bob the articulate? must be some mistake, surely …

27 September, 2005 at 11:08 am 4 comments

Did you watch His Bobness on BBC2 at 9pm last night? What a treat! Nearly 2 hours of Dylan's early years. It was great to watch classic footage of the early Dylan – highlights for me being Newport and the 1966 tour – but also to see his musical biography come to life. There was Pete Seeger, who's grown into the thoughtful, softly-spoken, articulate yet committed gentleman he always threatened to become. And Suzie Rotolo, talking with her hands – the girl from that album cover who hasn't lost her impish mischief or obvious affection for The Man over the years. The biggest treat, though, was to see Joan Baez, then and now, who is always conspicuously absent from these bobfests and yet was so seminal to the emergence of Dylan's own writing voice. The chemistry was obvious and a joy to see – not least because Dylan we got to see plenty of those rare events: Dylan actually enjoying himself!

The reprise of those early years drove home just how enormous a change Dylan not only lived through but effected. Michael Gray and others who insist that the music scene must be divided into two eras – Before Dylan and After Dylan – are right. The Greenwich Village scene that hosted the young waif in Cafe Wha transformed itself within a remarkably short space of time. Dylan was both the catalyst and the prophet who showed the way.

Most surprising, though, was Dylan himself, as interviewee and commentator. He was uncharacteristically giving and articulate. He gave straight answers to straight questions. The familiar irony and multiple masks behind which he hides when being asked to talk about his work were notably absent. Dylan talked about music – and about his music. He spoke about what grabbed him and didn't. He talked about what he was trying to do with his music.

Two things struck me forcibly. When Dylan spoke of his first album – a collection of covers which were planned in the studio as he was recording – he talked of the dynamic in him that instinctively held back what was most important to him and best in terms of what he had to offer. What distinguishes this album is the absence of original material (though not arrangements). This is surprising because Dylan was already writing prolifically, constantly and easily. It wasn't shyness that silenced the (lyrically) unique voice of Dylan (the man who is held up as the voice of his and subsequent generations), but an instinctive dis-ease with self-disclosure. Dylan writes and plays primarily for himself and for other musicians. He is hyper aware of the fickleness of the general public and their appetite for the banal (if any proof was needed, we had only to listen to some of the huge number of anodyne covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" that sold more than Dylan's own punchy, uncomfortable renditions). It struck me again how, if we want to "listen" to Dylan, we ought not to try and force him into the straitjacket of second-order commentary. The Man is not the explanation for the Songs – if for no other reason that he cannot and will not be!

The second related point was the refrain that ran through nearly every point at which Dylan spoke about musicians he admired and what musicians were about. He kept saying, "(S)he was really saying something – and I wanted to say it!" Dylan writes and performs to say something. Music is his chosen vehicle of expression. Music doesn't exist to be frozen in time and space like a photograph. It exists to say something. The beauty for Dylan is its polyvalence and acapacity for reinterpretation – to say something new to a new context. Hence Bob's refusal to bow to audience pressure and recreate the recordings in performance. Dylan, as has often been noted, constantly reinterprets his songs rather than re-performing them. He changes lyrics, beat, tune, accompaniment, tone, phrasing and emphasis to the bewilderment and fury of his fans. It was wonderfully ironic to watch that bewilderment surface when he went electric in 1966. Devotees of the man's music spoke on screen of their anger at Dylan for daring to own and rework his own songs. Dylan had broken the contract. That's not how music "worked"! Performers were supposed to create something that the public liked – and then it became public property! The job of the live performer was just that – to perform to order. Reproduce the recordings like some live hologram. And that was how it was Before Dylan. It was Bob who broke the mould.

Dylan has always "said something". He's always insisted, too, that "the songs are the message". You can't penetrate behind the songs to get at a "deeper truth". The truth is inextricable from the medium – the song, which is the lyrics, the music, Dylan's voice … and Dylan himself! Those of us who whine at his lack of self-giving have simply not got that point. If it's Bob we want, we must go to the songs. It is Dylan's presence and re-interpretation that make Dylan's music an encounter with The Man himself – even when he's having an off-day or an off-decade or two! Scorcese managed a rare feat. He got Dylan to talk easily about himself and his music. Yet did he "penetrate behind the mask"? Or was this articulate, comfortable-with-biography Dylan just another mask for the inexhaustively re-inventive Bob, created to deliver what was needed? I didn't learn anything "new" about Bob from Bob. It was a joy to listen to him, but it was commentary, not self-disclosure. He still peddled some of the old myths of origin that he'd created in the first place – or at least, made no corrections to them! He didn't contradict or shape what was said about his musical development – he merely commented. For me, I'm prepared to buy what he's always said. "The Songs are the Message!" That's when I "get" Dylan (as much as I ever do) and when I'm constantly delighted, surprised and shocked. That's when I feel the power of the untameable and recalcitrant genius of the man, and when I reckon I get closest to whoever Bob Dylan really is. I buy into it as an act of faith and appreciation. And hey … it works for me!


Entry filed under: bob dylan, music.

new blog on the block bush the new (moderate) crusader!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  27 September, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    I enjoyed that. have you heard/read this? you may find it interesting:
    thanks again,
    pete in la

  • 2. Anonymous  |  27 September, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    again w/tags

    thanks again,
    pete in la

  • 3. Wol  |  30 September, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks pete in la. It’s a good article! Still have to watch the recorded second part of the documentary … I’m savouring it as a treat!

  • 4. Anonymous  |  8 November, 2005 at 4:13 am

    It always amazes me that the British (I presume you’re a Brit) are so much more articulate and decriptive putting Dylan into words than Americans. In general, Brits have a keener appreciation for the power of English. And a much keener general depth of understanding concerning Bob. Great read pal. You had it right – all there really is, is Before Bob and After Bob. I would combine that with Before Beatles and After Beatles.

    They together changed and shaped almost everything, as it relates to the psychology of their own and subsequent generations. They shook the world together.

    I still love the sensitive and lively Suzie! She is still alluring…and talking with those hands. Easy to see what Bob saw.

    Ginsberg is a treat. Man, there is a relic. The funniest was Bob mocking Liam Clancy, and Joan mocking Bob! I blew coffee out the nostrils!

    This DVD is precious.

    Part two is every bit as good. – Tennessee Vol


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