Sunday, July 3, 2011

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

In 1968, Dylan came out from his eighteen-month long self-imposed exile, once more picked up his acoustic guitar and recorded John Wesley Harding, a soft, somber acoustic album very different from the surrealistic verbosity and flashy musical arrangements of Blonde and Blonde. Unlike the apparently impromptu manner in which he wrote the lyrics of his previous album, every song of the new album was written with more care and completed before he went for recording. The world he described in the songs, as Mike Marqusee has drawn our attention to, is loaded with connotative characters: the immigrants, drifters, outlaws, hobos, greedy landlords, hateful figures of unentitled authority, saints, martyrs, the rich and the poor. Though sounded simple and rustic, the narrative songs are in fact ingrained deep into elemental social themes, revealing several intertwined layers of subtle political message which went almost undetected to the listeners. During the sparkling 1968 Sing Out! interview, John Cohen asked him why his songs aren’t as socially or politically applicable as they were earlier. Absolutely conscious and confident about his intention, Dylan gave a categorical reply to the question and said: “Probably that is because no one cares to see it the way I’m seeing it now, whereas before, I saw it the way they saw it.”

In one of the songs of this album All Along The Watchtower, Dylan was at his enigmatic best. The haunting twelve lines song unfolds “the cycle of events,” as Dylan puts it, “in a rather reverse order” but masterly evokes the frightening air of a desolated wasteland. It also conveys an apocalyptic warning through the brilliant juxtaposition of biblical imageries – the two approaching horsemen signaling the destruction of Babylon, the growling wild cat and the howling wind as the portents of doom. Although Dylan was increasingly unwilling to express his opinion or take a stand on the war of Vietnam that took two million lives, All Along The Watchtower infuses within the listener a daunting feeling of an impending catastrophe, obliquely referring to the extensive calamities happening in Vietnam. Commenting on the starkness and simplicity of the album and its black & white cover photograph, critic Andy Gill wrote in his book My Back Pages: Classic Bob Dylan 1962–69 that, “a rural breeze whispered through its lonely margins”. In the photograph Dylan posed significantly with Bengali baul minstrels Purna Das and Lakshman Das – his only Indian connection we know so far. The baul brothers were on a six month America tour sponsored by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and his wife Sally, staying with them as their house guests.

It’s easy to criticize

It took some time for the academia to recognize the aesthetic excellence of Dylan’s works. The so-called guardians of high culture were more concerned to protect and nourish the refined and classical forms of art than the unrefined and avant-garde forms growing popular with the masses. The form of popular music came under serious consideration of the academics after postmodernism emerged as a new intellectual outlook which attempted to pluralize the notion of culture by cracking the synthetic divide between the mass and the elite. Literary critics, academics and scholars started to study Dylan’s lyrics and were fascinated by its enormous literary value, the richness of his metaphorical language and his acerbic method of interpreting the sanity and rottenness in society. While his songs were subjected to intense analysis, the studies were usually dominated by a literary approach overstressing on the semantic meaning of the lyrics above the musical qualities of his sensual and intimate songs.

In June 1970, the messiah of counterculture was finally co-opted by the academic establishment. The Princeton University honored Dylan, a college dropout who has just turned 30, with a Doctorate of Music – the first such honor given to a popular musician. Though he had credible reasons to accept the degree which “spelled respectability from every look and touch and scent of it,” his wife Sara and friend David Crosby had to take lots of effort to convince a hesitant Dylan to attend the ceremony. The main reason for him to accept the honor was to undermine the burden of his counter cultural credibility which was taking too much out of his life. Extremely uncomfortable in the ceremonial cap and gown which he initially refused to wear, Dylan climbed the ceremony dais on a hot day with the droning din of cicadas in the background and was introduced as “…one of the most creative popular musicians of the last decade.” Much to his dismay, the commencement speaker then went on describing him with the same words he deeply loathed, “…though he is approaching the perilous age of thirty, he remains the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America.” Over thirty years later Dylan wrote in Chronicles that the introduction came “like a jolt” to him and he felt like getting “tricked once more”. In Day of the Locust, a song he wrote shortly about the occasion, Dylan described that the venue “smelled like a tomb” and he was “glad to get out of there alive”.

Serious studies, densely written books and scholarly articles on Dylan began to appear in the late 60’s. However, the greater part of the works has emerged from outside of the boundaries of academic circles. A particular amateur school of scholarship emerged in the form of “Dylanology” – a term coined by a madcap Dylan fanatic A. J. Weberman. Weberman was also the self-proclaimed father of “garbology,” the study of human personality through the analysis of garbage. Unsuccessful to detect “what went down behind the door that Dylan had slammed in my face,” while he was “trying to crack the code of his symbolism,” Weberman shifted his center of attention on Dylan’s garbage can. The first valuable discovery in his quest for truth was “a half-finished letter written by Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash.” To unlock more secrets of Dylan’s life, he then went on digging out other “valuable” materials from the trash can – disposable diapers, supermarket receipts, fragments of fan letters, ripped rock-and-roll magazines including an issue of Crawdaddy! containing Weberman’s recently written article, vet bills relating to treatment of Dylan’s dog Sasha’s upset stomach, discarded Polaroid negatives and a card from Dylan's mother wishing a happy birthday to one of his kids.

Weberman also led a group of pot smoking Yippies and started the "Dylan Liberation Front". The aim of the front was to remind Dylan about his “refusal at that time to perform at political benefit concerts, the lack of social commitment in his song lyrics and the fact that he owned stock in companies that produced weapons used in Vietnam.” Clearly troubled by the full-scale anarchy launched by the notorious group, Dylan finally lost his patience. “A.J., you go through garbage like a pig, man?” he furiously told Weberman and threatened him to “kick his ass personally” if he did it again. But Weberman could not resist the temptation to carry on his bizarre scientific research and continued to sneak around in the alleys behind Dylan’s house. What happened next is depicted in Weberman’s book My Life in Garbology. In an absolutely hilarious account he recalls being encountered by Dylan on Elizabeth Street in the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan:

That afternoon I was walking down Elizabeth Street with my head bowed down to my shoes trying to figure out where I was really at, when I heard a bicycle stop a few feet in back of me. I thought nothing of it. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an arm clasped around my neck. I wrenched it loose, turned around and saw it was Bob Dylan, my former idol, the man who'd written all the symbolist poetry I meticulously studied. My thoughts were interrupted by a punch in the head. Could this actually be happening or was it a bad dream? Perhaps it was a combination of both. I didn't fight back. Instead I tried to calm Dylan down and block his punches. But he was having too much fun to stop. He threw me down on the ground and he began to knock my head against the pavement. Finally some local freaks pulled Dylan off.

Thinking that Weberman had been robbed, a local who witnessed the entire episode asked him, “Did he get much money?” Weberman replied feverishly, “Man, that’s was BOB DYLAN, he doesn’t have to roll hippies on the Bowery!” He took the physical assault as an honor and later proudly told Rolling Stone, “Not too many have that opportunity to have Bob Dylan on top of them.”

However, the later day Dylanologists does not seem to be as crackbrained as Weberman and his gang. Many of them turned out to be serious researchers, closely studying Dylan’s life and works, discovering and collecting rarely known facts, analyzing his lyrics and organizing and publishing recording session data. Ian Macdonald wrote in Uncut: “Over the years Dylanologists have hypothesized about their subject at greater length, in more detail, and often in keener intelligence than anything accorded to comparably prolific figures in rock. Dylanology is a Class A obsession: no other life in the music business attracts, or so cryptically rewards, such breathless attention.”

Am I here all alone?

The notion of alienation has remained a major theme for Dylan, but was represented in his works in a multifaceted and rather complex way. The concept of alienation is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought which says that man has alienated himself from “the ways of God”, leading to the “Fall of Man”. Modern secular ideologies and social-political theories of the western world, including liberalism and socialism, trace their lineage back to this Judeo-Christian teaching. However, in the modern social theories from Rousseau to Marx, the concept has been construed as the estrangement of human beings from the physical world and their own human nature. Modern capitalism has also formulated a particular kind of social relation between the human productive forces and the owners of the labour process. By reducing everything including the labour power of individuals into commodities, capitalist relations of production have imposed the most extreme form of alienation and have given rise to a profound sense of emptiness, anxiety, powerlessness and insecurity among individuals.

There is always an unremitting bleakness in Dylan’s inspection and assessment of the modern world though he has also reflected the prospect of transforming it into a better one. His view on alienation is nowhere better expressed than in It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). Drawing on one of the classic themes of alienation, commoditization of human society, Dylan inspects in this song how human beings become alienated under the steamroller of consumer capitalism. Professor Andrew Gamble of the University of Sheffield has observed some distinct recurring patterns in the songs where Dylan has treated emptiness and defenselessness as a major symptom of political and social alienation. “Dylan has written and performed many different kinds of song,” he argues, “one of the most important of which is the distinction between what might be called songs of redemption and songs of survival. Songs of redemption reflect a committed gaze and their primary motif is change, the possibility of transforming the world and human beings, while songs of survival reflect a skeptical gaze, a much bleaker assessment of the world, and their primary motif is escape.”

But I know God is my shield

In the early compositions Dylan has frequently drawn language and imagery from the Bible, though his basic intention at that stage was to adopt elements from a wide range of sources to enrich his own works. The biblical parables and motifs were harmoniously blended with both personal and social experiences to rationalize his anger and criticism against the religious peculiarities and values of Christian America. To indict the existing political order, Dylan was intelligent enough to use orthodox religious motifs and literary allusions from the Bible instead of directly sourcing inspiration from standard radical texts. Religion “does give me, on the surface, some images,” Dylan had clarified in a 1974 interview, “but I don’t know to what degree.” However, it will be wrong to assume that all of Dylan’s writings were always purposely constructed to express his worldview. Like any other creative work of art, many of Dylan’s songs were indistinct which could awfully mislead his audiences who seek for a profound meaning from them.

There are plenty of instances where the early Dylan had been found making intense remarks concerning religion. “I have no religion. Tried a bunch of different religions. Churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds neither can I,” he told Izzy Young in 1961. Instead, as Robert Shelton had observed, Dylan seems to have made his own religion preaching “a sermon of anger, protest, nihilism, hope, anti-convention.” In 1965, he told Ray Coleman, “I don’t think religion can show anybody how to live.” In the same year he told Mary Merrifield that he finds certain features of organised religion as deceitful: “The phoniness of telling somebody they’re different for you because they’re a different religion. That’s not right.” The early Dylan was particularly skeptical regarding organized religion. In the anti-war song With God on Our Side, he critically spoke about an evil nexus between the Church and the State, revealing how religion is used by the American State to rationalize its policies. In the specific socio-political context in which the songs have appeared, this courageous attitude towards religion and faith was certainly progressive and secular.

Typically reticent about his personal past, for a long time he had avoided speaking on his Jewish upbringing in public. “I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish. I don’t have much of a Jewish background,” Dylan told Ron Rosenbaum in March 1966. “I’m not a patriot to any creed. I believe in all of them and none of them…” In the same Playboy interview he had also explained why he does not need to think much about God: “He’s got enough people asking Him for favors. He’s got enough people asking Him to pull strings. I’ll pull my own strings…”

During the mid and late-1960s, Dylan continued to examine the dialects of faith. References to biblical characters frequented his lyrics. “His biblical characters, like mythical stand-ins for the singer’s own alienation, are also outliers,” observed R. Clifton Spargo and Anne K. Ream in their excellent analysis on Dylan and religion. “Many of the metaphors have been secularized,” the authors pointed out, “as Dylan infuses erotic love with the passion of Christ, but the energy of such songs is borrowed from the motion and fluidity of gospel, which had poured for years from America’s faith-haunted hills and its valleys of suffering.”

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

Dylan’s secular convictions took an unexpected twist in the late 1970s, when he embraced evangelical Christianity and released his first album of gospel music Slow Train Coming. At that point he was clearly not in the best of mental health following his painful divorce and the terrible failure of Renaldo and Clara, a four-hour long film he had written, produced and directed. To recover the $1.25 million he lost on the film, Dylan took on a world tour and performed in one hundred and fourteen shows covering Japan, far East, Europe, Australia and United States. The tiring tour, enduring domestic pressures from his broken marriage and too much alcohol and drugs began to take toll on his life. In an attempt to overcome the gloom and isolation he was feeling inside, he seems to have found a savior in Jesus Christ.

The opening song Gotta Serve Somebody won him a Grammy and Dylan went on preaching evangelical messages from the Book of Revelation in two more Gospel albums Saved and Shot of Love. Carrying his new-found belief to the point of rectitude, Dylan, now fascinated by Jesus Christ and his Jewish linkage, suggested that social and political ills are nothing but symptoms of a deeper spiritual crisis. This is in complete contrast to what he had expressed just a few years earlier in It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) where he made a blistering criticism of religion in the era of capitalism. “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred,” he wrote bitterly to affirm how religion has been reduced to just another commodity that produces “plastic Christs” and delivers “fake moral” directives.

Dylan’s peregrination into Christianity remains one of the most provocative and controversial periods of his musical career. Though he had long stopped saying what some of his admirers and followers wanted him to say, the radical departure into exclusively religious songs came to them as a shock – a final betrayal of trust. Annoyed by his outspoken religiosity, critics phrased him “a born-again Christian”. Expressing grief over Dylan’s dalliance with religious fundamentalism, Mike Marqusee wrote acidly, “The prophet of freedom had surrendered to dogma and dour fatalism.”

Clifton Spargo and Anne Ream have noted that “But even without the rebirth of 1979, Jewish and Christian idioms persist in his work to such a degree that Dylan would have to be reckoned one of the most powerful interpreters of religious language and sensibility in all of American pop culture.” Citing Robert Shelton the authors have also argued that Slow Train Coming has been undervalued largely because of the controversy following Dylan’s decision to become a “Jesus follower” despite the fact that the songs “moves effortlessly between the personal and the political, as Dylan comments on the state of the nation while weighing in on the erroneous ways of modern Americans.”

The songs from his gospel years were directly connected with Christian ritual. As fellow musicians have later recalled that he had even turned his concerts into Christian services by making his entire band and crew spend time in prayer before each show. His “Jesus music” was loudly abused and booed by the audiences. When some of them heatedly walked out of the show, a visibly shaken Dylan tried to channel his new-found faith to them: “I told you the times they are a-changin’ and they did. I said the answer was blowin’ in the wind and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation.” While the lyrics of Slow Train Coming draw heavily on biblical texts to stimulate Dylan’s poetic vision, in the next album Saved he made a concerted effort to refer the Bible as the quintessence of faith. Biblical themes are still present in Shot of Love, the third and final album of his Christian period. The songs of this album, however, also offered secular material and is more personal and spontaneous in nature than the previous two.

Democracy don't rule the world

Fortunately for his admirers, his flirtations with religion ended abruptly. Discharging his disillusionment about religion, Dylan told Martin Killer in provocative words: “Religion is a dirty word. It doesn’t mean anything. Coca Cola is a religion. Oil and steel are a religion. In the name of religion people have been raped, killed and defiled. Today’s religion is tomorrow’s bondage.” After a temporary sojourn, he returned to secular subjects in his 1983 release Infidels, focusing on some of the thorny geopolitical themes of a cacophonous and vacuous postmodern world. While the songs of this album definitely lacks the enduring significance of his earlier topical classics or an identifiable political focus, Infidels brings an angry, inquiring Dylan back to his audience who intensely desired to get their “real” Dylan back. “I don’t know if that (subject) appeals to people or not,” Dylan tells Robert Hilburn of Los Angeles Times, “but I felt I had to do these songs now.”

The kaleidoscopic opening track Jokerman stands out for its sublime lyrics. “Freedom just around the corner for you / But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?” In License To Kill, mankind is accused for their imperialistic greed, particularly for their self-destructive obsession for power and predilection for violence. The prophetic and explicitly anti-capitalist Union Sundown gives a superb depiction of ravenous American capitalism:

You know, capitalism is above the law
It say, "It don't count less it sells."
When it costs too much to build it at home
You just build it cheaper someplace else

Next comes a harsh repugnance against globalization:

Democracy don't rule the world
You'd better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid

In an interview with David Gates in Newsweek, Dylan explains his restlessness, “I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else. I don't know who I am most of the time. It doesn't even matter to me.” He continues further, “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. […] I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

According to literary critic and scholar Christopher Ricks, Time Out of Mind was “like Lazarus risen from the dead.” The songs, as one critic has observed, is “full of regret, lamentation, sadness, and the inevitable approach of death.” The bleak songs, Dylan told in a 1997 interview, are “more concerned with the dread realities of life than the bright and rosy idealism popular today.” Time Out of Mind is arguably one of his best albums after the 1975 release Blood On The Tracks. While, according to his own admission, songs don’t come to him easily anymore, he remains to be a prolific songwriter who can fluently express himself in the superb single Things Have Changed which he wrote in 2001 for the film Wonder Boys. Commenting on the lyrics Joel Selvin writes: “It’s classic Dylan – acerbic, cryptic, truthful. The snarl of his youth has given way to a distracted ennui. He is a man disconnected from his own emotions, watching his own life pass by, but still feeling hunger and wondering what happened.”

No one in front of me and nothing behind

On May 2011, Bob Dylan has turned seventy. In April 1997, Allen Ginsberg died of a heart attack at the age of 70 in New York City. The same night at a show in Canada, Dylan dedicated Desolation Row to Ginsberg. Many of his close friends, associates and rivals like Albert Grossman, Phil Ochs, Mike Bloomfield, George Harrison, Dave Van Ronk, Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia with whom he had walked his spectacular journey have also died. On February 2011, Suze Rotolo died of lung cancer in her Manhattan home at the age of 67. Just before the release of his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, Dylan himself became seriously ill from a heart infection. “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon,” he quipped characteristically after recovering from his illness.

Dylan has long left behind his supernova years. The particular era he represented has also receded from the public mind and is recalled and idealized now by nostalgia. The range and dexterity of his young voice has dissipated and became scratchy due to age. Though he remained controversial all his life, his contradictions, antics and incongruities could not cause any harm to his world-wide reputation as one of the most influential artists of the past century. On the contrary, unlike many popular artists who have faded with time, Dylan has retained his audience and determination and has achieved a mythical status in the world of popular music. His five decades long riveting musical journey is still in motion. He can still evoke a deep emotional response from his audiences.

Being fully aware that, “People are fickle. Their loyalty can turn at the drop of a hat,” he has certainly mastered the essential skills he needed to survive as a popular artist and deal with fame. He has survived the changing music tastes by continuously reinvented himself and has found a new generation of avid listeners. Hundreds of books have been written about him, thousands of articles about his life and works are mushrooming almost daily. The ever-expanding internet sites are flooded with every bit and piece of Dylan information. Academic courses and conferences are arranged regularly by reputed institutions where eminent scholars, fascinated by his abiding contribution to popular culture, keep themselves busy dissecting his vast repertoire of impressively diverse, elusive yet powerful lyrics. However, he still remains deeply disturbed and frustrated for being misunderstood by critics. He laments about the lack of good critics who can understand the dynamic fundamentalism of popular music.

However, Dylan is far less concerned with nostalgia. Instead, he is notorious for upsetting his admirers by twisting the iconic songs, bewildering them by transforming their lyrics and melodies into strange new creations during the live shows. When in 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, Dylan was seen sitting motionless on stage, yawning and “showed no reaction as a university choir performed a version of his early classic Blowin’ in the Wind.” He continues to remain obscure in public saying little about his music and absolutely nothing about his personal life.

“Changing pace and location,” Douglas Brinkley remarked in the Rolling Stone article Bob Dylan’s America, “are essential to his survival as an artist.” Touring nonstop since 1988, Dylan has tirelessly played over a hundred shows a year and has performed at more than two thousand concerts all around the globe on a Never Ending Tour.

In Things Have Changed he fascinatingly wrote:

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

Dylan continues to fight back against anything that devalues the spirit of the individual and is critical about the postmodern generation. “It’s a shame to see them so tuned out to real life,” he has bitterly remarked to Douglas Brinkley in 2009. A worried man with a worried mind, he finds that the generation does not understand the cost of liberty. Throughout his life, individual liberty was what mattered to him most. (Concluded)

(Go to Part One / Part Two)

1. Bob Dylan: Lyrics (1962-2001)
2. Bob Dylan: Chronicles (Vol: One)
3. David Boucher, Gary Browning (ed.): The Political Art of Bob Dylan
4. Howard Sounes: Down the Highway – The Life of Bob Dylan
5. Jonathan Cott (ed.): Dylan on Dylan – The Essential Interviews
6. Kevin J. H. Dettmar (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan
7. Mike Marqusee: Chimes of Freedom
8. Peter Doggett: There’s A Riot Going On

The blogger expresses his deep gratitude to Rolling Stone, Mojo and Uncut; Lawrence J. Epstein’s Dylan Watch on The Best American Poetry blog and several articles on Dylan available on the Internet.

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