As Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday approached last May, I wanted something big to happen, like a spontaneous ticker-tape parade with thousands of jugglers and clowns and tambourines and harmonicas blaring down Broadway, “How does it feel to be on your own?” A big shout-out by the people, for the people, in real time and real space: something the TV news would rush to call a riot. But it’s been a bad few years for heroes, and it’s just not that kind of party anymore. Certainly no one in the White House was going to declare May 24 a national holiday.
Nor was the press of much help in feeling the love. The bottom-of-the-barrel award goes to the New York Post, which treated Dylan to a Photoshop make-over, showing how, with plastic surgery, straight hair, and an expensive suit, he could look “as a normal 60-year-old instead of a seminal symbol of ’60s excess.” A pot shot like that might be funny if it weren’t so close to what others offered in earnest. Many tried to say something definitive about his achievement and influence, a task that’s like trying to measure a tidal wave with a teacup. Perhaps the futility of it, especially in the face of his unflagging creativity, is what led people to do things like treat his aging as a form of hypocrisy, exile him to the land of ’60s nostalgia, pass him the buck for his generation’s disillusionment, ridicule his admirers, and call him names he’s made it clear he hates, like “icon” and “legend.” Icon, he said a few years ago, is “just another word for washed-up has-been”; legend is “nothing but hype.”. For an artist who has devoted his career to bringing down idols, it’s hard to see how being called one could feel good.
Nor did the biography I was reading bring me very close to the man, his art, or the orchards that have sprung up behind Bobby Appleseed, though I did learn a lot about his recording sessions, sexual history and personal shortcomings of all kinds. Clinton Heylin’s recently re-released and expanded Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (William Morrow, $30), illustrates many of the worst pitfalls in relating to a character like Dylan. With its promise of an unmasking, the book’s title says a lot about Heylin’s approach. The book is richly researched and filled with juicy interview material, much of it culled from the archives of his fanzine, the Telegraph. But every page of the 736-page tome is haunted by the author’s jealous ego. He quibbles over trifles and subjective judgments with many of the people whose interviews he quotes; his favorite word is “[sic]”. Determined not to appear “star-struck,” he casts aspersions on Dylan’s origins, character, work habits, friendships, girlfriends, career decisions, and on much of his work as well. Extra helpings of bile are reserved for other interpreters of Dylan, and even more for the women in Dylan’s life. Heylin goes so far as to blame what he sees as Dylan’s artistic decline largely on his “romantic attachments to women unworthy of the moniker Muse.” In the end, while he’s done a real service by assembling a log of Dylan’s activities and a pastiche of observations by people who know him and have worked with him, he bombs as a storyteller, because, whether looking backward or forward, he peers at his subject through a lens of doubt, finding failure and missed opportunities at every turn. Nor does he resolve the question of what is to be gained by invading the privacy of an artist who, through his work, has consistently made himself more naked than most people know how to get, ever. Reading this book, which is a reflection, at least, of its author’s life’s work, I couldn’t help feeling that the better half of the story wasn’t being told, and wishing Heylin didn’t feel the need to hide his love away.
I turned at last to a book where I knew I could soak up a lot of the kind of love I was seeking, that is, the love between a people and a poet. The book is A Precocious Autobiography, published by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1963. Yevtushenko, the best-known Russian poet of the post-Stalin generation, has lots in common with Dylan. Both are fighters, risk-takers and noted innovators of rhyme. Both their mothers begged them to stop writing poetry; neither obeyed. Both have run afoul of the orthodoxies that claimed them as spokesmen. Each has made a career of opening windows in the walls of secular materialism. Dylan name-checked “the melodies of Yevtushenko” on the sleeve of The Times They Are A-Changin’, and he toured the Soviet Union at Yevtushenko’s invitation in 1985.
I had a scene from the book in mind, a particularly mythic one, in which Yevtushenko greets a crowd of 1,500 poetry-hungry people with a work that is openly critical of the society’s ills, and comes to know for certain that “by speaking of what was wrong with our society, I was strengthening, not destroying, their faith in our way of life.” When I returned to the book, though, I found traces of Dylan throughout, beginning with the first page:
A poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else can only be a footnote. A poet is a poet only when the reader sees him whole, with all his feelings, all his thoughts, and all his actions, as if the reader held him in the hollow of his hand.
To be entitled to write with merciless truth about others, the poet must be mercilessly truthful when he writes about himself. Splitting the poet’s personality in two, into the real man and the poet, leads inevitably to artistic suicide.
When Arthur Rimbaud became a slave trader, and his life clashed with the ideals he had held as a poet, he stopped writing poetry. At least this was an honest way out.
Unfortunately many poets, when their lives clash with their poetry, continue to write, passing themselves off as different from what they are.
Besides the basic point about the inseparability of artist and man, that bit about “merciless truth” has Dylan all over it, as does the concern with Rimbaud’s fall, which he immortalized in “Tangled Up in Blue”: “Then he started in to dealing with slaves, and something inside of him died.” Poetry and the slave trade represent, for both men, opposite poles of human possibility.
Yevtushenko achieved fame as a poet among a people that reveres poets and poetry. The state, well aware of the power of that bond, sought to control him, at times suppressing or altering his work. Dylan, in contrast, is appreciated as a “singer-songwriter” among a people that loves poetry but doesn’t quite realize that about itself, or know how to respect it. Here, the media-and-entertainment industry seeks to mediate the relationship, and the limiting factors are economic rather than explicitly ideological. In either case, in the broadest sense, the real limits are imaginative ones. Nowhere in the Autobiography is Dylan more present than when one of Yevtushenko’s poetic idols, Semyon Kirsanov, tells him, “A poet has only one indispensable quality: whether he is simple or complicated, people must need him. Poetry, if it’s genuine, is not a racing car rushing senselessly around and around a closed track; it is an ambulance rushing to save someone.”
Dylan’s work is constantly coming to someone’s rescue. He saved my neck, for example, on a daily basis during the campaign season last year. Those months felt like a long car crash: Time slowed way down until it effectively disappeared. Able to observe everything as it happened, yet radically free of agency, I could grasp the normally recondite sense in which the future has already happened. Throughout those months, my main source for news and commentary was Dylan’s albums of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially Slow Train Coming and Infidels. I like NPR, I love The Progressive, and there’s this great biweekly out of Austin–but for staying on top of things up to the minute, you just can’t beat prophecy.
A for-instance is the story of Ralph Nader, the mass media and the presidential debates. When I gathered signatures petitioning the unelected, two-party-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates to let Nader in, there was no mistaking the purely symbolic nature of the effort. It was clear from a long way off that, as far as politics goes these days, that big fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon, and we’re gonna let it. When the CPD’s strategy of leaving nothing to chance culminated in Nader’s being booted by armed guards from a debate he had a ticket to see, Dylan had the story:
Democracy don’t rule the world. You’d better get that in your head. This world is ruled by violence, But I guess that’s better left unsaid.
That’s a verse from “Union Sundown,” on Infidels, a song notable for having addressed the issue of globalization long before anybody was complicating life for WTO officials and getting hurt by police and belittled by the media in response. “Y’know this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines,” Dylan reported, “And the car I drive’s a Chevrolet. / It was put together down in Argentina / By a guy making thirty cents a day.”
When that album came out in 1983, some people thought they detected a new note of “conservatism,” even jingoism, in Dylan’s work. Apropos of the guy making thirty cents a day, Kurt Loder wanted to know, ” Are you saying he’d be better off without that thirty cents a day?” Dylan said, “What’s thirty cents a day? He don’t need the thirty cents a day. I mean, people survived for 6,000 years without having to work for slave wages for a person who comes down and–well, actually, it’s just colonization.”
“You can’t be for peace and be global,” he told Loder. “You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace.”
More than any particular political issue that’s addressed, I lived for the emphatic and soulful “Feh!” that Slow Train Coming offers as a response to current events. What a relief, to hear Dylan growl,
Sometimes, I feel so low-down and disgusted Can’t help but wonder what’s happening to my companions. Are they lost or are they found? Have they counted the cost it’s gonna take to bring down All the earthly principles They’re gonna have to abandon?
Sentiments like those helped me handle something as depressing as this new rhetoric of “faith” in politics. Whatever it is, Bush thinks having it should qualify you for public funding for your good works, and Lieberman feels it’s essential to political leadership, though how that gibes with running in two elections at once, I don’t think he ever explained. “Religious” faith, usually of the Christian variety, has long been an indispensable part of a political resumé in this country. But when Dylan’s own faith unexpectedly bore Christian fruit at the end of the ’70s, it made him–according to the conventional wisdom, anyway–a laughing stock, if not a sort of public enemy. People still shake their heads over it, suggesting a militant certainty about the unreality of revelation, at least of the Christian variety, at least when it happens to a rock star who has no better sense than to talk and sing about it. No matter how great he may have been, if he says he saw Christ, it’s self-evident to a lot of people that he must have gone off the deep end. Dylan sang about the PR consequences himself, for instance in “I Believe in You,” on Slow Train Coming: “They / Ask me how I feel / And if my love is real / And how I know I’ll make it through. / They / Look at me and frown. / They’d like to drive me from this town. / They don’t want me around, / Because I believe in you.”
Despite the emotional immediacy, humor (who else could tell Jesus, “You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn”?), and searing political insight of Dylan’s gospel albums, critics seized on their “born-again” content (a term Dylan resisted) as reason to write him off. Indignant rejection by fans had always accompanied his creative reincarnations, but professing Christ was, for a lot of people, simply beyond the pale. The man was decidedly no longer cool.
One of the easiest ways to pull the rug out from under a critique is to receive it purely as performance–to look at it instead of listening to it–and call it “bad”. People will still tell you that Dylan sucked in the ’80s, when in fact it was the ’80s themselves that sucked, a circumstance for which he certainly can’t be held responsible, since he was saying so all along. In 1979, people didn’t have ears to hear Dylan singing, “Don’t know which one is worse, ‘doin’ your own thing’ or ‘just being cool’,” any more than they did for Jimmy Carter on the subject of the American malaise. The ’80s were born of a jones that demanded a quick fix, regardless of what had to be pawned to pay for it. Dylan stood right in the blind spot, singing about commitment and sacrifice. “They say ‘lose your inhibition, follow your own ambition,'” is how he documented the national mood in “Slow Train.” “Don’t care about economy, don’t care about astronomy,” he sang, “but it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets.” The protest had simply moved too close to home.
Dylan doesn’t give his songs titles like “Property of Jesus” anymore, but he hasn’t recanted anything either. The furthest he’ll go is to say that writing those songs emancipated him from other illusions. Just which illusions he has in mind may become clearer as we begin to assess the damage of the never-ending ’80s, and study how it was that America became a third-world nation just at the point when some of the hardest-won improvements of the past several decades seemed ready to take hold.
The thing about Dylan’s faith is that he’s always had it–he “sold out to God,” in Ginsberg’s 1966 formulation–and living that faith has meant pulling off one inspired jail break after another, a Houdini specializing in the invisible boxes he finds himself in. There’s almost nothing he hasn’t let go of in order to get free, beginning, say, with his “betrayal” of the folk movement when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He’s not attached to being “hip” or “contemporary” or “successful” or “serious” or “a rock star”, or who he was yesterday, or who his friends tell him he is, or even to being Bob Dylan. Giving everyone the slip time and again has kept his wits sharp and made him one of the great attitude inventors of all time. It’s not just that he’s smart, or that he’s courageous, or that he doesn’t give a damn. It’s where those things come from, and what they’re yoked to. Only someone who knows what each of those is worth could have come up with as precise and effortless a treatise on faith as is contained in those couple of lines in “Positively 4th Street”:
You say you’ve lost your faith, but that’s not where it’s at. You had no faith to lose, and you know it.
He hates politics, after all. On “Oh Mercy” he sings, “We live in a political world / The one we can see and feel. / There’s no one to check, / It’s all a stacked deck, / We all know for sure that it’s real.” Interviewers have often demanded that he fall into step with what we all know for sure is real, if only for the space of the interview. His glory is that it’s precisely this hand-me-down, so-called reality which he’s managed to trump time after time after time. He doesn’t avoid it–he’s not a hippie–he trumps it, and he doesn’t mind letting on how he does it, either. No one has died more political deaths than Dylan has, and with each one he comes through more fully and freely himself.
The question of how to honor Dylan has a poignancy that has nothing to do with the plight of the aging rock star and everything to do with the plight of the poet–that is, the articulate soul, or, in Dylan’s lingo, the trapeze artist–of any age in this country of ours. Dylan is our best-known living one of those, and while he’s a big enough celebrity to escape act
ally being called
ne most of the time, nevertheless it’s as one of those that he’s always taken the most abuse. He may not need our help, but we do.
Praise, the old-fashioned, non-self-serving kind, is a rarity in public life these days. It’s not easy; it’s a form of risk. And Dylan is an especially daunting subject. Standing up to him on brings you straightaway face to face with yourself and the status of your own struggle to be free. But that’s not him judging you, it’s you, taking in hand the tools he fashioned for his own use. For me it begins with trusting myself to be astonished, and letting go of the fear of being swallowed up by what I love. And if you or I sometimes want to be Bob Dylan, or whomever or whatever we admire? Well, there was a time in Dylan’s youth when he would only answer to the name “Woody”. And later, when someone asked him why he liked James Dean, he said, “For the same reason you like anyone, I guess. You see something of yourself in them.”
Rosemary Hutzler conducts regular Dylan-praising ceremonies in her Brooklyn apartment.