‘I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be’, said the singer once. Asked who he was the rest of the time, he answered ‘myself’.
On a Thursday night (16/06/2011), in a marquee in Cork, the Dylan circus is in town. He takes to the stage and belts out ‘I’m stepping out of the dark woods / Trying to jump on a monkey’s back / Yes, I’m all dressed up / Going to the country dance’. ‘I is another’ / j'est un autre, declared Rimbaud, and Dylan too is ‘another’. The man onstage is an artistic creation. He resembles a Mississippi riverboat gambler, perhaps an itinerant preacher. We enter his American gothic world of flood and disaster in ‘High Water’ and ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’. We hit the open road in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, and then enter a biblical realm of life, death and rebirth in ‘I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine’ and ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’.
Dylan’s songs inhabit an otherworld, they are dream, illusion. The ‘wild mercury sound’ of Blonde on Blonde was what Dylan described as ‘the sound of the streets. That ethereal twilight world…usually it’s the crack of dawn’.
In ‘Series of Dreams’ Dylan eschews having ‘intricate schemes’, he ‘was just thinking of a series of dreams’. The video shows various Dylans we have known melting into each other. Protest singer. Gypsy rocker. We see Ginsberg, Kerouac, Rimbaud, Lenny Bruce, Dylan Thomas and his own parents haunt him, we see the boy becoming a man.
‘Changing of the Guard’ mesmerized me when I first heard it, it still does. ‘Sixteen years, sixteen banners united over the field, where the Good Shepherd greets desperate men’, he sings, hinting at his own musical voyage from 1962 to 1978. One critic wrote of the ‘almost tragic feel in the song: everything sounds as if there will be a normal, major and happy-sounding tonic chord; but instead, the song falls into the unusual and dark-sounding relative minor chord’. It is a song full of unresolved mystery, dazzling with biblical and Tarot imagery, echoes of traditional lyrics (‘she’s smelling sweet like the meadows’). It may be a song about Christ, or Joan of Arc. Dylan says the song’s meaning constantly shifts, and ‘it feels a thousand years old’.
‘You were born in a hurricane, with a snake in both of your fists’, sings Dylan on ‘Jokerman’. He could be singing about himself, of the mercurial world of the poet. He leaps from Blakean images of pastoral innocence, ‘half asleep ‘neath the stars, with a small dog licking your face’ – to images of corrupt ‘false-hearted judges’, concluding ‘it’s only a matter of time till night comes stepping in’.
In ‘Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)’, Dylan encounters one of his many messengers from the otherworld of dream language, of deities and demons. After an encounter with a ‘gypsy with a flashing ring’ he pleads for change, ‘let’s overturn these tables, disconnect these cables, this place don’t make sense to me no more’. Shortly after he announced he was born again, he released the apocalyptic Slow Train Coming. If Dylan’s gospel songs often dripped judgemental venom, they were also exquisitely written, sung, played and recorded. And charged with poetry, no more so than when Dylan sings, on ‘Every Grain of Sand’, ‘Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me’. It is a song of profound faith, but also profound doubt. ‘Shot of Love’ is a hellish nightmare, an existential plea for acceptance which simultaneously rants against those ‘who have humiliated my faith’.
Quite what Dylan believes these days is anybody’s guess. ‘I used to care, but things have changed’, he snarls in Cork. He is still apocalyptic, ‘if the Bible is right the world will explode’. Dylan will always be accused of being a faker and a fake. Thus some will denounce the protest singer who plays Israel and China, but Dylan is nothing if not democratic in his choice of audiences, equally ill-at-ease before the Pope and the Comintern. Dylan’s view of politics seems to be that all is corrupt, the ‘world’s gone wrong’. But a contempt for capitalism still underpins later songs, from ‘Union Sundown’ to ‘Political World’ (‘...death disappears / Up the steps into the nearest bank’) and ‘Workingman’s Blues No. 2’, with its elegiac vision of one man’s world ruined by money that’s ‘shallow and weak’.
‘The poet, therefore, is truly the thief of fire’, said Rimbaud. Dylan’s latest records are magpie creations, with lyrics and tunes filched from every, conceiveable source, from Japanese writer Junichi’s Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza and American Civil War poet Henry Timrod to Bing Crosby, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. He brings us back to source, to the mythic world of poetry and traditional song. ‘It is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery’, Dylan noted in a 1965 interview.
Those who see Dylan as arrogant miss the truth. On ‘Mississippi’, he says: ‘My powers of expression are thought so sublime / They never do you justice or reason or rhyme’. It echoes ‘Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’. Dylan pays homage to the singers who have gone before. On the sinister ‘Ain’t Talking’ he writes of ‘carrying a dead man’s shield’, just as the man and boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ‘carry fire’. And like them he walks through a wasteland of ‘wounded flowers dangling on the vines’. Celebrating his seventieth birthday last May, Dylan’s code is still to show us the ‘cities of the plague’, to take to the stage night after night. For me, it’s still a joy to applaud that journey through a ‘world mysterious and vague’. Long may it continue, to ‘the last outback, at the world’s end’.« Return to listings