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Some Notes on the Art and Artfulness of Bob Dylan

by Ulysses S. Arts-Council-Grant

This short article is an essay in heresy. It draws parallels between Bob Dylan (one of our most celebrated grand old men of rock to be sure, but in the end, he's only a singer - isn't he?) and some of the greatest names in the western canon of the arts, in poetry, painting and theatre - to whit Byron, Picasso, Brecht (and even Shakespeare).

So, not only an essay in heresy, but in the minds of many no doubt, an essay in pretentious heresy. But then, in the conservative plebeianised remains of what used to be Anglo culture, 'pretentious', the most cutting of all possible insults, generally means 'anything I didn't already know'. I won't lose any sleep over such accusations.

Dylan and Byron: Byron was one of the pioneers that poetry can do anything. There were no limits to poetic subjects for him. His range was total: lyrical ballads and love poems (e.g. 'She walks in Beauty'), ferocious political satire ('Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill'), high adventure ('The Corsair'), Gothic (the curse in 'The Giaour'), self indulgent tragedy ('Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage') and bawdy comedy ('Beppo'). Much the same can be said of Dylan. Before him, popular music restricted itself to the narrowest range - love, loss, and more love. Dylan showed it could do anything - even everything.

And Byron's default mode was comedy. Even when posturing as the doomed hero in 'Childe Harolde', his letters reveal a racy, lively, witty connoisseur of life. In his mature work, comedy provides the framework in which everything else is explored - 'Don Juan' is his masterpiece. Again, so with Dylan. As soon as he relaxes among friends - with The Band at Big Pink (1967), with the Travelling Wilburies (1988), the playfulness emerges. From sheer nonsense to penetrating insights, Dylan is most fully at home in the comic mode, and always has been, ever since his Chaplinesque performances in the Greenwich Village bars in the early sixties.

Dylan and Picasso: A large part of Picasso's significance was his role as a conduit, drawing on the whole history of western art, and incorporating non western artefacts, and fusing them into a new vocabulary of art for 20th century Modernism. Wise enough never to entirely abandon the human form, thus avoiding the aridity of pure abstraction, Picasso hobnobbed with Surrealism and became an inexhaustible well of new artistic possibilities, providing new inspiration to others over decades. Again, the parallel with Dylan is striking. Musically he has been the conduit through which blues, English and Celtic folk, country, Tin Pan Alley, rock and pop have been fused and reinvented. Poetically he has drawn on everything from ballads to the Bible, Donne to Rimbaud, creating a vocabulary and a vernacular for contemporary musical lyrics. More than anyone else in the late 20th century, Dylan has inherited the mantle of Surrealism, not in the harmless 'zany' sense of the term in most of its recent usages, but more in keeping with its potential for radical shifts in consciousness. And again, like Picasso, his sheer longevity as a creative artist has made him an endless stimulus, the central figure in his own artistic field, and beyond. Recently he has earned the epithet 'old master' from some journalists. Rightly so.

Dylan and Brecht: Here the parallel is most striking, and looking at Dylan's art as theatre suggests answers to some of the conundrums in Dylan's work: particularly, What happened to the early radicalism? Why can't he sing? Why does he tour so much? Why does he seem to care so little about bootlegs?

Like Brecht, Dylan's radicalism does not lie in the content of his work. He tried direct political protest music in the early 60s (ironically, inspired, in his own view, by Brecht & Weill's 'Pirate Jenny' from Threepenny Opera), and abandoned it, leading to charges that he had 'sold out', but a better case can be made that he came to realise, as Brecht had done in the 1920s, that agitprop was merely cathartic, emotionally purging and ultimately comforting. Radical messages do not radicalise audiences. So he went beyond protest songs. He continued to use the ballad form, a form designed to tell stories, but the stories Dylan tells are elliptical and fragmentary, full of divergent voices, lacunae and unresolved possibilities. This creates a kind of verfremdungseffekt - Brechtian 'alienation', or better, 'making strange' (compare the Russian Formalist ostrananie, and of course Surrealism). The audience is faced with a choice, either to let Dylan's music go past like a train you don't want to catch, or to engage with it, filling in the gaps, trying to resolve the possibilities, creating alongside him.

Dylan's presentation of his songs is consistent with this. He is often accused of being unable to sing. In fact he can sing (or could, his voice does seem to be packing up now), but usually doesn't. This isn't as odd as it sounds. Saying Dylan can't sing is like saying Picasso couldn't paint. Picasso could have painted straight portraits and landscapes, but didn't, because he was doing something else. So is Dylan. The presentation of his songs is raw, and deliberately so. The polished music of such as The Beatles and Queen, like a fully prepared meal, can only be consumed. You listen to it, dance to it, but you don't work on it. With Dylan the rough edges are still there, there is unmined potential there. It is not a perfect dish served up in a restaurant, it requires work. Sometimes all you get are some of the ingredients and part of a recipe. You are invited to bring your own experience to complete it. You may decide you'd rather throw it out and order a takeaway. Many do. But if you do bring your own ingredients, knowledge, experience and skills to it, the results can be much richer and more nourishing than any ready served up meal.

And if you do contribute to creating the meal, whose creation is it? Dylan's work is massively covered by other artists - moreso than almost anyone else. This is in large part because of the elliptical nature of his songs and the rawness of their delivery. Those who want to attend at all have to engage, working on the songs and letting them work on you. And as that happens, in a sense they are no longer really Dylan's songs. They become yours as much as anyone's. They take on a life of their own. Few Beatles' songs lend themselves to being covered by other artists (unless as orchestral arrangements or as gimmicks); fewer Queen songs. What is the point of covering them? The original artists have done the definitive versions. There is nothing more to say. With Dylan songs there is always more to find and say.

Dylan's cryptic games of mystery with the media are part of this. His work is not his possession. Dylan has always delighted in a fugitive identity, telling Al Weberman 'You are Bob Dylan,' playing 'Alias' in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, playing one of the title roles in Renaldo and Clara while someone else played 'Dylan', being Masked and Anonymous. He keeps himself enigmatic, and lets the songs fly away. His relentless touring is part of it too, presenting the songs in multiple ways, and doing little to prevent them being bootlegged. So umpteen versions of each song exist, there is no definitive version of any of them, which encourages others to adopt them, adapt them, explore them further, personalise them. Again, Dylan liberates the songs from being his property.

As one of the most bootlegged and covered artistes of them all, Dylan's influence is incalculable. His work becomes part of everybody's life. Even those who don't 'get' him, of haven't even heard of him, are touched by him, hearing his songs done by others and not even knowing they were Dylan songs.

Brecht's plays, like Shakespeare's, are eternally contemporary. With their multiple voices and minimal stage directions, each production requires creative decisions by the director, and engagement from the audience, and the plays remain alive. (Contrast, say, Shaw's plays, which are so controlled by Shaw's laborious intentions that they suffocate. For all his pomposity about 'Shavian' theatre, Shaw's work is dead as a doornail. Shakespeare lives on.). Dylan works like Brecht and Shakespeare.

In 200 years, people will still listen to the Beatles, but it will be like listening to Bach or Vivaldi. Immortal, yes, but of its time. Dylan, I suspect, will survive more like Shakespeare - eternally now, still being explored and covered and engaged with.

In the first half of the 20th century, great cultural figures were (as in the 18th century) as common as gooseberries: think Einstein, Picasso, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Tagore, the Surrealists, Trotsky, Brecht, the Marx brothers, Sartre and de Beauvoir (etc. etc.).

And who has made their name as a great figure since 1950? Lucien Freud perhaps? Beckett? Few others. But most certainly Dylan.

For articles enough to sate the appetite of the most hopelessly addicted Dylan-head, see