Word got out today that Robert Zimmerman won a big award, and everyone was talking about it both in cyberspace and real space, and along with the wows and the explanation points there were those who questioned the decision either because they thought Dylan was less than iconic or because lyric writers winning literary awards may have broken some kind of rule. The latter argument hearkens back of course to the belief that poetry is poetry and lyrics are lyrics and the never the twain shall meet.
This happens to be one of those subjects on which I agree with everyone. Lyrics can never aspire to poetry? Sure. There are times when lyrics are so sharp, so focused, so chiseled that calling them anything other than poetry is pure sacrilege? I can live with that as well. In other words, call me with any opinion on the matter and I’ll concur without even trying.
That said, I’m as aware as anyone of all the train wrecks created when people search for some sort of alchemy between poetry and music, whereas lyrics + music is so often a magic combination. So what goes awry when folks try to take the words of a great poet and turn that into music? Why does it so often come across as stiff, forced, unnatural, and self-consciously Artistic, plus—maybe this goes without saying—the music is seldom good. There are exceptions—Steve Swallows Home, with Sheila Jordan singing the words of Robert Creeley, for instance, is enchanting—and the singular Kip Hanrahan, who writes words and (unlike, say, Pete Brown or Pete Sinfield) helps guide them into music even though he rarely plays an instrument on his albums and also seldom sings, has made some great albums. Definitely there are times when I listen to Kip Hanrahan records when the world of poetry and the world of lyrics don’t seem too far apart.
So what does this have to do with Zimmy? Well, a lot, maybe, but expect a long, circuitous route before I try to piece anything together. I first want to address my history with Bob Dylan. Although he’s as front page as a rock star can be these days, when I was growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, you rarely heard him on Top 40 radio, and on underground radio—the only other place you could hear rock and roll—they didn’t play anyone more than anyone else, which is to say, the next band was as likely to be Ultimate Spinach as Dylan or the Stones or the Liverpool Four.
So he wasn’t “in the air” as much as much as you might have thought he was—I mean I’m sure he was if you were in a university or just a little older than I was, but sixth and seventh graders during this pre-Internet era had to work a bit just to hear the guy. You knew he was big and mythical and that he cast a spell on folks not many years before, but by 1970 the folk music of the early 60s seemed a bit ancient, as so many new things had come in so solid since then. The first opportunity I had to sit down and assess the value of Bob Dylan came when a friend bought Greatest Hits Volume 1 and the two of us gave it some serious listens. Although there was nothing on the album that I disliked, I wasn’t smitten. Not all, but some of the songs seemed to already exist in that Classic Rock museum where I’ve never felt very comfortable. Some Neil Young songs (“Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” in particular) hit me like that; actually, a lot of songs hit me like that. And it would have been tough for “Blowing in the Wind” to bowl me over, as anything you know in advance is Majorly Important can be a tough sell.
Oddly, the next Dylan I spent time with was the two-LP volume 2 of the “hits,” but even though that covered some less familiar territory and cast a wider stylistic net, not much of it rocked my world. Even now songs high in the Bob Dylan cannon—“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—while undeniably classic, were not, and still are not, my daily bread when it comes to Dylan. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was more my style, as were “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Tombstone Blues” (and why, I ask, weren’t those last two on either of the first two greatest hits collections?), and that’s not because those songs had a bluesy feel. It had more to do with the words and the way he sang them.
Gradually I became more versed in Dylan, and bought some of his albums, and warmed to this and warmed not to that. But I still wasn’t in that deep—not until the day I brought Blonde on Blonde home from a record store. Even there, I didn’t flock right away to the more familiar songs from that album, like, say, “Just Like a Woman.” For those who by now consider me cra-cra, all I have to say is, I had to get to Dylan in my own way, and get there I did. “Visions of Johanna” I loved, and Side C became, and still is, my favorite Dylan side, although by now three or four or five sides have come to tie it. On Side C he’s all kinds of earthy visionary along with being a wordsmith so on top of his game that he gets positively loosey-goosey about it and still hits bullseyes—in fact, he’s at the top of his game:
The judge he holds a grudge
He’s going to call on you
But he’s badly built and he walks on stilts
You better watch out he don’t fall on you
The six white horses that you did promise
Were finally delivered down to the penitentiary
Clever, huh? Well, he ain’t done:
To live outside the law you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree
Those are zingers, just great, great lyrics, and Dylan’s delivery—suddenly I loved the guy. Still, though, I continued to approach him from less obvious places. I would grow to love every note of Blood on the Tracks, but when it came out I merely liked it…or what I heard of it, anyway. “Tangled Up in Blue” I didn’t hear until later, which is too bad because even dumb me plunged headfirst into that on a first listen, and it’s the kind of opening track that announces quite boldly that you gotta hear the whole damn album. Desire I connected with more quickly. I liked every song on it, liked the incantational vocals, the harmonies, the sound of the drums, the violin, everything. I liked the words and I liked how he delivered them. Sometimes he’d hard-stress consecutive syllables:
We’re gonna put his ass in stir
We’re gonna pin that triple murder on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim
And sometimes he’d rush a few syllables before hammering home the rest of the line:
- In Patterson that’s just the way things are
- If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
- Unless you want to draw the heat
Although the words don’t fly out as fast, “Joey” shares some of Hurricane’s grittiness and what Allen Ginsberg describes, in his wonderful liner notes to the album, as “tough iron metal talk rhymes.”
That’s where I came in with Dylan, those songs, those albums, that style of lyric writing, that style of singing. Since then my appreciation of different facets of his music grew infinitely, but I need go no further than the lyrics I just quoted to address the connection between Dylan and poetry (remember that?). Those lyrics aren’t poetry. Those lyrics are lyrics. But there is so much poetry flowing through them, with whiffs of Rimbaud and the Beats (and old blues lyrics) running through the lines, and while this ain’t no influence, these lines from Robert Lowell seem not too many streets down from “Hurricane” and “Joey”:
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
To come back to the Beat element in Dylan—you forget that he has in him; in fact, he absorbed it so deeply so early that it could spill out at any time, as it did on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Hurricane” and even as late as “Tweedle Dee and Tweedledum”…and in lots of other places too. When I think of the energy the Beatniks brought to wordifying (Michael McClure and Ginsberg perhaps more than any, although Kerouac got there in prose), I feel that energy and even a Beat cadence in the way Dylan delivers some of his lyrics.
It’s in his narrative, too. Listening to “Tangled Up in Blue,” it’s easy to imagine one of Sal Paradise’s buddies who was left out of the final draft of On the Road but had a story of his own that was somehow shared by all the everyones who wandered outside the social net during a time when it closed mighty tight. Beat energy and Beat rapid-fire flashcard word delivery and Beat tough iron metal talk—they were in him as much as Woody Guthrie was in him. So if lyrics and poetry are, in the final analysis, oil and water, I’ll still say that at times Bobby D is as close to Beat poetry as On the Road was to Beat poetry, and On the Road was Beat poetry. In early Tom Waits the connection to the Beat tradition is much more overt, but it also feels a step removed from the source. (It’s also great—that is not a criticism.) With Dylan, well, he might just as well have been hanging with Sal and Carlo and Dean. I bet he knew some friends of theirs.
As people discuss Dylan winning the Nobel Peace Prize, much will be made of the meaning of his lyrics and their historical importance and how he got America to question itself. Along with the meaning of his words, though, we should also credit him for how he used them. Words are amazing things—in fact, they can be downright exhilarating, with incredible energy. Dylan proved that a thousand times. So go ahead, throw any award you want at him. He done this world some good.