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Dylan’s Dialectics

Bob Dylan turned 71 yesterday. The guy still tours all over the world, croaking out songs new and old. Saying that the man was important would be a ridiculous understatement. Along with a couple other folks, he created the movement we call Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the upcoming paragraphs, I quote from three different sources, all of which are worth understanding. They are — Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America, and No Direction Home, a documentary produced by Scorcese.

Dylan’s career is sprawling. It’s a stunning demonstration of personal evolution, not only in appearance but also in spirit and sound. He was never primitive, but in a consistent mode of innovation and reinvention. Not only is his career one of the few that can maintain such a puzzling level of revolution, it also parallels the rapid shifts in American culture during his lifetime. Greil Marcus, a Dylan specialist and author of The Old, Weird America, a book detailing many pivotal events in his life, claimed that he had the motivation to “make [himself] up.” (Marcus 19) Dylan’s will to embrace evolution was the key to a deadlocked American musical atmosphere. His activity is best judged through contradictions. Evident in so many public appearances, he would both embrace and denounce the same ideology as it was convenient.

In understanding the most transformative and static moments in Dylan’s career – from Highway 61 Revisited and “Royal Albert Hall” to his “Basement Tapes” – in dialectical terms, it becomes clear that his revolutions were dependent on his internal contradictions and personal contempt for the American variation on personality as cultural iconography.

Dylan’s tendency to seem prophetic and revolutionary is based, in hindsight, on America being primed for his personality. Hegel claims that progress is rooted in contradiction or opposition within a system. Therefore, Dylan’s inversion of public expectation and the previous nature of national iconography allowed him to function as such a potent agent of change within America’s existing cultural foundations. His most infamous evocation of this contradiction is undoubtedly his decision to, as so many say, “go electric,” or even “go commercial.”  When he was young, he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar in order to play folk music (Scorcese). In 1964, when he decided he “would be better with a small group,” he chose to switch back to electric instruments, which reportedly had nothing to do with sounding “modernized.” (Scorcese). Dylan began performing electrically in Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 recording that shows a heavy influence from artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. It revealed a relationship with the blues that was deeply rooted in his musical identity. As a teenager in Minnesota, his first recorded song was one that recalled Lead Belly’s heavy hand and wail. However, it is in the release of Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s most imposing revolution becomes evident.

It is only fitting, given Dylan’s absorption of the blues, that he names the album after the famed “Blues Highway.” But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?)  As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems. His career has proven that he had no ambition to cure social ills. Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is important to treat any of his claims as suspect, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress. In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to reveal cultural inconsistencies was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress. His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy. Dylan features two types of songs on Highway 61 Revisited; the “you” song and the meandering pseudo-narrative.  He chose to address an unknown object with the most clarity in three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record.

Dylan’s progress through opposition is most evident in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the end of the first side. The biting refrain “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” forms one of the most cynical, but also sincere, moments on the album. In it, “Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found American’s defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not” (Marcus 8). This chorus revealed the most power by allowing the listener to believe that Dylan knew “what [was] happening,” when he never felt like he knew more than anyone else. Of course, this is the engine that propelled his progress through tumultuous relationships with the public.

Bob Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award for Freedom” in 1963. In accepting it, he gave a speech clearly refusing that he was a topical or political songwriter. During a sequence of largely criticized performances in the UK during the summer of 1966, he told a reporter, “all I sing is protest songs” (Scorcese). Instances like this and his frequent interchanging of acoustic and electric performances reinforce his application of progress through internal contradiction. His affirmation and rejection of dominant trends allowed him unprecedented freedom in manipulating his own material. Imagining him as a performer who chooses a successful operation and sticks to it is impossible.  It is Dylan’s public enactment of Hegelian progress that established him as a legendary American figure.

One famous performance, closing his 1966 tour of the UK and wrongly thought to have taken place at Royal Albert Hall, marked a critical point in his career. Even his setlists contained internal contradiction, performing the first half acoustic and alone while the second half was with a loud rock ensemble. Audiences were split. Some were appreciative of his innovation and most were livid. Greil Marcus claims that, “Dylan’s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart – and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there” (Marcus 31). So many fans felt betrayed by a man who once epitomized their ideology. Famously, one concertgoer called him “Judas” just before the final song at the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan told his band to play “fucking loud” when barreling into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that transformed into an even more seismic indictment during one dramatic moment. This performance, full of spite and contempt, seemed to contain the entirety of Dylan’s mounting frustrations. Still, there is an air of pleasure that he takes in his power. He wrote, “[i]t was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” (Dylan 121) This may be true, but his artistic innovation and reinvention was dependent on an audience. It was as though his contradictions meant nothing unless someone could pick them out and throw them back.

After the tumultuous 1966 tour of the UK, Dylan retired to America, feeling spiritually depleted. He suffered injuries from a motorcycle accident and subsequently took an eight-year hiatus from public performance. Secluded in a Woodstock, NY home, he gathered a band to record a series of extemporaneous sessions titled, “Basement Tapes.” Dylan, throughout his career, mentioned that he only “sang because [he] felt like singing,” he was “determined to play,” and that the people who didn’t understand him were “outside the music community” (Scorcese, Dylan 43). The sessions in Woodstock, a situation dense with potential for artistic license, thus became an opportunity for Dylan to be a musician without anyone watching. Marcus wrote, “[t]he sense of people playing with no accounts to settle – the sense that everything is possible and nothing matters – defines the basement tapes once they get rolling.” (Marcus 75) A lethargic philosophy dominates the “Basement Tapes”. The seclusion warded off any public ghosts but also chased away Dylan’s determination. The “Basement Tapes” are an astonishing demonstration of cultural virtuosity and musicianship that has seeped deep into the bone. However, they are also a collection of recordings that show so little development. When in the public eye, Dylan was able to be the darling of Newport and the begetter of punk within a few months. The recordings that comprise his stay in Woodstock only affirm that Dylan’s personality is one that requires an audience to witness his contradictions and progress. His trajectory is distinctly American and would form a trademark of rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan wrote, “I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming a performance” (Dylan 17). This was a technique he had mastered to the point of, as becomes evident with the “Basement Tapes,” needing the audience so that he could maintain a stable personality – one only comfortable when in performance. This reading also serves to explain his current obsession with touring, even in a crippled vocal state.

Dylan may have considered popular American culture “lame as hell and a big trick,” but it is clear that he needed it to implement his revolutions (Dylan 35). His influence and legacy cannot be overstated. In hindsight, it seems as though America needed Dylan and Dylan needed America. None of his innovations would have carried if he weren’t so charged with internal contradictions and if he didn’t have a public to watch it all happen. This is the wrong way to interpret Dylan’s career. His interest in delivering answers or conclusions seems to be miniscule. His ability to create profound cultural questions through contradicting himself is paramount. In terms of defining a massive, pluralistic society, Dylan is one of the most efficient and prolific practitioners without ever trying to be. About America, and probably the world, he wrote, “[i]t was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (Dylan 35)

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  1. Ken Kaplan
    March 1, 2013 at 1:04 AM

    I have long thought about writing you on this. I think you make some interesting points but I think you also fundamentally do not understand Dylan’s greatest period, his greatest album (Highway 61 Revisited) and one of his greatest songs, Desolation Row. It is significant that you mention Griel Marcus because he would disagree with much of your assessment. You wrote

    “But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?) As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems….Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is **important to treat any of his claims as suspect**, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress….In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of

    **vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance**. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to **reveal cultural inconsistencies** (Here you get it right) was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress ..

    __His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy._With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a **long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone**, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record”.

    The songs on Highway 61 Revisited are NOT “**vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance** or “witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy.” By contrast they are a surrealistic extension of the thoughts, feelings and motifs Dylan began with “Freewheelin'”, brought to a new level in “Bringing It All Back Home”, and heightened to a crescendo in this work. What begins as as a powerful critique of the society, moves to a scathing attack (Its All Right Ma, I’m only bleeding, Gates of Edan, Subterranean Homesick Blues) and on Highway 61 is an all out unrestrained carpet bombing of the culture, its zeitgeist and its mores.

    The idea that Bob Dylan was not ambitious is ludicrous. His ambition took deeply unconventional form. As Anthony Scaduto wrote, “He wanted to be Elvis Presley, he never counted on being Jesus Christ”. This is why Dylan’s specious claims that his songs were not written to have concrete meaning were a mechanism to avoid pigeonholing and an attempt to control the spotlight on the brilliance of his work as social commentary, even in its electric phase.

    Marcus wrote in the book you quoted
    ” Once a singer stood at a world crossroads. For a moment he held a stage no one has more than mounted since-a stage that may no longer exist. More than thirty years ago (now 45), when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form-and when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant -Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to BE that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim, the fact was, for a long moment, it did”.

    I will leave you for a moment but return to demonstrate the incredible internal logic of the songs you label “vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance** and “witty rhyming tools”, why Desolation Row most assuredly is not in any fashion a comedy (far, far from it), and why Dylan is full of crap in any insistence that his songs have no intentional coherent meaning that form a powerful gestalt that flow like a river into a flood (an image he likes).

    For now I recommend Marcus’ essay in his collected writings on Dylan 1968-2010 titled “Where is Desolation Row” and check out this website essay

    http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/~davidt/desolation_row.htm

    which is not only insightful but clarifies several of the references in the song. I will add that “Ophelia” possibly refers to Joan Baez who also was near 22 when the song was written.

    I do commend you for your recognition of the dialectic with America and the knowledge, as I said, that he had” determination to **reveal cultural inconsistencies”.

    This determination was so great (strange for one with “mo social ambition”) that it nearly killed him.

    I’ll clue you specifically in on part II. I think you’ll find it interesting.

    • Ken Kaplan
      March 1, 2013 at 1:14 AM

      P,S. Blonde on Blonde shows a weary, still incandescent Dylan capitulating. What began as a culmination of observation across the landscape in “Desolation Row” morphs into a deep existential resignation and sorrow epitomized by “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and the great, great “Visions of Johanna”. Even here there is no break to the flow of the gestalt I mentioned earlier. One can be a super nova only so long.

    • March 1, 2013 at 11:59 AM

      Holy shit, Ken. I don’t have time to actually respond to this right now, but hope we can have a good dialogue about it. Before we get into anything nasty, I’ll say that I wrote this at the point where I had just discovered Dylan and Marcus (had heard HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED for the first time merely weeks before having to write this) and, in the fashion of both those men, my opinions have warped and shifted enough that we may very well be in total agreement.

      • Ken Kaplan
        March 1, 2013 at 12:56 PM

        Thanks for the reply. I’m sharing thoughts as a life long Dylan freak, especially of that period. So w it will be interesting to compare notes.

        So here’s my take on Highway 61 and Desolation Row. I’ll deal with that and Dylan’s ambitions and denials to part III.

        One has to understand Highway 61(#3 I think on Rolling Stone’s all time best RR album) as an analogy of the dreaming mind to the waking life consciousness. I am a rather gifted dream interpreter and dreams speak truly a different language. IMO, on Highway 61, Dylan’s completeness of his foray into surrealism created a landscape that could not be fully understood or appreciated through mere didactic or conventional means. This corresponds to the Time Interview in “Don’t Look Back”, which I will reference later. The nature of surrealism stretched Dylan’s boundaries of the possible and fused FEELING with words in an exponential manner. Its not just the words themselves (which are important, as I will show), but the FEELING that pervades the songs and can be ridden like a wave.

        On the album, as I said, Dylan raise his critique of the society, which he had touched upon greatly on other albums
        in similar but in more conventional language forms to a white hot fury. Nothing is off limits here. The three great surreal songs that address this are the title song, Tombstone Blues, and Desolation Row. Four others in some fashion deal with similar themes but are more concretely addressed or have themes of individuals and sometimes blend this motif, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is a beautiful blues love interlude and I never paid much attention to “from a Buick 6”.

        So of the three, let’s start with the first two I mentioned. Both in their own way are a frontal assault on the most sacred elements of conventional society. The very first verse upends and inverts one of the most important and sacred stories in Genesis. Thee is no love here, no fusion or elevated communion of God and man.

        “God say, “No.” Abe say, “What ?”
        God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
        The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

        Dylan serves notice in the very first verse of the very first song that things are not what they seem, that all order is not only potentially in chaos, but is reversed, and that cruelty and barbarism are the norm. All morality has broken down. The next two verses reinforce with feeling the sense of the dispossessed, the lowly, the abandoned. Then comes the next great frontal assault, on the conventions and mores of sexual conduct and the most revered relationships. A phenomenal verse.

        “Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
        Told the first father that things weren’t right
        My complexion she said is much too white
        He said come here and step into the light he says hmmm you’re right
        Let me tell second mother this has been done
        But the second mother was with the seventh son
        And they were both out on Highway 61.”

        At this point things have gone beyond just being out of balance, they have entered the realm of the perverted, the incestual, and bizarre, a society where such behavior now is the norm. But Dylan climbs even higher, and ends on an truly incendiary note

        “Now the rowin’ gambler he was very bored
        He was tryin’ to create a next world war
        He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
        He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
        But yes I think it can be very easily done
        We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
        And have it on Highway 61”

        Dylan here takes ideas he has worked with for a while, that everything is for sale and nothing is off limits, from “Masters of War” to “Its all Right Ma…”

        “Disillusioned words like bullets bark
        As human gods aim for their mark
        Make everything from toy guns that spark
        To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
        It’s easy to see without looking too far
        That not much is really sacred.”

        But here, the venom, the caustic critique is upped to the unthinkable. Nothing is off the table to make money. (Talk about 9/11 conspiracies) After all why not profit off the third world war since

        “I never engaged in this kind of thing before
        But yes I think it can be very easily done…’

        Where does all this happen? Out on the road of the alternative Universe which in “real life” is a highway through the heartland of the country. But here, in this parallel reality which in Dylan’s mind reflects the real nature of what’s going on, the Highway 61 of the song expresses the naked truth underneath all the conventions and pseudo conventions of appearance that people and institutions present as “civilized”. After all, when the song/album was created, the build up to the Vietnam War was underway and we were in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

        • Ken Kaplan
          March 1, 2013 at 1:44 PM

          Sorry I need four parts.

          As intense as Highway 61 is as a song, “Tombstone Blues” burns at a greater intensity. This is one of the most scathing songs ever written. It constitutes a rejection of the entire zeitgeist with an unparalleled ferocity. Its one of my favorite songs. Dylan does two things here. He continues and intensifies the assault on sacred mores, but he uses an unusual point-counter point dialectic in many verse to magnify the meaning. This happens too quickly for most people to get.

          The first two verses are an all out assault on political convention as Dylan proclaims his innocence.

          “The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
          The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
          The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
          But the town has no need to be nervous.

          The ghost of Belle Star she hands down her wits
          To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
          A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
          At the head of the chamber of commerce.”

          In the second verse, and others,(which is a precursor in imagery to Desolation Row) Dylan goes point counter point.

          “Belle Star” was a famous stripper who here is known for her intellect (wits). “Jezebel” was a famous false prophet of Baal whose name became associated with prostitutes and fallen women. Here she is a nun. She “violently knits” (an oxymoron-knitting is a calm activity) a “bald wig” (again an inversion” for who? ” Jack the Ripper who sits At the head of the chamber of commerce.”

          So one of the most famous mass murderers of modern history sits at the throne of local power. I’m sure this was influenced by events of the day, what Dylan had witnessed in the South, and the ascension of Johnson’s genocidal war policy, but its veracity and ferocity is eerily prescient for our times as well when all is broken and out of balance-wholeness and the heart is absent.

          Dylan next moves on to address the sacred cow of conventional sexuality.

          The “hysterical bride” screams and moans about “being made” but the Doctor says “My advice is to not let the boys in”. But Dylan takes it one step further as the “Medicine Man comes” who is the shaman, not part of materialistic-rationalist America, at ease and supremely confident (He walks with a swagger) and chastises the bride and puritanical society
          “”Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
          You will not die,** it’s not poison”.**

          This war on conventional sacredness reaches its crescendo in the next verse for here Dylan rips apart unmercifully traditional Christianity and the hypocrisy of the culture at its core.

          “Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
          Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
          Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
          Is there a hole for me to get sick in ?”

          The “Commander in Chief” has a dual meaning. Obviously it is Christ since in the Bible John the Baptist is subservient directly to Jesus. But by using the American term for the President he is conflating in a deeply subversive way the megalomania of American Exceptionalism and barbarism.

          Which leads to one of the greatest lines ever.
          “The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
          Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
          And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
          Saying, “THE SUN’S NOT YELLOW, ITS CHICKEN.”

          There is no respite for unrelenting cruelty in this landscape.

          The verses before the end are less transparent but convey the feeling of a world turned upside down where
          “Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he bums out their camps
          With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
          With a fantastic collection of stamps
          To win friends and influence his uncle.” ( A shot at the famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People”)

          Dylan makes all things clear at the end and why his contempt is so deep. This mirrors directly the famous Time magazine interview. He comes down off the surrealistic mountain and is plainly direct.

          “Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
          That could hold you dear lady from going insane
          That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
          Of your useless and pointless knowledge”

          Again
          “Of your useless and pointless knowledge”

          Next up Desolation Row and ambition-denial

          Thanks for the space.

          • December 16, 2013 at 1:52 AM

            That’s the spirit, Biscuit. Show off those British ghrsneas and spare us any blushes. I’m sure they’re teeth to make an empire proud. In fact, looking at the icon beside your name, they look like a fine set of enamels.I had one deep feeling done but it wasn’t fun, especially when a certain clod-hopping fool started to walk around (we were in an upper room) and the floor started to bounce, the dentist’s drill started to bounce and started to bounce around the insides of my tooth.Apparently I’ve not been brushing far enough back and this had caused a cavity. My question to the dentist was how far back should I really be brushing and wouldn’t it be easier to come in via an ear?’

          • February 19, 2014 at 7:56 AM

            Which came first, the problem or the solution? Luckily it doesn’t matter.

          • January 11, 2015 at 3:07 AM

            Now we know who the seilnbse one is here. Great post!

      • Ken Kaplan
        March 1, 2013 at 6:17 PM

        Thanks for your interest. I put a lot up so I’ll let you digest it and we can talk online and we can share thoughts before I finish. I was only responding to what I read. I’m not into picking a fight. You seem extremely intelligent and well versed.

        Ken Kaplan

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