Rock of Sages

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
19 December 2001

“Did you know Bob Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times?”, stage-whispered a young student, sitting behind me at Madison Square Garden on November 19, as we waited for Dylan’s concert to begin. The combination of awe and knowingness seemed, in that moment, to echo as much as to anticipate.

There are popular artists who succeed by mere survival, or by momentarily bridging generations in their art or appeal. Dylan has done far more. His songs have articulated and reshaped American society’s thought-dreams over forty tumultuous years – and because American, much of the world’s also. Like no other artist, he has made the changing times his own.

For all these decades Dylan has put words and music to a resonant awareness that nothing comes easily, that the city on the hill is mined. The sense of ageless doom that accompanied his youthful journey from Minnesota to New York has remained at his core, a protection from facile optimism or cynicism. He has belonged always to himself. On this New York evening, more than ever he seems to embody as well as fully earn the complex feelings invested in him.

In the mouth of a graveyard

If the search for meaning after catastrophe is to be more than cliché, then the small figure intoning ancient texts in a nasal rumble, and lunging with little dance steps around the stage in a pink suit, is always in the running to be one of its prime sources.

It turns out that Dylan can perform A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, written almost forty years ago by a fevered 21-year-old in the midst of another global crisis (over Cuba), and make the song remain an ever-ready prophecy of apocalypse, as if scripted for 11 September:

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken…I met another man who was wounded with hatred… I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.

Indeed. If Americans who lack the taste for apocalypse are now getting to know the grain and texture, the look and the stench of doom, Dylan must have been less surprised than most. For he always exuded the confidence of a battered man who suffered, who was there – and who emerged from the wreck convinced that he knew how the blame for the crash was shared around.

Yet Dylan has also resisted the didactic impulse by implicating himself in the common fate of age, time, death, pain, loss. How do you grow old in public? Ironically. It turns out too that he can sing his way painlessly, not self-pityingly, through and past the line, The girls all say, ‘You’re a worn out star!’ (Summer Days, from his latest album Love and Theft), surrendering nothing.

A person, and a country, can’t pretend its way into starting all over again. Dylan’s self-mockery avoids the mawkish because, as it were, he started out broodingly old in his twenties, longing for – or pretending to – a magisterial presence from the start, chronicling failure as an achievement, brightly and rhythmically desperate, and always droll about it.

“I’ll die first before I decay”

The idea of an aging rock star sounds an instant oxymoron. Rock and its variants were born to be young, news. Chansoneurs maudits, dark angels of song would seem equally unpromising candidates for cultural longevity. They were surely not supposed to last long enough to produce grown children and retrospectives, or to be heaving themselves onstage into a seventh decade. No minstrel of angst would have anticipated growing old in public, still singing.

Yet in Dylan’s case, it makes sense. Perhaps the more precise word to describe his younger persona is not old but venerable. It turns out that lyrical darkness and deadpan surrealism wear well, and are not intrinsically hostile to ironic review or self-renewal. Maybe it is sheer luck that he never overdosed from toxic experience. If so, he earned his multiple lives.

Both flawed and blistering, the lifelong presence on the New York stage delivers the existential message: still alive, in process, underway. The bearer of the defiant voice is with us, is surprising, is unfinished, is no more nor less mortal than anyone. Chronicling his inner life, he accompanies our own, a rock of sages in a fallen land.

Not dark yet

Dylan’s artistic standpoint, and one of the key sources of his early impact, was a moralism rooted in some core complexities of American experience – religious, racial, musical – yet holding them in balance. His most earnest political songs interrogated their times without fully surrendering to them, his romantically personal ones challenged as well as consoled, his visionary ones warned even in the act of inspiring.

When Dylan the trickster later cultivated weirdness, taking up residence among clowns, seers and paranoids, he always conveyed the sense that his life was or could also be ours, seen differently. Making the weird commonplace, he compelled us to see that the world had gone wrong yet remained marvelous.

Through all these phases, his imagination careened around frantically, assuring us that he’d seen it all, there’s really nothing to be surprised at or to fear: Down Positively 4th St. and Highway 61, blown by an Idiot Wind, always believing there must be some way out of here. From the defiance of I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, the menace of The senator came down here, showing everyone his gun, the timelessness of Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth, to the radical anger of Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked. Allusions to the piercing texts only preserve their crystalline artistry. The accidental gift of Dylan’s new work is to underscore the continuing vitality of the old.

But the underscoring is intentional, in part, because Dylan has offered up melody as his sacrifice to time. Dylan was always more melodist than he or his critics let on. Without music, his words sometimes read like precocious ramblings – Rimbaud left in the oven too long.

In recent years, his work suffers when he tries to rejuvenate his oeuvre by fiddling with his own melodic and rhythmic achievements. When he sings Blowin’ in the Wind with a discordant updraft at each line’s end, an outsider can only believe that he strives to refresh himself. To do so would challenge any performer who tours for hundreds of shows as custodian of a high-demand repertoire. It’d be harder still when live performances must compete with the technical perfections of the studio. The wages of success are boredom. What do you do for an encore? Too often Dylan’s recourse is self-mutilation. The jester trashes his own lines.

The best to be said for this rewriting is that the master is frolicking. It is a kind of modesty that he practices. At times, he rises above past excess: his snarl is stylized now, stripped of the meanness, say, of You just kind of wasted my precious time. A straight-ahead work like Forever Young is one of the few songs that gains from recasting. But mainly, erasing his past achievement, Dylan in trying to make himself new doesn’t surpass himself. Rather, denying himself his melodies and muffling his lyrics, he slips away into his own Cheshire presence.

As Dylan departs the Madison Square Garden stage, only one stop on the ‘never-ending tour’ that has become his public life, he leaves behind a crowd and a city that, like him, are having to manage the muted joys, discoveries and ordeals of a somehow still open future. That this strange, flawed angel of our disorder remains, still awed and knowing, alive to reality, trying (against the odds) to find something new in himself, is small but real consolation as the hard rain continues to fall on Manhattan and the world.

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