May 7, 2005


A roomful of Bob Dylan fans talk about Bob Dylan at the top level of "Dylan geekiness."
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, 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."


Mark Daniels said...

Like you and the other "geeks" you cite, I love Dylan.

My own take is that while his music did hit a low point in the 80s, when he recorded songs like, "Wiggle, Wiggle" and composed with Michael Bolton, I don't believe that Dylan is in decline.

The reason, I believe, that his releases from the period 1965 to 1967 matter so much is that our emotions were rubbed so raw then. However vaguely, Dylan gave unforgettable voice to the struggles against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights. He was also unique. Nobody since Rimbaud had authored such vivid and memorable poetry. And Dylan presented them with that strange voice that was somehow American.

I love the LPs you cite as favorites. But I think my all-time Dylan favorite is the 1975 release, 'Blood on the Tracks.' There are a few political songs there. But for the most part, these tracks are the cries of one bloodied by love. I also love his Asylum release, 'Planet Waves' and the obviously plaintive, 'Desire.'

I must say that while he has apparently repudiated his faith of those days, his songs from his 'Christian phase' are also worthy.

Meade said...

repudiated his faith? apparently exactly where?

Ron said...

Not to be a stinkbug or anything, but I just can't stand Dylan. Even worse, I can't stand how he's become a dashboard saint for those who's interest in the sixties romanticizes the political side of the music culture. (performing the same function Jerry Garcia does for the drug-interested side.)

Ann: It's clear that you and RLC should stage a faux "reuniting" through the prose of your blogs. Even if you don't mean it, the hit counters will go through the roof! Your minds are working ahead of you both in that direction anyway.

Ann Althouse said...

Ron: His wife might "go through the roof" too!

A reminder: we broke up in 1987.

But good idea for a giant blogfraud that would destroy both of our reputations.

Mark Daniels said...

I think you're right that there are folks who are in love with the Sixties, who view it through a romantic and nostalgic prism I find hard to understand. I lived through the Sixties and still don't get it.

I also have never understood the adoration for Jerry Garcia.

But I do think that Dylan is an extraordinary artist who brings a poetic sensibility to life. No musician I can name has done a better job of bespeaking the emotions and thoughts that are part of the human experience.

He doesn't have a good voice. Nor is his music, as just music, especially extraordinary. But somehow the whole package works for me.

To me, Dylan is like Sinatra or McCartney or Bach. Each would be great whenever they were alive. It just so happens that Dylan came along in the Sixties.

Tamar said...

Yes, I noticed the seeming synchronicity: Althouse, RLC and Dylan. First I thought, "Hmm ..." and then, of course I realized: just coincidence.

Meade said...

"I lived through the Sixties and still don't get it"

Somehow this doesn't surprise me. Mark, you said there are "a few political songs" on Blood On The Tracks. Which few?

Meade said...

Oh, and Ann, "blogfraud." Genius!

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I don't know, Tamar, I've been experiencing a lot of web synchronicity lately, like one recently (in email) with Josh Maday of DANCING ON FLY ASH. Maybe it's just because my network of communications is wider, therefore setting up more potential coincidences. But I don't believe in dismissing the eerie out of hand.

Ron, Mark: Don't ever say anything bad about Jerry!

I consider Dylan the greatest artist of the second half of the twentieth century, considering all art forms and all cultures I know of. True, the second half of that century pales in comparison with the first, but still -- it's been said he advanced his art form 1,000 years.

Ann: We always did want an unconventional relationship and now we've got one. BTW, I think my interpretation of my dream directly supports the line "All I really want to do is baby be friends with you" -- making friends with all my fictional personae - but as far as arguing with you goes, "It ain't me, babe."

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: I don't disagree that you can tie your interpretation to that song, I just think that if you take the song and the dream, you could go a lot further down that road of interpretation.

"At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what's true..."

It doesn't seem polite to say that I saw myself in that dream, and I'll just remind you that when I wrote that Poetry class paper about "Maggie Mae," which you commented on here, you wrote about "I DREAMED I Saw Saint Augustine."

Mark Daniels said...

Richard: I think that a strong case can be made for Dylan as the best artist for the last half of the twentieth century. He did more than distill his times or even just speak for them. He envisioned something different and presented that vision to us.

lmeade: I think that you misunderstood what I wrote about not understanding the Sixties. Or perhaps I didn't express myself clearly. I meant that I didn't understand the romanticization of the Sixties.

In going back over the track listing for 'Blood on the Tracks,' I would say I misspoke myself and that really only one of the songs was overtly political, 'Idiot Wind.'

For the most part though, 'Blood on the Tracks' is a deeply personal collection, showing a man struggling with the aftermath of a relational break-up. Its poignance can still bring me to tears, especially the mixture of joy and sadness on 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.'

I just remembered an interview with Dylan conducted by Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) when 'Blood on the Tracks' was released. (Travers had a short-lived radio show in the mid-Seventies.) She told Dylan that she loved the album and he seemed almost offended. "How," he asked her, "can you love something that's filled with so much pain?" Travers retreated and said that she "appreciated" it.

So,it seems that Dylan intended 'Blood on the Tracks' as more of a personal than a political statement.

Dylan, like Picasso or any great artist, has gone through many phases and permutations. That's to be expected: We either grow or we die. Dylan has grown. The overtly political Dylan was replaced by a man who was more introspective. It seems to me that 'Blood on the Tracks' was one expression of that intensely introspective period of his life.

But however you classify his songs, I believe that Dylan's lyrics will live on and on. One reason for that is that there is a poetic richness or ambiguity to what he writes. A single line can have implications for politics or our interior lives all at the same time. That's part of what makes Dylan great, I think: His music incorporates big chunks of human experience.

He's Shakespeare with a harmonica and I love him.

Ann Althouse said...

Correction: You wrote about "Dear Landlord," not "I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine," but I believe the paper included a discussion of "I Dream I Saw Saint Augustine." Sorry. Analyze that.

Ann Althouse said...

Mark: How lame of Mary Travers to retreat like that! Surely, should could have made some profound-ish statement about love and pain.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

As I begin writing this, KUT radio is playing Dylan's "Sara" -- and then the song stops in the middle, some kind of technical miscue, and the DJ puts on a different song...

I don't even want to touch that.

Mark, Thanks for the backup re Dylan. It's interesting, and typical of him, that he's now claiming that "Blood on the Tracks" was actually based on Chekhov stories rather than being autobiographical. (Let's not forget he was always quite the humorist.)

Ann, I did think, once the coincidence was brought up, that that line about being friends applied to us. And thanks for the new key to thinking about that dream.

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: What's with Dylan, Woody Allen, and you constantly bringing up Chekhov?

Ron said...

Mark: Personally, I think Dylan belongs with Nancy Sinatra, Mike McCartney (Ok, "Mike McGear" to you '60's nerds out there!), and C.P.E. Bach.

Tom Waits has an even worse voice and I like him a lot better because he actually has a degree of charm, and is not a dour, self-important pompous ass like Mr. Zimmerman. He may even be a better songwriter, or at least a better poet, not that boomers would recognize that. But, hey, we can agree to disagree.

Ann: I seem like RLC has started down the road towards blogenfreude already. And besides, the wife can participate in the whole lie making it that much more delicious a fiction!

1987? Perfect! You play the whole thing out for two years, and "reunite" --or break up --during the "New Summer of Love." (it was twenty years ago today...)

You think your American Idol blogging gets attention? Hah! Just imagine where this reputation-destroying meme goes!!

The mind officially boggles.

RLC: I have nothing bad to say about Jerry...except that Flock of Seagulls probably has more songs that more people would know and enjoy than the seemingly 800 year history of the Dead. Nope. Nothing bad to say at all.

Mark Daniels said...

Richard: I hadn't read that Dylan was now claiming that 'Blood on the Tracks' was based on Chekhov stories. That's typical of Dylan. He's the master of "celebrity as mystery," up there with Garbo and Bowie. The minute you threaten to get close to what he's thinking or writing, he turns the tables on you, "don't he, Mr. Jones?"

Ann: As to Mary Travers' reaction to Dylan...

I remember taping that interview (with my 8-track recorder, no less) and listening to it several more times. I came away feeling that Dylan had granted the interview because PP&M had covered several of his songs, but that it may have been the last thing he wanted to do.

He had Travers on the defensive from the beginning, sort of like he did with Donovan in that documentary. (Or, like he tried to do with the Beatles, after hearing something they'd recorded at about the 'Rubber Soul' phase. He said to them, "So, you don't want to be cute any more?)

At one point, Travers started talking to Dylan about the poetry of his lyrics. Dylan almost spat out disdainfully, "Do you write poems?" It seemed the moral equivalent of a baseball player asking a sports writer, "Did you ever play the game?" When Travers said that she did write some poetry, Dylan, as I recall, reacted with a stony silence.

The other almost surreal aspect of the interview, I thought then, was that it was like the meeting of Tin Pan Alley and Greenwich Village. Yes, PP&M came out of the same folky milieu in which Dylan had operated. But PP&M were basically a cover-band who most of the time, recorded stuff by other people. They were homogenized folk, Three Dog Night on Hootenanny. Dylan was Woody Guthrie's heir apparent who fused it all with electric guitars and Ginsberg, Rimbaud poetry.

Travers simply didn't know what to do with Dylan. I can't say that I can blame her. So, when he objected to her saying that she loved 'Blood on the Tracks,' she reacted as any "pleaser personality" would: She tried to rephrase the compliment that Dylan had so ungraciously rejected.

Even though Travers probably shouldn't have done that, I can sort of identify with her. One of my own personality defects--one that has sometimes gotten me into trouble--is being a pleaser.

Now the bigger question: Why do I remember stuff like this?

I've got to get. I'm presiding at a wedding in a few hours.

Ron said...

He's Shakespeare with a harmonica and I love him.

Wow, I couldn't write a line that sums up my Dylan-loathing better than that.

Let me clarify: I have mighty, mighty Beatle love, but I would never,ever make Lennon-McCartney comparisons to Rimbaud and Shakespeare. I believe such comparisons hurt our ability to appreciate all artists; do we know who will matter from 20th century art in 50, 100, 200 years? Do we really pay attention to all the people who were admired artistically
back 100, 200 years ago? We can agree with some of their choices, but a lot of they like will appear strange to us.

Even Shakespeare gets redone in modern garb from time to time; even the greatest art must be made into something we can use. But what I feel is great and what the universe must feel? I'm betting not the same.

Ann Althouse said...

Ron: "Ann: I seem like RLC has started down the road towards blogenfreude already. And besides, the wife can participate in the whole lie making it that much more delicious a fiction!

"1987? Perfect! You play the whole thing out for two years, and "reunite" --or break up --during the "New Summer of Love." (it was twenty years ago today...)"

The thing is he's a fiction-writer. I'm not. Different rules of credibility apply to us. He can lie about stealing a shopping cart or actually steal a shopping cart and emerge unscathed. I don't play the fiction game. If I'm lying, I'm actually lying.

Ron said...

Ann: Yes, I grasp the difficulty...hmmm...well, you could say this your first attempt at fiction...but, yeah, it would be hard.

Wouldn't it increase the verisimilitude if people who knew you thought it actually was possibly true? Would this require not just fiction-writing but acting on your part as well? Out of sheer cheekiness, I might argue that it would be an interesting and enlightening adventure, without any real long term consequences. (once the Big Reveal occurs)

I am truly mindful of your position; but to waste such a good high folly!
Drudge, Kos and Reynolds would be at your feet as you could say in your Darth Vader voice, "I am the blogmaster!"

You realize, of course, I'm engaging in a bit of wool-gathering sport.
The weather is nice, and I'm choc-a-bloc full of spring sass that seeks more fun outlets than merely pounding on Dylan.

Peace and Love, Doc!

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Ann: Thank you for mentioning me in the same breath as those others. But please get over that shopping cart thing. You don't remember -- there's nothing wrong with that. You know me well enough to know I'm not a liar. It's a very clear memory for me, largely because I have felt remorse over the years for putting you at risk by doing it. Are you trying to deprive me of my rightful remorse?

Ron, Mark: Are you sure you want more of the above?

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: My point there was that you are a fiction-writer and in fiction-writing, it's not lying. You can write something on your blog and if it turns out to be fiction, it doesn't hurt your reputation, because you have a reputation as a fiction writer.

It's just one of my little opinions that fiction-writing is -- often -- a type of lying, though fiction-writers like to think it's a special, wonderful way of telling the truth.

I believe you that the shopping cart thing happened, but I can't remember it myself. Since I haven't thought about it within my current memory, it's news to me and early to have to get over it. Are you trying to deprive me of my natural reaction?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Thanks for explaining, Ann. Understood, and no hard feelings.

Actually, I don't think fiction writing is either lying *or* a special, wonderful way of telling the truth. I think it's just a form of entertainment.

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: I think you're lying.

(Better say:) Just kidding!!!

Mark Daniels said...

Ron: FYI...Dylan isn't my favorite musician. He may be in the top five to ten, depending on my mood. But Macca and the Beatles are my absolute favorites by miles. Nonetheless, I think that Dylan, because of his lyrics is special.

That's where the Shakespeare analogy comes from, the lyrics. In his 1970 interview with Jann Wenner, John Lennon talked about sitting with Dylan while one of the latter's records was playing. Dylan told Lennon to, "Listen to the lyrics! Listen to the lyrics!" Lennon responded by saying that a song isn't just about its words, but the overall feel. This was what Lennon and McCartney knew and Dylan didn't.

This also explains why, during the Rolling Thunder tour of the mid-Seventies, Dylan could completely change the melodies of his most well known songs, at times practically rapping them. Dylan invests usually invests everything in the words.

And of course, that's how you can take a Shakespeare play, change the costuming, and have the thing still work, as was true of a production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' set in World War Two-America which my daughter saw a few weeks ago. The words carry the freight.

The wedding over which I presided this evening was simple, plain, dignified, moving, and beautiful.

Tomorrow another big event: Our son graduates with his Bachelors degrees in History and Philosophy.

I've enjoyed this discussion of Dylan, everyone. Thanks, Ann!

Ron said...

I think the distinction between fiction and truth-telling is summed up by this old canard:

What's the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale begins with "Once upon a time...", while a war story begins with "No shit, this really happened."

Now...which is more truthful, the fairy tale or the war story?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Mark: And thanks for your contributions. Congratulations on your son's graduation!

Ron: That reminds me of J. D. Salinger's question (in "For Esme"?), Who was the better war poet, Rupert Brooke or Emily Dickinson?

Ron said...


hmmm...I'm bettin' on Rupert Brooke ( if only to tar him with the whole First World War! Feh!),

but Emily Dickenson...that's a funky feminista kinda choice...I like it!

Can we name Vonnegut "poet-in-residence" in Dresden?

JZ said...

The Dylan topic got me thinking. I listened to those Dylan albums from the middle 60s for hours and hours. Looking back, I don’t think they are his best songs. They were too indulgent and repetitive. Just too long, really. Dylan's two best albums, in my opinion, are "New Morning" and "Blood On The Tracks"
On “New Morning” he’s singing with the same weak but soulful voice that we hear in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and he’s playing with Al Kooper, which is good. And, he’s short and sweet. He's never been as amusing as he is in "If Dogs Run Free, Why Not me?" He’s even wholesome in “Sign on the Window.” (“Build me a cabin in Utah. Marry me a wife. Catch Rainbow trout. Have a bunch of kids that call me Pa. That must be what it’s all about.”
Blood on the Tracks is also well crafted and amusing. "Flowers on the hillside bloomin' crazy. Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme. Blue rivers runnin' slow and lazy. I could stay with you for ever and never realize the time. I looked for you in Honolulu, San Francisco and Ashtabula…”

Ann Althouse said...

Jim: I agree. Those are great albums. I played "New Morning" constantly back when it came out. "Blood on the Tracks" too. I remember the morning it came out, hearing "Tangled Up in Blue" on the radio for the first time. I get chills now remembering it.

But that early set of records, I listened to when I was a teenager, and they are deeply embedded in me. They meant so much when they came out. They were so different from everything else and opened up new ways to think about talking to people through song. I spent hours trying to understand what the hell he was trying to tell me. By contrast, "New Morning" was soothing. (BTW, Dylan has never used the word "soothe" in a song.)

Meade said...

"BTW, Dylan has never used the word "soothe" in a song."

True! He did, however (and please don't take this personally), compose the following:

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Now if someone could just tell me when it was he purportedly repudiated his faith...

Ann Althouse said...

Lmeade: You know that was the passage I was looking for that was just out of my grasp when I keyed in "soothe."

rafinlay said...

I have liked some of Dylan's stuff (classifying me as "someone who may be ignored" by the disciples) but thought his 60's stuff was pretentious. In later years, revisiting the songs, I found they were much better than I remembered. I think the whiny voice had something to do with it.
I think I read somewhere (much, much later) that the "distinctive voice" resulted from Dylan interviewing Woody Guthrie after Guthrie had slurred vocals from a stroke and Dylan trying to emulate Guthrie's voice -- something which irritated Guthrie's family.

amba said...

Came to all this late on a slow computer. Just two dumb comments:

1) Ann writing about a particular song as Richard dreams about it is a flat-out case of telepathic communication, only proving that at SOME level those joined together can never be put asunder.

2) That said, eavesdropping on the postmortem of someone else's marriage through Dylan songs is kind of embarrassing.