Bob Dylan: An Artist

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Broken lines broken strings
Broken threads broken springs
Broken idols broken heads
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken 

(“Everything is Broken” 1989)

If you’re traveling the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair’s hanging long
For that’s the way I remember her best. 

(From “Girl from North Country” 1963)

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

(From “It’s Alright Ma I’m only Bleeding” 1964)

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears

When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
On the judgment of God’s hand

(From “Tempest” 2012)

I had a moment of confusion last week when I heard Bob Dylan was going to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, people were making a big deal about it. In a world where it seems that the big bad orange one has taken control of our news feed, with his racist, sexist, heart-sickening, hate-spewing slander,  and almost anything else he can, for his pathetic attempt to bring the world to his knees, the thought of the truest of troubadours winning the Nobel Prize can only be thought of as good news. But my confusion stemmed from the fact that I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal, since I had it in my mind that Bob Dylan already had one.

I mean wouldn’t he have by now? No, I soon found out like the rest of everyone else, this honor had not been bestowed on him, so yes it was reason to celebrate. Bob Dylan has been the recipient for every recognition that a singer/songwriter, or rock star, or musician could ever ask for, the Nobel Prize was surely just another trinket he could hang on his mantle, which is probably the reason he doesn’t really seem to care. It’s true the honor probably means more to us than it does to him, and that’s just fine. Dylan is on tour as he usually is, doing what he has done since he was first put on record in 1961, at first a young Woody Guthrie wannabe, singing, adapting from a variety of folk and blues styles, then changing his tune as time went by from a voice of his generation (something he didn’t really want to be), to an electric guitar rebel with commercial ambitions, getting in an accident with his motorcycle, only to come back crooning in a laid back country sound, singing duets with Johnny Cash.

By the end of the 60s, The Beatles had broken up, their later music would be heavily influenced by Dylan’s more poetic verses rather than the more poppy tunes of Beatlemania. However by the time when peace, love, and understanding seemed like a thing of the past, John Lennon would spew out the lyric “I don’t believe in Zimmerman” (Dylan’s real last name) which felt like a closing of the door the America’s greatest rock poet.

But Dylan is an artist, I’m not sure he was ever looking for relevance, instead I think he was just following his muse whatever it might be. He may have floundered in the early 70s, but came back with his confessional album “Blood on the Tracks” inspired by his failed marriage to Sara Lownds. The album was full of brutal imagery of relationships ending, but there was also tenderness, and romance in the lyrics….

He woke up the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate.

He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailers all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again how long must he wait
One more time for a simple twist of fate.

(From “A Simple Twist of Fate” 1975)

Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Now there’s a wall between us something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

(From “Shelter from the Storm” 1975)

Dylan followed that up with “The Basement Tapes” which were unreleased songs he recorded with The Band in 1967. Then continued with his album “Desire” introducing a new sound with a haunting violin and back up vocals from Emmylou Harris. Hearing some of Dylan’s concert outtakes in this period, he seems the most possessed and excited by his own songs, what I wouldn’t have given to hear him live back then.

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Time would ride on again, Dylan would follow his muse, this time taking him to unexpected places, he would find God and release some religious songs. Call it a flight of fancy, but some of the songs have a deepness to their core.

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

(From “Every Grain of Sand” 1980)

For some, the 1980s weren’t Dylan’s greatest period, waiting for inspiration but still doing his thing, the sin was that it was not that memorable. Was he washed up? He came back before, could he again? In 1989, he teamed with U2 producer Daniel Lanois and made his best album in years “Oh Mercy”, a low-fi feeling full of political rage, love sick turmoil, and lyrical imagery. Dylan, who has often been thought of as a political musician to me always felt more powerful when he was singing a love song whether it was about being in love, or losing the one you love. In “Most of the Time”, he hearkens back to the time of “Freewheelin’s” “Girl From North Country” and “Blood On the Tracks” “If you See her Say Hello”, as a lament for a lover who is gone.

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path
I can read the sign
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever
I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time.

Most of the time it’s well understood
Most of the time I wouldn’t change it if I could
I can make it all match up
I can hold my own
I can deal with the situation right down to the bone
I can survive and I can endure
And I don’t even think about her
Most of the time.

By the 1990s, Dylan had what most people consider his death album “Time out of Mind” again produced by Lanois. Was Dylan dying, the lyrics proved that it was a possibility.

Shadows are fallin’ and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep and time is runnin’ away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

(From “Not Dark Yet” 1997)

“Time out of Mind” looked to be the swan song people might have been hoping from him. This was it, the final curtain, he will die a legend, there isn’t more to be said. But maybe Dylan thought that was too fatalistic for him. People love a good story of a rock star, either dying too young, or fading into music eternity. Dylan seemed like the latter, but he had more to say.

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In 2001, Dylan began producing his own records starting with “Love and Theft” that brought back a rockabilly mentality to his tunes, it felt quick and jammy unlike his more refined studio work. This was the way he wanted to music to feel, quick, improvised, off the cuff, yet the lyrics still stood out.

Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City’s just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

(From “Mississippi” 2001)

Dylan made more acclaimed albums, “Modern Times” and “Tempest” which had a touching ode to his old lyric mate, and in many ways musical kindred spirit John Lennon.

I heard the news today, oh boy
They hauled your ship up on the shore
Now the city’s gone dark
There is no more joy
They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

(From “Roll on John” 2012)

There is so much more. “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall”, “Masters of War”, “When the Ship Comes in”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Sara”, “Joey”, “Cold Irons Bound”, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, “Love Sick”, “Working Class Blues”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Mr. Tamborine Man”,”Blind Willie McTell”, THE ENTIRE “BLONDE ON BLONDE” ALBUM.

Dylan has always been like an illusion to me like I have to ask if he’s real, because he never seems to be. I saw him three times in concert, all three times he never said a word to the audience, he sang his songs, and left the stage as if he was just passing by telling his stories and moving on. It seemed like he only needed the audience in order to have someone to listen to him. He has kept his mystique, books, movies, documentaries, and other songs have been written about him, yet he is gloriously aloof from our reality. In Todd Haynes’ definitive music bio about Dylan “I’m Not There” where multiple actors including a woman and a small black child play him, some of the stories in the film come from fact, others from myth, most come from his songs, that’s where his truth lies. Martin Scorsese got closer in revealing a true person with his four hour documentary on Dylan “No Direction Home” which chronicles the singer’s rise in the 60s to his temporary fall in 1968 after his motorcycle crash. Scorsese seems to have gotten close enough to find Dylan has been a broken man, and someone who once got lost in his own legend. But Dylan is too much the showman to ever reveal his true self too much. He has always been that man who has separated himself from reality. In my favorite song about Dylan by David Bowie, it becomes clear that there are two people in him, and there is only one we will ever meet.

Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

(From David Bowie’s album “Hunky Dory” 1970)

So what is the truth? In the songs of course. Dylan has always been there in my life from the first time I blared “Blonde on Blonde” in my CD player at the age of 18 knocking my socks off and my life would never be the same.

This year we lost Bowie, we lost Prince, Gord Downie has cancer, BREXIT happened, Trump will not go quietly into the night, it has been agreed by everyone, 2016 is the worst year in recorded history. But the shining simmering hopeful idea that Bob Dylan now has a Nobel Prize for literature, meaning he is still out there, he’s still chugging along 70 plus years old, and if that’s all we get for good news in this rotten year, then let’s take it. Dylan will continue to make music and if anyone happens to listen I’m sure he’s fine with that, if you don’t listen well I’m sure he’s fine with that too, but there’s comfort knowing he’s out there doing what he has always done. It’s a reminder that artists only need their art to keep them fulfilled, artists are the ones who find the truth in life, and in the bleakness this year has brought, it’s up to the artists, as Bob Dylan once sang to…”Keep on keeping on.”

 

 

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