In 2008, The Guardian published a series of free booklets called ‘Great Lyricists’. The series featured the following: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Morrissey, Chuck D, Patti Smith and Alex Turner. Each booklet had a foreword by a well-known poet, critic or cultural commentator. In the case of Dylan, it was Greil Marcus who had the task of justifying the songwriter’s inclusion in the series. He chose to focus on the lyrics for Dylan’s song, ‘Visions of Johanna’, which features on the Blonde on Blonde album (1966).
Marcus seems to have chosen that song because it is about the most enigmatic item from within a highly enigmatic body of work. As such, it allows him to speculate about the very nature of interpretation:
As a set of five verses, ‘Visions of Johanna’ makes a narrative solely out of atmosphere. That’s one reason why it read so slowly in 1966, and why it can read so slowly today: why the song as words on a page can silence the song you might carry in your head, and make you say the song yourself. There is a drama taking place here, in this dank room – somehow too big, too much space for too many people, too many shadows, for the person who’s telling the story to get his bearings – even if nothing is happening, or if whatever does happen, whatever events actually push the air aside and mark a moment in time the narrator can actually remember, are not really events at all.
This is what happens here: ‘We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight.’ Someone says, ‘Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.’ A woman opens her fist to show the drugs she has and dares anyone to say no. ‘The country music station plays soft.’ And yet the peculiar contours of the fable that is being related immediately make sense. The words seem to meet each other in perfect balance and separate with a sense of having said everything there is to say.– Greil Marcus
What Marcus is implying is that, just as the lines of any great poem have seemingly infinite resonance and are endlessly intriguing, so we should be open to such possibilities when listening to the lines of a popular song lyric – or rather, should be open in the case of a master such as Dylan. You don’t know what he is singing about? Then listen again … and again. We may read poetry silently on the page (though it is probably better read out loud), but with song lyrics, we are forced to attend to the actual performance – an event that makes its own demands. It is not Dylan’s fault that we seem to have lost the knack.
With poetry having left rhyme behind in the 19th century, rhyming couplets are now almost impossible for the modern eye to scan; here the gravity of the words, the dread in the synapses (‘But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off’), erases all awareness that a line that ends with face is followed by one that ends in place. It’s a locked-room mystery and you’re in the room. As you read, you can’t imagine wanting to get out, because you haven’t yet explored every corner or plumbed the darkness for whoever might be lying in it. You haven’t found the skeleton keys the guy on the other side of the room keeps muttering he’s going to play on his harmonica.– Greil Marcus
That last allusion to the song’s lyrics (‘The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain’) allows Marcus to subtly relate the idea that the text of a song acquires new significance in the singer’s performance and its effect on the listener, with the more general principle that interpretation is never done, never complete:
As the room is locked, there is a way that for the reader no less than for the characters in the song – Louise, her lover, little boy lost, the “D” train whores – the walls are made of air. That may be why, over the last months of 1965 and the first months of 1966, Dylan was able to record the song in so many different ways. Always singing solo when he took the song to a crowd, in the studio he always took it to a band: to the Hawks, the bar band he was touring with, the group that, in 1968, would step out on their own as the Band. Here in New York in November the song is almost a honky tonk, with a bouncy rhythm; two months later it rises off the ground like a cloud; not long after in Nashville it’s low-budget film noir, Detour without a road but with the same dead end; double back to New York as the new year breaks and it is a fury, threatening to shatter anyone who gets too close to the sound. Reading the song as it moves across a page, it’s hard to hear any of that. The words make their own rhythms, and their rhythms enforce their own quiet.– Greil Marcus
What Marcus is attempting, in taking just one song as his focus, is to demonstrate that the repeated argument against Dylan in the early part of his career – that his lyrics were wilfully obscure, and probably meaningless – resulted from a failure to understand how the words of a song come alive in performance and reception, a dual process which can never be terminated.
The other songs collected here struggle to escape from the recordings the reader brings to them, and sometimes, for moments, they do, but there’s no reason why they should; they weren’t made to live a life outside of music. Who knows what life ‘Visions of Johanna’ was meant to lead when it was written? The answer is to a different question: this is a song with countless lives, most of them as yet unlived.– Greil Marcus
Marcus is, along with Michael Gray, Wilfrid Mellers, and Christopher Ricks, one of the most celebrated commentators on Dylan’s work. His classic study, Invisible Republic (1997), concentrates on the legendary ‘Basement Tapes’; but as always with Marcus, the range of cultural and historical references is impressive. It is typical of his allusive approach to Dylan that when – much earlier, in 1969 – he felt moved to respond to the argument of the reductive ‘Dylanologist’, A. J. Weberman, that the lyrics should always be taken to refer to something specific in the songwriter’s experience, he felt moved to invoke the work of the great English poet, William Blake. The specific poem is ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). It might be worth looking at the original engraving. Marcus muses as follows:
Poetry, music, songs, stories, are all part of that realm of creation that deepens our lives and can endow our lives with a special kind of grace, tension, perhaps with beauty and splendour. Meaning has many levels … Take these lines from ‘London’ by William Blake:
But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
Now what that ‘means’, it was once explained to me, is that a prostitute got syphilis, gave birth to a deformed child, the father of which also died of the disease. … That can all be confirmed by balancing and referring the images in the verse – but is it necessary to grasp that in order to feel the weight and power of Blake’s vision of London? Blake’s words transcend the situation about which he’s writing.
One will never ‘understand’ [Dylan’s] ‘Just Like A Woman’ by proving, logically, that it is about transvestites or Britain (Queen Mary and the fog) even if, by some chance, the song really is ‘about’ such things.– Greil Marcus / William Blake
As for Blake, so for Dylan: we must not reduce their genius to the level of banal explication. It is worth noting that 30 years later, Gray would elaborate on Marcus’ point by demonstrating the imaginative empathy which that songwriter has with that poet:
[C]ompare those lines of Blake’s on London with these of Dylan [from the song ‘Dirge’] on New York: ‘I went out on Lower Broadway / And I felt that place within / That hollow place where martyrs weep / And angels play with sin.’– Michael Gray
That is an intriguing comparison that definitely does justice to both poem and song, from a critic who has done more than anyone to help us appreciate Dylan’s genius.
So far, so good. However, the inclusion of Dylan in a series of ‘Great Lyricists’ didn’t meet with universal approval. In June 2008, the critic Germaine Greer’s weekly Guardian column appeared under the following provocative headline: ‘Why do people think Bob Dylan was a great lyricist? That creep couldn’t even write doggerel.’ She comes out fighting.
Great lyricists? Bah! Humbug! In the 1960s and 70s, I battled students who wanted me to teach Bob Dylan rather than Donne or Yeats. Ever since, I have had screeds of stuff sent to me by people who thought that rhyme equalled reason, to whom I had gently to explain that their agonised posturings wouldn’t pass for poetry.
I blame Dylan. In my eyes, he wasn’t fit to tie Woody Guthrie’s shoelaces. I have never forgiven him for keeping his fans waiting at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 for three hours, from 9 o’clock till midnight, before he would sing a word. Creeps sometimes make good poets, but Bob Zimmerman isn’t one of them.– Germaine Greer
Allowing for the humorous hyperbole and the outrageously irrelevant anecdote – and I should point out in fairness that most commentators agree that the delayed appearance at the festival was not the singer’s own fault – Greer’s judgement has its uses. By that, I mean that she may serve to illustrate the sort of mess one can get into if one isn’t prepared to listen to lyrics with the kind of awareness that Greil commends. Thus, Greer quotes without further ado one isolated verse from ‘Visions of Johanna’, the one beginning with these lines: ‘And Madonna, she still has not showed / We see this empty cage now corrode / Where her cape of the stage once had flowed …’. She is not impressed:
Fustian of this ilk crosses my desk every week. It’s not verse, not even doggerel. Nor is it prose, because it doesn’t make sense. Its combination of pretentiousness and illiteracy isn’t surprising, which would be something; it’s just annoying.– Germain Greer
Greer, however, has a larger argument to make, which is that the word ‘lyrics’ should be confined to a specific kind of poem – a kind that belongs exclusively to the literary tradition. As for the text of a popular song: the humble word ‘words’ is sufficient for Greer. She offers a brief characterisation of the literary lyric:
Historically, a lyric is a poem in song form, and poets from Wyatt and Surrey to Heaney have been very good at writing them. Many of our best lyrics were written for music, some of them dittied — that is, written to be sung to a pre-existing tune. Others are songs that carry their music within them.– Germain Greer
It is interesting, bearing in mind Marcus’ earlier speculations, that Greer should choose to illustrate this sub-category of lyric with something from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. However, it is unfortunate that she forgets that there is a great deal of evidence that Blake composed many of these lyrics with music in mind: indeed, he is reputed to have sung some of them aloud in the presence of his friends and admirers. But she fails to pursue that possibility, and chooses a short and cryptic poem that is unlikely to have originated in an actual song: ‘The Sick Rose’:
O rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed– William Blake ‘The Sick Rose’
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Greer also refers to, but does not include, the form in which the poem first appeared. It is certainly worth our attention. She comments: ‘The punctuation is from the original engraving. Chances are if you set this song to music you’d get it wrong, because its own internal music would be overlaid by another music that neutralised it.’ She then spells out the rhythm of Blake’s poetic utterance: ‘So the first line goes tum tum ta ta tum (crotchet-crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet), the next ta ta tum ta ta tum, and so on.’ Further analysis is designed to lead inevitably to her provisional conclusion: ‘The singer-songwriter transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song; Blake’s achievement is to encapsulate the entire process in silence.’
Though not impressed by this kind of argument, I can see merit in Greer’s final celebration of the verbal power of ‘The Sick Rose’, which she locates in the sense of ‘mystery’ that it evokes:
A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication. Blake’s song is an invocation, to whom or what we do not know. Is the rose a hedgerow flower or the mystical rose or the barmaid at the Rose and Crown? The poem is as simple as may be, being composed of three sentences, the first and third simple and the middle one with a subordinate clause. The words are all common: we know what each means but not what is meant by them together. The theme of love and death that permeates our entire literary tradition lies coiled upon itself in this tiny poem, capable at any moment of setting off a chain reaction in the mind.– Germain Greer
We can surely concur with that. The poem is seemingly infinitely suggestive and unfathomably intriguing, and it works not by virtue of any immediate reference it may make but by its play on linguistic associations and its reworking of tradition and convention. In this case, this reworking takes place in the spheres of both literature and visual art – Blake’s songs being illustrated. But the problem is that Greer fails to recognise that Dylan’s mere ‘words’ function in a manner that is manifestly similar. Certainly, ‘Visions of Johanna’ could be seen as ‘setting off a chain reaction in the mind’.