Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dylan at 68

"The world of research has gone berzerk,
Too much paperwork."

"Nettie Moore"

"She's sixty-eight but she says she's fifty-four."

"Maggie's Farm"

Every now and then I like to prune my readership here (an undertaking that might seem superfluous) by offering a comment on popular music. My last foray in this direction was insufficiently appreciated, but I was not deterred.

I obtained my Dylan tickets for July, as the grand master of blasted bluesy Americana does another summer tour of minor league ball parks. I have also enjoyed a few listens to his new, 33rd studio album, Together Through Life, which I found to be a refreshingly light-hearted effort. Particularly over his last few records, he has alternated between the grimly resigned (Time Out of Mind and Modern Times, whose last track, "Ain't Talkin'," was a virtual dirge) and the wittily whimsical (Love and Theft and now Together Through Life).

Dylan turns 68 this month, but he sings like he's 168. I wish some throat specialist could explain to me how his voice now and his voice from forty years ago could belong to the same human being. He croaks along like a veteran not of lysergic acid diethylamide, but of sulfuric acid, steadily sipped over the years. If a corpse could sing, this is what it would sound like--but this is precisely what makes the late Dylan so wondrous. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson when he spoke of a dog walking on its hind legs, one is less inclined to criticize the performance than to marvel that it is done at all. By all rights Dylan should be dead, with Presley, Morrison, and Cobain, but instead he persists in his globe-roaming neverending tour.

Doesn't Dylan belong to a quartet of titans bestriding the past century of American popular music, with Bing Crosby, Sinatra, and Elvis? Going back to listen to his 60's records, from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to John Wesley Harding, plus a few prodigious 70's aftershocks like Blood on the Tracks and Desire, is to hear a genius at white heat, a supernova of words, images, and sounds. Back then he sang thinly and nasally, to be sure, but with boundless conviction and joyous plenitude. Over the decades he has proven transcendent also in his recurrent self-creation and dour inscrutability. By now he has generated so many personae and so many grotesque and surrealistic scenarios that there is no definitive Dylan for the public to pin to the wall, just a whirl of virtually compulsive invention. "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Together Through Life is generally propulsive and insouciant, the buoyancy of songs like "If You Ever Go to Houston" contrasting as always with Dylan's ancient articulation. "If you see her sister Judy/Tell her I'm sorry I'm not there" echoes the Dylan ethos pretty well: not there, or now you see me, now you don't. But there is, as ever, darkness, the ravaged "Forgetful Heart" opening with the discouraging (and redundant) reminder of human fallibility "Forgetful heart/ Lost your power of recall."

The record ends with Dylan's drily hilarious send-up of the odiously smug phrase "It's All Good." "Big politicians telling lies/Restaurant kitchen full of flies...but it's all good," he rasps, Dr. Pangloss wandering through Sodom and Gomorrah. This album, like all the haggard late Dylan, would be a moderate curiosity if created by John Doe, but authored by him, it is like some deep-space nebula, with an elegaic and crepuscular beauty most noteworthy for the violent creativity it commemorates.

If Dylan were good for nothing else, he inspired this exquisite homage from Cat Power.


leigh said...

I obtained my Dylan tickets for July

You are very brave. We went two years ago when he was touring with E. Costello. Costello opened with a beautiful acoustic set, and then old man Dylan came on, and after three songs we were in such pain, we left. Yeah, we left. Last time was 20 years ago in a ball park, and on that occasion he played with his back to the audience. This time he was facing forward, but he might just as well been encased in glass. Not there. Just not there. The crypt keeper.

Novalis said...

Opinions on his shows seem to vary wildly (maybe that makes him, like George W. Bush, a "polarizing figure").

I saw him a couple of summers ago and it was a worthwhile show, although as you say he remains personally remote, and his voice in live shows now sounds like something from the infernal regions. But the classics were still the classics, provided by Bob in a minimally neurological sense anyway.

But you're right that "cryptic," long used to describe his lyrics, is fitting now in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

Compared to Tom Waits's endearingly caustic growl, Bob Dylan sounds like an ethereal cherub in a church choir.

I won't say anything nasty about his public state of decay - I'm sure it's endearing to some.

It's about the words, isn't it?

leigh said...

Tom Waits is still vital, constantly renewing himself. Music and words, never just about the words...

Novalis said...

Yes, for me music, being the more primal art, has to take precedence over the words. The words aren't irrelevant, but if they're that good they belong in a book of poetry (and more of Dylan's songs belong there than those of most other performers).

EAB said...

To quote an old friend of his: he's "a savage gift on a wayward bus and he stepped down and he sang for us"