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Understanding Dylan

July 20, 2011  |  12:36am

My Blonde On Blonde review (“Understanding Dylan”) was a breakthrough for me as a writer, creatively and professionally. It was soon reprinted in Hit Parader magazine, and then used as the introduction to a songbook published by Dylan’s publisher. I began to feel like a “real” writer.

Originally published in the Fourth Issue of Crawdaddy! in August of 1966.

Blonde on BlondePerhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshipping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan. According to legend, young Zimmerman came out of the West, grabbed a guitar, changed his name, and decided to be Woody Guthrie. Five years later he had somehow become Elvis Presley (or maybe William Shakespeare); he had sold out, plugged in his feet, and was rumored to live in a state of perpetual high (achieved by smoking rolled-up pages of Newsweek magazine). Today, we stand on the eve of his first published book (Tarantula) and the morning after his most recent and fully realized LP (Blonde On Blonde), and there is but one question remaining to fog our freshly minted minds: what the hell is really going on here?

Who is Bob Dylan, and—this is the question that is most incessantly asked—what is he really trying to say? These are not, as such, answerable questions; but maybe by exploring them we can come to a greater understanding of the man and his songs. It is as an approach to understanding that I offer you this essay.

Everyone knows that Dylan came east from the North Country in 1960, hung around the Village, and finally got a start as a folksinger. If you’re interested in biographical information, I recommend a book with the ridiculous title of Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story. The authors’ attempts at interpretation of songs are clumsy, but the factual portion of the book is surprisingly reasonable (there is no such word as “accurate”). The book perpetuates a few myths, of course (for instance, the name “Dylan” actually comes from an uncle of Bob’s and not from Dylan Thomas); and it has its stylistic stumblings. But for just plain (irrelevant) biographical info, the book is worth your fifty cents.

There are a few things about Dylan’s past that are relevant to understanding his work (or to not misunderstanding it), however, and these appear to be little known. His roots are deep in country music and blues: he lists Curtis Mayfield and Charlie Rich among the musicians he admires most. But he did not start out as a “folksinger,” not in the currently accepted sense. From the very beginning his desire was to make it in the field of rock ‘n’ roll.

In 1960, however, rock ‘n’ roll was not an open field. The songs were written in one part of town, then sent down to the recording companies in another part of town where house artists recorded them, backed by the usual house bands. A country kid like Dylan didn’t stand a chance of getting into rock ‘n’ roll, and it did not take him long to find that out. The only way he could get anyone to listen to him—and the only way he could keep himself alive was to start playing the coffeehouses. This got him a recording contract and an interested audience, as well as a reputation as a folksinger, and it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him. First of all, it put him under pressure to produce and nothing better can happen to any young writer. Secondly, it made him discipline his songwriting, and though he may have resented it at the time, it was this forced focusing of his talents that made them emerge. You have to learn the rules before you can break them.

But it was inevitable that “folk music” would only be a temporary harbor. “Everybody knows that I’m not a folksinger,” he says; and, call him what you will, there is no question that by the time Another Side of Bob Dylan appeared he was no longer thinking of his songs in terms of simple guitar accompaniments (to a certain extent he never had been). He was straining at the bit of folk music’s accepted patterns, and fearing, perhaps rightly so, that no one was interested in what he wanted to say anymore. But then “Tambourine Man” caught on, and people began responding to him as a man and not as a politician. The light was green: He’s been working very hard on a very important song, and he decided he was going to sing it the way he heard it. That was “Like a Rolling Stone”, and its success meant that from now on he could do a song any way he wanted. “I knew how it had to be done,” he says; “I went out of my way to get the people to record it with me.”

It was a breakthrough. He was into the “rock ‘n’ roll field” for real now, but of course he is no more a “rock ‘n’ roll singer” than a “folksinger.” He is simply an artist able to create in the medium that for him is most free.

I have gone into this background only because there continues to be so much useless misunderstanding, so much talk about “folk-rock,” so much discussion of the “old Dylan” and the “new Dylan.” Until you, as a listener, can hear music instead of categories, you cannot appreciate what you are hearing. As long as people persist in believing that Dylan would be playing his new songs on a folk guitar instead of with a band, except that recording with a band brings him more money, they will fail to realize that he is a creator, not a puppet, and a creator who has now reached musical maturity. Dylan is doing his songs now the way he always wanted to do them. He is a bard who has found his lyre, no more, no less; and if you’re interested in what he’s saying, you must listen to him on his own terms.

It is my personal belief that it is not the artist but his work that is important; therefore, I hesitate to go too deeply into the question of who Bob Dylan is. Owl and Churchy once had a fantastic fight over whether a certain phrase actually fell from the lips of Mr. Twain, or Mr. Clemens. And someone has pointed out that nobody knows if the Odyssey was written by Homer or by another early Greek poet of the same name. Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to “Mr. Tambourine Man” would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.

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