Over the past year or so, I've had conversations about Bob Dylan's music with listeners in a variety of contexts. One topic always comes up: the way Dylan continually reinvents or reconfigures his songs in performance. "Why can't he play the songs the way they were written?" is the frequent question. I was even approached by a someone in a Dylan cover band, which performs re-creations of the original recordings. The answers to why Dylan messes with the songs, of course, are multiple: Dylan doesn't like to be bored. He can't pretend to be "sincere" in the ways that he was when he first composed some of these songs. He couldn't imitate those records if he wanted to, since his voice has changed dramatically in recent years. Most of these explanations, however, inevitably shade off into psychologizing guesswork. To try to work around this trap, I want here to offer a sketch of at least one intellectual framework that might explain part of what is going on. This is just a note, that builds on things I've tried to say elsewhere, but it might be of interest.
From his earliest days in Greenwich Village, as Dave van Ronk noted in his memoirs, Dylan has been interested in modern poetry. Central to his interests in the middle years of the 1960s, just as he was making his famous turn to "electric" music, was the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is Rimbaud who has given us the notion that the task of the poet is to be "absolutely modern" (that is, open to all experience in the moment) and the idea that modern poet must be a visionary. Most famous among Rimbaud's pronouncements is the phrase, "I is someone else." "Je est un autre." Many lovers of modern poetry and art, if they know no other French, know at least this phrase. It is often taken in psychological terms, to suggest that, no matter who we think we are, something of ourselves escapes our understanding. This is Rimbaud as Freudian analyst. Closer to the actual meaning of Rimbaud's formulation, however, is the simple sense that reality is multiple. The visionary poet lives in different worlds at the same time. One may be the world of what we accept as quotidian reality. But that may be only the least interesting among several alternatives. So, we each have multiple identities: "To each being it seemed to me that several other lives were due," says Rimbaud. He writes of visionary experiences in which he had conversations with "other" versions of people he was talking to. At one point a bourgeois family appeared to him as a pack of dogs. "Other lives," indeed.
Dylan's 1967 song "All Along the Watchtower" might be seen as an exploration of Rimbaud's insight. The lyric opens with conversation: "'There must be some way outta here'/ Said the Joker to the Thief." It is not clear who these characters are, in any referential frame of linguistic understanding. They appear to be two characters from a world of crime and carnival of the kind Dylan has peopled his songs with earlier in the decade—the "jugglers and the clowns" of "Like a Rolling Stone," the "geek" of "Ballad of a Thin Man," and so on. Here, they are set in opposition to two more obvious "straight" types, the "businessmen" and the "plowmen," who steal their riches. In this scenario, moral identities and nominal identities are reversed; the real thief is not the Thief; the real swindler is not the Joker. The juxtaposition between two easily recognizable types (we know what a plowman looks like; he has a plow) with two unrecognizable types (we don't know a thief when we see one, that's part of his being a thief) suggests the uncertain epistemological ground on which the song works.
This initial scenario expands into one of Rimbaud's parables of multiple identities in the third verse. Here the scene is recast as the drama of the "princes" who stand guard over their servants and treasure in their watchtower and wait for the "two riders" who approach menacingly to attack them. The third verse reverses the initial scenario. The swindlers who have stolen from the Joker and the Thief in the first verse are now threatened by two mauraders, come to take what they can. Everyone has taken on a new identity: businessmen have become princes, the Joker is a mysterious horseman. The song is powered and held together by the plot line, as those who have been exploited return to claim what is theirs. Yet the identities have changed. Each "I" is an "other." Each character lives in two realities, a reality of everyday exploitation in business, and a stark scene of impending battle over a medieval fortress. This is applied Rimbaud. "All Along the Watchtower" provides a working out of the shift from one referential frame to another. It offers a kind of poetics of allegory, as characters turn into other characters before our eyes—and as those new characters illuminate retroactively the initial cast of the song.
We might now apply this notion of multiple characters, of selves turning into other selves, to the songs themselves. That is, let's think of the songs themselves in the same way that Dylan seems to be asking us to think about the actors in "All Along the Watchtower." To each song, Rimbaud might say, several other lives were due. Take, for example, 1965's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's Eastertime, too," begins the lyric. There is no resurrection here, only a bad trip, bad weather, bad women, bad cops, bad experiences. It is a story of disorientation and misery, built on the I-IV-V chord changes familiar to listeners of electric, Chicago-style blues.
The title is interesting. The phrase "Just Like" opens up a space of mediation between this song and some other song that would be "Tom Thumb's Blues." These aren't Tom Thumb's adventures; they are "like" them. So, the singer, who is not "Tom Thumb," is humiliated in his adventures and left feeling small, miniaturized. So far so good. But the idea of "likeness" applies as well to the form of the song. This is not Tom Thumb's blues. It is "like" a blues. And, indeed, inside the rhythm of the song there lies another song. The chord voicings of the ringing electric guitar recall nothing so much as the parallel sixths and thirds that are conventional in Mexican music, in particular, in the form of the ranchera. We can think here of traditional Mariachi music of the type recorded by such Mexican stars as Vicente Fernández or Lola Beltrán. However, Dylan might just as well have heard these influences in the work of Texas musician Doug Sahm, for whom he expressed admiration early on. It's no accident that we are in Juarez. For inside of the "blues" of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," there is another song, some version of a Mexican ranchera. And, indeed, if you push the tiniest bit of syncopation into the accompaniment, it becomes a tango.
Of course, Dylan doesn't emphasize the Mexican flavor of the song. Whereas some other artist might introduce Mariachi trumpets and violins, Dylan sticks to his basic sound. The other possibilities for the song lie latent within it, like the multiple identities of the Joker and the Thief in "All Along the Watchtower," or the dogs whom Rimbaud claims at one point to have seen where others saw a bourgeois family. This suggests at least one approach to Dylan's endless reinvention of his songs. The point isn't simply personal idiosyncrasy, or perversity, or a desire to annoy the listener. Rather, it involves an exploration of the multiple possibilities latent in each creation and each moment of creation. Indeed, it would be remiss of him not to explore these songs as much as he can--to see if "Don't Think Twice" can be done as a samba, or if "Idiot Wind" can be sung in a new key. New horizons may reveal themselves. Or they may not. But not to try to glimpse them is, in a sense, not to keep faith with the promise of modernity.