Let me say this about that:

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
As suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn

Plays wasted words that proved to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

When I was 15, I went through a Dylan phase. That’s about the right age to do it. My older siblings had left a small pile of Dylan LPs, and I’d listen to them for hours on end.

Then, one day, listening to ‘It’s Alright, Ma‘ I had a revelation: it’s all doggerel. Now, I’m cool with doggerel as pop lyrics, and as pop lyrics, Dylan’s stuff is outstanding. But if the idea is that Dylan ranks higher than a middling 2nd rate *poet* – nah. The jokes Tom Leher makes about folk music – e.g., “The reason folk music is so bad is that it’s written by the people.” and, from his masterpiece Folk Song Army:

The tune don’t have to be clever,
And it don’t matter if you put a coupla extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more “ethnic” if it ain’t good English,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme —
Excuse me — “rhyne.”

were, it seems to me, written with Dylan clearly in mind.

It’s Alright, Ma is often cited as one of Dylan’s poetic masterpieces. The lyrics are dark, with accusations of hypocrisy thrown around liberally. Things are bad, man. The thing about hypocrisy is that, before throwing it around at others, one should take a good, long critical look in the mirror – an act to which that 1960s generation seemed disinclined or incapable of. When I hear these lyrics, I tend to see all those brats raised by the Greatest Generation ™, whose parents had suffered through a terrible depression and a horrible war and so spoiled their children insufferably. Or at least enough of them did to provide fodder for a movement.

The whole hippy scene thing was just too lame. And yet, that’s what Dylan lyrics are: hippy scene poetry that relies for whatever power it has on seeing the world as hippies like to think they did. The flower children seemed to think they were the first generation to notice that war is bad and life isn’t fair, and, in their innocence, they also seemed to believe that all it was going to take to fix it all was some pointed songs and lots of sex and drugs.

That that whole sex and drugs thing might also cause war (at least, on the very local level) and injustice (ask all those love children how that justice thing worked out for them) seems to have honestly never occurred to them.

Since the world didn’t reform itself even when they asked nicely, a number of hippies took one of two paths: the cynical – the Age of Greed people were just those same hippies hitting their working primes – or the ‘idealistic’ along the lines of Alinsky. Saul’s arguments that honesty was for suckers, that real revolutionaries only judge their actions by the intended results, found a ready audience, an audience of kids with bruised feelings. It also never seemed to occur to them that, if all that matters is the goal, then all Alinsky was telling them was designed solely to achieve his goals, which, insofar as he was to be believed, meant, circularly enough, that he could never be believed. Perhaps all he wanted was to see the world burn – that’s certainly a much more likely result than the magic fairies of History delivering a Worker’s Paradise on a bed of fresh greens right on top of the smoldering wreckage of culture Alinsky’s tactics are designed to create.

I digress. Dylan is cool as a pop singer, and does deliver the occasional zinger lyric (and just as often or more often a tin-eared shoe-horn job: “He hears the ticking of the clocks/And walks along with a parrot that talks” – suuuuure….). And, frankly, if Gore and Obama are deserving of Nobels, give Dylan 3 or 4 at least.

Now I want to go listen to Tangled Up In Blue, perhaps Dylan’s least political song (unless one counts the largely incoherent lyrics in the penultimate stanza – they seem more atmospheric than carrying any real political weight). It’s remained my favorite, because it’s all atmosphere and feelings, which, IMHO, is where Dylan is at his best.




Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “Dylan”

  1. You’re right. I’m a fan of Dylan, but his lyrics hardly ever make sense to me. And that’s not necessarily bad, but it ain’t great poetry either.

  2. You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
    You may be the head of some big TV network
    You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
    You may be living in another country under another name
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
    You’re gonna have to serve somebody
    Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

    1. I want to be Bob Dylan
      Mr. Jones says he wishes he could be someone just a little more funky;
      Ah, son – when everybody loves you
      that’s about as funky as you can be

      I never got the impression (but I was young at the time I last paid any attention to it) that Dylan was buying whole the movements that seemed to adopt him. He seemed too smart for that. And, of course, there really were real problems that warranted real protests and put people in real risk – civil rights stuff. I doubt MLK took much of his inspiration from Dylan. What I had a front row seat to was suburban kids who a) didn’t want to be drafted and sent to Vietnam; and b) thought sex and drugs were some sort of protest. While I can certainly appreciate not wanting to go off to war (and, even more, the sense of honor that might make one do it anyway), the Summer of Love, which might just as well be called the Summer of Remarkably Poor Hygiene and the Reappearance of Long Lost Venereal Diseases (or maybe that was just the Haight, dunno, I wasn’t there) was nothing other than peak self-indulgence.

      Anyway, back to Dylan. I *like* Dylan! But for every passage where every one of them words ring true, glowing like burning coal pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul, there’s an awful lot of just OK or even plain lame lyrics. YMMV. I played It’s Alright Ma yesterday to my 12 year old yesterday, as an experiment. A very poorly controlled experiment. His take on verse 1: there was no relationship between ‘there ain’t no use in trying’ and all the words that came before, except maybe an feeling that something is bad. And he very delicately, as in taking care to point out that he understood it was a matter of style, said he hated the way Dylan sang.

      Out of the mouth of babes (from unscientific environments where there’s a high chance their opinions were influenced by environmental factors I can’t control, like my mouth).

    2. TOF:

      Yes, that’s one that does make sense. Also,

      I believe in you, even through the tears and the laughter.
      I believe in you, even though we be apart.
      I believe in you, even on the morning after. [??]
      Oh, though the earth may shake me,
      Oh, though my friends forsake me,
      Oh, even that can’t make me go back.

      Can it be that his Christian lyrics are generally more coherent than the rest?

    1. Well, the Hugos may be lamer, but the Nobels are way bigger – completely lame mouse versus pretty lame horse. We’d need a measurable unit of lameness (which will need a catchy name – a sitcom of lameness?) with which to compare them…

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