Bird on the horizon
Sittin’ on a fence
He’s singin’ his song for me
At his own expense . . .
—”You’re a Big Girl Now”
I feel the deepest gratitude for having had the privilege of living over the years with Bob Dylan’s music. I have seen him live in concert only three times, once in 1960 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, when he was just starting out, then 44 years later, in 2004, at a minor league baseball field in Brockton, MA., playing the second half on a bill with Willy Nelson, then, a few years after that, once more, at a rather rote excessively amplified concert in Essex, Vermont.
Before a reading in Manhattan, Wallace Stevens remarked to John Malcolm Brinnin, “on occasions like this, the voice is the actor.” (Stevens went on to “perform” his poetry that evening in an almost inaudible monotone.) Robbie Robertson of the Band said that Bob Dylan’s voice was an actor capable of playing many parts. Dylan, the improbable heir not only of Whitman and Hart Crane, but of Eliot and Frost as well, lives up to the billing. His voice has been an actor of Homeric scope.
A typical put-down of Dylan is that he never could sing, but this is an abject failure to connect with his achievement. Frank Sinatra, a great singer whom Dylan admired, is nonetheless always Frank Sinatra through all his singing, more or less as Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson no matter whom he is playing.
Dylan on the other hand, as Robertson said, has invented a diverse series of personae, characters whose unique styles add depth to the songs. Robert Frost evolved a theory and practice of poetry he called “the sound of sense,” where he played off tones of voice, the way people actually sound as they speak in ordinary conversation, against the strictures of traditional verse forms and beats, to create something fresh (“Some have relied on what they knew/Others on being simply true/What worked for them might work for you”). This is exactly what Dylan has done through hundreds of songs, from the caustic “What Was It You Wanted?” to the sensual “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” to the prophetic “You got to Serve Somebody,” to the poignant “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Stayed in Mississippi a Day Too Long.” Individual performances of songs provide further elaboration and change. There is the Warholian “Visions of Joanna” on “Blonde on Blonde,” and the “Visions of Joanna” sung and played with tremendous joy (though Dylan has on his usual deadpan face as he tosses off this utter masterpiece of a performance) in Portsmouth England in a 2000 concert available on YouTube.
Dylan has achieved an infinitely more versatile set of performances than Sinatra. Dylan’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable because it consists of a unique mix of the poetry of his own words, the poetry of melody, the poetry of instrumentation, and the poetry of the voice in individual performance. These cannot be separated. In vocal/instrumental music the combinations of melodic, rhythmic and spoken cadences breaking across each other are almost infinitely variable.
That’s the problem with any academic approach to Dylan: his poetry isn’t the half of it, or maybe even a third of it. The three halves together—that fateful congruence of poetry, specific voicing and the way verse and voice play off against their instrumental and rhythmic context—will always partly elude the scholars, even the most brilliant, like Christopher Ricks or Sean Wilentz. Dylan is irreducible, incommensurable, mysterious, but absolutely and intimately accessible through just listening to the songs. Dylan and the academy have always been oil and water. I happened to be in the audience when Princeton University presented him with an honorary doctorate, an occasion that inspired his song “Day of the Locust.” He couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable sitting onstage in his black cap and gown in the 90-degree heat, sweating along with the Secretary General of the U.N. and other more conventional notables. Decades later, appearing in the film “Masked and Anonymous,” he still looks uncomfortable—except when playing and singing.
Unlike someone like Marlon Brando, who made acting more authentic in the same way Dylan renews stale musical conventions, Dylan has always accepted that he is a vehicle for something larger that comes through him. Even though it hasn’t always been jolly to have to inhabit his own myth, he has expanded and reinvented song as endlessly and prolifically as Picasso reinvented painting. He takes risks exploring human depths that other artists wouldn’t even contemplate. A song like “Disease of Conceit,” (Oh Mercy) with its seemingly lame idea and lamer rhymes, shouldn’t even get off the ground, but it ends up flying more than gracefully. And for every near pratfall there are literally hundreds of songs that are works of genius—“What Good Am I?,” “Most of the Time,” (both on Oh Mercy), “Sugar Babe.” (Love and Theft)
Further versatility and depth is provided by the way Dylan is one of the few who has continued to write songs in the authentic voice of a man in his teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. It is silly to assert that Dylan let down 1960’s radicalism by abdicating themes of protest—because he never abdicated. He has gone on writing trenchant critiques of various kinds, “We Live in a Political World,” “Workingman’s Blues,” “Its All Good,” and on and on. The adolescent outrage and wry cynicism by which he first became known makes up only a small section of his Protean range of voices and poetic stances, including the poetry of the householder, the poetry of the despairing and alienated loner, of the sly indirect commentator on crime, corruption, violence and world catastrophe, and the poetry too of love and affirmation of human and divine goodness.
Now Dylan has won the Nobel, and why not? As a bard Dylan both deserves, and gives added prestige to, the prize. Neither Frost nor Stevens ever did get the Nobel, but should have. So should Dylan, though it may be the last thing he wants or needs.
At Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, we were able to stand right in front of the stage, about fifty feet away from Dylan and his band. An announcer broadcast a hyped commercial-sounding message about how Dylan was thought of as a has-been but kept bouncing back—as if this mythological character needed the slightest justification.
Dylan played only keyboard throughout his entire set, standing with bent legs in his black suit and white cowboy hat. You could see the sweat flying off his face. He ran through “High Water Rising,” “Poor Boy,” the rollicking “Summer Nights,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and other classics. After every number the lights went down and he wandered off into the back of the stage—to tipple? At the end, he faced the crowd, swaying back and forth, an unexpectedly slight medium for so much song over so much time. Slowly he raised his left thumb and smiled slightly. Still standing.