:: Article

Cadillacs and Owls

To think of Dylan’s lyrics as being about the actual words used by actual people is to mistake the hand he’s playing. The violence and gothic elements of his work have been present right form the start and anyone unclear that this is so should watch recent perfomances of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. We saw this in Bournemouth a few years ago. Dylan stalked the stage holding his mic like a dagger. He sang the song like the devil himself. The threat and violence of the performance contained the weirdness of gothic preaching. Iago or Macbeth could have been the spirit animating it.

In Tempest there are huge swathes of this gothic horror monstrously and belligerently pressing their claims. ‘In Scarlet Town when I was born… the streets have names that you can’t pronounce… the music starts and the people sway, everybody says, are you going my way… Scarlet Town is under the hill…’ This sways from gothic fairy tale to gentle nature lyric under a threatening tone that mix the macabre and the mystical. ‘… the evil and the good living side by side / the human form seems glorified.’ If ever there was a problem it’s where humans want what is god’s, where an achieved ideal is presumed and desire alone is blasphemous. Dylan’s singing is where ‘a chilly wind blows’, where we’re always wishing we were elsewhere and someone else.

Throughout, Dylan continues to explore what is the quintessence of the Romantic hero and heroine and in so doing confronts us with the fact that the perpetual restlessness and unsatisfied longing are the grounds of great villains as well as heroes. And if there is a candidate for the everyman archetype that haunts Dylan’s poetry it is Goethe’s ‘Faust’, imprisoned by his subjectivity and yearning for a reality that will dress up his wounds. The disorder and sickness is all here in this: ‘I aint dead yet, my bell still rings… I can strip you of life, strip you of breath, ship you down to the house of death…’ is the threat of ‘early Roman Kings’ which is Faust singing from hell, transposing the Athenaeum heritage of German Romanticism to the dark shadowy underground of labour gang wars, death ballads and ‘bent visions.’

It should be clear from all this that Dylan’s not nostalgic for anything, not in the forms he’s using nor the subject matter. Dylan’s nerve has held throughout fifty years of working at this, working like Emerson says poets should, to ‘liberate Gods.’ The poetry, the song, is written purely for itself, the rhythmic creation of beauty as Poe puts it. And Poe is instructive. All that gothic darkness, the horror and hauntings, crumbling ruins and wrecked psychologies, Poe might too be blamed for being too gripped by the past. But all Poe was, was modern.

So too Dylan, who for fifty years has been the most modern of poets. Originality is Orphic and what Poe writes holds for Dylan.

‘If a man – if an Orphicist – or seer – or whatever else he may choose to call himself, while the rest of the world calls him an ass – if this gentleman have an idea which he does not understand himself, the best thing he can do is say nothing about it … but if he have any idea which is actually intelligibly to himself, and if he sincerely wishes to render it intelligible to others, we then hold it as indisputable that he should employ those forms of speech which are the best adapted to further his object. He should speak to the people in the ordinary people’s tongue. He should arrange words such as are habitually employed for the preliminary and introductory ideas to be conveyed – he should arrange them in collocations such as those in which we are accustomed to see those words arranged.’

‘Meantime we earnestly as if bread and butter be the vast IDEA in question – if bread-and-butter be any portion of this vast IDEA? For we have often observed that when a SEER has to speak of even so usual thing as bread-and-butter, he can never be induced to mention it outright…’

In the words of Poe we find the outline of what is Dylan’s originality. Dylan’s complaint has ever been the unoriginality of American plagiarists before him, who move to find culture and therefore poetry and art generally elsewhere. The irony of those who find lines stolen from elsewhere in Dylan is that Dylan’s whole oeuvre is one which refuses ‘to bring the tower of Seville Cathedral to Madison Square.’ Such would have nothing of the New World in it. It’s why once he spat out that ‘The Beatles were never rock and roll.’ The sublime, truculent, hard, sardonic dimension of the USA mass, the greatest world power, is unrealisable in borrowings, liftings, in the business of transposition. Poe uses latin to goof the illiteracy of his plagiarising public. By its power this permits him to be original, to find freedom in a satirical authenticity rooted in the blasted, quarried might of the US land and place. So too in Dylan. His raided tropes from murder ballads, work songs, folk tales and so on, the familiar Dylan landscapes, are used to wrestle freedom forms out of the hugeness of his place.

Lithuanian ancestors, American blood. Dylan’s Tempest again wrestles with the twin time bombs of the American poetic heart. On the one hand is the local, the prehensible, the honest, upright, the close up of the New England melancholy and town pump, the intimacy of the vague humours of each locality and all its protean teemingness. Here is Dylan showing consuming touching pathos, singing ‘its soon after midnight, and my day is just begun / a girl named honey took my money / she was passing by / it was after midnight and the moon was in my eye / my heart is cheerful’, a Dylan of pure Spenserian radical style and most available scholarship, singing ‘I’ve got a date with the Fairy Queen’, in a sprightly, Puckish gleam of radiant imagination and consummate ingenuity. Yet the voice switches in a moment of self-awareness as his character mutters darkly of ‘Two timing Slim / who’s ever heard of him? / I’ll drag his corpse through the mud’ contrasting stylish delightfulness and surprise with blunt viciousness.

On the other hand there’s Dylan writing out of invisible ink, feeding the pigs with all the smart efforts of critics and scholars, the writer out of the monstrous, the Dylan who flies out to the end of the world and beyond – ‘it’s a long road … we looted and we plundered on different shores…’, a Dylan standing far off so as to see (rather than sitting by the fence in the square as the darkness comes). Dylan in this is doing something that has not been done before and is not an American version of anything else. When Wallace Stevens wrote of the originality of Poe he finds a ground ‘not of sentiment or mood, as not of trees and Indians, but of original fibre, the normal toughness which fragility of mood presupposes.’ If nothing else, Dylan is the toughest of poets. A hard judgment extends through his soundness in blazing lines of difficult, uncompromising flint. ‘Be gentle and pray, it’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way.’

The deeper intent of Dylan is in the dismembering disgust and fear, the shallow put-downs that then fall into extreme dark beauty that is pitiless and so extreme we ask ‘Is there some place we can go? Is there anyone we can see… I ain’t seen my family for twenty years / they may be dead by now / I lost track of them when they lost their land… don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out.’ This song is the very apotheosis of the place and time.

It is the great mystery. A song with the mystery train in parallel places with a penetration of what it is to have a torn soul, destroying the very vial that contained his shaken gleeful desire. The acid power breaks down the truth of love. Love is what is being forced on love wearing an iron heart. When Dylan sings elsewhere, in another time ‘I can make you feel my love’ there’s a sense of power and greed in the voice where the word emphasized is ‘make’. Never has a threat been so wild and terrifying.

His concert performances counterpoint Adel’s wonderful recent version: he contradicts her version. Metamorphosised, Dylan is both reducing all things to method whilst commenting on this. Who else but murderers and rapists know this exiled ‘elsewhere’? The full horror of the isolation is here enacted: and it lifts these songs to a power at once so different from any other we can hear. These songs are poems on the edge, original and caught on the cusp between his time and no time. It is a refrain from the hollow, a kind of echo caught in the desolate line about the Titanic sinking into the underworld.

Listening to the new ten songs there’s a way of understanding them as the growls of a long way off. ‘Lights down the hallway… the veil was torn asunder’ is the way Dylan keeps his poetry at the edge of thin insulating surfaces. We are lashed to a tide of sorrow and impotence. When he snorts, ‘alarm bells were ringing to hold back the swelling tide’ the line is full of the ‘love and pity’ that comprehends the futility and stupidity of the very idea of a bell being supposed, as if in a fantasy, to hold back the watery tempest. Here’s an example of what Dylan keeps doing, showing how we foolishly misplace things. A warning is no solution. In all this, in each verse, in each of the variety and beauty and rampaging glory of doom tales and sweetness is the noise and racket of the mad pure essence of the American, New World locality.

Wallace Stevens said ‘Poets, they are the test.’ Terror enlarges its subject and, in comparison, inevitably, diminishes outsiders hidden from the ‘Tyger’ and the ‘Book of Revelation’, both books about the need for an original future. Dylan is needling America for not being the way it supposed itself – supposes itself – to be. The originality of America is for Dylan betrayed in the creeping fearfulness of its marinated wealth, its forgetfulness, its tired bones that can hardly fetch itself the bones of its own acquisitiveness. America holds everything out of reach and in the gap it gains fear, hate, madness and time that fortifies a carcass where there is ‘no more joy’. By wishing for unoriginality America is just the piss of the blood of 72,000 Indians wiped out between Southern Maine and the Hudson River in the name of god and New England between 1615 and 1690. There is only shameful iterating.

His landscape is a surreal dark one, as sublime as Endymion’s beneath the sea, walking underwater where there is no shining moon anymore. The Dorothy Six Blast Furnace was once the largest in the world but now is a ruin. A sign, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, but for the American poor, whose lives are tricked to believe in a personal devotion to their ruinous and monstrous masters. Dylan writes and performs in an America where cults have formed to abolish the poor – cults of unimaginable wealth. And at no cost, the poor are carried away from the public consciousness as an offense might be wiped away. The ‘Duquesne Whistle’ blowing through America is the contrasting story of hope and despair portrayed in the great smile of America that builds self-esteem out of the gap between touch and the thing. Everything is to honour the dissembling idea that everything is for generosity and honour and the dream that all are equal in America’s smile. Battleships for peace. The smile that increases the gulf, and fixes it, a mechanism to increase the gap between the thing and its touch. Dylan sings a chirpy song into a ghost landscape of destroyed industria, where unemployment and the brittle miraculous energies of the past are just waked up ghosts. Dylan takes the industrial past and its myths and shows them from a perspective where life becomes disconfirmed. Work slaves are ruled by a fear and utter darkness that flies into foreign places seeking sensationalist escape.

Dylan finds originality through killing spree language, the wilderness and affection of America’s total self-ignorance of scale. The parochialism and small town confrontations that leave the world shaken by thunders from American mountains, their crooked ice peaks, the narrow bend of its laws is what Dylan speaks to. Heroic rhetoric and hackneyed gestures belies its reality and the childish, unconstrainable power that trembles with unearthly reality darken the grace of the Bixby letter say, or Lincoln.

This then is the theme again of the idea of America, its status as the final empire, in Williams’ words, ‘So deep must stones be hurled / whereon the throes of ages rear / The final empire and the happier world.’ And Dylan is still wondering where the modernity, the absolute newness of America, can be found. The very idea of an American Renaissance is like a habit of the place, and the confusion and fear of it all being ‘such a long long time’ makes the theme too large for habitation, as if America is that too. Dylan is asking whether there is a place to go anymore, or whether everything’s finishing at his doorway.

Poe was a rumour of the French, but his reality was American through and through, and as such, an original. Broken and killed for it, but nevertheless truly so. Dylan is courtesy to the UK and an excietement not quite understood in Johnny Hallyday’s Europe. But like Poe, Dylan is working from the dead centre of America. Its makeshift, profuse and colossal sign is where Dylan grasps his locality. Everything that makes us anti-American – its brute force and strength, its size, its crushing of the whole world – these require a poet who can scare hogs and birds, can summarise its venomous capacity with clean accuracy. There must be the capacity to speak to its gluey protean enormity and emnity. Dylan is founding that voice.

Just as Keats could visit steam boats on Loch Lomond with barouches and the lot, could sing praises to the banks of the Clyde whilst dreaming of chivalry barges, trumpets and banners, so is Dylan’s imagination impressing itself, seeking and finding glory in things better than mere scenery and the local touch. Just as Keats was entranced by his own Cleopatra’s and Charmion’s erotic depths and the theatrical, pantomimic and worldy dealings of heart and sex, whilst his politics went the way left towards the liberals against Tories, berating Napoleon for harming the liberal cause, writing ‘Ode To Autumn’ to mark the Peterloo Massacre, and worrying that Russia might threaten China, so too Dylan’s passions inflect love, politics, history, nestled prejudice and money matters – most likely poverty and defeat – from out the belly of a great beast.

His songs catch up the Erie Canal that connected barge traffic from the Great Lakes to New York, catch up the link between Cleveland to the Ohio River and on to the Mississippi, seeing these as arteries from the Midwest to the southern port of New Orleans and in that way seeing America as a huge evolving body, a monstrous, beautiful child. The Sante Fe trail – Missouri to the Southwest – and the Oregan Trail across the Sierras to California – stories, songs, legends, films, Dylan’s endowed these with a belief in the beauty in these things, believed in them as carrying something within them, something he had been missing whilst in the underwater world of Warhol’s New York.

Buffalo, antelope, wide rivers, conifers, mountain ranges, Thoreau and Emerson, Fennimore Cooper, Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, he’s trying out his hand with a kind of moral play. All those visionaries, outlaws, vagabonds, he is thinking about figures who almost made it, who were almost heroes. New York, it came to him one night in his mind, New York was dead. Or better, John Lennon killed New York as surely as New York killed him. ‘The City’s gone dark, there is no more joy.’ He moves from voices of indolent and supreme carelessness to those of wicked anger and hatred.

Dylan is not singing to consecutive men, with one image plodding after the other, nor are these mere concatenations of words. These are the regular stepping-after truths and for this progress he can’t duck the history, the philosophy, the thought and the knowledge that are indispensible for such progression. But this is a journey of solitude and work, and what his voice endures are the pains of sympathy, strong feelings without quicksteps and hurry. Unlike so many of his commentators he is not looking for results. He isn’t shutting these words snap shut in a box. He is content – if that is the word – with the half knowledge, the doubt, the foggy uncertainty that we’ve heard before in, for example, the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth, where the sound doesn’t fix on any definite key, and we’re left wondering whether this is joy we’re hearing, or despair.

The immense self concentration links Dylan to Schiller’s notion of dignity, a subject he’s sung about and one whose contrast is grace. The success is to find the way of opposing the inclination – in listeners and critics, in the response as well as the genesis – of magnifying differences of grade, of opposing levels of reality, say, rather than accepting things in curiosity making good of the non-ideal and its contrasts. Leave the feeling be, it will find its target and stay fine, even though there may well be things finer. It is this that enabled Shakespeare call up the feeling of Iago and of Macbeth just as Dylan can make the force of his villains take up their existence just as well as the virtuous.

This confuses some who like to take the voices as if they are Dylan’s own. But Dylan works in the Shakesperean, Keatean mode whereby he is not possessed by his own creations in any such profane and simple-headed way. Keats describes Dylan as the poet having ‘no self’ because the poet ‘is everything and nothing… It enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things, any more than its taste for the bright one, because they both end in speculation. A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity.’

So Dylan’s is the imagination that ends in greatness of speculation, trying for the originality required of his New World empire that now is looking tired, raging and insane. Dylan started 71 years ago with Hank Williams on the radio. Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio. Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley on the radio. Then he rode out to the record store in the Twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. He would find it romantic to be alone in the snow under the Minnesota blue sky, wrapped up warm in the cold fresh air, loitering outside the record store, alone like James Dean, like Brando, like Marilyn, like Elvis. He was in his head, without beginning, middle or end, waulking the homemade thoughts round in a sunwise direction, rowing, lulling – he was like a mother singing a lullaby, a strong song over troubled waters praising her child, dreaming of the future. And the baby in that future was its hero. He bought a guitar. He formed a band. The Sam Danforth’s played in Deluth. First night and his cousin and he shivered in a hallway with just four songs that they could just about string out.

There was something half-crazed about it but in the L&B café in Hibbing later on, with Echo his girl at his side he was already knowing that no place could hold him. He was looking for the future orgy. The point of this is to note that self-trust is the essence of heroism. Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of the great and the good, to the voice of mankind for a time even. Something like that. Emerson says of heroism: ‘Its jest is the littleness of life.’

Norman Mailer said, ‘The wall between rich and poor is a wall of glass through which we all can see.’ And, ‘The space between hypocrisy and honest manner may not forever insulate the powerful from the poor.’ Cezanne said, ‘Blue gives other colours vibration’. Dylan’s blues are a kind of American/Lithuanian Hellenism.

Whilst many were all ready to listen out for the revolution and the future, Dylan was listening to the subterranean history of our culture in preparation. A kind of syncopated pause caught by his ear. Like a fearful man caught in a narrow space, trying to expand his space by moving frantically about – building his home underground, looking for exits, digging into the past and into the future, old themes and new modernities all come scrambled up in what he does. Cadillacs and owls are built phrenologically through a kind of deviant method acting. Sometimes I think of what he’s doing as being posthumous, like he was already dead but from the future. Listening to Dylan is listening to sounds not made yet. When Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony, he wrote sounds for an instrument that hadn’t yet been invented. Dylan is doing the same.

Of Michaelangelo it was said: ‘Unlike the other poets he does not portray a place or a manner, does not celebrate a literary fashion, taste, or style; he does not tell in verse his own personal life, or not it alone. His thoughts are the great thoughts of the century: art, beauty, love, death; his drama is the great drama of the era, fought between heaven and earth, flesh and spirit, love of life and cult of death, Plato and Christ. That, writing of these things, he could have written better but it is worth remembering that no one else writing well wrote of them at all.’

But if Dylan is sweeping away the worthless chaff to clear the ground, doesn’t the weight of the ground leave his project impossibly self-cancelling? ‘There’s nothing but the past in his compass’ critics complain, ‘Where’s his originality?’ But that is to miss the obvious thing. All those poets, they never knew what to do first with a guitar, then electricity. 71 years ago, there was nothing like a Bob Dylan, so he invented one. An American boy with an appetite, no reasons, no explanations, no more involved now than anyone else, struggling to keep the sun over his head, trying to do the job he’d been given to do – which was to sing some songs – to be a poet out of that humble profession, to make that profession submit to the poet in him.

He was like Eliot in his bank, Kafka in his insurance business, William Faulkner writing the film script of The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks out of Chandler, or To Have And Have Not out of Hemmingway – and then one day he found electric music for each voice he’d put on up on stage, night after night – Richard Widmark, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart, Brando, Dean, Monroe, Lucy Ann Polk and the thousand others. His originality is hidden in plain sight.

His colloquialism shows how his language varies from English. His practice lets the business of composition show through. The primitive awkwardness of diction, like in Twain, belies the serious amazement of his own engagement and enjoyment in making these songs. It is the very extreme of playfulness that livens the skill of an almost Cubist, abstract detachment.

‘Dylan’ is kind of professional symbolism. It’s the only valid death you can feel today. Tempest is another ream of questions and propositions. The best song is ‘Long and Wasted Years.’

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Pages: 1 2

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 28th, 2012.