How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?
Call his work art, call it crap, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.
In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.
And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.
And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I mightbe somewhere by now.”
He came to New York in early 1961, telling anyone who’d listen he’d ridden the rails, played with Buddy Holly, all sorts of nonsense. In reality, he was a fairly middle-class kid who’d hitchhiked, in winter, from the far north of Minnesota; in a way, this single act of propulsion toward reinvention by a 19-year-old is braver and more interesting than all his later tall tales of travel. He arrived in New York on the coldest day the city had seen in many years.
He was a prodigy, with a natural affinity for a medium that would, unexpectedly, afford a few people like him international acclaim and a permanent place in the cultural firmament, and lots of money too. His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career. He also had a first-class mind, quick (almost too quick) of wit and relaxed enough to let inspiration flow without forcing it, yet also wiry, retaining permanently the complex wording of many hundreds of tunes. He soaked up the songs and the lore of folk and blues, cobbling together a shtick—an Okie patois, a shambling affect, and a fixation with Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s and the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who at the time was dying in a New Jersey hospital. It all served to disguise, at first, a mysterious charisma—with eyes, as Joan Baez remembered them later, “bluer than robin’s eggs”—and an apparent ambition that left a few damaged friendships, and egos, in its wake.
Baez, stentorian and humorless, recorded her first album in 1960 and was a star the next year. (She moved to Carmel and bought a Jaguar.) Dylan got an early rave in the New YorkTimes, which led to his record contract. His second album contained several tracks that became standards. One, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was a strikingly imagistic portrait of a child returning from a journey to impart wisdom to an older generation. It’s the place where Dylan’s self-definition begins to merge with his songs. On his third and fourth albums, Dylan showed he was capable of increasing nuance. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the compellingly told true story of a barmaid carelessly killed by a moneyed young drunk, still able to make one’s blood boil, never mentions Carroll’s race.
At the same time, his mash-up of influences was creating deeper, subtler work, producing mysterious moments like the end of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The song, spare and lulling, is a dialogue between the singer and his lover, who’s going on a journey. The woman wants to bring the guy back a present; the guy keeps saying he wants nothing besides her return. She finally says she won’t be coming back for a while—at which point the guy asks for a gift: some “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” It’s not clear why the word Spanish is repeated. Maybe the guy’s heart was broken, or maybe the woman was right—he did just want something from her. But there’s a self-referential meaning to the song as well: Dylan’s own journey. Stars, after all, promise devotion to their fans and then disappear, leaving a simulacrum of their former selves that fans can never get something authentic from.
Beginning in 1965, in a 14-month rush, Dylan released three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited,and Blonde on Blonde—each with two or three (very) major songs, three or four relatively minor (but still mind-blowing) efforts, and some doggerel and fun for leavening, all in a great spew of poetic verbiage. Dylan’s voice had deepened and matured; it rang with clarity, snickered with derision, led us compellingly, at its best hypnotically, through nightmares and fever dreams. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”introduced a modern, rock-and-roll Dylan, blasting off political aphorisms softened with absurdities—“Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters.” Lacerating new epics made his old epics seem trite. Take “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”; the title, and a potent Cold War reference in the first line, fixes our narrator seemingly as a wounded soldier, who then spends the rest of a very long song reflecting on the society he’s dying for. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the second half of the decade in advance, a Scud missile of mockery directed at an entire pampered generation adrift. When Dylan howled the words “no direction home,” it was hard to tell if his tone was exultant or pained; it was a conundrum he and his audience have gnawed at ever since. In a telling example of how Dylan’s words can leapfrog meanings across decades, the song’s final silky lines—“You’re invisible now / You’ve got no secrets to conceal”—capture precisely the predicament of a new generation paradoxically rendered faceless by electronic connectivity and yet entirely without privacy.
Dylan’s remarkable work from this period is sometimes trivialized by stories about how he freaked everyone out by “going electric.” In I’m Not There, his cubistic cinematic portrait of Dylan, Todd Haynes represents the moment with the singer and his band mowing the crowd down with machine guns. Please. There were some boos at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan and his electric band played there. But at least some of the reaction came from the high volume and poor sound quality of the performance, which was, after all, at a folk festival. Meanwhile, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” an unprecedented six minutes long, went to No. 2. Dylan’s move to electric is of course a key moment in his musical growth, and an interesting footnote in the history of 1960s American folk; but it was not a thumb in the eye of propriety. Everyone liked it!
Dylan is intensely private. More than almost any star I can think of, our understanding of his personal life is occluded and disjointed. His first wife was Sara Dylan, née Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky. When they met, she was married to a guy in publishing in New York; early in their relationship, Dylan mentioned to an interviewer that he’d met a woman named Sara and that she was one of only two truly “holy people” he had ever met. (The other was Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg had never done a stint as a Playboy bunny.) “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is widely seen as a tribute to Sara; it has a title that suggests the name Lownds and other lyrical hints (“Your magazine husband / Who one day just had to go”) and is placed ostentatiously to fill up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, some of which may be true, is at its most dyspeptic when the singer describes the hordes of hippies impinging on his and his family’s life by the mid-’60s. Using a motorcycle accident as an excuse, Dylan retreated in 1966 and began releasing country-flavored albums at long intervals to dampen his celebrity. In the meantime, he and Sara raised an eventual family of five in peace. The names and number of his children were widely misunderstood until the publication of Down the Highway, a powerful, definitive biography by Howard Sounes, in 2001. (The children are Maria, from Sara’s first marriage; Jakob, whom you know from the Wallflowers; Jesse, a Hollywood and new-media guy, director of Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” Obama music video; Anna, an artist who stays out of sight; and Samuel, a photographer who keeps a low profile as well. This is not to mention his second, secret wife and at least one other acknowledged child, but that’s a tale for another time.)
Dylan emerged in the mid-’70s to tour with the Band, release two of his strongest albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), and embark on a nutty and hilarious gypsy-caravan tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. His relationship with Sara was strained at this point, though she came along on the tour and even starred in his bizarre four-hour movie, Renaldo & Clara. But in the end, Dylan’s womanizing fueled what became a bitter divorce. His most plainly personal album isBlood on the Tracks, a lancing portrait of a romantic death spiral. (Jakob has said he gets no pleasure from listening to it: “When I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”) Among (many) other things, Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in emotional intensity, from self-pity and anger to ruefulness. There are obvious references to his wife in the wrenching “Idiot Wind” and also at the beginning of “Tangled Up in Blue” (“She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced”). Blood on the Tracks was recorded in bizarre circumstances, first in New York and then more than half of it rerecorded in Minneapolis with a pickup band; yet its shuddering atmospherics and controlled, specific writing combined to make it the most organic and emotionally fulfilling work in Dylan’s canon.
The Rolling Thunder Revue saw the return of the lovely Baez; she sang “Diamonds & Rust,” her greatest song, a poison-pen love letter to Dylan, and did the frug behind Roger McGuinn during “Eight Miles High.” A decade on, in the ’80s, she and Dylan toured again, this time in Japan, with what was supposed to have been shared star billing. Baez inevitably became an opening act and eventually told the tour to fuck off, as she later told the story. Granted an exit audience with Dylan, she found him an aged version of the immature ragamuffin. He was tired but slipped his hand up her skirt for old times’ sake.
The next two decades were tough for him artistically; as Greil Marcus has put it, Dylan was essentially committing a “public disappearance.” Beginning in 1979, he tested his audience’s expectations and goodwill more tellingly than any punk by releasing three albums of unimaginative Christian-themed songs, along with two tours in which he plowed stolidly through this material. The problem was not Dylan’s beliefs, though they leaned to the crackpot; lots of acts had religious leanings—Van Morrison among them. It was how Dylan articulated those beliefs. To listen to the albums today is to enter a (not very) fun house of mediocrity and intolerance.
Dylan began to produce his own albums. He wasn’t dogmatic about it; he would once in a while bring in an outside producer—Mark Knopfler helped on Infidels, and Daniel Lanois superimposed a decent setting (and demanded a suite of coherent songs) for Oh Mercy. Other albums from the ’80s and ’90s were weirdly inconsistent in the quality of both the songs and the production values. Even weirder is the fact that Dylan was actually writing and recording some of his best work during this time. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, “Blind Willie McTell,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Foot of Pride,” “Series of Dreams” … Authoritative and undeniable, they were better than anything his contemporaries were then releasing. Unfortunately, they were also better than anythingDylan was releasing and only turned up later on compilations albums.
In 1997, Lanois returned for Time Out of Mind. The critics went nuts over this work and the four regular releases since. I think these albums are woefully overrated, but they have sold well, and with the critics behind them, too, I’m willing to acknowledge the disconnect may be mine. But deep down I know that it’s hard to find, over the past ten or 15 years, more than three or four songs you’d stick on a mix tape to try to convince someone of this singer-songwriter’s greatness. Too many of his recent songs start with a pleasant-enough (or, more often, serviceable) riff—which is then beaten into the ground by his backing band. My hunch is that Dylan, producing in the studio, nods in inscrutable approval when he hears something he likes. The band, nervous but eager to please, obliges and starts playing the damn riff continuously. There’s no outsider around to tweak it or vary it or add dynamics.
In the folk-blues tradition, older songs were reappropriated and built upon; in his later years, Dylan has played with this tradition and found himself in mini-controversies when researchers find that some words in his songs first appeared somewhere else. Amateur sleuths discovered that his album“Love and Theft” had a pattern of lines seemingly taken from a fairly obscure Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. More recently, some obsessives started looking at passages in Chronicles and found lines taken from an astonishing variety of places, from self-help books to The Great Gatsby. The pickings seem to be phrases bouncing around the ragged mind of a guy with a photographic memory. On the other hand, some of the inner workings are plainly mischievous, like an in-passing list of news stories; the headlines were all from a mocking take on the press in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
To tweak the purists again, he’ll once in a while appear in a TV commercial—distracting from the subtle attention he pays to how posterity will see his work. He goes out of his away to appear on awards shows when they beckon; he’s shown his artwork and sells it online; his memoir, while odd, was nonetheless transfixing and reminded us that he was once a young man groping for a future and placing his bets on a very long shot indeed. The Dylan camp is readying an extraordinary digital archive of his songs, recordings, and paraphernalia. Dylan owns a coffeehouse, it’s said, in Santa Monica; unprepossessing and iconoclastic, it has an extremely friendly staff and no Wi-Fi. There’s not much on the walls, but you notice the references contained in what’s there: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Leonardo da Vinci. There’s one big oil painting behind the counter, one that looks a lot like Dylan’s own work, silent and content in the company it keeps.
And then there’s the touring. In Chronicles, Dylan details, with seeming frankness, the aimlessness that brought him to a slough of despond at the end of the ’80s. He may have been facing what all rock stars who survive face, which is how to grow old gracefully in a medium cruelly tied to youthfulness. He resolved to get out and play his songs—and went back on the road in 1988 with a small, seldom-changing backing ensemble, with whom he delved into his back pages, including many songs he’d never played live before.
Here’s the odd thing—26 years on, he hasn’t stopped. He’s been playing about 100 shows annually ever since, growling through a set of songs old and new with a small band. It’s an endeavor that for a good chunk of each year keeps him on a private bus and, in the U.S. at least, in relatively crummy hotel and motel rooms. (He’s said to prefer places that have windows that open and allow him to sleep with his pet mastiffs. Beyond that, they are places fans wouldn’t expect to find him.) The shows at first may have been a tonic, but over time they revealed themselves to be a panacea. It must have struck Dylan: How could he look foolish if he just kept doing the same thing? If he were an artist, he would continue to create and show his art publicly. If he were a celebrity, he would appear in public. And if he were a seer, a prophet, or even a god, well, he would let folks pay and see for themselves how mortal such figures actually were. And far from saturating the market, he has created a new industry for himself as a touring artist. On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen. So far this year, the 73-year-old has played in Japan (17 shows), Hawaii (two), Ireland, Turkey, and nearly 20 other cities in the hinterlands of Europe; he’s headed now to more than a dozen shows in eight different cities in Australia and New Zealand—and this is before what should be a fall run through the States. Robert Shelton, the New York Times writer who first noticed Dylan, labored on a biography for more than 20 years; seeing the star’s unstable arc on its publication in 1986, he titled it, grandly, No Direction Home. Dylan hadn’t evenbegun not to go home.
It strikes me that the one thing all of these bizarre behaviors have in common is that they tend to strip away everything that stands between Bob Dylan’s art and his audience but simultaneously occlude everything else. There was a subtle shift in emphasis in one of his most powerful images, and perhaps a hint of resignation, in the song “Not Dark Yet,” in 1997:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. The exultant cry of “no direction home” derived its power from the fact that, in the end, any place new was better than where we’d come from. In that context, not remembering what you left originally is a remarkable statement of anomie.
Still, we might have focused over the years too much on the word direction, as in “heading toward.”
Maybe “no direction home” means that there’s no guidance home, that you have to figure it out for yourself.
If Bob Dylan is a question, maybe this is the answer. Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be. Even his remoteness is a by-product; it’s what he deserves after having given his all. Call the work art, call it crap, call it Spanish boots of Spanish leather, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.