DN: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” came into my Youtube Red random playlist, and I really liked it almost immediately. Bob Dylan’s voice was much softer on it than it’s generally known for, and I loved both the lyrics themselves and the way that he read them. The words hit a precise level of elliptical, where what he was describing sounded so familiar despite not actually describing the action in any real detail, and his sweet reading of them rendered lines that ought to be sarcastic and angry as the gentlest possible ribbing. The combination of words and performance felt like they described relationships I had that didn’t work but I couldn’t bring myself to be bitter about, and friendships I’ve had based partly on mutual forgiveness.
This version was posted by a fan, and has since been taken down in favour of an official version taken from The Freewheelin’ Sessions, where he reads the lyrics more aggressively – he’s still positive to the subject of the song, but he’s more jovial, as if he’s trying harder to hold back his bitterness, as opposed to the version I like where he has no bitterness to hide in the first place. And this is something that, from my perspective as a casual observer, is one expression of a fundamental aspect of Dylan’s identity as a singer-songwriter, as an icon, and as a person: that he does whatever he feels.
Bob Dylan is as much an idea as he is a person – David Hepworth’s book Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Stars 1955 – 1994 characterises him not just as a Rock Star, but as one of the first people to intentionally set out to achieve Rock Star status. Even more than that, from my outside view, he’s an archetypal example of an Artist, one person with a singular vision that he passes on through his chosen medium, and much of his public identity is rooted in the way he combines being a Rock Star with being an Artist. When someone sets out to express themselves with rock music, they are, in part, emulating Bob Dylan.
This extends into who he is as a singer-songwriter in that – and again, this is dealing with my impressions – he legitimately does not seem to give a fuck what anybody thinks of him. He’s not like, say, Paul McCartney, who set out to be a professional entertainer and has been playing crowdpleasing standards with the exact same amount of energy for longer than I’ve been alive. And he’s not like Leonard Cohen (RIP), who begins with a unique artistic vision and varnishes it for the sake of entertaining a crowd (whether in recording or performing live). What you get, and what you have always gotten, is pure, uncompromised Bob Dylan, exploring whatever idea he likes.
I think this is what drives his notorious inconsistency in live performances these days. I’ve watched and listened to a few live performances, and I get the impression that response from the crowd is and always has been the last thing on his mind – it doesn’t matter how loud and boisterous the crowd is, if he’s feeling introspective, he’ll play quietly, if he’s angry, he’ll play the song angrily, and only if he’s in the mood will he play the song anywhere resembling what it was in the original incarnation (my understanding is that being part of Dylan’s band means accepting he’ll play it differently every single night). At this point, he’s been playing his songs for so long that total demolition is the only way he can get any fun from them, but I suspect it’s the logical conclusion of a lifelong process of fiddling with them.
My goal with this project will be to go through Dylan’s catalogue, from his first record up to his latest – or whenever I get bored, whichever comes first – as well as working through biographical details in order to get a sense of him as an icon, as a performer, and as an individual dude what who happens to play music for a living. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this kind of thing, but it is the first time I’ve been able to do it with an audience and with people who can guide me through the process. What’s your perspective on this, wallflower – as a Certified Old™ who’s been listening to Dylan for a long time, what do you think of my noob POV? What factors should I keep in mind as I work through his discography? Is there an ideal path through it, the way Let It Be ought to be listened to before Abbey Road?
w: A crude but useful way of determining someone’s impact on a culture is simply how often that someone gets mentioned. Part of the legacy of The Simpsons, for example, is the sheer frequency with which we quote it. (Same goes for Shakespeare.) So, some numbers: looking at the index to the AV Club’s Inventory book (which is a good condensation of our culture, certainly the most easily accessible one on my shelves), Bob Dylan has 14 references. That’s more than anyone else except God (21 references). So if Dylan isn’t God, he’s at least had ⅔ the cultural impact. Seems about right. (The Beatles have eight entries and Jesus isn’t listed, so we can’t settle that one right away.)
Dylan was part of the settled cultural world when I was growing up: 1960s, protests, civil rights, drugs, blah blah blah. I remember being somewhat blown away when the wordtorrents of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hit me, but he was an artist of the past, safely defined, unsurprising. That didn’t change until 1993, when Bravo (that network did this kind of thing back then) showed the video for “Blood in My Eyes” off World Gone Wrong. This was something I’d never heard before, and of course it was something that was essential to Dylan: a strange, haunting work from the past, sung so slowly and mournfully and most of all precisely, a communication, a summoning really of its original singers, the Mississippi Sheiks. Like Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone,” it was an unmistakably contemporary song that didn’t belong in our time, like a digital photograph of something from the Civil War.
That’s when I began to understand something fundamental about Dylan that you and Greil Marcus and Todd Haynes all get, and that he keeps insisting on: he’ll never be what you want him to be. To be a Rock Star is to not just be an artist but a persona, and to fuse that persona with your art. Rock–really, all pop music–has been seen as a place of expression rather than construction; it’s all but taken for granted that the music expresses something of the musician. The Artist, in contrast, sets up a distance between the Art and the Artist, so the Art can endure even if the Artist doesn’t. (Glenn Branca might have become a Rock Star but shifted towards Artist pretty quickly.) If Dylan manages to hybridize the Rock Star and the Artist, he did it with a neat little trick: he’s always expressing himself, but that self is never the same. Haynes built all of I’m Not There on that insight.
An Artist has to let go of meanings in a way that a Rock Star can’t. That’s what’s always infuriated a section of Dylan’s audience, particularly rock journalists: his refusal to be pinned down, to be defined. (D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back has some hilarious examples of this, and of course Haynes barely has to parody it for I’m Not There.) Yet that sliding between meanings is what gives Dylan’s art so much life and why it will endure; that’s why you can hear two completely different takes on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” (I’ll add a third: my favorite cover of Dylan is Mike Ness’ electric-rockabilly “Don’t Think Twice”; Ness is just totally joyous as he charges through the song. With him, a relationship is like a plane flight: if you walk away alive, it was a good one.) If we treat it as the work of a Rock Star, we have to go to the biography and figure out just who he broke up with; I can’t remember who it was, and it doesn’t matter, because the song works and endures as art.
DN: It’s interesting that you describe Dylan before you explored his work as ‘unsurprising’, because one of my first surface-level impressions has been discovering that for all his influence on the music industry and rock, there really isn’t anything that sounds like him, and his songs often sound as if they’re from outside time entirely – and not just because of his voice. He kind of reminds me of Cowboy Bebop, of all things, in that people have done what he does, and they’ve even done specific parts of it better, but nobody has the specific soul of his work, and nobody could if they wanted to.
This combined with the overall gist of what you’re saying makes me wonder what music has to do to become immortal. I think Dylan found one way of doing it that runs almost counter to the way we’ve talked about stories becoming immortal, in that he zeroes in on an emotion or an idea, and then uses specific language to make it so abstract as to be widely applicable – I’ve always been struck by how much “Blowin’ In The Wind” says without specifically, actually saying anything, and what I get from jumping around his career a bit is that the complexity of both the emotions and ideas he plays with as well as his level of abstraction only grew.
w: “What makes stories last is that they’re told with enough vividness and detail that they lose their own points and can’t be satisfactorily distilled to a thesis, even one that’s greatly needed,” sez our own ZoëZ, and that’s what he had, an ability to hit just the right level of specificity to make the song endure. Listen to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”; right away, with William Zanzinger’s “cane that he twirled around his diamond-ringed finger,” we’re in the realm of myth, and also of strong poetic articulation (the sliding consonants of “twirl” and “around” hitting the hard stops of “ringed finger.” The name “Zanzinger” has a lot of poetry in it, too, carrying its own prelude.) The imagery is that of royalty, of the Old South; as the song continues, he sings two verses that are litanies of Hattie’s and Zanzinger’s lives, and they’re about both of them and they are also archetypes of the black women and white men. The word I’m looking for here is iconic, characters that exist as living beings and as embodiments of abstractions.
Dylan came out of a folk tradition that was deeply aware of its own history, and he never left it. (“Deeply aware of its own history” means “had a copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and listened to the shit out of it.”) In that tradition, there are fragments of stories and of lines that get passed around, rearranged, renamed; singers craft their own work from a deep reservoir of material. Dylan sings these recurring elements with a kind of reverence and also an immediacy, like the contemporary world has nothing equivalent that will do the job; for just one example, listen to how he uses “fare-thee-well” in so many of his songs. One of those songs is “I’m Not There (1957),” one of Dylan’s most certain vocal performances. The song is modernist in its approach: it’s really only those fragments of lines, arranged in a William Burroughs-style cut-up. Yet Dylan’s conviction, and that parenthetical, have always made me think he’s telling a secret here, that the song is about a specific person; we might not know, we don’t get to know what he’s saying, but he’s absolutely sure of it. These fragments, these ballads, this history; he’s said that these are the things that will last, and it’s the contemporary world of pop culture that will pass away. So far, he’s been right.
DN: I want to lay out the Dylan songs I’m familiar with aside from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, just so we can all have a full understanding of where I’m coming from as I build my initial impression.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” – Unavoidable, and to my eye one of the two definitive Bob Dylan songs upon which a large portion of my understanding of him rests. On a superficial level, it’s an iconic protest song driven by righteous, laser-focused anger; when I look closer, I notice he doesn’t go into specifics at all, and so consequently the lines in it will apply to drastic cultural changes and youth response to injustice for as long as those concepts exist.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” – Very close second to “Times” on all those levels, although it’s more of a call towards one particular person rather than a threat to people in power in general.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” – I know this was his big ‘fuck all y’all I’m going electric’ song.
“Shelter From The Storm” – This is really the song that’s driving my initial interest in exploring Dylan, not for any reason beyond really liking it. It’s like “Don’t Think Twice” in that I was shocked how different the various versions of it are – some guy did a podcast on Dylan with a quiet, cheeky vibe, but I’ve grown fond of a version from 1976 that’s more rocking and less cheeky, though still playful. I like all the different inflections Dylan finds on the melody, even within the song itself. I also love the line “With silver bracelets on her wrist and flowers in her hair”, and the “Hattie Carroll” line you highlight reminds me of it. It’s like Dylan knows when to get specific and when to pull back.
“Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” – This is one I listened to after “Shelter” but before deciding to systematically work through Dylan, and it’s another that factored into my growing initial take on him, because I listened to a live version from ‘76 first and found I liked it better than the studio version (whatever he was doing in ‘76, apparently I’m into it) – I love the way the melody has to kind of drag him into the title line.
“Like A Rolling Stone” – Would you believe that his most iconic, most definitive, most commercially and critically successful song is one I kind of run hot and cold on? I have to be in the same mood as the song itself, mad at someone in particular, to really get into it. It feels like, out of all his songs, this is the one that pop culture stripped for parts.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – I’m mainly familiar with Guns N Roses’ cover, but the original in on Rocksmith (which is basically Guitar Hero but with a real guitar). I don’t much care for the song, and it’s kind of irritating to play.
“Self Portrait” – not something I’ve listened to, but an essential part of his mythology to me, in that I’ve already known for years that he put this out to try and end the “spokesman of a generation” label.
w: You’ve already hit on the way to approach Dylan here. As you go through his work, don’t go through it chronologically, and don’t start with the albums. That will invite you to see more coherence and more unity in his work than is healthy. You’ve already made the case that Dylan is an essentially Protean artist, one who shifts every time you think you’ve got him fixed; listen to him that way. There’s been a wealth of additional material dug up, cleaned up, and released (officially or otherwise) now, so begin with that. An excellent starting point is The Bootleg Series vol. 4: the “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (in quotes, because it didn’t take place at the Royal Albert Hall); this was the “JUDAS!” concert, the moment in the Dylan myth where you can hear him shift from folkie to Rock Star. (In I’m Not There terms, this is the shift from Christian Bale to Cate Blanchett.) Somewhere on the journey you will also need to hear as much of the Basement Tapes as you can; vol. 11 of the Bootleg Series has a fairly complete version, and with good sound too. There’s also the reconstruction of Infidels by soniclovenoize, and props to silverwheel for bringing it my attention.
Here are my favorite Dylans, besides some of the ones already mentioned; listening to them, you get a sense of his breadth and the critical picture of him built in my mind. Taking them in chronological order:
“Visions of Johanna,” version on Bootleg Series v. 4. Haunting, intimate, imprecise in detail, exact in imagery, unforgettable in feeling, the kind of thing that showed how far Dylan had already moved from folk and protest.
“Up to Me.” “Shelter from the Storm” with alternate lyrics, it catches a mixture of resignation and determination that makes this my favorite Dylan song. If no one else will do it, “then I guess that it was up to me.”
“Every Grain of Sand.” The masterpiece of his Christian period; my one complaint about I’m Not There was that we didn’t get to hear Bale sing this. (The title was already used for the movie-in-the-movie, though, so it’s not like Haynes didn’t know about it.) It has the feel of a 19th-century Revival hymn, and Dylan sings with absolute reverence.
“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.” Can Dylan do a pop ballad? Oh fuck yeah. The closer to Infidels, this is about the moment at 4am when you’ve argued all night and sure, someone may have taken out a suitcase (without any abundant intentionality, though) but you realize you still love each other. There’s nothing that makes clearer Dylan’s assertion that all his songs really end with “good luck.”
“Delia.” One of the World Gone Wrong covers, this starts as a murder ballad, but the way Dylan keeps repeating “all the friends I ever had are gone” changes it into something even more powerful and painful: the singer has outlived everyone, Cutty, Delia, and faces something worse than sadness, the kind of void where there’s no question of choice or feeling, just the cost of still being alive.
You have enough to start here. Give me a shout if you want to discuss anything else on the (long, strange) trip ahead. Good luck.