On Bob Dylan’s Infidels and Closed Loops

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I’ve been in Orlando for about 10 days now, hanging out in my mom’s condo and poking around my hometown as I do between the spring and summer semesters. For years now I’ve been looking at this little-used athletic track over the fence beside my mom’s place, never knowing what my mother’s street looked like from the track’s point of view. So in the late afternoon, when the temperature had cooled, I slapped on Infidels and went looking for access.

Damn, “Jokerman” is a good song, I thought as I started down my mom’s little street and turned right onto the big one, running straight, long, and flat behind the barb-wired Orlando Juvenile Detention Center. The song’s lyrics are enigmatic, poetic, and expansive. “Match sticks and water canons, tear-gas padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain / False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin.” The litanies and images construct a mosaic, opaque and illusory, and weave “a shadowy world” where “skies are slippery gray.” In the refrain we watch “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune / Bird fly high by the light of the moon / Oh, Jokerman.” Like “Tangled Up in Blue,” this song traces its title character on a rambling journey, this time through biblical allegory and political corruption.

On “Jokerman,” the harmonica cuts through the mellifluous wall of sound like a torch through steel. On the next track, “Sweetheart like You,” it’s Dylan’s voice that does the cutting: “What’s a sweetheart like you doooing in a dump like this?” What’s this “dump,” I wondered as I swung a right at a four-way stop with stop signs the size of sliding glass doors.

Steal a little and they throw you in jail

Steal a lot and they make you king

There’s only one step down from here, baby

It’s called the land of permanent bliss

What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

The dump, I gathered, is an unreal space, an abstract zone where politics corrupt and corruption rules. It’s interesting Dylan set this romance ballad among the greedy, powerful lowlifes he disdains; it’s up to Dylan, our speaker, to enlighten this woman, restore her bliss, save her soul.

The politics take a backseat in “Sweetheart like You.” Yet in the third track, “Neighborhood Bully,” Dylan examines the psychology of the State of Israel using paradox and irony. “He’s always on trial for just being born / He’s the neighborhood bully.” This thinly veiled polemic invites all kinds of political suppositions—Is Dylan condemning America? Is he defending the Jews? The abstruse, enigmatic lyrics invite these kind of suppositions. Just like “Jokerman”’s “false-hearted judges,” the “Neighborhood Bully” remains on the defensive because “a license to kill him is given out to every maniac.” Dylan has sworn up and down the song isn’t about Zionism, isn’t a jingoistic defense of Israel, but simply a work of art that doesn’t need critical unpacking. He wants us to enjoy it for what it is, for what it means to each of us. However, this charge to allow the highly hypnotic medium of music wash over us without scrutinizing it’s underlying meanings, to me, carries many potential dangers. Propaganda works best when packaged in emotion and delivered through art to an unthinking populace. Dylan often wields that influence by calling out people and institutions in his songs. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend,” begins “Positively 4th Street”; “our separation pierced me to the heart,” goes “If You See Her, Say Hello” amid Dylan’s own marital separation. For him to say the listener, or the critic, should treat the people and instances referenced as universalities is, to me, disingenuous. He codes his messages in enigmatic poetry, and yet the specifics still remain. It is our duty, I say, as critically minded individuals, to figure out who he’s calling out, what he’s condemning, before we welcome the songs into our hearts.

Mark Knopfler produced this album, and throughout, it contains a sharpness and an adept musicality, a wealth of nifty guitar licks and bright snare smashes. At times, however—and this may be a result of 80’s technology—the accompaniment sounds as if someone pressed the “4/4 rock” button on a Yamaha keyboard. “Neighborhood Bully” has that generic feel, and if you couldn’t tell by now, I don’t think it’s a very good song. It’s right down there with “Union Sundown” which grapples with outsourcing American jobs and products. The love songs here, “Sweetheart Like You” and “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” however,  are very good, especially the latter, whose lyrics pack a lot of words, rich and rhythmic and passionately performed, into small space, recalling “Like a Rolling Stone,” with more pleading, nearly 20 years later. 

Another pair of songs, “Man of Peace” and “License to Kill,” hinge on religion and politics, respectively, but do so with strong enough melodies and subtle enough polemics that, as I strolled past the lush grassy lawns and single-story houses of southeast Orlando, I very much liked them. “I and I,” the penultimate track, played like a companion piece to “Jokerman,” strange and puzzling and insistent. When it came on, I’d reached the community pool a block south from my Mom’s where families swam beneath a mushroom-shaped fountain. It was just parallel with where that track should be, and I walked into the complex. Past basketball courts and a tennis complex, I kept trudging, past the bathrooms and through a tucked-away parking lot to where I could see an open space back behind a retention ditch and a thin stand of oak trees. Back there, I found the track.

“Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed,” Dylan sang as I stepped onto the concrete. “See how sweet she sleeps / how free must be her dreams.” The center of the oval was halved by a grassy field and a retention pond. Dylan invoked King David, or “some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlight streams.” As I made a lap, the lyrical licks were beautiful, diaphanous, just revealing enough for glints of meaning. “Two men” appear on a “train platform,” but otherwise, “there’s nobody in sight.” “The world could come to an end tonight, but that’s all right / She should still be there sleepin’ when I get back.”

“I and I” is hard to crack. Like some language poetry, it refutes meaning simultaneous to introducing it. The chorus invokes “creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives … / One says to another no man sees my face and lives.” The track had no paths, no gates opening onto it; my mother’s street looked like a dark, inaccessible lane of shadows. The track, like the song, was a closed loop, tucked away without access, meaning onto and within itself. I don’t mind not getting this song. It’s personal, scarcely political, wrenched from that gauzy space between sleep and wakefulness, dark and light, this world and the next. It maintains remnants of the Dylan gospel while eschewing the dogma. I highly recommend several long, deep listens.

Do I get Infidels? It’s an ambitious project, both in its musical scope and its attempt to steer out of the gospel phase while still retaining the gospel references. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Again, the Dylan voice is an acquired taste, and he wields it extremely well here. If anything, due to the previous catalogue, my expectations have become so high that I get disappointed when hearing duds like “Neighborhood Bully.” Do I like it? 6 out of 8 ain’t bad.

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