Bob Dylan is not so much a singer and songwriter as a cultural happening in his own right. The man didn’t just write songs, he revitalized poetry by putting it to music that was sympathetic to the words, thus magnifying the emotional impact. Dylan almost changed the world for the better, leading the forward charge of the ‘changing of the guards’, however the 60s didn’t quite stick, the entire scene came apart at the seams at Altamont in 1969. Dylan is engraved upon the group consciousness as a protest singer, a label which he would reject time and time again. He had no interest in triggering a French-style social and political revolution and sending the old racist, straight, uptight world to the collective guillotine.
Dylan was, however interested in words, images, human experiences, the concepts of justice and injustice. He became that ‘walking antique’ he talked about in She Belongs To Me. He belonged firmly to a different age, a belle epoque where the poets knew their rules of verse before they decided to disregard them. He had the attitude of a young Rimbaud: a delicate slinger of facts, truths, blades and words. His words sang with or without the music. He was burning with the fire of the Muse, and all the world could do was sit back and turn on the radio, or set the platter on the record player, and tune into his burning brilliance in all its glory.
Dylan’s golden age between 1963 and 1976 was a 13 year reign of beauty. Everything important that he was to create was already written, if not recorded. His notebooks must have fueled him a while. There were occasional flashes of brilliance in the years after the Rolling Thunder Review, just as there was an awful foreshadowing of the craftsman to come in ill-advised ditties such as Country Pie, but these were single songs, few and far between. The Dylan of 1963-1976 was one of Art. The Bobby of 1977 to the current day is one of craft. The former was a walking antique, the latter the country pie crooner who could wiggle wiggle, but not ‘sing with his tongue on fire’ whilst reassuring his ‘ma’ that ‘it was ‘alright’ he was only ‘bleeding’. The dichotomy between the artist and the craftsman, the young pre-christian era Dylan and the post ‘Saved‘ era Bobby is not an easy transition to comprehend. He himself admitted to Ed Bradley in 2004 that he could no longer do what he used to be able to do, and write in that artful magickal way:
EB: Do you ever look back at the music that you’ve written and look back at it and say
“Wow! That surprise me!”?
BD: I used to. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
EB: What do you mean you don’t know how?
BD: All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… “Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…”
EB: This Dylan classic, “It’s Alright, Ma,” was written in 1964.
BD: Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not
Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic.
And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time.
EB: Do you think you can do it again today?
EB: Does that disappoint you, or…?
BD: Well, you can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can’t do that.60, Minutes, Ed Bradley, 2004
The albums of the Dylan of Art, beginning with the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, disregarding his debut which was interesting but not world changing, and ending with his last great album, Desire encompass all his truly important material. In an ideal world he would have simply stopped creating once he ceased to be able to write in that ‘magickal’ way, instead he put out Street Legal and began his downward slide towards the nadir of vast albums of Sinatra crooner covers. In between we have Country Pie and Wiggle Wiggle, country and boogie infused banalities which do not even have the dadaist charm of Everybody Must Get Stoned and Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat. There is a difference between saying nothing artfully, and saying nothing craftily.
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle in your boots and shoesBob Dylan. Under The Red Sky
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, you got nothing to lose
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a swarm of bees
Wiggle on your hands and knees
Dylan might aspire to crooner status, trying to fix his position as a performer with a golden voice, but lets face it, his voice is a matter of contention. I fall into the camp that find his delivery and the quality of his voice unique and intriguing, but no one could ever say that Bob Dylan is a conventionally excellent singer in the same way Frank Sinatra is. Dylan has style, but not a conventionally ‘great’ voice. This is the almost amusing flaw in his quest to become the new Sinatra: Sinatra had no songs but could really sing. Bob has all the great songs, but his voice turns off many of the uninitiated, hence The Byrd’s popularity. They recorded Dylan tracks for people who didn’t like his voice.
Wiggle Wiggle’s sophisticated cousin, the opening track of Blonde on Blonde is a tone poem, Everybody Must Get Stoned, tries to hide the fact it is a diatribe against his toxic fans and the media who was seeking to ‘stone’ at the very least, or possibly crucify him, behind a semi-hidden drug terminology. The layers of meaning in this supposedly simple little song with a raucous party-track basement tapes-esque sound belies its complexity. There is nothing beyond the boogie in Wiggle Wiggle – it is merely Bob proving that he just don’t have ‘it’ any more. Compare that to Bob wishing that he was not set out for special treatment, and that the rest of the world would take their fair share of the abuse he was being subjected to.
The hippies saw a drug song, the sensitive saw a plea for mercy. The straight world didn’t care much, it was just one of those long haired boys from the counter culture, it was probably ‘gay’ or ‘druggie’ and besides they were busy listening to Captain and Tennille.
Well, they’ll stone you when you walk all alone
They’ll stone you when you are walkin’ home
They’ll stone you and then say, “You are brave”
They’ll stone you when you’re set down in your grave
But I would not feel so all aloneEverybody Must Get Stoned, Bob Dylan.
Everybody must get stoned
Wiggle Wiggle is the crafty Bob trying to write another Everybody Must Get Stoned. It doesn’t work. The best song Down in the Groove was a cover of Rank Strangers, an Albert E. Brumley song, and that is no fluke, Dylan just did not have ‘it’ in his later albums, a fact he himself admits.
Genius is the recovery of childhood at willCharles Baudelaire, “De l’essence du rire” (On the Essence of Laughter), 1855
I believe to understand what made Dylan a genius and what made him lose the genius and become a craftsman ‘only’ we need to look at the French poets of the 19th century. Baudelaire’s declaration was only part of the story, for poetry to move forward it required Rimbaud to devote himself to the cause of becoming a visionary. Dylan, the ‘walking antique’ wrote as if he was directly possessed by the Muse, thrown himself into the same devil’s bargain. 1964’s My Back Pages marks his break-away from political protest material and his launch into the arena of the pure poet and artful creator. It had a working title of ‘Ancient Memories’, which fits it better than the title it ended up with, in my opinion. Child-like innocence is a promise of renewal of the world, a breaking away from stagnation, and the way forward to the new and groundbreaking.
This willful innocence, left to grow without its bloom being torn apart and inspected for its workings, but expressed in the adult language of a man, was once the preserve of geniuses like Rimbaud, and was now being exhibited in Dylan. The derangement of the senses, lead to Dylan becoming the wild and free “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the one who was capable of writing Visions of Johanna. The other more grossly material meaning of the refrain of ‘everybody must get stoned’ marked Dylan the artist coming into his own poetic destiny. First Dylan had to be able to be as a child, seeing the world with that same wonder – being younger than he was in years past, and then shaking off that childlike innocence, and waking himself up to the darkness that exists beyond the light of ignorance.
The mystical child narrator of It’s Alright, Ma, who both reaches for higher meanings, greater visions and more intensely powerfully beautiful poetry, also feels the need to reassure that ‘foreign sound’ to his mother’s ears, is only him sighing. Here is the pinnacle of artistic expression that Dylan climbed again and again and again. Do do it once is extraordinary, but his continual blaze of poetic glory cannot be underestimated.
It was only when Dylan became devoted to his artistic life, to Rimbaud’s edict of ‘disorganizing all the senses’ as the great Rimbaud wrote to George Izambard in May 1871, and to Baudelaire’s prescription for genius, that he really started to shine. Without Dylan’s ‘walking antique’ philosophy powering his creative life we could never have had the moments of pure beauty and wonder that are encapsulated in Chimes of Freedom, Mr. Tambourine Man, and even the earlier song, Restless Farewell, and without those stepping stones, the heavy hitters which followed on the tail of this new devotion to genius could not have existed.
By Blonde on Blonde Dylan the artist was fully immersed in the word and its beauty.
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her faceVisions of Johanna, Bob Dylan
I am as much a Dylan fanatic as I am a critic and examiner of his art, the two necessarily go hand in hand, but to try and fool ourselves that the post 1976 Dylan is the equal of the Dylan of his golden age is to deny the almost supernatural genius of his very best work. At his peak Dylan was the equal of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, in fact it was almost as if he was channeling these old and beautiful ghosts of poetry past. At his nadir, even the charm of The Basement Tapes is missing, and all we have left is a man in command of his craft, but without the genius to attend it. Perhaps the muse was scared away by his new piousness, its pagan brilliance unable to function in a man who was devoted to Jesus, not Poetry.
The Muse might have fled, but the craftsman remained. Dylan without this mystical, this magickal inspiration was and at times still is, a force to be reckoned with. Not Dark Yet reminds us, the listener that the old creative Dylan is not yet passed over, his power not totally deserted him, but that it is ‘getting there’. In Things Have Changed Dylan in a Vaudevillian mood takes us on a tour of his craft and wry sense of humor. After all, the Muse has good taste, they don’t just favor any poor schmuck with a taste for booze and hard drugs. Dylan at his crafty best can be a deep joy to listen to. He just ain’t what he used to be, and all the wishing in the world will not turn those country pies into Johanna’s fish trucks.