT.

I don't generally listen to dvd audio commentary, but the one for HOUSE OF GAMES is a riot. Mamet on Bush, Freud, shrinks, and college professors is a riot.

Anonymous said...

Some might argue Dylan is a 'faithful' than an 'authentic' artist. If we play by the strict rules of authenticity, then not everyone can be a bluesman, kabuki artist, a Russian folk singer/dancer, a klezmer musician. A truly authentic blues artist has to be black(of a certain generation), a truly authentic kabuki artist has to be Japanese, a truly authentic Russian folk artist has to be Russian steeped in Russian culture. Exceptions could be made for non-blacks who grew up among blacks, a non-Russian who was raised among and as a Russian, etc.
But generally, even if one masters or mimics the art or music of another people, it can't really be said to be authentic. Ever listen to Japanese or Polish blues? Otoh, some musical forms--modern jazz, rock, etc--are cosmopolitan and/or diverse enough to function authentically across cultures. French rock is rock, and Polish jazz is jazz.

So, this raises the question of Dylan's authenticity. Could he really be considered a real bluesman, a real country singer, a real American folkie? In a way, NO. But he was authentic in at least two ways. He was authentically Jewish in his zelig-like ability to adopt and adapt to different cultures and ideas. And he was authentically American in the sense that Americanness is in the process of defining itself. Also, there is the widely held notion--even conviction--that Americanism allows oneself to re-invent oneself. Defined thus, one could argue Dylan was more American than American since he 'invented' himself more than most Americans. After all, America is big enough to allow pizza, taco, and chop suey to be considered as part of the American cuisine.

But if we play by the rules of authenticity by a more traditional definition, one might argue that Dylan was too eclectic, too modern(verging on post-modern), too intellectual, and too self-conscious to be genuinely authentic anything. A truly authentic artist has to be lost in the forest of his culture; he sees only the trees and is indeed one of the trees. But Dylan saw the forest as well as the trees. And he knew and hiked/hunted through more than one forest.

Since he wasn't an integral part of any single forest, maybe he wasn't authentically anything--in the way that Muddy
Waters was indeed a bluesman and Carter Family was indeed all about country.

But one could still argue he was faithful to various forms of music, but can a person said to be faithful when his interests and passions are so wide-ranging? Muddy Waters may have appreciated music other than blues, but he spent his whole life playing the blues. And same went for Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr. with country music. That couldn't be said of Dylan. Maybe one could say he was devoted but not really faithful to any single musical mother or wife. (But he sure had a lot of musical children in the artists who followed.)

Anonymous said...

However, even if we accept that Dylan wasn't and couldn't be a truly authentic artist, we could argue he was a true artist, indeed truer than authentic artists--if we were to use the modern definition of 'artist'. Traditional definition of artist means something closer to 'artisan', follower of tradition, master of a craft, and etc. Notwithstanding the fact that musical artists like Muddy Waters, Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and others were unique, and original in their own ways, they basically followed in the footsteps of tradition. Muddy Waters contributed much to blues, but he played and worked within the confinese of blues. He personally expressed himself through the genre strictures of blues(and innovation was often accidental than willful). And this is also true of people in country music, bluegrass, etc.
No matter how original or personal, they conform to the basic form, to the core tradition or conventions.
And this was also true of early rock n rollers. Rock n roll was supposed to be B as opposed to C or D. Chuck Berry outlines what is and isn't rock n roll in ROCK N ROLL MUSIC.

Dylan was a true artist in the modern sense of the word since he himself was the center of his work. The various musical forms were planets that revolved around his vision and imagination instead of the other way around--the rule for 'traditional' artists. Muddy Waters, no matter how original or personal, had to revolved around the sun that was the blues formula. He had a big personality but it couldn't be bigger than the blues.

With Dylan, otoh, he was the center of his art, which was indeed HIS art. In an artist with a weak personality, this might only amount to eclectism, which tends to be flaky and dilettante-ish. But it was something more than eclectic with Dylan. It was magnetic. With a forceful core personality, Dylan pulled and rolled various forms of music around him via the gravitational force of his ego.

We are all modern people, and the romantic notion of the personal artist has stuck, which is why, even when dealing with 'traditional' or 'conventional' forms of art, we prefer the charismatic and imaginative personal artist to the traditional craftsman or professional.
We love BLADE RUNNER because it is very much the work of a personal/modern artist. Scott wasn't content just to make another sci-fi or noir film by conforming to existing formula. Instead, he took various ideas and shaped, hammered, and bent them to his vision. So, BLADE RUNNER is more than merely sci-fi, merely noir, or merely action-thriller. It is Great Scott!! It is more than the sum of its parts because a Scott imposed his will on the material.

In a way, what Dylan did with old and new American music was like what Leone did with the American western and gangster film. Though steeped in and in love with the Hollywood classics of both genres, Leone didn't just want to make another Western or gangster film. Instead, he found his own angles and inspirations, and reshaped and recreated the Western and gangster film as his personal dreams. Especially with the music of Morricone, ONCE A WEST and ONCE IN AMERICA could be said to Leone's cinematic BLONDE ON BLONDE.

Anonymous said...

I was born (1975) and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I'd like to think that I wasn't living under a rock, but I didn't know who Bob Dylan was until I was in my thirties and living in Sweden, where I noticed his memoir appear in bookstore windows one day.

Until then, I would have been just as baffled about him as the Chinese audience.

georgesdelatour said...

“I’ve never really gotten into him,” she says. “His voice is too nasal. And it’s like literature music. Quite boring three-chord structures serve as a bed for words. I’m too much of a music lover for that to happen.”

-Bjork

Polymath said...

Anonymous,

I don't know who the hell you are, but I'd love to discuss Dylan with you further. Your comments here are epic.

Empire Burlesque is, in my opinion, Dylan's worst album, though it still has some songs which deserve to survive.

You're right about the "personal" songs, which no one has dared to cover. Dylan's singing on the records shows remarkable musical skill and depth of feeling despite his having a crappy voice which he ruined further with decades of smoking. But his greatest achievement is his lyrics, which reveal more and more artistry the deeper you probe them. There is a quality of creative inexhaustibility in his work which is very rare indeed (Shakespeare had it, and maybe also Mark Twain).

green mamba said...

Wow. The best discussion of Dylan I've ever encountered - makes me want to explore his stuff, and I've only been a casual fan ("Blood on the Tracks" plus the radio songs) - and it's on a "White Nationalist"-tinged site which many would consider beyond the pale. Dylan himself might appreciate the irony of this.

Btw, thanks to whomever for providing the links to "All the Tired Horses", "Must Be Santa" and the Dewey Cox clip.

Steve Sailer said...

"Wow. The best discussion of Dylan I've ever encountered"

Yes, among other worthy commenters, the anonymous commenter I'll refer to as TITLES IN CAPS is a remarkable cultural analyst. A little wordy in prose style, but what a firehose torrent of ideas! And TITLES IN CAPS' ideas are kind of similar to mine (which is good), just better informed (which makes me feel bad, because I always end up feeling guilty about all the movies I haven't actually seen yet, like THE WILD BUNCH.)

georgesdelatour said...

To all of the posters insisting Dylan is a musical genius:

Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual chord progression?

Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual melodic line?

Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual rhythmic structure?

Luke Lea said...

"Because of his reputation as a lyricist, many have gone so far as to say Dylan's metier was words than music."

For better or worse he was the poet of his generation. Personally I'd like to see him get the Nobel Prize for literature.

Btw I think Anonymous of THE CAPITAL LETTERS slights the originality and quality of a lot of Dylan's earlier work (or maybe you just had to be alive at the time). Among the songs that will last I would list WALKING WORLD WAR III, TALKIN' NEW YORK, TO RAMONA, ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME, A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL, IT'S ALL OVER NOW BABY BLUE, SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES, and of course MR TAMBOURINE MAN.

I read Allan Ginsberg cried the first time he heard A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL on the radio (he'd just returned from 6 months in India) because he realized that his day was over.

Anonymous said...

There were people in the 60s who thought he was over-rated musically also.

Ted Plank said...

Remember, after "The Wild Bunch", Peckinpah cast none other than Bobby D. himself in "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid" where he fit in surprisingly well, and for which he wrote the semi-classic "Knocking On Heaven's Door".

If anyone wants to search for the full 5 disc outtakes of "The Basement Tapes", they are worth sifting through. A bunch of unreleased gems that stand up well in sheer weirdness to the Velvet Underground, Iggy And The Stooges, The Fugs and Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. Some of his strangest off the cuff lyrics, backed up by The Band, when he was trying to shut himself away from the white hot pressures of Sixties Rock Superstardom.

If listened to along with the literary Greil Marcus companion "Invisible Republic" AND the Harry Smith Smithsonian / Folkways Anthology, it will be quite an odyssey into the heart of "The Old, Weird America".

green mamba said...

"I always end up feeling guilty about all the movies I haven't actually seen yet, like THE WILD BUNCH"

Steve, you live in L.A. There's no excuse for not catching up on those movies. They're constantly being recycled at art house theaters around town. My favorite is the New Beverly on Melrose (owned by Tarantino). I recently saw Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia there, a film I'd always wanted to see and to which TITLES IN CAPS alluded.

Anonymous said...

"Btw I think Anonymous of THE CAPITAL LETTERS slights the originality and quality of a lot of Dylan's earlier work (or maybe you just had to be alive at the time). Among the songs that will last I would list WALKING WORLD WAR III, TALKIN' NEW YORK, TO RAMONA, ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME, A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL, IT'S ALL OVER NOW BABY BLUE, SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES, and of course MR TAMBOURINE MAN.
I read Allan Ginsberg cried the first time he heard A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL on the radio (he'd just returned from 6 months in India) because he realized that his day was over."

The issue isn't the originality or quality of his protest songs. They were far beyond what other folkies were doing in scope, breadth, and imagination. But they're still didactic, peddling the same the dreary folkie politics. It's great propaganda or advertising, but propaganda/adversiting just the same. It's like some TV commercials are done with great flair and brilliance, but they're still selling soap. Most of Dylan's protest tunes sold 'peace'. So, while I can admire the brains behind a song like A HARD RAIN'S GONNA FALL, I can't follow it with my heart.
Though FREEWHEEHLIN' BOB DYLAN is an outstanding album all around, the only two songs I still enjoy listening are 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' and 'Girl from the North Country'.
Btw, Dylan's protest song that I like best is 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', which is more heart than head.
Though 'Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' is remarkably well-written, I find it too heavy-going for a message which is 'nuclear war is bad'. 'Even of Destruction' may be silly but it's a lot more fun.

I would NOT include 'To Ramona', 'Mr. Tambourine Man', 'Sub Homesick Blues', and 'Baby Blue' in the category of protest songs, which is why I like them. 'Baby Blue' is prophetic than 'protestic', not a clarion call but a foreboding of the nihlism that lies ahead with the unloosening of old truths. It also interrupts the social with the personal, mentioning armies and sailors in one sentence and then a broken love affair in the next, using them as analogies and contrasts.
It has some elements of protest but also philosophy, a kind of pop version of 'God is dead'. And it sounds different than his earlier songs, with lurking bass notes evincing a mood of the world moving under one's feet.
Maybe folkies wanted to interpret it as 'good guys gonna beat the bad guys', but the mood of ambivalence and anxiety, despair and futility, is quite palpable.

Its cousin is probably 'Ballad of a Thin Man', a song which hipsters might have interpreted as a satirical rip on squares but actually suggests that people 'in the know' don't know what's happening either.

Dylan was clearly starting to push enveloper, going far with BRINGING, farther with H61R, and farthest yet with BOB, at which point he probably sensed that he could try to go farther and risk losing his sanity--like Brian Wilson and others eventually did--, or pull back and reconnect with reality. Of course, Dylan's kind of reality was not quite reality as most understood.

Anonymous said...

"Remember, after 'The Wild Bunch', Peckinpah cast none other than Bobby D. himself in 'Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid' where he fit in surprisingly well, and for which he wrote the semi-classic 'Knocking On Heaven's Door'."

I must say cinema has been Dylan's jinx, with the possible exception of DON'T LOOK BACK. Dylan was by nature aloof, cat-like, elusive, etc. He could be forceful and in-your-face, but more as a personality or wit than as an image.
Dylan's multi-facetedness often canceled itself out in movies and even in concerts. He was too intellectual for rowdy rock, to rock-n-roll for intellectualism, too Jewish to be country, too white to be black, too hip to be straight, too reverent of traditional culture to be an all-out maverick. It's no wonder that the young Dylan identified so much with James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, who was all torn up inside. On the other hand, Dylan was too cunning and self-conscious to be torn-up-inside in a charismatic/dramatic way like Dean. Also, Dean looked great, Dylan didn't. Dylan looked special but part of his mystique was relied on hiding behind sunglasses, funky hair, put-downs, silence followed by rants followed by brooding followed by jibing. Maybe a truly talented cinematic director could have done something with Dylan's mercurial slippery persona, but no one did. Peckinpah was a great director but best with powerful personalities than tricky ones. In PAT GARRETT, Dylan, as a zelig-like Alias, just doesn't register. He plays it too aloof, too smart, too dumb, or too smart being dumb.
But even a bigger fiasco was Dylan's RENALDO AND CLARA, which I haven't seen but which everyone agrees was to him what MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR the movie was to the Beatles: a total disaster.
Dylan later starred in HEARTS LIKE FIRE. Haven't seen it but universally trashed and mercifully forgotten. I didn't get his role in MASKED AND ANONYMOUS.
And I'M NOT THERE by Haynes has to be one of the most painful movies ever made. I could only stand the first hour. It was torture.
Dylan lucked out with Scorsese--LAST WALTZ and NO DIRECTION HOME--, but even NDH lacks something...
It treats Dylan like Ken Burns treated the Civil War. The approach was archival and museum-like than personal and creative. It's not one artist trying to relate to or understand another artist but just getting down on his knees.

I'M NOT THERE is especially galling because it treats Dylan like Allen's character of Zelig. This is fundamentally flawed because there was a core Dylan throughout his career: Jewish, charismatic, personal, committed, curious, romantic, adventurous. Hayne's film would have us believe the Dylan phenomenon was a case of a make-up artist(both of image and soul), more an actor than a genuinely individual creative spirit.

Anonymous said...

Another problem is that even Allen's ZELIG, as brilliant as it is, is deeply flawed and even specious. Though the movie pretends to diagnose the neurosis of Jewish identity in the modern world, it was never true that Jews were Zeligs. Outwardly, they were zelig-ish but inwardly, they always retained a powerful sense of Jewishness. This Jewishness could be spiritual--Judaism--, tribal--Zionism--, historical--our unique suffering--, hostile--Christians vs us--, individualistic--I, the modern Jew, know best--, etc, but Jews never entirely lost their souls by mimicking and assimilating with the Other. Al Jolson in JAZZ SINGER remains no less Jewish at the end; he has merely changed the terms of his Jewishness. By making Zelig a hapless character without a core identity, Allen portrays a Jew as a Gump-like figure lost in the world, someone deserving of pity and sympathy; by golly, the poor lad even becomes a Nazi! But were Jews like this?

If Jews were indeed zeligs, then the accusation of rootlessness would be correct. However, being rootless, they would have assimilated totally into other cultures and disappeared. But Jews were more like chameleons, morphing into other 'colors' while retaining their basic form. So, Jewish rootlessness was relative to one's vantage point. In fact, when a goy accused Jews of being 'rootless', he was less troubled by rootlessness per se than the suspicion that while Jews weakened the roots of goyim, they remained rooted to their own Jewishness.
When the Old World faded away, Jews remolded their sense of Jewishness. Since it could no longer be religious or purely racial, they found other ways to be uniquely Jewish, even when they appeared to be non- or even anti-Jewish.
What did Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, and Freud all have in common? None of them was a believing Jew, but each was very Jewish in his/her own way. They weren't hapless zeligs but fierce prophets(or even new monotheistic intellectual-gods)who insisted that the world should revolve around his or her own ideas and personality(as the source of all truth and wisdom). Marx didn't so much conform to communism as make communism conform to Marxism. Ayn Rand didn't so much conform to American individualism/capitalism as make American individualism/capitalism conform to Ayn Randism.

And this is why I'M NOT THERE is as bullshit as Allen's ZELIG. I'm not saying Dylan was a radical like Marx or Rand--he was too eccentric and unruly for that--, but there was core sensibility at work throughout his career. He wasn't Alias that mindlessly morphed into other people(and their music) but an Alias through which other people(and music)were filtered through his own unshakable self. One might say that Dylan was always rooted in his own confidence of what he was and was capable of.

Anonymous said...

"Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual chord progression?
Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual melodic line?
Which Dylan song do you think has the most interesting / inventive / unusual rhythmic structure?"

I don't know enough about musicology to answer this question, but HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED and especially BLONDE ON BLONDE sound unlike anything else in rock. I can imagine how they startled a whole bunch of people in 65 and 65.
Folkies did some good by digging up old music to be appreciated by the new generation(but most held themselves back creatively in an adherence to 'purity'), and rockers were writing/recording some amazing music. But if most music then could be easily categorized one way or another--pop, soul, rock n roll, country--, it was hard to put a finger on what Dylan was up to. Some called it 'folk rock' but it could just as well have been called 'musical poetry', 'surreal rock', 'absract folk', 'symbolist pop', 'futurist traditionalism', 'psychedelic country', 'sci-fi blues', 'action song-writing', 'avant-garde populism', etc. If most rockers learned to juggle a few things, Dylan was juggling lots more.

There are tons of great and original stuff in rock/pop music but not many that are genuinely strange. I mean weird-strange than strange-strange. Strange-strange is easy to come by, with psychedelic effects, gizmo antics, etc. If you know it's strange, it's not really strange. Really strange stuff--weird strange--appears and sounds familiar but feels different. This is the difference between Kafka and sci-fi. You know sci-fi is strange-strange, with aliens, spaceships, ray guns, mind-control machines, etc. Kafka's world, in contrast, seems very much like the real world but operates by some dream logic. Dreams are, in fact, weird-strange. We believe in them as real and normal while dreaming. BLONDE ON BLONDE has this quality.

Last night I was listening to PRETZEL LOGIC by Steely Dan. Not my favorite band, not my favorite album, but it is one of the most weird-strangest albums in all of rock, up there with BLONDE ON BLONDE.
Some of the songs have that quality of the instrumentals in 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands'; wispy, hazy, smoky, etc.
Of course, SELOTLL doesn't quite work. It's Dylan's JULIET OF THE SPIRTS. Ambitious but too much hot air, albeit not enough to fill up the big balloon. At some point, it sags and crashes, like the balloon in the opening scene of ANDREI RUBLEV. Insufficent breath for breadth of its ambition.

Songs in PL have an airy quality too but the blowmanship is extraordinary. If Dylan sounds drained, winded, and exhausted in SELOTLL, songs in PL are like smoke rings, one after another, bull's-eying one another, circling one another, dispering into ghostly shapes and forms.
And PL has one of the strangest and most haunting vocals ever. They sound disembodied from the singer, like the soul sleepwalking/dancing away from the slumbering body of a hipster pothead, stalking the night, morphing into shadows, winds, and steam. Interestingly enough, Steely Dan guys were Jewish too.

In the 80s, I came upon a book in the library called Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide: 70s, and Christgau mentioned PL as the best album of the year, which is why I bought it. Can't say it's ever been my cup of tea but it's a singular work in rock.
Chritgau, like everyone else it seems, is now online.

http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?id=1312&name=Steely+Dan

Anonymous said...

Has anyone read Nik Cohn's ROCK DREAMS?

http://www.amazon.com/Rock-Dreams-Nik-Cohn/dp/382282612X

Stumbled on it in the highschool libary in the 80s. Cohn had no use for Dylan, but it is by far the most enjoyable rock book I read(though I haven't seen a copy since, well, that time in highschool.)

Anonymous said...

Haven't read any of these though.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/may/11/top10s.rocknroll

Anonymous said...

Dylan : song lyrics written to heighten the sense of meaning an audience feels when (likely) stoned.
This I know because when I think back on the few times I was stoned I am embarrassed at the fascination with things like candles, leaves, playing cards. His lyrics fit into that list somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I've been obsessed with Dylan since I was 16 years old. That's over 25 years. But I saw him a few years ago in Austin and was even more disappointed andthan I had expected to be. But, hey, the guy's almost 70, and it doesn't diminish the brilliance of his greatest music. I'm listening to Isis right now blasting in ear phones and as always I find myself utterly captivated.

green mamba said...

"And I'M NOT THERE by Haynes has to be one of the most painful movies ever made. I could only stand the first hour. It was torture."

Thank God someone agrees with me on that pretentious twaddle. Sadly, I sat through the whole 2+ hours.

Luke Lea said...

"The issue isn't the originality or quality of his protest songs."

But these are not really protest songs in my opinion, or at least not in the same simple way that BLOWING IN THE WIND was for instance. WALKING WORLD WAR III BLUES, for instance, is a comic apocalyptic satire of surrealistic proportions: compared to it DR. STRANGELOVE was nothing but a protest movie. TALKIN NEW YORK isn't protesting anything at all that I can recall, but just describing what it was like to be young and broke and on the street in that big, gritty city around 1960.

Even ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME -- or maybe for isteve readers especially ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME -- is interesting for its sophisticated take on the way political elites manipulate racial divides for their own ulterior purposes. We could use a little more of that kind of sophistication even today, as opposed to Borat-like hate-the-white-trash trash, at least in my opinion. Or maybe I protest too much.

Anonymous said...

"Wild Bunch"

As a purist I'm generally opposed to dvd audio-commentary--movies are meant to be watched, not explained(imagine music cds with audio-commentary on the music!)--, but sometimes I cannot resist.
WILD BUNCH is one of them since the three commentators were Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, whose books I greatly enjoyed in the 80s and 90s.
Paul Seydor's PECKINPAH'S WESTERN FILMS is epic as a piece of film scholarship. Garner Simmons' PECKINPAH: A PORTRAIT IN MONTAGE is unputdownable. And Weddle wrote the best and most definitive bio of Peckinpah: IF THEY MOVE, KILL EM. Great commentary on a great film by three people who really know the stuff.

Anonymous said...

http://books.google.com/books?id=ft3Y8i2iu4UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=GARNER+SIMMON+PECKINPAH&source=bl&ots=jtX5n2UUSn&sig=5otZPROQWXrDooU5wl8lSnOiLYE&hl=en&ei=ZiyhTdLID5PegQecm8zaBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

"WALKING WORLD WAR III BLUES"

Yes, Dylan's wit and skill are very evident, but it's still a laundry list of why war is bad.
Dylan was serving the preachy left.
Later, Dylan wrote a song called GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY during his Born Again period, and he fell into the same kind of dogmatic rut. He could still be creative but in the submission to some orthodoxy.

I think Dylan vacillated between individualism and communalism. He'd go off on his own tangent, do some amazing stuff but also get lost and feel alienated.. so he would join a community to 'serve somebody'--or something bigger than himself--until he got tired of that and returned to individualism/eccentricism... back and forth again and again. Though psychologically understandable, he did his best work when he was serving himself.

Same with Godard. His blatantly political films are the worst, even if some of them are stylistically bold. Both Dylan and Godard did their best work in the mode of personalism, especially concerning women and love.

Interestingly enough, there's an allusion to Bob Dylan in Godard's MASCULIN FEMININ where silly French radicals read out Dylan's anti-Vietnam War lyrics. I'm almost sure they were not Dylan's own but some made-up stuff. MF is
kinda like some Dylan songs on BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME in its tension between political commitment and personal indulgence. Is the radical hero more into revolution or the girl?

Paradoxically, Dylan and Godard were both extremely individualistic and communalistic, with one tendency feeding and oscillating with the other. The desire to do one's own thing led to self-exile and loneliness, which were then alleviated by return to community or search for a cause... but then, the stifling conformism of community/cause would inspire them to break free and go off on their own again.
(In some ways, maybe Dylan was more like Truffaut than Godard. Ultimately, Godard was more head than heart. Dylan, as intellectual as he was, was probably more heart. His fascination with women is more like Truffaut's in JULES AND JIM than Godard's.)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the best cinematic distillation of Dylanism was Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE. Though Newman's character isn't Jewish, his whole style is beatnik even before there was such a thing.
Like Dylan's persona of the mid-60s, Luke is aloof, elusive, clever, tricky, always looking for angles. He acts like he don't care... yet also has an insatiable ego; part of why he keeps running or challenging authority is to win the accolades of his prison mates. He's torn between the need to be left alone and the need to be recognized. Similarly, Dylan both sought and rejected, relished and resented, his role as the 'spokesman of his generation'. He hogged the public limelight but also hid in the shadows.

Of course, the reason why Newman succeeded in movies was because he was one of the best-looking actors ever. So, even as he played the alienated, cynical, and disgruntled hero, he was not shy about showing himself on the screen. Dylan, despite his charm and flamboyance, always elicited a certain unease in front of the camera, as if he'd be exposed as ugly, a geek, or a phony.
That didn't bother Newman none cuz even if exposed as a phony, he'd still be one helluva good-looking phony.

Like Dylan, Newman's Luke is both a man of authentic rural America and a hipster-outsider with city slicker instincts. He's both gentile and Jewish-like. Maybe Newman's Luke was a reprise of his role as Hud in the movie that surely had a huge impact on Dylan. Hud's embodiment of both old America(strength, guts, hardiness)and new America(cynical, self-centered, hedonistic)probably resonated with Dylan's sense of place in the world, what with his devotion to traditonal music(and moral idealism) and his hankering for fame, glamour, notoriety. After he heard what the Animals did with 'House of the Rising Sun' and the Byrds with 'Mr. Tambourine Man', there was no way he could remain a good boy in the protest movement chain-gang. He had to break free. He had to flaunt rules to do things his way.

The French New guys had a similar approach to cinema. And in sports, Muhammad Ali also insisted on playing by his own rules. He wouldn't be a good negro like Joe Louis or Floyd Patterson but his own crazy riotous self.
Interestingly, just as Dylan started out the Left but became an icon of Americanism, the once radical black power Ali also came to be embraced as what America is all about(and Ali came to relish playing that role).

Anonymous said...

Given the multi-angled approach of Dylan's music, could his stuff--at least of the mid 60s--be called 'cubist rock'?

Anonymous said...

In some ways, Paul Newman was no less ambiguous than Bob Dylan, 'racially' even more so since he was half-Jewish and half-Catholic(on his mother's side). He had both distinctly Jewish--wavy hair, slightly hooked nose, full lips--and 'Aryan'--blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin--features.

Though politically a liberal--or even a leftist with radical leanings--, most of his movie roles were what might today be called politically incorrect or even male chauvinist. Maybe he felt a certain need to play all-American tough guys since his politics suppressed all that was naturally masculine. SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, HUD, COOL HAND LUKE(where he plays a kind of Randall McMurphy macho-Christ role)--especially with the carwash scene--, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, SLAPSHOT, SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION--written by Kesey of One Flew Cuckoo fame--, TOWERING INFERNO, VERDICT(written by Mamet)--where one point he punches a woman out which upset some female and sensitive male critics, and most outrageous of them all, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, one of the most politically incorrect films ever made. Interestingly enough, Milius was also involved with JEREMIAH JOHNSON, where Robert Redford played his most politically incorrect role.

But then, his other roles were more ambiguous, where he played a tough guy with doubts or maybe even a faker or weakling hiding bluffing at toughness.
In a way, his role in COOL HAND LUKE was kinda like this. Luke is tough but relies more on wits than strength, though sometimes he will go to insane and even stupid length to prove his manly worth, as when he 'beats' Dragline by getting beat up.
HUSTLER too is about a tough guy who has to rely more on wit. And LEFT-HANDED GUN and HOMBRE are 'anti-westerns' where Newman's toughness was either subverted as phony(LEFT) or used to subvert the moral assumptions of the genre(HOMBRE). Atypical for heroes in westerns, Hombre isn't a white guy who saves good white folks from red savages but a half-breed who punished white people--both bad and 'respectable'--for their collective sins against the red man. But he's still plenty tough.

The difference between Newman and other, especially non-Jewish, action heroes or tough guys is readily evident, even in generic blockbusters like BUTCH CASSIDY and TOWERING INFERNO. In BUTCH, Redford as Cassidy is pretty one-dimensional(good-looking gunman)whereas Newman as Butch is a more slippery character: tough enough in some ways but as much a weasel as a wolf. In TOWERING INFERNO--in some ways a perfect metaphor for the Wall Street meltdown--, Steve McQueen is stolid and all 'ready for action' while Newman's role calls for a balancing of toughness and braininess.

LEFT-HANDED GUN, as a story of Billy the Kid, probably had an impact on PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID(directed around 10 yrs later by Peckinpah, just like Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE influenced THE WILD BUNCH). In some of these films, Newman's persona--tough, angry, vulnerable, confused, Dean-like--is uncannily like the one developed by Dylan in the mid 60s. Newman was like a cross between James Dean and Burt Reynolds.

Anonymous said...

I recall Pat Buchanan mentioned COOL HAND LUKE as one of the best films of its generation.

Ted Plank said...

From the Middle Kingdom to Apocalypse Now, his first gig in Vietnam. This probably has a certain poetry to people of Dylan's Generation.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13029109