As a matter of coincidence, I've been consuming a lot of Dylan or Dylan-adjacent media these past few days. So through no choice of my own, I've had him - or the myth he's become - on the mind. Three things I want to talk about: BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, Jakob Dylan on WTF with Marc Maron, and Joyce Carol Oates' WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
My Dylan library is kind of a sorry sight. I have his whole career covered in my iTunes library, but it's patchy, lacking context and thoroughness. A handful of albums are complete, while the rest are scattershots scraped together from Greatest Hits collections, Essential compilations, and dozens of orphans from HypeM. With the pressure of evaluating 2012 releases gone, I decided to shore up my iTunes with BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, filling in the gaps with a handful of purchases from Amazon MP3.
TRACKS sounds like Bob Dylan directing the spotlight onto his words, away from the full instrumentation that made HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED such a big deal. He goes to work here in the folk formula that made his early protest songs so palatable. Often, verses will closes on the same tentpole line, making it predictable the way rhyme poetry is predictable. But a formula is just a creative prompt, a game to get the mind going, and within these confines he does great storytelling.
Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved.
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place that's always safe and warm.
"Come in," she said. "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
Each elliptical verse is another entry in a story, so that every home stretch is full of momentum and anticipation. It's not built for easy single line quotables. If you're some punk kid that's really into getting a "Tangled Up In Blue" tattoo, you might end up with the whole song stretching from your neck to halfway down your stomach. It'll look awful, but there's no cutting up these songs.
I've also been re-reading my college textbooks on writing. It's fueled largely in part by the fear that I've forgotten something basic, and this is a way of taking inventory of my knowledge. One of these books features Joyce Carol Oates' WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN. She famously dedicated it to Bob Dylan, if only because she was listening to "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" at the time of writing.
There's nothing especially Dylanesque here. It's not fan service with references and winks to the in-crowd. If there's anything carried over, it's the atmosphere. What's interesting is her interpretation of it: this is a story about manipulation, invasion and intimidation. It features a murderous stalker talking his way into a young, naive girl's home. "Baby Blue," meanwhile, is one of those songs where Dylan condescends to a vague figure and gives them their comeuppance. It might be a dis track. It's righteous and convincing, but Oates saw in its heart a looming, dark voice. It's all over now, baby blue.
She's not off-base. Dylan's music can be full of conviction and moral authority, but if you're the target of his ire, it fits the menacing role well. "When The Ship Comes In," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and other notables have an undercurrent of bad guys getting what's coming to them. I've never been on the other side of a protest song. As an antagonist, Dylan comes off just as poetic, but now his silver tongue comes with fangs. It's not weaponized the way a venomous quip is, it's just overwhelming in its charisma and incisiveness, which is maybe why the story is invasive, not assaulting.
Jakob Dylan, son of Bob and leader of The Wallflowers, was on WTF with Marc Maron recently. It was a good conversation, which is par for the course on WTF, especially since they got to delve into the subject of his father. It was clear that he didn't prefer to, as he's his own man, but the curiosity can't be helped when there's so much distance between Bob Dylan and the reverent public. Somehow, despite the plethora of documentaries and his endless tour, it always feels like there's so much we will never understand. The hope is that he could help fill in some of that.
Jakob comes off as a down-to-business blue collar type of musician, the kind with no patience for high art pretensions. He wants only to play music, which would be refreshing were it coming from anyone but the Son of Dylan. I wonder if his aversion developed from seeing the intellectualization and academia surrounding his father's work. We want him to continue that story, because it's a great one, even if we did make up a chunk of it.
Alas, he's a person. He has the same inalienable right to individualism that we all do. I should probably give that new Wallflowers album a spin.
It's odd to talk about Dylan as a 20-something. Our connection to his music as late comers feels inauthentic at worst and naive at best. I'm reminded of one of my poetry workshops in college, where a peer wrote a long poem depicting Bob Dylan as a prophetic voice raging alone in the wilderness. It's the popular iconic characterization, but it rings false when you consider his lack of presence at actual protests, and his later aversion to this media-hyped characterizaton. Those that look up to him as pop music's number one revolutionary probably should have had Joan Baez posters in their dorm room instead.
At the same time, who am I to speak on this with any confidence? I got into Bob Dylan in high school, the way high schoolers try and find something intelligent and mature to distinguish themselves. Age 17 might be the most fertile soil for Dylan's music to take root. If you're a teenager trying to gain some credibility, his immortal status as counter-cultural cool is an obvious foothold. Knowing this, I listened to Dylan on my Sony Discman during a do-nothing day in AP Psychology. The high-pitched squeal of the harmonica solo on "All Along The Watchtower" bled out from my headphones..
"Is that Bob Dylan?" the teacher asked.
I replied in the affirmative and nothing more was said. Still, I liked knowing that he recognized it. It felt like I had given my public persona some depth to those that were "cultured" enough to catch it. It was smug. I like to think I've evolved path that, and that I'm a fan for the right reasons today. But there is always room to sound like a goofy know-nothing when talking about Dylan. His fandom has become its own culture, and posing is easy.