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Play It Again Bob: A Note on Dylan's Variations

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. 


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After History, Spirit:  What It's Like to Listen to Rough and Rowdy Ways


Bob Dylan's new album Rough and Rowdy Ways is an exceptionally unified work.  It has an internal logic, which unfolds as it goes.  It is about the role of spirit and imagination in a landscape where history and myth have failed.  To understand how this works, we need to look, not only at what the songs say, but, as I will do here, at what they do.


In recent years, Dylan's persona seems to have fallen into place.  Whereas earlier in his career he changed looks every several years, his performances in the past decade or have featured him with the same flat brimmed hat, moustache, and Hank Williams suit. Having beaten his critics into submission, Dylan gives an impression in these songs that he grasps the fact that most of his listeners are actually on his side, and welcome what he is doing.  This means that the "ways" of the album title are at once events (things I've done),  manners (ways of living), and directions for life (roadmaps).  Gone is the fragmented vision of much of Dylan's turn-of-the-century work (Time Out of Mind (1997), "Love and Theft" (2001), and Modern Times (2006)),  in which we seemed to be stuck in the ruins of a national culture, suffering the consequences of decades of economic warfare, racist violence, and historical amnesia.  The songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways are about working out approaches—to living, being, seeing.  In this sense it is a strangely optimistic and even spiritual record. 


The poetic possibilities made available by this approach are evident from the opening songs.  He starts with Walt Whitman's famous line, "I contain multitudes."  The multiplicity of the self is a long-standing Dylan preoccupation.  After all, his 1970 album Self-Portrait was not autobiographical, but featured a set of songs by other people--a multitude of alter egos. Here, he makes the idea of a capacious self the main theme.  He opens Whitman up, applying his famous line to the dignities and indignities of everyday life: "I drive fast cars, I eat fast foods."  The sublime and the ridiculous come together in ways that Whitman, living in a pre-MacDonald's world, could not have imagined. The opening exploration of the question of selfhood is expanded in the second cut, "False Prophet," a blues about the self as a tool of power. The narrator is an impressive character--part con-man, part boaster, part magician.  But no matter how threatening or exaggerated the claims of this persona, the song traces out an ethical path (a "rowdy way") through a world of thieves. Instead of condemning or preaching at the corrupt figures around him ("false-hearted judges," "masters of war"), as a younger Dylan might have done, he simply knocks them into line with his own power:  "I'll marry you to a ball and chain." 


Several of the songs are built on the conceit of taking a metaphor or a cliché image literally.  "My Own Version of You" might seem to suggest some songwriting cliché about love and fantasy:  "Venus, make her fair/A lovely girl with sunlight in her hair," sang Frankie Avalon in 1959.  "Got a lock of hair and a piece of bone/And made a walkin', talkin', honeycomb," sang Jimmie Rodgers in 1957.  Yet here, as in "Multitudes," the conceit is literalized. "My Own Version of You" is not an erotic fantasy about a dream girl.   He really does want to construct someone; the narrator claims to be a kind of Dr. Frankenstein, who is going to make a human being from scratch. That design makes it possible for him to evoke both the wonders and dangers of our fallen life.  The song ends with Dylan's narrator releasing his new invention into the world, a world of  "laughter. . .and tears."


If I place an ellipsis in the middle of the cited lyric here, it is because moments of hesitation, where the singer stops, are important in these songs.  Dylan frequently uses short phrases that alternate with musical interludes.  The interludes break up semantic units or pairs of lines.  He draws on sets of phrases or loaded words that are often paired in conversational speech or more conventional songwriting. When he says, "I'm first among equals," the listener knows that he's going to follow it with, "second to none."  When he says, "I don't care what I drink," you know he's going to follow it with "I don't care what I eat."  These lyrics are composed of brief phrases, punctuated by pauses in which the musical accompaniment takes over:   "I've looked at nothing here/or there/Looked at nothing near/. . . .(pause) or far." 


This ellipitical approach generates a game of tension and release.  A phrase is begun and set of terms is hinted at.  Then Dylan falls silent as the music plays, before he finishes the thought.  In many cases this technique is built on rhyme effects.  So, for example, in "Goodbye Jimmy Reed," we hear:  "For thine is the kingdom/The power and the glory/Go tell it on the mountain/Go tell the real story."  No one paying attention can fail to realize, long before we get there, that "glory" (followed by "tell it on the mountain," for heaven's sake) is going be rhymed with "story."  In other words, Dylan is telegraphing his rhymes, letting us know before we get to them how they will stack up.  He's not confounding us, as he might have done earlier in his career ("he just smoked my eyelids/and punched my cigarette"); he's releasing the tension and bringing things to a temporary moment of closure through rhyme and diction.


The effect of this lyrical and performative approach is a sense of open composition.  In many of Dylan's earlier songs words pour out and over the listener with rapidity that is often surprising and exhilarating.  Here, by contrast, Dylan is playing with banal everyday expressions ("I just know what I know"; "It is what it is") which let his listeners into the space of the song.  He sings a part of a rhyming couplet, then we wait, along with him, as the band plays a phrase, and we anticipate the obvious and prepared-for rhyme that will close the couplet.  We know when we hear "glory" that "story" can't be far behind; "stars" will certainly generate "guitars."  When we hear, "turn your back," we wait for "look back."  We sense that "Got a mind to ramble" will be followed by "Got a mind to roam." "Turn back the years."  How?  "Do it with laughter" (wait for it) "Do it with tears."  


My point here is that the openness in the diction and delivery of the songs is of a piece with their thematic content. These are songs about making worlds, about inventing oneself, about righting oneself, about making a world out of bits of found material.  Dylan is doing just that with language and sound:  "I paint landscapes/I paint nudes/I contain multitudes."  And he includes us in the process by giving us bits of information in short phrases, waiting a bit, then satisfying or influencing our expectation, sometimes with obvious words, sometimes with less obvious words.  Either way, the songs breathe as Dylan breathes, and as we breathe with him.  "What are you looking at?" he writes, "There's nothing here to see/ just a cool breeze that's encircling me." 


Thus the songs are characterized by two interesting features.  The first, as I've noted, is the way they take metaphors about selfhood and power and make them literal:  "You wonder what Walt Whitman means by 'I contain multitudes'? Well, pay attention, and I'll try to apply the idea to a list of examples." This makes it possible for Dylan to study the relationship between the violent world of physical desire and power, on the one hand, and the world of imagination and spirit, on the other.  The second feature I would underline is the way he deploys a kind of loose diction--brief lines, interspersed with pauses, common phrases that follow easily from each other.  Like the singer, the songs stop to "breathe."  The rhythms of breath that are the stuff of life (especially in pandemic times) are built into their very structure. 


In this way the album unfolds logically, from self to society, from individual breath to collective spirit.  It takes us from the self-focused "I Contain Multitudes" to the grand finale, the magisterial collective vision of "Murder Most Foul" that ends the record.  Dylan prepares us for the final song with the lovely prayer, "Mother of Muses," and the beautiful fantasy, "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)." This last song reworks ideas set forward in 1997's "Highlands," about a man imagining an escape from this world.  Yet the new song expands the conceit by interweaving the fantasy of escape with a specific geographical reference to Florida (more literalization) and an evocation of a musical phenomenon, the pirate radio station ("Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest") that is beyond geography and can sing to the entire earth. 


This pairing of geography and music becomes central to the final song, "Murder Most Foul."  In the last tune, the implicit experience of community, of listening together, that has marked the structure of the diction and performance, now becomes explicit, part of the story.  We move from personal identity, in the first song, to national crisis, in the last.  Moreover, Dylan's account of the murder of JFK is above all an account of the consequences of that event for our national spirit:  "The soul of a nation been torn away," sings Dylan.  In the last tune, the hesitations and pauses in the singer's diction are gone, as the story unspools in long lines, like a passage from Milton's Paradise Lost.  Having hesitated and offered brief bits of information in the earlier songs, Dylan now takes a deep breath decides to "tell the real story," as he urges Jimmy Reed to do earlier on.  That story is a story about spirit, as is fitting for a song that takes its title from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the ultimate ghost story.  It asks what happens to Kennedy's "soul" after he dies:  "For the past fifty years they been searchin' for that."  Dylan's claim is that Kennedy's spirit circulates in the music of the country, in a music that can console and heal, but that is also wounded and haunted, like the country itself.  The song, like "Key West," is in part a celebration of radio, the medium of ghostly voices.  And here Dylan's play with personal identity and pronouns is also exploded, as the "I" of the song shifts between the dying president and the commentator.  I contain multitudes, indeed.


It is unclear to me whether the opening line of "Murder Most Foul"--"Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63"--is supposed to evoke Joni Mitchell's powerful ballad of generational disillusionment and friendly counsel:  "The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68."  Either way, the resonance is meaningful.  Mitchell's song closes her 1971 masterpiece Blue, just as Dylan's song closes Rough and Rowdy Ways.  Blue is certainly one of the most self-absorbed recordings ever made.  It is all about "I."  Rough and Rowdy Ways, by contrast, takes us from an "I" that already contains "multitudes" to a parable of national tragedy.  It offers a series of recordings that are set after historical tragedy and personal disappointment, after the events narrated by historians and epic poets.  It explores the movement of spirit--across bodies, across time.  It carries radio waves and warm breezes, breath, soul.  


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Echoes of a Fantasy: The Cultural Politics of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue

One more cup of coffee.

Music and film fans were treated in early June to the Netflix release of Martin Scorcese's new film about Bob Dylan's 1975 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue.  The film features documentary footage of Dylan and his band in electrifying concert performances.  That footage is framed by a set of interviews with both actual tour participants and fake talking heads, who comment on the events.  By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant;  it's subtitled "A Bob Dylan Story."  Yet the clash of illusion and reality was already an essential part of the tour and contributes to its political meaning--both then, in the year of the American bicentennial celebrations, and now, in the age of Trumpism and Fox News.


The Rolling Thunder Revue had Dylan traveling across New England, playing in small cities, Plymouth to Montreal.  He was joined by a Who's Who of fellow singers, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell.  The band included musicians such as the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the bassist Rob Stoner, who had made Dylan's recent album "Desire" such a sonic delight.  The choice of New England mill towns for the tour seems to have had a kind of spiritual-political intention.  "Why would he play some place so small?" asks one of the fans in Plymouth, midway through the film.  It was an encounter with a semi-rural America that was being depleted by a changing economy.  The contemporary resonances with Trump's claims to speak for a "real" America are, of course, unmistakable.  But the illusion of freedom presented by the tour was already  shot through with nostalgia.  For the context for the tour is the cultural misery of the mid-1970s, when the the late-1960s hippie dream of freedom, funny clothes, and "the road," had been brought up short by the reality of the defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, and a slowing economy. Read More 

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Publication Announcement: Bob Dylan's Poetics

See some reviews, in Rolling Stone, by Greil Marcus:  https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/real-life-rock-top-10-2-850590/

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, by Robert Sean Wilson: