Understanding Dylan

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Understanding Dylan

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of   Crawdaddy in July 1966.

Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, 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 in 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 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’d 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 sixty-four-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 sixty-four-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.

It is difficult to be a critic; people expect you to explain things. That’s all right if you don’t know what’s going on…you can make up almost any clever-sounding explanation, and people will believe you. But if you do understand a poem, or a song, then chances are you also understand that you’re destroying it if you try to translate it into one or two prose sentences in order to tell the guy next door “what it means.” if you could say everything that Dylan says in any one of his songs in a sentence or two, then there would have been no point in writing the songs. So the sensitive critic must act as a guide, not paraphrasing the songs but trying to show people how to appreciate them.

One problem is that a lot of people don’t give a damn about the songs. What interests them is whether Joan Baez is “Queen Jane,” or whether or not Dylan dedicated “Tambourine Man” to the local dope peddler. These people, viewed objectively, are a fairly despicable lot; but the truth is that all of us act like Peeping Toms now and then. Dylan himself pointed this out in a poem on the back of Another Side. He wanders into a mob, watching a man about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge: “l couldn’t stay and look at him / because I suddenly realized that / deep in my heart / I really wanted / to see him jump.” It is a hard thing to admit that we are potential members of the mob; but if you admit it, you can fight it—you can ignore your curiosity about Dylan’s personal life and thoughts, and appreciate his generosity in offering you as much as he has by giving you his poems, his songs. In the end you can know Bob Dylan much better than you know your next-door neighbor, because of what he shows you in his songs; but first you have to listen to his songs, and stop treating him as though he lived next door.

Another problem, and in a way a much more serious one, is the widespread desire to “find out” what Dylan’s trying to say instead of listening to what he is saying. According to Bob, “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung…The word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound.” But people go right on looking for the “message” in everything Dylan writes, as though he were Aesop telling fables. Not being able to hear something, because you’re too busy listening for the message, is a particularly American malady. There’s a tragic lack of freedom in being unable to respond to things because you’ve been trained to await the commercial and conditioned to listen for the bell. Take a look at a great painting, or a Polaroid snapshot. Does it have a message? A song is a picture. You see it; more accurately, you see it, taste it, feel it…Telling a guy to listen to a song is like giving him a dime for the roller coaster. It’s an experience. A song is an experience.
The guy who writes the song and the guy who sings it each feel something; the idea is to get you to feel the same thing, or something like it. And you can feel it without knowing what it is.

For example: You’re a sixth grader, and your teacher reads you Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The poem sounds nice; the words are perhaps mysterious, but still powerful and appealing. You don’t know what the poem “means,” but you get this feeling; the idea of having “miles to go before l sleep” is a pretty simple one, and it means a lot to you. The poet has reached you; he has successfully passed on the feeling he has, and now you have it too.

Years later you read the poem again, and suddenly it seems crystal clear that the poem is about death, and the desire for it. That never occurred to you as a sixth grader, of course; does that mean you originally misunderstood the poem? Not necessarily. Your teacher could say, “We want the peace death offers, but we have responsibilities, we are not free to die”; but it wouldn’t give you anything. It’s a sentence, a platitude. You don’t even believe it unless you already know it’s true. What the poet does is something different: walking through the woods, he gets a feeling that is similar to the idea your teacher offered you in a sentence. But he does not want to tell you what he believes; that has nothing to do with you. Instead, he tries to make you feel what he feels, and if he succeeds, it makes no difference whether you understand the feeling or not. It is now a part of your experience. And whether you react to the poem as a twelve-year-old kid, or an English professor, it is the feeling you get that is important. Understanding is feeling…the ability to explain means nothing at all.

The way to “understand” Dylan is to listen to him. Listen carefully; listen to one song at a time, perhaps playing it over and over to let it sink in. Try to see what he’s seeing; a song like “Visions of Johanna” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (or almost any of his more recent songs) is full of pictures, moods, images, persons, places, and things. “Inside the museums,” he sings, “infinity goes up on trial.” It doesn’t mean anything; but you know what a museum feels like to you, and you can see the insides of one, the particular way people look at things in a museum, the atmosphere, the sort of things that are found there. And you have your image of a trial, of a courtroom: perhaps you don’t try to picture a lazy-eight infinity stepping up to the witness chair, but there’s a solemnity about a trial, easily associable with the image of a museum. And see how easily the feeling of infinity slips into your museum picture, endless corridors and hallways and rooms, a certain duskiness, and perhaps the trial to you becomes the displaying of infinity on the very walls of the museum, like the bones of an old fish, or maybe the fact that museums do have things that are old in them ties in somehow…there’s no explanation, because the line (from “Visions of Johanna,” by the way) is what it is, but certainly the line, the image, can turn into something living inside your mind. You simply have to be receptive…and of course it is a prerequisite that you live in a world not too unlike Dylan’s, that you be aware of museums and courtrooms in a way not too far different from the way he is, that you be able to appreciate the images by having a similar cultural background. It is not necessary that you understand mid-century America and the world of its youth in order to understand Dylan; but you do have to be a part of those worlds, or the songs will lose all relevance. This is true of most literature, in a way; and of course Dylan has his elements of universality as well as his pictures of the specific.

I could “explain,” I suppose. I could say that “Memphis Blues Again” is about displacement, and tell you why Dylan would think of a senator as “showing everyone his gun.” But the truth is, that wouldn’t give you anything. If you can’t feel it, you can’t get anything out of it; you can sneer and say “it’s commercialism” or “it’s about drugs, and I’m above it,” but not only are you dead wrong, you’re irrelevant.

In many ways, understanding Dylan has a lot to do with understanding yourself. For example, I can listen to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and really feel what the song is about, appreciate it; but I have no idea why “a warehouse eyes my Arabian drums” or what precise relevance that has. Yet it does make me feel something; the attempt to communicate is successful, and somehow the refrain “Now a warehouse eyes my Arabian drums” has a very real relevance to me and my understanding of the song. So it isn’t fair to ask Dylan what the phrase means, or rather, why it works; the person I really have to ask is the person it works on—me. And I don’t know why it works—i.e., I can’t explain it. This only means I don’t understand me; I do understand Dylan—that is, I appreciate the song as fully as I believe is possible. It’s the example of the sixth grader and Robert Frost all over again.

If you really want to understand Dylan, there are perhaps a few things you can do. Read the poems on the backs of his records; read his book when it comes out; read the brilliant interview that appeared in last April’s Playboy. But above all listen to his albums; listen carefully, and openly, and you will see a world unfold before you. And if you can’t see his songs by listening to them, then I’m afraid that all the explaining in the world will only sink you that much deeper in your sand trap.

We have established, I hope, that art is not interpreted but experienced (whether or not Dylan’s work is art is not a question I’m interested in debating at the moment. I believe it is; if you don’t, you probably shouldn’t have read this far). With that in mind, let’s take a cursory look at Blonde on Blonde, an excellent album which everyone with any admiration for the work of Bob Dylan should rush out and buy at once.

Two things stand out: the uniform high quality of the songs (In the past Dylan’s LPs have usually, in my opinion, been quite uneven) chosen for this extra-long LP; and the wonderful, wonderful accompaniments. Not only is Dylan’s present band, including himself on harmonica, easily the best backup band in the country, but they appear able to read his mind. On this album, they almost inevitably do the right thing at the right time; they do perfect justice to each of his songs, and that is by no means a minor accomplishment. Blonde on Blonde is in many ways—the quality of the sound, the decisions as to what goes where in what order, the mixing of the tracks, the timing, etc.—one of the best-produced records I’ve ever heard, and producer Bob Johnston deserves immortality at least. Certainly, Dylan’s songs have never been better presented.

And they really are fine songs. It’s hard to pick a favorite; I think mine is “Memphis Blues Again,” a chain of anecdotes bound together by an evocative chorus (“Oh, Mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?”). Dylan relates specific episodes and emotions in his offhand, impressionistic manner, somehow making the universal specific and then making it universal again in that oh-so-accurate refrain. The arrangement is truly beautiful; never have I heard the organ played so effectively (Al Kooper, take a bow).

“I Want You” is a delightful song. The melody is attractive and very catchy; Dylan’s voice is more versatile than ever; and the more I listen to the musicians backing him up the more impressed I become. They can’t be praised enough. The song is lighthearted, but fantastically honest; perhaps what is most striking about it is its inherent innocence. Dylan has a remarkably healthy attitude toward sex, and he makes our society look sick in comparison (it is). Not that he’s trying to put down anybody else’s values—he simply says what he feels, and he manages to make desire charming in doing so. That is so noble an achievement that l can forgive him the pun about the “queen of spades” (besides, the way he says, “I did it…because time is on his
Side” is worth the price of the album).

“Obviously Five Believers” is the only authentic rock ‘n’ roll song on the record, and it reflects Dylan’s admiration of the early rock ‘n’ rollers. Chuck Berry and Larry Williams are clear influences. “I’d tell you what it means if I just didn’t have to try so hard,” sings Bob. It’s a joyous song; harp, guitar, vocal, and lyrics are all groovy enough to practically unseat Presley retroactively.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (the uncut original) is brilliant in its simplicity: in a way, it’s Dylan’s answer to the uptight cats who are looking for messages. This one has a message, and it couldn’t be clearer, or more outrageously true. But somehow Time magazine still managed to miss the point: they think “everybody must get stoned” means everyone should go out and get high on drugs. Evidently they didn’t hear where Bob says (about 200 times) that “[They] stone ya…” Oh well. Everybody must get stoned.

I could go on and on, but I’m trying hard not to. The album is notable for its sense of humor (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” and “Pledging My Time” and much else), its pervading, gentle irony (in “4th Time Around,” for example), its general lack of bitterness, and above all its fantastic sensitivity (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” should become a classic; and incidentally, whoever decided it would sound best all alone on a side instead of with some other songs before and after it deserves a medal for good taste).

“(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know” is another favorite of mine: in its simplicity it packs a punch that a more complex song would often pull. “Visions of Johanna” is rich but carefully subdued (“the country music station plays soft but there’s nothing really nothing to turn off”
I love that). Dylan’s world, which in Highway 61 seemed to be bubbling over the edges of its cauldron, now seems very much in his control. Helplessness is still the prevalent emotion (“honey, why are you so hard?”), but chaos has been relegated to the periphery. Love (and sex, love’s half sister) are all-important, and love, as everyone knows, has a certain sense of order about it, rhyme if not reason. No one has to ask (I hope) what “I Want You” is about, or “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Or “Just Like a Woman,” which I want to cut out of the album and mail to everybody. The songs are still a swirl of imagery, but it is a gentler, less cyclonic swirl; more like autumn leaves. The nightmares are receding.

Blonde on Blonde is a cache of emotion, a well-handled package of excellent music and better poetry, blended and meshed and ready to become a part of your reality. Here is a man who will speak to you, a 1960s bard with electric lyre and color slides, a truthful man with X-ray eyes you can look through if you want. All you have to do is listen.