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American Grandstand: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

Bob Dylan claims Elvis Presley's throne as Clown Prince of Rock & Roll

August 10, 1978
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performs at Blackbushe Aerodrome.
David Redfern/Redferns

We used to savor Bob Dylan's records for the opportunity they seemed to offer to make profound connections between the lyrics and ourselves: like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Dylan was regarded as one of the greatest because of what we could bring to him, not necessarily the other way around. This doesn't work anymore because we have become a bit lazy. Lately, Dylan's albums (Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks) have been relished as autobiographical installments — hip versions of This Is Your Life — or enjoyed because the obvious deterioration of quality provides so many possibilities for glib wisecracks. Dylan's debut as a film director, Renaldo and Clara, was more of the same.

But Street Legal, Dylan's new album, makes me feel like a pervert: not only do I like it, I think I've come to terms with why.

As everyone knows, Bob Dylan has always wanted to be Elvis Presley. And with Street Legal, he has finally made the transition; it is as though the King's ghost had passed on, as a legacy, its most outrageous memories and abilities to the only logical successor. (Who else? Billy Swan? Robert Gordon? Ah, but they never got the joke.) And Dylan now squanders his talent as only Elvis could.

As Presley often did, Dylan has made an album full of references; in one verse of "Where Are You Tonight?" he paraphrases both Robert Johnson ("With the juice running down my leg") and the Temptations ("And who always was too proud to beg"). More interesting, Dylan also clearly reflects the influence of those who have been most influenced by him (which was a Presley specialty on songs like Billy Swan's "I Can Help"). The saxophones might be from a Bruce Springsteen L.P. except for the soprano, which is right out of Van Morrison, as are the gospel-like choruses. And the electric guitars sound like Neil Young at his least manic. That Dylan doesn't do this stuff as well as the others (currently) is part of the point. Like Presley, Dylan turns all compliments inside out, as if to say that all tributes become trivial next to his own tribute (they must be self-effacing, otherwise they'd be pompous, which is the point of Presley singing, "Have a laugh on me. I can help"). The record's rhythms, of course, are Dylan's own. Dylan hasn't affected anyone's sense of rhythm because trying to imitate him would be taking your life in your hands. If this guy walked the way he records, he couldn't cross a room without tripping over furniture. Presley's most distinctive quality was also a singular sense of time, although the King's was, shall we say, funkier.

However, Dylan does have one great advantage that Presley lacked. He not only makes profoundly meaningless music, he writes meaninglessly profound lyrics. Songs like "Changing of the Guards" are so opaque that they ought to be about something, but when you think about it and study them, they're not. And some of the rhymes are dead giveaways: "Senor's headin'" and "Armageddon," of course, but also, "happen" and "clappin'" from "We Better Talk This Over."

And it is in the lyrics that Dylan pays his most significant homage of all. "True Love Tends to Forget," "No Time to Think" and "Is Your Love in Vain?" are all exactly the kind of thing that college freshmen have been writing for years in emulation of him.

When I first came to these conclusions. I was shocked at my own capacity for self-delusion. But the ultimate evidence is not even on the disc itself. Take a look at the back cover photograph, in which Dylan is wearing a white suit with an enormous belt, and even a scarf. Only one other performer in rock & roll ever wore such a costume.

This should explain my relief. Elvis died almost a year ago, taking with him a large share of rock's potential for tragicomedy. When you opened a new Presley record, you could never be quite sure what its most ridiculous quality would be — the song selection? the arrangements? some muttered interjections? But you always knew that at the end, you'd feel absurd once more, a victim of America's longest-running Murphy game.

Not only does Street Legal reveal that Dylan is Elvis Presley's legitimate successor as Clown Prince of Rock & Roll, it also prevents us from ever taking him seriously again. To all the graduate students whose theses I have knocked into a cocked hat with these explanations, I apologize. But it's the truth. Go analyze Bernie Taupin, why doncha?

This is a story from the August 10th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

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