Friday, August 19, 2005

The Picasso of Song
Bob Dylan’s music revisited

Statisticians suggest that half the humans who have ever lived are alive today. Surely then, it is not hyperbolic to say that Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter who has ever breathed.

He is, after all, the leading songwriter of the century. The man who gave popular music a voice, as it were. Who, as Bruce Springsteen put it, “freed your mind the way Elvis had freed your body”. Who changed the status of rock from an exuberant distraction to a very significant art-form. Who elevated lyrics to a level where they held their own with the finest poetry of its age. Who, 300 years later, will probably share the same status that Mozart and Beethoven enjoy today.

This living, breathing genius is amidst us today. Album after album, he repeatedly puts himself on-the-line, exposing his inner self, his deepest feelings. He keeps breaking new ground, making a mockery of people’s expectations of him. By now, the only thing to expect from him is the totally unexpected.

Almost always being ahead of his time has had its fallouts. Dylan has never enjoyed the sales that his peers, indeed many of his “disciples”, have had. Moreover, he’s won just 2 Grammys (excluding the “Lifetime Achievement”) and considering they were by no means for his best work, it does make total mockery of the Grammy Awards. Instead, Dylan has always been a musician’s musician. It was Leonard Cohen who called him “the Picasso of Song” - a rare tribute from an accomplished peer. Eric Clapton recently said, “There isn’t a rock musician in the world today who doesn’t owe him a debt”.

The biggest mistake people make is assuming that’s because of his lyrics. Big fallacy. His pioneering approach to lyrics notwithstanding, it is the music he has created that sets him apart. Many of his tunes are breathtakingly beautiful, more accessible to some when more “popular” musicians render them. (e.g. Guns ‘n Roses, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, The Pretenders...the list is endless). Then, there are people who tend to be put off by his voice. That is missing the forest for the trees. Raspy, snarling, rough-edged - however you find the voice; that is a small price to pay for its expressiveness, its intensity and its articulation. Think of Dylan’s voice as a musical instrument. Think of his words as musical notes significant often for the sound they make, not their meaning (particularly true for classic songs like “Visions of Johanna” or “Desolation Row where trying to decipher the eccentric imagery can be pretty futile). The accent in his words is on feeling, not meaning. When they mean something (and there’s a lot of that too), it’s a bonus and a spectacular one at that. Otherwise, just like you don’t question a passionate guitar solo or a beautiful piano piece, don’t directly seek clarity of intent. Their “meaning” lies in the feelings they evoke in you.

Dylan’s prodigious output has been the result of the many phases he’s been through as a human being and a musician. But one thing’s for sure - being a Dylan fan is not a phase. Since his music has always reflected the changes in his life, his listeners have grown with him too (a new listener can make the same journey in any order he/she pleases). Dylan’s albums act their age - lyrically and even more so, musically. For example, it is hard to imagine a young person singing a single song from Dylan’s last album. This is a fantastic achievement.

Dylan’s early work from the Acoustic Folk period had already shown signs of extraordinary genius. He had written “Blowin’ In The Wind” at the age of 21 and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” at 22. The latter, written just before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, turned out to be eerily prophetic. But then again, neither of these songs are ever likely to get dated. Nor is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (from Freewheelin...) that was compared to Classical English Poetry. Or “Masters of War” - the seething anti-war song (from Freewheelin’...). Within 3 years, Dylan had become an American legend.

For a man who’d always said he “played folk songs with a rock’n roll attitude”, Dylan’s going “electric” in 1965 and adding a band to his sound shouldn’t have upset his hard-core fans. But it did, and Dylan couldn’t have cared less. His “Electric” phase albums transformed rock, and indeed, popular music. First, Bringing It All Back Home, with one side of acoustic and one of “electric” songs, was hailed as rock’s greatest masterpiece. It had the ethereal “Mr Tambourine Man”, the eclectic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that machine-gunned images of American culture, it had “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”- an enraged, contemptuous comment on the times.

Dylan had a near-fatal motorcycle accident in mid-1967. He used his recovery period wisely to slow down. Thus began his Quiet phase where he recorded 3 excellent albums of originals. The first, John Wesley Harding is the only album till date in which Dylan completely wrote out the words before setting them to music. Lyrically, The Bible seemed an influence and the themes of loneliness and intrigue almost contradicted the gentle feel of the album. But the songs were beautiful and totally different from what was happening in the music world at that time. The next two albums - the quintessentially country Nashville Skyline and the happy New Morning suggested that Dylan had found contentment in family life. Some of his fans began to miss the old, restless, angry Dylan. Little knowing it was just around-the-corner.

After contributing the classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for the film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Dylan changed tone. The passion seemed to come back in Planet Waves - his first album in the Turbulent ‘70s phase. The album contained 2 versions of “Forever Young” - an enduring gem written for his youngest son - Jakob (The Wallflowers one) who’d been born recently. There were also several songs written to Sara, his wife - but the sentimental, idyllic feel of the previous 3 albums had gone. Something was afoot.

In early-1974, Dylan was attending classes of an art teacher called Norman Raeben. He applied his newly learnt painting techniques into his songwriting. Techniques that enabled him to “do consciously” what he “felt unconsciously”. Dylan wanted to create “audio paintings” that “defied time”, that could “enable you to see any part of it or all of it together”. Blood On The Tracks was a result of this experimentation. But the real spirit of the songs came not from the techniques he learnt, but the real pain he was feeling, the passion, bitterness and sorrow he was experiencing because his marriage was breaking up. This was his most personal album, where his soul stood stark naked for all to gape at. Take the song “Simple Twist Of Fate” - regardless of whether you’ve experienced a break-up in your life or not, the song will give you goose pimples. There’s “Idiot Wind”- bursting with hatred and pain, the angriest song he’s ever done. There’s overwhelming loss in “You’re A Big Girl Now”, reluctant resignation in “If You See Her, Say Hello” and hints of reconciliation in “Buckets of Rain”. The songs cut deep, but are not, by a long-shot, heavy or depressing. This is no adolescent angst but a mature pain (he was 33 years old). Some of these songs, believe it or not, are actually hummable.

Blood On The Tracks is great art - it draws you in, fills you up and swirls you around in his pain, and then deposits you distinctly uplifted. The album was loved and hailed as a masterpiece. A year later, Dylan said revealingly that it was hard for him to relate to people enjoying “this type of pain”. After the intense intimacy of Blood On The Tracks, Dylan looked outwards. His next album - Desire had some of his finest story songs. It had “Hurricane” - a song about a boxer, Rubin Carter, who’d been wrongly convicted of murder. “Romance In Durango” was about a outlaw and his lover on the run. The album’s departure in sound lay in Scarlett Riviera’s electric violin. Desire was followed by Street Legal - one of his most pleasant, tuneful albums marred somewhat by its muddy sound.

In late-1978, Dylan became a Born-Again Christian. Inevitably, it influenced his music, and how. This was his Gospel phase during which everything he wrote was about this new aspect in his life. There was a new vitality in his songs. Slow Train Coming, besides having his best album cover, had foot-tapping, funky rock (aided by Mark Knopfler’s guitar) like “Gotta Serve Somebody” - that won him his first Grammy (for “Male Rock Vocal”, an irony considering how much his vocals have been mocked). His final Gospel album Shot of Love ends with the gorgeous “Every Grain of Sand”- a song many tip to be among the most likely ones in popular music to outlast the 21st century.

Dylan’s ‘80s albums are unremarkable by the standards he had set. But almost all have some sparks of sheer brilliance. Infidels has the stunning “Jokerman”, Empire Burlesque has the exquisite “Dark Eyes” and the lilting “Tight Connection To My Heart”, Knocked Out Loaded has “Brownsville Girl”(co-written with Sam Shepherd), Under The Red Sky has “Born In Time”. The standout album of this period is Oh Mercy produced by Daniel Lanois (U2’s producer). Lanois gave some of the best songs Dylan had written in years a haunting ambience that further enhanced their dream-like, stream-of-consciousness quality. The album, one of Dylan’s very best, ends with the simply beautiful “Shooting Star”- a reflective expression of regret about a failed relationship that only a master like him could have created.

Dylan’s Folk Revival albums of other people’s folk songs are charming and often touching in the manner he makes cover versions his own. His expressive vocals notwithstanding, it is his beautiful guitar-playing that is the showpiece of these 2 albums.

Finally - Time Out Of Mind, his most recent album, his 2nd with Lanois and certainly his most hyped (thanks to the damn Grammy). No doubt, it’s a very good album, with its concerns of ageing and endless wandering, with its gutsy, blunt, spit-out bluesy sound. No doubt it takes time to grow on you and no doubt it has the magnificent “Not Dark Yet” - again, something only Dylan could have written. But as an album, on sheer
overall merit, this would just about make it into any list of the 10 best Dylan albums. If you’re just getting into Dylan, pick up his Greatest Hits collection first. It encapsulates his Folk and Electric Stages. Give it a few listens. If it excites you, then get onto the individual albums. It’s one of the most pleasurable journeys imaginable. And once into it, scrounge, beg, borrow, but buy The Bootleg Series - a 3 CD set of previously unreleased material. Be mindful of not listening to his live albums before being familiar with his studio albums. Dylan never plays a song the same way twice, and his concert versions, though often breathtaking, are not always accessible on first listen. His MTV Unplugged might be an exception to this, though. (As far as the lyrics are concerned, they’re all on the Internet.)

Dylan’s greatest achievement as a songwriter has been his vast range of concerns. And the intensity with which he has expressed each one of them. Whether it be the apocalyptic “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or the joyful “On A Night Like This”(from Planet Waves), whether it be an intelligent children’s song “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (from “Slow Train Coming”) or one from a prisoner’s point-of-view “I Shall Be Released” (from More Greatest Hits), whether it be a personal expression of disillusionment -“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (from Bringing It All Back Home) or a curious tale of morality - “Ballad of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”(from John Wesley Harding), whether it be his trademark blistering hate songs like “Positively 4th Street” (from More Greatest Hits), or his numerous “love” songs, Dylan is true to his art, he believes in what’s he’s singing. No-one has examined love and relationships as he has through song. From rejecting - “It Ain’t Me Babe” to being rejected-“ I Don’t Believe You” (both from Another Side…) from lovesick -“Lay Lay Lay” (from Nashville Skyline) to troubled - “We’d Better Talk This Over” (from Street Legal), from bitterly angry - “Just Like A Woman” (from Blonde On Blonde) to sentimental - “Emotionally Yours” (from Empire Burlesque), from estranged- “Girl Of The North Country” (from Freewheelin’...) to joyful -“The Man In Me” (from New Morning), he’s written some of the finest love songs of the century. Actually, the best of them are the ones he clearly wrote for his wife Sara - “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (from Blonde On Blonde), “If Not For You” (from New Morning), “Wedding Song” (from Planet Waves) and finally, the achingly beautiful “Sara” (from Desire).

To really understand Dylan’s startling impact, you could just play perhaps his most underrated song - “When He Returns” from Slow Train Coming. This was his first Born Again album and in this song, he sings of The Second Coming of Christ and all that jazz. Now, you may be a complete non-believer, even an atheist (like me), but the passion and the power of his singing (accompanied by just a piano) will just blow you away. No -one, repeat, no one, has this resonance and feeling. I’m still an atheist but that song moves me greatly every single time I hear it. This is the magic of Bob Dylan.

October 1998

To get an overview of Dylan’s 37 years of recording and 28 studio albums, you can roughly divide Dylan’s output into the following phases.

The Acoustic Folk phase (‘61-‘64; sparse folk format - guitar, vocal, harmonica; includes the albums Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, ½ of Bringing It All Back Home),

the Electric phase (‘65-‘67; plugged in, with accompanying bands; includes ½ of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway ‘61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde),

the Quiet phase (‘67-‘73; with band, subdued, tuneful, even happy sound; includes John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Pat Garett And Billy The Kid),

the Turbulent ‘70s phase (‘73 - ‘78; accompanying bands, both acoustic and electric; includes Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Street Legal),

the Gospel phase (‘79-‘81; big-band sound with background choruses, organ - the works; includes Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love),

the ‘80s rock phase (‘83-‘90 ; with accompanying rock bands; includes Infidels, Empire Burlesque, Knocked out Loaded, Down In The Groove, Oh Mercy, Under The Red Sky),

the Folk Revival phase (‘91-‘94 ; back to roots-guitar, harmonica and vocal; includes Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong)

and finally, the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind. (‘97; back to rock, albeit very bluesy).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was it you said?
"pique the curiosity of readers not familiar with this music and introduce the artist through the more accessible albums."?

Well, you've piqued my curiosity alright.I'm going to buy the Boy Dylan-Greatest Hits right away.
Imagine,if i read this essay in 98. I believe I'd be far more evolved by now.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry about the typo.
*Bob Dylan-Greatest Hits.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Prakriti said...

I got into Bob Dylan through this piece you wrote in Gentleman way back.

Thank you

7:16 PM  
Blogger ColorsOnTrial said...

Thank you for this Bob Dylan article. This is the only article that I found on the web that divides the different phases of Bob Dylan art over the years so clearly. Thanks again.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Jane Lee said...

I'm looking for an article I read years ago--probably early winter 2001--in the back of a magazine, something maybe like Utne, on the phases of Bob Dylan. I can't even remember what word the writer uses for "phases." It was probably around seven--good number. It was brief, and funny. One of the phases was something like "Inexplicably Christian Bob." If anyone has any idea what I'm talking about please share.


10:14 PM  
Blogger Jane Lee said...

Never mind, just found it. It was from the December 10, 2001 In These Times, and is archived here: A touch snide--Dylan seems to bring that out in the press--and includes at least one myth ("turn[ing] the Beatles on to pot"--as far as I know, pretty unlikely they'd never done it before) but at least is an accessible outline for those starting to put his work in context.

10:37 PM  

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