Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone, Again

Times are changing and so is the songwriter

Bob Dylan
Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bob Dylan
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It took courage, after those six or eight or nine years, for Bob Dylan to make his recent two-pronged public appearance – a new album and a nationwide tour.

Yet artistic courage is exactly what Bob Dylan has been about in the 13 years since he hit Gerde's Folk City, with his tousled hair, one Minnesota iron-ore twang and a head full of music.

Nelson Algren once said about Ernest Hemingway something which also fits the Dylan achievement: "No American writer since Walt Whitman has assumed such risks in forming a style. They were the kind of chances by which, should they fail, the taker fails alone; yet, should they succeed, succeed for everyone."

Bob Dylan Bids a Restful Farewell to Tour '74

Dylan took the chances. He opened the minds of the American audience to the possibilities of poetry and music and he freed the whole of American pop music from the restraints of the music hall, the Broadway show and Tin Pan Alley. In the wake of the chances he took has come a new generation of song poets – some good, some bad – but none who would have hopefully taken step one had not Dylan made the first move.

Dylan was faced with a serious dilemma when planning this tour. He must have wondered if he was out of touch. With each of his phases of development over the years he has simultaneously attracted a new audience and outraged elements of the previous one.

In the beginning, he was a folk singer with the standard coffeehouse repertoire plus some variations. He began his career as a "contemporary folk singer" – despite the apparent contradiction in terms. They were not old songs exactly, though the melody was generally traditional or at least derivative. Dylan sang them accompanied only by his own guitar and harp. But the lyrics were mostly new and they spoke of events which were contemporary.

Toward the end of that period of Dylan's career which produced "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Who Killed Davey Moore?," "With God on Our Side," and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan began to drop into his albums and his concerts some other sides of his creative inspiration, songs such as "One Too Many Mornings," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "It Ain't Me, Babe," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." They were songs at the least about liaisons, just as "To Ramona," "Boots of Spanish Leather," and "Girl From the North Country" were flat-out love songs.

The political songs and the two kinds of love songs continued, though evolving, until his accident and the subsequent John Wesley Harding album. The love song became more rare, the liaison song went all the way to the anguish of "Positively 4th Street" before it, along with the political song, joined in a new Dylan series: the prophetic doomsday messages, State of the Union poems. They were vocal tears of rage and they defined the image of the American culture.

Out of the political songs and from those Gothic collections of eerie imagery, Dylan's audience extracted a view of the world – the world at hand, the USA – and a poetic and aesthetic rationale that bordered on religion. His first audience, the folk music followers, went along partway because of the power of his imagery and of his political songs. They stayed with him until he plugged into the main current of American musical thought, picked up an electric band, and started a musical riot at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by appearing onstage with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Right then, the politicos and their contingent traditional folkie audience turned on him. The others whom he had picked up with the shattering poetry of his newer work, stayed with him. The controversy went on with the intensity of today's argument over him, except that the forums were small and obscure. But the temperature of the battle was just as high. He was booed at Newport and when he went on tour with his new electric band – those sublime musicians who are now the Band – at Forest Hills, Minneapolis and elsewhere. Bob Dylan seldom appeared, in that last year (1966) at any concert in the US or Europe at which some disgruntled former fan did not boo him for not being what the fan wanted him to be. Johnny Cash finally ended it with a letter to Broadside magazine saying, "Shut up and let him sing!"

All along Dylan warned he had nothing to live up to and "you shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you." In every interview I know of, as well as in his songs, Dylan stressed he did not consider himself a leader.

But his audience saw him as not only a prophet but also as a leader. He had shown them how to see their own world in new terms. He had helped them reevaluate their own knowledge, redefine their own feelings and had given them the rhetoric with which to express themselves. He had remade their world.

And that's what the problem was. His audience believed him like revealed religion, and held him personally responsible for what he sang, forgetting what D.H. Lawrence, among others, had said: "Never trust the artist, trust the tale."

Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident in midsummer 1966 and then appeared in public on only two occasions, the Tribute to Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in 1968 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. (His other appearances, at the concert for Bangladesh, and at a St. Louis concert and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both with the Band, were unannounced.)

His only contact with his public was a series of albums – John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait – which seemed to increase in intensity the new resentment of his former fans.

Dylan had changed the sound of his musical accompaniment. No longer was there a rock band, but country musicians from Nashville. The Nashville sound was soft and his new songs had a surprising sweetness to them. It was a gentle return. The songs were different in emphasis.

Dylan's accident had happened just as he had almost single-handedly transformed pop music into an alternative educational system. But when he reestablished communications with his audience by releasing the new albums, his poetic emphasis was personal. To his surprise, probably, he found that once again his former listeners, at least a large portion of them, felt betrayed. He no longer supplied them with what they wanted. As he wrote in Writings and Drawings, "If I can't please everybody, I might as well not please nobody at all."

The hostility and hurt that greeted his albums since the accident, in print and in coffeehouse discussions, have been the screams of outraged lovers. To be honest, they tell us less about the artist than about his critics.

Sometimes it seems as if the American audience wants to be betrayed, to have its heroes fatally flawed, and commands them to self-destruct.

But it is the artist, not the audience, who defines, in the end, the artist's role. His only responsibility is to himself and to his art. He has, truly, nothing to live up to. Like a poem, he is. You take it or you leave it alone. It makes no difference, there is only, at the bottom, as he once wrote me, ". . . no understanding of anything. At best, just winks of the eye . . ."

Forms are chosen by poets because the most important part of what they have to say seems to go better with that form than any other . . . and then, in its turn, the form develops and shapes the poet's imagination.
--W.H. Auden

All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, have to prepare to listen to his new musical performances against the background of his tumultuous history, against the tension of his dialogue with the audience, and against a priori assumptions and wishful thinking of our own. Even though we know you can't go home again, every one of us often wants to do just that; go back to a simpler time when there was love and trust and hope.

What did we get?

We got two of the most memorable musical events I have ever attended. Dylan's two Oakland concerts with the Band were gems of the performing arts. His studied casualness, his determined anti-show-business presence was still there, though now he was no longer nervous. Whereas in the old days he had chattered nervously, telling short anecdotes and cracking jokes to cover his interminable guitar-tuning or the soaking of his harmonicas in water, now he went straight at it. Proud – to be sure – strong and in total command.

"It was a lesson in simplicity," a friend of mine commented. And it was a chance in this time of glamorous and glittering rock.

Dylan and the Band opened each show with a set of six songs, then Dylan returned for three more and, leaning abruptly to the microphone, said: "Don't go away. We'll be right back."

The second half opened with a five-song acoustic set by Dylan alone followed by four songs by the Band alone. Then Dylan returned and in a final set of four songs with the Band, roared to a climax that left the audience shivering and screaming for more.

The Band has never played better in person or on record. They were hard-driving, rocking, swinging accompaniments for Dylan and majestic performances on their own. Robbie Robertson played guitar obbligatos or fills when Dylan was singing that compared in emotional intensity and artistic simplicity to Louis Armstrong behind Bessie Smith. Within the total sound of the band, a pulsing, cracking, shaking sound, there was an infinity of variety and internal musical activity.

There's something which ought to be said right away about the Band and this tour. This is the largest concert tour they have ever been on in terms of numbers of people in the audience. They performed so brilliantly in Oakland – and, from all reports, everywhere they played – that I would expect they could now go out and do almost as well alone. Especially if the new album Robbie is working on has an impact, in terms of new material, comparable to what they did on this tour. The Band has really come out front with the larger audience. I think they can now do whatever they want and I hope it includes more tours with Dylan.

Dylan was in amazing form. This had been a long and tiring tour, despite every care taken by Bill Graham to make it as easy on the musicians as possible. But they rose above any physical limitations and they took the crowd with them. Dylan smiled and executed a series of bows that resembled a 17th century cavalier doffing his plumed hat with one hand and leaning on his sword with the other.

The songs that Dylan did with the Band were nearly all new in a musical sense. They all now had different tempos, new kickoffs, new arrangements, sometimes new melodic lines and new keys and new endings.

Dylan's voice is stronger now. Very sure and very flexible. Surrounded by the overwhelming energy of the Band with Robbie's guitar whipping and cracking behind it, Dylan sometimes used his voice itself like an electric guitar, screaming and soaring and changing the sound of the words by that trick of appearing to smile by the way he pronounces words.

The result of all of this was overwhelming. When he came on to open the first show, a young friend of mine said in tones of wonder, "God damn! It's really him!" and at the end of the night, two young men sat in the orchestra determinedly clapping 20 minutes after the end of the show, the sound of their hands echoing throughout the huge arena.

I went back to the album, Planet Waves, before the concert had not exactly faded from my memory (it will be a long time before that happens) and I found in it, as has so often been the case with Dylan's work, even more things than I had at first.

Dylan has by now created his own musical and poetic rhetoric which stands on its own as a vehicle for his work, much the same as Duke Ellington. True, there are occasional touches here and there of other times and other people, but it has all been absorbed, recycled and utilized again in a dramatically personal way.

There is a further point about the lyrics. It seems rather unlikely when he was growing up in Hibbing that Dylan absorbed his seminal influences in imagery, allusion and poetry by listening exclusively to Gatemouth Moore's nightly Little Rock broadcasts of American popular music, rich in the blues language though they may have been. In addition to listening, Dylan obviously read voraciously. Thus it might be that he came across and took literally Rimbaud's dictum: "The poet makes himself a seer, by long, prodigious and rational disordering of the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him and keeps only their quintessence. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and the superhuman strength and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one among men. For he drives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through these unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come: they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed! . . . The poet really is the thief of fire . . . (and) eternal art will have its function, since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer rhyme with action; it will be ahead of it."

But Dylan, untrue to Rimbaud's prophecy, did not succumb. He survived the torture of the road, the motorcycle madonna accident and all the big money business shit. He has returned to us now with a fuller, more developed art. He always wrote love songs, but they were overshadowed by the political verse, despite the beauty and strength of songs like "Girl From the North Country," "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" and "To Ramona."

But for a time he did not. Once, during the period immediately after being booed at Newport and Forest Hills, he told a questioner, "I wish I could write like 'Girl From the North Country,' but I can't write like that any more. I dunno why." And then he denied there had been a change in his writing style. "When did I make the change? That was other people writing, you didn't hear anything from me. You know, I used to write a long time ago and it was almost the way I'm writing now."

I believe his love songs will survive above all else. Love is eternal, corny as that may sound. The polemics, for all the chains of flashing images and their ability to coalesce emotions and move the spirit, are, after all, often tied to the times in which they were written and these times are changing.

This new album is a collection of love songs interspersed with lines and phrases which, while not exactly asides, may be considered remarks upon Dylan's personal history.

This is, I tend to believe, the most musicianly of all Dylan's albums. His own playing and singing are of a high caliber, obviously a notch above all of his other efforts. He seems more sure of himself as a singer and I get the impression, from the musicianly things he does, that he has more fun with his voice now that he can use it like an instrument. On the last chorus of "Something There Is About You," Dylan sings that title phrase in a descending seven-note arpeggio, which he executes perfectly, in tune and with exquisite intonation.

Like the Band, Dylan knows what not to play or to sing. The hardest lesson of all to learn. The Band itself has done something only truly great musicians, secure in the knowledge of their own strengths, can do. They have sublimated themselves to the fellow artist and eschewed opportunity and temptation to forcefully step out. It is to their eternal credit. They are men, not boys. They know that nobody has to be heavy.

There is little over-dubbing on the album except for the occasional addition of the Band's voices and a few places where I hear a harp or guitar track laid down in addition to the basic take. It sounds as if it were done live – with the vocals recorded with the music--and in one or two takes. It has that special spontaneity about it.

Dylan's harp playing has always fascinated me. I have frequently thought of it as akin to Garth Hudson's organ introductions and interludes in complexity and humor.

The sound of the guitars is exquisitely recorded (applause for Bob Fraboni, the engineer), and the subtle interchanges and relationships between the various instruments indicate the highest level of professional skill (with the essential addition of the musicians' own love).

Dylan says on the jacket that these are "Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads." "On a Night Like This" opens the program in an uptempo Texas bounce with echoes of Rosa's Cantina, perhaps. You can have this one either way. I find it a rollicking good-time song with some of the exuberance of "New Morning." It has amazing interplay between the harp and the accordion behind the vocal as well as some really exciting harp playing on the last chorus.

The second track, "Going, Going, Gone," brings the tempo down slow and Dylan's voice out front. It is a song of decision, "closing the book on the pages and the text; I don't really care, oooh, what happens next." The mood is somber, almost ghostly, akin to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," as Robbie's guitar smears into a ringing minor howl after the third word in the title each time it is sung. The delicate and beautiful guitar work is throughout. The juxtaposition of piano chords, guitar and organ sounds, like a kind of accompaniment to a silent film, effectively implies disaster and terror.

"Tough Mama" is a brawler, a Cast Iron song if ever there were one. It has the imagery of Highway 61 and Freewheelin' and adds two more great lines which Dylan fans will be quoting: "I ain't haulin' any of my lambs to the market place any more" and "I gained some recognition but I lost my appetite!"

Throughout the album Dylan mixes love songs with bits of personal writing. Not only the romantic "Hazel" but "Something There Is About You" has this touch. In other songs, such as "Dirge" and "Going, Going, Gone," he is frankly autobiographical, in the same way he was before the accident in those songs which first blew people's minds. He even sometimes has allusions to other Dylan songs such as the line in "Dirge" about "the Doom Machine," a flashback to the "heart attack machine" in "Desolation Row," and in "Never Say Goodbye," a North Country love song where he sings, "Oh baby, baby, baby blue, you've changed your last name too."

And there is "Something There Is About You," a most powerful love song with its echoes in the introductions to "The Weight" and "Spanish Harlem Incident." Despite the love song poetry, both in the descriptive passages and in the statements to his love who walks in mystery yet moves with style and grace, there are direct personal statements: "I was in a whirlwind; now I'm in some better place," as well as the romantic recollections of his early days in northern Minnesota. The artist is talking about himself again, openly, nakedly and, I submit, poetically. He does it in "Wedding Song," which is a frank tribute to a lovely wife, when he sings:

It's never been my duty
To remake the world at large
Nor is it my intention
To sound a battle charge
'Cause I love you more than all of that
With a love that doesn't bend
And if there is eternity
I'd love you there again.

The song is a poem of devotion and promise, of acceptance and recognition; a pure love song that has a line that all lovers must envy: "I love you more than ever and I haven't yet begun."

"Forever Young," as the last track of the first side, is done slowly and with infinite care. Again the guitars are particularly tastefully done with delicate sound. It is a song of good wishes, almost a prayer for happiness. The guitar at the head of the song seems an echo continued from the previous track, its mood fits so neatly.

"Forever Young" is repeated, to open side two, this time with an uptempo rockabilly accompaniment. Dylan sings it more harshly and eliminates the choruses, substituting a series of harp and accordion interludes. Its simplicity makes it seem offhand, but it certainly is not.

"Dirge" speaks directly to the whole Dylan history. The piano (played by Dylan a la "Ballad of a Thin Man") duets with the guitar in the intro and in the preface to each of the verses. The lyric lines are really memorable: "Go sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine, the naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen." Dylan seems somehow to be reaching for an explanation here, yet the times in which this song is heard do not yet allow the vision to be clear, an impossible task even for a visionary in the murky society of the moment.

"You Angel You" is a kind of crazy love song with some of the stream of consciousness stanzas of the past. There is more than one place here where, for a flash, it would be possible to carry the line of his voice and its sound off into another Dylan song. It is an eerie feeling.

"Wedding Song" is Dylan, concert style, alone, accompanied only by his own guitar. It is a pure love song, a poem of devotion and promise, of acceptance and recognition.

It is a fine album, well and truly done. It is eloquent, imaginative and, as always, good fun. This humor pops out all over the place, especially in his juxtaposition of light lines of common speech against obviously serious lines. Dylan, like any artist, by definition takes his work seriously, but I have never thought he took himself seriously, as there is too long a history of wry, almost offhand humor.

Dylan's true biography is his various writings. This album is an important chapter in that saga. It is characteristic of the Dylan songs that they grow on you and expand in meaning the more they are heard, as does any true poem. Only "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Like a Rolling Stone" had the quality of explosive immediate impact. The others took time to grow and groove. I find the new ones in the same mode: They grow and I change the one I think is my favorite, day by day.

Dylan went into the studio and laid it all down in three days. Only twice before in record history, to my knowledge, has an instant classic been done so quickly. Louis Armstrong did it in the Twenties with his Hot Five and Hot Seven with Kid Ory, Johnny and Baby Dodds. And then at the end of the Fifties, Miles Davis did it with a quintet that included John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones.

You have to know what you are doing to bring that off. It separates the men from the boys. Dylan's deliberate simplicity – his decision not to use all the devices and electronic crutches available in the studio and, instead, to rely on the quality of the music itself – is a drastic and daring move.

Dylan Thomas, whose relationship to the poet under discussion is obvious, once said, "Poetry finds its own form; form should never be superimposed; the structure should rise out of the words and the expression of them."

To my ears this is exactly what Bob Dylan and the Band have done with this album and in the concerts. It is an achievement I am certain will stand the test of time.

This story is from the March 28th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 157: March 28, 1974