Dylan in the Sixties (2) - George Monteiro

Dylan in the Sixties  (2) - George Monteiro


     It seems to me that Dylan first revealed the individual directions of his creative career in his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; his first album, as we know, was more a record of Dylan as performer (of the songs of others) than of Dylan as a "song poet." But in Freewheelin', Dylan presented his own songs largely, and it was here that he sang love lyrics, such as "Girl from the North Country," that he sang "Blowin' in the Wind," which became so useful to freedom movements; and it was also on this record that Dylan sang "Hard Rain." And the substance of these three songs, but significantly not the style, suggested the contents of all sub­ sequent Dylan albums. The love songs were not to dominate any album-until Blonde on Blonde, perhaps-but the protest songs and the songs which can be called apocalyptic songs, in keeping with the temper of the times-songs which prophesied and described violent destruction and some sort of eschatological revelation-were to take turns at dominating individual albums, the particular empha­ sis in each case depending entirely on the evolution of Dylan's mind, emotions, and concerns. The upshot is that Freewheelin ' can be seen as an announcement of balanced possibilities and as a presenta­ tion of thematic concerns. But the album which followed it, The Times They Are A-Changin',was his most striking protest album, while Dylan's sixth album, Highway 6I Revisited , was the most apocalyptic. Overall, the perceptible shift from protest to apocalyp­ tic-and later to the personal-was a shift from public to private, from the temporal to the universal to the more narrowly personal.
     It is not quite true, of course, that-as Dylan implied in his Playboy interview-he never wrote "protest" or "message" songs as such. But his disclaimer is worth quoting. To the question "Why have you stopped composing and singing protest songs?" Dylan answered:
I've stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung. Don't get me wrong, now. "Protest" is not my word. I've never thought of myself as such. The word "pro­ test," I think, was made up for people undergoing surgery. It's anamusement-park word. A normal person in his righteous mind would have to have the hiccups to pronounce it honestly. The word "message" strikes me as having a hernia-like sound. It's just like the word "deli­ cious." Also the word "marvelous. " You know, the English can say "marvelous" pretty good. They can't say "raunchy" so good, though. Well, we each have our thing. Anyway, message songs, as everybody knows, are a drag. It's only college newspaper editors and single girls under 14 that could possibly have time for them.

     It is a wry fact that Dylan was himself the single most effective force in bringing about the 196o's changes in the content of the American popular song: from what has been called "the mating and dating habits of adolescents" to the public topics of mass and individual protest, drugs, suicide, and madness. It was the nature of Dylan's songs in The Times They Are A-Changin',for example, that opened the way for the banal rock-and-roll presentation of the otherwise laudable sentiments of P. F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction," sung by Barry McGuire, in 1965. What people did not listen to in Dylan's work, however, was that in Another Side, he had already said good· bye to temporal protest, to immediate causes and fervid messages. Had his song "My Back Pages" been listened to attentively, Dylan would not have needed to spell out his position to Nat Hentoff in Playboy. In "My Back Pages," Dylan denounced man's seemingly altruistic preying upon prejudice, hatred, and jealousy in the service of politics and what he would call "ancient history." He decried social evangelism, which, he insisted, had deceived him into thinking he had something to lose.
     No longer was it appropriate to describe Dylan (as Robert Shel· ton did in the New York Times) as "a moralist, a pamphleteer, an angry young man with a guitar, a social protest poet... perhaps an American Yevtushenko." And no longer need the conservative journal American Opinion complain (but it was to continue to make the same complaint) that Dylan was the newest of "the caterwauling and stench [ridden] folksingers" duped into singing the Communist party line. Let it be added that American Opinion, objecting vigorously to the "propaganda" song, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," dismissed it as "a doom-ridden tune." Nor was he any longer-as Newsweek was still mistakenly putting it-the "Patrick Henry of this revolution." As Dylan would say in "Like a Rolling Stone," "when you ain't got nothin' you ain't got nothing to lose." Sub-sequent albums conveyed little social protest of the nature conveyed
in the songs of The Time's They Are A-Changin'.
     What Dylan did in his next phase was to take up and work ex­ tensively the apocalyptic imagery most dramatically exploited, for social purposes, in "Hard Rain."Inthat song, written, as he tells us, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis-welling up at a time when more people than just Dylan feared that politics would momently bring about total nuclear destruction-in "Hard Rain" Dylan fell in with the Biblical imagery of destruction and desolation so strikingly presented by the prophets: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and, in the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine of Patmos. In "Hard Rain" he ex­ presses fear, bitterness, tenderness, horror. What keeps the song from being totally apocalyptic is that Dylan sees the residue of a devastated world, but does not see, as Revelation and other eschatol­ ogies have it, the establishment of "a new heaven and a new earth.'' But even more interesting, "Hard Rain" embodies some of Dylan's conf usion about the purpose of his songs at this time--a confusion which would be cleared up later. Social protest songs are more of ten than not prophetic. Images of destruction and vast devastation serve, as the prophet uses them, to warn peoples of their wicked ways; the apocalyptic images used by such prophets as Jeremiah and Ezekiel implement and dramatize the promised-the threatened­ results, if warnings and commands for moral rehabilitation are not heeded in time. But for Dylan, in this song, it is all devastation with­out millennium.
     Yet, for all its imagery of violence and destruction, "Hard Rain" is not finally typical of Dylan's apocalyptic songs. For these we must go, as I have already suggested, to the album Highway 61 Revisited. In the time between "Hard Rain" and Highway 61, Dylan himself seems to have undergone more than a sea change. He moved through his period of public protest to a discovery that for himself the devastation he had been trying to sing about and the wasteland he had seen were really internal and personal. He discovered that apocalyptic imagery said more about an individual's soul than about what happens to the physical world. Itwas a Romantic discovery in the same way that many other poets, from William Blake and Coleridge to Eliot, Hart Crane, and Richard Wilbur, have dis­ covered the significance of apocalypse for the human imagination. It is no accident that songs listed on this album-for example,"Tombstone Blues," "Desolation Row," and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"-are greatly indebted to the wasteland imagery of the early poems of T. S. Eliot: "Gerontion,'' "The Hollow Men," and, of course, the poem that no English or American poet has been indifferent to since its publication in 1922-The Waste Land.
     It is The Waste Land which provides source and background for much of "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" with its Easter rain and aura of spiritual malaise. And it is The Waste Land, crossed with Tennessee Williams' apocalyptic play Camino Real which provides principles of structure and considerable substance for the brilliant song "Desolation Row,'' with its death dance of characters and cir­ cus vignettes: Cinderella, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Einstein as Robin Hood, the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova (and a heart attack machine), Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in a ship's tower, and the dire announcement the Titanic will sail at dawn. Circus, and dance of death, and ship of fools.
     But there is still another twist. For Dylan's apocalyptic songs are something that Eliot's apocalyptic lines are not-they are comic, discordant, and ultimately absurd. It is true that there is imagery and incident in The Waste Land that border on the comic, but they are always directed in some way to the purpose of satirizing social types and society at large. The apocalyptic imagery in the latter portions of Eliot's poem is another matter, for it is traditional and singularly uncomic. Still, Dylan's admixture of the apocalyptic and the comic­ ally absurd, if not anticipated by Eliot, is nevertheless not unpre· cedented. "Desolation Row," for example, as I have noted, owes as much, in imagery, character, and structure, to Tennessee Williams' Camino Real as it does to Eliot. This song, and others, moreover, owe more, one might even venture, to the theater of Jean Genet, than they do to any of Dylan's generously acknowledged debts to folk and popular performers.
     Even more significantly, however, I should like to propose that these apocalyptic songs constitute the most recent contribution to and manifestation of that American literary tradition defined by R. W. B. Lewis as stemming from Herman Melville's novel of dis­ guises and metamorphoses, The Confidence Man (1857), and a tradition given new impetus through the absurd visions of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (with its title borrowed from Revelation), and renewed quite possibly by such novels as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon's V, and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.
     By seeing these songs, and such a song as "Tombstone Blues" with its references to Samson, Delilah, and John the Baptist, and by seeing "Highway 6r Revisited," the opening segment of which re­ imagines Abraham and God in the full thrust of the American tradi­ tion-by seeing such songs as part of a literary tradition, I do not wish to minimize Dylan's personal achievement, nor do I question his originality. On the contrary, it is apparent to me that no poet has worked the comic apocalypse with as much success as the "song poet" Dylan has. His success in this vein makes Highway 61 Re­visited, in my opinion, his most valuable single album to date, his most original contribution. And a genuine understanding of the "literary" content of these songs and of their place in a discernible literary tradition helps to explain still another phenomenon.
     In their evocation of the comically but absurdly apocalyptic vision, these songs, despite the gaiety and the jauntiness of much of the music-but perhaps in part because of these very qualities­ are disturbing, disconcerting, even frightening. Partly, of course, it is the archetypal content which we respond to when we find it where we would least expect to find it-in popular songs which when recorded sell in the millions. And it is precisely the success of Dylan's apocalyptic songs which, I would suggest, prompted another young singer, Phil Ochs, to express his fears for Dylan's life. Ochs insisted that each time Dylan appeared in public he was risking his life. Here is how Ochs put it:

There's something very dangerous, something very frightening about this whole thing now. Dylan is very disturbing. Dylan gets up there and sings great thoughts and great poetry to everybody, and when you say everybody you mean also to neurotics, to immature people, to the lumpenproletariat, to people not in control of themselves . . . . I don't know if Dylan can get on the stage a year from now. I don't think so. I mean that the phenomena of Dylan will be so much that it will be dangerous. One year from now I think it will be very dangerous to Dylan's life to get on the stage. In other words, he's gotten inside so many people's heads-Dylan has become part of so many people's psyches, and there're so many screwed up people in America, and death is such a part of the American scene now. The Kennedy assassination is part of this story.

Ochs's prophecy was made before Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle accident in 966-an accident which effectively kept him from the dangers of such public exposure for nearly two years. But there is little doubt that Ochs's fears were warranted.
     It is tempting-even comforting, in a way-to explain the possibility of this "phenomena of Dylan," as Ochs put it, in terms of "the Kennedy assassination." (It is chilling to recall that Ochs was writing before spring 1968 and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.) It cannot be gainsaid that Dylan did indeed get inside a great many minds, and most significantly, he penetrated minds that in the past were closed to all forms of litera­ ture. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If Dylan sang "great thoughts and great poetry to everybody," as Ochs has it, it was of course the specific content of those thoughts that made the greatest difference. And it was in his apocalyptic songs that Dylan expressed, and undoubtedly faced, the terrifying truths of his own imagination and psyche. But the rub is that it could not end with his own confrontation with the reaches of the self. In rejecting songs of protest against munitions manufacturers, and in attacking those righteous people who wage war, confident that God is with them; in rejecting all songs which project society into an externalized vil· lain, standing somewhere out there to be overcome, Dylan un­ leashed for the multitudes what in the past, historically, was avail­ able only to a handful of readers. For in the "electric age" of instant communication through oral and visual image, these ideas are no longer the province of literature exclusively; they are no longer by necessity limited, in their most artistic forms ( and propagandistic forms, too), to the initiates of a literate culture.
     For Dylan, the apocalyptic prophet, one could well have shared Ochs's fears. Significantly, though, Dylan apparently became aware of these dangers. For the Jove songs which dominate Blonde on Blonde, both statistically and in quality, constitute a withdrawal from the freewheeling apocalyptics of Highway 61 Revisited. Blonde on Blonde contains fourteen songs, of which only two look back in any meaningful way, and then only tangentially, to the apocalyptic songs of earlier albums: the haunting "Stuck Inside of Mobile with tl1e Memphis Blues Again," and "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." The remaining songs are primarily love songs, concerned with love and with hatred as its complement. Dylan learned his craft well: his love songs are polished, original, meaningful, and largely private in reference. A song such as "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is un­ mitigatedly comic (if a touch sadistic), while another, "Just Like a Woman," is tender and hard at the same time, both a mockery of love and a tribute to love. But the change can be defined most help­ fully in what happens in "Rainy Day Women." There is no doubt, as even Time was quick to perceive, that this song is about drugs. But the song means and says more than that. On one level it defines the condition of Everyman. It becomes a dark if jaunty celebration of the sacrificial nature of the human condition. In this sense, that everybody must get stoned becomes Jess a plea for equal treatment than a recognition that every man is fated, that being "stoned" is the universal fate. But the potentially stark effect of "Rainy Day Women" is blurred, intentionally muted, by the extremely clever and witty use of a stripper-music beat and arrangement. Blonde on Blonde was, and is, impressive; and of its kind it is a very good thing. But, as a whole, it is quite different from anything else Dylan had done. Itconstituted, I suspect, a conscious retreat from the concerns and the latent power of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited . And yet I find it no contradiction to say that the sensitive lyrics to the song "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" may constitute his most ac­ complished poem to date.
     In 1966 it was difficult to know what Dylan's songs would be like in the future. There didn't seem to be anywhere for him to go, at least not for new content and for radically new attitudes. The sub­ sequent appearances of John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self-Portrait have offered an unexpected answer: he has re­ turned to some of the more conventional themes of his first days as a public performer. Nothing really new has emerged since 1966.
     And yet-there may be a new place for him. The generation of the Brown University senior I quoted at the outset of this paper is now in its early thirties and is now, ironically, making its own anthologies of modern poetry where it is fashionable to bypass the poetry of Robert Lowell but de rigueur to include Dylan's. Indeed, any omission of Dylan has itself to be explained. The editor of one such anthology, The Young American Poets (1968), writes:
Regarding the absence of two famous younger poets: Invitations to submit poems and be included among their contemporaries were sent to Bob Dylan and Ed Sanders. In fact, both were invited twice. Neither poet replied. The absence of Dylan seems particularly unfortunate: in the purity of his tenderness and anger and in the authority of his imag­ ination he is one of the best poets of his generation.

Eventually the anthologies will get him, just as Time turned him into the prophet for Middle America, and just as surely as Princeton University made him a Doctor.

George Monteiro is a lifelong student and teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, contributing to the scholarship on numerous writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His latest book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (McFarland, 2012).