Bob Dylan, The Voice

[28 April 2010]

By Gregg Lipkin

Bob Dylan was the voice of a generation.

It’s a tremendous cliché. By now the phrase “voice of a generation” is so frequently associated with Dylan, used almost interchangeably with the “singer/songwriter” often placed before his name, that he could probably get it trademarked as his own personal slogan.

The statement is also incomplete. It speaks of Dylan, and his music, in the past tense implying that he is a man of another time who sang words for that time alone. When people hear him called the “voice of a generation” they undoubtedly think of a young Dylan singing protest songs in the early Sixties and giving voice to the political and societal frustrations felt by himself and others in their twenties. To claim that Bob Dylan was the voice of a generation is to imply he was the voice of political conscious for millions of people who had just entered, or were rapidly approaching, adulthood during that decade.

What about the next decade?  What about when Dylan and his listeners were no longer entering adulthood but living, sometimes trapped, in the middle of it?  What happened when an idealistic 19-year-old boy who had looked for answers to be blown to him in the wind in 1963 suddenly found himself to be a 31-year-old man with little or no time to rail against “Masters of War” because he had a mortgage to pay and a troubled marriage to save? Who functioned as his voice?

Bob Dylan, of course.

With the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975 Bob Dylan proved that he was much more than a political mouthpiece from the ‘60s. Blood on the Tracks, was an incredibly emotional album that involved itself with the politics of the personal and in doing so it transformed Dylan into something entirely new.

At the end of the ‘60s, Dylan was the voice of a generation, but the emotional scope of Blood on the Tracks proved that Dylan was no longer simply the voice of an old era. To the contrary, Blood on the Tracks proved how timeless and universal Bob Dylan’s music and rich lyrical tapestry actually were.

Bob Dylan was the voice of a generation?

No.

Bob Dylan is the voice of a generation?

Closer.

Bob Dylan is the voice of generations.

The Voice?  Just Louise . . .

“You feel like an imposter when someone thinks you’re something and you’re not.”

When speaking to Ed Bradley in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast on December 5, 2004, Bob Dylan decried the labels applied to him by his fans in the ‘60s, “prophet”, “savior” and the clichéd “voice of a generation”.

“If you examine the songs, I don’t believe you’re gonna find anything in there that says that I’m a spokesperson for anybody or anything really,” he told Bradley.

“But they saw it,” Bradley replied.

Dylan’s response?  All of the listeners had gotten it wrong.

“They must not have heard the songs,” he said.

Of course, this was hardly a new posture for Dylan to take. Being the voice of a generation was never a label he accepted and as he stated yet again in the same interview, it certainly wasn’t something he’d ever sought; while history is certainly written by the winners, these same winners do not get to determine how their writing is read. If we accept that Dylan never wanted to be a spokesperson of any sort and that he never wrote a single lyric that was intended to voice any opinion beyond his own, does that mean that he is correct when he insists that he is not the voice of a generation?

Of course not; as Ed Bradley insisted, when referring to Dylan’s fans, “But they saw it.” Dylan can deny giving voice to millions but it doesn’t make him correct. He can claim that millions got it wrong and they didn’t listen closely enough to the songs and it still won’t change what “they” saw.

What “they” saw was a man that continually gave voice to what they felt, eloquence gifted to them by a modern day bard who could put all of their confusion into words that made sense, even if the words themselves were made all the more confusing due to confusing times.

So in 1963, a year that saw the assassination of a promising young president and the expansion of a war in Vietnam, a “blue-eyed” 19-year-old desperately trying to make sense of difficult times, might have gotten lost in the hard rain of confusion. Worried about his friends, or even himself being sent off to war, he might have been consumed by images of “a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it”, and “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”. Of course, they were confusing images, “void of form”, until “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” gave them shape.

By 1975 the Vietnamese War was over and the 31-year-old had a brand new fight on his hands. He now had to find a way to preserve the idealism he felt, and the happiness he sought, when he was 19. How does one lyrically or poetically express a loss of happiness? How to express in words something that was almost the greatest of successes and might be the biggest of failures? 

If you’re Bob Dylan, you record Blood on the Tracks, and if you’re a 31-year-old who spent your young adulthood finding your voice in the works of Bob Dylan, you listen to it. You listen to it in amazement and find that he has once again managed to put into words the emotions you have been unable to express. You let him serve as your voice once again.

“So forgot the clenched young scholars who analyze his rhyme into dust,” Pete Hamill wrote in his 1974 essay that was featured in the liner notes of Blood on the Tracks. “Remember that he gave us voice.”

Denying this fact doesn’t make it any less true; it just casts Dylan in the role of Louise from his 1966 song Visions of Johanna, holding “a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it”.

The Voice, the Woman and the Big Girl

Blood on the Tracks can be seen as an album-length act of defiance on Dylan’s part. Gone are the politics for which he’d been most famous. The album concerns itself instead with the politics of the heart. For this reason, Blood on the Tracks represents Bob Dylan at his most powerful.

The album purportedly chronicles the dissolution of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, and while the album is a rather naked display of emotions, it never sounds as though the emotions expressed are Dylan’s. To the contrary, Dylan functions as a storyteller rather than a confessor and as such he vividly tells stories of various love lives without ever sounding as though he is telling the story of his own.

This ability to function as a narrator rather than a biographer, coupled with the songs’ personal themes over the political, make Blood on the Tracks an exceptionally universal work of art. It was this quality that solidified Dylan as the voice of generations; his protest songs were well known by 1975 and could still easily speak to, and for, young adults with a distaste for the industrial military complex and a desire for peace. However, many who had already “finger pointed” with Dylan when he’d sung them 12 years earlier, had seen their passion for national politics give way to passion and personal politics.

Blood on the Tracks is an album about love—obtaining it, struggling to keep it and ultimately losing it. People who’d been against the Vietnamese War in the ‘60s found themselves against a romantic wall in the ‘70s and they were even less equipped to express their romantic feelings than they’d been to express their political feelings. The personal is harder to express than the political and age changes expression of the personal immensely. This is obvious when contrasting the songs on Blood on the Tracks with compositions from earlier in Dylan’s career.

“Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain,” Dylan sings in “Just Like a Woman” (1966) before concluding: “I just can’t fit / Yes I believe it’s time for us to quit / When we meet again / Introduced as friends / Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” 

The narrator’s posture in “Just Like a Woman” is the hubristic posture of youth. His own desire is too strong to be held within the relationship, he is too hungry to be in world that isn’t his own, so he is choosing to leave. He never sounds as though he is losing something he will be unable to regain after he has obtained a world that’s all his own and the only one who sounds saddened is the woman who “breaks just like a little girl”.

“You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks begins in the rain as well, “And I’m back in the rain, oh, oh / And you are on dry land.” Dylan’s vocals are soft, punctuated by anguished “ohs”, and he endows the narrator with a genuine sense of loss. In 1966 it was a boy standing in the rain, eager to walk away armed with only his youth and his possibilities and the lover he thought to be a woman proves to be as young as her age. A man who is staring his romantic failure directly in the eyes sings “You’re a Big Girl Now” though, and unlike his 1966 counterpart he is consumed with the reality of what he is actually losing. He sings to her through tears “with a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew through my heart” and the lover remains steady, secure and he falls apart.

This weariness of age versus the vitality of youth is evident not only in the dissolution of relationships, but also in the midst and remembrance of them as well. In “Lay Lady Lay” from 1969, the young narrator blithely encourages his lover to “lay across my big brass bed / Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile.” The lyrics indicate an affair that is finite, but the casual delivery of the vocals belies the belief that any end to it is in sight. The older, more world-weary singer on Blood on the Tracks has trouble even accepting that he has achieved an actual loving relationship in the first place.

“I’ve seen love go by my door / It’s never been this close before,” Dylan emotes in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; he then proceeds to recount past romantic failures and concludes, “But there’s no way I can compare / All those scenes to this affair / Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go” and it becomes clear his previous relationships are keeping him from being comfortable in this one, the most loving he’s ever had.

This same depth of love is clear in the album’s ballad of reminiscence, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, a rewriting of sorts of 1963’s “Girl From the North Country”. While both songs ask an intermediary to pass along best wishes to a past lover, only “If You See Her, Say Hello” recounts the relationships end and the narrator’s inability to move on. “And though our separation it pierced me to the heart,” Dylan sings, voice cracking slightly to painful effect, “She still lives inside of me we’ve never been apart.” The lyric, and its vocal delivery, stand in stark contrast to the rather straight recitation of “Girl From the North Country’s” most anguished line, “She once was a true love of mine.”

The feelings themselves may have changed as the years, and Dylan, progressed. However, the sentiment Dylan committed to lyrics of love and love lost are universal. A man fumbling for the words to describe his sadness over breaking up with his wife could use “You’re a Big Girl Now” as source material just as a boy trying to describe why he feels the need to leave his girlfriend could cite “Just Like a Woman” because Dylan gave each the voices to do so.

The Voice, the Friend, the Wind and the Storm

One of the most revealing aspects of Blood on the Tracks is the anger and lack of maturity that love can bring out in those that are old enough to know better. Quite often the album seems to adopt the refrain of 1964’s “My Back Pages” as its mantra and despite the extra years of lived life and experiences, the voices Dylan sings in seem younger than those of his past work.

Nowhere is this more evident than in “Idiot Wind”. Eleven years prior to that song’s release, Dylan released “All I Really Want to Do”. Taken at face value, this pop-infused folk song seems a bit slight and naïve: 

“I don’t want to fake you out / Take or shake or forsake you out / I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me / See like me or be like me / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you,” Dylan sings in his best Dust Bowl voice, whooping to falsetto at each refrain and laughing in the middle of the last verse, giving the impression that the entire song is little more than internal rhyme and child’s play.

The sweet naïveté of “All I Really Want to Do” is bludgeoned beneath the childish tantrum of “Idiot Wind”, an ugly portrait of a man who feels betrayed by the woman he loves. The track is magnificently performed, sung with such frantic desperation and spite, that it’s difficult to see the charming child of “All I Really Want to Do” in the midst of the angry man spitting the lyric, “You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” to anybody willing to listen to him unburden himself of such immature vitriol.

“I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,” Dylan cautions in “Wind”, but at the song’s conclusion he sounds anything but free and he certainly isn’t happy.

The two songs present another difference that comes with age, the youthful conception of a romantic ideal that all too frequently grows into a dissatisfying romantic reality. When listening to the songs under the premise that they are being sung by the same narrator, a listener can use a direct line from “My Back Pages” to describe the relationship between the two: “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” 

The naïve notion of not wanting to “block you up / shock or knock or lock you up” and simply be friends with a woman is immature and certainly sung from the viewpoint of somebody with very little relationship experience. However, it’s far more mature than the experienced man who verbally undresses a woman simply because they won’t be lovers for that much longer. Once again, Dylan manages to express the feelings of an experienced man who has no words of his own because for all of his experience, he hasn’t quite experienced this yet.

In a world of romantic idealism, the boy who just wants to be friends would mature into the narrator of “Shelter from the Storm”, a beautifully poignant ballad about romantic dependency that finds a young man that doesn’t try to change the woman he loves, but he has little need to because the woman he loves is a paragon of maternalism intent on protecting him at every turn until, having been taken for granted one time too many, she begins to pull away. The song contains sadness and loss, but is completely devoid of anger. There is just a sense of longing for what was and what should still be. “If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born / ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm,’” Dylan sings in a beautifully honest vocal.

The fact that “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm” appear on the same album is proof that this isn’t a romantically ideal world. It is also further proof of Dylan’s power as a lyricist. He pens the thoughts of an angry man kicking and screaming his way to the end of a relationship he can’t wait to get out of. He writes the thoughts of a sad man who realizes he’s lost his most loving relationship due to his own actions. He then sequences them a mere five tracks apart leaving the listener to wonder if they are thoughts of the same relationship.

The Voice, the Twist, the Tangle and the Blue

Blood on the Tracks was more than a study of love and loss, or a study of romantic idealism aging to a stark reality; it was also a study of resignation and confusion.

“You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy,” Dylan sang in 1963’s “Masters of War”, a prototypical Bob Dylan narrator, a brash young singer who would never simply let life happen to him because he was too busy happening to life. The world the warmongers were destroying belonged to him, after all. With the stakes so high there simply wasn’t time to be passive. The man singing “Masters of War” would never wait for a “Simple Twist of Fate”.

The ‘60s had much more to offer than romantic, or even political idealism; the youth movement had a definite sense of movement. Like the youth of any era, they weren’t always certain what they were fighting for, but they were certain they should be fighting for something, doing something, moving forward as part of a progression. So even if their lives proved to be complete shams, and they lost everything and felt “like a complete unknown” they still felt “like a rolling stone”. The doll that was bound to fall in 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone” still moved on.

By 1975 many, Dylan included, had married and begun to raise families. This one simple fact changes the fights that a person is willing fight on a daily basis. The 19-year-old of “Masters of War” will sing “And I hope that you die / And your death will come soon” and he will watch the masters of war be lowered into the ground so he knows they are actually dead. The 31-year-old, however, feels “the heat of the night hit him like a freight train / Moving with a simple twist of fate.”

“Simple Twist of Fate” is perhaps the saddest song Blood on the Tracks has to offer because it is a portrait of inaction sung, more beautifully than Dylan ever seems to get credit for, by a man that had come to signify action. It is a song entirely told in past tense and the tense seems to make it all the more passive.

“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, is an amazing, rollicking heist as relationship metaphor masterpiece. The story, also told in past tense, finds virtually everybody in a small western town waiting on the elusive bank robber the Jack of Hearts. There is action in the song to be sure, but any action taken is in response to or anticipation of the Jack himself, a character who remains little more than metaphor. By the song’s end, Rosemary is on the gallows being hanged for killing Big Jim because she wanted a life with the Jack of Hearts. The up-tempo forward movement in the song belies the backward movement of its characters.

The characters in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, with the exception of Jack himself, are discontented, but they aren’t the discontented youths of 1965; when they find themselves in unbearable situations they are unable to roll, “like a rolling stone”, into new ones. They are victims of the confusing nature of reality, who make the wrong choices and get trapped in even worse ones.

Finally, resignation rears its head again in Blood on the Tracks’ opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue”. However the narrator (or narrators since the song can be seen to have more than one) is neither the passive figure of “Simple Twist of Fate” helpless to take action nor the passive until desperate characters of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” who take detrimental action.

The voice of “Tangled Up in Blue” is the voice of a man that has been through a lot but is still able to be hopeful. The vocal, one of Dylan’s best ever, simply sung with a complete absence of artifice, tells of a woman or several women, that the narrator has loved. The narrator is alone and he is sad, the blue-eyed innocence of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” has abandoned the singer and he’s now “Tangled Up in Blue”. However, he remembers how it feels to be “like a rolling stone” and he decides to” … “keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew”. He seems resigned to wait for the next love that comes his way but seems certain this next love will find him elsewhere.

The Voice, the Cliché and the Truth

Bob Dylan is not the voice of a generation. He is much more than that.

He is the voice of his generation, at every point of his generation’s timeline. He gave voice to rebellious youth, and young love. As he and his listener’s aged, he gave them Blood on the Tracks, a masterpiece of the love, lost idealism and resignation, an album that served as a guarantee that Bob Dylan would always, in spite of himself, give voice to the emotions his generation couldn’t quite put into words.

Blood on the Tracks, and its spare soundscape detailing the dissolution of a once healthy relationship, made Bob Dylan pop culture’s universal contemporary bard. Time would prove that Blood on the Tracks not only served to give a voice to Dylan’s generation, but all of those that have followed thus far.

Bob Dylan is not the voice of a generation. Bob Dylan is the voice of generations.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/124627-bob-dylan-the-voice/