Conclusion: Dylan in Our Midst

It’s Saturday night, late October, and I’ve shaved my face clean. In my bedroom, Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” seeps from a speaker as I slide into my tightest slacks, slate and tapered. Feel like my soul has turned into steel / I still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal. I pluck my frilliest button-down shirt—dark blue and speckled with tiny white diamonds—from my closet and slip it on, flaring open the sleeves and leaving the neckline low. I pull on long socks and step into my gray-suede shoes, slick and pointy. In the bathroom I use my roommate’s hair gel to prop up my shaggy hair while “Cold Irons Bound” rolls through the hallway. God I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist / It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist. Back in my room, I punch up the volume so the hang-dog rhythm and bent guitar notes of “Things Have Changed” fill every cranny. People are crazy and times are strange / I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range / I used to care but / Things have changed. My cheeks smooth, my hair wild, my threads retro-hip, I drape my new harmonica holder, outfitted with a C, around my neck. Gonna get lowdown, gonna fly high / All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie. Shading my eyes behind imitation wayfarer sunglasses, I face the full-length mirror.

I am Bob Dylan.

I’d been listening to Bob Dylan all day, immersing myself in a playlist including the best tracks from each of his 36 studio albums. The playlist, to my subjective ear, represented a comprehensive view of the best of Dylan’s career. I’d intended to listen to the 110 songs, totaling nearly nine hours, all at once, in chronological order, as a capstone to the months-long listening project I’d concluded on the day Dylan won the Nobel Prize. I would listen and remember my history, recent and lifelong; listen and reflect on what I’d come to know; listen and think about my initial hypothesis: that the best way to understand Dylan was to start at the beginning and march through time. Listening to this playlist was my final experiment; the feeling was bittersweet. These songs had come to be like friends. Poring through them, a way of life.

The morning began with “Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody,” selections from Dylan’s first, eponymous album. I played them aloud from a Bluetooth speaker as I rubbed my eyes and flipped on the coffee maker. Those first tracks—artifacts of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s and early 60s—gave way to a preponderance of protest anthems on Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a-Changin’. Cat purring in my lap, I sipped my morning coffee and popped open my laptop to catch up on the latest news about whether Dylan would accept the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The excitement that followed the Nobel Prize announcement on October 13 had ended in anticlimax. He hadn’t said a word about it—hadn’t said a word about anything—during the show he played in the California desert, opening for The Rolling Stones on the night of the announcement. In the coming days it came out that the Nobel committee couldn’t get ahold of him. Per Westberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature 2016, said on Swedish TV that Dylan was “rude and arrogant” for not returning their phone calls.

“I think his manners suck,” Dylan’s folk comrade Joan Baez told an interviewer a few days later, “and his words deserve the Nobel Prize.”

Would Bob really ghost on the Swedish Academy? I’d understood him to be cantankerous and aloof, his anti-establishment thinking clear on tracks like “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Maggie’s Farm”—tracks which, as they rolled through my playlist, also marked Dylan’s electric shift. But now he wasn’t only snubbing the American anti-war, pro-equality folk scene. The world was watching. My excitement for Bob, his fans, and his nation that needed some good news amid the most inflammatory presidential election in its modern history was tempered only by my concern that he would be a jerk about the whole thing.

On the day of the announcement, Dylan’s official Twitter page gestured toward the award with a retweet, but nothing more. Days later, his website briefly featured a “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” banner. The banner was quickly taken down, which Westberg called, “hardly surprising. He seems to be a very grumpy and reluctant man.”

With Dylan’s voice and history seeming then to pulse through my cells, I felt like I could guess at his motives. I began to imagine that, in these times, notoriously skeptical of prizes and honors and the earth-bound institutions that award them, Dylan was a hard man to work for. I imagined his handlers would love nothing more than to shout hallelujah from the rooftops, but that Bob himself didn’t want to talk about it. “You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy,” he sings in “Masters of War,” a song he performed after winning his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. When he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, he neither smiled nor removed his sunglasses when Barack Obama draped the medal around his neck. Dylan simply patted the president on the arm and returned to his seat. I thought about Dylan’s spirituality, expressed through his music—his belief that we live in a world of shadows and corruption. And I considered how Dylan believed he was conduit for songs that floated in the air. All he did was pluck and record them. The songs, not the artist—not to mention The Savior—deserved recognition. Though millions worldwide disagreed, Dylan didn’t regard himself as a genius. Just some mortal who got lucky.

At least, that’s what I could gather. A lack of communication usually leads to misunderstanding, and after two week’s time, folks began to assume—and some even hope—Dylan would refuse the award. “He doesn’t seem like the type to understand that by refusing this award it makes him seem super arrogant,” Alec mentioned in a text. What Alec and I wanted most, though, was to see Dylan accept, to hear him make one of those cryptic Dylan speeches we could call each other to parse for meaning and bias.

Social media, meanwhile, had been ablaze with opinions about whether Dylan’s songwriting should count as “literature.” His lyrics don’t stand on their own as poetry, many claimed, and granting the award to a pop musician was another nail in the coffin of book culture. Besides, why recognize another old white guy when the privilege deficit is already so enormous?

Others reminded us that songs preexisted writing, that ancient poetry was always meant to be sung. Music flows through our bones, and songwriters forward and influence our collective body of writing as well as anyone.

I had friends on both sides—writers and music fans alike. And while I was thrilled about the announcement, I too felt ambivalent about designating Dylan’s material “literature.” Arguments for inclusivity within, or exclusion from, artistic categories are never definitive. To be sure, the generic boundaries of art, music, and literature are elastic, pliable, porous, as this award proved. Taking these debates into account, I now approached Dylan’s oeuvre now with yet another lens. On top of tracking how each album built from the last, and how his work influenced my own personality and taste, I looked back on his work while asking the question, Is it literature?

He’d written two actual books. I’d tried to read this first, a lyrical novel, Tarantula, when I was a teenager, but it was filled with so many free-associations I couldn’t follow. I’d read his memoir, Chronicles Volume I, in the previous months, and it was excellent. But still, those writings alone didn’t give much support for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan’s first seven albums, though, which cycled through my Bluetooth speaker that late October, absolutely transcended music. They involved formal poetry, at times strictly rhymed and metered and others sprawling and illusory. They articulated a social consciousness that gave way to confessions of deep personal yearning and isolation. They combined folk art and surrealism in a way that bridged low and high-brow expressions. All of this innovation, too, occurred under the duress of disenfranchisement from the folk establishment and the untenable spotlight of fame. Though it took fifty years to land, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in the first six years of his recording career.

As tempting as it was, I couldn’t sit around the apartment all day listening to Dylan and surfing the web. The sun was shining, leaves turning, temperature in that ideal light-sweater-and-jeans range. Besides, I had a physical therapy appointment to get to for a pinched nerve in my neck. I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected those months crouched over on the train punching my Dylan insights into the notes app on my phone had at least contributed to the tingling sensation running periodically down my left arm. Amid what Dylan once called those “thin … mercury” tunes from Blonde on Blonde—”Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman”—I scarfed down a sandwich for lunch and made for the train.

The B-line runs in front of my apartment, down the middle of Commonwealth Ave, a busy, six-lane thoroughfare. I stood there with a few other college-aged Bostonians waiting for the train with traffic whizzing behind us, their fumes mingling with the nippy breeze. The sun felt good on my face as the eleven-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” tumbled into my ears. Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes / Now, where outside the house of my Arabian drums… No, that wasn’t right. I might wear an outsized Arabian drum? That wasn’t it either. I never did know what Dylan was saying in that refrain. The train pulled up and I grabbed a seat, looked it up on my phone.

“My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums / Should I leave them by your gate? / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

Which all made a lot more sense. And with 8 minutes of the song remaining, I dove in, sinking myself into those capacious warehouse spaces opened by Dylan’s vocals. The song came alive, fell into place, even if the images only hinted, stopped short of fully giving over their meaning. I still had so much in learn, so much to try and understand about each album, each track, each lyric. It’s no wonder I reached for contextual help from history and biography. When I loved something I wanted to know its essence, how it worked, what machinations brought it into being.

To ride the train engrossed in Dylan was now a familiar pose, old hat. Through the spare, arcane folk years of John Wesley Harding, the clopping country sounds of Nashville Skyline, the couple bright spots of Self Portrait we bumbled down toward Boston University, picking up a cohort of college kids, high school students thrilled for the weekend, and young professionals on an early Friday afternoon. The stops came slowly, my appointment time grew near, and by the time I detrained I was already ten minutes late, while the breeze blew crisp and the Charles River rippled brightly between brick college buildings. I called and cancelled and headed toward the water.

Unexpectedly, Boston University had become central to my investigations. Four months earlier Christopher Ricks, whose name was now showing up in every third Dylan article hailing him as a “genius,” had welcomed me into his office, served me tea, and in so many words called me foolish for having such a strong reaction to a disagreement of taste. Alec had called Blood on the Tracks “hokum filler”—and so what? Wasn’t Alec entitled to an opinion? I didn’t know it at the time, but Ricks deconstructing my motives was just the first step toward realizing this Dylan project had less to do with a hypothesis and more to do with my own life history. I needed to get a handle on Dylan’s catalogue in order to get a handle on the Dylan acolyte within me.

But more than Ricks, Boston University’s Gottlieb Archives held a Bob Dylan collection I sifted through and found, beyond the concert posters and bootleg recordings tracing his entire career, an enigmatic collector who called himself Soul Garlic. According to a handout I found in just one of fifteen boxes of Dylan-related stuff, Soul Garlic’s collection spanned his whole life, eventually spilling from his basement space into the upstairs and, eventually, into the archives. ” “Why Bob Dylan? I listen to his music almost all the time,” Soul Garlic wrote. “He’s the man. The world’s coolest Jew. Maybe I am hoping that something will rub off on this dull boring certified public accountant.” Soul Garlic and I weren’t so different, I supposed—despite that he was a Jewish accountant and I was a waspy English teacher—in that we both sought a comprehensive view of Dylan, aware that our favorite artist’s je ne sais quoi had rubbed off on us—or at least that we’d wanted it to.

What’s more, for a few weeks in September, I dated a poet, Elaine, from the BU MFA program. It happened that we both were among six readers sharing our work with a small audience one night in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith. I liked the pantoum she read and told her so afterward. Though she grew up in Los Angeles, her father’s family came from Hibbing, Minnesota—Bobby Zimmerman’s hometown—and they knew Bob Dylan’s first wife, Sara. Elaine’s graduate assistantship at BU had her helping out with a new course on Bob Dylan, not taught by Ricks, but in conversation with him. Now she was dating a guy listening to every Dylan track in chronological order. She often said she didn’t believe in coincidences. I always said I did. It didn’t work out between us.

These contemplations evaporated, however, when I reached the esplanade just as “New Morning” sprang on, and once again I was enlivened by that utterly optimistic song, practically skipping with the snare beats as Dylan crooned, “This must be the day when all of my dreams come true / So happy just to be alive / Underneath this sky of blue / On this new morning … With you.” The rising organ, the energized guitar, and Dylan himself howling out “new morning” again and again for the outro had become my go-to spirit lifter, and here it came again in time with Dylan’s catalogue, and in time to propel me forward.

Crew boats rowed up and down the Charles; pedestrians wove through the riverside park and swarmed on the bridges; New Morning gave way to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid to Planet Waves. Up through Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood I walked while “Tangled Up in Blue”—the song Alec had questioned if it was a song at all—sent me rambling. She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century. Was Dylan hinting at something here, proclaiming he’d been passed some poetic flame? The lyrics, sung with force, certainly sounded literary.

A few tracks later I stopped into a music store near Berklee College of Music, there amid the hectic intersection of the Green Line, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Massachusetts Avenue. “I’m looking for your cheapest harmonica holder and C harmonica,” I told the young guy behind the counter, his hair shaggy on top and shaved on the sides.

He grinned wide while he retrieved the products and asked, “You busking today?”

I smiled. “Nah man. I’m putting together a Bob Dylan costume.”

“Far out!”

Compiling the best few tracks from every Dylan album effectively papered over any hint of unevenness or decline from 1961 through 1980. Even while Dylan’s output sometimes experienced growing pains as he evolved from fresh-faced folkie to folk-rocker, cryptic Western outlaw to gleaming rock star, the best of his material always reached the highest registers of music. I contemplated this smoothness as I walked down the well-heeled shopping district of Newberry Street, hiked through the Public Gardens swelling with amblers, and trekked across the grassy Boston Common. The crisp air, the sinking sun, the rollicking music doubled and deepened my memory, like mirrors turned on each other. I thought about my lifelong interactions with the songs; I recalled traipsing around Boston as I studied them in the previous months; and I heard them now in a new order, resituated within the present playlist.

Even his gospel phase, beginning on the lip of rush hour with Slow Train Coming, started with a flourish, the funky grooves of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” plus the title track, animating the subway caverns as I turned toward home. But stacked amid the rush-hour mob groping for a handle and jostling with the rocking train, my playlist began to falter. The title track from Saved, high-kicking evangelism, was the first hitch and, despite streaks of excellence in the 80s, we hit some potholes headed due west from downtown with Shot of Love, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and even some of Dylan’s work with the Traveling Wilburys. These moments, wheezing with Dylan’s mid-life vocals and half-hearted compositions, put special stress on my hypothesis. Could I draw on the lineage of Dylan albums these songs grew from to enjoy them more fully? Could I trace the development of an artist in the musical and lyrical phrasings? If anything, all I could salvage from the off-kilter “Clean Cut Kid,” or “Congratulations,” a track which seems to gasp for air like a fish on land, was the knowledge that Dylan reacted with antagonism to the synthesized sounds of the 80s. Though I was tempted to skip over these tracks, because of the knowledge I’d gained I was more willing to give Dylan a pass for the difficulties he faced and, eventually, overcame.

By all accounts, Dylan staged a resurgence in the late 90s, long after fans and critics had put his best days behind him. And here’s where, in the smoky haunts of Time Out of Mind, and in the scratchy lilting vocals of Love and Theft, and in the throaty growls of Tempest, understanding the evolution of Dylan’s voice helps in comprehending its late-stage power.

So as those hardened, wizened tracks from the several most recent albums played while I put on my costume, I wondered again, is listening to Dylan’s catalogue in chronological order the best way to appreciate it?

In a word, Yes. Of course. But didn’t I know that from the start? What I didn’t realize, however, was that the power of that initial hypothesis was to introduce other questions, questions with more more depth and complexity.

Is author’s biography fair game for critics? More than Kooper and Ricks expressed doubt and dissent over my importing context into my reading of Dylan’s work. Again, strict answers are tough to come by, and tougher to defend. There are songs that work without context, such as the closed-form package of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which, beyond its moment of composition, contains the timeless power to speak to all times of progress, strife, and change. There are others, such as “Going Going Gone” which comes alive when considering Dylan’s reclusion from the spotlight of his late-60s fame, and “You’re a Big Girl Now” which makes a lot more sense through the lens of Dylan’s marital separation. Much of the art of criticism is knowing when to apply those biographical and historical insights, and when to treat art as a discreet entity apart from its creator altogether. Considering the cult of personality surrounding Bob Dylan, and his penchant for reinvention in response to his life, times, and reception, I still contend exploring the context around his songs only aids in understanding and enjoyment.

Is Dylan’s work literature? I contend it’s difficult to prove that it’s not. He laid down folk tales in their original form of expression. His original work paired folk phrasings with surrealistic poetry, presenting the world with a hybrid language of sound and sense that influenced underground and mainstream cultures alike. If, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, literature is invention; and if cultural theorist Michel Foucault is correct that invention is what distinguishes an author from a writer; then Dylan is more than a songwriter. He is an inventor, an author of literature.

The question remains, however, Is my own life, my own orientation to art and authority, really so affected by Bob Dylan? That might be the hardest question of all. Its variables—my selfhood, my essence—seem exponentially more slippery and vague than art and art criticism. Did I form to Dylan or did he suit me? Is the Dylan that sixteen-year-old kid in Mr. Etling’s history class heard the same Dylan I listen to through my smartphone? The sounds are the same. The listener never is.

The chronology—the albums, the years, the memories—folds in on itself. Nothing is where you left it. Or, as Dylan says, “There is nothing so stable as change.”

The Halloween party features Ghostbusters and transvestite fortune tellers, Gilligan and Gandalf and a samurai warrior. The dozens of party goes rival the grotesque cast of characters from “Desolation Row.” Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers. Around the classmate’s house in Newton hang spider webs. Blood streaks across the walls. Ghouls and goblins lean from the closets. I find myself in a crowd on the front porch sipping hunch-punch with a 1970s Bill Clinton, his beard shaggy, his hair long, his threads retro.

“Gee Bob,” Bill says, his voice deep, soft, and vaguely southern. “I really like those tunes you been playing.”

“Well thanks, Bill,” I respond. Dylan’s distinctive voice isn’t hard to mimic: press your vocal chords up and back and talk through your nose. This imitation is one of the universal pleasures shared by all Dylan fans. “But I gotta say. I don’t trust no politicians no how no way.”

A friend dressed as a rock-and-roll groupie stumbles out of the front door and points to my harmonica. “Play a song, Bob Dylan.”

I smirk and blow a C. Once upon a time you dressed so fine… Before long the whole porch is singing. How does it feel? / To be on your own / No direction home / A complete unknown / Like a rolling stone.

To their hoots and howls I launch into a harmonica solo.

I can’t avoid it.

I am Bob Dylan.

Spare Parts: Christmas in the Heart, Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

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When I woke up this morning and checked my phone, I had four texts, three emails, two IMs and a flurry of Facebook and Twitter notifications. Now, I’m not that important a person. Something was up.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

I’m damn happy for the guy, though I imagine he’s sort of brushing the whole thing off. The world’s accolades never appealed much to Bob, as he articulated in his 2014 interview with Morley Safer. “That’s just today,” he said about his song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” being named by Rolling Stone the number-one song of all time. “It’ll change tomorrow.”

My friend Matt said, “The poets are SALTY” about Dylan winning over a traditional poet. Apparently Dylan’s lyrical stylings challenge their definition of literature. But “literature” transcends the genres taught in MFA programs—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama. And the Nobel Prize in Literature simply honors “the most outstanding work [of literature] in an ideal direction.”

Bob Dylan writes, he sings, he makes music. He reaches into the past and heaves it forward with his steady commitment to both revivifying musical modes and exposing the human condition. As I’ve said over and over, no one has influenced my own writing, my own thinking more. I can’t fathom a more worthy recipient.

My friend and professor, Richard Hoffman, former chair of Pen New England where he established the Song Lyrics Award, defends the Nobel Committee’s choice well. He posted the powerful words he wrote when Pen New England honored Randy Newman and Kris Kristofferson in 2014. Those words:

“The human voice was the first musical instrument. Long before—many centuries before!—we were able to articulate our thoughts, we expressed our love, our terror, our sorrow, and our joy by singing. … [W]hether or not songwriting is sufficiently literary or whether songs ought to be considered literature is a puny and preposterous question. Every other literary genre is a tributary of that great river.”

Puny and preposterous. I love this sentiment. It is only our own moment in time that would challenge the notion of lyrics as literature. We’ve crystallized our notions of literature into precious genres that proclaim their own preeminence. But doesn’t drama move, too, to the music within? Don’t poems sing? Doesn’t fiction thump a beat?

This news comes amid my ruminations on the three cover albums Dylan has released in the past five years. One is a holiday album: Christmas in the Heart. Dylan seems mighty brave to cast beloved, sacred songs like “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells,” and “O’Come All Ye Faithful” through his salty growl. The fifteen songs on this album are enough to scare the kiddies into good behavior for when Santa comes down the chimney.

The other two are Sinatra covers. You heard me right. Sinatra covers. Our rock and roll shakespeare, our American lyrical bard, was never hailed for his golden harmonies. But Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels give him the opportunity to flex his two-time Grammy-winning voice. He recreates the rat pack in a comitragical milieu of love and yearning, loss and despair. I can’t help but think he’s maintained his humor through the years. And he’s still challenging everyone’s notions of art, and voice, and what counts as “good” and “worthy” and “valuable.”

Now that I’ve heard and written about every studio album (and then some), I’m still processing my thoughts for a final conclusion. But right now I know one thing for certain: Don’t turn your back on Bob, don’t count him out. He’s got more surprises than we’ve got sleeves.

Tempest: The Last (Original, Studio) Act

New Bob Dylan Album - Tempest - Set For September Release on Columbia Records.  (PRNewsFoto/Columbia Records)

When I started this project, Boston was still emerging from a long, mild winter. I was traipsing around the city in jackets and sweaters, high-stepping to those early albums. Then spring kicked in, and summer arrived, and Dylan’s age seemed to rise with the temperature. Now, five months deep, the weather’s turning again. I’m waiting for the bus in pants and long sleeves, a hoodie overtop, listening to Tempest and contemplating the passage of time.

This album, Tempest, is Dylan’s last studio album of original work, at least for the time being. His twilight sound is familiar now–instrumentations evocative of pre-rock musical modes; a growling, crooning voice possessed with endless couplets, by turns facile, borrowed, and brilliant. This style allows Dylan to pump out the tunes deep into his sixties, without risking flops and duds.

Thus, there’s a security inherent in these later albums, safety and comfort like a favorite cozy sweater. The lead track, “Duquesne Whistle” (pronounced Doo-cane), nestles into that space between familiarity–the chirping guitars, shuffling snare drum, and thumping upright bass harkening the happy-go-lucky 1920s–and foreboding through Dylan’s ravaged voice. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’ / Blowin’ like it’s gonna kill me dead.” This bright/dark contrast establishes an irony that suffuses this album.

None of the tracks that follow, however, even approach the playfulness of that album opener. But the irony persists. No surprise, Dylan ushers us one-by-one through repackaged styles. “Soon after Moodnight” evokes big-band, Rat-Pack style proclamations undercut with surprising lines like, “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Track three, “Narrow Way,” takes up Buddy Holly-style 2/4 skiffle rock while “Long and Wasted Years” reanimate the love-ballad genre with a descending guitar motif and Dylan free associates: “Shake it up baby twist and shout, you know what it’s all about / What you doing out there in the sun anyway? You know the sun can burn your brains right out.” If anything, Dylan and his band, hardened and sharpened through the “Never Ending Tour,” have come to excel at reaching back to reinvent.

But after four tracks, “Tempest” is just warming up. The fifth number, “Pay in Blood,” is a mid-album highlight. “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear ya’ limb from limb,” Dylan growls over an impetuous groove. The chorus here consists of one line, tacked onto and emerging always from the end of each verse: “I’m circling around the southern zone / I pay in blood, but not my own.” This mainstay of Dylan’s songwriting–the clipped, emphatic chorus that rhymes with verse ends–is as characteristic of his style as any dialect or theme. Think “Desolation Row,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Not Dark Yet.” These songs contain power coupled with propulsion. On Tempest, that energy becomes ominous, shrouding the Dylan persona in danger and wrongdoing.

I’ve come to like this menacing Dylan. He reminds me of the nefarious hobos “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum,” those “low down dirty old [men]” from Love and Theft who “will stab you where you stand.” In “Scarlet Town” that persona “attacks the guard” amid fiddle- and banjo-echoes of Irish folk. “Early Roman Kings” is fleshed-out Blues that sounds as if it’s sung by a phantasmagoric circus-barker with black teeth and lung cancer. The song title “Tin Angel” might suggest a nod to the dance-piano of Tin Pan Alley, but in fact the tune features a pared-down arrangement for a tense retelling of a love triangle that ends awash in blood, like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Though Shakespeare’s final play was titled The Tempest, Dylan shot down any connection between the two. But the synchronicities are unmistakeable. Even “Pay in Blood” evokes Shylock the predatory money lender from Merchant of Venice demanding his “pound of flesh.” So like a good tragedy, the album itself nearly ends with one of the most infamous disasters of the twentieth century. “Tempest” retells, over an Irish folk arrangement, the sinking of the Titanic. But not the historical Titanic. James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. No, seriously, “Leo took his sketchbook,” Dylan sings with highland zeal. “He was often so inclined / He closed his eyes and painted / The scenery in his mind.”

At nearly fourteen minutes, his titular song could’ve joined the pantheon of Dylan’s impossibly long and labrynthine album closers—“Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Highlands.” And then Dylan’s studio efforts would’ve ended with neither a bang nor a whimper, but slow sinking into oblivion. Yet Dylan changes it up here. “Roll on John,” instead, is the final track, a sentimental ballad that bestows closure on John Lennon’s life: “You burned so bright / Roll on John.” Thirty years after Lennon’s murder, his life still weighs on Dylan, who performs this tribute to another pop luminary. “I heard the news today oh boy,” Dylan sings, borrowing Lennon’s own words, “They hauled your ship up on the shore.”

Dylan presents to us his familiar pattern, but he changes it up a hair. His albums seem to rotate with and respond to the seasons. His voice carries on the breeze. The fall winds hit like an old friend—but as much as that friend is here to prop us up, here’s also here to cut us down.

Picking Up Steam: Together Through Life

bob_dylan_-_together_through_lifeI can feel the energy here twisting through the guitar twang and accordion thrums, horn blurts and organ cries of the opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” That is, Dylan’s croak informs us, “Nothing but the moon and stars.” But the next track, “Life Is Hard,” is so insubstantial in its slow procession it feels delicate on the ears, hardly registering at all. “My Wife’s Home Town” (Hell, by the way) loosely folds its verses around that intriguing refrain. But then, “If You Ever Go To Houston” features Dylan’s growling, twanging vocals, paired with that crowing accordion and a slide guitar, at their late-career best. “If you ever go to Austin / Fort Worth or San Anton’,” Dylan reminisces, the band loping forward like those outlaws from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “Find the barrooms I got lost in / And send my memories home.”

This last weekend I found myself in a Fenway bar, hanging out with my grad-school classmates and colleagues. They’re mostly in their twenties (the birthday girl was turning 23), and sometimes they get me to participate in the things folks in their early twenties do: stay out late, chug beer, walk long distances home. Used to be no problem, I’d bounce back with vigor. Not so much anymore.

I only had four beers! (Okay–and a whiskey-sour nightcap). But for godsakes, it took me two days and a hair-of-the-dog to start feeling like myself again. At the bar, though, one of the poets said he’d met Bob Dylan–said, through cryptic nod-and-winks that he knew Bob Dylan, before swearing me to secrecy. I have no reason to doubt him, really, especially because when I expressed concern about Bob coming down on me for copyright issues (none of Dylan’s studio recordings appear on YouTube, after all) this guy told me, “Bob? Shit, Bob doesn’t care.”

I like this image of Bob: a mellow old rock-and-roller who wouldn’t waste a moment concerning himself with rights and records and legacies. I’ve painted him at times as a miserly anti-critic, but you know, when a man’s lived the vast majority of his life in the spotlight, fielding questions and inferences from media types extrapolating theories and inferences (what Kooper called “folly and conjecture”), a certain distrust of critics might be understandable.

But not me, right? My project’s different from the rest, and not just because of my (ahem) unassailable ear and analysis. But because I’d like to think Bob would like me if he met me, even if he thought, like Kooper, that my “thinking is all wrong.”

I’ve said it before. They’re Bob’s songs, but they’re my songs–our songs–too.

From this kinder perspective I attempt to hear “Forgetful Heart” as more than an atmospheric ballad in a minor key; “Jolene” as more than masculine bluster (“Baby I am the king, and you are the queen / … People think they know but they all wrong”); “This Dream of You” as an earnest rendition of Mexicana folk. Because there’s some good stuff here: tunes that evince a master still plying his craft.

Several masters, in fact. Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead shares songwriting credits on all but one track. Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers riffs guitar. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos pumps that alluring accordion. And really, this album ends in a flourish. “Shake Shake Mama” pops with groove-inducing funk behind a AAB rhyme scheme. “I’m motherless, fatherless, almost friendless too / It’s Friday morning on Franklin Avenue.” The penultimate track, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” rings with that Obama-era optimism so common back in 2008 while its strong major progression reinforces that sunniness: “We’ve got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / I just can’t wait for us to become friends.” That bright-sidedness transitions into the final track, “It’s All Good.” Here, Dylan shrugs off those corrupt institutions he railed against so vehemently with a throw-back phrase and delivery.

Do I get this album? It’s an exploration of American musical forms from yet another angle. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Totally, because the Dylan persona here–raspy and cryptic, playful and good-natured–leans on his decades of wit and confidence. Do I like it? With this cast, these songs, how could I not?

Need a Lift: Modern Times

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It’s the first day of the fall semester, and I’m back in the classroom. This morning I had the honor of teaching 42 students over two courses for their first college class. Their eyes were (mostly) bright, eager for the education ahead. They chuckled at my jokes, not yet jaded by rapid-fire exams and up-all-night essays. I felt glad to be the first teacher to usher them into their college existence, even if all we did was go over the syllabus. The fall semester never seems more promising than on the first day.

And yet, there’s a sadness here too. Today marks the undeniably end of Summer 2016, a summer in which I cycled the Erie Canal and hung out on Lake Champlain, spent two weeks home in Orlando and later mourned the Pulse shooting victims from Kansas City. I bumbled around, read books at my leisure, wrote poems and songs, chapters and Dylan essays. Summer 2016–save for the shooting–was a model of what I wish my life could be always.

I’m of two minds today, both in regards to the changing of the academic season and the Dylan album at hand, “Modern Times.” After two stellar, life-enhancing albums in a row, Dylan here seems struggling to recapture that resurgent late-career energy. Right from the billowing intro to track one, “Thunder on the Mountain,” it seems the band is trying to gather steam around Dylan, but while he’s “Wonderin’ where in the world Alicia Keys could be,” the tune just can’t excite him. Besides, “Thunder on the Mountain” sounds a bit too similar to the Grateful Dead jam, “Fire on the Mountain”–and this isn’t the only Dead echo on the album. Track four, “When the Deal Goes Down,” a 3/4 waltz, borrows directly from the Garcia-Hunter composition, “Deal.”

Whereas on “Love and Theft,” Dylan was lifting lines from Twain and Fitzgerald, here he constructs entire choruses around both Grateful Dead tunes and blues-rock standards. The third track, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a Muddy Waters original, echoes Canned Heat’s arrangement from Woodstock, or the one from Eric Clapton’s mid-90’s “Unplugged.” But Dylan spruces up the tune with his own associative lyrics. The effect is of a meandering train starting from the Muddy Waters station but digressing and detouring before looping back around. The same holds true for another Waters tune–“Someday Baby,” a take on “Trouble No More” thundered out by the early Allman Brothers Band. And “The Levee’s Gonna Break”–Led Zeppelin, anyone?

This patchwork structure of borrowed licks and lyrics coupled with original blues-themed phrases seems deliberate and, therefore, uniquely Dylanesque. His work here becomes a mosaic of all the songs he’s heard, the books he’s read, the American musical tropes he’s helped carry. Originality falls under such doubt it no longer matters; turns out in Dylan’s mind, it never did.

These are discussions I’ll have with my students this semester: how to converse with a text; how to incorporate another writer’s ideas in a way that doesn’t squelch your own originality; how to cite sources. That’s the academic mission, to further the conversation while protecting the input of each participant. Dylan’s project is different. Dylan seeks to embody the conversation, to make himself a conduit for all of its participant’s expressions.

Still, on “Modern Times,” the strongest tracks are the ones that seem the most original. Track two, “Spirit on the Water,” is a jazzy love song in which Dylan rightly ponders “What does it matter, what price I pay?” for his lover’s affection. “Workingman’s Blues #2” is a stand out with a strong, descending progression for a chorus in which Dylan commands, “Meet me at the bottom don’t lag behind / Bring me my boots and shoes / You can hang back or fight your best on the front line / Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.”

But then again, what of the Grateful Dead album, “Workingman’s Dead”? Is the phrasing not too similar? What of the claims that lyrics throughout the album are cribbed from Ovid, from Henry Timrod. That parts “Nettie Moore” date back to the mid-nineteenth century?

This album warrants a scan through SafeAssign, or TurnItIn, our plagiarism databases. But don’t think we can nail Dylan–or Jack Frost as he calls himself under the production credits–for dishonesty. If you don’t get what he’s doing, it wasn’t meant for you.

Do I get it? I have to say, the borrowing makes me uneasy. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Never before have we seen such an amalgamation of music and literature on display, and without apology. Do I like it? Parts feel tired, loose; I wish I could trust it.

It’s about Time: Time out of Mind

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Yesterday I took the Greyhound–our neglected stepchild of long-distance transportation–from Burlington, VT back to Boston. The bus was packed, smelled of blue toilet water, and my seat neighbor and I chuckled about how our row rocked back and forth as much as a foot with every start and stop. It was a six-hour ride; I was stuck in a cramped, smelly limbo. The one redeeming aspect of the ride was that I had the perfect Dylan album for the occasion: Time Out of Mind.

We’ve come a long way since Dylan’s twenties and the furious start to his career, his throttled-back Americana early thirties, the arena rock that ushered in his forties. Even the utter artistic and commercial flops like Down in the Groove and Under the Red Sky of Dylan’s late forties seem erased from memory now as Dylan recasts his original material through that mystified, aging rambler intimated on World Gone Wrong.

Time Out of Mind is, to be sure, a comeback album, a return to form unseen since Blood on the Tracks. It constitutes another reinvention of our protean folk-rock hero. Right from the opening staccato organ bleats of “Lovesick,” soon paired with Dylan’s crisp, filtered rasp, it’s clear this album means to take its time layering keyboard riffs and guitar counterpoints. The second track, then–“Dirt Road Blues”–sets those instruments in motion as they twist and twang over a country beat. Again on track three, “Standing in the Doorway,” the arrangement glides the listener slowly into a meditation on the progress of love lost–“Yesterday everything was going too fast / Today it’s moving too slow”–while time, which has deepened over the decades, comes rife with forsaken love. These soundscapes, created by producer Daniel Lanois, along with these themes Dylan explores persist through these 11 tracks. The unity of sound and sense coheres the tracks with a strength essential to a complete, vital album. And that’s what Time Out of Mind is–a masterwork.

Time Out Mind also constitutes the first celebrated Dylan album release I was conscious of in the moment. I remember standing in the checkout line at Publix in 1997 with my father, born two years after Dylan, who was featured that day on a magazine cover by the register. “I heard Dylan’s latest album is really good,” Dad said, which was a surprise even to me, a 13 year old, because everybody—everybody!—knew Dylan’s beat years were behind him. But the critics agreed. Rolling Stones‘ four-star review called it “a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy,” also produced by Lanois. “The rumor is true,” wrote the A.V. Club: “Bob Dylan, an artist for whom many fans had simply given up hope, has made an excellent album.” For its part, Entertainment Weekly compared Time Out Mind to the Rolling Stones’ more “frantic” Bridges to Babylon, released at the same time (and, fun fact, launching the tour that served as my first concert (Santana opened)). Dylan’s effort, according to EW, proved Dylan “a man out of time, in self-imposed exile from rock trends, and all the wiser and stronger for keeping his distance from their energy-sapping fickleness.”

The consensus: by coming to terms with loss (of love, vivacity, and, perhaps, his audience) and mortality, Dylan had turned his career around. Hell, it won him the Grammy for Album of the Year.

“Million Miles” evokes a smoky jazz club where the instruments don’t as much play as lounge and moan. “Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think,” Dylan grows before observing, “I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you.” The conflict seems disembodied, removed from the speaker. Love unattainable is a constant, but one questions if a subject even exists behind the words, or if the album-wide laments serve as scaffolding for metaphysical contemplations. For example, “Trying to Get to Heaven” (“before they close the door”) expresses the futility of existence when non-existing could bring such bliss; yet our deliverance to that great hereafter is wholly beyond our control. The same idea applies to “Not Dark Yet,” which couples a dirge procession with lilting, redemptive guitar licks. “It’s not dark yet,” Dylan maintains, before dropping the tone, “but it’s getting there.” Beyond time, space collapses here too, as Dylan mutters, “There isn’t even room to be anywhere.” These two songs combine with “Standing in the Doorway” to form an exquisite triad of late-life ballads, slow and atmospheric, that recast the Dylan persona, typically caustic and accusatory, as a patient, toothless wanderer resigned to perplexity over the inscrutable trappings of our spectral world. There’s “nowhere left to turn”; “nothing left to burn.” The whole album feels theatrical, like an avante garde stage play. This is Godot in stereo, with Dylan the guitar-slinging tramp. His overriding could be summed as, Heartbroken again, but there’s still time–wait, still time? What is time, anyway, and after all I’ve been through, how could I possibly have more of it? Life is strange.

And so the album’s static mood, its overarching suspension of time and space and scarred hearts, had me forgetting about the time spent in that Greyhound seat–had me doubting the progress of time at all. “Cold Irons Bound,” which won a freaking Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, kept me a constant “twenty miles out of town.” A standard love ballad, “Make You Feel My Love,” proved again Dylan’s straight-up songwriting prowess. “Can’t Wait,” which declares, “I don’t know how much longer I can wait,” reminded me of my cabin fever, my anxiety to get off that bus. But the final track, the 16-minute “Highlands” featuring Dylan swirling between stage sets, including a restaurant in “Bostontown,” sounded utterly displaced, beyond the laws of spacetime altogether. All the while I thought of my father, who seemed to understand this stage of life where experiences circle so fast they leave their experiencers in a vacuum bemused.

Do I get “Time Out of Mind?” I get it, yeah, down deep. Do I need the previous albums to get it? To comprehend the velocity of this comeback, absolutely. Do I like it? More than that, I’ve internalized it–I’ve integrated it into the stasis of my life.

Capping the Damage: An Early 90s Retrospective of Dylan’s Career

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In the early 90’s, Bob Dylan was entering his third decade of studio albums. His early work revolutionized folk, and then rock. In the 70’s, with The Band, he fueled the Americana revival that thrives today. The 80’s, characterized by gospel and synthesizers and neon flourishes, saw a decline in his voice, his songwriting, and (let’s be honest) his ability to give a shit. But his first two albums of the 90’s–Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong–signaled Dylan getting back to the basics: folk tales, acoustic texturing, a biting, caustic tone.

Dylan was entering his 50’s, and he along with his colleagues and admirers felt compelled to put his career into perspective. They did so with two albums. The first, a compilation from the 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert Neil Young dubbed “Bobfest.” The second, an MTV Unplugged album that presented the artist in his most natural state. Career retrospectives, one gets the feeling these two albums serve to put context around the arc of Dylan’s fading career.

A powerhouse of musicians came out to celebrate Dylan’s 30th musical anniversary, and the album itself features a slew of now-classic performances. Eddie Veder belting out an acoustic “Masters of War”; Tracy Chapman shining like an updated Joan Baez on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”; Eric Clapton absolutely killing the blues on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; Neil Young just getting nasty on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“‘The joke was on me, there was no one even there to call my bluff / I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough”).

But it’s not just the covers of the old stuff that shines through on this concert recording. With dueling lead vocals ramping up a soulful “Emotionally Yours,” the O’Jays demonstrate the power some of Dylan’s 80’s material can have when placed in the right hands. Petty follows suit with a poignant “License to Kill.” And the Spotify version of this album contains a track missing from the double-CD I had as a teenager: a fabulously heartfelt “I Believe in You” by Sinead O’Connor.

The star power, the production value, the strength of the material serve as a reminder of and a testament to Dylan’s genius. That’s the only word that fits. Genius.

And yet, ironically, the weakest tracks are the ones Dylan performs in himself. But we’ve become accustomed to Dylan’s nasal wheeze by now. We’ve come to expect his messing with the phrasings and stresses to jar our expectations. “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” plays like some epically poetic sneeze. His stepping up for the last verse on “My Back Pages,” after Petty, Young, and Clapton all nailed their parts, evokes drifting from the highway onto the rattle strip, and makes one wonder what the Traveling Wilburys would’ve been with Young, or Clapton–or both–in Dylan’s place. Dylan’s highlight remains “Girl from the North Country,” befitting his success ratio of late: about 1 in 3.

IMG_4838The same ratio holds true for Bob Dylan Unplugged, a title which is a bit of a redundancy for an artist well at home behind an acoustic guitar. Two tracks here make their first album appearance: “John Brown,” which immediately ranks among Dylan’s finest folk war-protests, and “Dignity,” another commentary on humanity’s struggle to do what’s right, made upbeat by a capable backing band. On the other tracks, however, that band can’t hardly raise Dylan up to the level of his studio efforts. “Desolation Row” feels spare and forced, falling miles short of the haunting guitar jams from “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “Like a Rolling Stone” here, robbing folks of the “How does it feel!” peak of every chorus, is an embarrassment to those electric mid-sixties recording sessions. If nothing else, these songs remind us how great Dylan was back in 1965.

On the whole, these two albums could have easily recapped Dylan’s career and sent him loping into the folk-rock sunset. This moment in time certainly feels like a farewell tour, a move toward closure. Of course, we denizens of the future know better. But one could easily forgive a Dylan fan in 1995 for considering Dylan’s legendary creative fires burnt out, and for anticipating him relegated to performing sporadic and mediocre greatest hits tours from here out.

Do I get these albums? In both cases, the honor and respect for this folk-rock legend is palpable and powerful. Do I need the previous albums to get them? Absolutely–nowhere else does an education help more. Do I like them? The 30th Anniversary Concert remains imminently listenable; Unplugged imminently forgettable.