By Tony Attwood
Part of the Untold Dylan idea, as you may have noticed, is to explore what happens when we set up a series of articles. Series allow us to explore in depth and if readers then get interested we keep the series running. If not the idea is quietly put out for a quiet snooze and I pretend they were nothing to do with me.
I particularly like series because they give us a chance to get our teeth (or if you prefer any other part of your anatomy) into more than just one song and more than just one aspect of Dylan’s work. The long list that is to be found at the top of the screen by the picture gives links to some (although by no means all) of the series that have been created over the years on this website. Sometimes with success, sometimes not, but always with the intention of delving much deeper into Dylan and his music that can be achieved in a single short piece.
Much of the desire to explore a topic from every possible angle arises from the original idea of this blog… it is called Untold Dylan because I wanted to go where other blogs were not going, and indeed where the official Dylan site had never gone. As Captain Kirk said with great grammatical inaccuracy, “To boldly go where no man has gone before…”
That wish has now been fulfilled many times over particularly thanks to my fellow writers who have each contributed their own themes, grasping without my saying that the “untold” part of the title was as important as the fact it is about Bob.
And now I want to explore another idea for a series of song, a series that focuses on Dylan songs which are sometimes relatively unknown but which to the reviewer (that is me, and anyone else who wants to jump in and contribute a piece) are relatively ignored, but may nevertheless can be considered brilliant works of art. So not a series to consider “Johanna” yet again, as everyone else has already done a million times, but to pick out songs that are less considered yet equally deep, equally meaningful.
My thinking at the start is that I’ve already done some of that with my attempts to highlight such pieces as “Tell Ol Bill,” “Drifter’s Escape” and just recently “Making a liar out of me”. Each is a song that many of Dylan’s fan may know, but not songs that they may have considered in any depth. Yet they are, in my opinion, works that really do deserve to be more established.
And now here, by way of example, I might add Lenny Bruce is Dead. Yet if you follow Heylin’s lead you might instantly turn away from the song with a thought such as, “that’s a load of rubbish.” If you have, I would beg you to re-consider the piece through these two live versions, and maybe, just maybe, then go on and consider the point below.
Surely we all of us know that there are times in his extraordinary career that Bob has been able to deliver works of such power in the lyrics, melody and accompaniment that the song can send shivers right down your spine. And for me, that recording is one of those times.
Now part of the argument against the song is that Dylan is reported as saying that he didn’t know why he wrote it, and he had no particular affection for or interest in Lenny Bruce or his message (which was overtly critical of organised religion). And yet Bob was able to get such power and energy out of the song – something he surely recognised, as he played it 117 times over an 18 year period.
Part of the mystery is that it was composed just before “Jesus is the One” – which makes an interesting additional element in the issue. Celebrating a man who laughed at organised religion, while being so interested in organised religion oneself.
My starting point is simply listening to the song as a piece of music – which self-evidently it is. And I say the downright obvious, “It is a piece of music,” because this is something that Heylin seems to find very hard to grasp, since he so rarely writes about the music and instead tends to treat many songs as if they are neither poems nor treaties. But it is a piece of music as much as a Beethoven string quartet or Mozart piano sonata is a piece of music. Just because it has words doesn’t remove its musical importance.)
The fundamental thing about pieces of music is that the music doesn’t have to mean anything. Just as a work of art doesn’t have to represent something or mean something. It can simply be.
Now in the classic argument the whole point of language is so that the speaker can convey her or his thoughts to the listener. But we should also remember that one perfectly reasonable way to use language is to put across complex emotion. We may describe emotions by giving them names, but in essence they are emotions – and they can be represented and examined to some degree via images, by words, by sounds and by music.
This doesn’t work very well if one says or writes, “He felt horrified” because there is no relationship between yourself as the listener or reader and the horror felt by “he”. But a song that opens with a line that the subject of the song “is dead” and ends “Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had” is powerful and unrelenting. Doubly so when the music within the song is itself such a perfect transmitter of the same emotion that is found in the lyrics.
In short, the chord sequence and melody lend themselves perfectly as a way of expressing the emotions that are to be found in that song. If you just heard the music without the lyrics you would not get as exact a notion of the emotions within the piece as you can from the full song, but you would still feel the angst, the pressure, and the pull. Each is embedded in the music of the first line.
However this is just the start because we feel the emotion even more so as Dylan is not often known for utilising melody in as powerful way as happens here. So knowing it is Dylan we pay double attention to the opening phrase of five notes. Then as we realise that the lyrics open with an announcement of death (something very unusual in a piece of pop or rock music) we pay even more attention. We give that opening as much notice as we give the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You don’t talk over the opening bars of this song – at least not if you have any emotional sensitivity. You are there. You are held. You are inside.
But if Bob didn’t know anything about Lenny Bruce, except what he read in the obituary, why did he write the song? I could of course say “It was almost certainly because…” but that would be untrue. I have to say, “My guess is… that he saw the headline ‘Lenny Bruce is dead’ and the melody of that bar and a half of music popped into his head. And Dylan being a consummate composer, recognised a powerful phrase of music and a powerful linguistic phrase when the two came along hand in hand and hit him in the face, so he played it on the piano and then saw where it went.
I find it a supreme piece of music and I find Heylin’s dismissal of it as utterly second rate, a supreme piece of illiterate reviewing. Yes, if we had just been given the opening line
“Lenny Bruce is dead”
that really would not have meant too much. But we didn’t get just that. We got,
“Lenny Bruce moved on and the ones that killed him are gone.”
It is so simple it hurts. Sing it properly and it will make you cry.
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.