January 16th, 2005

Bob Dylan Contemplated From A Position Of Semi-Ignorance

A position of professed semi-ignorance is not one from which one is allowed to contemplate Bob Dylan in the contemporary world of letters and music journalism (though Dylan himself might protest to the contrary). Dylan is an elder case apart, not an artist who needs to abide the question of snotty, impertinent up and coming journos, youngsters in their late thirties in some cases. An established and closed school of Dylanologists dominate discourse on the great man, shoring up a formidable school of wisdom with each successive study and review. Which is no bad thing. Dylan is indeed someone you can’t flippantly toss a casual critical eyeball at. But semi-ignorance has its virtues and its own valuable perspective. So the following comes entirely without reference to any of the texts, is transmitted entirely from the top of my head to you, the multitude.

It’s prompted by my having recently read the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs. I really enjoyed the book, and, while it left me none the conventionally wiser regarding him – I believe he’ll come away from this series still guarding all of his secrets – it instilled in me a different opinion of him and a new layer of respect.

And disrespect, too. The text isn’t without its howlers. An allusion to Moby Dick reveals that Dylan is under the George Costanza-like impression that a whale is a fish, he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “quintessential” (he refers to Mick Jones as The Clash’s ‘quintessential’ guitarist). You wonder if whoever edited this volume failed to spot these blemishes themselves or felt that to correct them would be like amending “The Times They Are A-Changing” to the more succinct “The Times Are Changing”.

Moreover, a section on Bono reveals how remote his cultural perspective has become as he has splendidly isolated himself. Dylan contemplates the world from a position of semi-ignorance. He writes of Bono in semi-mystical terms, as if being in possession of a sixth sense, able to detect the glow of the special amid the grey throng. I mean, it’s the lead singer of bloody U2, for God’s sake, whatever you think of them, a man like Bono is going to carry an aura, a self-possession and confidence that might come from deluded egotism or justified pre-eminence, depending on your opinion. Moreover, it’s only a figure like Bono who’s going to have the clout to pierce Dylan’s secluded sanctum nowadays. But if Bono’s your only point of contact with popular culture, especially in these complex and tinily fragmented times, you’re gonna be missing out on a lot, to say the least. It reminds me of Miles Davis’s biography when he starts singing the praises of Sting. Something’s happening but you don’t know what it is . . .

Other things that made my lip curl a little was the odd astrological reference, vast generalisations about the temperament and psyche of individuals according to their geography (Daniel Lanois, apparently, is the way he is because he’s North American. North Americans are like that. It’s a nature thing). All of this bolsters the suspicion that Dylan is not a rationalist. Certainly, I’ve never been remotely regarded him as a seer or leader of any generation since his dalliances with religion in the early Eighties, first Christianity and then Judaism – and a brimstone-based reading of those religions at that. The fact that he dropped them so quickly didn’t particularly point to any great strength of mind or character either – Christ, the man was in his forties. Would you want this man as your moral guardian or compass?

His truculent mumblings in 1985 at Live Aid about all the attention being paid to the plight of the Ethiopians somehow coming at the expense of the hard done by American farmers didn’t indicate a largeness of mind or spirit, either. But back to the book, which as I say, misgivings apart, I enjoyed. Primarily, Dylan has a beautiful way with words, even if does at times use them to weave a miasma around himself, rather as a means of unlocking the chamber door to his inner life or as a means of exposing cold, stark, graspable truths. A bit like someone in old age, (which Dylan hasn’t been since he started out) he can paint vivid and detailed pictures of events and scenarios from his youth, from his days hanging round the New York folk scene in particular, while his most recent memories are a little foggy by comparison (these memoirs, by the way, leap about achronologically).

Other things impress too. There is a candour and a vulnerability about Dylan I like. He depicts himself at the end of a Traveling Wilburys tour, hanging out with/hanging onto ex-ELO leader Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty, aware that he is nowhere, has no clue as to what he’s about, has become disconnected from his oeuvre, his past.

The epiphany he experiences, having wandered out to a jazz club and watched a performer in full, unabashed flow, is one which has eluded most, if not all of his Homeric rock peers, all washed up in their pagodas of privilege. It’s what enabled him to rescue himself from being abandoned to the laughing stock and enabled him to enjoy the resuscitation of his reputation and an artistic rebirth. This isn’t something he’s done the way Bowie tried and failed to, by injected himself with samples of the fresh blood of each new wave of activity, from The Pixies to drum ‘n’ bass, but . . . (well, actually, this is where semi-ignorance kicks in. I haven’t bothered to listen to any of his recent, much-lauded albums. But where all those crits are blowing smoke, I suspect there’s some fire).

Moreover, when he goes into the studio with Daniel Lanois, you realise he isn’t this formidably impervious legend whom no one can gainsay. From Dylan’s account, it’s Lanois who dominates the climate with his temper, with Dylan all but feeling a little pushed around at times. There’s a sweet anecdote when Lanois flies into a rage and one of the female assistants bursts into tears. Dylan feels sufficiently for her to include the incident here.

What’s strongest, however, and it’s the strongest impression one gets from Dylan’s most recent utterances, is his horror at ever having been regarded as a spokesman for a generation. It’s become a cliche now but it’s still felt. And when you read in the memoir of The Band’s Robbie Robertson here asking Dylan “where he was going to lead” his Sixties followers you can understand his mortification. Dylan is as aware as anybody that he was never good enough, and always too good to be, such a leader. Consequently, his entire career has been spent in flight, it seems, from his most ardent admirers and would-be decipherers. There’s been a mute plea of Brian Of Nazareth-style desperation to the world at large not to saddle him with a soothsaying role in which he’s always been patently uninterested, but his decision to opt for a life up in the hills, rarely communicating with the media, maintaining a meaningful silence, that of course has only enlarged his mystique and exacerbated his oracular/guru status. (Though I’ve often wondered if Dylan secretly enjoys this, basks coyly in the egotistical satisfaction of this game he plays with his aficionados).

Perhaps Dylan’s shrewdest move, though there were doubtless many reasons for it, was in 1968 to make his ‘rural’ retreat, at the height of urban foment, electric psychedelia and rock-fuelled revolutionary optimism, with the pointedly austere John Wesley Harding LP. In some respects, it might have appeared a reactionary, agrarian gesture, ironic given the furore when he went electric but in keeping with that crack about the American farmers. However, like Brian Wilson, who took flight from the end of the Sixties, Dylan has benefited retrospectively in that he now seems a figure outside of rock time (the way that Smile, lately restored now seems like a no-historical-strings masterpiece, outside, above and beyond rock music). More significantly, at that high, sanguine tidal moment of rock, when it was truly believed that it could have some sort of transformative power, there was(n’t) Dylan, quietly shaking his head, communicating, on tracks like “All Along The Watchtower” in oblique lyrical utterances expressed in a tarot card-like idiom. But then, a part of me resents the exclusive elevation of Dylan – the way he’s appropriated by academic outsiders like Christopher Ricks, who took flak by daring to compare him to Keats.

My beef, however, is that the Rickses of this world propound the notion that close attendance ro the Dylan text is the only thing of ‘worth’ to be extracted from the sordid puddles of rock history. In an age in which rock music is being reduced ever more reverentially to a pantheon you can almost grasp in one hand – Beatlestonesbowiedylanyoung – this ostensibly superior mode of thinking in which, at sheer iPod random, Rhythm & Sound, The Blue Nile, 23 Skidoo, Mantronix, Buck 65, Thomas Leer, Eric B & Rakim – are infinitesimally trivial and dispensable details, sticks in the gullet like a swallowed figurine. Dylan, and Dylanology, then, has always been problematic to me as one who goes for texture over text as a rule (though one resolution of this was a fine essay in The Wire by my colleague Chris Bohn who waxed on the too little explored topic of the grain of Dylan’s vocals).

More out of a sense of cultural duty, I did go through my own Dylan phase in my mid-teens, acquiring, by pooling dinner money, birthday and Christmas requests and paper round wages, most of his albums from 1978’s Street Legal backwards. There was a parallel with my churchgoing around the same time. Both listening to Dylan and attending mass were spartan affairs, involved poring over the enigmatic utterances of exasperatingly remote figures. However, I assured myself, if I could only rack my brains sufficiently, stop my mind from wandering and stiffen the sinews of my faith, keep grinding those twigs together, the spark of ecstatic revelation would follow. I couldn’t be distracted by cracks from Philistines like Danny Baker, who compared the brass backdrop to “Is Your Love In Vain?” to the sort of music that strikes up as the contestants walk onstage for Miss United kingdom – although, it kind of did. I had to understand that there was a Higher Reason that “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” sounded like a carousel being cranked round at half speed. I had to learn that when Dylan did reggae versions of his old classics, this was the sublime playfulness of the age’s great Harlequin at work, and in no way to be compared to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” or 10CC’s “Dreadlock Holiday”.

I swore that one day, I would crack encrypted, Rubrix cube lyrics such as “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”. And when he embarked on those shambling harmonica solos, I piously expunged images of old geezers outside Tottenham Court Road tube station with 18p in their caps. I never formerly forsook the quest but, around the time I gave up religion, I quietly sold most of my Dylan albums for the equivalent of about 30 pints of lager.

Still, even from the potshotting, obscured range of semi-ignorance, I can glimpse enough to realise the value, the genius of Dylan, that he isn’t some monstrous fraud dreamt up by our deluded elders. His reluctance to take up any sort of leadership role does not mean that he hasn’t shed light, in his own poetic and circuitous way, or that he hasn’t been an inspiration. Then there are lines like “to live outside the law you must be honest”, or “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Or being asked by a reporter how many protest singers there were in the USA and replying “134”. And there’s the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, the documentary made circa his fateful tour of the UK. It’s a profoundly superficial thing – that pale, pinched face, those clamped, unforgiving shades, that shock of hair – this pose he struck signified that he was the author, the inventor of rock attitude. He was the one, he was the first. Still, I did enjoy those lagers.

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