Bob Dylan, an American Master
I watched Martin Scorcese's documentary about Bob Dylan in his Greenwich Village and Newport Folk Festival days on PBS last night (second part tonight at 9pm on PBS). Two hours, with many, many interviews with ancient people who knew him then: Dave van Ronk, Joan Baez, a Clancy brother, Maria Muldaur, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo (lovely face, still) and record execs.
One of the record execs said that in those days the song was the big thing you sold, and they made sure that Bob Dylan's songs were recorded by everyone, because that's how they made money. Blowin' in the Wind was recorded by just about everybody it seems, even the Staples Singers. That's why Dylan got famous: he wrote the best songs.
There's also some amazing film of Dylan singing. Singing? He kind of redefines singing: who sings more demotically, more conversationally, more vernacularly? He's like a Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady on amphetamine cut with heroine. A crazy bard. His style is so distinctive, it's like he's from another planet, some weird Appalachian New Orleans Creole region where the people speak in sneers and innuendo and mumbles -- method actors who've forgotten their method -- and drop the words out of their mouths like unwieldy insect pebbles with stings in their twitching tails.
Three songs stand out: Blowin' in the Wind, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and Masters of War. Protest songs they were called. There's also an exceptional live version of the exceptionally strong Ballad of a Thin Man, with Bob sitting at the piano and knocking out the chords, and belting the lyrics so animatedly, he seems like a doll spinning down from maximum windup. Also, nice versions of Desolation Row and Bob Dylan's Dream.
He looked like such a baby then. Joan Baez talks about how they both had so much puppy fat in their faces.
A much older and grizzled Dylan is interviewed throughout. He says that it was very easy for him to write songs then, because it was new to him, and he felt he was doing something in an arena of his own that nobody was doing.
His songs of those days have the unique air of a Biblical prophet about them. The language itself is Biblical, or shall we say high-toned St. James, ex cathedra from on high, and morally inflamed with righteous anger, scorn and remonstrance. Very biting, highly damning. Yes, he outright damned -- for example, in addressing the Masters of War:
Let me ask you one questionPretty fierce, huh? Not for him the goody-goody, sappy-soppy love lyric either:
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead
I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babeHe was a supremely sarcastic bastard, the most sarcastic, negative, and darkest songwriter ever. And he took song lyrics where they'd never been before and never have been since:
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
But goodbye's too good a word, gal
So I'll just say fare thee well
I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?No songwriter has come anywhere close to what Dylan does with language. He is the only songwriter ever whose lyrics can comfortably pass as powerful poetry. You don't find English professors writing about Beatles lyrics the way they do about Dylan's.
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall
Dylan is the best songwriter who ever lived, on lyrics alone; his melodies rank with the best, too.
(A stellar constellation of songwriters worthy of his company would include, from the classical era: Schubert, Verdi and Puccini; from the era of musicals and Frank Sinatra: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weil, Sigmund Romberg, Georges Brassens, Charles Trenet, and Richard Rodgers; from the rock era, the arty ones like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, John Lennon, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, and Peter Sarstedt; and the pop/rock ones, like Paul McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Leiber/Stoller, Pete Townshend (sometimes arty), Brian Wilson (can also be arty), Holland/Dozier/Holland, Elton John, Neil Young, Ray Davies (shades of arty, too), Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond (nothing arty about him), Roy Orbison, Serge Gainsbourg, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Williams, and maybe one could throw in Chuck Berry and Neil Sedaka -- ever heard Sedaka's Solitaire? Perhaps even Billy Joel and the brothers Gibb. I don't think Springsteen makes it. If he did, you'd have to start adding the likes of Bowie and Sting before you got to him.)
What was most odd about watching the Dylan doc: Blowin in the Wind, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, and especially Masters of War stood out not only as very powerful protest songs of their time, but also as very appertaining to now.
It made me wonder why we don't have our own Dylan. The time calls for another Dylan, but he just ain't there. The time calls for another Martin Luther King, but he just ain't there either. Who've we got? Al Sharpton. Even an Allen Ginsberg, but he just ain't there. Who've we got? Billy Collins. There were some giants in the 60s, who summed up their time, who were the authentic voices of their generation.
Who are the voices of our generation? Rappers. Who among them is great? Who among them will be remembered? Will people in the future be singing their 'songs'? What does it say about us that songs about gangstas and hos and bling represent us? We appear to be living in a time of fantasy and satire and jokers. Eminem and Al Sharpton and Billy Collins, for chrissake. Witty people, for sure, but with the social relevance of a People cover. The rappers pride themselves on authenticity, but authentic is the last thing they are. Playing a thug is authentic? Please. Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and James Cagney did it way better. Rappers sell us the BS relevance of gangstas and hos, a social fantasy world that's as unreal as any Hollywood movie about Spiderman or a Forty-Year Old Virgin. They've made up a world in which guys kill and gals fuck, a world of videogames for hormone-charged teens. Many of these street cred guys went to prep school, for chrissake.
Anyway, watch Bob Dylan tonight. Scorcese covered maybe the first three years of Dylan's songwriting and cultural significance in two hours last night, and he has the rest of a long life to cover in tonight's two hours. Actually, I'm wrong about that. I've just googled the whole damn thing, and the documentary only covers Bob Dylan up to 1966, when he went electric, at the time of Highway 61 Revisited, before the unbelievable double-album Blonde on Blonde, which ended his first burst of creative songwriting in a total masterpiece. He kind of coasted along then, at a high level (Nashville Skyline is very high-level, and very strange too, because he sings sweetly, like he took singing lessons), until the magnificent mid-seventies albums Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks and Desire, when he probably did his best work. Nothing since stands up to those two creative bursts of the 60s and the 70s.
Dylan strikes me as very unlike the Beatles and the Stones, who managed their careers as much as they did their own thing. He's like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in that he never bothered to manage his career. He doesn't sing his "hits" in performance like he does on the record, for example. Half the time you have to guess what "hit" he's singing because he does it so completely differently. Unless it's Like a Rolling Stone, his greatest hit single, though I'm sure he's butchered that one to befog his fans, too. He's never done anything to foster a relationship with a fan base. He lost me completely when he went Christian for a while, for example. (A disappointment more profound than Robert De Niro promising to become the next Brando with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but instead turning into just another actor, or Salman Rushdie never writing another novel half as good as Midnight's Children.) We, his fans, are here, and he's over there somewhere out of our sight, doing his thing. He's still touring, and people go to see him, and apparently he can give a very lousy show, too. Why is he still touring? It's probably in his blood. He wouldn't know what else to do. He's played out, but he's still playing.
I sure wish we had singers and songwriters of his artistic standard doing much-needed social relevance for us today. We're involved in a stupid war again, and we have the repressive movements of the Radical Christian Right and Greedy Fraud-Prone CEOs under whose heels our poor and blinded-by-Fox News and dumbed-down-by-Entertainment Tonight suffer.
There's plenty to protest about, but nobody's doing it. I guess Springsteen is the closest we have, but how many people are recording Born to Run, or taking his new album to their hearts like an entire generation did with Dylan? Sure, NPR will mention Springsteen's latest, and offer it as payback to station contributors, because NPR's audience is ex-sixties boomers with a taste for good folky pop and rock, but that's about it. Springsteen has written some great rock standards, but not many actual coverable songs. They live and die with him and him alone.
Dylan's songs, on the other hand, are for the ages. They're part of our cultural history. They very much mattered. They still do. People will be singing Just like a Woman and All Along the Watchtower and Mr Tambourine Man and It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right and It Ain't Me, Babe and I Shall Be Released and Tears of Rage for millennia. Check out a little-known Dylan song like One More Cup of Coffee from the Desire album; the melody of both verse and chorus will stick to your cortex like Crazy Glue forever. Verse and chorus are radically different from each other, yet they go together. If John Lennon learned anything from Dylan, it was to make his verses as strong as his choruses, which is one of the great things that Dylan does as a matter of course. Come to think of it, inasmuch as John Lennon is great, it's because he stands in Dylan's shadow, the closest in spirit to Dylan out of all our other great songwriters. Working Class Hero and Hey, You've Got to Hide your Love Away are pure Dylan.
Dylan is to songwriting what Bergman is to film and Matisse is to painting; head and shoulders above the rest.
More Dylan thoughts after I've seen part two of the documentary tonight. Meanwhile, two good links about the two-parter: here (Observer lit editor Robert McCrum) and here (historian Simon Schama).