Thursday, May 26, 2011

Serious about Dylan

I know you’ve all been waiting to hear about the Bob Dylan conference in Bristol on May 24th. Your wait is over.

If you want the official report, you can read it over at The Guardian, which sent a journalist to report on the conference and to root out the youngest, hippest people there to provide comments. It turns out that the youngest, hippest people did not include me; I was probably captured in the soul-murdering phrase "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes". The BBC presented a slide show of Dylan photographs under the caption "Academics celebrate Bob Dylan at Bristol University". In some circles, being called an academic is not meant to be flattering, but it's life-affirming and vaguely respectable compared "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes".

Several things about the conference stood out. First, I thought I was going to have a good laugh at beer-bellied old guys with longish greying hair, wearing their favourite Dylan t-shirts printed with images from obscure performances or lesser albums, but those guys all looked really cool. In fact, they looked exciting and interesting compared to those of us who were "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes", and they probably had a smirk at our expense. Second, I was expecting to enjoy despising the pedantic sods who, whenever there was time for questions, would take the microphone and drone on for twenty minutes espousing their own personal theory of what Dylan meant by "a Siamese Cat" in Like a Rolling Stone; instead, people were really gentle and thoughtful and asked good questions that invited the presenters to expand on what they had talked about. In some ways, then, it was all terribly disappointing.

But a couple issues did come up. First, it is fairly well established that Dylan's lyrics, for the most part, are just that: lyrics. Poetry put to music. Various traditional forms of poetry, still oral, but unaccompanied by lute or hammond organ, have an integrity and constraint that lyrics can and at times should lack; "I'm a poet/ And I know it / Hope I don't blow it" says the man himself in I Shall Be Free No. 10. Even a radical post-Warholian might accept that just because we can bring the critical techniques of high art forms to low art forms doesn't mean that there is no difference between high and low art forms; even a radical post-modernist (is there any other?) questioning the nature and historicity of the hierarchy in "high" and "low" art forms might accept that the popular and the populist can be qualitatively different from the elitist and exclusive. But these issues barely came up. People tended to focus on lyrics as word-poems that can be extricated from the songs. Fair enough. If it's true that Dylan is a bard and a minstrel, a poet who sings his songs from court to court, and is therefore operating in the same vein as Homer, then why should we not look at his lyrics without their songs? After all, nobody's refusing to read The Iliad because we don't know the tune. ("Yeah, I'll read the Odyssey when I know how it's supposed to go . . . And I'm not talking about the Zombies album"). Nevertheless, one of the most mindblowing moments in a conference that did less mindblowing than a little bit of gentle mindrubbing here and there was when one guy, talking about floods, played some way-old blues, in the middle of a couple of Dylan tracks. Now, I knew that Dylan, if you'll allow me this, re-thought folk singing, then rock vocals, then country singing, and possibly maybe gospel singing; but despite all the signs he set-up along the way, like playing blues music, I only thought that he was singing the way he sings now because he can't sing any other way. But when you put Dylan's singing now side-to-side with an old blues track, you see that he is reviving, changing, and re-thinking blues vocals.

Let me offer you a possible example to consider:

Check out this.

And then listen to this.

But one topic was strikingly absent, even as there were cursory discussions of Dylan's identity, cursory discussions of pity and cruelty, and less cursory analyses of his lyrics: that topic is Dylan the joker, Dylan the comedian, Dylan writing gags in his songs or spitting out venomous put-downs.

Why was this? Well, when people want to take somebody seriously, or be taken seriously themselves, they tend to avoid comedy. Girding the "serious" is a conviction about its formal stability and its endurance; comedy is whimsical, fleeting, and unstable. But more relevant to Dylan is this: when people want to take seriously somebody who is terrifyingly complicated, who demands to be taken with the utmost seriousness just when everyone thinks they're in on the joke, or dismisses as joking the most serious things he's done, trying to figure out what one can safely say is very hard. Dylan has defied his fans and his critics so many times that it is far safer to approach him with respect, which may be spurned from a distance, than with a keen eye for trying to get in on the joke, where dismissal is a personal affront. Or, to put it another way, deference may be humiliating, but it comes with its own meagre rewards and its own anaemic values; but few things are more personally and centrally humiliating than trying to share a joke and being told that not only do you not get it, but you're the butt of the joke. It would take a very brave man or woman to make a sustained argument about Dylan as a joker. Am I that brave man or woman? Time will tell. Meanwhile:


Daniel F said...

I guess that was a link to the Jokerman video. It's been blocked in my country. It's not a particularly jokey song.

It's no "Po' Boy" (2001):

'I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store.
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”.'

'Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket,
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”.'

'Knockin’ on the door, I say, “Who is it and where are you from?”
Man says, “Freddy!” I say, “Freddy who?”
He says, “Freddy or not here I come”.'

Daniel F said...

In fact, throughout 2001's "Love and Theft", Dylan was having bare jokes:

'Romeo, he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion
That don't give your appearance a very youthful touch"
Juliet said back to Romeo
"Why don't you just shove off, if it bothers you so much"' ("Floater")

'Last night 'cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasquale makin' a two a.m. booty call' ("Cry a While")

I got a cravin' love for blazin' speed
I got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love
Throw your panties overboard ("High Water")

sw said...

Thanks for bare jokes. Jokerman is not a very "jokey" song - I knew that - but it's not entirely unrelated to my topic, least of all a consciousness about the relation of jokes to seriousness; that having been said, the video is a bit corny and funny. I'll get to work on the lyrics you mentioned.