Bob Dylan Mural, Minneapolis
Dylan mural in Minneapolis by Eduardo Kobra | Photo: Sharon Mollerus (cropped) via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0

Bob Dylan’s Art Is Best Served Naked

As Bob Dylan learned, only through baring of one’s soul does one show the way forward, providing both a glimpse into the other and perhaps the shape of things to come.

Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, fully transformed from a Jewish middle-class Midwesterner to a folk legend, the likes of his hero, depression-era balladeer Woody Guthrie. Well, at least in his own mind. If he had not, in truth, spent his youth riding the rails and singing his tales in worker’s camps and railyards before he stepped onto Manhattan Island, he had at least convincingly adopted the persona of one who had.

Having stirred the waters of the Washington Square fountain, he soon graduated from the cultural laboratory that was Greenwich Village at the time, and his creative path outgrew the limitations of folk revivalism. His eventual departure from the Greenwich scene spelled the beginning of the folk revival’s slow demise, at least as the purest understood the movement. After four years of performing, three studio albums, and plenty of songwriting credits, the darling of the Newport Festival was ready to take his game to a whole new level. When Dylan’s songwriting, no longer in service to the folk or protest movement, began to tap his individual soul – here’s who I am, what I’m thinking and feeling at this very moment – that is when he began to connect at a sublime level with his audience.

The cataclysmic impact of his creative path along the road less traveled reverberated across the waters. Upon hearing Dylan’s dramatic evolution with his fourth album released in 1964 and aptly titled Another Side of Bob Dylan, the Beatles immediately shifted from writing idylls of popular songs like “Eight Days a Week” and instead turned inward and started talking about what was really going on in their lives. Their next album, Help released in July 1965, featured a title track that spoke directly of John Lennon’s personal anguish over the mania he and the band had created: “help me get my feet back on the ground. Help meee!!

Thanks to Dylan, the cocky one of the bunch now had license to show his weaker side with all its inner turmoil, and Lennon had plenty to impart, as we would later learn. Lennon recounted what drove him to write the song years later: “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out for help.” By bringing his subconscious to the forefront, he was finally making art through engagement in a purer, unvarnished form of self-expression. With Dylan’s nudge, the Beatles soon understood that cathartic release through songwriting could be liberating and that it could make fine art and still sell records at that. 

The musical revolution that Dylan led in the mid-’60s had its roots in the Beat culture of the ’50s and its principles of free expression. However, Its first stirrings date back to New York City during World War II. The Beat Movement would first emerge from the random meetings of several young college-age men who fancied themselves writers: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, James Burroughs, and the lesser-known Lucien Carr. The throughline that emerged in their collective thinking was captured in the main tenant of Carr’s early manifesto entitled “New Vision”. He wrote it in reference to literature, which was the lifeblood of these young Turks, but his thesis spoke to creativity in general, positing that the seed for all such endeavors is “naked self-expression”: free form, raw, unfiltered, and above all, authentic. They were tender-aged literary scholars who were already inclined to throw off the shackles of convention and issue a clarion call for true creative expression. They’d been drawn to the early iconoclasts such as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce

Joyce, in particular, with his stream-of-consciousness reinvention of the literary form exemplified by his magnum opus Ulysses, paved the way for Kerouac’s version of spontaneous literary combustion. For years, Kerouac had a novel about traveling America’s byways kicking around in his head and on his typewriter. He finally hit pay dirt when he abandoned all self-editing and vomited On the Road in one sitting. According to Beat myth, during an epic three-week bohemian frenzy fueled by coffee and cigarettes, he disgorged the novel onto a continuous 120-foot roll of teletype paper to further the literary effect of what amounted to one long run-on sentence and physically manifest the free-form. With On the Road, never stopping to second guess his first take, he delivered a very candid, real-time assessment of the moment he was living in and, in the process, projected a vision of America onto the psyche of a generation, unrolled like a ribbon of paper highway that ran into the distance with no beginning or end.

Kerouac swore by spontaneity, saying that writing is best when captured from the “undisturbed flow from the mind” or “the intuitive response to the inner voice”. The writer’s purpose, according to Kerouac, should be to “sketch the flow that already exists intact in the mind.”  Refusing to revise or edit and thus eschewing the writing craft of his time, Kerouac told the Paris Review that he could give his reader “the actual workings of the mind during the writing itself” wherein “you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way”. With his one free-flowing masterpiece, On the Road, he literally felt his country onto the paper.

If Kerouac sought to write without pre-thought, his co-conspirator Ginsberg spoke in the same dialect. He credited Kerouac as his greatest influence and took personal exposure to great heights with his new free-form poetry, stepping on the stage Walt Whitman had set a century before. Abandoning all conventions of poetry, his works appeared more like the ramblings of a madman than a man of letters. To help ensure his expressions through Beat Poetry were viscerally revealing enough, he was known to disrobe on stage to make his point. 

The lessons of spontaneous, unguarded creativity were not confined to the American literary world of the ’50s. Jazz, of course, and especially Bebop which emerged in the same post-war era, with its exploration of musical truth through unhinged improvisation, had given the Beats their name as purveyors of words that had a similar rhythmic power and energy. During this iconoclastic epoch, the visual arts world was also getting the word on stripping down the creative process.

In the ’40s, a group of highly unsuccessful painters occupied studios in the same neighborhood where Dylan would eventually land near Washington Square in Manhattan. They had joined their meager forces in alignment against the conventions of representational art (i.e., paintings that actually looked like their subject matter). The members of this New York School of painting, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others were eventually labeled abstract expressionists. Their work became well accepted by the mid-’50s, putting America at the center of the art world in the process. However, it was the earlier European surrealist painters, war exiles living in New York, who first taught the members of the New York School a technique known as psychic automatism, a sort of free association doodling in which the artist “let their impulses lead the way”, thus unlocking “the creative force within them.”

By painting non-representationally, the abstract painter gave a less superficial version of the truth of their subject and, in doing so, delivered a more authentic message on canvas. Speaking through a medium that flowed directly from the painter’s subconscious without contrivance to effect any recognizable image resulted in art that more deeply resonated with their audience. Art historian Jack Flam described this new breed as painters who “sought another truth”, less obvious and one based on “deeper values, a grander and nobler sense of reality”. “The artist, rather than being a skilled craftsman, is someone who instead is inspired, a kind of seer.” Attempting to address both the initial discomfort along with the ultimate intuitive acceptance of a wider audience than the New York avant-garde painters ever expected, Flam explained, “even though we don’t necessarily know the language (of the) abstract painting… when we see it we recognize it and we understand its authenticity.”

Motherwell described a creative impasse, a “painters block”, at the zenith of his career in 1965, the year he was honored with his own show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In desperation, he described resorting once again to the original surrealist’s method, where he painted “without a priori judgment”. Motherwell reasoned, “why not just make a stack of things…make it as a rule of the game that I don’t judge them, change them and I just go on and on.” After he had made several hundred images on canvas in one afternoon, he realized he had in the process broken through his creative block. The fact that he performed the feat while painting naked is telling.

The dramatic arts were not left untouched by the beat tenants of authenticity channeled through unbridled free-form emotion. Genuine feelings freely expressed and not skillfully conjured were at the heart of “method acting” taught at The Actor’s Studio of Lee Strasberg, also established in mid-century Manhattan. Here, the devotees of Strasberg’s “on the edge” new style for the live stage were the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Learning to not merely act, but instead to live a role in the moment, this new breed of actor would provide a more instinctive performance to more effectively convey the truth of the character and the message of the play.

Authenticity by means of the raw and revealing seems to apply to the arts and nearly all forms of human expression. In the case of simple oratory, eloquence is best served when a speech is not too prepared. Any lawyer, politician, or preacher will tell you that the extemporaneous speaker is always more compelling to an audience. People are naturally more engaged with words derived in the moment as opposed to being read from a manuscript or, worse yet, memorized. The listener leans forward in focused anticipation upon the realization that these are impulsive words. As such, they run a greater risk of being less circumspect or safe in their delivery, and thus more honest, which compels the listener to hang on to such utterances.

The search for something more honest and resonating was what attracted the generation that came of age as the rest of post-war America grew enamored with all things “plastic”, as in false, thin, disingenuous, and consequently, less satisfying on a human level. This is what originally brought Dylan to Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the folk revival. While still a young man ensconced in the Midwest, he’d been blessed to have stumbled across one of the Anthology Collections of obscure early Americana recordings and quickly switched his focus from rock ‘n’ roll to roots music recorded in the ’20s. Like many of his contemporaries, he realized it was a more compelling genre and it became a crucible for the musical reinvention of the 1960s.

Folk, including blues and country, caught on with this generation because it seemed the furthest thing from the music-as-commodity traditions of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, or The Hit Parade. It was instead the stuff of ordinary folks: dirt poor troubadours speaking directly from their inner being. In a world of mass-produced popular hits, the more thoughtful listener was relieved to find the nearly lost world of rural song. It featured the raw unpolished voice of the worker in the field or the itinerant on the street, singing to nobody and expecting nothing in return for their heartfelt and candid compositions. In all its idioms, American Folk had its roots in truth, bare and unmanufactured. Because it was sentiment sung straight from the ragged frames of the downtrodden without any inclination for commercial sale it naturally shared the methods of future artists who intentionally exercised unfettered creativity to better arrive at truth and value in their works.

Ironically, what most attracted the free thinkers of a generation to American folk is what Dylan may have had in mind when he abandoned the genre to pursue songcraft that was more personally authentic. Dylan moved on from folk perhaps because, unlike most of his contemporary devotees, he realized the folly of covering songs originated by other souls in starkly personal authenticity decades prior: what’s to be gained by trying to find one’s voice by reciting what someone else sang when they found their own? Dylan likely saw the flaw in that path, realizing that one needs to sit on their own porch and sing of their own moment to find their true voice, hoping to tap into the greater truth of it all.

If Dylan, upon finding his true voice, had become a receiver of a generational message, the role he assumed had ancient roots. In past civilizations, such messengers were referred to as prophet, seer, oracle, or shaman. Some were often described as practicing their divination in a trance state. The oracle of Delphi from ancient Greece was said to speak prophecies while under the possession of the god Apollo. They were described as imparting truth during episodes of intense excitement through inspiration, a state the Greeks termed enthusiasmus. Some accounts describe their prophecies as being delivered in a frenzied state as gibberish which priests had to then interpret for the lesser mortals.

Parallels can be drawn between this ancient phenomenon and the daunting newness posed by mid-century American creativity: the “gibberish” if you will, of Dylan’s tirades, Kerouac’s ramblings, or Pollack’s canvas drippings. The traditional role of the priests fell to the critics of the time who had to explain the meaning and significance of these works to the intrigued masses. While difficult to discern the exact message, these expressions were nevertheless deemed credible and influential in their time because they appeared to be fresh deliveries from the other side

Dylan’s recollections during a 1966 interview as to the source of his masterpiece from that pinnacle period sound a lot like Kerouac’s modus operandi: “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit twenty pages long and out of it I took Like a Rolling Stone and made it as a single. And I’ve never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that that is what I should do. Nobody had ever done that before. … I’m not saying it’s better than anything else, I’m saying that I think Like a Rolling Stone is definitely the thing which I do.”

Serving as a human channel to the truth source may also mean not knowing exactly what you’ve created or its significance. Motherwell acknowledged this phenomenon from the beginning of the abstract expressionist movement before he and his peers became internationally celebrated. He recalls being asked by his friend and fellow painter, William Baziotes, at the launch of the latter’s first gallery showing whether his paintings were even worthy of being publically shown. Motherwell admitted he could not at that point attest to the worthiness of their artistic pursuits.

Dylan was repeatedly asked by the press and others during his height to explain himself and his musical musings. The oracle in Ray-Bans adroitly dodged and obfuscated his way through those early interviews perhaps because he knew he had reached a level of expression that could not be explained, only experienced. In an interview later in life he was asked to explain how he composed some of his most enigmatic early material. He answered simply, “I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written…it’s a different kind of penetrating magic…” You can see from the interview, as he genuinely struggles to answer, that he too has asked the same question of himself and received no satisfactory answer other than that the source was perhaps not his own.

Serving in a visionary capacity can be both effortless and taxing, seemingly at the same time. When poised to receive from the “universal wellspring”, as Dylan later described in understated terms, the source of his remarkable outpouring, an artist’s work may seem to pour forth without struggle. How often have creatives been asked to explain their process at arriving at some masterwork, only to describe something along the lines of, “it just came to me all at once” or “it seemed to write itself in a matter of minutes”.

While it may seem effortless as you tap into the wellspring you’re well positioned to receive, doing so for an extended period also comes with grave risks. Maintaining an unfettered line to the white-hot flame of pure original truth can wear a body and soul down to that of a spent husk in little time. Having survived his zenith while a few of his peers did not, Dylan ultimately retreated to a hermitage in upstate New York to hide from it all. Once anchored in rural obscurity, he waved The Sixties goodbye and licked the wounds that came from serving as an overloaded circuit of musical messaging and enduring the madding crowd that had circled his flame.

Despite the risks, in the end, if art is the search for truth and meaning then the creative past tells us that exposing oneself is not only a necessary peril but the very key to the pursuit. Only through an unregulated baring of one’s soul by means of individual expression does one show the way forward, providing both a glimpse into the other and perhaps the shape of things to come. Speak directly from your soul and you naturally reveal and convey the larger soul of humanity.

Art and its aims are best served naked then, unadorned with preconception, formula, or even form. There is no apparent way to make that sublime connection if you are not ready to uncover yourself on a truly intimate level and put it all on the line. If you are to enter the creative arena, do so in self-revealing vulnerably, without cloak, mask, or artifice so as not to obstruct the free flow of the channel that connects the artist to the primary fountainhead of creative energy. Expect great doubt and self-loathing to follow as you unveil both you and your message. Be prepared to lose control of your art in that you may not yourself understand what you’re contributing beyond what you can intuit as honest and unfiltered.

The history of this pursuit supports the notion that the greater the risk, the greater the return. If what you are laying bare for all to see does not give you some pause as you are about to hit “send”, it’s probably not worth it. 

Works Cited

Bradley, Ed. Bob Dylan FULL 60 Minutes Ed Bradley 2004 Interview. YouTube.

Bronstein, Martin. Audio: Bob Dylan Interviewed By Martin Bronstein 1966. YouTube

Farnell, Lewis. The Cults of the Greek States, vol. IV. 1907.

Homberger, Eric. “Lucien Carr: Fallen Angel of the Beat Poets”. The Guardian. 8 February 2005.

Kerouac, Jack. “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. Black Mountain Review. 1957.

Plimpton, George, ed. Beat Writers at Work: The Paris Review. Modern Library. 1999.

Sheff, David. “Playboy Interview: John Lennon and Yoko Ono”. Playboy. 1 January 1981.

Tatge, Catherine. “Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the Citadel”. American Masters. 1991.

Tytell, John. Naked Angles: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. Grove Press. 1976.