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.