Sunday, April 19, 2009
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
Dante, Rimbaud, Eliot, Whitman, Shelley, Keats, cummings, Timrod, Blake…
Bob Dylan may be the ultimate chameleon, but he’s also an avid collector. And over the years, the collection of characters who’ve appeared in Dylan’s lyrics is trumped only by the manner in which Bob has transformed those distinct, disparate voices into his own.
For Shakespeare the play was the thing. For Dylan it’s always been about the words.
I wasn’t sure, therefore, how to react to last week’s confirmation that Bob collaborated with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, on 9 of the 10 tracks on his upcoming album, Together Through Life.
Maybe it’s a sign of the modern times in which we live. In an era where style trumps substance, the notion that our politicians, pop stars and public figures are propped up by an army of minions clamoring to craft an image that feeds our incessant need for idolatry has become all too commonplace.
But as we look out over what seems to be a vast wasteland of perpetual despondency, we’re not looking for iconoclasts to console us. What we’re really searching for is someone to break through the clutter, to give us a sense of direction, to help us find our way home. We’re looking for clarity.
In recent months, a barrage of bloggers (this disgruntled Dylan fan not excluded) have drawn parallels between Barack Obama and Bob Dylan. But then again, the comparisons aren’t totally unfounded. Dylan isn’t the only cultural chameleon out there.
Like the title character in Woody Allen’s brilliantly insightful 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, Obama has perfected the ability to conform to his surroundings. When Obama steps on stage, we see what we want to see. When Obama speaks, we hear what we want to hear. Yet the words he speaks are rarely, if ever, entirely his own.
In a time when our culture is so sanitized, where every action is viewed under such scurrilous scrutiny, the people to whom we look for inspiration can no longer inspire by example— and so they retreat to linguistics. It’s not so much what they say, but rather how they say it, by which they are evaluated.
The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was the last American president to put pen to paper. The “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps his most famous piece of oratory, clocked in at 278 words and took less than 3 minutes to deliver. But in those 3 minutes, Lincoln embodied a nation's pain and suffering with words so enduring that they are now etched in aeternum in marble.
There have been endless comparisons between Lincoln and the man who currently resides in that mansion on the hill. But whether you like him or hate him, you cannot dismiss Barack Obama. He may not write every word that comes out of his mouth, but he is hardly an empty oratory vessel. His predecessors may have spoken to the ‘vision thing,’ but Barack Obama embodies it.
With Bob Dylan, however, ‘embodying’ an artistic vision isn’t enough. With Bob, the words matter.
The issue here isn’t that Bob wrote a couple of songs with someone else— even if that ‘someone else’ just may be the second greatest living lyricist in the English language. The issue is about purity of vision, not persuasiveness of delivery. It’s about clarity.
Dylan is coming off what many consider one of rock’s perfect ‘trifectas.’ Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are not just high creative benchmarks for Bob, they are the gold standard by which all other musicians could, and very well may, be measured.
And so the news that Dylan collaborated with another wordsmith naturally would raise a few questions. Did he need to do it? How much of it did he do? Did he even really do it at all?
Dylan and Robert Hunter have been down this road before. The two worked up a few songs together for Dylan’s 1988 album, Down in the Groove. But these were hardly a threat to the Dylan canon, musically or lyrically. They were almost transitional, as if Dylan was in some sort of Dantesque state of limbo. As we later found out in his biography, Chronicles, he was.
And lest we forget that Dylan and playwright, Jacques Levy, wrote an entire album of songs in 1976 (ironically, in 1965, Levy directed Red Cross, a play by Sam Shepard with whom Dylan would later co-write the epic, 11-minute yarn, ‘Brownsville Girl’). And while the Dylan-Levy collaboration stands as one of Dylan’s most commercially successful endeavors, there’s no debate that the songs on Desire are all distinctively Dylan.
And maybe that’s the point.
Dylan always hated being heralded as a ‘poet,’ a ‘prophet,’ the ‘voice of a generation.’ Perhaps now we know why. Sometimes accolades do more to weight us down than they do to lift us up.
And after nearly a half century of accolades, can any of us really know the full extent of the load we’ve asked Dylan to carry.
And when you look at it from that perspective, can we really fault Dylan for wanting to share his burden—and his vision—with someone else? Even if sharing that vision does run the risk they might see if from a different point of view…
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you