Getting to the Bottom of Dylan

By Rob Patterson

It should be clear by now that I have a major thing regarding Bob Dylan. A few months can hardly go by without a column here on the greatest writer of political songs ever and quite possibly the best American songwriter ever if not the world’s greatest. His recent award of an honorary Pulitzer Prize is yet another indication of his importance within post World War II culture.

What’s fascinating about Dylan is not just his music but also the man himself, who all but epitomizes Winston Churchill’s line about “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The Churchill quote — made about the Soviet Union — also reads after the above: “But perhaps there is a key.”

My rather regular ruminations on him were recently stoked again by watching the DVD Bob Dylan 1978-1989: Both Ends of the Rainbow. Made by the same folks who did the 1966-1978: After the Crash documentary, the recently released disc looks at Dylan’s born-again Christian years.

I also just picked up and started reading (with true relish) the new book by Dylan’s early 1960s girlfriend Suze Rotolo, A Freewhelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. And the latest news on the second volume of Dylan’s own Chronicles memoirs is that he has taken time off to write more of it and that it could even appear by the end of the year.

On the one hand, one can think of Dylan as the multi-faceted character he sings about in one of his best 1980s songs, “Jokerman.” Or one can see the title of the recent biopic, I’m Not There — ironic yet revealing even though it takes six actors to play him — as a message to those searching for the true Bob that you simply can’t find him. No public figure I can think of has done such a truly amazing job of shuffling personas and throwing up masks and illusions — literally in the movie Renaldo and Clara — as well as boundaries around his person and soul.

And can’t say as I blame him, given how people anointed him as a Godhead in the 1960s and for more than four decades now have tried to figure the man out and analyzed him as extensively as the Dead Sea Scrolls. And the way that a number of British critics, writers and observers seek to explain his born-again conversion in Both Ends of the Rainbow had me throwing up my arms in exasperation. (Happily for me, the two US critics who are talking heads in the documentary, Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis, both of whom I know and respect, don’t engage in such flights of fanciful analysis as their peers across the pond.)

For me, most efforts to encapsulate and even deconstruct Dylan are like trying to bottle lightning, as ultimately it’s all about attempting to get inside one man’s true genius and highly combustible muse. Does it really matter why he became, for a while, a born-again Christian and how it affected his career? For all its seeming strangeness, the move followed a line of Judeo-Christian righteousness that threads through most all his work.

Sure, he’s probably one of the most fascinating public figures in the modern world, and anyone with any intellectual curiosity as well as a taste for mystery can’t help but feel an urge to figure him out. But the key to Dylan for me is to analyze less yet try to understand more—which may seem like a Zen koan but is about suspending one’s own logic and being sympathetic to Dylan’s perspective — and ultimately just listen to the words he sings and the music he makes. Doing so is a great series of lessons in American music, poetics and creativity.

There’s enough in his amazing lyrical writing as well as the musical traditions that he draws from and inspires him to keep any mind well occupied. And the end result of Both Ends of the Rainbow, much as I love pondering a seemingly enigmatic soul, was to send me back to the albums from that time to rediscover and uncover further the gems and nuggets among his songs from that time.

I could paraphrase Bob and say, well, he’s an artist and he doesn’t look back, or that any answers are blowing in the wind. But rather the best answers are the ones he gives us in his songs and recordings, and even the eras where it seemed he was off-track and outside the zeitgeist have treasures and pleasures to reveal.

That key to Dylan’s riddles, mysteries and enigmas are found in the fact that he follows his muse and curious, restless intellect and spirit. I’ll never stop playing the parlor game of observing and even trying to divine the ways and motivations behind his fascinating journey. But following his muse and delving deeper and yet again into his artistic oeuvre as a close listener will bring us to his truths better than everything else.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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