Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

More on Bob Dylan

Saw the second part of the Dylan documentary. Not as good as the first (mostly about the much-hashed-over folkie gone electric fracas at Newport Folk Festival) but enlightening for one thing: the journalists of the time were totally clueless and asked Dylan the most inane questions you can imagine.

It was as if they had not learned how to interview an artist yet. They were trying to interview a political figure or something -- an idea of him they had in their own heads that bore no relation to who he actually was. Those were the days when rock critics were just getting started. You'd think Dylan might've have had the luck to have been interviewed by one of them.

No wonder Dylan checked out for 8 years after his motorbike accident. He sounded pretty fed-up. Here he is, soaring like a comet, and people ask him the stupidest questions.

The stuff with Joan Baez was fascinating, especially when she said she expected Dylan to ask her to join him on stage during his tour in England, as she had invited him to join her on stage on her American tour, but that he didn't. He was a pretty self-absorbed bastard; typical artist.

I liked the part where someone said that in those days art wasn't "dollar-driven." People asked, "what did he have to say?" You talked to somebody who saw Ornette Coleman, and asked, "What did he say?" Jeez, things have changed since then. Nobody wants to know what Britney Spears has to say. Who today in popular music has anything to say?

The moment when Allen Ginsberg says he wept when he heard "Hard Rain" the first time, because he thought the torch had been passed from his Beat generation to the next, was quite moving. Problem is, there was only one guy to pick up the torch from the Beats: Dylan. No one else. I can only think of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" as another cultural artifact from that time that picked up the torch of Kerouac et al.

I posted my previous piece on Dylan at Blogcritics here, and there's a fairly interesting comment thread happening there for those interested. Especially about Scorcese's involvement, with pretty scathing comments about his having the gall to call himself the director, when he didn't shoot one inch of footage, but merely edited all the footage handed to him, and used an interview with Dylan's manager as a main through-line.

I was actually left with the wrong impression that Scorcese had conducted that interview. From the interview Charlie Rose had with Scorcese afterwards, it appears that Scorcese was rather unfamiliar with Dylan until he saw all the footage.

I think it would've been way better if some Dylan aficionado of some stature, like Oxford Poetry Professor Christopher Ricks, had been given the footage to make sense of. Also, it would've been interesting if some rock critics of the time had weighed in on Dylan's stature, instead of all the other rather dull folkies. Though I dug the folkie who said "Everyone wanted to get high with Bobby. Everyone wanted to sleep with Bobby." To get laid is one of the basic motivations of wanting to be a star.

Here's an interesting article I found on Dylan as a poet:

In 2004, a Newsweek magazine article called Bob Dylan "the most influential cultural figure now alive," and with good reason. He has released more than forty albums in the last four decades, and created some of the most memorable anthems of the twentieth century, classics such as "The Times They Are A-Changin," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Blowin' in the Wind."

While Dylan's place in the pantheon of American musicians is cemented, there is one question that has confounded music and literary critics for the entirety of Dylan's career: Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet? Dylan was asked that very question at a press conference in 1965, when he famously said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."

The debate has raged on ever since, and even intensified in 2004, when Internet rumors swirled about Dylan's nomination for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and five well-hyped books were released almost simultaneously: Dylan's Visions of Sin , by Oxford professor of poetry Christopher Ricks, who makes the case for Dylan as a poet; Lyrics: 1962-2001 , a collection of Dylan's songs presented in printed form; Chronicles , the first volume of Dylan's memoir; Keys to the Rain , a 724-page Bob Dylan encyclopedia; and Studio A , an anthology about Dylan by such esteemed writers as Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, and Barry Hannah.

Christopher Ricks, who has also penned books about T. S. Eliot and John Keats, argues that Dylan's lyrics not only qualify as poetry, but that Dylan is among the finest poets of all time, on the same level as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He points to Dylan's mastery of rhymes that are often startling and perfectly judged. For example, this pairing from "Idiot Wind," released in 1975:

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol

The metaphorical relation between the head and the head of state, both of them two big domes, and the "idiot wind" blowing out of Washington, D.C., from the mouths of politicians, made this particular lyric the "great disillusioned national rhyme," according to Allen Ginsberg .

"The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them," Ricks wrote in Dylan's Visions of Sin . "The case would need to begin with his medium."

The problem many critics have with calling song lyrics poetry is that songs are only fully realized in performance. It takes the lyrics, music, and voice working in tandem to unpack the power of a song, whereas a poem ideally stands up by itself, on the page, controlling its own timing and internal music. Dylan's lyrics, and most especially his creative rhyme-making, may only work, as critic Ian Hamilton has written, with "Bob's barbed-wire tonsils in support."

It is indisputable, though, that Dylan has been influenced a great deal by poetry. He counts Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine alongside Woody Guthrie as his most important forebears. He took his stage name, Bob Dylan, from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (his real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman). He described himself once as a "sixties troubadour," and when he talks about songwriting, he can sometimes sound like a professor of literature: "I can create several orbits that travel and intersect each other and are set up in a metaphysical way."

His work has also veered purposefully into poetry. In 1966, he wrote a book of poems and prose called Tarantula . Many of the liner notes from his 1960s albums were written as epitaphs. And his songwriting is peppered with literary references. Consider, for example, these lyrics from "Desolation Row," released on 1965's Highway 61 Revisited :

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers

Professor Ricks is not the only scholar who considers Dylan a great American poet. Dylan has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996, and the lyrics to his song "Mr. Tambourine Man" appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature.

So do his song lyrics qualify as poetry? Even Dylan gets the two genres confused sometimes. He once called Smokey Robinson his favorite poet, then later backpedaled and said it was Rimbaud. He has alternatingly avoided this question and mocked it, as in his song "I Shall Be Free No. 10":

Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it
Hope I don't blow it

However, the best, most straightforward answer may have appeared in the liner notes of his second album, 1963's The Freewheeling Bob Dylan , where Dylan said, simply: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."


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