Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Four Pieces About Bob Dylan

1. Obvious Believers

I think people are missing the point of Nashville Skyline, which is as it should be, since they were probably supposed to. The beauty of the album is that it is totally undemanding. In the past, it was always possible to enjoy Dylan without understanding him; I don't think he would have achieved his postfolk popularity otherwise. Even if you found his metaphors opaque and his situations surreal, you could dig him--Dylan-himself in the most showbiz that-man-himself sense, Dylan the presentation--for, comprehensible or not, Bob Superstar was always lurking in the inflections of that endless wit as well as out front in the persona shifts that have always defined his career. It was fun to wrestle with him. But you never held him for the count of three. Granting the two obvious exceptions--"Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"--even the songs on that great blow for simplicity (and it was, it was), John Wesley Harding, were as gnomic as any of his previous work--less action-packed, less grandiloquent, but finally elusive. Only the kind of know-nothing know-it-alls that Dylan seems to attract by the thousands could ever believe they had pinned that album down.

But as everyone knows, this record is different. The songs are so one-dimensional that they seem contrived, as if daring A.J. Weberman to search out the secret symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, even though Dylan is in too genial a mood to actually be daring anybody, the know-it-alls can be expected to take him up on it. This time they will be ignored, which is good, because stupidity should always be ignored, but also bad, because there is still some trickery going on, and I get the feeling nobody wants to know about it.

As usual, it has to do with image. For the past four years, since the traumatic turn to rock, Dylan has been as private a celebrity as J.D. Salinger. In the beginning he was shy, perhaps wary of his own fame, but at the same time a funny and engaging, hence beloved, performer. After Newport, 1965, however, he stopped doing his half. Public appearances became rare, and because he was in demand as a profile subject, his distaste for reporters became notorious. Even before the accident he was difficult to reach; afterward he became an unequivocal recluse. But although none of his fans were sure he would ever be heard from again, they continued and in fact intensified the one-sided affair. Then, after two and a half years, the ice began to crack.

The last songs on John Wesley Harding presaged a new Dylan, and at the Woody Guthrie memorial in Carnegie Hall we got a glimpse of him--bearded, smiling, neighborly, one-upping everyone with lively electric versions of Guthrie songs but doing it in a really nice way. Music from Big Pink, with its new songs, was another message of love, and they kept coming. Before John Wesley Harding even Dylan anecdotes were precious, but now they became more common, and what's more, credible--Dylan at the Woodstock P.T.A., Dylan offering the Everly Brothers a song at the Bitter End. He began to grant somewhat impersonal interviews--one to Hubert Saal, of Newsweek, a long one to some friends at Sing Out! And while the recording sessions for John Wesley Harding had been top secret, the music press offered a virtual play-by-play on Nashville Skyline. We heard of television appearances with Johnny Cash and a projected tour. After all the Cash stories no one was surprised when Nashville Skyline turned out to be an extension of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."

As always, Dylan insists that the new Dylan is the real one. He told Hubert Saal that he never really identified with folk music. It was just something he latched on to: "I suppose there was some ambition in what I did. But I tried to make the songs genuine." Self-expression? He says of Nashville Skyline: "These are the type of songs that I've always felt like writing when I've been alone to do so. The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past." After eight years as psychic wanderer, Dylan is transmuted into man-about-the-house--friendly, stable, secure, polite to interviewers, and promising not to vomit it back in our faces next year. Well now, I don't know. I am certain Dylan is sincere, but I am also certain that he was sincere about protest music when he was into that. He is a master image manipulator, but his mastery has always been purely instinctual--his dislike of the press is sincere, too. I don't think Dylan even wants to have an image, but as an entertainer he can't avoid it, and his sense of what he must do is so acute that he just naturally finishes one step ahead, race or no race.

In "Lay, Lady, Lay" Dylan offers the central argument of Nashville Skyline: "Why wait any longer for the world to begin?/ You can have your cake and eat it too./ Why wait any longer for the one you love/ When he's standing here in front of you?" I quote all four lines to make clear how well the first two fit the love song. Yet the world they imply is a world of events as well as a world of love--like so many Beatle fragments, the stanza gets better all the time. "Why wait any longer for the world to begin?" is a political cop-out, but it's a beautiful one, beautiful because it is true. Why wait, when it is possible to create within your own world and still anticipate that better one?

The most important implications of the sentiment are political not because it doesn't apply equally well to ye olde artistic/religious/identity search but because Dylan retains political importance not just for the folk diehards but for everyone who cares about both Dylan and politics. John Wesley Harding was political though ambivalent--if "All Along the Watchtower" was ominous, "Dear Landlord" was conciliatory--and many of us would not have been surprised, before the Nashville stories, if the follow-up had been even more political. But Nashville Skyline, we are told, is apolitical, inspiring some nasty gloating from the fainthearts who are beginning to fear radicalism. They're glad the radical culture hero has turned into a good old boy.

Country music, the mode of Nashville, has its audience base in the white South, the Midwest, inland California, and the nouveau suburbs. It is naturally conservative, which has not stopped the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros. from dissociating themselves, more or less explicitly, from the yahoo reaction of the drugstore truck drivin' man. Such a position is possible because the basic impulse of the music seems Jeffersonian--ruggedly individualistic, antistatist, full of the man-to-man charity that Gram Parsons has called white soul and Dylan has celebrated by giving his seat to the poor boy on the street in "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You." It would be fair to say that Barry Goldwater is more sympathetic to this configuration than Jacob Javits but equally fair to say that Paul Goodman is more sympathetic than either.

The Jeffersonian impulse infused the movement when Dylan was its minstrel, but because the state has proved more brutally implacable than such idealism could have predicted, the movement has responded with a militant militarism of its own. The movement insists on organizational solidarity, and if there is anything clear about Dylan, it is that he doesn't like organizations. He is a Jeffersonian; he insists on being his own man. He has gone to country music because it is a repository of Jeffersonian values. But he has no apparent interest in exposing, or even understanding, their subversion. For although country music appears Jeffersonian, it is really Jacksonian--intensely chauvinistic, racist, majority-oriented, and antiaristocratic in the worst as well as the best sense. That is to say, it voices both sides of populism: the democratic and the fascistic.

The Sing Out! interview, conducted in Woodstock, ended strangely, with Dylan defending a painter friend who supported the war: "I've known him for a long time, he's a gentleman and I admire him, he's a friend of mine. People have their views. Anyway, how do you know I'm not, as you say, for the war?" Shocking. But just for fun, let me suggest the possibility that Dylan is for the war. It is fatuous to believe that good art and good politics go together, and if Dylan isn't a political conservative, he is certainly becoming an aesthetic conservative. More and more his work emphasizes formal discipline, concision, understatement. His music has become markedly more complex. He has experimented with the pop-song break instead of chug-chugging from stanza to stanza. This kind of distillation can take place only in a controlled environment, but Dylan obviously cherishes his privacy for more than scientific reasons. In Sing Out! Happy Traum told Dylan: "I think that events of the world are getting closer to us, they're as close as the nearest ghetto," and Dylan responded, "Where's the nearest ghetto?" How long will it take the Panthers to ready Woodstock? A hundred years, maybe, or five. And if it's five, what will Dylan do then? He says he writes songs only because he has a contract; as long as he must, he does them as well as he can. So perhaps he wouldn't miss his art. But he would miss his privacy terribly. A disinclination to go out among men is the mark of the aristocrat, self-appointed or otherwise.

Has Bobby really turned into T.S. Eliot, fighting from his own tower? I don't think so. Although Dylan's artistic direction has become more rhetorical and less revolutionary--moving from Apollinaire to Yeats--the devices of his rhetoric are significant. He is a private man but a public artist. "The most you can do is satisfy yourself," he told Sing Out!, but also, "If you're doing it for them instead of you, you're likely not in contact with them." Dylan wants contact with them, if not them. He knows the audience is crucial, and he wants to reach everyone. S.O.!: "Why do you think your music appeals to American Indians?" B.D.: "I would hope that it appeals to everybody." S.O.!: "I know suburban people who can't stand it." B.D.: "Well, I wish there were more I could do about that."

So here he is, folks, Homebody Bob, singin' ten songs for your listenin' pleasure--well, nine, really, one is a hoedown sort o' thing. Everyone knows by now, I hope, how intense that pleasure is. But hasn't anyone noticed something odd? All of those leaks from Nashville, we all knew for certain what it would be, we even knew the details of the duet, and yet when we put it on the turntable, there was one bug: Dylan wasn't singing. It was someone else, some cowboy tenor who sounded familiar. Everyone remarked upon this, of course, but no one mentioned that by the mere trick of changing his voice Dylan had crossed us up once again. Nashville Skyline was as much a switcheroo as John Wesley Harding. It is touching that everyone wants to believe that Bobby Dylan has settled down, but don't count on it. All those protestations of easy innocence may be just one more shuck.

Of maybe they're not. Which would make them the biggest shuck of all.

Village Voice, May 1969

2. Consumer Guide: Self Portrait

Bob Dylan: Self-Portrait (Columbia). Jon Landau wrote to suggest I give this a D, but that's pique. Conceptually, this is a brilliant album, organized by two central ideas. First, that "self" is most accurately defined (and depicted) in terms of the artifacts to which one responds--in this case pop tunes and folk songs claimed as personal property, semispontaneous renderings of past creations frozen for posterity on a piece of tape, and (perhaps) even a couple of songs one has written oneself. Second, that the people's music is the music people like, Mantovani strings and all. But in order for a concept to work it has to be supported musically--that is, it has to make you listen. I don't know anyone, even vociferous supporters of this album, who plays more than one side at a time. I don't listen to it at all. The singing is not consistently good, though it has its moments, and the production--for which I blame Bob Johnston, although Dylan has to be listed as a co-conspirator--ranges from indifferent to awful. It is possible to use strings and soprano choruses well, but Johnston has never demonstrated the knack. Other points: It's overpriced, the cover art is lousy, and it sounds good on WMCA. For further elucidation, see Greil Marcus's farewell piece in Rolling Stone. C plus.

Village Voice, July 1970

3. Tarantula: Not Good Enough, Says Bobby

The official appearance of Bob Dylan's Tarantula is not a literary event, because Dylan is not a literary figure. Literature comes in books, and Dylan does not intend his most important work to be read. If he ever did, his withdrawal of the pieces that form Tarantula from publication five years ago indicates that he changed his mind. Of course, it's possible that he's changed his mind again--with Dylan, you never know. Most likely, however, his very elusiveness is what the unexpected availability of this book is really about. The pursuit of the great public artist by his great audience has been a pervasive theme of his career, and the bootleg version of Tarantula hawked on the street and under the counter by self-appointed Dylanologists and hip rip-off artists were simply a variation on that theme. For Dylan to permit the release of the book now (at a non-rip-off price, it should be noted) is to acknowledge the loss of a battle in his never-ending war for privacy. Quite simply, his hand has been forced by his fans. He is a book-writer now, like it or not.

To assert that Dylan doesn't belong in the history of literature is not to dismiss him from the history of artistic communication or of language. Quite the contrary. A songwriter does not use language as a poet or a novelist does, because he chooses his words to fit into some larger, more sensual effect; an artist who elects to work in a mass medium communicates in a different way from one who doesn't and must be judged according to his own means, purposes, and referents. That much ought to be obvious. But Dylan's choices do more than merit their own critical canons--they are incisive responses to modernism's cul-de-sac, in which all the arts, especially literature, suffer from self-perpetuating intellectualism and elitism.

What makes this all so confusing is that Dylan's fame and influence are based on his literary talents and pretensions. Just for fun, I might suggest that Dylan is no greater artist than Chuck Berry or Hank Williams, but only Dylan could have become the culture hero of a decade of matriculating college classes. Even at first, when Dylan's best songs were mostly acute genre pieces, he was believed to embody transcendent artistic virtues. The standard example was "Blowin' in the Wind," which interspersed straightforward political questions with metaphorical ones, always concluding: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind." The song's "poetic" language--effective in the musical and emotive context, even though it appears hackneyed on the page--captured listeners sympathetic to its apparent assumptions and inspired much unfortunate image-mongering, but in retrospect we notice the ambivalence of the title: Can the answer be plucked from the air, or does it flutter out of reach?

Dylan may not have been aware he was equivocating when he wrote the song, but that doesn't matter. Equivocation was inherent in his choice of method. Like most of his confreres in the folk movement, Dylan got his world-view from the listless civil-rights and ban-the-bomb radicalism of the late fifties but was forced to find his heroes elsewhere, among the avant-garde artists who helped young postconformists define for themselves their separation from their fellow citizens. once Dylan found the ambition to use those artists as his own exemplars, he had to come to terms with their characteristic perspective--namely, irony. Sure enough, in "My Back Pages" (1964) he was renouncing politics with a nice ironic flourish--"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Unfortunately, the same song signaled his debut as a poetaster with a portentously clumsy opening line.

Between early 1964 and mid-1966--a period that includes the four albums from Another Side of Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde and the switch from acoustic to electric music--Dylan became a superstar. Pioneers of youth bohemia seized upon his grotesque, sardonic renderings of America as experienced by a native alien and elevated Dylan into their poet laureate. In response, professional defenders of poetry declared themselves appalled by his barbaric verbosity. Many of us, even while we were astonished, enlightened, and amused by Dylan's sporadic eloquence, knew why John Ciardi wasn't. But we didn't care, not just because Dylan's songs existed in an aural and cultural context that escaped the Ciardis, but because we sensed that the awkwardness and overstatement that marred his verse were appropriate to a populist medium. No one was explicit about this at the time, however, least of all Dylan, whose ambitions were literary as well as musical and whose relationship to his ever-expanding audience was qualified by the fascination with an arcane elite to which his songs testified.

Tarantula is a product of this period; in fact, Dylan fans who want a precise sense of what the book is like need only refer to the liner notes of Highway 61 Revisited. The basic technique is right there: the vague story, peopled with historical personages (Paul Sargent) and fabulous or pseudonymous characters (the Cream Judge, Savage Rose), punctuated with dots and dashes, and seasoned with striking but enigmatic asides, all capped off with a fictitious letter having no obvious connection to what has preceded. That's all, folks. The book is a concatenation of similar pieces. Most of them seem unconnected, although a few characters, notably someone named aretha, do recur. The only literary precedent that comes to mind is Naked Lunch, but in a more general way the book is reminiscent of a lot of literature because it's an effort to read it. Unless you happen to believe in Dylan, I question whether it's worth the effort, and don't call me a philistine--it was Bob Dylan who got me asking such questions in the first place.

For the strangest aspect of Dylan's middle period is that although it was unquestionably his literary pretensions that fanaticized his admirers and transformed the craft (or art) of songwriting, Dylan's relationship to literature as a discipline was always ambivalent. In fact, even to call it ambivalent is to point up the confusion--it was actually downright hostile. From Tarantula: "wally replies that he is on his way down a pole & asks the man if he sees any relationship between doris day & tarzan? the man says `no, but i have some james baldwin and hemingway books' `not good enough' says wally." From the notes to Bringing It All Back Home: "my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion." Dylan borrowed techniques from literature--most prominently allusion, ambiguity, symbolism, and fantasy--and he obviously loved language, but he despised the gentility with which it was supposed to be tailored. His songs do seem derivative, but (like Tarantula) they don't derive from anyone in particular. Obvious parallels or "influences"--Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Céline--share only his approach and identity: the Great Vulgarian, the Magnificent Phonus Balonus. He wrote like a word-drunk undergraduate who had berserked himself into genius, the jumbled culture of the war baby--from Da Vinci to comic strips, from T.S. Eliot to Charlie Rich--his only tradition. His famous surrealism owes as much to Chuck Berry as to Breton or even Corso, and even though his imagery broadened the horizons of songwriting, it was only a background for the endless stream of epigrams--which songwriters call good lines--flowing into our language, some already clichés ("The times they are a-changin'," "You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is"), others still the property of an extensive, self-informed subculture ("Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again," "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters"). Dylan may be a poor poet, but he is a first-class wit.

But such talk accedes to the temptation of placing Dylan's work in a page context, always a mistake. Literature may have engendered the Dylan mystique, but rock and roll nurtured it. We remember those lines because we've heard them over and over again, often not really listening, but absorbing the rhythm of unpoetic distortion just the same. Tarantula may contain similar gems, but we'll never know they're there, because Tarantula will never be an album. The wonderful letters, the funny bits, as well as the dreary, vaguely interesting stuff and the failed doomsday rhetoric--all will go. Aretha Franklin's continuing presence through the book is a portent of why, for shortly after Tarantula and Blonde on Blonde Dylan made another switch by abandoning the verbal play (and excess) of his long songs for brief, specifically pop works. For a while it appeared that this meant a total abandonment of the complexity of his vision, but New Morning makes clear that it is only a condensation. More and more, Dylan affirms the value of the popular and the sensual over the verbal. This book will find its way into A.J. Weberman's Dylan concordance and doubtless become a cult item, but it is a throwback. Buy his records.

New York Times Book Review, June 1971

4. I Am Dylan

Bob Dylan may just be into his music, man, but in the past month he's continued to show a star's canniness. Just after the dubious Greatest Hits Volume II package, which is certain to be bought even by those who own all the old stuff because it contains six new cuts, he released the heartening "George Jackson." Rolling Stone commented that "the song immediately divided Dylan speculators into two camps: those who see it as the poet's return to social relevance and those who feel that it's a cheap way for Dylan to get a lot of people off his back." This is ugly nonsense, of course, because the song is neither. Dylan seems finally to have come to terms with his own development. His inclusion of both "Hard Rain" and "My Back Pages" in the new compendium indicates that the protest Dylan and the antiprotest Dylan are both part of the star persona now. "George Jackson" is not a return to protest (Dylan has never lacked social relevance--that's what being a star means), and if the next LP doesn't include a lot of new political songs, that won't prove it was just a way of getting rid of poor A.J. More important is that Dylan responded with real human sympathy to a hideous assassination that Rolling Stone chose to fudge over with a notably pusillanimous account by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. The song is getting airplay (62 percent in the December 11 Cash Box, and 57 with a bullet on the singles chart), most often with the "shit" taken out somehow. Reportedly C.B.S. president Frank Stanton personally ordered WCBS-FM to get rid of the "shit" or take it off, and WCBS-FM elected to take it off. Ahh, shit.

Village Voice, Dec. 1971
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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