Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
Poet, Prophet and Puzzle
He inspires idolatry among his fans, but the intellectuals miss Bob Dylan's true significance
By DAVID YEZZI
Wall Street Journal
MAY 14, 2011
Bob Dylan famously found Jesus in 1979—and then apparently misplaced him, moving away from born-again Christian rock in his set lists and on to his next reinvention. Mr. Dylan himself has been steadily ducking messianic labels since the 1960s, and on the advent of his 70th birthday (May 24) can only be bewildered that critics still tend to refer to him in Christ-like terms. "I never wanted to be a prophet or savior," he told "60 Minutes" in 2004. "If you look at the songs, I don't believe you're going to find anything in there that says I'm a spokesman for anybody or anything really"—except, possibly, for Victoria's Secret, in whose TV ad Mr. Dylan had appeared a short time before, staring moodily into the camera while his song "Love Sick" played in the background. Yet for intellectuals as diverse as music critic Greil Marcus and historian Sean Wilentz, he is a subject fit for fine-grained, extended study. (Mr. Marcus became a writer, he says, in large part because of Mr. Dylan's music.) No other living musician has generated so much ink—articles, biographies, cultural studies, dissertations, monographs, coffee-table books, even the scholarly "Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan."
Mr. Dylan is a cipher, a shape-shifter ("every thing about Bob is a deception," Joni Mitchell once said) swapping various personae down the years, beginning with the initial transformation from plain-old Robert Zimmerman. Mr. Dylan's public pronouncements, such as the bizarre, tail-swallowing sentences heard in Martin Scorsese's documentary "No Direction Home" (2005), are larded with indirection (either conscious or un-) and duly charm and mystify his fans. D.A. Pennebaker's undiluted portrait of Mr. Dylan in the documentary "Don't Look Back" (1967) reveals a healthy ego, to say the least, but perhaps Mr. Dylan was right to be cocky.
It's hard to imagine a singer who is bigger. He is catnip to baby boomers—and, increasingly their children and grandchildren. Who is not aware that the Weather Underground took its name from "Subterranean Homesick Blues," or that Woody Allen hilariously tweaked "Just Like a Woman" in "Annie Hall," by having Shelley Duvall's airhead character recite the lyrics slowly and earnestly? (Last week, I overheard a woman at a bus stop describing her husband's dementia: "It's like the song—something is happening, but he doesn't know what it is," she explained, adapting a line from "Ballad of a Thin Man.")
Has any literary figure of the past 50 years (in any genre) taken hold of the culture as fully, while being so honored by the intellectual classes? He has appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek and performed for the pope. He has a Pulitzer Prize (and Nobel buzz), an honorary doctorate from Princeton, a National Medal of the Arts, a passel of Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar. In last year's "Bob Dylan in America," Mr. Wilentz writes of how Mr. Dylan traded influences with the poet Allen Ginsberg, while for the English literary critic Christopher Ricks (who published his book "Dylan's Visions of Sin" in 2004) the man can stand "comparison with the very greatest poets." The songwriter himself has equivocated on the point and seems uninterested in the question. "Poets drown in lakes," he once gibed. But the aura of poet and prophet has clung.
Daniel Mark Epstein and David Yaffe thus add their voices to a large chorus. Of the two, Mr. Epstein's book achieves the more prophetic pitch. It is true that Mr. Yaffe calls Mr. Dylan, at one point, a "gnomic adenoidal seer." But for Mr. Epstein, Mr. Dylan "was—for a time—an American Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muses, fireproofed for a romp through hell." The singer does not take the stage; he appears "in our midst." He does not sing; he makes a "prophecy, and we sealed the pact with our applause."
Much like Mr. Wilentz, Mr. Epstein tells the songwriter's story through a series of concerts and albums, beginning with an appearance in Washington, D.C., in 1963. He cleverly pits the young Mr. Dylan's self-styled orphan-hobo persona against the real-life son of middle-class Jewish parents from Hibbing, Minn. When a Newsweek article in 1963 spills the beans about his actual origins, the fiction and the reality collide, and Mr. Dylan is devastated, railing at his managers for talking to the press. "As a poet," Mr. Epstein writes, "he was perhaps more sensitive about this than your average liar."
The Ballad of Bob Dylan
By Daniel Mark Epstein
Harper, 496 pages, $27.99
Mr. Epstein, an accomplished poet and biographer, is one of the better stylists to tackle the Dylan story. Still, like many intellectuals who write about Mr. Dylan, he errs on the side of idolatry. In his frank treatment of the singer's many exploiters, however, he is unflinching. The "predatory" manager Albert Grossman, whom Mr. Dylan eventually sued for unpaid royalties, gets both barrels: "He was the fat kid in school who ate your lunch," Mr. Epstein writes, and later describes him as "Fat Albert, with or without his Cuban cigar, his glass of Château Lafite, his hand about to flash his bankroll or put it away." He is similarly unsentimental about Mr. Dylan's life-changing motorcycle accident of 1966, in which he did not "crash" so much as fall under the heavy bike while walking it down the road.
Mr. Epstein takes us next to concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1974, Tanglewood in 1997 and Aberdeen in 2009. His meticulous set lists chart Mr. Dylan's changes from folk, to electric, to Christian and trace the high and low points of the Rolling Thunder Review (which featured Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others in 1975-76) and the Never-Ending Tour (that is, Mr. Dylan's crowded performance schedule since 1988). A musician himself, Mr. Epstein is particularly good on tunings and chord progressions, on where Mr. Dylan's capo is placed in each song and the sound his harmonica makes clicking into its holder.
Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown
By David Yaffe
Yale, 171 pages, $24
As to Mr. Dylan's literary status, Mr. Epstein has no doubt, referring to him consistently as "the poet." But this just invites the question: If the subject were Byron, would it be necessary to constantly assert his designation? Mr. Dylan is here "one of the best epic poets of the 1960s," "an American poet," "first and foremost a poet" and so on.
Poets themselves have weighed in on the question: Archibald MacLeish thought Mr. Dylan a "serious poet," while Philip Larkin in his music-critic mode had some qualified praise for the 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited." Robert Lowell got it the most nearly right: "Bob Dylan is alloy; he is true folk and he is fake folk. . . . He has lines, but I doubt he has written whole poems. He leans on the crutch of his guitar."
Mr. Epstein quotes the singer's own denial (though it may be an evasion, he adds): "To tell anybody I'm a poet would be just fooling people." Mr. Dylan acknowledges that T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Lowell are in another class, but then he is a better songwriter than all of them (Eliot's unintended run as lyricist on Broadway notwithstanding). David Yaffe seems to recognize this distinction, but no sooner has he situated Mr. Dylan squarely in "the canon of singer-songwriters" than he holds him up as the equal of Ginsberg and likens him to John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop and William Blake.
Mr. Yaffe has excellent chapters on Mr. Dylan's singing voice and on his appropriation of other people's material, though his ruminations on race and film give off the odor of the seminar room. Mr. Yaffe tells us that "Dylan imagines a mode of inquiry that privileges 'what things don't mean,' a dreamlike inversion in which truth and fantasy switch places" before dropping in a reference to Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation." Mr. Yaffe's boisterous style, approaching at times the intensity of prose poetry, would have benefited from a more assiduous editor. "Adenoidal," to describe Mr. Dylan's nasal singing voice, appears six times just in chapter one.
Mr. Yaffe also adopts Christopher Ricks's tic from "Dylan's Visions of Sin" of referencing the prophet's own words to tell his story. "Dylan stays forever young," Mr. Yaffe asserts, while his diehard fans, the Bobcats, are always "heading for another joint." Then (like a stone?) he really gets rolling: "A book attempting to get at this genius must examine both the Napoleon in rags and the complete unknown, the Jokerman, the Queen of Spades, the lover and the thief."
Whatever his verbal brilliance, Mr. Dylan is ultimately a songwriter—and one of the most influential and memorable of our age. Touting him as a poet overplays the hand and distracts from his unique power. His guitar may be a crutch but is an awfully artful one, akin to a medieval minstrel's cittern accompanying a sung ballad.
As the music critic Robert Christgau notes: " 'My Back Pages' is a bad poem. But it is a good song." Mr. Ricks, for his part, acknowledges the divide between songs and poems. But this is only one aspect of a much deeper difference. Poems construct their rhythms out of words alone, out of natural speech rhythms that have been organized (often into an expressive tension with meter). Lyrics are not synced to speech but to music for their length and emphasis. A sung syllable may play out over several measures or be tossed off on a fleeting eighth note. In Mr. Dylan's haunting "Man in the Long Black Coat," for instance, the staccato syllables, delivered with heavy downbeats, are memorable and affecting when sung and portentous and lame when spoken.
Take these lines from "Desolation Row" as an example of the kind of things that you can sing—wittily, even poignantly—but that lose power on the page:Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet.
Einstein. Really? Yet the absurdist tone of the song is deepened and clarified by Mr. Dylan's masterly timing and delivery. His sardonic cry twists a smirk into something more bittersweet.
Mr. Dylan rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as the lyricists of the Great American Songbook, but the comparison would be a fruitful one. He by no means writes circles around the likes of Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern or Ira Gershwin—nor, necessarily, they around him. Their music (or the music of the composers they worked with) is more complex and various. But Mr. Dylan's contemporary idiom and blues-ballad lyrics, alternately surreal and sober, are as memorable. His songs— moving, wry and scathing—will likely live as long as theirs, and longer than the songs of all but a few of his rock contemporaries, to say nothing of the phalanxes of forgettable contemporary poets.—Mr. Yezzi is the author, most recently, of "Azores: Poems." He is executive editor of the New Criterion.