False Idols or Johnny’s Bad Basement Medicine (Dylan)

Look, I don’t want to be an iconoclast, I don’t even much care about who or what other people choose to worship, even if that is Bob Dylan. What does bother me are phoneys and Dylan is the biggest phoney that ever won a nobel prize for literature. He is even a bigger phoney than the boards of judges who ignored James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy. Jacinto Benavente y Martínez won instead of Joyce in 1922. Quick, off the top of your head tell me why he won and what he won primarily for? Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922. A Nobel prize for literature is more about politics than it is worth or authenticity. Benavente won for for the ‘happy manner’ in which he portrayed Spanish traditions in drama. Life is not happy. No art that is primarily happy should ever win anything. Imagine the self portrait of Van Gogh without the bandages and with an intact ear. Happier? Yes, but not better!

Dylan is a phoney. From his accent to his early back story, from his fake civil rights promoting youth, to his drifting back to protest songs when he runs out of material. From his fake country album, Nashville skyline, to his garbled imitation of himself in Blood on the Tracks. Dylan is a fake.

Joni Mitchell knows what’s going on, in a 2010 interview she insisted “He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” Now, I am not about to launch into full scale rabid Webermanist destructomania over Dylan. I am not going to pull apart songs and lies and fabrications, and go on and on about the extent to which he has pulled the wool over our collective consciousness’s all seeing eye. Promise. Weberman was a self proclaimed Dylanologist, he got obsessed and he got scary, and curiously combative when he realized it was all a lie and Dylan didn’t really have the keys to the universe, as so often advertised.

Dylan did drugs. Those lines in Blonde on Blonde, in which he lies later in Desire’s Sara that he “stayed up all night in the Chelsea Hotel, writing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland’s for you” were all speed-ball induced frenzy. Half of Blonde on Blonde was written in the the CBS studio in Nashville while his posse fawned over him, not freezing in the Chelsea like the good Rimbaud he pretended to be. “The ghost of ‘lectricity howl’s in the bones of her face,” and “With your pockets well-protected at last/And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass/ And your flesh like silk and your face like glass/ who could they get to carry you?” It’s just speedball induced amphetamine and heroin jive, man. It’s just patter. It is great patter, it is interesting patter, but really, it doesn’t mean much at all except man he found that plateau of perfection, and married it with a way with words, but it really doesn’t mean much when all is said and done. It is just images strung together from a strung out mind.

Everyone knows Dylan is a plagiarist. From the Little Buddy controversy, the baby Dylan stealing from Hank Snow

Hank Snow’s version of “Little Buddy”

Broken hearted and so sad, golden curls all wet with tears,
‘Twas a picture of sorrow to see.
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told

Bobby Zimmerman’s version of “Little Buddy”

Broken hearted and so sad
Big blue eyes all covered with tears
Was a picture of sorrow to see

Kneeling close to the side
Of his pal and only pride
A little lad, these words he told me

At 65 years old Dylan hadn’t cut it out. You can call it pastiche till the cows come home, but the ripping off of civil war era confederate poet, Henry Timor in Modern Times, was shocking. Ill hop and skip over the fact he ripped off a Confederate…but I’m putting it out there…

“When the Deal Goes Down” – Dylan writes – “More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours”, in Timrod’s “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”, there is a line which reads: “A round of precious hours, Oh! Here where in that summer noon I basked, And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.” Later in When the Deal Goes Down, Dylan drawls “Where wisdom grows up in strife” – Timrod’s poem “Retirement” reads: “There is a wisdom that grows up in strife.”

  • Timrod’s “Two Portraits”: “How then, O weary one!/Explain the sources of that hidden pain?”
  • Dylan’s “Spirit on the Water”: Can’t explain/The sources of this hidden pain.”

I could go on, but it is easily found and you get the idea. If I tell you Dylan also used the music, note for note, and the title, word for word, of Muddy Water’s Rollin’ and Tumblin’, but changed the lyrics, I guess this wouldn’t be shocking. Yet all songs are attributed to Dylan and only Dylan. Why is it tolerated? Because Dylan is an idol. He is untouchable, and he knows it.

His early interview with Cynthia Gooding, on Folksinger’s Choice, in 1962, was a mass of fakery. He was never in a reformatory, he never rode railcars, he was not a run away to the carnival. He borrowed all this history that was not his – he was a nice Jewish boy from Hibbing – in order to get some Woody Guthrie kudos and unearnt cred in the hobo beat poet Woody Guthrie Kerouac scene. At least Woody was real, as were the beat boys. Heck, Ginsburg was more real than Dylan could ever be…It was the same reason he latched onto the wonderful Joan Baez and hitchhiked his way to fame by piggy backing on the civil right’s struggle. Bob was always ambitious, but real? I don’t think so.

I can’t help but get the sneaking sinking feeling that every song he wrote about the civil rights struggle was just cynical bandwagonning, not real love for humanity or the cause. When Dylan put out a 2020 edition of his Theme Time Radio Hour, in the midst of black lives matter protests, and injustice and murder by cop in his home state of Minnesota, did he make it about civil rights? Protest songs? No, he pushed his whiskey and he made it all about booze. Not a thought to how so many people were struggling with alcohol under the stress of the pandemic, or what he owes – his career – to the civil rights movement. No he wanted to push his brand of liquor, and push it he did. Boring, Zimmy, boring…and just a little bit disappointing,

Nobel prize for literature to a phoney who steals off obscure CONFEDERATE poets while writing civil rights protest songs, and makes a career off the backs of the civil rights movement, which was Dylan’s defining moment in the public consciousness, yet when the whole mess kicks off, rightly in his home state, he can only whine on and self promote his booze? He isn’t much of an idol.

That is not to say he didn’t have moments of brilliance, and he provided the soundtrack for protest in a way that captured hearts and minds, who cares if he actually meant it? I do…kinda. It is ridiculously important to me that he meant what he said and did, and I can’t help but feel a little let down at his relative silence. A few words in support of BLM in the NYT, but that was it.

Dylan described himself as “a simple song and dance man” while holding a giant blow up light bulb and battling with the press. That might be the truest thing he ever said. Dylan never asked for us to hold him up on so high a pedestal, and demand greater and greater brilliance and innovation at the cost of his psyche. The wonder is that Dylan didn’t burn out, but dragged himself up and back at the stage after that ‘motorcycle crash’ in Woodstock in 1966, after the recording of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan might have crashed, but it was never about speed on the roads. He was strung out, he needed to “take the cure”. Dylan was sick. We had pulled and demanded more and more from him. So Dylan had to scale back the punishment, and write “Country Pie”. This is the Dylan we deserve: Mr. Boogie Woogie and a ripped off blues riff.

Fact is, Dylan wrote a few brilliant albums in the ’60s. Nothing after Blonde on Blonde was worth shit. It was all Dylan trying to sound like Dylan. Where Dylan shines is when he tries to come on like Rimbaud, without ripping it off word for word, in To Ramona ‘the flowers of the city, though breath-like get death-like sometimes‘, we can smell Rimbaud’s ‘green velvets, gray gauzes, and crystal disks that turn black as bronze in the sun‘. Genius and artistry is not infinite. We kept on whipping that Dylan donkey, demanding he keep up the pace, keep flying close to the sun, and keep churning out the brillance: who can? No one mortal.

I am not going to bullshit and say churlishly that Dylan is worthless – though Leonard Cohen was the far greater poet – he is simply not who he pretends to be, and not half the poet we make him out as. We are desperate for the Keats and Yeats’s of our time, to know we can still create and Icarus-like fly towards the sun without melting. We need to touch base with the eternal and the ineffable. We need our saints and our martyrs. Dylan refused to be that, and damnit, I respect him for it. The fact he picked himself up, and made the Basement Tapes, shaking off the fairy dust, and boogie-ing his woogie, is a triumph for humanity: you can stare eternity square in the face, and come down from the mountain alive. You just can’t do it forever.

Time to take Mr. Dylan off his pedestal. Zimmy is now a nostalgia kick, a fragment from a black and white photograph in Greenwich Village, a strange young man turned into a survivor of the golden age of popular music. I don’t respect him much, I don’t even like him. He never seems to be straight in any interview, and you can’t ever get sense outta him, but who can blame him. Not me.

Rough and Rowdy Ways is prime Zimmerman, but it aint’ Dylan. It rocks and boogies, it has the rap and the hep cat jive, it rolls along just fine. I listened to it one time, smiled at the grizzled old bastard, and waved goodbye, Bobby D, you gave a fine performance. Maybe I shouldn’t be such a sucker for authenticity. It is all bad medicine anyway, even if Johnny is mixing it up in the basement….

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