Bob Dylan the European

Decoding Dylan
Jim Curtis
Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan
19 June 2020

On 14 June The New York Times published Douglas Brinkley’s long important interview with Bob Dylan on the occasion of the release of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways, and every Dylan fan will want to read it. There’s an odd thing about the interview, though. Although Brinkley is a thoughtful, well-informed interviewer, he experiences a certain cognitive dissonance when talking to Dylan.

For example, Brinkley asks Dylan, “Do you think about mortality often?” and Dylan answers, “I think about the death of the human race…I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.” When Brinkley asks him if he thinks living in Malibu near the ocean is a kind of cure for Covid-19, Dylan thinks of songs about water, like “Many Rivers to Cross”. In these and other cases, Brinkley and Dylan are—with the best intentions in the world—talking at cross purposes. What’s going on here?

What is going on is that for all his love of rock ‘n’ roll, and of American vernacular music in its many forms, Dylan has a deeply European sensibility, and Brinkley does not. More specifically, Dylan’s spiritual kinship leaps over a generation. It goes back, not to his father Abraham Zimmerman, with whom he had a conflicted relationship, but to his grandfather, Zygman Zimmerman, who was born in Odessa in 1875. What it comes to is that Dylan’s true affinities are with the artists of Zygman Zimmerman’s generation – -artists such as Pablo Picasso, born in 1881, T.S. Eliot, born in 1888, and Osip Mandelstam, who is generally regarded as the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, and who was born in 1891.

These are not exactly names that people who love rock ‘n’ roll think about very much (if at all) , so it often seems as though Dylan is speaking in code. The title of his now legendary 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, for example, is in code. The “It All” is European modernist art, which he is bringing back home. That is to say, he says that he’s doing what American artists have been doing for a long time; namely, studying European art and then adapting it to suit the taste of American audiences.


fire by google104 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

I argue in my book Decoding Dylan that modernist art, and modernist artists, hold the key that cracks the code of Dylan’s mysterious thought processes. The Brinkley interview gives us more mysterious statements to work with.

A good place to start decoding Dylan is his 2004 memoir Chronicles, which any true fan has read. In Chronicles Dylan makes some shocking revelations, but none more shocking than when he says that his response to the Sixties, for which he was supposedly the spokesman, was to go to the New York Public Library and read Civil War-era newspapers. “Back there America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.” Huh?

What this means—what it must mean—is that for Dylan the 1960s and the civil rights movement were really the 1860s and the Civil War all over again. For him the hundred years that had passed between the 1860s and the 1960s made no difference at all. This is a profound truth about his life, and anyone who cares about him and his music will respect it. What this means is that Dylan doesn’t have a linear, one-thing-comes-after- another sensibility at all. He has an integrative sensibility, one that denies historical chronology in order to bring together the past and the present, art and experience, into a single integrated awareness.

Mandelstam, with whom Dylan shares a certain Talmudic verbal sensibility, begins a famous poem with the defiant assertion: “No, I have never been anyone’s contemporary.” Mortals like you and me live fully invested in our time; geniuses like Dylan and Mandelstam live only partly in their time. Their creative sensibilities reach beyond the here and now to partake of, and participate in, various time periods.

Another modernist poet is relevant here. Unlike most of his fans, Dylan has studied T.S. Eliot intensively, and he has what Eliot called “the historical sense” in his well-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” Very few poets have ever perceived the presence of the past as intensely as Mandelstam, Eliot, and Dylan.


Bob Dylan / Street Art (Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay)

In the Brinkley interview Dylan expresses his perception of the presence of the past in a comment about “Murder Most Foul”. You and I might think that the song is about something that happened in the past, namely the assassination of President Kennedy. Dylan doesn’t think about it like that at all. He says of the song, “It speaks to me in the moment.” We can decode that statement by supposing that what Dylan means is that he thinks of 1963 and 2020 as part of a single historical continuum, in which 1963 participates in, and is not separate from, 2020.

By this reasoning, the death of President Kennedy in 1963 implies the death of American democracy in 2020. Once again Eliot is relevant. Like Dylan, he denied that one time period follows another. In his poem “East Coker”, in “Four Quartets,” he wrote, “In my end is my beginning”.

Although Dylan mentions various celebrities such as Betty Davis and Casanova in “Desolation Row”, he has never written a song in which he names as many artists as he does in “Murder Most Foul”. This is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, so he’s not just giving us a list of artists he likes. Rather, what he’s doing is evoking an era through its artists (which is the way he thinks about history in general) in order to suggest that the era that began with the bright hopes of the Kennedy era of the early ’60s (when Dylan himself was young and feeling his oats in New York) is coming to an end.

Since Dylan doesn’t really belong in any single time period, he has what might be called an attenuated sense of himself. I cited above his statement that he thinks about mortality “in general terms, not in a personal way.” This statement is consistent with one of Eliot’s statements about poetry. Poetry, he wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

By “emotion”, what Eliot means is the purely personal, and therefore limited, feeling. What is purely personal is necessarily limited in time and space, and Dylan is all about transcending the limitations of time and space. Indeed, I argue in Decoding Dylan that transcending limitations is the predominant theme of his whole career.

In other interviews Brinkley has talked about art with Dylan, who has made thoughtful comments about artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Although here Brinkley mentions Dylan’s song “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, he doesn’t follow up the topic of painting in Dylan’s life, such as his extensive experience as a painter (he has had numerous exhibits of his work in Europe) and his extensive knowledge of art history. Moreover, painting connects Dylan to the most important artist in his life, someone who served as a mentor and role model, Pablo Picasso. Picasso is the only artist of whom Dylan has ever said, “I wanted to be like him.” (Chronicles, p. 55)

It is Picasso that Dylan is thinking of when he says in response to Brinkley’s question about “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: “I think this song has to do with the classical world…Something that is so important and first-rate that you could never come back down from the mountain.” For Dylan there’s really only one masterpiece like that, and that’s Picasso’s hugely important and influential painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In her invaluable memoir A Freewheelin’ Time, Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s first girlfriend in New York, tells the story of taking her obviously gifted but still culturally unsophisticated boyfriend to see that painting at the Museum of Modern Art. It became, and has remained, Dylan’s idea of a masterpiece.

Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in his mid-20s, about the same age Dylan was at when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”. (This is one of the numerous similarities in their careers.) It is only a slight exaggeration to say that “Like a Rolling Stone” is to rock ‘n’ roll what Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is to art history. Picasso thought of himself as competing with other painters, such as Paul Cézanne, and in “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, Dylan is among other things (a Dylan song is hardly ever about just one thing) thinking of competing with Picasso.

Dylan’s new song, “I Contain Multitudes” surely refers to his refusal to be limited to any single time period. Although the title is a quotation from Walt Whitman, Dylan’s comment about it has a coded reference to Picasso: “The song is like a painting. You can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close.” What he’s thinking of here is the work from Picasso’s Cubist period, in which he depicted all the sides of a three-dimension object on a two-dimensional canvas. You can’t see all of the object if you stand close, but if you stand back from Picasso’s Cubist paintings, you can in fact take in the whole object at a glance. This is the case with the multiple planes in Picasso’s Ma Jolie from 1911, for example.

Dylan is also taken with Picasso’s portraits such as his Portrait of Dora Maar from 1937. This drawing shows the subject with both eyes on the same side of her face, thereby enabling the viewer to see both her eyes at once from any angle. Dylan so identified with the way Picasso used his artistic freedom in portraits such as this one that he included the line “I had to rearrange their faces” in “Desolation Row”.

Although Picasso was a Spanish painter, and Mandelstam was a Russian poet, they had similar experiences in creating their works. There is an uncanny similarity between what they say about their creative processes and what Dylan says about his. Let’s start with Dylan.

In connection with the song about John Lennon, “Roll on John” from Tempest, Brinkley asks, “Is there another person you’d like to write a ballad for?” He thereby shows a common misunderstanding of how Dylan creates. People who aren’t intuitive artists tend to think that Dylan writes a song with a clear intention, the way you and I would write an email. But—to repeat–Dylan is not like you and me, and he doesn’t think like we do. With varying degrees of patience, he’s been telling people that in interviews for over 50 years.

Here’s his response to Brinkley: “None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.” Or, with regard to his “I Contain Multitudes” he gives this method of composition a name: “‘I Contain Multitudes’ is more like trance writing. Well, it’s not more like trance writing. It is trance writing.”

Although Dylan is a genius, he’s not the first genius in the history of Western civilization, and what he says here shows his affinities with some other extraordinary creative talents. Take Mozart, for example. Although David P. Schroeder says in “Mozart’s Compositional Profess and Compositional Creativity” Mozaart did not compose as effortlessly as people originally thought, it appears that he too did something very much like trance writing, or trance composition. Everyone agrees that he had a prodigious talent for improvisation at the piano keyboard, and that when given a musical idea, he would improvise fugally on a subject for hours. That certainly sounds as though he was playing in a trance state.

If Mozart played the piano in a trance state, Picasso painted in a trance state. We know that because of an anecdote that Francoise Gilot recounts in her fascinating book Life with Picasso. She says that she was astonished at his ability to paint for hours without getting tired. When she asked him about this, he said that painting was an out of body experience for him. He told her, “I leave my body at the door of the studio, the way Muslims leave their shoes at the door of the mosque.”

But perhaps it is Mandelstam whose experience of composition comes closest to what Dylan is referring to here. We have it on the reliable authority of his wife Nadezhda that his methods of composition had nothing to do with pen and paper.

In her memoir Hope Against Hope, she says that he would hear a buzzing in his ear, and when he concentrated on that, a line of poetry would come to him. He would repeat this process again and again until the buzzing stopped, which is how he knew that the poem was complete.

As is the case with Dylan, Mandelstam’s intentions had nothing to do with it. He never understood where his poems came from, any more than Dylan understands where his songs come from. What it comes to is that Mozart and Picasso and Mandelstam were, and Dylan is, connected to something that you and I are not connected to. Dylan says that his songs “drop down out of the sky”, so maybe the way to say it is that he is connected to the sky.

I offer a final thought. There is much of interest in this interview, and every Dylan fan will feel grateful to Brinkley for arranging it, and to Dylan for speaking so openly about his work. Dylan is nearly 80 now, and we may not have many more songs from him, or interviews with him. He may soon be seeking shelter from the storms of songs that drop down onto him from sky.

* * *

Works Cited

Brinkley, Douglas. “Still Painting His Masterpieces“. The New York Times. 14 June 2020.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2004.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. Dover Publications, Inc. 1998. (27-33).
———- “East Coker”. The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace and World. 1971

Gilot, Francoise. Life with Picasso. McGraw-Hill. 1964.

Mandelstam, Osip. “No, I have never been anyone’s contemporary” (“Net, ya nikogda ne byl nichey sovremennik”) Stikhotvoreniya. Eksmo. 2006. (The referenced poem is performed here by Bill Minor.)

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope. Modern Library. 1999

Rotolo, Suze. A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. (New York: Broadway Books, 2009)
and of course, citations within text as noted, above.

Schroder, David P. “Mozart’s Compositional Processes and Creative Complexity“. Accessed from Dalhousie University Library.



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