Dylan, Revisited

Like a lot of people of my age and social background, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life soaking up the music of 60s and 70s rock/soul icons, from the Beatles to Blondie and beyond. I bought the records, attended the shows, read the books, pored over the liner notes, the whole lot.

Out of all of them, Bob Dylan was easily the one whose music I was most drawn to. I’m not alone, either. The roster of Bobophiles runs loooonnnnng. I would probably rank in the bottom 25 percent when it comes to Bob Knowledge among the vast community of Dylan fans.

Those at the very top of the class own every recording Dylan has ever made – including bootlegs and foreign pressings – and could give a dissertation on the man’s life and career without doing an ounce of research. They can recite his every lyric and probably tell you the origin and maybe the recording date of each song in his catalog. I’m not kidding — these people exist.

Me? I essentially stopped buying Dylan’s albums 20 years into what is now a 60-year recording career. To this day I still cannot get the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the right order – a failing of commitment and character that would have me permanently banished from the global Dylan Admiration Society.

Even so, for a good part of my adult life, Bob Dylan was the closest thing to a musical idol I ever had. This phase began during my college days, when I started buying his old albums from the 1960s to mid-70s. I would often lose myself in those albums for days at a time, tuning Dylan in and everything else out. At some point I decided he was the most brilliant musical artist I’d ever heard, by a pretty fair distance.

I couldn’t even tell you why, at least in any logical fashion. There was just something about the way he wrote and performed songs that set him apart. It’s like his songs were Quantum Physics, and everything else was 6th grade biology. I wouldn’t always feel this way, but back then I was convinced he operated on a whole other level from the rest of the field.

I could cite a few dozen examples of songs of his that seem like little miracles to me – and not just the obvious protest ballads or rock anthems that made him famous, either. Many of his lesser-known songs are filled with clever little phrases, inventive rhymes and cadences, hidden meanings, black humor, plot twists, mazes, inside jokes, heartbreak, wordplay.

Even when Dylan wasn’t trying to hit a homer with a song, he could still bunt it out of the park. One of my favorite examples is “Buckets of Rain” from his landmark 1974 breakup album, Blood on the Tracks. It’s the last song on the record – a short and spare ode to lost love. Here’s part of the lyric:

Life is sad/life is a bust/all you can do/is do what you must

On paper, it looks simple enough, no big deal, nothing brilliant for the naked eye to see. There’s a monosyllabic rhythm that makes those words sound like a nursery rhyme – three beats, four beats, four beats, five. There’s a little rhyming phrase in the middle that could serve as a guidepost for life itself (all you can do is do). There is a resignation behind the words that might make you laugh or might make you cry, wondering if life is worth the trouble, realizing it’s the only one you have.

Put to music, with nothing more than Dylan’s haunted voice and an acoustic guitar and bass for accompaniment, the song takes you to a primal place. It’s a song you listen to late at night, alone, with the mask off and your skin hanging in the closet. I’ve probably listened to it a thousand times and it never fails to slay me.

*****

Admiring someone because of their talent is a tricky business. You never know if they’ll turn out to be a horror show once all the layers are peeled back. Humans are humans are humans, all vulnerable to the same demons and weaknesses. Most of us rein them in, but not all do (more than a few brilliant artistic types couldn’t). Better to admire a person’s talent without making a commitment to who they might be just beneath the surface.

Dylan is no horror show, although he has a reputation for being moody, enigmatic, standoffish, and given to telling tall tales about himself. What I mainly know about him is what I’ve read: A kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, iron ore country, who learned to play guitar and write songs, moved to New York City, became a global superstar before his 24th birthday, and has spent the ensuing decades dealing with all the rewards and fallout.

Dylan, 81 years old now, has continued to make important music well into his senior years, including “Murder Most Foul,” an epic 17-minute ballad about the JFK assassination released in 2020.

I still mainly listen to his albums from 1960 to 1976, when he rode a creative wave so long and so high you wondered whether it would part the skies. Then came a series of trifling records in the late 70s – Street Legal, Slow Train Coming, Saved – and some of the bloom came off the rose. I saw him live in concert once, around 1979, and he more or less phoned it in.

I personally evolved into a punk/new wave/alternative phase around that time, mixed in a steady diet of classic rock, R&B, and country, and then eventually moved full-bore into jazz, which is where I finally landed and will likely remain.

But I still listen to Dylan’s records, and still marvel at many of them. That hasn’t changed, and won’t.

*****

I’ve had Bob Dylan on the brain the past few weeks – something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time. It began earlier this month, on my birthday, when my wife gave me a copy of Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. In it, Dylan offers commentary on 66 songs that either struck a chord with him as a fan or musician, or that he thought would serve his purposes as an essayist.

I find the book fascinating in many respects, mainly because it gives you a peek into the odd goings on inside Dylan’s brain. Contrary to the book’s title, the author doesn’t provide a whole lot of philosophy on songwriting – or spend much time writing about modern songs.

You won’t find many insights on the songwriting process. These are mainly sketches and meditations on the songs, told from Dylan’s peculiar point of view. In some instances, you wonder how what he writes has any connection at all to the songs being written about.

I’m not interested in doing a critique here. If you want that, here are a couple reviews from The Guardian and Variety.

In terms of the songs selected: They lean toward pre-1960 American music, heavy on the blues and country. This will come as no surprise to those who know enough about Dylan to know that his obsession with old American music runs deep and wide. What might be surprising is how many pop crooners appear on the list: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Rudy Vallee, Bobby Darin (twice), Perry Como, Vic Damone, Johnny Ray.

Dylan once famously referred to himself as a “song and dance man” after an interviewer at a press conference asked him if he considered himself more of a singer or poet. You get the feeling Dylan was only half kidding about that.

Two of the “newer” tunes in The Philosophy of Modern Song are searing punkish numbers from a pair of British artists: The Clash’s “London Calling,” and Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up.” Both were included on albums from the late 1970s – more than 40 years ago. Both are among my favorites from that era, but they’re not exactly “modern” from the vantage point of 2022.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Dylan if there weren’t a few controversies attached to the book. Last week he issued an apology for selling machine-signed books that were promoted as hand-signed copies and therefore carried premium price tags. Dylan called it an “error in judgement,” which yes, it most definitely was.

Meanwhile, Esquire ragged on the book because it doesn’t contain a whole lot of theories on songwriting, and many of the songs aren’t really “modern,” and Dylan didn’t offer explanations on why he chose these songs in the first place.

There have also been accusations of misogyny both in terms of the book’s depiction of women in some of the songs (vixens, bloodsuckers, shrews) and in terms of the dearth of female musical artists represented (four out of 66).

Some of these are valid arguments – why didn’t Dylan include more female artists? – but many miss the point entirely.

Dylan has always zigged when others expected him to zag. Early on in his career he pissed off a bunch of folk purists when he went electric. After he became a rock star he took a brief turn into country music. He was a hero to the political left who sometimes promoted old-fashioned conservative values. He is a Jewish man who became a born-again Christian – and almost as quickly returned to Judaism (I think. Who knows?).

All of which is to say that just because Dylan wrote a book titled The Philosophy of Modern Song, there was no reason to believe he would actually write philosophies of songs that are modern. It’s essentially a free-form exercise in verbal improvisation, a plunge into dissonant thoughts that seem to stream out of Dylan’s head like looters out of a store, heading in all different directions.

I agree with Variety’s take that the book often reads like hard-boiled pulp fiction, full of shady characters, sketchy situations, and edgy one-liners. I’m not sure I’ve learned a single thing about writing songs from this book, or expected to. But it’s a fun read that every so often takes a deep dive into what makes a song click. Much of the writing is sharp as a knife, making you wonder how good a fiction writer Dylan might have been had he chosen that career path.

Above all, it proves that as an octogenarian, Dylan is still a creative force to be reckoned with. Which leads me to the other reason I’ve had a Dylan reawakening in recent weeks….

Over the weekend the family and I hopped the tube to central London to visit the Halcyon Gallery, which featured an exhibit of Dylan’s visual works of art – paintings, sketches, sculptures, and ironworks. I kind of knew he dabbled in painting and drawing, but had no idea he had built a big enough body of work to have it displayed at a gallery in one of London’s priciest parts of town.

Now, I’m no expert on art, but…some of his paintings amaze me in terms of the technical skill and cinematic value (a term I stole from Smithsonian Magazine). They tell vivid stories in brushstrokes and colors, reel you right in and make you take notice. Some are urban landscapes; others are set in places as far ranging as Brazil and Route 66.

Dylan apparently kept most of his visual artworks to himself until about 15 years ago, when he began sharing them with galleries. Today, some of his pieces fetch $100,000 and more, including at least one we saw at the Halcyon. Despite the high prices, most of his works at this exhibit have sold.

Personally, I think Dylan is a very gifted painter – which astounds me, considering his many and varied other talents. It is further proof of the man’s bottomless well of creativity, whether it’s music, writing, visual arts, or filmmaking (which he has also dabbled in, less successfully). You half expect him to take a shot at architecture and design an instantly iconic building that will be studied in architecture school by midcentury.

Having taken up drawing over the last year or so myself, I know how hard it is to create even the most elementary sketches. What Dylan has done boggles the mind, considering it’s mainly a hobby.

I noted on a recent Facebook post that Dylan is a kind of modern-day Leonardo da Vinci whose work will still be celebrated centuries from now. I stand behind the latter, even if the former might be a reach. I do feel privileged to have been able to follow his life and art in real time, and am happy to see him continue to grow as an artist in his ninth decade on the planet.

And since you asked: Below are a couple of Dylan’s paintings. The first is One Too Many from 2020, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine. The second, Emmet Street, also from 2020, was on display at the Halcyon Gallery.

Note: The photo is from Popspot and shows Dylan at Nottingham Castle in 1966

7 Comments

  1. I learned a lot from reading this post. I know very little about Dylan considering my age. We just didn’t “travel in the same circles.” I found the essay book about songs that resonated with him an interesting concept, and one I wouldn’t mind some other folks taking on who I am more familiar with. Had no idea his painting had this much “air play.” A very versatile creator.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing, and I appreciate the comments. So: you are a millennial (I only know this from your own blog). Who are the iconic performers of your generation? You must have similar experiences in your own demographic. I’d take some guesses (Yeezy, Beyonce, Taylor) but what do I know?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am actually a Baby Boomer, and feel “shame” I don’t know much about Dylan because I’m only 17 years younger than he is. Icons for me would include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and even Led Zeppelin…along with Fleetwood Mac. I saw the sad news Christine McVie passed away. That didn’t make me feel any younger…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oops, sorry for the error. Why was I thinking you were late 30s or thereabouts? Maybe I was thinking of another blogger or one of the many people who commented on your blog. Based on your Dylan age difference, you and I are the same age then!

      I also listened to a lot of Beatles, Stones, Who, Zep, etc., as well as Fleetwood Mac. And yes, very sad news about Christine. I always thought in many ways she was the heart of the band, even though Stevie and Lindsay got most of the attention. Christine was an excellent singer, musician and songwriter who made a lot of really good bluesy music before the later incarnation of Fleetwood Mac that became the biggest band in the world for a couple of years.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent ,insightful article Vance. Thank you. I have a very similar relationship with Dylan. I think “Blood on the Tracks” is an amazing piece of musical work. I have Joni Mitchell and Neil Young from the same bygone era that I truly admire too. I`m pretty much settled into the ALT country/Americana thing from the 90s/ aughts my friend. SonVolt, Robert Earl Keen,John Hiatt etc now. I`m certainly not as prolific as you are in terms of seeing bands now- but back in the day we could`ve gone toe to toe pilgrim ! Im stepping out Sat for some jazz.. Live music MATTERS

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Holt, much appreciated. For a few years Neil was at or near the top of my list as well, and I also enjoyed Joni’s records. In terms of songwriting, a couple old-school Americana artists (what we used to call just country or folk) I’ve admired are John Prine and Townes Van Zant. I always thought Stevie Wonder had the same kind of musical/songwriting genius as Dylan as well.

      I’ve just been lucky enough to live near some really good jazz venues here and in other places (including Charlotte for a few years, before most closed down). Enjoy the Sat night show!

      Like

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