I came to like Bob Dylan somewhat reluctantly. I’d always been of the view that his was a genius best experienced through interpretation, of which there is no shortage. I grew up with Jimi Hendrix’ redefinition of “All Along the Watchtower”, Arlo Guthrie reprising “Gates of Eden”, the B-52s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, Johnny & June Carter Cash’s slightly heartbreaking “It Ain’t Me Babe”… there are no shortages of people picking up Dylan and making his music their own. It always seemed incredible to me that someone with such little apparent talent for performance should have made his name as a performer whose work was adapted, rather than remaining in proper mole-like anonymity as a songwriter. Perhaps the only Bob Dylan song I enjoyed as a Dylan performance was “Rainy Day Woman”, but the syncopated rhythm and cynical lyrics seemed uniquely suited to his voice.
In 2005 I did a course on American Literature ™, which included a section on the Beat Poets and… Bob Dylan, and that seemed fairly natural. To illustrate her points about his lyricism, the lecturer played some videos, and they were weirdly compelling. Around the same time a young grad came to work with my company who was a big Bob Dylan fan – as it turned out, was my boss. And all-unwilling, Bob Dylan entered the music mix in a somewhat regular way. Prolonged exposure began to help me find the tracks that I liked, and appreciate the musical performance as well as the musical construction – at least some of the time. I admit, I didn’t really grok the Beats; Norman Podhoretz’s dismissal of the Beats as anti-intellectual has always struck me as the worst kind of arrogance while simultaneously levelling a charge which must be addressed, if only by changing the rules around the question:
“Being for or against what the Beat generation stands for has to do with denying that incoherence is superior to precision; that ignorance is superior to knowledge; that the exercise of mind and discrimination is a form of death…It has to do, in other words, with being for or against intelligence itself.”
When S and I were moved into our own office we had absolute control over the music, but at that point things become a bit more of a delicate balance. Everything you listen to has to be somewhat palatable to both occupants. In a group environment you can grit your teeth when, say, the Beach Boys are on their third cycle that day, but when it’s only two of you, that kind of thing starts to feel personal. We devised a simple way of managing the music – we drew two huge circles on our office wall with an overlapping central area and used post-it notes to fill out the Venn Diagram of Musical Taste. Maybe only an engineer would solve this problem that way. As the system had longer to develop, refinements and patterns started to become clear. I was keener on Jazz, S on Folk, neither of us were much into choral music, and so on. Bob Dylan became a weird exception to this, because depending on the album he came to occupy all 4 possible areas on the diagram – music liked by one, by both, and by neither. Early Dylan was always a bit of a tough sell for me (with the exception of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which was his favourite and I quite like too), while it was S’s favourite. Middle Dylan I think we broadly agreed on, and late Dylan was anyone’s guess.
In one man’s opinion Blood on the Tracks justifies the whole Dylan enterprise. Plenty has been written on the difficulties of making the album – he apparently went through several sets of session musicians. Plenty has been written on the relationship the album might or might not have to his personal life – it’s been described to me several times as his break-up album. For me, none of that resonates. Blood on the Tracks is emotionally ambiguous, fragmentary and evocative. It’s an album that has meant different things to me at different times, and Dylan’s performance seems to me to create more possible meanings and inferences. Joan Baez did a great cover of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” on her album, From Every Stage, but when I hear her version I can only hear it in the mode of up-beat rhythms of the Jack of Hearts as a swashbuckling adventure. She doesn’t eliminate the inherent sadness in the song, but the genre is certainly one of wild Romance. I can listen to Dylan’s original in that mode, but I can also hear the tragic story of broken lives that makes the Jack of Hearts the villain of the story, heartlessly leaving Lily behind as he returns to his life of deviltry.
I don’t understand what magic Dylan has inherent in him that allows such wonderful reimaginations of his work while not diminishing the original. If Shakespeare became great through copious adaptation, Dylan seems like the opposite – a well-source of adaptable material. Despite having come around to liking him as a performer – I own the bulk of his albums now – I think perhaps Dr Jackson was right to more properly place him in the realm of a poet, since poetry’s essential function is to create cracks and fissures in the Cartesian world by juxtaposing and imagining.