Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was a major influence of my youth. In 1963 my older sister bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the early album that made him famous, and after getting used to his awful voice and amateurish instrumentation, I developed an interest in his lyrics that lasted well into adulthood. I think the first album of his that I bought was Highway 61 Revisited, which came out in 1965. I haven't listened to most of his albums, but from what I've heard, his best period was from 1963 to 1967, with the 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, arguably his best. By 1969 I was losing interest in his songs and I began to stop buying his albums. A few of the later ones, for instance Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Oh Mercy (1989), were supposed to be good, but I wasn't impressed. I attended one of his concerts in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1978 and the noise was so unpleasant that I left early.

The main thought that I have about Dylan is that he is an artistic opportunist. When he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway and the Vietnam War was about to escalate. With the folk music scene taking off, dozens of performers were seeking to articulate a people's response in the then-popular vernacular of folk music. Here there can be no question about Dylan's talent: he virtually obliterated the competition by saying everything ten times better than anyone else could, even when he occasionally meandered into the obscure. At the time I thought of him as an intellectual who could articulate what is wrong in society and become an effective spokesperson for sane policies, but that turned out to be a completely incorrect understanding of Dylan.

The problem with Bob Dylan for me is that he doesn't actually represent anything. I suppose he has some vague allegiance to the apparent messages of some of his songs, but in the greater scheme of things his primary motivation all along, right up to the present, has been to achieve commercial success. I became aware of this only gradually over a period of many years. When he blew off reporters, making fun of them, I used to think that he just didn't want to be pigeonholed by idiots, but I now think that that was part of a conscious strategy he had to control his image. The fact is that he has never come clean on anything as far as I know. His so-called memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004) clarifies little and remains almost as elusive as his comments to the press from the 1960's. There is ample evidence that he was not above using people and walking all over them when necessary.

I recently came across an excellent example of Dylan's disingenuousness. The film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000) is a documentary about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who was one of Dylan's mentors in the early 1960's. Elliott was already established as a folk performer when Dylan came to town and soon introduced him to his friend Woody Guthrie, who was then very ill. You would never know this from reading Chronicles, because Elliott isn't mentioned in the book. Even Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, is dumbfounded that Dylan has chosen to ignore Elliott. What it looks like to me is that as soon as Dylan found out that Woody Guthrie was supposed to be the patron saint of folk music, he rushed to pay homage and establish an apparent close bond with him, while cutting Elliott out of the picture as much as possible.

Although I am hardly a Dylanologist, I think I know enough about him to say that the last 45 years of his life have been less important artistically than the previous 7 or 8 years. The question, then, for me, is how well his best work holds up. For a popular artist it has held up exceptionally well. I doubt that any commercial American lyricist compares favorably during his lifetime. However, Dylan is now, after the scholarly work of Christopher Ricks, also considered to be a major poet. On hearing this I was at first skeptical. You don't need an English degree to notice that even in Dylan's best songs there is an irreducible convenience representing his sense of timeliness or market awareness - or just plain sloppiness. Yet, after sampling all of the major American poets, it is hard to argue that he doesn't belong in that class. Aside from his conspicuous lack of discipline, Dylan could easily have been a major poet instead of a pop star.

Dylan decided early on that he didn't want to be a poet. He was courted by poets such as Archibald MacLeish, but it seems that he always wanted to be a pop star, and this is also why he finally rejected folk music in favor of the electric guitar, even though he was an inferior player of every instrument he ever attempted to play. It is evident from his lyrics, interviews and writings that he was an anti-intellectual from the start, and, for better or for worse, we may have got all that he had to offer in the first place.

One of the problems of our quasi-democratic, capitalistic society, I think, is that there is less pressure on artists to perform at high levels than there was during earlier periods. The lowest common denominator, public demand, often determines the extent to which an artist succeeds. In previous times, aristocrats, who were usually better educated and more discerning, were the final arbiters of artistic merit. From the point of view of an aesthetic purist, I think we probably could have got more out of Bob Dylan if he had been squeezed a little.

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