Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do I Understand Your Question, Man?

Warning for the reader: This post has nothing to do with South Africa.

So Bob Dylan is releasing a Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart. I’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time—probably since my sitar-playing music teacher at Monica Ros (Preschool-3rd Grade…possibly the happiest years of my life—there was a wooden pirate ship on the playground) had us all sit around barefoot and sing Blowin’ in the Wind. I wrote more than one paper in high school based in some way on Dylan—one a comparison of the music of Woody Guthrie, folk Dylan, and post-Newport Folk Festival Dylan (when he plugged in and went electric) for my American History class, the other a senior exhibition (thesis-ish) on the Weather Underground, an extremist Marxist group that carried out bombings and radical actions in the 60s and 70s that took its name from Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues—“Keep a clean nose / An’ watch the plainclothes / You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” They shifted from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground when the Weather ladies protested. Note: You may have heard of this group more recently because one of the founders, Bill Ayers, was portrayed by the Right as the best friend of then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama. I won’t go there today, nor will I get into a discussion of the Weather Underground because it makes people all crazy like. As it is, I can go on about Dylan for hours and hours (as evidenced by my 20-page American History term paper), and probably after I finish this I’ll lament that I forgot something I wanted add in because I got distracted by all the other stuff that surfaced in the process. This post is also going to expose me for the extreme geek that I am, as if people didn’t know already.

So, Bob Dylan. There’s no one nastier when he’s angry (Positively Fourth Street, Like A Rollin’ Stone), sweet when he’s in love (Love Minus Zero/No Limit, the meaning of title puzzled me until I took Calculus and was also a record store owner's way of testing my Dylan knowledge--I failed--Girl From the North Country), funnier (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum), or full of outrage over injustice—both starkly overt protest (Masters of War, Hurricane) and slightly less so (Mr. Tambourine Man, which is NOT about drugs or maybe not entirely about drugs, Desolation Row, It’s Alright Ma). PS for all the really big nerds out there, you can probably tell I’ve been on a Bringing It All Back Home kick, since I just named a bunch of songs as examples. I like his newer stuff as well, though my favorite time period is the Rolling Thunder Revue tour era in the mid-70s. To be honest, I’ve tried and never gotten that far into the “Bad Dylan” phase, though I own most of the non-bootleg Dylan albums out there. One of the gems from the Bad Dylan era, however, is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer on Self Portrait, in which he sings his own back up vocals. Every time that song is played, a fairy somewhere in the world may fall down dead.

Dylan is of course famous for his mystique and unpredictability—his lyrics that the craziest Dylanheads pore over for meaning, his random conversion to Christianity, the appearance in the Victoria’s Secret ad, the fact that he puts his Oscar on stage with him (I am not kidding—I’ve seen him live twice), his refusal to take on the mantle of the “voice of a generation” that so many thrust at him (they can’t help it; it’s what he is, though since he seems to find a lot of nerdy followers in my generation, his voice might be a tad more universal).

It’s funny—he both embraces and repudiates his music-god status. At the beginning of every concert, an announcer says: “The poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.” This is apparently from a journalist, Jeff Miers, who published it in a profile of Dylan in the Buffalo News in August 2002.

Dylan is all of these things, but it’s strange that he allows them to be said about him. Dylan’s always been a complete puzzle, and he certainly enjoys messing with people—you can watch the way he plays with journalists in Dont Look Back, a fly-on-the-wall documentary by D.A. Pennebaker about Dylan’s tour in the UK in 1965, and also see how much it stung when people yelled “Judas” at him for going electric. Pete Seeger, as the legend goes, tried to take an ax to the soundboard or power cables or something at Newport in ’65 when Dylan went on stage and plugged in an electric guitar, to the shock of the folk world. In Dont Look Back, when people call him Judas, he turns to his band and says “Play it fucking loud” before launching into a blistering Like A Rolling Stone, but you can see how much it hurt that people didn’t get it. It feels to me like so much of his anger at crazy fans for idolizing him, his bizarre behavior, his nasty and often misogynistic songs (though I think everyone’s nasty at the end of a bad breakup, and he just sang it out loud to other people), all of it—is in some way Dylan expressing his disappointment that we, all of us, just don’t get it. And of course we don’t. Because he’s him and we’re us.

One of the things I love most about Dylan is his humor. It’s dry, it’s incredibly witty, and it always has the air of an in-joke about it. Which is probably why so many young people latched on in the Sixties—they felt, erroneously perhaps, that he was speaking in a language that only they could understand, a language that was not their parents’. There’s a Dylan world, and you can always go too far with it—seriously, go to a Dylan concert and you’ll see what I mean—but it’s a nice place to visit. I think the recent I’m Not There, in which several actors in different storylines portrayed a semi-fantasy semi-biographical depiction of Dylan, captured this world very nicely, in fact. The film’s worth it just for Jim James of My Morning Jacket singing Goin’ to Acapulco in the Billy the Kid vignette, and for Cate Blanchett, who does a spot-on 1965 speed freak Dylan.

But Dylan’s always done things that are so outside the realm of normal—again, that creepy Victoria’s Secret ad—that it’s easy to scratch your head, to even get upset. I try to laugh at it. Everything he does is such a non sequitur that it’s hilarious, though it’s sometimes confusing whether Dylan means it as a joke, or whether he’s deadly serious. Which brings me back to the Christmas album. I listened to snatches of a few songs, and I have to say that it left me confused and made me laugh, and not always in a good way. But I’ll certainly buy it. It may ruin Here Comes Santa Claus forever. Listening to it may bring me one step closer to solving the Dylan mystery. Or throw me off track again. The way I feel about this newest musical choice by the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond (to quote Joan Baez) is from a Dylan song. He knocked me out, and took my boots, and I was on the street again.

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