Posted by: gdevi | May 23, 2011

“It’s All Good”

In all the publications that I read Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday tomorrow has become a headline item as much as the wedding of the young princelings in England a month ago. While it is hard to feel thrilled about the royal wedding, I do feel very happy to acknowledge and wish Bob Dylan a happy 70th birthday. Now here is a birth that has made a difference in the world. Enduring, powerful, memorable difference in the world. In most cultures around the world, the 70th birthday is an exemplary milestone; Confucius in his Analects, for instance, notes that you start living truthfully when you turn seventy: “at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” Truthful living requires you to deal with contradictions, both within yourself and what you experience of the world, and to express these contradictions fearlessly and autonomously. To my ears Dylan’s songs have done that, which is why to many listeners he represents a civilizational symbol, like the pyramids, the great paintings, or the great works of literature, for that matter, someone or something that you can turn to and contemplate, much like Dylan described his own indebtedness to Woody Guthrie’s works.

In some ways, Dylan’s song-writing through its various incarnations has always had a certain samurai-like respect of language–to slice off the non-essentials, that is–all the way from “My Life in a Stolen Moment” — “Hibbing’s a good ol’ town/ I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 151/2, 17 and 18/ I been caught an’ brought back all but once” to “You ever seen a ghost? No/ But you have heard of them” from that gorgeous ballad “Spirit on the Water,” both a proposal and a proposition at one and the same time. When I read tributes and thoughts on Bob Dylan, it appears that most of us who love Dylan’s songs feel that everything sort of started winding down for Dylan in the mid-seventies, early eighties. Certainly, there was a certain synchronicity with Dylan’s early albums, the recording industry, the radio lists–everything fit with each other. I remember reading somewhere that it is the American recording industry that did not change when Bob Dylan changed, and the more I think about it, I feel that to be the case. It is quite clear when we listen to Dylan’s later albums that they do not really fit in with many things that we hear on the radio these days. Large, sprawling, literary songs, cryptic and expansive, symbolic and topical, listening to them is like reading novels or metaphysical essays or at least a novella with strange characters. It feels safe to say that we cannot sing along with Bob Dylan anymore, like we were able to in the old days.

But I do like many of the Dylan songs of the eighties and the nineties and the new century. When he has a beautiful song, it is just flat-out beautiful. Like the great Realist writers, in these later songs Dylan moves away from the folk-protest You-Me distance of his early songs to document the nervous twitches of our society’s pretensions observed through multiple personae, and portraits of associates, partners and lovers who want the name, the fame, the role-playing — the thin man of the ballad, and the horrendous depiction of the sold-out Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands come back every now and then, as does the autonomous Isis figure — Dylan has chronicled the mostly shameful transactions that make up modern life accurately for our times.  And to me there are many many great songs in the last thirty years. I really love Dark Eyes, Blind Willie McTell, Every Grain of Sand, Brownsville Girl, What Was It That You Wanted? Not Dark Yet, Where Teardrops Fall, Spirit on the Water etc from this period of the Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, Biograph, the Bootleg series, Oh Mercy, Modern Times, Time Out of Mind, Together Through Life. The more I listen to these last albums, the more I like them, not so much for their lyricism, melody or anything, but just because they are very truthful–something I look for when I read fiction. I have to say that these days I even prefer Modern Times and Time Out of Mind to Dylan’s songs in the 60s or 70s, with the possible exception of Lay Down Your Weary Tune, which is probably the one Bob Dylan song that I personally cherish.

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan!  Janam din mubarak ho!


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