We were so much older then, when Bob Dylan first impinged upon our consciousness. Our view of the world was the view held by those before us.
But Dylan changed all that with his songs, with his poetic images. “Chains of flashing images” he called them. He made us dream everything, as Sainte-Beuve said poetry must do.
So one after another they came, those songs by the Minnesota minstrel, and they changed our lives, even in ways we have yet to understand.
In the process, he himself became a figure of such ecstatic, quivering luminosity that his audience literally hallucinated his presence.
At the height of the Dylan impact in the Sixties, the height of the aboveground visible impact, not a day went by that someone did not claim to see him here on the street in the Bay Area. It was one of the most amazing things about the Monterey Pop Festival, the most amazing party ever held, that person after person intimately familiar with Dylan said that somehow they thought he was there in disguise, if you will, present though never seen.
As I have said before, I think it literally true that no one who absorbed that first body of work — jigging veins of rhythmic mother wits, as Marlowe once described poetry — was ever again to view the state of the union and its history in the old, classroom civics course terms. Dylan changed that.
But there came an end, not only to the overt message, but in a deeper sense to the dramatic contrast that message could make. In one way, Dylan was a victim of relativity. He had trained an audience to wait for cataclysmic revelations and then he gave them simple beauty instead. They were not ready.
Dylan’s situation now is that great numbers of his former audience have abandoned him, convinced he is a sellout to commercial interests, his creative flame gone and able only to echo his old achievements.
There are some among us, though, who continue to find his work of deep, even expanding impact, a living thing that defies description but still contains “those brave translunary things” once said of Marlowe’s poetry. It is increasingly interesting how, for every echelon of audience which leaves him, Dylan seems to attract a new one, and — this is no accident — it is an audience more interested in poetry than in politics, for all the two may ultimately meet.
For the artist runs his own race and there are no competitors, only his own internal stopwatch and the roar of the crowd.
Dylan, surely, wants approval. After all, he’s the man with the stagefright, singing with all his might. But in his heart, he knows what he does and how well he does it and sometimes on his personal lonely strip of sand he has had to face the possibility there really is no communication, only the blink of an eye.
I think that is the reason Dylan’s return to public concerts last year was such a triumph and such a surprisingly serene tour. He knew where he was at. He hoped, of course, his audience would accept it. But he was prepared for anything; had he not been ‘buked and scorned when he made the big leap to electric? When it turned out the audience was ready, too, he must certainly have dug it.
But there is always a part of the American audience which turns against its hero when he does not conform to its definition of his role. Thus was Ellington imprisoned within the framework of his own good taste in having such individual soloists that when they left, the voices changed, and again by having the audacity to begin with the writing of masterpieces.
Ellington was in the full flush of maturity when he faced his deepest problems. Dylan stepped into the volcano when he was, relatively speaking, a child, yet he too withstood it. One of his most remarkable achievements was that he did not continue the angry drive to ultimate bitterness begun in “Positively 4th Street” but mellowed out and eventually gave us Planet Waves and now, Blood on the Tracks.
If we are so much younger now, given a new, fresh view of our world by the poet, it is still sad that some have turned his words back against him demanding he lead, if not with his body, at least with his lyric statement. But that is not what poetry does, though it may be what some form of verse a rung down the ladder may do.
Listen to the songs on his new album, Blood on the Tracks. He has brought it all together once more, all the sounds from the air and the earth in this culture, all the myths and symbols he spewed out once before and redigested for the use of his art.
It doesn’t matter if the poet speaks directly to an issue by its familiar labels; what matters is the magic he creates in the saying of it. If he can lift the veil for one brief moment for us to see, even if we do not understand what we see, then he has proven his art.
Today’s pop music audience has many distractions to listen to. There are dozens of good records, more than a handful of good groups and solo performers onstage and on the radio. But almost without exception, they are entertainers and what they do is not art in the deepest sense.
How long has it been since anyone said anything to you from a record that meant anything? Yesterday’s pop groups, fun though they were, rank right there with yesterday’s pop hit disc, and while we had a good time with Ahab the Arab, he hardly changed our lives. Yet, we will remember the songs on all the Dylan albums even if we did not like them and even if their impact now is not as surprising and shocking as in the beginning.
Meanwhile, the argument with those who have turned against him is futile. The Portuguese have a saying: Fazer bem a velhacos, é deitar aqua no mar, which means that to be kind to scoundrels is to throw water into the sea. Substitute “fools” for “scoundrels” and you have it.
This story is from the March 13th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.