Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chaos to Creation: the enigma of Bob Dylan (Part: One)

John Bucklen, the son of a miner, was Robert Allen Zimmerman’s closest high school friend and partner in his teenage musical adventures. The two grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota – once the largest of the many mining towns on the iron-ore-rich Mesabi Range. Just a year after the Zimmerman family moved here from Duluth in 1948, the town witnessed a two months long miners’ strike demanding pensions and insurance rights from the Oliver Iron Mining Company – a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation. The Zimmermans were middle-class Jews and owned a household appliance store in Hibbing. Bucklin’s family depended on his mother’s earnings from sewing after his father was injured in a mining accident which restricted him from working again. By the late fifties, Hibbing’s mining community started to encounter the harsh realities of layoffs and regularly shutting down of mines as the two World Wars had seriously depleted much of the high-grade iron ore of the Mesabi Range. When the two friends parted away in November 1960, the town had become a place of limited prospect due to this bleak economic situation. Young Bobby Zimmerman had two aspirations in his mind when he left his hometown. The first was to meet his idol Woody Guthrie, who was bedridden by Huntington’s chorea in New Jersey’s Greystone Hospital. The second was to become a professional folk singer. Bucklen liked airplanes and so went on to join the United States Air Force.

Four years later they met again in London. By now, Bobby has skyrocketed to fame as an intriguing musical phenomenon under the adopted name, Bob Dylan, and was going to perform at the Royal Festival Hall. The two friends encountered with each other just before the concert while Dylan was busy with a sound check. Glad seeing Bucklen, Dylan ran to embrace him with affection. While watching his friend on stage that evening, Bucklin got a firsthand experience of the Dylan’s magic. He was not only enthralled by the mind-blowing performance but also fascinated to notice the reactions of a roused and emotionally charged audience. “What do you think of me now?” Dylan asked Bucklen in an assertive tone after the show. Bucklen said that he thinks Dylan has become “a little strung out and a little thinner” and instantly sensed that the answer has displeased his friend. Later in the evening, when Dylan was stuck in a row with the hotel stuff, Bucklen tried to counsel him to look out for some other place. A heated Dylan rudely dashed at him, “Mind your own damn business…!” Immensely hurt by his friend’s behavior, Bucklen quietly left the scene.

Quarter of a century later in 1989, Bucklen and Dylan met again. Bucklen was able to manage a backstage pass of a Dylan concert in Madison and this time brought along his daughters Amy and Jennifer with a faint desire to introduce them, if possible, with his now legendary childhood friend. The experience of his last encounter with Dylan was still fresh in his mind. But when they finally met, the first thing that Dylan did was to apologize for his rude behavior twenty-five years ago. Hugging Bucklin, an exultant Dylan introduced him to his crew members and said, “I’ve known this guy longer than I’ve known anyone.” Citing the anecdote, Howard Sounes wrote in his Dylan biography Down the Highway: “The fact that Bob had held this in his mind for so many years offer a glimpse of his sensitive nature. As other friends would note during his career, if Bob had behaved in an insensitive way he would invariably reproach himself for it for a long time afterward.”

I define nothing

“If you give one magazine an interview, then the other magazine wants an interview... So pretty soon, you’re in the interview business. […] So that’s why I don’t give interviews,” Dylan told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine in 1969. Though Dylan is claimed to be a man who rarely gives interviews, music critic Michael Gray has estimated that throughout his long career Dylan has actually given an average of one interview per month. From the early days of his musical career, Dylan had quickly developed an incredible propensity to manipulate interviews in his own term, controlling every aspects of a conversation with his ruthlessly sharp mind. Over the years he had also mastered the art of ambiguity. “When Dylan gives an interview, usually, nothing is revealed,” remarked David Yaffe observing his unerring ability to make a mockery of the mainstream media. The media which desperately attempted to define and entrap him into a labeled cage became baffled by this inscrutable attitude. Failing to understand him, the clueless journalists targeted Dylan with banal and inane questions but usually revealed nothing out of him. “In his mind,” says Robert Hilburn, who interviewed Dylan several times, “he’s seen himself misused in the press, with people misunderstanding or trying to label and categorize him, so that he’s a little bit suspicious of the whole interview and media process.”

In an April 1962 radio interview with ethnomusicologist Henrietta Yurchenco on WNYC, Dylan refused to give a straight answer to the simple question on how he came to New York: “I can’t tell you because it would involve other people.” For the next half hour, he evaded all the other questions which compelled a frustrated Yurchenco to stop the show. In a cryptic response to host Studs Terkel’s query on a 1963 radio show that the words “hard rain” in his song A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall signifies nuclear rain, Dylan insisted by saying, “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain.” In reply to the question, “Do you sing your own songs or other people’s?” at the 1964 Steve Allen Show, Dylan made just a minimalist comment: “They’re all mine, now.” One of the many remarkable features of Dylan’s conversational style was how he had invigorated his nonconformist and mistrustful attitude with an inimitable kind of wit. At an early press conference, one journalist asked him, “How many protest singers would you say there are today, who use their music, and use the songs to protest the social state in which we live today?” Dylan first pretended not to have understood the question and then snidely replied, “I think there’s about one hundred and thirty-six.” When the journalist insisted on pinning him down to an exact figure, he settled the dispute by saying, “Either that or one hundred and forty-two.” When asked what his real message is after he arrived at Heathrow for his acoustic tour of England in the spring of 1965, Dylan shot back: “Keep a good head and always carry a light-bulb”. D. A. Pennebaker’s compelling documentary Don’t Look Back had captured his ill-tempered outburst during the same tour on Time magazine journalist Horace Judson: “If I want to find out anything I’m not going to read Time magazine. I’m not gonna read Newsweek. I’m not gonna read any of these magazines, I mean, ’cause they just got too much to lose by printing the truth, you know that.”

In the mid-sixties when he had become a major phenomenon on the music scene, particularly after his 1965 Newport appearance, Dylan’s conversation style turned extremely confrontational, unpredictable and allusive. When seasoned journalists tenaciously tried to uncover some sort of “message” in his oeuvre or to dissect the “bigger meaning” of his lyrics, his evasive responses to them were often riddled with incongruous claims, half-truths and sometimes, even blatant lies. “I had no answers to any of those questions,” Dylan explained in the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home recalling his earlier media exchanges. “But it didn’t stop the press from asking them. For some reason they thought performers had the answers to all these problems in society. It’s absurd.” Blurring the truth with witty, nonsensical remarks Dylan made it absolutely clear that it is nearly impossible to crack his guarded self and expose his most deeply rooted beliefs. When asked by Nat Hentoff in the rambling 1966 Playboy interview if he was motivated commercially rather than creatively in writing the kind of songs that made him popular, Dylan lapsed into a long piece of semantic gamesmanship:

Dylan: All right, now, look. It's not all that deep. It's not a complicated thing. My motives, or whatever they are, were never commercial in the money sense of the word. It was more in the don't die-by-the-hacksaw sense of the word. I never did it for money. It happened, and I let it happen to me. There was no reason not to let it happen to me…… It's not that it's so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it's just that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, to be specific and obvious about. My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing. The newer ones are about the same nothing - only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere. But this is all very constipated. I do know what my songs are about.

Playboy: And what's that?

Dylan: Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.

This ludicrous response is pure Dylan, always making a conscious attempt to mystify himself and his art. Hiding behind seemingly serious answers to protect precious parts of his private universe has long been his stock-in-trade. “The only person you have to think about lying twice to is either yourself or to God. The press isn’t either of them. And I just figured they’re irrelevant,” he told Ed Bradley in 2006 explaining starkly why he was especially opposed to the media.

In later years, his earlier suspicious, combative attitude calmed down a lot. To some extent, age seems to have sobered him down and made him complacent. However, his wittiness and proclivity for dispensing brilliant wordplay continued to occupy a major part of his conversations. Interpreting why he is uncomfortable with fame, he told Bradley in the same CBS interview:

“People, they’ll say, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ And you’ll say, ‘I don't know.’ Then, they’ll say, ‘You’re him.’ And you’ll say, ‘OK, you know, that – yes.’ And then, the next thing they’ll say, ‘Well, no, you know? Like are you really him? You’re not him.’ And, you know, that can go on and on.” (Source)

Daniel Kramer, who had photographed Dylan during his most prolific years in the mid-sixties, has described him as a restless man who didn't like to be photographed at all. “He said that photography was a waste of his time and that he didn't want to pose,” Kramer later wrote recalling his shooting experience with Dylan. He reveals that “People are usually eager to place themselves at the disposal of the photographer in order to make the pictures as effective as possible. They want to know how they can be helpful... They are willing to construct artificial situations.” But according to Kramer “Dylan did not do this... Apparently he was not going to do anything especially for the camera.” Why was Dylan uninterested to get photographed? Did he dislike fame? Was it merely a celebrity ploy? Not really. In his autobiography Chronicles he has discussed the subject in detail. In the chapter New Morning he writes, “People think that fame and riches translate into power, that it brings glory and honor and happiness. Maybe it does, but sometimes it doesn’t.” Dylan seems to be quite aware about the potential risks of media overexposure because, “After a while you learn that privacy is something you can sell. But you can’t buy it back.” He had spent a lifetime evading people’s attempt to pry into his private life, keenly protecting his precious solitude from media glare. In 2009, he informed Douglas Brinkley in a densely atmospheric tone: “A person’s solitude is important.”

I got a head full of ideas

The imposing range of Bob Dylan’s creative output, his intellectual appeal and artistic integrity are the key reasons why he is still considered an utterly interesting cultural person to study. From the middle-class Jewish kid of a small Minnesota mining town who idolized and imitated Woody Guthrie, Dylan rapidly prospered into a strikingly intelligent and sensitive artist, continuously inventing and maintaining his persona with pristine precision. Adopting the sensibility of a folk singer and molding himself into the scruffy image of a young idealistic rebel, nineteen-year-old Dylan began his musical journey with traditional materials, adding his own words to melodies derived from folk compositions and singing them with a thin nasal voice at folk clubs and coffee houses of New York’s Greenwich Village. Besides performing, he was also playing harmonica for many of the senior musicians when they performed at Gerde’s Folk City. In fact, he made his first official recording when he played harmonica for Harry Belafonte in Midnight Special. Dylan held Belafonte in high esteem and described him in Chronicles as a “rare type of character that radiates greatness”. The young omnivorous troubadour was also rapidly absorbing musical and political influences, blending conventional and avant-garde techniques with his natural artistic instincts and intuitions. “The only thing I can compare him with is blotting paper,” remarked Irish singer Liam Clancy. “He soaked everything up. He had this immense curiosity; he was totally blank, and ready to soak up everything that was in his range.”

Dylan’s unusual voice has often been criticized for its coarseness. Mitch Jayen, the bluegrass band Dillards bassist, had once described his voice as “very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.” Indeed, Dylan did not have a softer and sweeter-sounding conventional voice that naturally appealed to a mass audience. But no one can deny the definite passion of his multi-layered voice that manages to produce an enchanting character to his music. By altering normal word accents and emphasizing particular syllables, he had developed a distinctive singing style that converted the limitations of his voice to his advantage. Lawrence Epstein has rightly noted in his wonderful blog Dylan Watch that his arresting words would not have had the same impact, “if Dylan had not sung them the way he did.” Like his frequent shifts in musical style and subject matter, the timber of his voice will change several times in the course of his career – another intriguing factor that has largely contributed to inflate Dylan’s mystique.

Young Dylan’s first album Bob Dylan was released in 1962. Toiling under the folk music conventions of the day, he recorded only a couple of original compositions in the album which sold poorly. But with his next album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which contained mostly self-composed numbers, Dylan established himself as an exceptionally talented and creative singer-songwriter in the history of popular music. The visionary and angry edge of this groundbreaking album, particularly the timeless compositions Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters Of War and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, expressed a new social and political consciousness through their rich melody and razor-sharp lyrics. Blowin’ in the Wind was an instant classic. This eloquent song soon crossed the boundaries of his country and entered the consciousness of people all over the world. Reflecting the dynamic cross-currents of the 1960s, the arresting lyrics protested against conformity, social injustice, race prejudice, nuclear arms race and jingoism:

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

(A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall)

It is this newness and complexity of the content, the polemical style and a daring attitude that had instantly captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young middle-class listeners who were increasingly getting distraught by corporatism and the various discontents of a rising consumer society. Mike Marqusee has observed that Dylan demonstrated “how art can be located in its particular moment of origin and at the same time outlive that moment.” Marqusee is also perfectly right in his assumption that Dylan’s emerging political consciousness unlocked his creative potential and sharpened his songwriting skills. (Source) Though some of the memorable songs in this album like Don't Think Twice, It's All Right were emotive and personal, the sudden increase of topical and political subjects in Dylan’s lyrics had surprised the critics who related this startling development with a seventeen years old shy girl, Suze Rotolo, with whom Dylan was romantically involved at that time. Daughter of Italian working-class communists, her first encounter with Dylan was in July 1961 at a Riverside Church folk concert. Remarkably well-read, artistically sophisticate and politically conscious for her age, Rotolo was actively involved with various left-leaning progressive movements and organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and soon introduced Dylan to the Left movement, civil-rights politics and modern poetry. It was through her that Dylan discovered the French symbolist poets, paintings of Cézanne and Picasso, Surrealism and Dada, Brecht and the avant-garde theatre. Her political awareness and artistic commitments make a deep impression on Dylan and inspired many of his songs of social conscience and political awareness. “She’ll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her: ‘Is this right?’ ” Dylan told Robert Shelton, his biographer. “Because I knew her father and mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was.” Rotolo also graced The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover, walking arm in arm with him in an iconic photograph shot by Don Hunstein.

I don't call myself a poet

For the first time Allen Ginsburg heard Masters Of War and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall on his way back to New York from India, and by his own words, “burst into tears”. The leading poet of the Beat Generation was struck by a feeling that “the torch had been passed to another generation from earlier Beat illumination and self-empowerment.” Ginsberg and Dylan forged a close friendship from the day the two met in late 1963 at a Greenwich Village bookstore, each converging and influencing the other’s creative inputs. “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture,” observed Graham Caveney in his book Screaming with Joy, “Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.” Their deeply respectful relation lasted until the day Ginsberg died in April 1997 at the age of seventy. The same night Dylan dedicated a concert performance of Desolation Row to Ginsberg, informing the audience that the song was Allen’s favorite.

Dylan had been exposed to the new literary voice of Beat writings even before he arrived at New York. In 1959 he enrolled at the University of Minnesota after high school graduation and soon started frequenting Dinkytown – a bohemian neighborhood adjacent to the University. During his Dinkytown days he befriended real beatniks like the Beat poet David Whitaker. Whitaker lent him Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory and also introduced him with the writings of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and the rest of the Beat Generation. Profoundly inspired by their spoken idiomatic vernacular, actual American English, he later told Ginsberg that Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues “was the first poetry that spoke to me in my language and I could understand it, and it also made rhythmic sense to me, an American language.” His connection with the Beat writers in his early years became a crucial influence for the development of his songwriting. Like the Beats, he also became heavily influenced by the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake. Over the years, the free-flowing, improvisational form of Beat writing and the distinctive Beat style of arranging a random collocation of apparently disconnected images surfaced in Dylan’s lyrics.

Just before The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released, Dylan’s radical image got a big boost when he walked off the set of The Ed Sullivan Show after the CBS censors refused to allow him play Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues – a scathing satirical attack on communist paranoia and the right-wing John Birch Society. For any aspiring musician, appearing on this Show was like a dream come true since it was the highest-rated variety show at that time watched by millions of people all over America. It was indeed a courageous act of Dylan, still an obscure folk singer largely unknown to the national audience, to turn down the censors and leave the studio even when they had suggested him to play a different song. The incidence helped to establish Dylan's public reputation as an artist of uncompromising integrity. “To Dylan, morality is often about holding firm to personal principals,” recalling the incidence Douglas Brinkley wrote in Rolling Stone. “From that moment onward, Dylan would only play by his rules. His spine stiffened.”

However, it was in 1964 after the release of his next album The Times They Are A-Changin’ that Dylan attained his iconic status of a de facto spokesperson of his generation. The title track was hailed as an anthem, though later Dylan had typically refuted the interpretation and remarked “I didn't mean The Times They Are A-Changin’ as a statement... It's a feeling.” The socially oriented persuasive songs like Ballad of Hollis Brown, North Country Blues, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll or Only a Pawn in Their Game took contemporary, real life stories as their subject matter and addressed to the socio-political problems with an overt political tone. Only a Pawn in Their Game was based on a front-page article published in the Leftist weekly, The National Guardian. Observing the song’s striking political message “that the murder of Medgar Evers was determined by a culture where the ideology of white supremacy manipulated poor white Southerners into foregoing their own economic interests,” Prof. Gerald Meyer has estimated this composition as “the single most Marxist song composed in the United States.” (Source) Dylan’s diatribe against an American society epitomized by its material wealth, privilege and power marked a new direction in modern songwriting and also helped to strengthen the political impact of the issues he was dealing through his focused songs. The sixties’ rebellion was rapidly spreading across America and his songs became a symbol of its fears, hopes and dreams. The Times They Are A-Changin’ established him firmly as a passionate singer who was capable of articulating the agony and ecstasy of his time. (To be continued…)

(Go to Part Two / Part Three)

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