There is a time and place for everything, people say. Bob Dylan proves otherwise. A known unknown, the man is beholden to no calendar, no clock. Though his music flows through our culture, he seldom dallies near the mainstream. ‘Tis witch-hunting season, yet the pitchforks and Twitterati torches have passed him by. In a world full of eyes, he moves unseen; a part and apart of culture—a myth, a folk laureate, on the outskirts of town.
Dylan, however got himself noticed. A 2001 photograph of a musician, dressed in black, under the shade of a ten-gallon hat, caught traction online. The caption simply reads: “Bob Dylan reading Baseball Weekly in an empty convenience store. It means nothing. It means everything.”
Dylan as Dylan. Individualism incarnate. That was enough to capture the imagination of thousands. The man is not of this time, not of time at all. He disappears a lot.
“He is a singer worthy of a place beside the Greeks’ aoidoi,” announced Horace Engdahl at the 2016 Nobel ceremony, “beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the Blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.” True to form, the man of the hour was nowhere to be seen.
Dylan has never had much time for place, nor a place for time. The deep pools of the antiquity and the rushes of the fleeting now were always the greater draw; far greater than the exigencies of yesterday or the contingencies of tomorrow.
In his essay “Grizzled Minstrels of Angst”, Todd Gitlin underlines a certain atemporal streak that cuts through the heart of both Dylan and Leonard Cohen, a fellow traveller: “These guys were already more than a little old—perhaps the more precise word is venerable—when they were young, defying any conventional contrast between their past and present selves.” That Dylan would become a temporal turncoat ought to come as no surprise.
It was late in the summer of 1962 that the story of Dylan sprang from—or rather was sprung by—the young and fervid mind of Robert Zimmerman. As we come to the crest of 2019, the pages keep a-turning. “He is part of that classical stream,” writes the classicist Richard F. Thomas, “whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place.”
Since 1988, The Never Ending Tour has ferried the Minnesotan through countless towns, across cities, around the world. To this day, Dylan plays roughly a hundred dates a year. Though, like the Flying Dutchman of lore, the Duluthman never docks.
So writes the belle of Bob Dylan during the creation of 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, Joan Baez. In her vignette, Baez captures an artist against the clock; mechanical and circadian alike. Yet, just as Dylan goes electric, he leaves Guthrie for Ginsberg—volte-face. Paraphrasing Herman Melville the record, like all great poetry, spins against the way it drives. The electric Side One, which begins with the ultramodern “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, slides into an acoustic Side Two, which opens with the folksy “Mr. Tambourine Man”. From every angle, Dylan is a palindrome. One never knows which way his wind is blowing.
According to an article in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, as people age, they tend to use fewer past-oriented words and more words oriented in the present and future. In a linguistic analysis of the Bob Dylan corpus, researchers found a similar trend—in the polar opposite direction. It was within the annals of folklore, after all, that Dylan stumbled upon (quite literally) a proverbial goldmine.
Like the archetype, the aphorism can survive and thrive acontextually—a feature that the Aesop of Minnesota put quickly to work. With lines like “This highway is for gamblers, better use your sense” from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Dylan crafted standalone, manoeuvrable lyrics; timeless or timely, depending on his whim. Bringing It All Back Home leaves Greenwich for Greece, Mean Time for mythic, with Dylan bending the bar of linearity as he goes.
And defy Dylan did. Right through the 1960s he was at war with temporal orders on multiple fronts. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) were all recorded in the space of 15 months. Most memorable for its off-cue cue-cards and staccato syntax, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” stood and stands as a two-and-a-half-minute mockery of the three-minute single, a philosophical flexing of the 70 LP disk.
In the cyclic choruses of “Mr. Tambourine Man” —a song whose very locus classicus is “Let me forget about today until tomorrow”—Dylan scuppers the very idea of lyrical accumulatio; of the song as an unfolding, progressive.
Bringing It All Back Home leads the listener through a lyrical labyrinth; a Borges-esque den of morphed morphologies and semantic traps. With his double and sometimes triple negatives—Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’—Dylan points down blind alleys, convolutes the way from A to B. With the jingle and jangle of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a kind of lyrical haiku, Dylan, sending aslant the forward marches of language and time, trivialises the hegemony of morning.
Indeed, the very title of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” forces the audience to double-back; as parenthetical undermines placation, the eye must retrace its steps. The listener, no longer able to merely follow along, must carve out an interpretative pathway of his or her own. It was at this confluence of past and present, where cause and effect are at their loosest, that Dylan found more kindred modes of time; temporalities outside the straight and narrow, the headlong, the one-track.
In the studio and on stage, Dylan taps into the melisma and fermata of live performance. He curates chaos. “In several of the songs,” notes the musicologist Eyolf Østrem, “it is evident that Dylan hasn’t really learnt the chord changes properly before he started recording… it is difficult to find two verses that are played in the same way. There are lots of temporary solutions.”
Indeed, in the lyrics and larynx of Bob Dylan, words take on an individuality, a persona; a quality that reaches back to classical Greece, where metricality was both quantitative and qualitative, typographic and tonal. In Bringing It All Back Home, the verb is a vector—a word with a will of its own.
With flurries of gerunds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” sends us laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ down syntactical accelerandos. In song after song, action is streamlined, stripped-down. Auxiliaries are jettisoned, -g‘s are dropped. The in’ is rampant, the past tense rare. In the heart of every American, wrote John Steinbeck, there exists “a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here.” It is of little surprise, therefore, that go and know are the two verbs Dylan keeps closest at hand.
Moreover, the ubiquity of the a- prosthetic, which is actually a weakened on or in, is far from ornamental. The prefix thrusts verbs into a perpetual state of becoming—or forever being a-going. With these tricks of the tongue, Dylan shoots a velocity—a get up and go—into the very marrow of his music. The man truly is like a rolling stone. He is motion. The only constant is change.
And so, without even his own past for company, the troubadour has kept on keeping on. His sole companion? That burning desire to go. For Dylan, otium—the spiritual withdrawal from public life—has always been more kinetic than aesthetic. Tarmac trumps temple. The road is his retreat.The cowboy angel rides
Sung with an ever-onward momentum, “Gates of Eden” is Odysseyesque. It is also, rather tellingly, the only mono-recorded on the stereo release of Bringing It All Back Home. A lone range for a lone ranger. Dylan is Orpheus inverted; resigned to a fate of a marching onward, but wishing to return.
Richard Thomas, too, sees the Roman in the rockstar: “Ovid’s poems are also powerful in the nostalgia they evoke; a nostalgia for the city he has lost, in reality or in his imagination, nostalgia also for absent friends and family. The Greek root means pain,algos for return home, nostos.” Though for Dylan, home is not a place in time, but a way through time. It is not a noun, but a verb. It is not the Home that matters, nor the It, but the Bringing.
Dylan has been Bringing It All Back Home for decades now. His compass is broken, and we only have the music gods to thank. “Virgil’s works,” Thomas continues, “like Dylan’s song or Seamus Heaney’s poetry, were taught in his own lifetime. That is one sign of genius, a recognition that something unusual is going on, and that the art of today is going to be around for many tomorrows.”
Bob Dylan is going nowhere—and will continue to do so. That is his lot. That is our luck. He was there at the birth of America. He will be there at the funeral. He is somewhere today.
An empty convenience store, perhaps.