In the fall of 1964 I was living in a rented room in north London. The house was owned by a lady who had misplaced her husband somehow–I don’t recall the details. She had a son and a daughter living at home. The daughter was in her early twenties, and working. The son was about my age–I was 19–and a student at the local art college. I didn’t know much about the art-school scene, and the little I knew I didn’t much like, so I can’t say I found the guy very simpatico. We got on all right, though; and living in the same house, we occasionally sat and talked about this or that, when neither of us had anything better to do.
One evening I went to the guy’s room to borrow something. He was sitting there listening to a record–one of the old vinyl LPs, of course. He signaled me to sit down and be quiet till the song had finished. I sat on the bed listening to the song. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
The voice was obviously American, which made a nice change. These were the glory years of British rock, and mostly what you heard from the radio and friends’ stereos was either the Mersey sound or its London echo (the Stones, Manfred Mann, the Who). The backing was a single acoustic guitar. That was all right, even in this age of thumping groups; I’d been hanging out at some folk clubs, and quite liked the folk sound. This wasn’t much like regular folk, though, neither the antiquarian Sir-Jasper-stole-my-precious-rose style of the English singers nor the sweet-aching prison ballads of the back-country U.S.A. This guy was talking right to you as an equal, trying, almost a little too hard, to tell you something, albeit in a sort of mangled and self-consciously “poetic” diction:
Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position–
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts,
All down in taken-for-granted situations…
Most striking of all was the voice. It wasn’t a pleasant voice in any conventional way–not at all melodious or expressive. It snagged you and stuck to you though, somehow, like Velcro (which had not, in point of fact, been invented yet). You couldn’t get away. I couldn’t get away–I clearly remember that. I asked some questions.
“Why, it’s Bobby Dylan,” said my companion, in the airy tone of someone who’d been to school with ol’ Bobby and knew his family and dated his sister. That was a thing I disliked about the art-school crowd: They were always way ahead of everyone else on trends and coolness, and made sure you knew it. There were other things I disliked too, mainly the way they popped strange little pills all the time.
As artistic first impressions go, I think that was the deepest I ever experienced. I still recall the strangeness of that voice and the things it was saying, the strangeness. It sounded like nothing else at all. Of course, I had come late to Dylan. This was his fourth LP, and in the earlier ones, which I went out and bought more or less immediately, he did sometimes sound like other people, though it took me a lot of background listening to appreciate the fact.
Dylan, in fact, had done what all great artists do. He had begun by attempting dead-on imitations of his own idols: 1950s pop singers like Johnnie Ray, country singers like Hank Williams, the black blues and gospel singers, early rockers like Gene Vincent and Little Richard (the caption to Dylan’s high school yearbook photo declared his ambition “to join Little Richard”), and of course the older line of gritty folk and protest balladeers–Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie.
Then, somehow, from all that stuff banging around in his head for years on end, all day long for years, there emerged a sound that was his own; not a mere blend or a mixture (in the chemical sense), but a compound (in the chemical sense), a new substance with new properties, as far removed from its components as salt is from soft shiny sodium and stinking chlorine. There you have the miracle of art. The 2004 movie Ray gave a glimpse of this same process. And then, to pile miracle upon miracle, the artist pushed his style forward in unexpected, sometimes unwelcome, directions, re-inventing himself over and over, while yet somehow holding on to a core of Dylan-ness.
Well, having been thus Dylan-struck early on in life, I naturally watched the Martin Scorsese bio of Dylan, No Direction Home, on PBS the other night. The thing I most wanted to learn, the thing I always hope to learn from bios of highly creative people, is: Where does it come from? This is a futile hope, as no one really has a clue, least of all the artist himself. Socrates found that out long ago.
I went to the poets … I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them–thinking that they would teach me something. … I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.–The Apology
Compare Dylan, saying in Scorsese’s film: “I don’t know where it comes from.” Nobody does, Bob. I suppose the sociobiologists have come up with something to explain the peculiar, bone-deep thrill you get from certain voices doing certain things. Perhaps there was some sort of group advantage, way back in the Paleolithic, to having a person who could bind the tribe together with vocal charismatics. I think I myself am more than usually susceptible to this, but I have never really understood the roots of it.
Scorsese had the good sense to play down the “protest” side of the early Dylan. That stuff was in the air, of course, and Dylan could hardly have helped but pick it up, given the crowd he was hanging out with. He got some fine numbers out of it, too. Watching the footage of him and Pete Seeger singing their songs in a field crowded with civil-rights people and black southerners, you got a flavor of the idealism and, yes, patriotism that carried the movement along. And of course, brave deeds were done and great things accomplished. It needs a constant effort, though, watching that footage now, to push away the thought of how many hopes were not fulfilled–of how, in some ways, black and white Americans are still as far apart as ever. Also, even more distressing, to see that fine idealism from 40 years on, and notice the slight aura of silliness and moral preening that flickered around it. I found myself looking at the faces of the black people in that field, and wondering what they were thinking. Scorsese, always one step ahead of you, has one of them tell us: “Who was this white kid from New York talking about walking hard roads? It was my father that walked those roads. White people don’t have hard times…”
Dylan, in any case, though he could see the injustice–anyone with eyes could see it–and felt what his peers felt, was never much interested in politics, except as a source for lyrics. Dylan was, and is, all music, all through. Watching him talking on the Scorsese film, he does not really come across as very bright. For sure he is not very articulate. Musical people rarely are, and pop musicians practically never. (I once saw an interview with Mick Jagger. I hope I get a clean run to the grave without ever having to see another one.)
Not that Dylan didn’t sometimes have a way with words. A very literary person of my acquaintance, a published poet, once told me that he thought “the dog up and died” (from “Mister Bojangles”) one of the loveliest lines in the English language. I could bring forth 100 better candidates for that particular award, but I do see my friend’s point. If you write as many lyrics as Dylan, though, and have a musician’s feel for the rhythmic properties of language, you are bound to come up with good lines once in a while. Hank Williams, who was next to illiterate, wrote some very beautiful lines.
Dylan was a generation younger than Williams, and from the north-midwest, not the south. The “old, weird America” of carny freak shows, town drunks, ragged mystics, stoical beaten-down Negroes, and long dusty roads with the hope of something better at the end, was slipping away even in Dylan’s childhood. He reached out and grabbed at it as it fled, though, and ripped off a corner of its strange starry cloak, and turned it into songs, by the miracle of art. I thought Scorsese did a pretty good job on the man and his music; but really, the music is all there is–and goodness knows, it ought to be enough for anyone.