That voice, softened by the erosion of age but still the sensate rasp that Joyce Carol Oates once compared to sandpaper singing. Even when it’s prattling on, that voice reaches into the synapses of my youth. I’m a Dylan baby; I trekked down from the Bronx to hear him in his Greenwich Village hootenanny days, and I still have the program from his 1961 Carnegie Hall debut. E-bay beckons, but I won’t sell it, or forget the moment when I first heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” on Top 40 radio and realized that the times were…need I finish the line?
Now it’s trickier. There’s Dylan the artist in cap and gown, and Dylan the brand, hyping the new line at Victoria’s Secret; Dylan the Nobel Prize nominee, and Dylan the franchise whose product is being diversified into a tribute musical by Twyla Tharp. And now there’s DJ coming to the XM pay-radio network. Starting May 3 he’ll go head to cred with Howard Stern, chatting up guests, answering e-mails and spinning platters of his eccentric choosing around selected themes (e.g., weather, dancing, whiskey). Those who knew him as the most inspirational voice of the 1960s can tune in to reconnect with their memories through this show. Those who fell away when he found God can hear what’s most admirable about Dylan now: his musical erudition and his bond with what critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” the land of dusty 78s and desperate dreams. XM is betting that Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan will draw a very desirable demographic: haute boomers who are used to paying for premium channels and premium everything.
You could do worse than pass the drive time with one of America’s most important pop artists. But to describe Dylan as merely important may seem paltry, even philistine. To his most fervent admirers he’s not just another artist, certainly not a song-and-dance man, as he’s often called himself. He’s the emblem of his generation’s splendor. Beatified in his youth, he’s cruising toward sainthood today.
Like any holy man, Dylan is surrounded by a cultural guard that sings his praises and keeps his secrets. His recent autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, doesn’t deal with drugs (though they were abundant in his entourage), and neither does Martin Scorsese’s definitive Dylan doc, No Direction Home (2005). That’s the kind of tell-some treatment Dylan expects, and he’s always gotten it from artists who hone and honor his myth. Todd Haynes is making a film with four actors playing avatars of Dylan. This is a sign that something other than appreciation is at work. We’re witnessing a consecration.
As Dylan’s original fans age, some feel a need to make the icon of their youth into an eternal object of worship. Things that last forever aren’t subject to ups and downs, so the former consensus about Dylan–that his later work is quite uneven–has given way to a conviction that his oeuvre is one unbroken flow of genius, a gospel. Prophets don’t have flops, and neither should Dylan. His woeful ode to assassinated mobster Joey Gallo (“What made them want to come and blow you away?”) has to be of a piece with his master song “Like a Rolling Stone.” His endless and tedious 1978 film Renaldo and Clara must be seen as an underrated masterpiece. This failure to distinguish between awesome and awful Dylan is evidence that his reputation rests less on his recent music than on his enduring status as a fetish.
Dylan has always inspired an awe that obtruded on and ultimately betrayed his songs. Back in the tie-dye days, those lyrics were read like the entrails of a certain sacred bird. No one searches his garbage anymore, but the frenzy of interpretation remains. The result is Saint Dylan, the patron of bitter boomers. He sings of their retreat from utopian dreams, of their disdain for politics, fixation on domesticity, resentment toward demands that intrude on their prerogatives; he speaks to their longing for order, their love-hate relationship with their fathers and with God the Father; and he does this with a mastery of ambiguity that can dazzle when it doesn’t dismay. Those who once soared with Dylan and now face a sour senescence may be looking to leave something other than real estate for posterity. What better monument than the man who traced their changes?
No one who ever set finger to fret has inspired the scholarly fixation that Dylan now does. Amazon lists 398 books by or about him–not just the usual photo relics, back stories, bios and ex-girlfriend memoirs but competing encyclopedias, philosophical treatises, bar-by-bar deconstructions and syntactical Baedekers galore. Welcome to the Rolling Tenure Review.
Can Dylan’s work sustain high scrutiny? Yes, if it’s placed in a particular cultural context. Dylan’s is a hybrid art, as Robert Christgau has observed. Synthesis is the key to its vitality. High and low are one; fishermen hold flowers. The best Dylan critics–e.g., Christgau, Marcus, Tim Riley–situate him in a musical/social tradition that includes, most notably, the blues. But there have always been intellectuals who insisted on yoking Dylan to the fine-art cart.
Consider Aidan Day’s analysis of the song “Visions of Johanna”: “a reduction of form to primal elements–as in an image that itself displaces Marcel Duchamp’s rendering of the Mona Lisa in the painting LHOOQ.” The music critic Alex Ross cites this groaner as an example of the wretched excess Dylan can inspire in inquiring minds. He always did. But lately this adoration has spawned a whole new school of Dylan crit, all the more powerful because it’s based in the academy. Young Bob should have wailed: Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you in a syllabus!
The dean of this veneration scholarship is Christopher Ricks, an important critic of (mainly British) poetry. Like many acolytes, Ricks admits that Dylan is an obsession. But unlike the garbologists of yore, he has the intellectual means to venture a close textual analysis of the work itself. The result is Dylan’s Visions of Sin, a formidable study whose flaws epitomize the problems with the discipline I’ll call Ph.Dylanology.
It’s a formalist school, and as such it privileges the syntax of the songs over their context. Taking this approach, Ricks finds not just hidden intricacies but significant connections between Dylan and the great poets, especially the Symbolists and Romantics. There are such connections, as there are for a number of rock artists from the 1960s. Consider John Lennon’s link to Surrealism or Jim Morrison’s debt to the Beats. Certainly Dylan is the most literary of songwriters, and he synthesizes the metaphorics of blues with the Western literary tradition in a remarkable way. It’s one thing to acknowledge this achievement, quite another to maintain that it makes him the singular genius of his generation. But the point of Ph.Dylanology is to render him as an exceptional artist who communes with the immortals and stands apart from the creative processes of the crowd. Elitism is a dirty word in formalist circles, but that’s what this is. And it doesn’t get at Dylan’s greatness.
He hasn’t had much influence on literature. Few contemporary poets write like him. Dylan’s major impact is on pop music, and his innovations–expanding the lyric line and infusing it with expressive, ambiguous imagery–are a mainstay of modern song. In pop, the sensual surface is every bit as important as the subtext, maybe more so. If you’re going to tackle the Book of Revelation, you’d better make it rock. These values set a standard for pop-culture criticism: erotics over hermeneutics, to channel Susan Sontag. But most Ph.Dylanologists are oblivious to the ways of pop–and they ignore the “old, weird America,” where Dylan’s imagination resides. Overlooking this tradition does a grave disservice to the collective genius of American music. And it removes Dylan from the company of 1960s song-poets like Lennon (whose late style is every bit as primal and more radical), Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (all of them wiser about the vicissitudes of intimacy). Because these artists are less literary than Dylan, they are presumed to be less worthy, and a whole aesthetic movement is dismissed.
I once saw Ricks lecture on the poetics of unstressed (or “feminine”) endings in an early Dylan song called “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” He never acknowledged that such upbeat endings are common in American song, or that the “axial moments” in a Dylan lyric–when an image encompasses its opposite–appear often in rock. Indeed, ambiguity is central to the sixties sensibility, and not just because of Dylan’s sway. Ricks is hardly the first critic to be stuck inside of Mobile with the William Empson blues again, and I wouldn’t be so hard on him if his pop illiteracy weren’t the sign of a larger problem.
There’s a reason why formalism flourishes in conservative times. It stops the discussion of ideology. The appeal of this approach to Dylan–and the reason it’s taken hold, I’m convinced–is that it exempts his devotees from dealing with the troubling politics of his later songs: those reactionary attitudes and that unctuous, unforgiving theodicy. Formalism tells us that these values are not the source of Dylan’s power, that it’s all in the tropes. But there’s more to his lyrics than subtext. There’s a plain meaning, and it matters.
I’m not suggesting that a reactionary artist can’t be a great one–remember Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. I am saying that failing to confront the plain meaning of Dylan’s music as well as its morality is a sin of its own.
Is there any great artist who appeals to only one sex? This question shouldn’t be incidental to the Dylan discussion, but it is. Though most critics acknowledge his sexism–as in, So what else is new?–there’s been no real examination of his sexual politics and its relevance to the rest of his politics. Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan’s songs, from “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind.” His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” and answers “You know a woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong.”
What do women think of this shit? We don’t really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it’s safe to say that Dylan’s current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum. His heroic persona is a big reason why.
Take Dylan’s trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah’s son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He’s a keeper of the patriarchal flame.
Consider this roster of Dylan themes: suspicion of worldly women–and therefore the world; rejection of modernism, especially when it threatens old values; rigid, sin-burned religiosity; the falsity of social life; the corruption of love; and, lately, the perversion of divine order. These values resonate with the paranoid tendency in machismo. When Dylan was younger, they were tempered by his rebellion against oppressive (white male) power, but now it’s the disruption of godly rules and hallowed hierarchies that he rebels against, “infamy on the landscape,” as Dylan writes in the liner notes for World Gone Wrong (1993). He doesn’t work on Maggie’s farm; he lives there.
I don’t claim that Dylan is determined by machismo–there’s much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won’t accept that regressive message when it’s wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it’s possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man’s man.
Nostalgia for the patriarchy becomes acute for many men when they age, as their fathers diminish and die. For Dylan this yearning is a kind of prayer. “The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod,” he sings in “When He Returns.” The rod of ages he clings to–and his worshipers cling to–is a phallus. I’d say that’s the key to the cult of Dylan. He’s the holy writ in a phallic rite. It’s why he’s always inspired obsessive codifying and deciphering missions and why his songs are treated as sacred texts. They aren’t just poems; they’re parables from the mouth of… the prophet.
Faced with the nasty aspects of this artist, Ricks urges “faith in Dylan,” adding, “this needs to encompass his faith and our having faith in him.” That’s not criticism; it’s hagiography–and it violates the best of Dylan’s subterranean homesick injunctions, the one I think of whenever I sit down to write a piece:
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parking meters.
The most honest way to look at Dylan is the way his young fans do. They admire him, but they don’t adore him. And they understand that his career over four decades has had dramatic ebbs and flows. Between 1975 and 1987 he produced some memorable songs along with many otiose ballads and those hymns aptly described by Alex Ross as “snarling gospel.” The best you can say about these experiments is that they were sincere. But they suffered from the enervation that comes of disengagement.
As a young man, Dylan withdrew in rage from the burdens of progressive politics, and that rebellion galvanized his most important work. But as he aged, he withdrew from the social world itself, and his gift was lost in the ether of salvation. Then, somehow, Dylan found the world again, and in 1997 he created a wonderful album of spare, melancholy songs, Time Out of Mind. He was back, though as he’s said, you can’t come back in the same way again.
Now a new generation has discovered Dylan, but not for his late style. They flock to his concerts to hear the early songs, those still-gripping sagas of alienation and outrage written when Dylan was lost in the wilderness, and they come to hear how Dylan will sing those songs today, since he always performs them differently. They know Dylan as he should be known–as a striving, fallible artist, not a saint.
I’ve learned not to overestimate the dude. That sandpaper voice still stirs the passions of my past, even when it’s singing of a present that would stifle me. But I don’t believe in Dylan. His words are not the Word. And I come not to worship him but to complicate him.