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Vol. LXV, No. 34
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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Book Review

Bob Dylan — A Poet of the Largest Power Turns 70

Stuart Mitchner

He is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”

Is there any living American artist who fits Emerson’s concept of the Poet better than Bob Dylan? Only someone whose art, like Dylan’s, extends well beyond the page could stand beside a figure as broadly and passionately defined as Emerson’s man “who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.”

Merely in terms of his impact on American culture and American music in the 50 years since he arrived in New York, Dylan, who turned 70 on May 24, prevails. He is, in every sense of the phrase, in a class by himself, all the more so in view of what he’s accomplished in the past decade. Three years after recording his universally acclaimed album Love and Theft (2001), he published Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir touched with the magic of his lyrics. Two years after that, he released Modern Times, another record that can stand with his best work. If 2009’s Together Through Life was not quite in the same league, it continued the renaissance that began in the 1990s and, like its predecessor, it topped the sales charts. The fancifully receptive national “populace” Emerson imagined for the ideal poet could not begin to equal the generations of countless listeners that continue to fall under Dylan’s spell.

Marcus on Dylan

As a subscriber to the 1968-1971 rough and ready tabloid incarnation of Rolling Stone (which was named after Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), I was reading Greil Marcus “in the original” when I opened the issue of July 23, 1970 to his many-faceted virtuoso response to Bob Dylan’s disastrous double-LP Self Portrait (1970).

Reading Marcus’s “Self Portrait No. 25,” as reprinted in Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs $29.95), you soon see what makes the author arguably the most Dylanesque of Dylan’s commentators. In dealing with the work of a living legend that both reviewers and devotees considered a monstrous, incomprehensible catastrophe, Marcus does not beat his breast or throw up his hands. If anything, he enjoys plunging into the heart of Self Portrait’s “vapid,” “sterile” darkness. His approach is to create the prose semblance of an album that mirrors the track by track structure of Dylan’s. Rather than allow this most allusive of performer’s sudden seeming fall from grace to echo in a vacuum, the equally allusive reviewer brings in classic westerns like Shane and Forty Guns, Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933, the truck driver noir, Thunder Road, Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and Jules and Jim, and a cast worthy of Desolation Row: Bing Crosby, King Midas, Cassius Clay, Rimbaud, Robin Hood, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Billie Holiday, Greta Garbo, the Weathermen, Melville and Hawthorne, Mark Twain, John Wayne, the Duke of Windsor, Thomas Paine, and Louise Brooks.

Making a High of a Low

While Greil Marcus’s star-studded dispatch from the scene may have helped scare people like myself away from Self-Portrait, it didn’t deter me or anyone else from buying and enjoying Dylan’s next album, New Morning. A decade later, however, I trusted the consensus of negative reviews that greeted the albums of the eighties and Dylan’s seeming downward spiral to the nadir he describes in Chronicles: “I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck … a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows.” Even as he makes this negative retrospective pronouncement (the fictitious unknown is worthy of a Dylan lyric), he ends by seeing himself in the context of an artist statesman like Emerson’s “representative” poet.

The author of Chronicles is clearly in his element as he takes creative possession of this low-point in his career. He lays it on: “Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore.” Except that it had been his moment and would be again. Emerson would approve.

Better yet: “The mirror had swung round and I could see the future — an old actor fumbling among the garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs.” There’s another line worth building a song around. Dylan had to be smiling as he penned that pungent, amusing image of himself. He’d come through in a big way. He was writing a memoir to reckon with and was about to make a record for the ages he would call Modern Times. It was Dylan’s moment again.

The Old Prophet

Greil Marcus begins his September 2, 2001, New York Times review of Love and Theft (“Sometimes He Talks Crazy, Crazy Like a Song”) by picturing Dylan as “an old man who lives in your neighborhood, drinking away his days as if they were bottles. He lives by himself in a small house, though others are known to disappear into it.” Marcus’s old man sounds very like the “old actor” persona Dylan would imagine for himself a few years later in Chronicles. Who knows but that Dylan was subconsciously borrowing from Marcus’s review? In any case, it’s further evidence that Marcus is the most Dylanesque of critics. Here he’s not only making Dylan a character in his review-as-narrative, he’s avoiding the Times’s requisite “Mr. Dylan” (a standard that met its match when Meat Loaf was referred to as Mr. Loaf). Marcus’s ingenious move also allows him to suggest the album’s sinister qualities by giving the old man a house people are known to “disappear into.” In the same way, Marcus evokes the historical ambience by creating an old-fashioned habitat for the old man, “a parlor” no less, with “a spinet piano and a collection of sheet music in the compartment of the piano bench.”

It gets better. Marcus is truly inspired. He’s doing a more inventive version of what he did with Self-Portrait, making an album in prose to match the one he’s reviewing. If you’ve listened to Love and Theft, with its furiously demented opening track “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” (“Tweedle Dee is a low down sorry old man/Tweedle Dum he’ll stab you where you stand”), you won’t be surprised to find Marcus’s Dylan abandoning his old-fashioned parlor for “midnight walks, tramping the streets even to the edge of town, muttering about all he hates, about everything he wants to destroy, preaching or telling dirty stories, gesturing wildly, his hair flying.”

Then, just as you begin to think the old guy is losing it, he becomes “a general on his horse” as the horse turns “into a pulpit and the general into a prophet,” and all of a sudden Dylan is being quoted word for word. Sounding like Emerson’s stately poet of the commonwealth, he declares, “I’m going to spare the defeated, I’m going to speak to the crowd....I’m going to teach peace to the conquered, I’m going to tame the proud.”

It’s All Poetry

“Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”

That’s from Dylan’s liner notes for The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. If you see his work according to Emerson’s Poet, who “names the thing because he sees it or comes one step nearer to it than any other,” no distinction is needed. It’s all poetry. Discussing in Chronicles how he began writing songs, Dylan says, “Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain.” Moving still closer to Emerson’s broader vision of the Poet, he adds, “You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.” In “The Poet,” the “metamorphosis of things into higher organic forms, is their change into melodies. Over everything stands its daemon, or soul, and, as the form of the thing is reflected by the eye, so the soul of the thing is reflected by a melody.”

The Look Building

Listening to the most rousing of the 47 tracks on The Bootleg Series, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos (1962-1964), I hear someone whose imagination is on fire, so possessed by those “daemons” that he bellows his songs like a town crier trying to wake the world. According to Colin Escott’s liner notes, Dylan “had songs spilling out of him, and Witmark, to use one of Thomas Edison’s favorite phrases, ‘seized the palpitating air.’”

A view of early sixties midtown Manhattan, 51st and Madison, would show the bizarrely-shaped building where Dylan sat in a small room making demos of his music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, most of it to sell to other singers. Then known as the Look Building, after the magazine whose offices it housed, it resembled an architectural layer cake with LOOK spelled out in big letters on the topmost layer. Look is right. Here’s someone on his way to becoming the most influential musician of his time singing his heart out in a 6 by 8 room. Listen to “When the Ship Comes In,” for just one fiercely sung example, and you know it’s only a matter of time before he’s plugged into the brave new world of electric rock and roll singing his song of songs, “Like a Rolling Stone.” As Greil Marcus puts it, that’s when “Bob Dylan took over. All that’s come since goes back to the bid for power that was ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”

The best of those early performances in the little room — songs sung to shake the emotional rafters — are also bids for power, as are the landmark songs like “Desolation Row,” which Marcus explores brilliantly and at length. With works like Love and Theft and Modern Times, Dylan is beyond bidding for power. He has everything he needs.

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