This is an extraordinary song – a surface simplicity disguising a vast web of interconnections made possible by the extreme economy of language. The song seems to have been inspired by events in Dylan’s life – the circumstances of his first marriage and its break-up. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to say it’s about Dylan or those events. The narrator is a flawed character who might easily be anyone.
On first listening, the events of the song seem straightforward. The narrator is reminiscing about a woman he knew. His mind goes back over incidents connected with her, including their first meeting, and their subsequent splitting-up. He returns to describing his first encounter with her in a strip club, her giving him Dante to read, and his living with her and her husband in Montague Street until a disaster results in his departure. The final verse has him claiming that he’s going to get back with her.
This account is far too simplistic. A closer listening reveals all sorts of uncertainties about what happens, when it happens, and who is involved. In particular, we don’t know whether the narrator is reminiscing about one woman or many, while normal distinctions between one person and another, and those between different times, are elided. These uncertainties, together with the narrator’s disingenuousness, allow for an alternative interpretation to the one above according to which the narrator becomes a self-deceiving philanderer, hurtful to others and himself, and maybe destined never to achieve happiness. At the same time the uncertainties enable us to see what it would take for him to acquire happiness for himself and others.
The post is long and is divided into six parts:
- Religious Imagery
- The Woman
- The narrator’s character
That there’s an alternative to the narrator’s way of life, one which would enable him to acquire happiness for himself and others, is hinted at in the religious imagery that runs through the song.
The imagery begins with the mild imprecation ‘Lord knows’.
The narrator is then associated with those called by Christ to be disciples by becoming a fisherman. There’s no indication that he’s about to become a ‘fisher of men’ (Matt 4.19) in Christ’s sense, though. The reference to slaves and the narrator’s shadowy lifestyle suggest the opposite.
That he’s fishing ‘outside of Delacroix’ is significant for both the name of the town and the narrator’s choice of language. The name means ‘of the cross’. But that he’s fishing ‘outside of’ Delacroix’ suggests he cannot be associated with the act of redemption which Christ’s cross represents. Furthermore, the slightly awkward expression ‘outside of’ is taken up later when we’re told that:
‘… something inside of him died’
It’s because he is blind to the spiritual significance of the cross, that he becomes spiritually dead.
By the fourth verse the narrator is being associated with Christ himself:
‘… I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe’
This is clearly a reference to John the Baptist’s remark concerning Christ: ‘One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals’ (Mark 1.7). The narrator has good reason for feeling uneasy; any implied compliment is undeserved. His outlook is the opposite of Christ’s. It may be significant that his laces get tied, rather than untied, though. It might suggest the woman sees him as the moral opposite of Christ, a further reason for uneasiness.
The final verse has the narrator deprecating ‘carpenters’ wives’:
‘I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’
The comment represents an ironic judgment on the narrator given the achievement of the most renowned of all carpenter’s wives. The implication is that there are people he’d do better to emulate than to criticise.
Taking the images together, it’s clear what the narrator needs to do. In Christian terms, he needs to find spiritual happiness by giving up his present way of life and adopting a more purposeful existence in which he has more consideration for others.
The starkest religious imagery concerns hell – the narrator’s destiny, in a manner of speaking, if he doesn’t adopt a more honest outlook.
This imagery occurs in connection with the book offered to the narrator, apparently Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. On one level, what the narrator becomes aware of is the first part, the Inferno, which provides a description of hell. The words, we’re told:
‘… glowed like burnin’ coal’
They also ‘rang true’, although he doesn’t say in what way, merely that the words were:
‘Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you’
The full significance of the second line will be addressed later. For the present it’s sufficient to note that the narrator sees the text as applying to him personally. In verse two we find that the narrator embarks on a relationship with a married woman. It may be that this relationship results in the destruction of the woman’s marriage. If so, the hell imagery might be seen as suggesting the spiritual consequences of embarking on such a relationship. In handing him the book, the woman of verse five not only makes him aware of his likely spiritual destruction, but of the woman’s (hers, perhaps) too. She’s perhaps warning him that they’re both on a path to damnation.
While the text seems to condemn the narrator, his condemnation is not final. The words, in being described as ‘pouring’ off the page, are made to seem like water. Thus they are being associated with baptismal renewal. In opening the narrator’s eyes to the consequences of his immoral behaviour, they can be instrumental in bringing about that renewal.
Just as the Dante text has two roles, so does the woman. She is the source of temptation, symbolically represented at the beginning of verse five:
‘She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe’
But, in providing the Dante text, she’s also potentially a source of spiritual renewal. This is significant because it suggests the narrator’s search for her at other points in the song represents a search for such renewal. Just as Dante in the Divine Comedy began by being infatuated with a woman, Beatrice, who later came to represent spiritual fulfilment, so the woman here has a role to play in the spiritual life of the narrator. She is the narrator’s Beatrice.
On the surface there appears to be just one woman alluded to throughout the song – and one can assume that that therefore is what the narrator wants us to believe. Nowhere does he commit himself to there being more than one, no name is used, and his use of language – ‘she’/ ‘her’ – implies just one. However, there’s no reason why the song can’t concern several – one with red hair, one who is married in verse two, the woman he always remembers in verse 3, the stripper, the woman who hands him the Dante, the one he lives with in verse six, and the ‘her’ he wants to ‘get to’ in verse seven.
That his relationships are with different women is further supported by the narrator’s comment:
‘I seen a lot of women’.
Furthermore, the apparent snobbish outlook of the woman’s parents in the opening verse doesn’t quite fit with their daughter’s being a stripper. Neither does being a stripper obviously fit with being a reader of Dante. Neither does that woman’s comment:
‘I thought you’d never say hello’
obviously match the fact that he mumbled a reply to the woman who approached him (in verse 4). Again, the woman of verse two refers to meeting again ‘on the avenue’. No such meeting on an avenue occurs. The narrator lives with a woman ‘on Montague Street’ – but since he didn’t meet her there, and since streets aren’t avenues, it seems unlikely it’s the same woman. (On the other hand, that it’s Montague Street may be significant. Perhaps, like Juliet on discovering Romeo is a Montague, we can ask ‘What’s in a name?’ On the basis that one person’s ‘street’ is another person’s ‘avenue’, the uncertainty about whether the narrator meets different women is re-instated.) It’s noticeable, too, that the narrator wants merely to ‘get to’ the woman in verse seven, not get back to her. This too implies that more than one woman is involved.
Hiding the fact that there are several women enables the narrator to cover up his philandering. An additional benefit, from the listener’s perspective, comes from its becoming possible to take an apparent reference to a particular woman as a reference to two different women with whom the narrator is in different types of relationship. One relationship might justify moral censure, and the other be totally innocent. Such a case presents us simultaneously with two different paths the narrator’s life might have taken.
For example, when the narrator says in verse six:
‘I lived with them on Montague Street’
we’re likely to assume that the narrator lived with a married woman and her husband in Montague Street. This would be the married woman referred to in verse two. But ‘them’ could equally refer to the narrator’s parents who’ve been alluded to in the first verse. It could even refer to the woman’s parents – her ‘folks’, also mentioned then.
The case presents us simultaneously with two different paths the narrator’s life might have taken – living blamelessly with his parents or her parents, or living with a couple and (on the evidence of the second verse’s reference to his relationship with a married woman) causing their marriage to fail.
If, as suggested, what seems to be a reference to a woman is a simultaneous reference to two women, it’s likely that different times will be being alluded to. If verse six concerns both the narrator’s mother during his childhood and a woman in whose house he was living as an adult, then the times involved will be many years a part. This requirement for a verse not to allude to one time rather than another is a general feature of the song.
Another example can be drawn from the final verse which might seem to imply that the narrator has decided on contradictory courses of action. Whether this is the case will depend on whether events alluded to in the present tense are to be taken as occurring in the present. If they are, then we’re forced to criticise the narrator for forming contradictory intentions, or for ignoring an intention which had only just been made.
The verse begins:
‘So now I’m goin’ back again’
The natural thing would be to assume that the word ‘now’ simply refers to the time at which the narrator is telling us he’s ‘going back again’. The trouble with this assumption is that what follows seems to contradict it:
‘… I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint’
The assumption requires that the narrator sees himself either as performing actions which are incompatible with one another or that, without seeming to notice, he’s vacillating between one course of action and another. At the very least the first alternative would make him irrational, and the second insufficiently in control of his behaviour.
But there’s another possibility. Even though the two quotations are expressed in the present tense, it’s not obvious that they both (or either of them, even) should be taken as referring to the present. The ‘now’ of the first quotation could easily refer to a past occasion of returning. ‘Now’ could simply be being used colloquially to refer to the time immediately following whichever events the narrator had just been thinking about. On that account there is no reason to accuse the narrator of either irrationality or a lack of control.
Since there is no way of deciding between the alternative possibilities, there is nothing determinate we can conclude about the narrator’s rationality or self control. The most we can say is that looked at one way what he says makes him irrational or lacking control of his mind, but looked at another way it doesn’t. This reflects other uncertainties in the song which in turn reflect the moral choices open to the narrator.
The Order of Events
It’s not just when things happen that’s uncertain. On certain interpretations the order of events is unclear. Almost any event can be viewed as occurring after any other with the result that the narrator is locked into any one of a series of cycles of events.
Accordingly, even after the final verse, his decision to get back with the married woman is going to precede the marriage and further divorce referred to in previous verses.
The reason being locked into an interminable cycle of similar events – marriage and divorce – becomes possible is that the narrator has relationships with ‘a lot of women’. Had he had been satisfied with one woman, as he pretends, the miserable cycle of marriage and divorce would have been avoided. The word ‘divorce’ in the second verse could not have applied to his relationship (in the way that I argue it might, below), as well as to the marriage of the woman and her first husband, but just to the latter.
Identity is a theme of the song. Various characters are implicitly identified one with another. One effect is to show how one treats others is effectively how one treats oneself.
The Narrator and the Husband
The language of verse six is mysterious. We’ve been told:
‘I lived with them on Montague Street
Then he started into dealing with slaves’
We need to know who ‘them’ and ‘he’ refer to. There are a number of possibilities. It could be that the narrator is living with a woman and her husband on Montague Street. ‘Them’, then, would refer to the couple, and ‘he’ to the husband. Or it could be that the narrator is remembering his childhood on Montague Street, so that ‘them’ is his parents, and ‘he’ his father. Or, again, the narrator could be living with his in-laws, or in-laws-to-be.1
There’s another possibility. In a number of places, the narrator tries to distract attention from his own wrongdoing, and it’s quite possible he’s doing that here by referring to himself in the third person. He, then, is the one who dealt ‘with slaves’. (It’s unclear what ‘dealing in slaves’ means – perhaps a deliberate cover-up by the narrator. Since on his own admission he’s ‘seen a lot of women’ a possibility would be sexual slavery.) So, by using ‘he’ instead of ‘I’, he’s able to cope with the enormity of his crime by seeing it as someone else’s doing.
There’s a further effect, however. On the assumption that the narrator is living with a married couple, it might seem that the narrator is in part responsible for the break-up of their marriage. Assuming it’s the same woman who:
‘was married when we first met, soon to be divorced’,
it might well be that by living with them, the narrator has come between them.
But if the narrator later marries the woman, and so becomes her husband, then, in destroying the husband’s marriage, there’s a sense in which he’s destroying his own marriage. The later husband and the earlier husband are one and the same.
By allowing the narrator and the husband to be seen as identical, the song elides the distinction between one person and another. Individuals, it seems to be suggesting, are not so separate from other individuals that one can harm them without harming oneself.
That the narrator’s selfish behaviour rebounds on him in this way is borne out in verse two, when we’re told:
‘She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced’
We know from the reference to ‘our lives together’ in verse one that the narrator and the woman may well have got married. Accordingly, ‘soon to be divorced’ can just as much apply to the woman and the narrator as to the woman and her first husband. The identity of the narrator and the husband means that the divorce of the one is the divorce of the other.
The Narrator and the Women
Just as the narrator and the husband are treated as identical, so certain of the women mentioned – perhaps all – are identical with the narrator.
An identity becomes apparent between the narrator and the woman of verse six when the narrator follows up his remark that:
‘she froze up inside’
by saying that he, the narrator,
Freezing up and becoming withdrawn more or less amount to the same thing.
What this identity between the narrator and woman shows, and what the narrator needs to recognise, is that by leaving, and so not accepting his responsibilities to the woman at the end of verse six, he is effectively failing in his responsibilities to himself.
Despite these indications of unity between the narrator and the woman, the narrator only dimly recognises it. At the end of the song he remarks:
‘We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view’
Here he recognises only that there’s an identity of feeling between him and a woman, so that it seems to him they can remain disunited with respect to their points of view. Were he to fully recognise their unity, there’d be no difference in perspective to undermine it. And hence their unity in marriage would be a success.
In the fourth verse, identity between the narrator and the stripper becomes apparent as a result of their similar behaviour. The narrator tells us he:
‘… just kept lookin’ at the side of her face’,
‘… studied the lines on my face’
We might take this studying the lines on his face as a reversal of verse five. There the narrator studies the text provided by the woman. In verse four it’s the stripper who studies a text provided by the narrator.
On this basis, the relationship between the narrator and this woman is reciprocal. They each provide instruction for the other, and in so doing they both benefit from the other’s instruction. In this sense they are not to be distinguished from each other.
The Woman and her Husband
Just as the identity of the narrator and the stripper is made apparent by them both looking at the other’s face, so the identity of the woman and her husband in verse six is made clear by their similar responses to the latter’s slave dealings:
‘Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside’
Each suffers on the ‘inside’ – spiritually, or morally – due to the behaviour of just one of them. The moral death of one, it seems, is the moral death of both.
Disunity too is a theme of the song. Just as a woman can be two or more different women, and one time can be both an earlier and later time, so the narrator can be seen as having divided himself into two.
In using the third person ‘he’ to refer to himself in verse six, the narrator seems to be artificially dividing himself into two so that he doesn’t have to admit responsibility for his actions. But this is not the only occasion he might be resorting to such division. He does it again immediately after describing the effect on him of the Dante text. For the only time in the song he uses the second person ‘you’:
‘And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you’
There are three obvious possibilities about who he’s using this ‘you’ to address. It could be the person being addressed by the song as a whole. Apart from the listener, there’s no indication about who this might be, though.
A second possibility is that reading the words has had a profound effect on his attitude to women. Instead of objectifying the woman as ‘she’, he now engages with her, using ‘you’.
A third, and perhaps more likely possibility is that he’s addressing himself. There’s an obvious absurdity about speaking to oneself. In doing so, the narrator would be artificially dividing himself in two. By treating himself as another person in this way he can distance himself from the warning represented by Dante’s words, as if they are applicable to someone else rather than himself.
A comparable division of himself into two would explain what might otherwise appear to be an inconsistency in the final verse. On the one hand the narrator seems determined to find the woman again:
‘So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow’
But on the other he tells us:
‘… I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint’
Part of him seems committed to finding the woman, and another part to continuing to wander aimlessly.2
The Narrator’s Character
So far the narrator has seemed untrustworthy. He is happy to give the impression he’s faithful to one woman when more likely he’s been in pursuit of several, and it’s far from clear that he’ll adjust his behaviour in the light of the shock he receives on reading Dante.
At face value, and assuming the most straightforward interpretation of events, the narrator comes across as heavily flawed in other ways too. He’s too ready to blame others, and criticise them, yet makes light of his own failings. He wants our sympathy and respect, but says little to show he deserves either. He acts irresponsibly and perhaps criminally, while carefully choosing his words so as to appear innocent. It’s difficult not to be suspicious about several things he says. And, on one interpretation, having taken a decision he fails to act on it. I’ll take each of these characteristics in turn.
Like many of Dylan’s narrators, this one is not to be trusted. It’s clear he tries to divert away from himself blame for the failure of his relationship. He wonders if the woman has ‘changed at all’ – implying, perhaps, that she needed to change. And in wondering if her hair is ‘still red’, he may also be implying that the relationship failed due to her promiscuousness – that she’s a scarlet woman. The doubt about whether her hair is still red reflects our doubt about whether the narrator can bring himself to give up a rakish existence.
In a similar way, he has no compunction about attributing the failure of the relationship to the woman’s parents. He casts them as snobbish:
‘They never did like Mama’s homemade dress’
His criticism of others is in evidence again at the end of the song. Here he ends up disparaging people who’ve made a success of their lives, at least compared with him:
‘Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’
Such criticism seems not only harsh, but hypocritical when he can say no more for himself than that he’s:
‘… on the road
Headin’ for another joint’!
Makes Light of his Failings
While he’s ready to criticise others, he doesn’t judge himself by the same high standards. Rather, he makes light of his own failings. This is not to say he doesn’t see the need for self-criticism. He’s prepared to admit he used:
‘a little too much force’
– presumably in getting the married woman of verse two to leave her husband. But the phrase seems designed to distract attention from what was inappropriate in his behaviour – that he was using force at all. In addition, the use of ‘a little’ suggests he’s trying to minimise the amount of blame due to him for what followed – his short-lived marriage.
Another attempt to make light of what he’s doing occurs in the fourth verse:
‘She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer’
For a beer! Not to look at the topless women, then? And was it really just the ‘side of her face’ that he kept looking at?
Not content with making light of his failings, the narrator makes a number of attempts to get our sympathy. One attempt is his allusion to the woman’s parents. Immediately that attempt is followed up by another. Despite its being irrelevant to anything he’s said so far, he refers to:
‘Rain fallin’ on my shoes’
and tries to elicit further sympathy with the exclamation:
‘Lord knows I’ve paid some dues …’.
The complaints seem trivial. He gives us no good reason for either. Rain is easily avoidable, and ‘dues’ are simply what one has a duty to pay.
Perhaps so that he doesn’t seem to be complaining too much, he attempts to present himself in a favourable light. He takes a job, he says, in the ‘great north woods’. That sounds fine, but why’s it necessary to describe the woods as great? He seems to be hoping that in the listener’s mind the epithet ‘great’ will get transferred to him. And when he gets sacked, he’s back to eliciting sympathy. We’re to see the sacking not as something he brings on himself, but something which just happens:
‘… one day the axe just fell‘
Guarded Choice of Expression
At certain points in the song, the narrator seems suspiciously guarded in his language. Like his sacking, he presents his employment in New Orleans as something which just ‘happened’. But why? Why doesn’t he want credit for getting the job?
One suspects that he has an ulterior motive for his choice of expression. He could be trying not to appear culpable. What he might be guilty of is unclear, but his later cryptic reference to ‘dealing with slaves’ might be connected. Here too, he can be interpreted as trying to avoid an appearance of culpability, by putting the guilt on someone else:
‘… he started into dealing with slaves’
His apparently innocent comment:
‘… she never escaped my mind’
actually supports the view that he was enslaving women. It suggests the woman did escape, but in some other way – physically. And that in turn suggests she’d been his captive. In what sense he makes women captive doesn’t become clear, but it might be reflected in his more general attitude towards women discussed below.
Inconsistency in Language Choice
Further cause for suspicion is created when he refers to:
‘Workin for a while on a fishin’ boat’
The problem lies in the phrase ‘for a while’. One wonders why he needs to add it. There’s no need to mention the time he was on the boat, and by making out it was short – just a while – he again seems to be trying to make light of what he was up to.
That he’s being disingenuous is supported two lines later:
‘… all the while I was alone
The past was close behind’
The phrase ‘the past was close behind’, seems to imply a dishonest past is catching up with him.
Furthermore, this second use of the word ‘while’ in ‘all the while’ seems inconsistent with his earlier use in ‘workin’ for a while’ by making out it was a long time he was alone on the boat. He seems to be attempting to manipulate the reader by making the time seem short when it might appear he was up to no good, and long when there’s a possibility of gaining sympathy.
The episode in the ‘topless place’ provides another indication that he’s been up to no good. When the woman says she might know his name, he’s apparently disturbed to the point of swearing:
‘I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath’
It seems that the last thing he wants is to have been recognised. Why? (Another possibility is that he’s angry that a woman he knows doesn’t recognise him, or is pretending not to.)
In the sixth verse, he again seems to use language manipulatively in order to avoid accepting responsibility for leaving the woman to deal with the disaster herself by saying, not ‘I withdrew’, but:
‘… I became withdrawn’
In so doing, he seems to be trying to get us to believe that his leaving her in the lurch was something which just happened.
Forming inconsistent intentions seems to be another of the narrator’s faults. He claims to have remained constant – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – but in fact does the opposite. ‘Like a bird’ he ‘flew’ (as if behaving like a bird somehow justifies his leaving when he’s needed).
There’s more inconsistency:
‘So now I’m goin’ back again’
he says at the start of the final verse. Why say ‘So …’? It’s a non-sequitur. It implies his going back is a result of a need the woman has which he’s hitherto been unable to do anything about. But that’s blatantly untrue given his flight. He seems to be being disingenuous. The actual reason for his deciding to return is more likely to be that whatever danger he sensed is past, and he can return in safety.
Yet more inconsistency may be in evidence in the final lines. Having apparently just declared his intention to return to the woman, we find him just ‘headin’ for another joint’.
Despite all these flaws in his character, the narrator is not condemned. Given his faults, it might seem in keeping that he should act irresponsibly towards women. While the song seems to imply that his general character represents a drag on his adopting a more responsible approach, and so escaping from a cycle of emotional destruction, it also implies that he could achieve this by being faithful to one woman.
The narrator is a heavily flawed human being and the song leaves us in doubt about his spiritual survival. The temporal uncertainties make it equally possible that he’s faithful to the one woman, or that he’s a philanderer locked into a cycle of misery.
One mistake the narrator makes is to assume too much of a distinction between himself and others. As a result, he fails to realise that in making others victims, he makes himself a victim. In causing a husband to suffer by taking his wife, he brings down similar suffering on himself. The husband and the narrator are effectively one person undergoing marriage and divorce.
Not only does the narrator draw too much distinction between himself and others, but he compounds the error by failing to recognise himself as a unity. Instead of wholeheartedly committing himself to the wellbeing of others, he is able to dissociate himself from his actions, as if they were the doings of someone else. So long as he suffers from this literal lack of integrity, his spiritual doom is sealed.
The song is not just about an imperfect narrator, though. In encouraging the listener to identify one person with another, it becomes clear that the spiritual wellbeing of others is just as much in the balance as the wellbeing of the narrator. Accordingly, just as the narrator can be seen as a present or former philanderer, so can the woman with red hair. And just as he might be set on the road to salvation by reading Dante, so might be the woman by reading the ‘lines’ on his face.
The similarities go further. The similarities between the narrator and others in the song can be taken to represent the similarities between people generally. Thus the narrator is an Everyman character. Uncertainty about his spiritual wellbeing is uncertainty about ours.
1. On this interpretation, ‘them’ in the first quote no longer refers to a couple. It might instead refer back to ‘them words’ – the Dante text – in the line:
‘And every one of them words rang true
The narrator would have ‘lived with them’ in the sense of not being able to shut them out of his mind.
2. His aimlessness is apparent early on when he seems to end up at all for points of the compass – the east coast, out west, the great north woods and down to New Orleans.
Identity in Language
The language the narrator uses in referring to the couple he’s living with is that appropriate to a true unity – ‘them’:
‘I lived with them on Montague Street’
This choice of language contrasts with the language he uses with respect to his own impending marriage to the woman. In the opening verse the couple’s life together is referred to in the plural – ‘lives’:
‘Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough’
In the context of marriage, one would expect him to say ‘our life together’, not ‘our lives’. It is as if he is focusing on himself at the expense of the two of them as a joint entity. The inappropriate wording is made all the more apparent by its being followed by the singular ‘was gonna’ which, when referring to ‘lives’ in the plural, is ungrammatical.
The wording here contrasts with the more natural and grammatically correct use of ‘lives’ in the final verse:
‘I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’
It’s natural, because the reference is to single people, or those in different marital relationships – ‘mathematicians’ and ‘carpenters’ wives’.
The upshot is that the narrator treats a unity as if it’s not a unity, reflecting the way he treats himself, and things which are not unities as if they are.
Albums, Blood On The Tracks, Tangled Up In Blue, Uncategorized
Bob Dylan 1941-
(born Robert Allen Zimmerman) American singer, songwriter, and musician.
The most influential singer-songwriter of his era, Bob Dylan demonstrated that rock and roll lyrics, once known for their lightheartedness, could be rich, serious, and meaningful. Combining forms borrowed from folk ballad verse, blues, country and western, and gospel music and techniques gained from French symbolists and beat poets, Dylan revitalized the popular song and inspired other musicians to follow his lead in self-expression. Songs such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” endeared him to antiwar demonstrators and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was commonly referred to as the spokesman for his generation, a title he disavowed. As Dylan restlessly ventured from folk music to electrically amplified rock music to country music to gospel to blues to bluegrass, his audiences followed. In the course of a career that began professionally in 1961, Dylan has written more than three hundred songs, released more than forty albums, and performed live in more than two thousand concerts. Among his most celebrated songs are “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Blues,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” Dylan has garnered widespread praise for the literary merit of his lyrical compositions; his merits as a poet have been repeatedly compared to the likes of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Dylan has received numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award, and was named by Life magazine as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the 20th century.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, into a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota. His father was co-owner of Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Co. In 1947, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan started writing poetry at age ten and taught himself the guitar at age fourteen. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Little Richard, Dylan formed several bands in high school, one called the Golden Chords, which played country music and rhythm and blues. Dylan won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in 1959, and was introduced to Bound for Glory, the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Dylan was greatly affected by the book and soon learned dozens of Guthrie's songs. He performed many of them at local coffeehouses, appearing for the first time under the adopted name Bob Dylan (legally changed in 1962.) His renditions of folk songs were charged with the influence of his rock and roll background. After some months in Madison, Wisconsin, and later in Chicago, Dylan borrowed a ride to New York at the end of 1960. He played folk music in clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and visited the ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital. As an opening act Dylan received an ecstatic review from The New York Times. The next day, at a studio session as a harmonica player, he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond. Although his debut album Bob Dylan (1962), sold a respectable 5000 copies, his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), gained him cult status because it included “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin' in the Wind.” Peter, Paul and Mary's cover of “Blowin' in the Wind” was phenomenally successful and popularized the socially aware folk song. Dylan became the favorite of the counterculture movement and gave them eloquent voice and an anthem with the title song of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964). Dylan was quickly overwhelmed by his political status and turned inward with Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). In one of its songs, “My Back Pages,” Dylan signals a break from his past: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now.” Dylan further broke from folk purists and political activists when he performed a loud, electrically amplified set of new compositions at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Although he lost some of his fans in the transition, he gained many more and in the same year had a hit single with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him a pop superstar. Exhausted from international concert tours and the pressures of stardom, Dylan used a motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to step back from his career. Although he continued to write and record new material, he would perform in public only a few times until 1974, when he held a record-shattering comeback tour. At the end of the year he recorded what is considered one of his finest albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), followed by the chart-topping Desire (1976). Dylan's conversion to Christianity brought more controversy in 1979. Many fans were outraged that Dylan refused to perform any of his classic songs written before his religious conversion and became even more offended by his on-stage proselytizing, but he had another hit single with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won him a Grammy Award in 1980. Dylan began performing his earlier classics again by the end of the year. In 1982 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Also in the early 1980s, Dylan converted from Christianity to Hasidic Judaism. In 1988 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, with fellow music stars George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, formed a group called the Traveling Wilburys; their debut album delighted both critics and the public. Dylan accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1993 he sang “Chimes of Freedom” as part of President Clinton's inaugural celebration. In 1997 he performed for Pope John Paul II in Italy. Time Out of Mind (1997) received rave reviews and earned him three Grammy awards for Album of the Year, Male Rock Performance, and Contemporary Folk Album. Later that year Dylan was presented by the President with the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 Dylan received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys. His latest album, “Love and Theft” (2001) received a rare five-star, immediate classic, rating from Rolling Stone magazine.
Bob Dylan includes only two Dylan originals, one of which, “Song to Woody,” demonstrates the influence of his one-time idol. His second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan contains only two songs which are not Dylan originals, and includes such protest songs as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” which capture the mood and spirit of the counterculture of the early 1960s, as well as “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,” which remains one of his most popular songs of lost love. His third album, The Times They Are A-Changin', also contains many classic folk-protest and socially-conscious songs hailed as masterpieces, including “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The liner notes showcase his first widely circulated poetry, “11 Outlined Epitaphs.” The title of his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, indicates his shift from political to more personal lyrics. This turning inward produced songs that demonstrate the influence of beat poetry and psychedelic drugs. “Chimes of Freedom” expresses his spiritual side, which eventually earned him the label of visionary. The first half of his next album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), surprised everyone with its electric guitars. Again the songs express social and political alienation rather than activism. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” voices distrust of authority and sees convention as stifling and oppressive to the individual. “Maggie's Farm” expresses the impulse to “drop out” of the workaday world with the assertion, “I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more.” “It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding),” which was included on the soundtrack to the quintessential counterculture film Easy Rider (1969), further expresses the cruelty of mainstream society. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” one of his most enduring songs, expresses the sense of freedom and joy which comes from renouncing social mores in favor of creativity and artistic release. In the liner notes Dylan offers an explanation of himself and his work: “my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion / divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness-seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself / i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person... some people say that i am a poet.”
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) solidified his transition from political folksinger to alienated rock musician, still critical of society but without any specific political agenda. The double album Blonde on Blonde (1966), often considered his finest work, contains mostly songs of love or of the bitterness of failed relationships, including the hit “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.” The Biblically-inspired John Wesley Harding (1968), Dylan's first album of new songs to be released after his motorcycle accident, returns to acoustic material. Quiet and thoughtful, the album is widely considered a response to the excesses of rock music as typified by the Beatles with their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band release. Dylan's next two albums were heavily influenced by country music: Nashville Skyline (1969), which includes a duet with Johnny Cash, and Self Portrait (1970), a double album, largely consisting of covers, which was panned by critics. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) started a trend in the music industry with its inclusion of several previously unreleased songs. Dylan wrote the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and accepted a bit role in the movie. Also in that year Dylan released Writings and Drawings; he had never included the lyrics to his songs in his albums and thus this large hardback book containing all of his published songs and many unpublished ones was met with great acclaim and became a bestseller. (It was updated in 1985 with the publication of Lyrics, 1962-1985.) Planet Waves (1974) was released in conjunction with Dylan's highly anticipated return to touring across America, a tour represented by the double album Before the Flood (1974). Blood on the Tracks is widely considered his best or second best album. Its impact on listeners was indicated by Rolling Stone's devotion of their entire record review section to this one album, with numerous essayists expressing their individual assessments. The same magazine awarded it album of the year, tied with another album of the year, also by Dylan, The Basement Tapes. Although The Basement Tapes was not released until 1975, it dates from 1967 when he was recuperating. Desire includes, as Allen Ginsberg states in the liner notes, “songs of redemption,” and remains Dylan's biggest seller upon initial release, at some two million copies. Street Legal (1978) was released during his return to world touring and featured a saxophone player and three female backing vocalists. The three albums of Dylan's Christian phase include Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Infidels (1983) continues with expressions of faith in God, although more subtly and with the influence of Hasidic Judaism, then favored by Dylan.
Biograph is a five-LP or 3-CD box set containing not only dozens of his greatest hits but a dozen and a half previously uncirculated works from recording studios and concert halls. It spawned dozens of similar sets by other artists. After the seemingly career-capping release of Biograph, Dylan faltered with Knocked Out Loaded (1986), generally considered one of his weakest efforts and Down in the Groove (1988). Although The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One (1988) and Oh Mercy (1989) were viewed as returns to fine form, the release of Under the Red Sky (1990) and the follow-up Wilburys album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990) showed a drifting and disengaged Dylan. The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991) was comprised of 3 CDs of previously unheard songs and performances, but with its necessary emphasis on the past, some critics were eager to interpret it as evidence of Dylan being a has-been. The following years gave more fodder to Dylan's detractors. Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were solo acoustic albums of mostly traditional songs, with no Dylan originals, and neither Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) or MTV Unplugged (1995), gathered from two live performances, could take the place of new, original material. Not until 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind, were fans treated to an album of all new songs. 1998 saw the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966, a 2-CD recording of a legendary performance in England, often considered the finest rock concert ever given by any artist. “Love and Theft” continued to build Dylan's reputation as a vital, creative force in popular music.
As early as 1965 media critics were acknowledging Dylan's status not only as a popular music star but as a poet of substantial literary merit. Dylan has generally treated his critics with derision, stating that they do not understand what he is trying to express. Dylan has always confounded reviewers by refusing to explain the meaning of his songs, however, insisting that they stand for themselves. Because many of his songs hold up well as poetry, separated from their music, they are natural choices for study by critics specializing in contemporary language arts, who compare them to the works of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself proclaimed Dylan to be among the greatest poets of the century. Dylan usually avoids discussion of his works as poems or talk of himself as anything but a performing songwriter: “Poets drown in lakes,” he told Paul Zollo in a 1991 interview. Zollo explains that Dylan “broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.” Such well-crafted songs include “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” which are examined for their visionary symbolism and imagery. “Like a Rolling Stone” is praised for its lyrical qualities and the emotional force of the repeated refrain, “How does it feel?” and its powerful expression of alienation. “Desolation Row” which portrays a dark, apocalyptic vision of the fate of human society, is another favorite of critics. Dylan's work fell below his own classic standard during parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Not until Time Out of Mind did critics once again overwhelmingly praise Dylan's lyrics as startlingly fresh compositions, equal to his most critically acclaimed songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Music writer Bill Flanagan was present at a party held in 1985 to honor Dylan's accomplishments. When television reporters asked him to explain Dylan's significance, he explained that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock and roll and thus showed everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas. Flanagan relates a conversation he had with musician Pete Townshend, who also attended the party. “He joked about the futility of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan's significance. ‘They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me,’ he said. ‘That's like asking how I was influenced by being born.’” Dylan's popular base continues to increase as he performs worldwide in live concerts more than one hundred times per year.