Brendan Hogan: I love Bob Dylan's music. He is our Shakespeare. People will write about him just like they write about Shakespeare, and he'll eventually be watered down like we've watered down the rest of our cultural heroes. (Was Shakespeare one person, after all, or a collective of writers?)
There will forever be a "before" and "after" in reference to him, but living now we're lucky enough to experience at least some of his sorcery firsthand. Magic can't be quantified, however, and it's not even worth trying to account for it. It just is. Any cultural impact Dylan has had can't be measured, either, because he has changed our culture. Dylan is like a cultural portal; he exists and so our dimension has shifted. That which could not exist before him, or that which was inaccessible, is now laid out in the open.
Yes, I think this highly of Dylan's art. But to me, his music has always has always been personal. Why? Because Dylan isn't magic. He isn't a figment of our imagination or a hybrid of legends passed down, written into a static, unreachable figure by history. He's a man who has shaped his own story, who has absorbed influences, and who exists in the makeup of our time. That's what I'm interested in talking about today.
Mike Mellor: You bring up a really important point. So often when I get going on Dylan I'm afraid people think I'm hero worshiping when, really, I care very little about who he is as a regular guy, father, grandfather, lover, husband, homeowner, businessman or whatever. I don't collect paraphernalia or gossip about his affairs. I really don't give a shit.
What I care about is his artistic contribution to the world: what he took, what he did with it, how it came out, and how it changed society. He's certainly the most prolific and influential popular artist when it comes to bridging the American folk tradition with "arts and letters". His art made it a regular thing to express Post-structuralist ideas in songs about sailors and homeless people, or to tell Existentialist dirty jokes. It brought Mississippi Fred McDowell up to the Ivory Tower and F. Scott Fitzgerald down to the gutter. He's never settled long on genre, instrumentation or meter, but his work has been a remarkably consistent cry for egalitarianism and compassion. It's music for people who took the Beatitudes of Jesus to heart, who glorify humility and demonize greed.
That is some pretty serious stuff. But where did it all start? Well, the legend goes that his ambition upon graduating high school was "to join Little Richard".
Brendan: That's the thing about Dylan: We're never really sure of who he is. Is he a man of the heart like a blues musician, of the mind like a poet, or does he just want to sing about sex like Little Richard? He's all of those things because he can be. Dylan is the ultimate manifestation of what it means to be an American; to be whatever you say you are. It's something he has deliberately cultivated from his earliest days as a public persona and he's carried on laying down the chaff ever since.
Dylan doesn't use his given name, for starters, and even in his very first radio interview he spun a story about running away with the circus as a young boy. All of that coupled with the mysticism and canny insight of his writing, makes him an incredibly compelling figure. I couldn't care less about his personal life, either, but without a doubt I filter the way I perceive the world, at least in part, through the lens his presence as an artist has shaped.
It's interesting that you suggest Dylan leveled the playing field between "high" and "low" cultures. I've heard people (not you) suggest that Dylan came along and broke all the rules, as if he alone had the power to do so. It's true that he did affect and represent a massive change in the way music was published, marketed, and sold, but that's not art; that's commerce. Bob Dylan is an iconic figure because he has manged to exist in the worlds of art and commerce very successfully while maintaining a high level of integrity. But nobody exists in a vacuum.
Tell me this Bo Diddley song from 1955 doesn't stand up to anything on Bringing it all Back Home.
Mike: I'd never tell you that. In fact I'd go a step further and say Diddley's guitar beats anything Mike Bloomfield put on the Highway 61 album (and I love Bloomfield) and the cartoon mythology of "Who Do You Love" seems like a prototype for "Highway 61" the song. So much of Dylan's "electric period" is right there.
I don't think Dylan leveled the playing field, if by "playing field" you mean society. But if you mean "playing field" to be his own worldview, where he believes there is artistic, intellectual and philosophical merit to be found in every culture and in every station from beggar to king, then absolutely. A large part of his amazing gift is to amalgamate it all into something entirely new, yet wholly referential and reverential. He is essentially a pastiche artist.
Speaking of running away with the circus, I wouldn't doubt it if he stole that little biographical detail from Ramblin' Jack Elliott (née Elliot Adnopoz), a Brooklynite son of a doctor who actually ran away with a traveling rodeo because he was so enamored of cowboy songs. Elliott would go on to become a traveling companion and apprentice-of-sorts to Woody Guthrie, and to many he is thought of as the bridge between Guthrie and Dylan. He was certainly an important figure in Guthrie's life when Dylan went to New York (New Jersey, technically) to find Guthrie laid up in a mental hospital, and was an important figure in Dylan's life when he was finding his folk sound.
Of course, Dylan eclipsed that moon just a few years later but Jack is still around today to tell us the stories, and to perform amazing renditions of Dylan's early material. But before Elliott ever recorded a Dylan song Dylan (under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse) played harp on a Ramblin' Jack record.
Brendan: Yes, it's funny how Dylan was copying Ramblin' Jack Elliott copying Woody Guthrie. And he did a good job of it, too. Some of those very early Dylan recordings sound exactly like Ramblin' Jack, down to the way he phrases words and even speaks. It's a wonder Elliott was so forgiving and their friendship endured. Artists imitate, though; genius steals.
Dylan must really be a genius, then, for lifting (or at least borrowing from) the melody and story of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" for his song "4th Time Around". A lot is made of his influence on The Beatles, but it actually went both ways.
Mike: Then he must really be a genius 12 times over for his love and theft of Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza.
I understand why this was a controversy, I suppose, but to me it's just Dylan being Dylan, understanding that the folk tradition knows no such thing as copyright, yet making a completely separate and self-sufficient work. The vast majority of art unconsciously does this sort of stealing and referencing all the time. I mean, really, what is Art History but a catalogue of who riffed off of whom?
My only beef is that Dylan could at least have thrown Saga's name in the liner notes. You know, credit where credit is due, especially when you borrow from a living source so unlikely to be noticed by others.
Brendan: That's basically his argument, too, and I tend to agree with him. An idea has to start somewhere, and more often than not it starts where someone else left off, or in the exact same place. He has the ability to internalize and codify his influences in such a way that his writing expresses a hybrid of wide-ranging ideas. It's personal and universal at the same time, and I don't think you can set out to do that. It just happens.
I suppose problems usually arise when one party makes money and the other doesn't. Dylan happily cashes his checks, I'm sure, but I've never been under the impression that he got into the game for that. In fact, he's made some pretty heavy sacrifices himself.
But stealing is a murky subject. And from Edison to Jobs to Dylan, it's very American, too.
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