When people tell me they can’t stand Dylan, I get it. Really I do. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea.1
(I know women – white, black,2 of diverse age – who love Dylan, man and music. None qualify as twenty-four carat Geeks for Bob though. You must be white, male, middle class and a baby boomer to be even in the running.)
But when someone assures me Dylan is a mediocrity I know I’m in the presence of a philistine, a person who for one reason or another lacks objectivity. The truth, like it or not, is that the man is a colossus of postwar Western culture. Few figures – Beethoven, Wagner, Miles Davis and the Beatles spring to mind – can be said to have changed, radically, the direction of music outside of their specific genres. Dylan did. And not just the once.
I don’t always like Beethoven. Unlike Mozart he doesn’t always know when to wrap things up and move on. (Or does but can’t help himself.) Try the Pastoral’s third movement, a promising toon descending to a droning, groove-stuck waltz. But should you catch me saying Beethoven is ‘crap’ or ‘overrated’, know that you too are in the presence of a philistine.
It won’t happen though. And not just because I can forgive anything of a man who, on hearing that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor, had to be physically restrained from hurling the MS for Symphony 3 on the fire. It also won’t happen because even if I didn’t massively enjoy much of his work, Pastoral included, I’d bow to a titan who simultaneously changed the terms on which music is created and consumed, as would Dylan and Fab Four, while shifting ‘serious’ music from classical to romantic, as did Coleridge et al in the arena of poetry.
Talking of poetry, here’s someone who, unforgivably for one of her intellect and calling, throws objectivity to the wind in a bile skewed rant – there’s a subtle clue in the multiple use of ‘creep’ – on Bob Dylan’s meagre talents.
Greer wrote this in 2008. The context being that, not three months earlier, Dylan had scooped a Pulitzer for “profound impact on popular music and on American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.
I bet that had her choking on her possum pie. Imagine her spleen when the creep snatched the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. Especially a creep who delayed his acceptance speech – echoes of that Isle of Wight gig3 – to the eleventh hour. Nobel winners must give an acceptance speech within six months of nomination. Freewheelin’ Bob pushed it predictably close to the wire but, equally predictably, the speech when finally it came was a master class in eloquence.
Leaving aside the unlikely claim that her hippie Lit students wanted her to teach Dylan rather than – as opposed to as well as – Donne and Yeats, Greer’s argument is flawed. For one thing, other than a facetious couplet I’ll return to in a moment, Dylan – a bluesman beyond compare – never to my knowledge made the claim that he is a poet.4
Second, insofar as Greer’s dismissal of his status as a poet has merit, it is from a narrowly technical standpoint. Yes, by most understandings of what poetry is, he is surpassed by that other rock icon, Leonard Cohen. Yet Cohen was an admirer not only of his friend and rival’s compositions but the glittering wordplay of rapsters like Eminem. This from Stan:
Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain’t callin’
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em
There probably was a problem at the post office or somethin’
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot ’em
But anyways, fuck it, what’s been up man? How’ s your daughter? My girlfriend’s pregnant too, I’m ’bout to be a father …
For the above to work its magic we have to experience the delivery. The singer’s a misogynistic fan, risingly incandescent at his idol Slim’s failure to write back. The words are underscored by bass’n boom, and interwoven with the melodic despair of Dido as the sorely put upon mother to be. If a watery grave doesn’t get her first.
Eminem’s lyrics are supposed to be heard.
Dylan’s too. Which leads us to Greer’s third error. Even from her narrow perspective she errs in dismissing him as a lyricist. The origins of lyricism are inseparable from music, as she is surely aware. Today the paths of songwriter and poet, though occasionally crossing, have diverged. It is possible to be a great songwriter, as Dylan assuredly is, but a mediocre poet. And vice versa. To divorce words from music as she does with Visions of Johanna, the song she singles out for ridicule, is akin to stripping the meter from Coleridge, chopping those magnificent ballads into arbitrary chunks that mangle the music of the word, silence its primal call and drain it of nine-tenths of the meaning:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.
For her part, Greer runs with the final verse of Visions of Joanna:
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.
Viewed like this, out of context, she has a point. That Dylanesque tendency to stack image on outlandish image often drew accusations of pretentiousness and rank bad rhyming. It is most pronounced in the three albums5 – Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde – that followed his ‘Judas’ shift from folk to rock, and preceded the second ‘betrayal’ – there’d be more – of Nashville Skyline’s dalliance with C & W.
My response to such charges being that:
Visions of Johanna featured on Blonde on Blonde, a 1966 album held by many to mark the launch of acid rock. Listen to the song in its mesmerising full, and you’ll see why.
Forty-two years separate 2008 from 1966. To put this in perspective, John Keats died at twenty-five. Did Greer suppose Dylan had done no more than tread water since Visions of Joanna, written four years after Freewheelin’, his second album, made him famous? That she chose a song so far back, to make generalisations about an artist whose career by 2008 already spanned close to half a century, bespeaks ignorance, malice or both.
Visions of Johanna contains lines of rare eloquence and beauty:
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But mixing phrases of searing resonance with dross thrown in to make a verse scan was something of a habit with the young Dylan.6 The lines that follow are a case in point:
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
Visions of Johanna does not start with “April is the cruellest month”. As one respondent to Greer’s literalistic hatchet job cuttingly asked, how can a month be cruel?
The issue of doggerel is of doubtful relevance when a song’s meter is driven as much by the music, and in Dylan’s case unpredictable phrasing, as by the word forms. Visions of J, like most of its author’s vast canon, is meant to be heard and seen, not dissected in the Guardian. Ezra Pound, a fine critic when taking time out from cheering on fascism, made the points that poetry loses its way when too far from music, and music loses its way when too far from dance. Bob the chameleon – here the troubador, there the stone faced man in the long black coat; here the scourge, there the romanticist of the American Dream – is also Bob the song and dance man.7
But what does the song and dance man have to say on the question? This, from a talking blues on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964):
Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it.
Hope I don’t blow it.
In fact when you really get down to it, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what’s irking Greer is this. While Female Eunuch – indisputably a landmark text – gathers dust on the shelves of the earnest but ageing, Blowin’ in the Wind, Times They are a-Changing, I Shall be Released, Mr Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone and scores of others of equal stature or greater continue to enthrall new audiences: some as anthems ringing down the decades to fire the spirit; others bearing quieter truths to those thirsting after authenticity in consumerland’s vast, arid spaces.
And offered me a pipe
I thought you’d never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue.
Milestones have their moment, Germaine. But greatness? That’s timeless.
With the question – is Bob a bard? – settled by his claim that he knows it and hopes he don’t blows it, I’ll turn to one more pressing. Is Bob homicidal?
This from Romance in Durango on the 1976 album, Desire:
Hoofbeats like castanets on stone.
At night I dream of bells in the village steeple
Then I see the bloody face of Ramon.
Was it my hand that held the gun?
Come, let us fly, my Magdalena
The dogs are barking and what’s done is done
Well, you say, a dream is just a dream, and Bob’s been sharing his since the Cuba Missile Crisis. What about this though, from the gorgeous Spirit on the Water on Modern Times (2006)?
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there.
Case closed, bar the forensics. Dudes and sheilas, I give you Bob Dylan: one killer of a poet.
* * *
- I offer a glimpse as to why Dylan has for more than half a century, man and boy, been my cup of tea in a short post on the fiftieth anniversary of Highway 61 Revisited.
- Nina Simone adored Dylan.
- I’d have been pissed off too – and know folk who did go and were – but, to be fair, IoW was his first public appearance since breaking his neck on a motorbike.
- As a matter of fact one aspect of this enigmatic man is how rarely he makes claims for himself. Some call this evasive, pretentious and/or calculated to fuel Cult Bob. I think that wide of the mark. This is a man who, more than most in his position, recognises and has spent a lifetime negotiating the restrictions and absurdities of fame.
- For all their flaws these three albums still stand with the greatest of his output. They also showcase Dylan the courageous innovator. If rock’s graduation – from ‘I love you, woo-bop-a-loo’ to willingness to address every aspect of the human experience – can be traced to any one individual, that individual is surely Bob Dylan. Last but not least his refusal to stand still, his willingness to take huge dialectical leaps at no small risk to his career, mark him as a true artist.
- That great balladeer, Bruce Springsteen, is not above doing similar. In his Steinbeck inspired Ghost of Tom Joad he follows the cliched “sleeping on a pillow of solid rock” with a sparkling “bathing in the city aqueduct”. In rock at least, such juxtapositions are allowed, desirable even for a balance of fading and fresh, redundant and entropic.
- I only once saw Dylan live, in the seventies at Earls Court. Watching Martin Scorcese’s 2019 film, Rolling Thunder Revue – it’s on Netflix – I was struck by the way songs, many from the album Desire, I’d regarded as good but a long way short of his best, became so much more when delivered with the near fanatical commitment he gave on that long and financially bleeding tour.