Bob Dylan — icon without a title

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“…as if sandpaper could sing…”

— Joyce Carol Oates



“And I hope that you die/And that your death’ll come soon/I will follow your casket/In the pale afternoon/And I’ll watch while you’re lowered/Down to your death bed/And I’ll stand over your grave/’Till I’m sure that you’re dead.”

— Bob Dylan
Masters of War

Bob Dylan let the protest movement adopt him in the early 1960s, and his career was born. With his guitar and harmonica in hand, his girl (Joan Baez) at his side and his warbly voice, he rose to fame as a champion of the poor and downtrodden. Just two years later he angered his supporters by strutting out in Carnaby Street style and playing loud electric rock.

At a 1966 concert in London’s Albert Hall, a disbelieving audience member cried out, “Judas!”

Dylan’s response? “I don’t believe you; you’re a liar!”

Bob Dylan was enigmatic before that, but afterwards too, people still tried in vain to label him, psychoanalyze him, attribute a particular persona to his ‘act’ and rationalize his lyrics in ways that would explain who he was. The less he did to encourage these presumptions, the more they persisted. Acclaimed as the voice of a new generation, he was clearly baffled. All he avowedly ever wanted to do was to write and perform his music.

And music it most certainly was. In comparing him with Milton, Keats and Tennyson, Oxford Professor of Poetry Christopher Ricks casts him convincingly as a poet. However, Dylan doesn’t recite his compositions; he sings them. He can keep a tune; he has great timing, but he never sounds pretty. In fact, his voice may have turned off more people than ever learned to like him — and yes, learning is the key.

Unlike pop musicians, Dylan makes no attempt to quickly grab listeners’ attention. Instead, he tells stories in American vernacular — rife with ‘bad’ grammar, run-of-the-mill phrases and stock clichés — but he messes with them, too. In ’Til I Fell In Love With You, his house isn’t burning to the ground, but to the sky. His lack of pretense is as real as it is crafted, and makes for vivid imagery. Assuming nothing, his gravelly voice amplifies the effect; it’s as expressive as an actor’s. He flips his tunes with the ease of a chameleon, recasting something that was born as a Country and Western dirge into rock-and-roll, reggae or Mexican folk; you never know. Dylan’s art rewards close attention. His fans don’t just listen to his work; they mine it.

For these very reasons, he’s often underestimated and overlooked, for example by music blogger Aiden Curran.



Bob Dylan, c 1963
a clean-cut kid


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