You never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
A few years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I was struck when three of my favourite performers on three separate occasions remarked that the only reason they were on the road making music was because of Dylan and the impact he had made on them. To me this announced the clear influence Dylan continues to command in much of the music making world. Even more striking, however, was the fact that those three performers were quite different from each other (different nationalities, genders, and of course musical genres and styles) and none sounded particularly Dylanesque. This impressed me: in an almost singular way it seemed that Dylan inspired musicians and at the same time inspired them to become distinct artists themselves rather than imitators.
This past year at the festival I was reminded of this and it made me reflect on my recent series on idolatry and genius. What might the kind of influence Dylan has at such a festival teach us about authentic and inauthentic art? Using the terms and ideas of this series, one could say that Dylan acts as an effective icon for many performers. Of course, even Dylan can be made into an idol (because the idol is made by the gaze), but it seems that there’s something about him that resists being made into an idol and compels an iconic gaze. If this is right, my wager is that we’ll get a better sense of what makes an icon by taking a closer look at Dylan.
One of the most pronounced aspects of Dylan’s relentless creativity and productive drive is a vigilance against being entrapped in ideology. His career reflects someone actively working against the idea of a finished work of art, a musical image accomplished, an idea purified and perfected, a brand to be utilized and protected. For Dylan, many such easy options appeared and he rejected them out of hand, instead opting to continue the ongoing work of expression.
Dylan broke into the music scene “protesting” the established and available ideologies. The answer blowing in the wind is that the old questions and answers are not serving us well. But there’s more to it than this. The reason The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is superior to The Times They are a-Changin’ (which is still amazing) is that in the multi-dimensional Freewheelin’ Dylan is less easy to pin down as a “protest figure.” And this is not only because he offers variety by singing of love sought, abandoned, and lost, though he does do this very well. He also offers levity as a response to seemingly weighty matters, such as nuclear apocalypse (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”) and himself, ‘the generation’s spokesperson’ (“I Shall Be Free”). Both these songs effectively poke fun at our individual and collective self-importance and enact a mischievous pursuit of play at importance’s expense.
There’s a sense in which The Times They are a-Changin’ takes protest as art as far as it can go. Dylan addresses a variety of injustices through Biblically-infused prophecy, story-telling, historical re-narration, lament, and stinging indictment. Such an act provided the route to an available image and in-group crowd, landing him in an establishment of protest with its own easy answers.
Finding himself the image of easy answers, Dylan went elsewhere. “Another Side of Bob Dylan” is Dylan’s refusal to be made an idol by any establishment. This is often observed in his cutting remarks in “It Ain’t Me Babe”: “You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Who’s never weak but always strong / To protect you and defend you / whether you are right or wrong.” I think he says it even better in the less famous “My Back Pages”, one of the greatest indictments ever written against the lure of ideology. The final two (of six) verses bear repeating: “In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand / At the mongrel dogs who teach / Fearing not that I’d become my enemy / In the instant that I preach / My pathway led by confusion boats / Mutiny from stern to bow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now // Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats / Too noble to neglect / Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect / Good and bad, I define these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
Such vigilance against being deceived into thinking you have something to protect, against becoming “a self-ordained professor’s tongue, too serious to fool” continues on in Dylan’s career. This is so even his (to some) notoriously close-minded evangelical Christian phase, when he continued to relentlessly question where loyalties lie. To those telling Dylan that in serving a master he acts as if blind, Dylan (pre-emptively) responds that “you gotta serve somebody”; only he follows his master deliberately, with eyes open, whereas his detractors are unwitting slaves to invisible masters. In a similar vein, Dylan’s faith was not a chance to close himself off from self-examination, but an opportunity to examine himself in the light of God’s eyes, as we see in the almost Augustinian “Every Grain of Sand.”
Of course, the point is not merely that Dylan forswears being made into an idol, but that he actively enacts it. In the way he takes his stances and anti-stances (as I’ve partially outlined), I observe two aspects of Dylan’s artistry that compels the iconic gaze.
First, Dylan is always on the move. His tour never ends. It took six actors to portray him in I’m Not There. His songs are never finished: in live performances (before and after recording) and in alternate takes different verses come in and out and the music changes drastically. Sometimes this miserably fails and at other times it works brilliantly, but to Dylan this doesn’t seem to really matter because a song is never finished and is only worth playing if it is being worked on, in some way or another. This is not to say that Dylan’s songs (or his phases) are always lacking something; it is in fact hard to imagine a song more complete or “full” than “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rather, Dylan’s refusal to grasp for a finished work of art, one that will accomplish the task of speaking truth, is part of what enables the completeness of what he does create.
Second, at the same time that he is always moving, his best work also reveals him to be deeply rooted. Before he became a well-known and prolific song-writer, Dylan famously went through a phase of playing only Woodie Guthrie songs. Without absorbing this exemplar, without such a solid place to come from, I doubt Dylan could have become the artist he was. One might even say that his songs are never finished because they aren’t his songs, but Guthrie’s (who himself liked to admit that he ‘stole’ all his songs). Dylan has merely helped these songs to continue on, as the uncited melodies, lyrics, and musical references of others that continue to pop up on even his most recent albums illustrate. There’s something similar going on when, in Chronicles, Dylan reflects on not being able to write songs until he could understand the tragedy of the American Civil War. As a song-writer in and of the U.S., Dylan needed to immerse himself in where he was coming from and to whom he was speaking in order to create authentically.
Art that wholly rejects its roots as well as art that embraces the stagnant complacency of completing a purpose cannot understand this, and whether it takes the form of an easy grandeur (the unquestioned genius) or easy mundanity (IKEA wall-art) it looks suspiciously like an idol. It is in an attentive and engaged surrender to the world and others, in long-learned receptivity, that we find authentic creation. This is why the authentic contains nothing but the inauthentic. It is why we are continually driven to the work of creation, no matter how accomplished and profound the works are that have already been made. It is why authentic followers of Dylan often sound very little like him, but still must follow him to create well. Dylan picks up the songs given to him by the world and works with them, bringing out all that can be brought out, while also letting them be what they are: gifts from the world to him.
As he sings:
I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws
The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause
I gazed down in the river’s mirror
And watched its winding strum
The water smooth ran like a hymn
And like a harp did hum