Opening chapter of “Understanding Bob Dylan”

This chapter will give readers a sense of what the book is and isn’t about. It’s hard to do justice to the themes covered in the book in short extracts, so I’m planning to put up more entries focusing on particular songs soon.

Introduction: welcome to Dyland

My first memory of Bob Dylan was my brother playing a vinyl copy of “Blonde on Blonde”. It must have been 1969, because around that time Paul took me to an anti-Vietnam war protest at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, and filmed the crowds while standing on top of a red London mail box, until told to get down by the cops. That blurry photograph of Dylan on the cover of “Blonde on Blonde”, the slurred singing and weird imagery, and the awakening of political consciousness, are all there in my imagination.

Ten years later I’m writing an undergraduate thesis on “Blood on the Tracks” as part of the requirement to complete a BA in English Literature. I can still hear the sounds of my old typewriter, as the click clack clacking of the keys echoed across the courtyard from the room where I stayed up nights typing. The supervisor for that thesis gave me about 30 vinyl bootlegs to record, and I spent a week putting them on tape, listening to the endless drone of early Dylan. In 1978 I drove to Blackbushe south of London with my then girlfriend and we swung to “Changing of the Guards” with 200,000 or so others.

Forward to 2006. Like many early fans, I hadn’t listened to Dylan in almost 20 years. He comes to Vancouver, Canada (where I live) and after a noisy concert stands on stage for a couple of minutes with his hands slightly raised to acknowledge fans who have followed him for so long. Nice gesture. Scorsese releases the movie “No Direction Home”, and Dylan is for the most part unintelligible. A friend in New York tells me about a collector who has all Dylan’s recordings since 1956, plus original hand written lyrics, and many other things, and who worked on the Scorsese movie. I’m uninterested at first, but then read the first volume of Dylan’s autobiography “Chronicles” and “Dylan’s Visions of Sin”, by my old Prof., Christopher Ricks. There’s an exhibition of Dylan’s early years at the Morgan Library in New York, and I visit one late rainy November evening to find the room packed with young people. Soon I’m sitting in Greenwich Village with the archivist with the original hand-written lyrics to “Blood on the Tracks” in front of me – an extraordinary experience to see in Dylan’s scrawl and revisions the fury behind the creation of those songs. And as we’ll see in Chapter 2, on love and money, Dylan’s notebook for “Blood on the Tracks” provides insights into the way in which he uses one of the oldest literary traditions.

I start listening and thinking about Dylan again and …..doors and windows.

You will search, babe

How are we to understand Dylan’s work, the codes, pictures and messages of the songs, and why they mean so much to so many? These are the questions this book seeks to answer. The point of this book is to figure out how Dylan has used particular literary and musical themes and traditions to fashion extraordinary songs. He draws on, changes, falls foul of, and advances those traditions – from the English romantic poets, to Walt Whitman, to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, to Joseph Conrad.

The idea is not to track down Dylan’s sources, which Ricks, Polito, Gray and others have done so well[1], but to understand his work as a whole. Now that Dylan’s work is getting close to complete in terms of creative writing (barring any viagra-like musical renaissance), it’s possible to look at the themes that permeate his work, the symbols and images that are repeated, and which structure and bind his songs into a remarkably coherent whole. As Dylan said: “songs need structure, stratagems, codes and stability.”[2] Despite the multiple changes in musical direction over almost 50 years, and some would say the multiple changes in persona, there is a remarkable consistency to the themes on which he dwells. Some themes such as the highway and road permeate every aspect of his songs – no surprise perhaps given his well-recorded debt to the blues. Others may surprise more, such as his attitude towards creativity. The themes and traditions I explore are those around which Dylan organizes his songs – love, sex and money and ambivalence about love; his attitude towards writing and creating; his use of the highway and the romantic traveler and outsider, the individual against society, and his use of boundaries; and the way he writes about time and memory.

I look at these themes and traditions as “common poetic denominators” – common symbols to most writers, and which we instantly recognise when we hear Dylan’s songs, if only unconsciously. These common symbols carry with them the weight of literary history, and each has multiple meanings, and it’s from here they get much of their intensity. But the writer needs to be careful, because ill or over use of these symbols can simply be corny and hackneyed.

Here’s one of many examples of common poetic denominators – broad literary themes that have structured much of modern western literature –  I look at in this book, from the 1974/5 song on “Blood on the Tracks”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”:

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence,
He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense.

And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin’ just for you.

Dylan is drawing in these lines on multiple themes in western literature, and also referring to his own work on “Blood on the Tracks” and before. First is the singing bird  – so common on “Blood on the Tracks” that there is a singing (or talking) bird on almost every one of those bloody tracks, but also the many other birds in his songs, from the rooster crowing in “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, and the white dove in “Blowin’ in the Wind”. He is also making the comparison between the bird and the singer/poet – “I’m just like that bird”- which so many writers have used. Then there is the bird on the horizon, on the fence, the boundary which needs to be followed or transcended  along with so many other boundaries such as tracks, lines, roads, and highways which criss-cross Dylan’s songs in a highly ambivalent way. Third comes the pain of singing and of creation  – “at his own expense” – literally the cost of singing, or paying dues in “Tangled up in Blue”, and the tension between love and money that forms such an important part of “Blood on the Tracks”, Dylan’s work, and western literature. It’s the compression of so much into four seemingly simple lines, but also the borrowing from themes in much of modern western literature, that give Dylan’s words so much power. This book returns often to the lyrics of “Blood on the Tracks”, because it’s here that the themes that structure Dylan’s work are most intense.

Dylan’s use of language is often so purposefully vague that his lyrics are inevitably subject to multiple interpretations. And his is such a rich body of work that there are many other themes in his work – identity, personal responsibility and death being three which others have uncovered, but….. this is my take on Bob Dylan. Many artists dwell possessively on themes and images to try and make sense of and put some order in their world – the American/European tension in Henry James, the tower and the gyre in Yeats, obsession in Dostoevsky, the pain and pleasure of love, the despair about the lost muse.

There are four main kinds of writing about Dylan. There are the numerous autobiographies, picture and photograph books that remind us that, after all, Dylan is a rock star who been around for 50 years, has sold a phenomenal number of records, and still has a rock star’s following – in that we’re interested if he falls out of a tree or owns ten houses; and which, on a slightly more serious level, attempts to make connections between his life and his songs. Second there are writers like Greil Marcus who like to write about Dylan but in fact are creating their own (in Marcus’ case very entertaining) fiction, using Dylan and his songs as the starting point for their creative process, almost like a poet using another poet as the subject for a poem, as Seamus Heaney does in his poem “Elegy” on Robert Lowell.. Then there is the third kind already alluded to, the Dylan Detectives, who try to make sense of his songs by searching for his sources, a game Dylan has himself fuelled recently by drawing on more and more obscure works, knowing someone will eventually track him down. Fourth there are the literary critics such as Scobie, Ricks and Gray who situate Dylan’s work in the broader context of English and other literatures, and into which category I am hoping this book will fall.

First warning: there isn’t much biography here. Dylan’s life has been trawled over like the innards of an animal, looking for portents and signs.[3] His marriages, his early days in New York, his religion, how many houses he owns, are all ..… overdone. It’s key to recognise that even though many of Dylan’s songs may seem personal or confessional, just because he or any other writer writes in the first person does not mean they are referring to their own experience. When Bruce Springsteen writes through the eyes of a firefighter in “The Rising”, or Robert Browning writes in the form of dramatic monologue, we don’t assume that they are writing about their personal experience, we assume the opposite, that they have taken on someone else’s persona for the purposes of the song or poem. When Dylan writes in “Sweetheart Like You” [4]:

You know, a woman like you should be at home,
That’s where you belong,
Watching out for someone who loves you true
Who would never do you wrong.
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss.
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

Is he really expressing the opinion that women should be at home and possibly be abused, or is he putting into song what used to be and still is in some circles a common view about women? Dylan’s songs about love are much more complex than the first interpretation of these lines would suggest, so should we give him the benefit of the doubt and say this is a song about a particular viewpoint, rather than Dylan’s own viewpoint? Should we trust the singer or the song?

One of the most interesting things about Dylan is his devotion to his art; he is, above all, a songwriter and artist. As we’ll see in Chapter 3, on writing and meta-fiction, he’s fascinated by, and fearful of, the act of creation. His art transcends the individual experience, including his own, and creates something that is relevant to many. Even a song like “Sara” which would appear to be autobiographical because it’s title is the name of Dylan’s then wife, may have other wider literary references.[5]

Second warning, there’s not a lot of comparison here in terms of Dylan being “great”, or between Dylan’s albums and songs. As Confucius never said, only sorrow comes from comparing one thing with another. We all know Dylan has had an enormous influence on popular culture and other artists. He sings to the outsider in many of us. Ninety million albums sold, hundreds of songs, a couple of hundred books and thousands of articles about him, speak to his contributions to popular culture. Is he, like, in the top ten singers of all time, is “Like a Rolling Stone” the best song ever recorded, is he a better poet than Keats, is he better than Springsteen or the Beatles? A lot of people seem to care, but that’s just our modern-day obsession with lists (a theme explored in chapter two), and doesn’t help much in understanding his songs.

Third warning: I’m disinclined to believe much of what Dylan says in interviews, and there are few quotes in this book from the many interviews he has given. Dylan is a terrible interlocutor, but that’s the point – in his interviews he cancels out the difficulty of not wanting to say anything but saying nothing, with varied inflection. Take this reported interview from February 1978 in Tokyo:

When asked the reason for his decision to visit Japan, Dylan offered no explanation. The reporters also asked Dylan to define the age that they lived in, to which Dylan replied, after some hesitation, that is was the “Zen age.” When he was asked to elaborate, he conceded that he did not know much about Zen, expect that he had once read about it in a book.[6]

Or how about this one from an interview about his 2001 album “ ‘Love and Theft’ ”  in La Repubblica that surfaced on the internet in 2006. When asked if he reads books on history, Dylan apparently said:  “Not any more than would be natural to do.” Good to hear that Dylan isn’t into the unnatural reading of history books.  He likes playing around in interviews and often appears to approach them like a game of identity hide and seek, offering brief glimpses and then disappearing behind a wall of jokes, impenetrable comments, or sentence structures that could have come straight out of a Jose Saramago novel and leave us a long time afterwards wondering if the words have any meaning. Perhaps that’s what happens when you get asked the same questions hundreds of times. It’s almost like an art form, and that’s how the Morgan Library exhibit I mentioned treated it, replaying one of his more famous interviews continuously alongside the originals of some of his lyrics. He’s also a great self-promoter, and there’s nothing better than contradicting yourself for self-promotion and media attention. So let’s trust the songs, and not the singer.

Fourth, I don’t spend a lot of time writing about Dylan’s music. That’s better left to music critics (who know something about music) rather than literary critics. For Marshall, who does write about Dylan’s music, this is one of the most problematic aspects of Dylan criticism:

There is a problem, however, in treating Dylan as a poet, and that is the fact that he writes songs rather than poems. although, at the start of their books, virtually all of the literary critics offer some kind of fleeting acknowledgement that Dylan’s songs are sung rather than read, this is seldom acted upon and the result is an over-emphasis on Dylan’s lyrics….songs gain their emotional and artistic power not merely from the semantic meaning of the lyrics but from a constellation of sound. Dylan’s words are performed: music, voice, and words come together to create a distinctive artefact and not a verbalized poem. To analyze them effectively requires taking into account both the music and vocal performance….If we are to understand the emotional affect and artistic content of Dylan’s songs, utilizing the assumptions underpinning the literary approach to Dylan may lead us in the wrong direction, over-emphasizing semantic meaning rather than sonic experience. [7]

This may be true for individual songs, but not I would argue for Dylan’s work as a whole. For example, Marshall uses “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, released in 1966 on “Blonde on Blonde”[8] as a song with little meaning but where the music wraps up the words of the song “and gives them their meaning, lending them both grace and warmth. The lyrics don’t stand up as poetry on a page, because they don’t have to.” This is an unfortunate example, as I’ll show in the next chapter, because “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” not only draws together many images from “Blonde and Blonde”, but also fits into a centuries old poetic tradition.

Come to think of it, Dylan has been pretty critical of critics who dissect his songs like rabbits. Well, tough luck, if you put your songs out there you have to expect people to talk about them. Some of the interpretations I’ve read have been pretty far-fetched, or at least I couldn’t see the connections. But is Dylan, or any artist, aware of all the subtleties of their writing? Here is Ricks:

So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist, but more….T.S. Eliot knew…. that…”the poet does many things upon instinct, for which he can give no better account than anyone else.”[9]

I’d agree with Ricks on this one. And looking for themes that dissect the work is perhaps the best way to approach this complex writer. Sometimes what we see and hear is Dylan’s brilliance, but at other times perhaps it’s the English language, like the night, playing tricks.

So, in this book we will make sense of Dylan’s songs by figuring out how and why he uses certain literary traditions, starting with love, money and sex. If this intrigues, read on.


[1] Christopher Ricks (2005)  Dylan’s Visions of Sin New York: ECCO. Michael Gray (2004) Song and Dance Man III London: Continuum; Robert Polito “Bob Dylan: Henry Nimrod Revisited”.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/feature.html?id=178703; Thomas, R. (2007) “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan.” In Oral Tradition 22 (1). Because Dylan has drawn from a wide range of sources does not necessarily mean that the resulting songs are of high quality, a point made by Clive James “Bringing some of it all back home”, in B. Hedin (2004)(ed) The Bob Dylan Reader: Studio A New York: Norton and Company, pp. 98-108.

[2] Quoted in Ricks, p. 353.

[3] Howard Sounes in Down the Highway, (Grove Press, 2001) has done the most thorough trawling to date.

[4] All the lyrics quoted in this book are taken from the website: http://www.bobdylan.com/index.html

There is an extensive discussion of the changing nature of Dylan’s songs in performance in Stephen Scobie’s (2003) Alias Bob Dylan Revisited. Calgary: Red Deer Press. As Scobie notes (p. 110): “For Dylan there is no definitive text.” I don’t deal with this issue much, but where particular changes to songs are relevant for my discussion they are noted.

[5] See Scobie, p. 281.

[6] Tachi, M. (2009) “Bob Dylan’s Reception in Japan.” In Sheehy, C. and T. Swiss (eds) Highway 61 Revisited. Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 117.

[7] Marshall, L. (2009) “Bob Dylan and the Academy”. In Kevin  Dettmar (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 100

[8] Album names and dates of release are usually included for non-Dylanists.

[9] Ricks pp. 8-9.

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