It’s been just about a year since I took up this little project, which is as good a reason as any to pull back and take stock. I think at this point, yeah, you could call me a Bob Dylan fan. I like the way his music sounds, and I trust his process for creating new music enough to follow him down whatever path he finds interesting. In a lot of ways, this is the perfect artist/fan union – I’ve been saying for ages that Dylan’s eclectic career suits both the current ‘make your own playlist’ distribution model of music and my personal Cowboy Bebop-esque sense of pacing. But coming at it from the other direction, I’m willing to let Dylan exist on his own terms. When people booed him for going electric in 1966, or going country in 1970, or going Jesus in 1980, they were trying to force Dylan to stay the same person he had become in their heads. One of the ways I was wrong in my first article is that Dylan doesn’t fashion himself into an icon – rather, he’s an ordinary dude who speaks in the language of icons. He wasn’t a Folk Singer, he was some kid with a knowledge of Folk Singers’ tricks so encyclopedic that he knew how to combine them in ways people hadn’t seen before*. I see the distinction between the bag of tricks and the person using them in a way I suspect those particular fans did not. On the other hand, I don’t think the basic idea of creating an image of a famous person is necessarily a bad thing, and I think Dylan himself points the way to do it – he created an idea of Woody Guthrie, incorporated that idea into the kind of person he wanted to be, and did what he thought that person ought to do. Done with care, it’s thoughtful reflection on the kind of person one wants to be.
So what is my personal idea of Bob Dylan? Above everything else, he’s a man who trusts his feelings. If he feels something is right, he’ll pursue it with no thought for the feelings of others (“But I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity”). He is, as Rosy Fingers observed on that first article, a nerd, sucking up the facts of American music to create that encyclopedia in his head. And he uses the encyclopedia to express his feelings, and his feelings to contextualise what would otherwise be a stream of disconnected facts. I am, to an extent, describing talents; one of the little things Dylan is famous for is having an impossibly detailed memory, especially for things he had a strong emotional reaction to – apparently, he remembers slights from magazines for years and will hold it against them – and I suppose that would help keep all those references straight. By comparison, I’m notorious amongst my friends and loved ones for an unbelievably shitty memory, and it seems to me trying to imitate a genius at something where you have to work to be below average is needlessly fighting the tide. Although, there are ways in what he does can be simulated; recently, I tried out David Fincher’s “record fifty-odd takes” approach to playing guitar, and found myself improving very, very quickly, and I found myself wondering if I was crudely replicating the Bob Dylan experience. Once I felt I’d gotten it right two or three times, I started playing more elaborate variations on what I was doing, which of course brings to mind Dylan’s constant reworkings of his songs. Perhaps he’s able to internalise what I had to externalise.
(And it also brings to mind the work of Jasper Johns, where lacking a common trait was what lead to his greatness)
In terms of general personality, he’s managed to stay kind of an asshole his whole life, but he has limitations on it that make him fascinating. Early in his life and especially at the very start of his career, he comes off as a raging pretentious fraud – constantly lying to make himself sound more interesting, barging his way into situations to get what he wanted, stealing songs and fragments and poses and sometimes records from other people; I knew guys like that around that age and they were fuckawful to be around. In conversation off-site, Conor Malcolm Crockford suggested that the motorcycle accident was a movie-like moment that humbled him at an age when most people start settling down anyway, and that does seem to have been a major catalyst for change. But I also sense an unconventional kind of humility in the guy going as far back as his first brush with fame. He always, always believed in God, and while its possible to believe in God and not be humble, the vibe I’ve gotten is that Dylan genuinely submits to God as a higher power who cannot be controlled, only responded to, and this bit of wisdom drives the half of what he says that doesn’t sound like abrasive trolling; he judges people, but he judges them on the distance from God they choose to be, knowing he gets up and makes his own choice every day. And it’s not just God he submits to, it’s music itself. The two things he said that have preoccupied me the most are that he didn’t write his songs because they always existed and he was just the one to write them down, and that he didn’t know where his early songs came from and that he doubted he could keep up that level of productivity again. He’s as subordinate to his music as any of his listeners, and he’s lucky to get to keep accessing that space. And his music is no more or less special than anybody else’s; it exists in the same space as that of Woody Guthrie and Alicia Keyes, and he respects that.
Of course, that raises the idea of Bob Dylan As A Guy What Who Plays Music. Before listening to Bob Dylan, playing electric guitar felt like not playing with a band. Listening to and contemplating his music from World Gone Wrong has caused me to reconsider; theoretically, recording an album of old standards using only an acoustic guitar and cheap equipment in one’s garage sounds like a cheap and lazy cash-in, but he genuinely commits to the idea – any other instrument would distract from his virtuoso guitar work, each song is chosen because it reflects something Dylan wants to say, and even the lo-fi aesthetic creates a level of intimacy with the listener. It isn’t that this doesn’t matter, it’s that this isn’t a formal situation where we have to put on a ballgown and pearls before listening. It’s the closest pop music equivalent to a hangout story, and it reminds me of Dylan describing the sessions that created The Basement Tapes as the real way to make music. I doubt it would ever occur to Dylan to record himself playing electric guitar with no vocals in his garage, but if he did, he’d take it completely seriously, and he’d honestly listen to someone else doing it and evaluate it on its own merits. If his constant reworking of his music reveals one fundamental truth, it’s that every way of playing music has its own unique value. I suppose the image of Bob Dylan I’ve conjured up would be fine with that.
(*In the process of writing this, I looked up an interview with TIME Magazine, shown in the film Dont Look Back, where he explicitly says he’s not a folk singer and let me tell you, I felt pretty smug)