Review of Graley Herren’s Dreams and dialogues in Dylan’s “Time out of mind” by Tony Attwood
All books about musicians are built on assumptions. All books about Bob Dylan doubly so. But here’s the thing, few books about Bob Dylan make their assumptions clear, so it is perhaps the duty of the critic to do the job.
So, to start: the assumptions.
First that one can fully grasp the implications, hidden agendas, references and the rest of the stuff within Dylan songs by considering only the lyrics not the music. That one is wrong for me; the music in Dylan’s work is not an appendage which contributes nothing to and takes nothing away from the meaning of the lyrics. The music is not the coat hook, making no artistic contribution in terms of meaning and deserving to be ignored.
Second that the songs themselves and the phrases that make the up, mean something. That might seem obvious, but actually no it’s not. It is possible to argue that some lyrical phrases are written as they simply because the sound good. That, for example, the line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day” is the sound equivalent of a stunning, amazing, beautiful abstract painting; a set of words that do have a meaning, but one that is secondary to the emotion they express which cannot be fully expressed in words.
As I have oft mentioned in my ramblings on this site, I have a number of abstract paintings in the my house, and I don’t seek to express what they are in any words. If a friend wants to know what I see in Jackson Pollock, I invite him or her in to have a look. If nothing, ok, so be it.
And third, that the meanings perceived within the lyrics, reflect upon Dylan’s own outlook on the world. Early on in Dreams and Dialogues Michael Gray is quoted as saying, “What made me deeply uneasy was that only here and there did Dylan seem authentic about this woe-is-me stuff.”
That’s really interesting, because yes artists can most certainly portray their emotional, philosophical, spiritual and every other position in a work. One glimpse at Guernica shows that. But it doesn’t have to be the case, and isn’t always the case.
Of course sometimes there might nothing to grasp. But sometimes there might be and sometimes the artist might even change her or his mind. Sometimes there might be no meaning; something there is. Sometimes Dylan says what he thinks, but sometimes he’s a writer of fiction. And why not?
Really there is quite a mix. Meanings, no meanings, understandable meanings, abstractions, and floating in from elsewhere occasionally: straightforward downright fiction, and it shows us the problems that many have when writing about Dylan.
This problem is highlighted very early on where Dylan quotes a Biblical line and says “I don’t recall where I heard it,” to which the author responds, “This is signature Dylan subterfuge. He knows full well…”
So now as a basis for the book we have various notions:
- the songs have meanings (sometimes hidden) which can be understood,
- that they throughout reflect Dylan’s view of the world and of himself,
- that one can understand this without reference to the music,
- that Bob sometimes misleads us, but nevertheless we can divine when this is happening and what his real thoughts and beliefs are.
These, from my perspective, are the pillars on which this book is based. And I suspect the vast majority of Dylan critics will agree with this and go along with these feelings. After all this is the basis of their world. It just doesn’t happen to be mine.
Of course such an approach can make the read feel good: Bob is writing terrific pieces of music, but I don’t know the language to write about music properly, so let’s pretend the music isn’t there, because on the only lyrics matter. Now we can do this: Bob is trying to mislead us, but we are bright enough to see our way through the deception.
As for the approach which says the composer of songs actually needs to tell it like it is, has been around for a while, although I can’t seem to work out when it first started.
Certainly Graley Herren in ‘Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s “Time out of Mind”,’ is approving of Michael Gray’s statement that Dylan is “striking a pose”. Gray is quoted a saying, “What made me deeply uneasy was that only here and there did Dylan seem authentic about this woe-is-me stuff.”
Now that, for me (even if for no one else) is rather interesting, because if you’ve been following my meanders around the entire Dylan catalogue on this site (and obviously there is no reason why you should unless you lack for other entertainment), you will have noted the repeated raving by myself over “Ballad for a Friend”
This was, as far as I can tell, the 16th song Dylan wrote, and it leaps out ahead of everything else he had tried up to this point. Not in the sense that “I think that’s the best so far,” but rather, “how come the guy who wrote those previous 15 songs suddenly manages this utter work of genius?”
Now there is no question of authenticity here, or at least no one has suggested this is a true story, any more than “I was young when I left home” written a little earlier was said to be a true song.
But I don’t see “Ballad” as striking a pose, any more than any other song. It’s fiction. We know it, and it works. Maybe I’m odd. Maybe I don’t mind the fiction because in my early days when I thought I could make it as a folk singer I was travelling the folk clubs singing a song called “On the streets again” – when I was actually studying at university. I’m not sure that made me such an awful person (although clearly the music was never as good as I thought it was).
Maybe there is a little more to be cross about if the artist deliberately misleads (“signature Dylan subterfuge” the book calls it) but then what is art if it is not giving us a new perspective on reality? Really, are we saying, art must not mislead. If so, I’m in the wrong universe.
Take all these cover versions that Untold Dylan now republishes on a regular basis. They rework the music, just as Dylan has often re-worked the lyrics. None of that worries me.
In fact, everything is re-worked in the post-modern world. (That sounds like a song title to me; maybe I’ll have a go at that one).
But less you feel I am doing nothing but put this “Dreams and Dialogues” down (figuratively not literally) I would assure you I am not, not one bit. For example when the opening of “Series of Dreams” is noted as the point where, “Dylan lays bare his compositional process, with false starts, dead ends and paradoxes intact.” I have no idea if that is right, but my goodness it has given me a long pause for thought, and I’m really grateful to the author. “Paradoxes intact.” I don’t know what that means in relation to the song, but I love the phrase.
I do lose track of the author’s thinking with the notion of Dylan performing “Make you feel my love through the voice of a sleeping creeper.” Maybe he is, although I can’t hear it at all. But then he covers himself by saying, “The threats are subtle enough in “Make you feel my love” to have gone largely unnoticed, so it wasn’t just me that thought the song was excellent.
And that’s really the point. If you enjoy these games you’ll love this book. If the line “One senses that the addressee of ‘Can’t Wait’ is not the singer’s first victim nor will she be his last”… makes you throw the book across the floor (fortunately for me nothing broke at the end of its trajectory) you’ll still go back and pick it up just to see what he has said next.
Maybe you see, “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from” as a “pathetic admission from a condemned killer.” If so you’ll be nodding away in agreement. But if you see it as a piece of word play that just rings in one’s mind and expresses, in a way that is hard to explain, the decisions one made this morning, as much as that dramatic job change ten years back, the divorce, the giving up on one’s best friend…” then the book might go flying across the room again. But you’ll still pick it up, one more time, I guarantee.
Indeed even if you don’t make it through all the book I urge you as much as I can to read the last two pages before the multiple notes and extensive bibliography. The part that starts “Obama’s epiphany was spiritual…” Because if you read that, you’ll either go back and read the bits you skipped on the way (which I must confess is what I did, and thus had to do) or you’ll be nodding to yourself, knowing this was a book worth reading.
Even if you disagree.