Before I listen to this album today, I email Al Kooper, who played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Kooper lives in Somerville–essentially Boston–and I hope he might be willing to meet up at some point and discuss my Dylan hypothesis. He gets right back to me.
His response is worth sharing in full:
I appreciate your kind remarks however I don’t agree with the way of thinking you’re on in terms of why Bob did this then and thqt [sic] now, etc. A song should be regarded strictly for what it is lyrically, musically and arrangement wise. All the rest is usually conjecture, opinion and folly. I am not the guy you want to wallow around with on this subject.
I totally disgree with your way of thinking. Music & poetry should be enjoyed at face value and if one wishes to study the creator thats another biographical subject altogether.
That’s one way to disprove a hypothesis–undermine its premise out of hand. Still, Kooper’s claim that music stands apart from its context is worth exploring. The New Critics of the mid-twentieth century believed in art as a closed form, penetrable only through close reading and well-honed skills of critical analysis. The Intentional Fallacy occurs when we attempt to conclude upon an artist’s intentions as a means of understanding their work. Sure, authorial purpose doesn’t really matter, and biography is beside the point when either examining or enjoying a text. But this mode of criticism has major limits.
While these New Critics did make inroads into the micro-functions of meaning and significance within language, they had yet to figure out that their mode of analysis relies on a monolithic worldview. That is, while exploring the multiplicity of language, they ignored the multitude of identities, eras, and situations from which a work might be read. Current trends call for inclusivity, not exclusive clubs of brilliant critics picking apart geniuses. Meanings shift and change with time and perspective. The text–whether “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “The Times They Are A-Changin'”–changes too, after publication, and with each new time it’s read.
When accounting for variables that contribute to the slipperiness of text and perception, of course context matters, including biography, but also the publishing milieu, the immediate audience that influenced the work, the medium itself, equipment, marketing, sales, and more. Dylan may not have meant for his songs and albums to take on meanings outside of themselves, but to claim such hermetic immunity is a cop out, an excuse from full critical evaluation.
Steadfast in my endeavor I walk through the Common and toward the Copley library grooving to the arrangement, rich and full. A mother tosses me a football and I throw it back to her child. It wobbles and he snags it just as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” comes on. What an album. Two songs–“Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Queen Jane Approximately”–proceed with such layering and maturity the acoustic albums seem ages ago. When your weakest tracks are “From a Buick 6” and “Highway 61,” well, you’re doing something right. Dylan has hit his stride here and created one of the best albums in rock history, hands down.
It’s his album, but it’s my album–our album–too. I wrote my high school senior research paper on this album. At that time I learned, and still know, three of the songs on the keyboard: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Desolation Row.” Meaning happens in the track for experts to deconstruct, but it happens in our own lives too, in our minds and our hearts, even if Al and Bob would rather we believed otherwise.