One theme running through the evening was Mr. Dylan's aversion to pleasing. The panelists agreed that in the 1980's, in particular, the singer seemed bent on distancing himself from fans, musicians, even his own music. Mr. Hultkrans compared him to Kafka - hiding his best work in drawers.
There was also the question of whether Mr. Dylan is in decline. The writer Luc Sante, who had been a scheduled panelist, apparently held that the period of 1965 to 1967 was the high-water mark, but Mr. Lethem disagreed. "I see" his genius "arising, with equal uncanniness, however fugitive," he said. "There are songs and performances that are as much of the part of the Godhead now as ever."
I agree with Luc Sante. The albums in those years -- "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Blonde On Blonde" -- are the ones I really care about. They seem to be the essence of Dylan, the reason Dylan matters so much. But why? When I read the words to the songs on later albums, many of them seem just as good. I note that it was on the album after "Blonde On Blonde" that Dylan stopped singing in that distinctive voice, that voice we all want to use when we do our Dylan imitations. It seemed like such a ridiculous way to sing.
(Remember the video of the making of "We Are the World," when Dylan didn't know how to sing his lines, and Stevie Wonder sang them for him, using the mid-60s Dylan singing style?)
But there was something mystical about that crazy way to sing that we all lost when Dylan came back after his motorcycle accident with "John Wesley Harding."
The world has never been the same.
UPDATE: Interestingly -- I'm just noticing this -- my ex-husband Richard Cohen was up and blogging about Bob Dylan before I was. His is a dream, analyzed, about Dylan. I'm a little unnerved that Richard ends his post:
A weird phenomenon that often happens when I dream: waking up, I realize that the whole dream was a code for the title of a song or a line for a song. In this case, “All I really want to do is baby be friends with you.”
The weird thing about that is that most of the time I was writing this post, I was planning on titling it with a line from "All I Really Want To Do." I started writing my post because of the line in the article, "One theme running through the evening was Mr. Dylan's aversion to pleasing," which I thought would go well with the song line "I don't want to satisfy you." When I finally got around to searching for "satisfy" on bobdylan.com, where was that line I remembered? I saw I was only imagining it. There are two other "-ify" words-- "simplify" and "classify" -- but not "satisfy." Was there some other line about refusing to please that I could substitute? No. That's just not the way the words of the song go at all. It's good not to be simplified and classified. Why did I transform that into something that would be bad to be denied: you do want to be satisfied. Still, in some way, refusing to please is the unspoken theme of the song. Dylan is saying don't expect me to be your conventional boyfriend -- "I don't want to meet your kin." I will define a new male-female relationship, and it's not all the things you come to me believing you want.
So I ended up thinking about that song a lot this morning -- and damned if my ex-husband isn't mulling it over too. That's just eerie! And weirdly, his "realization" that that song fits that dream seems off, at least if we're to believe his analysis of the dream. But "I ain't lookin' to compete with you" and "I ain't lookin' to... Analyze you." So I'll end this already excessively revealing update right here. Or should I add a Dylan quote? "Nothing is revealed."