Dylan As Text, Sub-Text, Ur-Text in 'Bob Dylan

Like a Complete Unknown'

by Guy Crucianelli

22 June 2011


A Profusion of Things, Ideas

Yaffe mines some intriguing territory here, especially surrounding Dylan’s Christian years, and his, um, extra-spiritual affiliations with certain African American female backup singers. But then, isn’t it mainly through the physical that we apprehend the divine?

As Yaffe has it, “Dylan was finding Jesus through the gospel singers, and the internalization altered his intonations, not only in song, but even in speech. He was no longer the Oakie-inflected bard of civil rights but a prematurely aged bluesman. He would eventually cast Christianity aside, but once he went black, he never went back.”

Though Dylan has drawn from a variety of sources his entire career, recently he has been charged an outright plagiarist, perhaps most famously by Joni Mitchell. It seems a bit of sour grapes on Mitchell’s part, though to her credit, Dylan did and does steal. As Yaffe says, “the lines between allusion and appropriation have…taken on new proportions in the case of Dylan in the twenty-first century. The millennial Dylan is not entirely a deception, but he doesn’t always come clean, either.”

In some of his earliest material, “stray lines from here or there became a part of the alchemy”, and such “borrowing” or lyrical cross-reference was innate to American popular music, especially folk and blues.

Most recently and infamously, some studious and diligent readers and listeners have detected, among other things, phrases from Marcel Proust in Chronicles Vol. One and bits of a Yakuza memoir on Love and Theft. Yaffe partially explains such material as coming from a box Dylan keeps, “containing snippets from books, movies and probably conversation—that he dips into when he needs inspiration. Many of the lines from Empire Burlesque (1985), for example, came from The Maltese Falcon”. And yet, in recent years especially, Yaffe continues, “the box [has] become quite busy indeed.”

As I see it, Dylan has always collaged together a hugely disparate assortment of source material. A hint to this method is given in Chronicles itself, in what I have to assume is original prose:

“He [artist Red Grooms] incorporated every living thing into something and made it scream—everything side by side created equal—old tennis shoes, vending machines, alligators…, dueling pistols, the Staten Island Ferry and Trinity Church…creeps and greasers and weirdos and grinning, bejeweled nude models…—everything hilarious but not jokey…I was wondering if it was possible to write songs like that.” (p. 270)

Or: “I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once…everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” (p. 61)

This is one key to Dylan’s songwriting, this immense profusion of “things, ideas” that can accommodate both Captain Ahab and Cinderella, or a piece of Proust and a chunk of yakuza lore. For it is not just the profusion, but also the contrast and, somehow, congruence of juxtaposed or random images—some of them already existent and so, in some sense, found—that renews and re-energizes their existence. Something like, say, “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” He gets it all into a verse or song or line, and he gets it right

Of course, this process has changed with age. What used to tumble pre-collaged out of his head he now has to put together from other, external sources, similar, in some ways, to the late cut-out method of Henri Matisse. These excavated items are no less meaningful as they achieve renewed originality in their new surroundings.

Yaffe wonders, “Were these appropriations the sign of a waning muse, or was Dylan merely doing a version of what he has always done? Sometimes Dylan leans on the box in odd ways that still indicate genius: turning strays lines…into a Bob Dylan song amounts to a kind of found object art…”

In some ways this collaging or internal quotation is endemic to the genre of Dylan writing itself. Why not steal from the best? Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin, for example, being a work of literary criticism, used (some might say over-used) this technique to exaggerate and thus underline Dylan’s attention to lyrical rhythm, assonance and euphoniousness. Yaffe uses it more judiciously, to punctuate pertinent points: “The voice could howl like a hammer and break like a little girl” or “Something’s happening here and we’re not sure what it is…” or “[Dylan’s] not selling any alibis as you stare into the vacuum of his eyes”.

I do disagree with Yaffe’s passing swipe at rock critics as “the worst species in this universe”. Just one of the worst. Criticism may be the evil twin of all art forms, but it’s still the twin, born a few seconds or minutes or even years or decades after art. Which is as it should be. All art requires feedback, outside response. Is music music if no one responds to it?

I imagine when one caveman made a sound by pounding rocks together, the caveman next to him (A rock critic. Get it?) made his own sound about it, whether a grunt of incomprehension, or an approving or disapproving moan or groan. This is different than audience reaction because it puts the second caveman in a position of assessment and evaluation, and it suggests response to form as well as affect. Thus criticism was born; crude and primitive, yes, but criticism nonetheless.

And yet I know what Yaffe means. To paraphrase Lou Reed’s rant against critics on his 1978 rock-comedy record Take No Prisoners, what artist wants to work a year on a project just to get a B+—or a 6 out of 10? An artist like Dylan, or Reed for that matter, deserves more than a strict rock critic to suss a career that so often projects beyond the bounds of rock.

For his part, Yaffe sees Dylan as “a text, yet he is still a moving target…”, and Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown follows suit. This is Dylan as shifting text, not just layered like pages, back or front, or over-laid like a palimpsest, but cross-wise, and motile as a termite.

In Yaffe’s own words: “This book is for people who want to revisit Dylan’s past in the present tense, for mongrel dogs who teach, writers and critics who prophesize with their pen, mothers and fathers throughout the land, and everyone who cares or is just curious.”

I’m in there, somewhere.

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