A Unified Field Theory of Bob Dylan

That’s the way creativity works, Dylan told Robert Hilburn, of the Los Angeles Times. You’re always writing into a tradition. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form,” he said. “What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it

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That’s the way creativity works, Dylan told Robert Hilburn, of the Los Angeles Times. You’re always writing into a tradition. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form,” he said. “What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. . . . I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly—while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

The parts that readers enjoy most in “Chronicles”—the bits that I’d hoped to run in the magazine—are about his becoming Bob Dylan, the Village years. What’s curious is that, in a moment of pure Bob-ness, he then skips over most of his early fame. In a sixteen-month period, between March, 1965, and June, 1966, he put out three of the greatest albums of the era: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde.” We never hear about that period, much less his reëmergence from Woodstock, the collapse of his marriage, and the making of a masterpiece, “Blood on the Tracks,” in 1974. Instead, “Chronicles” goes deep into precisely that period which most fans would just as soon forget, the low point of Dylan’s creativity—the mid- and late-nineteen-eighties, when he was ready to give it all up.

“I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck,” Dylan writes. “Too much static in my head and I couldn’t dump the stuff. Wherever I am, I’m a ’6srcs troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion. You name it. I can’t shake it.”

Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986 and with the Grateful Dead in 1987, and though the concerts raked in plenty of money and he had a great sense of kinship with both bands, he felt distanced from his own work and struggled to write anything of consequence: “It wasn’t my moment of history anymore. There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent. . . . The glow was gone and the match had burned right to the end. I was going through the motions.”

Even in this relatively fallow period, Dylan wrote songs that were among his finest: “I and I,” “Dark Eyes,” “Ring Them Bells,” “Man in the Long Black Coat.” A song like “Blind Willie McTell,” in particular, hinted at what was to come, with Dylan’s gaze peering into the deep musical past. But his most ardent fans would have to admit that the albums of that period were spotty and the concerts, too often, were lacklustre. On any given night, his attention might wander; the performances could be rote. Some point to “Wiggle Wiggle,” on the 199src album “Under the Red Sky,” as an artistic nadir, though that wasn’t a parlor game Dylan was prepared to tolerate. “You know, no matter what anyone says, I have written my share,” he said. “If I never write another song, no one will ever fault me.” And, of course, he was right.

In the early fifties, Randall Jarrell published a review of “The Auroras of Autumn,” Wallace Stevens’s last collection of poems. Jarrell finds the late work to be inferior to what Stevens had collected in “Harmonium,” which had appeared almost three decades earlier. But Jarrell doesn’t chastise the poet for the decline; he asks that we see it as natural. “How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon,” Jarrell wrote, “as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen—for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else.” Stevens followed the familiar pattern of self-imitation, Jarrell writes in his review, and yet the emphasis falls not on the failures of the late career but on the miracle that a phenomenon like Stevens happens at all: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.”

“The smarter we make the A.I., the less it wants to do our jobs.”

Cartoon by Paul Noth

The point is that, if Dylan had died of his injuries in Woodstock, he still would have left behind the richest catalogue of American songs of his era. At twenty-five, he could have declared himself retired, younger in age than Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding were when they died. Yet what makes Dylan so extraordinary is that the end of his early incandescence didn’t mark a sustained falling off. Since that brush with self-extinction and death-by-motorcycle, he has made more than thirty albums—all of them interesting, and many of them containing songs that rank among his best. It’s the pace that’s different.

“There was a time when the songs would come three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone,” he told Hilburn. “Once in a while, the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written. But most of them are rejected out of my mind right away. You get caught up in wondering if anyone really needs to hear it. Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them.”

The first time I saw Dylan was in 1974, when he made his comeback with the Band. They toured behind a good album—“Planet Waves”—and then he went out and recorded one of his greatest, “Blood on the Tracks.” At concerts ever since, the casual fans—the ones who have Dylan pegged as an “icon,” a figure of the past—come to the hall hoping that he will sing “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Tangled Up in Blue” just the way they remember it from the records. Precisely because Dylan has continued to develop as an artist, they are invariably disappointed. The tempos have changed. Dylan’s voice has changed. Even the lyrics differ from night to night. You never know what you’re going to get. (In 198src, during his “born-again” phase, audiences got to hear Dylan, ordinarily as reticent as the Sphinx onstage, deliver apocalyptic sermons between gospel songs about the battle between the Antichrist and the Lord Jesus Christ.) Those casual fans wonder why he can’t be more like the Stones, unfailing jukeboxes of their earlier selves. They want to squint and see the young Dylan, with his Pre-Raphaelite hair and his Brando sneer. They want, at least for an hour and a half, a magic act: a man in his eighties who is a man in his youth.

There are some older performers who are able to pull off a worthy form of compromise with their audiences. Bruce Springsteen knows well that, at least on some level, his fans want him circa 1978, a performer determined to drive himself to the point of abandon, a Jersey guy singing about freeing himself from the grip of the nuns and family misery, finding love, and taking it on the road. The bargain, for Springsteen, his magic act, is that he’ll stay in shape, he’ll move like a younger man and he will sing you those hits, but he’ll also salt the performance with newer songs, about parenthood, aging, mortality—the work that interests him now. Everyone goes home happy.

Dylan is scarcely resistant to his role as an entertainer. When he last performed in the city, a year ago, he played a smattering of old favorites—“Watching the River Flow,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”—and he occasionally seemed to be having a good time. He’d grab the mike like an old-style crooner, cock a hip like Elvis, and even pause to make a joke worthy of Henny Youngman. But otherwise it was serious business. The concert was called for eight o’clock, and that’s when he took the stage. If you were five minutes late, it was like being at the opera; the ushers held you back from your seat until there was a break in the action. And he did what he came to do: he played nearly every song on his most recent album, the distinctly elegiac “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” For a long time now, Dylan has played piano rather than guitar, and, like a lot of performers these days, he doesn’t depend on memory for the lyrics. Most have teleprompters. Dylan leans over and sings off lyric sheets. You can hardly blame him. He’s older than Joe Biden, and the songs are often long. In the Whitmanesque “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan sings about the multiplicity of selves in him, in anyone, and provides a litany of the voices, from Anne Frank to William Blake, from Poe to the Stones, that have haunted his imagination:

You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart

But not all of it, only the hateful part,

I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head,

What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.

Dylan is hardly immune to the pink Cadillac. In fact, he’s done ads for Cadillac—along with Chrysler, I.B.M., and Victoria’s Secret. He’s got a line of bourbon and rye whiskeys on the market called Heaven’s Door, which he went on the “Tonight Show” to promote. Not long ago he sold off his catalogue for hundreds of millions of dollars, and now he’s in the N.F.T. business. But filthy lucre has not slowed him down. He doesn’t stand in the same place for very long. Eighty-one and still at it. Why? Or, better, how?

Which leads us to my Unified Field Theory of Bob Dylan. The theory isn’t especially complicated or even novel. Greil Marcus has been pressing the case for years, and Dylan himself, always typed as “enigmatic” and “elusive,” has been trying to make these matters clear to us all along. In order to stave off creative exhaustion and intimations of mortality, Dylan has, over and over again, returned to what fed him in the first place—the vast tradition of American song. Anytime he has been in trouble, he could rely on that bottomless source. When he was in Woodstock, recuperating and hiding from the world, he got together with the Band, in the basement of a house known as Big Pink, and played folk songs: folk songs they remembered, and folk songs they made up. That was “The Basement Tapes.” When he was struggling again, twenty-five years later, he recorded two albums of folk and blues standards—“Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong”—and four years after that he emerged, reënergized and backed by extraordinary musicians, to issue a string of highly original albums, “Time Out of Mind,” “Modern Times,” and “Together Through Life.” Many of the songs were about mortality, just as they were on the album he recorded when he was twenty and singing “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” But now they were felt on a deeper level. Shortly before “Time Out of Mind” was released, in 1997, Dylan heard a pounding on Heaven’s door—a heart ailment, pericarditis, which forced him to cancel a European tour and consider, once more, the end. “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon,” he said.

Dylan kept moving, even having fun. In 2srcsrc9, he put out “Christmas in the Heart.” If you were stuck thinking of Dylan as a pure ironist, you were wrong; he sang Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus”––and made it his own––because he loved it. The record was all in the line of tradition: the Christmas albums of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley. The same goes for what are known as his Sinatra albums—“Shadows in the Night,” “Fallen Angels,” and “Triplicate”—which featured Dylan paying tribute to the so-called American songbook. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, either. Dylan loves Frank Sinatra, and the feeling was mutual. In 1995, at Sinatra’s request, Dylan played his sunless yet defiant song “Restless Farewell” for the old man at a tribute concert. It’s not hard to tell why the last verse would appeal to the guy who often closed his concerts with “My Way”:

Oh, a false clock tries to tick out my time,

To disgrace, distract, and bother me,

And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,

And the dust of rumors covers me.

But if the arrow is straight

And the point is slick,

It can pierce through dust no matter how thick.

So I’ll make my stand

And remain as I am

And bid farewell and not give a damn.

Those Sinatra standards replenished him and fed his imagination. They helped bring him to the songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” They allowed him to keep forcing himself forward. Long past the pressure to be a voice of anything or anyone, he has released albums that, though deeply self-expressive, speak to and expand what Leonard Cohen called “the Tower of Song.”

Dylan has replenished himself in other ways as well. From 2srcsrc6 to 2srcsrc9, he hosted “Theme Time Radio Hour,” a weekly program on satellite radio. With the help of a like-minded music nut, Eddie Gorodetsky, Dylan, aping the mannerisms, puns, and bromides of the d.j.s of his youth, proposed a theme for each program—blood, say, or money or mothers or flowers—and he’d intersperse songs with his Bobbed-out patter. The programs were hilarious, full of campy nostalgia. Most important, you got to hear the often forgotten music that helped form him in some way, like Buck Owens singing “I’ll Go to Church Again with Momma,” and “Kissing in the Dark,” by Memphis Minnie. And, just to let you know the old guy was keeping up and had a broad sense of an expanding tradition, he threw in tracks from Prince and LL Cool J.

And now there’s another exercise in engaging the tradition. Rather than follow the first volume of “Chronicles” with, you know, a second volume, Dylan has published a kind of extension of the radio show: a rich, riffy, funny, and completely engaging book of essays, “The Philosophy of Modern Song.” The cover photograph features Little Richard, Alis Lesley, and Eddie Cochran, and it’s immediately apparent what you’re in for: Dylan wandering through the enormous record bin of his mind. What he tries to get across is the feel of these songs, their atmosphere and internal life. It’s at the end of his essay on Dion and the Belmonts’ version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When” that Dylan makes everything clear:

When Dion’s voice bursts through for a solo moment in the bridge, it captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at.

But so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.

When Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2src16, he got a lot of stick. The man wrote songs! But did he deserve the accolade? Leonard Cohen, one of his most literary contemporaries, had it right. Awarding Dylan the Nobel, he said, “is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

What makes Dylan’s career all the more remarkable is the way it has evolved, with peaks, declivities, crags—all in service to the music he began to revere in Hibbing. In his own way, he is reminiscent of Verdi, Monet, Yeats, O’Keeffe: a freak of creative longevity. Nicholas Delbanco writes about this phenomenon in “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age”; Delbanco’s teacher John Updike wrote about it in his essay “Late Works,” and exemplified it in the poems he wrote while dying of cancer in hospice care.

“I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us—you don’t write the songs anyhow,” Cohen said in his last meeting with reporters. “Your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.”

Genius doesn’t owe explanations of itself. But perhaps the nearest Dylan came to explaining both his gift and its durability was in 2src15, accepting an award from the charity MusiCares. Reading from a sheaf of papers in his hands, Dylan exploded the myth of sui-generis brilliance.

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. “I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. . . . It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock and roll, and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. . . . If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me—‘John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.’ If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.

“All these songs are connected,” he went on. “I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. . . . I thought I was just extending the line.” ♦

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