• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

I Is Someone Else’

But that line…is an intellectual line. It’s a line, “Well, the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,” that could be a lie. It just could be. Whereas “Standing under your yellow railroad,” that’s not a lie.

The former makes sense, in a stilted and poetistic way, while the latter apparently makes no sense, but in context it is inarguable (he misquotes it slightly):

And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad

In the ruins of your balcony

Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.

The blanket dismissal of a quarter-century’s work that Dylan offered to David Gates is of course an overstatement, but it is a gauge of his realization that he had long mistaken or overlooked his greatest strengths. The ability to hatch an epigram—the way “To live outside the law you must be honest” emerges right in the middle of “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” between two lines twisted from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and the refrain—is a function of that unconscious frame of mind, that willed trance state, that educated lurching, not of the wish to construct an epigram.

Among the four fifths of the Basement Tapes material that remains officially unreleased is a song called “I’m Not There” (1956). It is glaringly unfinished—Dylan mumbles unintelligibly through parts of it, and throws together fragments of lyrics apparently at random—and yet it is one of his greatest songs. The hymn-like minor-key melody, rising from mournful to exalted, is certainly one reason for this, and another is the perfect accompaniment by three members of The Band, but the very discontinuity of the lyrics, in combination with Dylan’s unflagging intensity, creates a powerful, tantalizing indeterminacy that is suddenly if provisionally resolved by every return of the refrain:

Now when I [unintelligible] I was born to love her

But she knows that the kingdom weighs so high above her

And I run but I race but it’s not too fast or soon [?]

But I don’t perceive her, I’m not there, I’m gone.

The third line is clearly filler; what can be made out of the first probably contains an echo of a Stevie Wonder song played on the radio that same summer; the second, for all that it does not lend itself to reasonable interpretation, rings the bell, and it pulls the previous and succeeding lines along with it into relief and down to the last line, which includes the refrain. Every verse is crowned by one or more such glowing fragments, which materialize, linger briefly, and then vanish, like urgent dispatches transmitted by a spirit medium. The song evades the intellect to address the emotions through underground passageways of memory and association—biblical, in the case of that second line—and it is a document of the artist in the very midst of the act of creation.5

The song gives a sense of how Dylan works when he is tapping his richest vein: the form presents him with a container—a blues basket, a ballad box—which he fills with lines the shapes of which he can discern before he knows their specific content. Such a shape is not simply a measurement determined by meter—it is a ghost outline, maybe a half-heard utterance in which he can make out an emphasis here, a compressed cluster of syllables there, now and again an entire word, which he can use as a dowsing rod for the content. If the shape is not forthcoming, he can fill the space with a folk-lyric readymade. That he has been tapping this vein again is shown by every song on his most recent release, Love and Theft (2001). “Bye and Bye,” for example, has a melody derived from “Blue Moon” (“You could write twenty or more songs off…one melody by slightly altering it”); its final verse is:

Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad

I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more

I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war

Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be.

The first and last lines are brazenly drawn from the common well, while the middle lines had to have been dispatched straight from the unconscious. The song’s atmosphere is breezy and menacing; the first and last lines of each verse supply the breeziness, the middle two the menace. The printed lyrics do not, of course, account for Dylan’s vocal performance, which, of a piece with the white suits and riverboat-gambler hats he has been affecting lately, renders uncannily credible the grandiose rhetoric of the middle lines; nor do they convey the insouciant creepiness of Augie Meyers’s roller-rink organ. Treating Dylan as merely a writer is like judging a movie on its screenplay alone.


Blood on the Tracks (1974) is cited by many as their favorite Dylan record—Studio A reprints Rick Moody’s moving, breathless pledge of allegiance to it, in which he calls it “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.” It is, to be sure, quite an achievement, with a wealth of lived experience in its dense, intricately plotted songs. And yet, in comparison to the songs on Blonde on Blonde or The Basement Tapes, which are genuine, sphinx-like, irreducible, hard-shell poems whether or not the words can ever be usefully divorced from the music, such numbers as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” are prose. They are driven by their narratives, and their imagery is determined by its function:

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike

I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like

There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars

After losin’ every battle.

The smoke issuing from the boxcar door, which is there only to fill out the line and supply an end rhyme, does come out of nowhere, but everything else seems cooked—the palmist is from central casting and her warning is generic; the soldier on the cross is on loan from an anti-war poster (he seems to be wearing a gas mask); the connecting lines are rhetorical and flat; it could, after all, be a lie. This is not to say that the song is bad, merely purpose-driven, with every verse hastening us along to the point, which is “We’re idiots, babe/It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” And that, in turn, is a great line from a note left on a pillow at dawn. Nothing on Blood on the Tracks hobbles in on crutches or speaks to the future or appears on the wall in letters of fire. It is a brilliant account of the vicissitudes of a love affair, an exemplary specimen of the confessional culture of the period, a remarkable work of emotional intelligence. It is so many people’s favorite Dylan album in large part because it is the one that people can imagine themselves creating, were the muse to tap them on the forehead with a nine-pound hammer.

But who, on the other hand, could imagine coming up with “John Wesley Harding/Was a friend to the poor/He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand”? The outlaw looks like Shiva, a brace of guns in a brace of hands, the apotheosis of Western legend by way of an apparent awkwardness of syntax, and the impression endures even if we know that Dylan lifted those five words from Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre,” in which the striking miners’ women sell their potatoes and with the proceeds “put a gun in every hand.” It takes an unusual mind to pick that unremarkable scrap from Guthrie’s pocket and paste it athwart a completely different sort of genre piece, like Kurt Schwitters inserting a bus ticket into a landscape.6 Dylan drives critics mad, because while his vast range of sources can be endlessly itemized and dissected, the ways in which he puts things together teases rational explication before finally betraying it. (Crane quoted by Berryman: “An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways and every artist must be in some things powerless as a dead snake.”)

You can find almost anything in Dylan’s lyrics, employ them as balm for heartbreak or call to riot, engage in bibliomancy by sticking a knife between the pages of Lyrics and divining fortune from the line the tip has come to rest upon. You can find Dylan’s rhythms and word choices and as it were his fingerprints in literature that predates him. Michael Gray, who is probably Dylan’s single most assiduous critic, turns up a quatrain by Robert Browning that the mind’s ear has no trouble hearing in Dylan’s voice, and not only because the end rhymes prefigure “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and sandals

And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow candles

One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles,

And the Duke’s guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention of scandals.7

Dylan himself, in the Songwriters interview, cites a Byron couplet that is equally convincing: “What is it you buy so dear/With your pain and with your fear?” But then, as he told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times,

It’s like a ghost is writing [the] song…. It gives you the song and it goes away…. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.8

Dylan is a mystery, as he has been since his first record, made when he was twenty, established his eerie prerogative to inhabit songs written long before his birth by people with lifetimes of bitter experience. The mystery has endured ever since, through fallow as well as fecund periods, through miscellaneous errors and embarrassments and other demonstrations of common humanity as well as unbelievable runs of consecutive masterpieces. It has survived through candid and guarded and put-on interviews, various appearances on film, and the roughly two hundred concert appearances he has put in every year for the last couple of decades. The mystery is, if anything, enhanced by Dylan’s most astute critics (Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Christopher Ricks, Michael Gray)9 and untouched by the legions of nit-collectors and communicants in the church of whangdoodle who unstoppably issue treatises and skeleton keys. It will survive his disarmingly unaffected memoir, too. The playwright Sam Shepard noted after observing Dylan for months during the 1974 Rolling Thunder tour that

if a mystery is solved, the case is dropped. In this case, in the case of Dylan, the mystery is never solved, so the case keeps on. It keeps coming up again. Over and over the years. Who is this character anyway?10

Dylan is a complex, mercurial human being of astounding gifts, whose purposes are usually ambiguous, frequently elusive, and sometimes downright unguessable. At the same time he is a sort of communicating vessel, open to currents that run up and down the ages quite outside the confines of the popular culture of any given period. That he is able to tune his radio to those long waves in a time of increasingly short memories and ever more rapid fashion cycles is not the least of his achievements.

Chronicles, which would appear to have been printed without editorial intervention,11 is so fluid in its prose and alive in its observations that Dylan looks like a natural at the book game, although his previous experience was not so happy. Tarantula was the result of a much-trumpeted contract for a novel that Dylan signed with Macmillan in 1966. The book was not published until 1970, having in the meantime been bootlegged in several different versions. Nearly everyone was disappointed in the final product, which arrived behind the prow of a carefully hedged and rather condescending preface by its editor, Bob Markel. Ever since, the phrase “famously unreadable” has been attached to it, and persons who have wished to demonstrate that Dylan’s vaunted verbal mastery was just so much hype have used it as a handy chair leg with which to beat its author.

It is, in fact, a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess—it’s what Dylan’s automatic writing looks like when it doesn’t have formal containers to shape it. The population of Dylan’s world (Homer the Slut, Popeye Squirm, “Phil, who has now turned into an inexpensive Protestant ambassador from Nebraska & who speaks with a marvelous accent,” etc.) hurtles hectically through a landscape of tanktowns and drunk tanks, all of the action telegraphically alluded to, at best, as if the book were a compilation of gossip columns from whatever newspaper Smokey Stover subscribed to. Although it is easily more entertaining than any of the automatic productions of the Parisian Surrealist crowd, it only clicks at odd intervals, when Dylan briefly finds a model for parody, such as the interspersed letters, which have something of Ring Lardner about them:

cant you figure out all this commie business for yourself? you know, like how long can car thieves terrify the nation? gotta go. there’s a fire engine chasing me. see you when i get my degree. i’m going crazy without you. cant see enough movies

your crippled lover,

benjamin turtle

Its one moment of transcendence is the only thing in the book that could have been a song, an ode to Aretha Franklin:

aretha—known in gallup as number 69—in wheeling as the cat’s in heat—in pittsburgh as number 5—in brownsville as the left road, the lonesome sound—in atlanta as dont dance, listen—in bowling green as oh no, no, not again—she’s known as horse chick up in cheyenne—in new york city she’s known as just plain aretha…i shall play her as my trump card

Here he’s hit on a pair of riffs—the urban-hotspot shout-out of Sixties soul anthems such as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” and the shifting-name trope familiar from both cowboy movies and doo-wop (e.g., the Cadillacs’ “All the fellas call me Speedo but my real name is Mister Earl”)—that he can set to play off each other, arriving at a litany that, like his best songs, sounds both new and inevitable.

Chronicles works so well in part because in writing it Dylan apparently found a formal model to adhere to or violate at will, and if he did not have in mind any specific nineteenth-century account of callowness and ambition, maybe he conjured up a cumulative memory of dusty volumes found on friends’ bookshelves in Greenwich Village or in the basement of the bookshop in Dinkytown he worked in as a student. He also found an outlet for his inclination to counter his audience’s expectations. Readers, guessing on the basis of interviews and movies as well as the hydra-headed mythic image that has grown around Dylan over the decades, might have expected his memoir to be variously inscrutable, gnomic, bilious, confused, preening, recriminatory, impersonal, defensive, perfunctory, smug, or even ghost-written. Instead Dylan had to outflank them by exercising candor, warmth, diligence, humor, and vulnerability. If there is ever a second volume, he may have to contradict himself yet again.

  1. 5

    The song is available on several bootleg collections, notably The Genuine Bootleg Series Take 2 and the splendid A Tree with Roots: The Genuine Basement Tape Remasters.

  2. 6

    It is possible that the disguised quote, coming right after “was a friend to the poor,” combines with it to form a subliminal image of popular insurgency. The album came out early in 1968, after all, and the most memorable and hotly debated critical line concerning it has always been Jon Landau’s contention that, although it takes place entirely within the folk-lyric universe, it “manifests a profound awareness of the war and how it is affecting all of us.” (Crawdaddy! No. 15, May 1968, p. 16.)

  3. 7

    Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (Continuum, 2000), p. 64.

  4. 8

    Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004.

  5. 9

    For Sean Wilentz’s essays, see www .bobdylan.com; Christopher Ricks’s extraordinary Dylan’s Visions of Sin was published last June by Ecco.

  6. 10

    The Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977; Da Capo, 2004), p. 71.

  7. 11

    This guess is based primarily on the fact that it doesn’t seem to have been proofread, to judge by misspellings and inconsistencies in proper nouns, which cannot be corrected by spell-check.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print