Dylan: Our Shakespeare in the Alley*
Bob Dylan is 80 years old today (May 24th.). The most contrarian thing that Dylan has ever done, in a long line of contrarian acts, is to not die. He did not buy it from his 1966 motorcycle accident. He did not go out in a blaze of drugs in the 1970s or 1980s, though one suspects he did try. He even survived a heart infection in the late 1990s. Unlike so many rock and roll greats, who’s legends were partially built on their early deaths, Dylan makes us grapple with his longevity.
Let me be clear in evaluating Dylan’s legacy; Bob Dylan has no place in modern American songwriting. Bob Dylan is modern American songwriting. It’s not that there aren’t a bevy of amazing composers and songwriters in the world, especially in the rock genre. It is simply that Dylan has become the standard by which all others are measured. So, you are thinking; ok, you’ve made a bold claim, now back it up. Why, gladly.
Dylan is our Shakespeare for 3 key reasons. First, like all great literary artists (and let’s be clear that is Dylan’s primary field, he is musically a primitive), Dylan brings forth his art with brutal emotional honesty. Then, like all creative geniuses he blends and mashes together multiple styles to create something new. Finally, there is his view of the world as a small c conservative, which when contemplated challenges us to be more fully human.
Dylan’s emotional honesty courses throughout his music. All emotions are on display, both positive and negative. He is a vastly underrated composer of love ballads such as the ethereal Visions of Johanna, or the heartachingly Just Like a Woman or the intense Boots of Spanish Leather and To Ramona. And to top off this smattering of a considerably longer list, the incomparably sad Sara, which details the erosion and ultimate dissolution of his first marriage. A dissolution for which Dylan owned his part by writing “Sara, oh Sara, Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress, Sara, Sara, You must forgive me my unworthiness”.
Sara is perhaps the most intense relationship song in all of rock, but Dylan also bared all about other relationships that ended. In fact, nobody writes a Fuck You song quite like Bob Dylan. There is the deep cynicism he wrote in Don’t Think Twice : “I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind You could have done better but I don't mind You just kinda wasted my precious time But don't think twice, it's all right”. Or the raging anger in Idiot Wind (easily the angriest song in all rock): “Idiot wind Blowing every time you move your teeth You're an idiot, babe It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe” Talk about a “bad breaker-upper”.
Then there are the “finger pointing songs” (Dylan’s term). Many had a political hue, in a general sense anyway, but mostly they were individualized calls to reject the ugliness of violence and hatred. Songs like the quintessential Blowing In The Wind and the damning Only A Pawn In Their Game or the equally damning With God On Our Side. These called us not to a specific political party or program but to reject this mindset as human beings, which is a far more import finger to point.
This brings up the stunning subset of “finger pointing songs” of Dylan, his anti-war canon. A few of these are, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and the unnerving John Brown, in which Dylan calls us all to face the reality of war when he wrote: “But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close And I saw that his face looked just like mine. Oh! Lord! Just like mine!”
We can see that the full range of emotions are on offer from Dylan. All the emotion that makes all of us human, love, anger, fear, disgust, faithfulness and neglect. All delivered with a poetic rhythm that sticks these ideas onto your very soul.
There are those who criticize Dylan for being remote and distant, not granting interviews and the like. That criticism falls flat when you see him rip open his soul in front of the entire world. Lest you think I am overstating the case for Dylan’s impact I personally turned away from the inherent violence that is boxing because of the all too damning Dylan song Who Killed Davey Moore. Powerful ideas that powerfully expressed do make a difference.
Then there is the creative process of Bob Dylan. He was never so proud or stubborn to not look to others for inspiration. There is of course the Bible. There is also the music of as American a composer as Stephen Foster, yes, he of Camptown Races. Also, Dylan gorged on all manner of early 20th. century American music, the rag timers, the early blues and jazz masters and of course the country and folk tradition. He even imbibed French symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud, not to mention a host of other poets.
In short, Dylan did what all great creative artists do, he took all that he knew and all that he experienced and mashed it all together to create something unique and distinct. Also, like all great artists, Dylan was never willing to stand still. Truth be told, artists of this caliber are not very interesting while standing still.
Dylan followed his muse wherever it led. First to folk, then in an act of great “apostasy”, to plugging his poetry into an electric guitar. He went country in the late 60s, waaaay before it was cool and then he went Christian in the late 70s, something that has not been cool for a couple thousand years. Dylan never cared, he went where he was called and poured himself into whatever genre he was led to experience. This mashing together of all these influences is what makes Dylan’s work, at once utterly unique and yet so familiarly timeless.
The final thing to think about is the underlying philosophy of Dylan. He is I argue, a small c conservative. This is not a political label but a philosophic one. He is a believer in the “constrained view” of humanity. That is, the notion that humans have a nature, and that nature is not well suited to being rewritten or reworked. We are not a ball of clay or a tabula rasa. Dylan understands clearly that history is littered with the corpses of those who fell victim to the notion that if we just kill a few, or a few thousand, or a few million, this one time in the process of reworking human nature, the world can be a paradise. If you want to change the world, then start with the person in the mirror. Dylan has always pointed to internal changes of the heart and mind as the true path to human progress.
This is born out in the fact that Dylan explicitly rejected the notion of being a “voice of a new generation” or a political revolutionary. In the Wedding Song where Dylan writes “It's never been my duty to remake the world at large, Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge,”, he is clearly pointing to something much deeper and far longer lasting than simple political change. Even when he did get political, as pointed out above, it was about looking in toward your own soul and changing your own life toward something better. This is true in one of his later “political” songs, Hurricane, demanding the release of the unjustly convicted boxer Ruben Carter, the focus is on one man’s tragedy and freeing one man from an unrighteous sentence. That’s Dylan, remaking the world one act at a time.
There is a great profoundness to this attitude. It steers us toward pulling the log out of our own eye, rather than picking the speck out of someone else’s (Matt 7:5), which is always sound advice. It also turns us away from falling for yet another “utopian” revolution which will only bring more violence and less freedom. Dylan has existential insights into the human condition the same way Shakespeare did, which is why I predict that his literary influence may very well be as long lasting as the Bard.
The genius of Dylan cannot be gainsaid. That being said, Dylan is no saint. He has all the foibles that you and I possess. There is no doubt that he has made human mistakes and has aspects of his personality that might rub us the wrong way; who of us doesn’t?
Yet, this fact about Bob Dylan, is what creates the most hope for us as humans. We as a species are capable of this kind of poetry, this kind of beauty. One of our own, warts and all, has for over 60 years called us to turn away from all that would profane us and destroy us and called us to turn toward something sublime and beautiful. The gift of these kinds of artists is that while experiencing their art, you are lifted up, even if just a little bit. In being so lifted up we get a sense of what humanity is capable of, of what we can achieve. This in and of itself makes us better than we were before we experienced their gifts.
So, on Dylan’s 80th. birthday, Don’t Think Twice and make like a Rolling Stone and drink in what the man has given us. Dylan would probably be the first to say that thanks should be given to the One ultimately responsible. He keeps honoring that One by continuing the 30+ years long “Never Ending Tour”, and a mature body ofwork that still impresses. For me, Dylan is whom God has chosen to speak eternal truths to us in a language we moderns understand. Yeah, sometimes God sounds like a nasally kid from Minnesota.
Praise Be to God
*This reference is from Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again