WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SPEAK OF DYLAN
by Norman Warwick
What people mean when they speak of Dylan can be as difficult to decipher as are his own lyrics. Usually what is said about him, or even to him, is agendised: Questions are cleverly phrased so as to try to draw out not the answer Dylan might want to give at the time of asking but rather to tease out an answer the questioner wants to here, so that it can be re-interpreted to support their own theories or seem to endorse a particular attitude.
Even we at Sidetracks & Detours who have compiled this week´s features on his latest album Rough And Rowdy Ways, and particular especially the track Murder Most Foul and the plethora of artists it mentions, seem to rarely agree when we speak of Dylan.
Our jazz correspondent, Steve Bewick, said in an e mail response, when I asked him his thoughts on the album and what kind of coverage we should give it, that he ´thought ít might be just name checking and show that Dylan knew little about jazz. I wouldn´t have expected jazz to be his scene, but it does not have to be.
A review on BBC Radio 4 was very up-beat about the album, comparing it with Blood on the tracks and calling it ´A Dylan Retrospective On His Seventy Years An American´. It sounds very interesting. There are a few cover versions of Dylan pieces we could tap into from the jazz world´.
Michael Higgins, another regular contributor to our pages, said ´I have to I think Dylan has always hovered between the question and the answer and has never really stuck his neck out. He never sang about the Vietnam War – unlike Donovan, Lennon etc – He revelled in the diabolically complex, the diabolic enigma, unlike Blake, the imaginative and heterodox rebel birth, of The Great Imagination, who sang the dependency of Good with Evil or as his books proclaimed: Innocence and Experience.
Blake (1757-1827) is either 18th or 19th century depending on your point of view. And yes I am a very great reader and reciter of Blake. I have my own tune for ‘Jerusalem’(from my Yorkville days before I heard Parry’s tune) and lament that Blake’s own and his other melodies to which he sang his songs have all been lost. But I only write this knowing you and I have differed on Dylan and Donovan in the past, so I have form and beg forgiveness.
I have been casting my mind back to Bob Zimmerman alias Dylan – his supposed adoption of the Dylan surname through his love for the Matt Dillon of the TV Series Gunsmoke and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He was not to realise that Dylan is pronounced ‘DUH-lan of course but then again he is from Duluth whose first syllable is pronounced almost the same way as Dylan. Dylan Thomas’s first name is that of the sea god of Welsh mythology.
When I used to haunt Sam the Record Man and AA Records next door during my Toronto Yorkville days I was struck how Bob Dylan’s album sleeve lyrics, and his song lyrics often used the repeated rhyme sequence of the Norman medieval poets- repeated rhymes over many lines- something avoided by modern poets as repetitive crudeness. Early medieval poets might string many consecutive lines of a verse all with the same rhyme in much the same way. They also used assonance to intertwine with the rhyme at a time that rhyme was replacing the old Germanic alliterative verse.
I recall Bob’s reworking of Mr Penny’s Farm (Maggie’s Farm) and Something happening Mr Jones which I found very intriguing indeed. I believe it put the wind up Brian Jones (my favourite Stone) who thought it was about him. Bob’s music was on at my commune all the time, along with Jefferson Airplane and all the current LPs that I could never afford. The music was occasionally broken by violent rows of the Acid dealers in the basement but they were not in the room where I had use of a typewriter. And the jolly Marijuana dealer lived in an upstairs room- he played all the best music. But I felt Donovan had just the right voice for his ballads of the little things of life- half fairytale (the title of one of his albums) and half nursery rhyme- longing. He is the only singer of the time to mention female auto-eroticism. And possibly the last for all I know. Those were pulsating times as you say.´
Two different responses there, even from like-minded friends, but neither as wonderfully unequivocal as Steve Earle´s assertion (left). I can´t honestly say I am being objective but because I knew Townes quite well for several years, and because I have always thought his songs are the saddest and/or the pretties ever written, but I´m with Steve Earle on that one. That little phrase and/or is the clue to a quality in Van Zandt´s work that I cannot quite define. Steve Earle, though, is the writer of a sackful of great songs like Copperhead Road and Guitar Town, and is certainly a better judge than I, and yet he seems to agree with me ! Maybe even Dylan himself would agree with that and/or cop-out because as he once observed, ´behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.´
We borrow and insert a reproduction of how Townes himself responded to big-up from Steve Earle.
Some only think of Dylan as a singer writer, but Charlie Daniels is up there on You Tube speaking about Dylan the human being. He talks of playing on Nashville Skyline, joining the sessions as a stand in player for a no-show session man. Daniels says Dylan uttered nine words afterwards that changed his life for ever. Speaking at the close of the session to the studio manager Dylan said, ´I don´t want another guitar player. I want him. (Daniels)´.
Charlie Daniels goes on to talk about Dylan´s generosity of ensuring the names of session players were printed on prominently on his album sleeves, and remembers, too, that fans and reviewers paid more attention to Dylan´s album covers than those of any other artist. Daniels reckons that being included in those credits changed his life. Readers will remember that Daniels later followed when ´the devil went down to Georgia´ and that the guitarist, singer and fiddle player subsequently carved out a pretty good career for himself.
Sadly Charlie died earlier this month from a stroke at the age of eighty three.
Rough And Rowdy Ways has taken Dylan to the top of the charts and has even been described as his ´best album yet´ tags. Guardian writer Laura Snapes reminded us in a recent article, though that critics have applied that soubriquet (too liberally we infer) to so many of his albums. Laura Snapes has now invited reviews from fans, who we guess might be less fawning, more objective or devoif oany hidden agenda.
I had a suspicion, even as young teen fancying the only slightly older Joan Baez and listening to Paul Simon listening to the drizzle of the rain as he sang Kathy´s Song, that I was actually supposed to be listening and approving of Bob Dylan.
Our poet laureate, Simon Armitage, spoke of vaguely similar feelings in a 2002 essay, a couple of years after I had been a student of his in a creative writing course at The University Of Leeds.
A newspaper running the essay stated at the time that ´though he keeps a wary distance from it, Bob Dylan has always fascinated the literary world.´ The newspaper carried the essay fwith Simon Armitage´s explanation of his own debts to Dylan´s work, in an extract from a then new book of essays.
´As a poet´, said Simon, ´I’m supposed to be attracted to Bob Dylan as a lyricist. Even as a fellow poet. That’s the received wisdom, and it’s certainly true that I’ve come to Dylan through a series of recommendations and tips, nearly always from other writers. It was the poet Matthew Sweeney who first explained to me that Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisitedwere the two albums I shouldn’t be able to exist without and, as an example of Dylan’s song-writing genius, went on to recite the whole of Gates of Eden. He was word-perfect, give or take.
And it was Glyn Maxwell who explained to me that the best of Dylan didn’t stop with Blood on the Tracks.
Arriving early at his house in Welwyn Garden City one morning, I sat on the front step listening to Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight from a steamy bathroom window, with Maxwell himself on backing vocals, his voice bouncing off the tiles, drowning out the doorbell.
He also let me in on a fact that all Dylan fans have committed to memory. Namely, a man hasn’t found true love until he finds the woman who will hang on to his arm the way Suze Rotolo hangs on to Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. No one else will do.´
Simon touches there on the topic of trusted advisors. I remember how Colin Locker at college lent me an armful of Byrds albums, and listening to those began to change the very faint, and somewhat negative, image I had held of Dylan until then.
´To have grown up when Dylan was emerging as a musical icon must have been a compelling experience,´ Mr. Armitage conceded ´and the spell that Dylan still casts over his most diehard fans goes back some forty (now sixty) years. The image that persists is not Dylan as he is now, a chewed-up and grisly old granddad, but the Dylan of the Sixties.´
I get what you´re saying, Simon, but I really like the grisly old granddad, who has presented a series of incredibly informed and eclectic music programmes for radio.. It was the young petulant poet I had difficulty with.
´It’s amazing how many people who are old enough to know better are still wearing that look (of the Dylan of the sixties)´, Simon continued, ´but because I arrived late, I feel neither possessed by him nor possessive of him. I wouldn’t want to be Bob Dylan; I don’t fancy him. If he came to the house one day looking for Dave Stewart and I was out, it wouldn’t kill me. I have never asked what I can do for Dylan, only what he can do for me.
He has to earn his place in my house, typically alongside some obscure collective of skinny, Northern, white, drug-addled noiseniks whose first and only album was made for 200 quid in an outside toilet in Hebden Bridge (what did become of Bogshed?).
So there he is, sitting on the shelves not between Bo Diddley and Duane Eddy, and certainly not betwixt Dryden and Eliot, but sandwiched by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Echo and the Bunnymen, within The Divine Comedy (the band, not the book) and The Fall (ditto). It’s in that field I position Dylan, in that company I rate him, and in that context I prefer to speak about him.
For me, 1984 was the turning-point. Morrissey was going stale, Paddy McAloon was going soft, Ian McCulloch had gone over the top, Mark E Smith was going through one of his phases, and my giro had just arrived.
I’d heard Slow Train Coming at someone’s house, and even though it banged on about Jesus and trundled forwards like the locomotive of its title, I thought there was something in it. I was also coming round to realising that the days of turning up at a disco or club with a bunch of gladioli in my back pocket were numbered, and that not everyone wanted to hear “Hexen Definitive/Strife Knot” on return from the pub.
But it was more with a sense of exasperation and failure that I laid down four and a half quid’s worth of taxpayers’ money on Another Side of Bob Dylan. I don’t know why I chose that record. I suppose from a credibility point of view, the fact that it was 20 years old made it more of a historical document/research project and therefore less problematic as a purchase. It even had a black-and-white cover to advertise its provenance. I couldn’t rightly travel on public transport with the comic-strip cover of Shot of Love about my person.
What I found amazing about the record was the narrative content, and also the humour. Did people actually do that? Punk had been all about slogans, and in the years that followed, lyrics had become a form of shorthand or subtitle to the experiences they described. I hadn’t heard a record that told a story or made me laugh since Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.
But the music had an edge to it as well, an integrity that went beyond the klaxon harmonica and the knockabout words. Here was a storyteller pulling out all the stops – metaphor, allegory, repetition, precise detail. The songs themselves were written and performed to give the suggestion of spontaneity, improvisation even, but they were too memorable to be anything less than crafted and composed.
I could quote them, and sing them, though without the original voice and the dizzy guitar-work they lost a great deal in the translation. In all, I had the impression of someone totally aware of his talent and totally in control of his work. I’ve often argued that the only skill any writer needs is the ability to see his or her work from the other side. That is, to put him– or herself in the position of the reader.
Musicians must be able to do something similar, and I got the instant impression with Dylan that he knew exactly how he sounded in my ears.
It was in 1984, too, that I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics, even at that early stage, alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art.
His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
This is an extract from Simon Armitage’s essay in ‘Do You, Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors’, edited by Neil Corcoran (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) It was first published in the Independent newspaper.
So, I know I am not going to sound particularly objective, given that I was tutored by Simon and that I love his poetry and his novels and new album Call The Crash Team with his band Land Yacht Regatta, a review of which you can find in our archives, when I respond to the essay above.
However, his essay, which I had never read until uploading it on to this page, has made some sense for me of what has long been my confused and confusing relationship with Dylan´s. Having never been fortunate enough to see Dylan in concert, nor have had the opportunity to interview him, I have a relationship only with his music, his recordings, his lyrics, his poetry, his radio programmes and the books and encyclopaedias written about him and the filmed fly on the wall documentaries, but what do any of those mean when they speak of Dylan?
So, who are my most trusted advisors? Am I to believe those who extol every word Dylan says or those who damn with faint praise his voice?
On the Culture Sonar web site in 2016 Ken Hymes wrote:
´His singing…well, if you want to end a friendship, I think the order of business is religion, politics, and Bob Dylan’s voice. Nonetheless, I’d like to spend the next two hundred words exploring why Dylan’s voice is awesome and crucial, and clear up a few things in the process. Dylan’s output can be approached in many ways — differing opinions and alternate takes on the history are welcomed!
First of all, Bob Dylan does NOT sound like an old blues singer. This is a fallacy spread far and wide in reaction to the rasp he has developed with age. Pre-WWII male blues singers on record sang with a resonant, fully developed tone, and a heap of vibrato. There are vague connections between Dylan and some Delta blues guys, but truly this is a myth which obscures the true history of his style.
If you want to find a true precursor to Dylan, there’s only one place to look: Billie Holiday.
Go listen to her version of Solitude and you’ll hear all the swooping, talk-singing eccentricity of Dylan’s way of approaching a line, merged with a smoky vibrato which Dylan never had. There are no recorded precedents for what Holiday did with jazz songs, and like Dylan, her extreme vocal personality forced bands to adapt and find new ways to support the singer.
What Dylan accomplished, among other things, was bringing this kind of wild, deeply personal approach to a line into folk and pop, and his influence transformed the expectations of singers everywhere. It’s an easy joke by Hendrix that Dylan inspired him to sing because if Bob could do it, Jimi could too. This may well be true, but it misses the way rock and folk singers post-Dylan all sing in ways that respond to or account for his output. Springsteen, Tom Petty, Kim Carnes, Johnny Rotten, Billy Idol – these are obvious choices.
They all use pitch patterns derived from speech. They all engage some form of deliberate harshness in their vocal production. And their vocal personalities all force their bands to meet them halfway, as Dylan and Holiday did before them (too much to go into here).
So I suggest listening for those traits in the singers you like, and see if you don’t find out pretty quickly that Dylan, love him or hate him, is such a pervasive influence on pop singing that we mostly don’t even notice it anymore.´
That is another convincing argument, Mr Hymes,….either that or, as my dad once said, actually ninety nine times more than once, well actually every time he overheard Dylan on my cd player or on the radio, ´this bloke hasn´t got a note in his head.´
Whilst Dylan the poet just wafts away unjustified criticism Dylan the singer might be quite wounded by what a seeming majority of people tend to think of his voice. In 2015 he even went public with his annoyance at those who criticised his voice, but who did not similarly criticise artists such as Tom Waits.
Are we any nearer to Dylan the man, though?
His former girlfriend and folkie who many feel pulled him up the last couple of rungs of the career ladder, told the Sun newspaper around a year ago that Bob Dylan was her inspiration but now she doesn´t care whether she will ever see him again.
Again, even that may not be an objective view of a man we all feel we know so well, but who in fact sought to create a biography in his early career days that ensured we would never know him at all.
Speaking of the Baez song, Diamonds And Rust, it was written that she was writing a song when an old lover called her on the phone. That man was Bob Dylan. The course of the song changed to become this retrospective on a lost relationship. According to the liner notes of Diamonds And Rust, the title track was written in November 1974, just a few months before the album was recorded.
The intent of the song seems to be of restoring self-respect, and out-pouring disgust that she allowed herself to be so used. However, this is no more objective than anything else we have read on these pages and even in the lyric Joan admits that
´We both know what memories can bring
They bring diamonds and rust.´
Dylan has been mentioned in passing in other songs, too of course, including Talking New Bob Dylan by Loudon Wainwright 3 and Bob Dylan Dream by Kevin Zarnett. Even at his famous San Quentin prison concert Johnny Cash allowed Dylan´s name to fall out in conversation to his audience of inmates.
Wesley Stace is a folk/pop singer-songwriter and author who has used the stage name John Wesley Harding. Under his legal name, he has written four novels. He is also a university teacher and the curator of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders.The intriguingly and mischievously named John Wesley Harding even wrote in one lyric that ´Bob Dylan is my father, Joan Baez is my mother and I´m their bastard son,´ which certainly sounds to me like an invented lineage and even Arlo Guthrie touched a similar subject with Oh Mom.
The Animals referred to Dylan in lyrics and Jerry Jeff Walker, writer of the wonderful Mr. Bojangles, wrote of listening to Dylan´s new song at local guitar pulls. Counting Crows even wrote about wanting to be Bo Dylan
There is, though, as they sing on the terraces, only one Bob Dylan; author, poet, broadcaster, songwriter, singer, musician, … and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. The award of that final epithet, of course was received in a variety of different ways, and most of these were expressed passionately and sometimes angrily in an immediate knee jerk reaction.
Dylan, though, despite even his protracted silence being interpreted as arrogant, thought over the matter for a couple of weeks before responding, in what some of us might feel to be a considered and dignified fashion.
Two weeks after becoming the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan finally decided to share his reaction to landing the prestigious award.
“It’s hard to believe,” he told the Telegraph, adding that when he first found out, it felt “amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?”
For weeks, the world had waited for Dylan to publicly address his surprise win. He was not only the first musician, but also the first American to claim the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. Then the world waited some more. And more. And more. Then it was revealed Dylan wasn’t only ignoring the general public, but also the Swedish Academy, the organization that hands out the prizes. They reached out to the famous singer multiple times, but never heard a response, and weren’t sure if Dylan would even attend the ceremony.
In his new interview, the artist somewhat dashed those concerns. “Absolutely,” he said of attending the ceremony. “If it’s at all possible.”
President Barrack Obama, speaking of Dylan in the wake of somewhat surprising award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic music, President Barack Obama, has joined the chorus of voices lauding Dylan, describing him as his ´favorite poet,´ and very much a ´well-deserved Nobel.´
Speaking with Nobel award winner for her column in The Daily Telegraph writer Edna Gundersen noted that Dylan seemed ´genuinely bemused´ by the public’s confusion with him seemingly ignoring the prize.
He also discussed with her the Academy’s reasoning behind giving him the prize. Nobel permanent secretary Sara Danius had called him a ´great poet in the English-speaking tradition,´ comparing his work to that of Homer and Sappho (though some took issue with Dylan winning the award over traditional authors, playrights, and poets who don’t have the singer’s level of visibility and acclaim).
´I suppose so, in some way,´ Dylan said of Danius’s comparison. ´Some [of my own] songs like Blind Willie McTell, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Joey, A Hard Rain, Hurricane, and some others — definitely are Homeric in value.´
He concluded. ´I’ll let other people decide what they are. The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion. !´
Maybe, then, even Robert Zimmerman doesn´t know what we mean when we speak of Dylan.