A retro-review of a classic album..
Thoughts inspired by the music.
Well, I try my best
To be just who I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
– “Maggie’s Farm”
Many confuse the reality of old with the definition of classic. Old is old. Many of us have, or are beginning to, understand just how much fun that is. A classic maintains its relevance over time. It is not of its time but, rather, for all time.
And, so, the Nobel committee conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Bob Dylan, who has referred to himself as both “a song and dance man” and “just a guitar player.” Bono (the lead singer of U2) said in Rolling Stone that Dylan “busted through the artifice to get to the art.” [Or, perhaps, the heart. -ed.] Many people enjoy any opportunity to suggest that Dylan cannot sing (to which I refer you to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” from Greatest Hits Volume II, “Love Minus Zero” from MTV Unplugged, Blood on the Tracks. the outtakes included on Tell Tale Signs, such as “Girl From the Red River Shore,” etc., etc., etc.) But, people are welcome to their opinion.
And that is the point. The Nobel committee shared its opinion. Allow me to share mine.
When I was growing up, there was this concept called “The Canon.” It was what every educated person needed to read. Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the like. Well, my father was an English major and, like any good son, I could not imagine anything better than being like him. Now I realize I never stood a chance. He remains one helluva man. I can only hope people speak as highly of me when all is said and done as they do of him. Fat chance, but I do my best. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I love you, Dad.
So, I became an English major, and I got angry with business majors and engineers who never read anything. Dammit, how can you get a degree without reading Hamlet? Everybody has to read this stuff during their formal education or they never will. Well, I was wrong. First, you have to allow people to willingly expose themselves to ideas, imagine different alternatives, and see that their reality is not the only reality. Example: I read Moby Dick in my 30s. It was among the most tedious and disagreeable texts that I ever read – voluntarily or by force (Tristam Shandy and Clarissa excluded). Others would argue that it is great literature. Well, put this in front of a 16-year-old kid (it was traditionally a novel included in the sophomore high school curriculum), and don’t be surprised if young adults refuse to read “literature” again.
Recent events have re-energized those who are inclined to take their shots at Dylan. Perhaps some are envious that their ideas do not resonate with the soul to the extent that many of his do. I cannot help that. Let me remind you that Fitzgerald was oft criticized in his time as being “too autobiographical.” Does anyone wish that they had written The Great Gatsby? I sure as hell do.
So what is literature, if not a tool to provoke one to think and feel ideas and emotions that they have not previously experienced via their everyday existence? What is it if it does not spark in one the imagination to move beyond what they thought possible? Emotion sparks thought; rather than the other way around.
Many associate Dylan and 1965 with the Newport Jazz Festival and the instant that he “went electric.” But between March 22, 1965, and May 16, 1966 – 14 months, Dylan released three of the most seminal pieces of art of the 20th/21st century, these being Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Arguably, the thoughts, themes, and ideas that resonate here had not been expressed with this intensity in this time frame and in a manner that so challenged the social mores. No other works exposed the nature of the human soul so candidly since the 1490s (if you get my drift).
In The Mayor of McDougal Street, Dave Von Ronk, who was considered the king of Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s, addressed the hidden sore spot of Dylan’s rise to fame. He said, essentially, that if you are the guy who writes “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then you are the guy, period. Enough said.
“Hard Rain” was first released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And one could turn to “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan to suggest that his transformation from folk-protest singer to humanist-muse was not only in progress, but already completed.
Humans, however, do not tolerate change easily. So Bob decided to discard the subtle and get even more explicitly in our faces.
The reason why Bringing It All Back Home blew the roof off of it all is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan never claimed to be a poet but he wrote/sang this: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Include one of the greatest love songs ever written in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which most people, other than Rick Nelson fans, don’t even know exists: “The bridge at midnight trembles/ The country doctor rambles/Bankers’ nieces seek perfection/Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring/The wind howls like a hammer/The night blows cold and rainy/My love she’s like some raven/At my window with a broken wing.”
Then there’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which includes lines such as, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” “I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and “While money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
The album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a brilliant effort in and of itself, but even more poignant when it is revealed to be a bridge to Highway 61.
And so, after this, ridiculously great works such as “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shooting Star,” “Mississippi,” and many, many more phenomenal artistic creations – most of which the general populace has not had the time to absorb or brain capacity to digest, live in our collective psyche. And Dylan continues to create and perform.
Make of what it what you will. That’s your right. But, while placing poetry against music may have begun a long time ago, everyone in the music industry that followed Dylan has pointed to him as the transformational artist of this century and the pivot point for all that came next. (Rolling Stone magazine labeled Highway 61 as “The album that changed everything!”) And, the last time I checked, music was an art form.
For those who are hung up because Dylan is not a “singer,” in some purist’s definition, ask yourselves this: “How does it feel?”
Again, for those who argue that Bob Dylan is not a poet, he never claimed to be. But he invented his own language; a language that changed the world. Is inventing a language worthy of the Nobel prize? You decide.
Genius is by definition untouchable by the rest of us, which is why it is genius. Artists possess the courage to attack and slay conventional wisdom, which makes them unique. Bob Dylan ended Bringing It All Back Home with “Baby Blue,” whose final lines are: “Strike another match, go start anew/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Indeed.
Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel; a story about life, love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.