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How Hamlet Became Prospero: On Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday

For Prospect Magazine:

 

The first time I came to London on my own, I came to see Bob Dylan. He was playing at the Hammersmith Apollo. I had tickets for three of the shows. I remember freezing in the queues outside. I remember the stampede to get to the front when the bastards finally opened the door. And I remember the sheer visceral excitement—awe, relief, disbelief, euphoria—of the moment when he appeared on stage from out of the darkness. The strange affirmation of being in the same physical space as him. The gratitude that I wasn’t too late to witness him live. Sure, I had not had the chance to see him in the 1960s, but at least I had the chance to see him at all.

Back then—in 1990—Dylan was already 28 years into his career and nobody had any idea that he had more than another quarter of a century of great works and live concerts ahead of him. Indeed, as it has turned out, I was seeing him for the first time at roughly the halfway point of his career.

Dylan turns 75 on 24th May. For millions of devotees like myself—many of whom consider him the world’s greatest living artist—it is a moment of celebration tinged with apprehension. Joan Baez, his most significant early anointer-disciple (Joan the Baptist), best expresses what might be described as “the Dylan feeling” in the excellent Martin Scorsese 2005 documentary when she says: “There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything, between what pours out of Bob’s hand on to the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him. Some people would say, ‘not interested,’ but if you are interested, he goes way, way deep.” I love this for lots of reasons but most of all because it captures not only the religious devotion that many who love him feel, but also the bemused indifference of the sane and secular who do not.

Of course, the first order of business when writing about Dylan is to urge readers to ignore writers who write about Dylan. We are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, forever tramping door to door with our clumsy bonhomie and earnest smudgy leaflets; in all honesty, you would be much better off seeking out the resonant majesty of the actual work. Indeed, you’ll be relieved—and possibly endeared—to hear that Dylan himself considers his disciples to be deranged. “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?” Dylan asked in a recent interview for Rolling Stone. “What the fuck is the matter with them?”

I should say in passing that I am only mildly afflicted by comparison. There are tens of thousands of Dylan fans who are in a far more advanced state of insanity. Fervent purveyors of set-lists and bootlegs and best-of-performances; the blue-faced blogging battalions; the tens of millions who watch YouTube footage of him changing the lyrics to a song here or performing an unreleased track there. Soon these poor folk will be sifting the brand new 6,000-piece literary archive of his ephemera (acquired in March by the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a rumoured $60m) for clues as to his state of mind sequestered in the addenda to his legal contracts. There are already hundreds of “Dylanologists” who like to listen to individual instrumental tracks of his gazillion bootleg recordings—“stems” as they are called—so as to focus in on his rhythm guitar playing or keyboards. Then there are the serial show-goers stretching all the way back to the Gaslight Café in New York in 1962. There’s no other songwriter that comes anywhere near this kind of… what? Devotion, loyalty, study, analysis, contemplation, regard, fixation.

There are many answers as to why this might be (answers to Dylan’s own question) but the most straightforward is found in the lyrical texture and complexity of his early work. Like TS Eliot or Walt Whitman, his words mesmerise, occlude and invite interpretation. The whole crazy-devotional interpretative approach to his oeuvre began with people simply trying to decode the meaning of his songs—something approximate to parsing “The Waste Land” or “Leaves of Grass.” Over time, that inquisitorial dynamic spread beyond the art and on into the artist himself until it had intensified to the point of absurdity.

And yet not quite absurdity with regard to the songs. Because Dylan rewards meditation and repeated listening like no other. Very few of his stanzas succeed as on-the-page poetry—he is a performing artist—but when he sings, he imbues his words with a significance that is somehow rich with multivalent meanings, many of which feel just out of reach. This is something to do with the startling originality and range of his poetic imagination as expressed through the quality and skill of his word selection and the tone and timbre of his sung delivery. As Baez implies, the listener either wheels away wincing or they must be forever drawn in deeper and deeper seeking to further understand, savour and construe. (In this way, Dylan’s work is a bit like Ludwig van Beethoven in classical music: it’s all or nothing and you can’t have him on in the background.)

To put it another way, there are hundreds of Dylan’s lines that precisely capture or enact deeply personal human feelings that then turn out to be capacious enough to capture or enact entirely different human feelings decades later. Some of this effect is the accidental by-product of his staggering facility with the language, but a lot more than he pretends is consciously designed. Certainly, it’s why people began to study him in the first place. To quote the man himself: “What drives [us] to you is what drives [us] insane.”

But I don’t want to attempt to unpack the mighty genius of Dylan’s writing here; that’s a subject for another lifetime… Instead, by way of celebration and in an attempt to explain to non-believers, I want to offer up for consideration some other aspects of Dylan’s life and work that are not routinely considered: five qualities that I find inspiring and that I have come to admire since his 60th when I last wrote about him in a birthday context.

Dynamism
Since 1990, Dylan has played an average of more than 100 shows a year—every year—all around the planet. Think about that for a second. Forget the art, think about the travel. Then think about the energy and verve required to perform the smallest public presentation. And think about what it must be like to stand up—night after night—and hold an audience. Hold them spellbound. By singing. For hours on end. So that they keep coming back and paying you for more. Could you even remember the words? What if you’d written over 600 songs? How about doing all that in your seventies? No wonder he sometimes sounds like a 6,000-year-old stable door creaking and groaning in a Pentateuchal hurricane.

But this isn’t really what I mean by Dylan’s dynamism. The thing that gets to many aficionados these days is his artistic vitality. Like Pablo Picasso or Johann von Goethe, his late period work continues to develop and strive for originality and often to match and sometimes outshine the raw virtuosity of his albums from the 1960s. He writes and plays songs that are serious and engaged and occupied with the world as he envisions it today; sure, he is as old as the idiom, but he is also its greatest re-inventor and frontiersman. Where once he was the most interesting Hamlet of his generation, he’s now the most interesting Prospero.

Besides the new albums, there’s a second sense in which his art is inspiringly kinetic—the way his old songs are given new life in performance. In the concerts, works from 50 years ago will be re-imagined and reshaped so as to acquire new resonances—not just for the audience but also for Dylan himself. Often, the results of these partial improvisations are rivetingly bad—something equivalent to the sound of an asthmatic tramp strangling the last white rhino with nothing but a harmonica neck-rack. But there are other times (Hammersmith, November 2003) when Dylan finds something new in a song, something that even he didn’t know he meant, or that he had forgotten he meant… And these are the times when it’s like watching a prophet-king tear open the sky and command the gods to explain to their people every last mystery of love and death, human suffering, hope and desire.

Were the new work not still developing, the shows would be largely museum pieces. Were the old work of any less quality, it would not stand up to his nightly re-invention. But Dylan is not merely parodying or re-enacting a former frozen-in-time self pace, say, Mick Jagger; nor is his later work of such inferior standard as to be considered ephemera pace, say, Paul McCartney. Instead, in these two senses—with the new and the old—Dylan remains a dynamic artist, richly and vividly alive with his work—making and remaking, figuring and refiguring, deep into his eighth decade.

Self-Reliance
Dylan is famously indifferent to what his critics, audience or commentators think, say, feel or want. Actually, indifference is an understatement since it suggests a relationship—even if denied. Dylan’s attitude towards the press and public might be more accurately characterised as being something approximate to the attitude of Pluto as to whether humankind decides to classify it as a planet or not. Indeed, the last time I saw him—at the London shows in autumn 2015—I realised midway through that there was nobody in the Royal Albert Hall who was less interested in Dylan than the man himself. Which is probably why he was singing so much Frank Sinatra.

To my ear, these were the worst concerts I had seen him do for many years. (Contrary to popular perception, Dylan diehards are more acutely aware than the critics about how awful he can be; we know—we were there.) Why croon for two hours when you yourself were the man who rid the world of all this saccharine Sinatran slush the first time around? And, if you must croon, why not deploy your own back catalogue, which contains dozens of far more beautiful and sophisticated love songs? The point is that Dylan doesn’t care what anyone thinks—least of all his audience—and probably hasn’t since roughly 1965.
“Once he was the most interesting Hamlet of his generation. Now he is its most interesting Prospero”
Those of you who know something of Dylan lore might dimly recall that this is when he “went electric” and fans starting booing and hissing and screaming “Judas!” (In fact he’d been electric before he was folk.) But Dylan didn’t just exasperate and lose his audience once. He’s done the same more or less every five years: he annoyed folk fans with rock music; rock fans with country music; country fans with cover-song crooning (Self Portrait in 1970 was the first time around for the crooning-Bob); cover-song-crooning-lovers with a caustic bitter-sweet divorce album; bitter-sweet-Bob-lovers with a Christian-gospel-rock; Christian-gospel-rock fans with a Zionist phase; the entire Live Aid world audience by using the moment to get drunk and draw attention away from Africa to the plight of American farmers; the remaining loyalists with a “comeback” that then subsided into two albums of finger-picking early blues covers featuring songs like “Froggie Went A Courtin’.” And so on. And so on.

He only really stopped annoying people in 1997 when he released the first of his late masterpieces, Time Out Of Mind. And that’s only because from around that date onward, people finally realised that he was always going to do whatever the hell he liked. In 2009, incidentally, Dylan put out an album of Christmas carols, which in my estimation has strong claims to be the worst album released by any artist in the history of recorded time.

But there’s a stirring spirit in all of this which followers—and especially other artists—respond to. “Some people are called to be a good sailor,” Dylan has said. “Some people have a calling to be a good tiller of the land. Some people are called to be a good friend. You have to be the best at whatever you are called at. Whatever you do. You ought to be the best at it—highly skilled. It’s about confidence, not arrogance. You have to know that you’re the best whether anybody else tells you that or not. And that you’ll be around, in one way or another, longer than anybody else. Somewhere inside of you, you have to believe that.” Or, to cite another song: “Don’t trust me to show you the truth / When the truth may only be ashes and dust / If you want somebody you can trust, trust yourself.”

Engagement
Another reason people go through Dylan’s bins (really) and compile “best 300” lists of their favourite concerts is because his work is powerfully and adhesively engaged with the three subjects that most preoccupy human beings: love, death and the bridge between the two—spirituality. These themes he grips again and again—unflinching and with a maturity that seems, miraculously, to have been there from the age of 19.

“Dylan didn’t just exasperate his audience once. he more or less does it every five years”: Dylan performing at Wembley Stadium in 1984 ©Michael Putland/Getty Images
In terms of love, he has a song for every possible micro-mood of the heart and is rivalled only by John Donne as the great anatomist of the male heterosexual experience. Like Donne (and very few others), he pays equal attention to the intellectual, physical and the spiritual aspects of love; and like Donne he can render all three with equal fidelity and felicity in a single work. Also like Donne, he can make a single line point in four different emotional directions at the same time: “Don’t think twice, it’s all right”—meaning do think twice; don’t think twice; it is all right; it absolutely isn’t all right at all.

But it is probably Dylan’s engagement with spirituality and death that raise him so far above the level of others in his form. For sure, this is what confers the biblical cadence on the verse and the Old Testament purview to his performances. (And it’s why this essay is shot through with religious language, because Dylan’s work is impossible to write about otherwise.) His songs resonate with the deepest concerns. What binds the slavery of the Israelites and the slavery of the plantations? Is “power and greed and corruptible seed [really] all that there is”? Is this a world without God? Or is there some redemption? In which direction might that lie?”

Lazy biographers talk of Dylan “finding God” in the 1970s just as they talk of him being a “political protest singer” in the 1960s. But the truth is the reverse: Dylan is perpetually looking for God and his protest is political only because underneath it is (and always has been) existential. He is concerned with spirituality in its deepest sense—the quest for human meaning—and he long ago renounced the narrow formal structures of Christianity or Judaism. In 1997, he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

Consider these themes as examined through the play and fluency of his poetry and you start to see why people who are at all interested in the inner life of human beings love him so much. (Even, and in particular, atheists like myself.) And, ultimately, it is this eloquent engagement with hopes, desires, weakness, self-doubt, courage, despair, loss and a thousand other conditions of the soul that place him as a songwriter in relation to the rest of popular music, much as Shakespeare is in relation to the rest of the poets.
Authenticity
I don’t mean authenticity here in the sense that Dylan authentically embodies the journey of popular music from its blues, gospel, folk, balladeer and minstrel origins. He does and he doesn’t. Neither do I mean honesty in the somewhat dreary and quotidian sense of his being an honest person. By his own admission Dylan told lies about who he was and where he came from back when he was starting out; and, in changing his surname from Robert Zimmerman, he literally invented himself. Indeed, all his life he has dodged away from and baulked against being defined by the words and opinions of others. No—his veracity (and the non-importance given to straightforward veracity by great literary artists) is a subject for another day. Rather, I mean Dylan’s authenticity in the artistic sense: in the sense that he reports directly and with honesty from the front line of his experience, be that tumultuous or mundane. His poetry is not so much from the pen as from the vein.

Sometimes Dylan’s vision is vast, epic and richly imagined; sometimes there is nothing but a bank of sand. Sometimes he is in love, sometimes in despair; sometimes he has looked upon the face of God, sometimes existence itself feels to him like a dirty trick; sometimes he’s cajoling and collusive and playful, sometimes callous and cruel and contemptuous; sometimes he’s wry, sometimes he’s outright funny, sometimes he’s mournful, sometimes he’s wandering alone in the desert or howling from the watchtowers. And—yes, of course—sometimes he is wasted and weary and washed out. But however the world presents itself to him and whatever his thoughts and feelings, he passes on his response with emotional verisimilitude.

The great example of this very particular artistic authenticity is a proto-song called “I’m Not There”—recorded only once, in 1967, when Dylan was hiding away with his backing band while recuperating from his fabled motorcycle accident. The reason the recording is so treasured by students of the work is that you can hear the intense emotional truth of the song—its authenticity—before Dylan has settled on the words, before the song quite exists. The Dylan writer, John Bauldie, called it “Dylan’s saddest song, achieved without benefit of context or detail… like listening to the inspiration before the song is wrapped around it.” And Greil Marcus, one of Dylan’s best known critics, called the song, “a trance, a waking dream… [so powerful that] after five minutes… you no longer believe that anything so strong can be said in words.”

And this is another thing I like about Baez’s quotation—that there are no barriers between what “pours out of his hand and on to the page” and is then instantly “available” to his listeners. I have a lot of time for David Bowie and Lou Reed and Tom Waits—and they all worshipped Dylan—but they’re “acts” in a way that Dylan is not and cannot be. Or, to switch forms a moment, an analogy here might be Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings (Dylan himself is a not-terrible amateur painter) in that the viewer is well aware of the immense and skilful artistry involved in creating the subject’s character—in the literal sense, it is pure artistry—but also that same viewer sees in the painting something that is direct, powerful, unveiled, startling, abidingly and authentically human. There’s the truth staring back at you. And there’s no hiding because every brushstroke is bent towards revelation.

Stamina
Anyone who has ever attempted anything artistic—a song, a painting, a  novel, a short film—will be able to testify to the surprising difficulty of doing such a thing at all, never mind doing it well, never mind more than once, never mind dozens of times over a lifetime. Besides the often overwhelming requirements of skill, dedication and the sheer soul-spend that serious art requires, there are also the million daily impedimenta of life which conspire to stop you starting out on one single original work. Not to mention having to make money through or besides the endeavour.

Even if you do manage to make something, this turns out to be less than 50 per cent of the artist’s job. Next, you have to make the work matter to someone else—and, ideally, not just to matter, but to speak to their hearts and lodge in their minds so that they come back again and again to reconsider what you have said and done. In short, to imbue the work with such vitality that it starts to have a life of its own—distinct from its maker.

People in general—and critics in particular—often think that there is some magic that confers creativity. And maybe there is—once in an artist’s lifetime, a writer might be handed down a novel or a song on some pre-heated Promethean plate. But for the rest of the time, it’s sheer stamina, toil and craft. And this long-distance dedication defeats even great artists who break through in their early lives only then to fade away or implode or repeat themselves. As Émile Zola has it: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

In Dylan’s case… Well, the man has turned up at the studio—not once, or twice, or even 10 times—but 36 times. Think about that. Turning up ready to go with fresh songs for a fresh attempt at saying something meaningful, beautiful, important. Ready to work. Ready to surpass himself again. Ready to render everything he has got in a form and structure that the rest of the world can share. More than this, though, for long periods in his life, Dylan has had to turn up for this work against a backdrop of deeply personal public criticism and condemnation—usually vituperative and often visceral.

Imagine, for a moment, that every time you completed a year’s work, millions of people around the world attacked you because you hadn’t done whatever it was they wanted or expected of you. Not just attacked you, but barracked and heckled and shouted “Judas!” at you in your workplace, then took to the newspapers to write you off as terrible at the very thing you’ve spent your life doing so that all your friends and family and employers could read it. And that’s just the public stuff. Add to that the chaos of his personal circumstances—the children, marriages, divorces, the anxiety about money, the deaths of friends—all that life hurls in your way. You wouldn’t carry on. Not if you’d already proven yourself 10 times over. Not if you’d already changed the face of music once. Not if your legacy and influence were already assured. Not if you were already a giant of American letters. Not unless, that is, you were one of the truly great artists with the kind of stamina the rest of us cannot scarcely imagine. Not unless you were building a ladder to the stars and you were determined to climb on every rung.