Saturday, July 28, 2007

Dylan Project FAQ - My Back Pages


I've been meaning to get this personal project off the ground. And when I say personal, I mean: sharing something that has brought me deep private pleasure with others who might not otherwise experience it.

To wit: Bob Dylan's music. I want to inspire others to appreciate how profoundly good it is.

You might think this is a silly idea. Everybody knows Bob Dylan, and what a great artist he is. Praising him is like saying Shakespeare was a good playwright.

Actually, that's not a bad comparison in some ways, and I'll come back to it.
"The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good." -Robert Graves.
Dylan is different, in that everybody knows who he is, but there's also an unusually large group of people that think he's terrible and can't stand him. A few people might tell you Shakespeare is boring, or they can't be bothered to watch the plays because the language is too hard to understand. And there's some truth to that, of course. But not many people think he's worthless, since his place at the "white hot center" of the literary canon is undisputed.

Dylan, not so.

I'm not being defensive about liking Dylan's music when I know lots of people don't. The saying "there's no disputing tastes" has an equivalent in every language.
But I suspect many of the people who don't like him have been too quick to judge, perhaps on the basis of his voice, or having heard a couple of the most overplayed songs too often. Given a little push in the right direction, they might turn around and derive the mountains of enjoyment from him that I have.

Moreover, a few of my friends who like some of Dylan's songs don't 'get it,' about why I'm so deeply moved by him, and have asked me to explain or recommend a few good numbers, so that maybe they'll see what I'm talking about.

Well, okay. But just naming a list of my favorite songs isn't going to work.

I 'don't get it' about religion, yoga, psychology, shopping or watching sports. I've tried to appreciate these things a bit on my own, but so far, nothing has stuck.

However, I accept that I'm probably wrong about yoga, on the basis of one of my axioms: anything that lots of people expend lots of energy, thought and time on, must have value.

So what's needed with Dylan is a more thorough introduction, and a guide. Once you get into it, then you start to see the value.

I also used to think business and economics were pretty boring subjects. Then I became a financial reporter, and after I started to see how all the pieces of the clockwork fit together, my viewpoint changed utterly. Now the more I know about the way capitalism works, the more fascinating it becomes. For better or for worse, corporations shape almost everything about the world we live in, and I can no longer imagine my mental landscape without an appreciation and understanding of them.

So I take it that the reason I don't understand religion or appreciate sports is that I simply don't have the right preparation.

Dylan, like some other great musicians, has a high barrier to entry. I don't think this is intentional on his part, incidentally, I think it's just bound up with his character.
I acquired my taste for him the long way around: by rejecting him. I've had similar reactions to other musicians that struck me kind of funny at first but who I eventually came to love: Stephen Sondheim (atonal), the Beastie Boys (nasal) and Mozart (too many notes).

But Dylan came to me in the right moment _ a very specific moment in my life, when I was in deep pain from a bad break up. I started listening to Blood on the Tracks, I suddenly got the hook, and there was no un-hooking.

Dylan's voice can be grating. His lyrics can appear nonsensical, or be nonsensical, or wost of all, lazy and self-indulgent. Certainly not all of his music is very good. Some is bad. Some is very bad. I mostly like his early 60's stuff, with important exceptions.

They said of Shakespeare that he never had to re-write a line. "'Would he had blotted a thousand.'" said Ben Jonson, his rival and friend. But Jonson also called Shakespeare "a monument without a tomb," because despite having "small Latin, and less Greek," he playing a completely different game to some of his competitors, trying to, kick free of the ground. "He was not of an age, but for all time."

"My conceit of his person was never increased ... by his place or honours; but I have and do reverence him ... in that he seemed to me ever by his work one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed that God would give him strength; for greatness he could not want." -Ben Jonson.

So, too with Dylan. You have to ignore the 1,000 lines he should have blotted ("the pumps don't work because the vandals took the handles") and his other failings. Actually you may even learn to love his idiosyncrasies.

Shakespeare, too, had weird artistic habits. To name one of many, he would state the most ambiguous things in the plainest monosyllabic English, I guess as a way of laying the contradiction bare. So in Othello, I-ago says "I am not what I am." (NOT: "I am not what I seem").

Dylan has his artistic habits, the weak voice (especially on the high notes) masked by speak-singing, the fading/flattening after each emphasized word "I wAnt yOu...sOh bAd."
The whole "You'll find out when you reach the top, you are on the bottom" idea isn't that clever and it's repeated about a hundred times in different songs..

This just reminds me that Dylan, like Shakespeare, Mozart, or whatever great artist you choose, is only human.

The flaws and failings of people with great talent are so outshone, so dwarfed by the epic, stunning, absolute brilliance of what they do when they're at their best, that it makes us feel magnified in their presence, impotent in their shadow, proud of our race and aware of its limits, all at once.

"Music," says Ben Levine, "is emotion." Shakespeare says music is the highest of the arts because it "it alone is high fantastical," i.e., purely abstract.

That may be true of music, but not so of song, and certainly not so of Dylan. Along with the music, he delivers story, poetry and character, with timing, nuance and subtle variation. Like Shakespeare, he can "sing both high and low." His music is emotion, but not raw emotion. Well-cured emotion.

"I'll know my song well, before I start singing."

-Dylan ("A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall").

My very favorite Shakespearean sonnet ends with the couplet:
"This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong /
to love that well which thou must leave ere long."

It's about an old couple who will die soon, and know they have to love each other as much as they can now. I've never been in that particular situation, but the poem makes me feel what that's like. Compassion. Metempsychosis. We are all that old couple too, no? Mutatis Mutandis?

So, too with Dylan at his best. He speaks to parts of my life that I've lived, and others that I still have to go through, and quite a few that I probably never will, but though him, I experience nonetheless.

So much for the preface.

The specifics of the project are, I'll post about some of the Dylan songs that I love, and try to explain exactly why, in essays much briefer than this one.

If I can figure out the technical side of things, I'll include as much of the clips or lyrics as I can without infringing copyright.

And I'll hyperlink around from song to song to create a web of Dylan's work _ it's the totality of what's he's done, as much as any one song, that makes me, for lack of better words, respect and admire him.

I called this backgrounder "My Back Pages" for several reasons: first, because the title fits.

It suggests how subjective and bound up with biography this project is. There are so many people out there who know so much more about Dylan, and music, than I do. I'm a "self-ordained professor's tongue," really, just a casual listener. All I have to contribute is my ears, mind, and heart.

As far as the song goes, it's typical of the "good" Dylan, but not great. The lyrics are too recondite. The music shows off some of the jazz-like variation he throws into an otherwise repetitive line (get a copy of the full song and listen to how differently he sings the word that rhymes with "how" each time it occurs).

It appears to be a song of regret over both his youthful certainty about the world, and the loss of it, something that I can definitely identify with.

But I have to admit I'm not sure, which is also why it's an appropriate song to begin with.

Maybe I just need to study the song better in order to get the point. Dylan can be more exact in what he's doing than you're expecting sometimes. "Tambourine Man", (unfortunately way overplayed), is one example of a song whose meaning is absolutely crystal clear, and non-psychedelic. But you have to think about it a little bit to get the message.

Anyhow, once I knew everything. Now that I've unfigured it all out, I reckon there are probably a lot of other people out there who either think they know it all and don't _ or don't realize that what they do know is all there is.

In other words, I'm ready to open up my back pages and make a fool of myself.

The music clip:

"But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

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