More than any other rock artist, Bob Dylan was a poet with a guitar. While the music came first for many groups, Dylan was first and foremost a wordsmith. He helped open up the form to a broader range of subject matter, and to more daring and imaginative use of wordplay. Thanks to Dylan, other singer/songwriters were able to follow the path that he had blazed, and find appreciative audiences for their own works. Yet none surpassed Dylan in the breadth and artistry of their lyrics.
The song form allowed Dylan to use modern, surrealistic imagery and tackle thoroughly up-to-date themes and subjects, yet take advantage of all the traditional poetic devices that were actually out of favor with modern poets. In terms of the sound of his poetry, Dylan was a thorough traditionalist. Rather than deconstructing poetry, as did modern and post-modern poets, he got maximum mileage from the traditional vehicles of meter, rhyme, verse and chorus. Any number of his songs, for example, used a simple repeating verse structure (often with many more than the minimal three verses), each verse ending with the same phrase, usually the title of the song. Take the following middle three verses from his song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
Well, you look so pretty in it.
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just wanna see
If it’s really that expensive kind.
You know it balances on your head
Just like a mattress balances
On a bottle of wine:
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.
Well, if you wanna see the sun rise,
Honey, I know where.
We’ll go out and see it sometime —
We’ll both just sit there and stare.
Me with my belt
Wrapped around my head
And you just sittin’ there,
In your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.
Well, I asked the doctor if I could see you.
It’s bad for your health, he said.
Yes, I disobeyed his orders.
I came to see you, but I found him there instead.
You know, I don’t mind him
Cheatin’ on me, but I sure
Wish he’d take that off his head:
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.
Notice the rhyming structure: the ends of the second, fourth and seventh lines rhyme approximately, with the first, third, fifth and sixth lines unrhymed. The first four lines form a consistent pattern. The sixth line frustrates that pattern, delaying the rhyme until the end of the seventh. The effect is to focus the listener’s attention on the seventh line, waiting expectantly for the closure of the rhyme.
Now let’s look at how Dylan uses this rhyming pattern. First, he establishes a larger structure, ending each verse with the phrase, “leopard-skin pill-box hat.” Each verse tells its own compact little story, all with the same characters of Dylan and his fashion-conscious girlfriend, but each with its own minor characters and unusual events. The seventh line, the one with attention focused on it by the delayed rhyme, invariably carries the punch line of the story, describing some increasingly unlikely appearance of the hat. Every punch line manages to begin a sentence totally unlike all the others, except that each always ends with the same reference to the hat. By virtue of this reference appearing in the same place each time, the listener begins to anticipate it, thus further concentrating the impact of the punch line, since we know where it is headed.
Using very traditional song structures such as these, Dylan tackled an amazing range of subjects, with a dazzling array of words. He spoke convincingly to modern ethical issues of religion, war, poverty and discrimination. His best songs used a sort of surrealistic imagery that, like all great art, revealed the essence of people and events around him, while almost totally avoiding the surfaces that people usually observe. His more personal songs spoke revealingly of human relationships, exposing the diversity of motivation involved in the simplest of human acts, and the difficulty of finding anything approaching an objective truth when dealing with the bewildering complexity of human thoughts and emotions. He also exposed the layers of deception separating us from one another, and making the simplest human connection an almost impossible task. As an example, take this fragment from “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later).”
I didn’t mean to treat you so bad:
You shouldn’t take it so personal.
I didn’t mean to make you so sad —
You just happened to be there, that’s all.
When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile,
I thought that it was well understood,
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while:
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good.
But, sooner or later, one of us must know:
You just did what you’re supposed to do.
Sooner or later, one of us must know,
That I really did try to get close to you.
I couldn’t see what you could show me:
Your scarf had kept your mouth well hid.
I couldn’t see how you could know me —
But you said you knew me and I believed you did.
When you whispered in my ear,
And asked me if I was leavin’ with you or her,
I didn’t realize just what I did hear,
I didn’t realize how young you were.
What has happened here? Who has hurt whom? And by doing what? We are given almost no objective details, no traditional story, in the sense of a sequence of events. Instead there are a series of observations and comments, all suggesting a number of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and veiled intentions. People sometimes say that Dylan’s songs are confusing and even incomprehensible, but these people are missing the point. Dylan can be clear and precise when he wants to be. In songs like these, Dylan was painting a picture of a modern landscape in which life itself is confusing and often incomprehensible, with romance, sex and friendship appearing and disappearing like phantasms in a dream.
Dylan was the artist primarily responsible for bringing two strong, separate influences into the form of rock music: poetry and folk music. Unlike other rock composers, Dylan was familiar with modern poets such as Allen Ginsberg, and was responsible for enlarging the form of rock by bringing these influences into play.
As with the poetic tradition, the folk tradition also included an emphasis on the importance of the words, and on an admirable breadth of subject matter. Perhaps more importantly, though, folk music demonstrated a way to fuse this subject matter with the song form, and with a sense of dramatic interpretation. As Dylan grew to prominence in folk music, he began by singing folks songs that were standards, and eventually drew critical appreciation for his commanding performance and interpretation of these songs that were also performed by many others. When he began performing with rock accompaniment, his recordings benefited from this ability to use song structures, and his voice as a dramatic instrument, to amplify and refine the impact of his works.
As a songwriter, Dylan used music in the same way he used traditional poetic devices, as a master craftsman getting maximum mileage out of all the tools available to him. Dylan started in the folk tradition, later exploring and expanding the possibilities of rock, then later turning to country. Dylan seemed able to work with almost any musicians, adapting his voice, songs, guitar and harmonica to the surrounding environment with apparent ease. His live recordings give evidence that he regularly varied the accompaniment and arrangements of his songs, almost as a challenge to keep his own performances fresh, playing what were originally folks songs with rock arrangements, and vice versa.
Dylan’s curse has been that his artistry has been so great, and so attuned to emergent thoughts and feelings in the culture around him, that he has often been treated as a prophet rather than an artist. The difference is significant. The artist makes us aware of implicit conflicts, and by sharpening our perceptions, grants us the gift of choice. He does not offer us easy answers as to what those choices should be — if easy answers were available, then there would be no need for art.
A prophet, on the other hand, tells of things to come, predicts outcomes, and, by implication, tells us how we should act. By treating Dylan’s art as prophecy, even Dylan’s closest companions, as well as the media and his audience, have maligned his art. So instead of simple appreciation for the enduring appeal of his greatest works, Dylan has been routinely confronted by questions about what his works mean, what he and the world will or should do next, why his works became anthems for a generation, and why, despite their appeal, his works have not had a greater positive influence on society, and what he intends to do about it.
It is unfortunate for us and for Dylan that his admirers have looked to him for these answers, rather than to themselves.
Original Release Date: 1965
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This is Dylan’s first album that was all electric. The subject matter spans the range of “protest” songs, such as the title tune, and more personal ones, such as “Like A Rolling Stone.” The accompanying musicians were given the freedom to accompany Dylan in new and unusual ways. The most famous story is of Al Kooper, who arrived at the sessions planning on playing electric guitar, then switched to organ once he heard Michael Bloomfield’s playing on guitar. Kooper’s noodlings on organ were immortalized as an essential element of the recording “Like A Rolling Stone,” and his impromptu approach was hailed as a fresh new element of rock.
However they came together, the sessions were magical, and the result is one of Dylan’s most lyrically and musically compelling. Absolutely essential.
Original Release Date: 1966
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This double album was perhaps Dylan’s boldest and richest work. The accompanying musicians, including Robbie Robertson of the Band on guitar, added a rich tapestry to Dylan’s voice and songs. The songs themselves are unremittingly personal, presenting haunting visions of the fragility and complexity of human relationships. The tone of the songs ranges from the biting humor of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” to the tender warmth of “Just Like A Woman,” to the existential angst of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” Dylan’s amazing voice, as rich and textured as aged bourbon, shifts with each changing mood, always providing the perfect vehicle for the words and their emotions. The musical accompaniment is multi-layered, perfectly matching the words and their swirling images. This is an album that redefined and immeasurably expanded the scope of rock music.
Next: Like A Rolling Stone