Paris Letters #89
My Bob Dylan
Giving Bob Dylan the nobel prize is like ‘pinning a medal on everest’ — Leonard Cohen
I first heard Bob Dylan when I was thirteen years old, and I was transformed and transfixed. A person that young may not be able to comprehend a song like ‘Positively 4th Street’ but may still have deep access to it on a feeling level. Those songs represented a new planet for me, a vision of the future. The only adequate response I had was to get a guitar and learn to play them—I had to become Bob Dylan. This whole metamorphosis took me about 30 years, and now, at 45 years, in the year that Bob Dylan won the nobel prize, I can now say I am Bob Dylan.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to be hyperbolic: there are millions of us out there. An entire tradition is contained in those songs, that’s why. We have lived with Bob Dylan constantly, though we have never been able to transcend him, or do better than him, in terms of writing a song — so we keep playing his song. That’s not to say that there aren’t deeper or greater singers out there, only there aren’t any who have covered so much ground, or given us so much to work with. Dylan is like Shakespeare or Picasso or Rimbaud in that sense, he is the first and last — and perhaps nobody will surpass him. Why? Because he invented the medium and we are fated to play by his rules. All we can do is take a little bit of the nourishment he offers us.
These days I don’t listen to Bob’s music much: it has become a part of my bloodstream. If I pick up a guitar, I can effortlessly inhabit most of his songs, but I don’t bother. They are already there, deep in my consciousness. The only one of his song I ever covered was an obscure bootleg called ‘ Let Me Die in my footsteps’ which seemed to me to be incomplete and therefore I had access to it. I think it may have been the first origional song he performed. I took out the excessive verbiage, slowed it down a little, got rid of the twang — and tried to make it more of a finished work. The origional sounded too much like Woody Guthrie and not enough like Bob; it was the song of a person on the verge of disovering a voice, as I was.
The goal was to own this song the way way Jimi Henrdrix owned ‘All along the Watchtower’; of course I failed — and the song is still out there, waiting to be mastered. The nice thing about Dylans catalogue is that he left such a mess of unfinished business : it’s as he invites us to fill in the missing puzzle peices. He is different than Leonard Cohen in this way, who had to master a song completely before he could let it go. Bob Dylan was more comfortable with excessess, imperfection and organic chaos.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that at the same time I covered the ‘Let me die in my footsteps’ I was also discovering my own voice. It was as though I had to pass through a threshold, and Bob Dylan was that threshold. He was the key and the door, to the tradition. This is how tradition works. The information is handed down to one who begs to receive it. Dylan had got the information from Woody Guthrie, and could now pass that tradition on to other such as myself.
That Dylan had become an institution doesn’t mean he is really dead of course: his music lives now in eternity, in the very air. Dylan the ‘outsider’, the ‘iconic rebel’, has been a pastiche for a long time — tragically used for advertising campaigns and presidential elections. Now he justly celebrated a nobel prize winner. He’s always described himself as marginal, but I think Dylan is in the very center of the hurricane. And yet we might ask: does this music still have emancipatory potency — is it still genuinely rebellious, even as he puts out a Christmas album? Dylan presents himself these days as a traditionalist, mining the music of his youth, exploring the deeper American roots of the music. Actually, he is still giving us the medicine we need. A this time of superficial post-modern kitch, traditionalism is rebellion. Furthermore, Dylan has always revolted against himself, and any reified image, which is the best thing an artist can do to keep evolving.
Despite the fact that Dylan has now become a veritable institution, we should remember where he came from: Duluth, Minnesota. In other words, nowhere U.S.A. If we look at great revolutionaries in the past — and Dylan was a revolutionary certainly — we can see some many had origins in backwater, hidden places, the nowhere lands. Rimbaud he was also from the provinces, for instance. Dylan is a most unlikely hero, the opposite of a prodigal son, an unspectacular folksinger, playing a harsh instrument called a steel string guitar, with a winey hillbilly voice that is still hard to digest. One of the funniest things he ever said was ‘I’m a better singer than Caruso’, but it’s true in terms of what he communicates.
The whole phenomena of Bob Dylan is more than unlikely, more than impossible, utterly mysterious. Why Colombia records gave him a record deal, is beyond imagination; what deals he made with whatever diabolical spirits may be impossible to guess. However, those who think he is not a poet have misunderstood the fact that poetry must communicate something alive, or remain flotsam and jetsam.
Dylan gives us the ‘real news’. The news of the heart. This news is delivered by angels, not by common men. Dylan was not a common man but one possessed by the holy spirit, whatever you think that is. Of course the man Robert Zimmerman was flawed as a human being and as a musician. But he explored all the vicissitudes and depths and failures of life and art, makes him a hero. That something great and deep was working on such a one, cannot be denied — except by fools.
As the song goes ‘And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Fighting in the captain’s tower. While calypso singers laugh at them. And fishermen hold flowers’. The calypso singers are the ones that know the truth. They give flowers because they bow down to the god of that tradition — they are not lost in the sophistry of false so-called ‘literature’. And by loving a genuine tradition one can receive its gifts, and possibly even transcend that tradition—although such a thing is more rare than the small blue Udumbara flower, that blooms every thousand years on everest.