I’m a little intimidated to throw this post out into the cyber-world. Writing about Bob Dylan is a daunting task for me because I know there are many very devoted Bob-ologists out there who know far more about the man and his music than I ever will. So, if you’re one of those devotees, please read this knowing that I’m a mere fan – certainly no expert.
Clearly, all of these thoughts are very subjective and are only my own. These are thoughts not truths. I don’t presume to know the real truth about Bob Dylan, I can only try and explain the impact he and his work have on me personally.
I know good and well that he would hate this blog post that seeks to define him, just as he hated the “voice of a generation” tag, the “Judas” tag, and everything else that’s been stuck on him through his 50-year career.
But, damn if the man isn’t so incredibly interesting, right? I can’t think of many other artists who invite such analysis the way Dylan does.
I bought Bob Dylan’s new album, “Tempest”, yesterday.
I haven’t listened to it yet, though. In part, that’s because I’ve been busy and I’ve been looking forward to giving the album a good solid listen. Sometimes I don’t mind listening to an album for the first time in piecemeal fashion, but something tells me I’m going to want to really focus on this one. I also haven’t listened to it yet because all the hoopla surrounding the release of “Tempest” has sent me digging back into Dylan’s catalog. I’ve been listening to familiar favorites, rediscovering forgotten gems, and, even, buying releases I didn’t own yet, to fill in gaps in my collection (also, wonderfully, providing me new discoveries to fall in love with).
Dylan is one of those artists that I go through cycles with. I always like his music, but I go through phases where I don’t listen to much, and then it will cycle around and I’ll completely immerse myself in it for a while. It seems to be a feast-or-famine kind of situation.
Each time the feast comes around, and Dylan occupies my ears, he also occupies a good portion of my mind. I think about Dylan’s place in our world. I think about his artistry and his talent. I wonder what his songwriting process is like. I often wonder what his daily life is like. What are his hobbies? How does he spend his time? What would it be like to hang out with Bob Dylan on a random Tuesday afternoon?
Bob Dylan isn’t like normal people. At least I don’t think he is. His mind clearly operates on a different plane than most people. But, even with that unique status, he holds a special place.
There are other artists, in my view, that fit the bill of “not being like normal people”. Leonard Cohen is a good example; a songwriter of Biblical magnitude who seems so dark and mysterious, thinks deeply, and sometimes lives in monasteries with monks. But that kind of “not being like normal people” still isn’t the same as Dylan’s. As much as Leonard Cohen may be on a different plane than most folks, when you watch interviews with him or see him in concert, I get the sense that while he’s very gifted and unique, his brain does indeed operate fairly normally. I think I could hold a conversation with him.
Someone like Tom Waits certainly has an artistry that would be comparable in some fashion to Dylan’s or Cohen’s. But, while he definitely is weird in his own loveably unique way, Waits seems like one of the most normal guys you could ever want to meet. He’s special, for sure. But as he told David Letterman a few years back, people in music stores and museums don’t recognize him…but he IS always recognized when he goes to the city dump. (How often would one go to the dump? With Waits, who knows…?).
I’m working on a blog entry about artists that I think are prophets. I believe Bob Marley fits the bill. I also believe Kris Kristofferson is a prophet and Joe Strummer was. As Steve Earle sang in his recent song “God Is God”, “…Some folks see things not everybody can see.” In that way, Bob Dylan would seem to be a prophet. One can hardly argue that his early albums exhibited universal truths of equality and justice, similar to what Bob Marley, for instance, sang about. But the designation of “prophet” doesn’t seem to fit Dylan to me. It just doesn’t feel right. For one thing, look how vehemently argued against the title of “protest singer”. He hated people calling his work “topical songs”. True, some of that was probably just a young artist being rebellious and not wanting to be pigeon-holed, but I still feel that Dylan is something different than a prophet.
The best phrase I’ve ever heard anyone apply to Dylan came in Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” documentary. Legendary Columbia Records producer Bob Johnston, who worked with Dylan during a highly-prolific period, said, “He’s got the Holy Ghost about him! You can tell that by looking at him. Instead of touching him on the shoulder, God kicked him in the ass!”
That sums it up for me. There IS something different about Bob Dylan. What whatever difference that is makes him different than all other artists we might call “different”. Whatever is special about him makes him special in a different way than anyone else we could refer to as “special”.
Many artists have multiple careers. I’ll use Tom Waits as an example again. His first career was his singer/songwriter phase, where he played the part of a wino/Beat poet, telling tales of hard luck at the piano. That career concluded with his “Heartattack and Vine” album, which began to move in a more R&B direction, experimenting with weirder sounds. When Waits left Asylum Records, he started a new phase of his career; the truly weird and experimental one. His first album for Island Records, “Swordfishtrombones” was the sound of Waits destroying the first career and rebuilding something new. His Island Records tenure ended with “Bone Machine” (at least studio-album-wise…maybe one of his theatrical releases was the last), which saw him moving in yet another direction. Then Waits moved to Anti- Records, where he has incorporated elements of his first two careers – the hard luck tales, weird instrumentation, and bizarre tales of bizarre people – into a hobo/Americana character.
Dylan’s career, likewise, can be divided into a few segments.
The first phase, of course, is the folkie; the voice of a generation. This phase, like most folks, is the phase I first came to know. We sang “Blowing in the Wind” in my middle school chorus class. I learned Dylan’s songs from this phase of his career before I knew who he was. When I got interested in him, around high school or so, this was the access point. I must say that while I recognize the importance of this segment of his career, it is also the one that now means the least to me. The songs are amazingly great and beautiful. But they have become such a part of not just my musical DNA, but of our musical DNA collectively, that I don’t have to listen to them much. They’re already there. In my subconscious. In our very molecular makeup. They’re all around us. In the air.
I suppose the next phase is the “Going Electric” phase. Judas! This is perhaps my favorite portion of Dylan’s career. It’s also one of the newer ones for me. I jumped from his earliest stuff, to his most recent stuff, as I explored his catalog. Eventually, I went back and fell in love with these early “rock” records, especially “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”.
I look at Dylan in this time period, and the years leading up to it (“Another Side of Bob Dylan” and “Bringing It All Back Home”…the period chronicled in “No Direction Home”) and am amazed. This is the point for me that you can truly see Bob Johnston’s quote in action. You can see the Holy Ghost about Dylan. He’s glowing somehow. He’s electric. You can almost see him vibrating. I see Dylan around this time – the time of the afro with the Ray-Bans, the skinny pants, pointy boots, and polka dotted shirt – and I see a young man struggling to keep up with the creativity that’s bursting out of him. I envision him writing songs, having them on paper before his brain even recognized where the thoughts were coming from. I’ve always heard this was a period of very heavy drug use for Dylan. In my mind, the drug use was surely just to keep up with the creativity. (Again…COMPLETELY speculative from my own mind…I’m just having fun sharing a personal theory). I can’t think of another artist that you can almost SEE struggle to keep up with their own creativity.
The next phases – at least the ones I see – are the two I’m most unfamiliar with at this point; the 70’s country-ish, post-motorcycle accident, Rolling Thunder Revue era, and the 80’s. These phases seem to be the points that Dylan was the most “normal”. After the motorcycle crash, which maybe saved his life, by forcing him to slow down (again, conjecture), through the next period of albums, you can see Dylan settle a little. These are great records, but they’re not nearly as frenetically creative.
The “80’s Dylan” seems the most like a “normal guy” to me. In his other career segments, he dressed a certain part. The folkie in the early 60s, the hipster in the later 60s, kind of a cowboy troubadour look in the 70s, but in the 80s, he wore the same cheesy clothes the rest of us did. His music bore the production values of the 80s. A lot of it is great, but as far as I’m aware, most of whatever Dylan released that was panned critically was released during this period. I’m making my way through many of these albums now. A lot of it hasn’t landed with me. But what is great, is truly awesome.
Then there’s the latest phase of Dylan’s career. The 80’s phase and look seemed to conclude, in my eyes, around “Good as I Been to You”, a collection of old folk standards. With the next album, “World Gone Wrong”, Dylan introduced a new phase: reinventing early American roots music for the 21st century, complete with references to Alicia Keys and Leonardo DiCaprio, with the look of some kind of “new troubadour”, a dandy, modernized riverboat gambler persona. This is my other favorite phase of Dylan’s career. After “World Gone Wrong”, he experimented with Daniel Lanois’ production on “Time Out of Mind”, a wonderful album, but a bit of a stand-alone in Dylan’s catalog. It was back to the roots stuff after that. He disagreed with Rolling Stone when they asserted that he started a new “trilogy” with “Time Out of Mind” that continued with “Love and Theft”. He said if anything, “Love and Theft” was the start of a new trilogy. The next album, “Modern Times” certainly fit the sound, but “Through Life Together” (a record you can tell Dylan made strictly for the fun of it – and what fun it is!) was definitely not the competition of a thematic trilogy. Perhaps “Tempest” will prove to be.
What’s next? Where will it go from here?
It’s like each of these phases are occupied by a completely different person. I can’t picture that folkie growing old. And I have a hard time envisioning the latest incarnation, this modern-day bluesman, ever having been an innocent young person.
And, yet, they're all the same man.
What an interesting mind. What an amazing creator.
I feel like I need some way to nicely and neatly wrap this all up. But, honestly, I got nothin’. Just thinkin’ out loud (or at the keypad, as it were…).
What other artist has had such an impact? There’s never been anyone quite like Dylan. People say he’s one of the great minds or great artists of our time. I think it should be “of any time”.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to “Tempest”…