By Tony Attwood
Writing about Bob Dylan can be contentious – not in the sense of readers responding by saying “you’ve got this wrong – consider this evidence” but rather from people who either simply write, “If you think that you are an idiot” and leave out any notion of evidence, and those who feel one should not write x or y about Bob Dylan.
Sometimes the objection is simple: reading this article was a waste of my time, and of course to that the obvious answer is, “if it was that bad why didn’t you stop after the first five seconds?”
And if you did stop after the first five seconds why did you then waste more time by writing to tell me what an appalling waste of time it was?
Sometimes the correspondent tries to find a deeper problem – by suggesting for example that writing about Dylan in this way is directly responsible for Dylan’s lack of new compositions in recent years. The argument seeming to be that Bob takes notice of his critics and is now so dispirited he can’t be bothered to carry on.
That last point would be awful if it were true, but I can’t for a moment find any evidence that the man who has defied his critics so often in his life by going electric, by going country, by returning to his roots and recording old folk and blues songs, by going religious, by using children’s songs as a source, etc etc, would ever be influenced by his critics. If ever an artist was his own man, surely it has always been Bob Dylan.
My view is that most articles and books on Bob Dylan are self-opinionated, presenting opinion as fact and demanding that the reader goes along with whatever the fundamental proposition of the article is, totally through trust.
Which is why the issue of Dylan and humour becomes so problematic. And that happens because when a spot of humour comes into an article, everything is down to the personality of the reader. For of all aspects of life, humour is just about the least able to be analysed in any logical form. If you don’t like a joke, or a humorous style, then you don’t. Analysis and logic doesn’t help too much. Indeed analysing humour seems to be one of the most boring topics in psychology.
Which I suppose is why I have left dealing with the issue of humour and Bob Dylan for quite a long time. It’s a tough topic.
That and the fact that it is quite hard to find very much written about Bob Dylan and humour, in order to be able to gauge other people’s views. Heylin, for example, in 1200 pages of analysis of Dylan’s songs didn’t think to have an index entry for humour despite offering us over 20 pages of index entries.
True there are about half a dozen sites on the internet listing “Dylan’s 10 funniest lyrics” and “Dylan’s Funniest Songs” and “Humorous quotes from Bob Dylan” but not much of an analysis except from one notable piece on the long running Psychobabble web site.
They have this view of Dylan’s humour: “Dylan’s key line is this probing profundity from “Tombstone Blues”:
The sun’s not yellow
“There’s your voice of a generation right there, beatniks. There’s your “modern Shakespeare” (another writer who inspires much boring solemnity but was never above cracking a good fart joke). Dylan pulled off his most brilliant prank when he ditched the overt preachiness of his early acoustic work in favor of surrealism and a good beat. The punch line wasn’t just all of the former fans outraged by his embracing of Rock & Roll electricity but those who continued to search for the meaning of existence in his outrageous comedy. Of course, there was still profundity in a lot of this stuff: the socialist tirade of “Maggie’s Farm”, the sneering swipe at gaudy materialism in “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, and even the slanted perspective of poverty in “Tombstone Blues”. But the righteousness of these tracks is inebriated with sheer nonsense…
“So, what does the above pun on “yellow” and “chicken” have to do with the overall message of “Tombstone Blues”? Not a goddamn thing. Does this lowest form of humor detract from the song’s message? Your call. Does it make Dylan analysts look goofy when they try to decode its meaning? It sure does (observe how goofy I come off in the proceeding paragraphs). That may be the line’s purpose after all: it exposes the fatuousness of those who missed Dylan’s point that sometimes there is no point. It’s also keen proof that in reaction to those who demanded he be their generation’s social conscience (such pressure!), he was not going to alter his path for anyone. If he had something to say about society, he’d say it. And if he wanted to interrupt that message with a really dumb joke, he was gonna do that too. Dylan was not about to allow his decisions be dictated by his critics or his followers. His own abundant and gloriously absurd imagination would forever call the shots….”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Master of War” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” get my self-righteous juices flowing just like everyone else’s. Yeah, I agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is a brilliant, poetic portrait of disillusion and generational waywardness or whatever insufferable label we might slap on that great Rock & Roll song. But nothing moves me like the above quote from “Tombstone Blues”, or when Bob imagines making love to Elizabeth Taylor and catching hell from Richard Burton in “I Shall Be Free”, or when he completely cracks up at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” before launching into a six and half-minute tall tale about how he discovered America. Dylan moves me the most when he’s making me laugh.”
But there is nothing in the rule book of writing reviews and commentaries that says everything should be deadly serious. In fact there is no rule book. It is just that most reviewers like to take the stance of being serious, and indeed that’s how I’ve been much of the time on this site, because I have, after all, just spent half a day listening to a song, looking up references, considering my thoughts and trying to make sense of it all.
In the early days Bob used to make the odd joke in interviews. When asked how he saw his songs he said something along the lines that some of them are five minutes long and some of them are three minutes long. When asked if he saw himself as a protest singer he said he felt he was more of a Song and Dance Man.
And indeed he was funny in a whole range of songs. Just consider these…
- Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.
- Talkin Hava Negeilah blues
- Talking World War III Blues
- Gypsy Lou – although in this piece I am not quite sure where the humour ends and viciousness begins.
- Motorpsycho Nightmare
- I shall be free number 10
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
- Subterranean Homesick Blues
- I’m Your Teenage Prayer
- Quinn the Eskimo – The Mighty Quinn
- Clothes line saga
- TV Talking Song
It’s a fair range, and I think opens the door to undertaking some humorous writing about Bob. So it is not surprising that there are those few websites that list Dylan’s humorous quips like “Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.”
Or on being told that some American folk singers like Carolyn Hester, had said that his “folk rock,” is liberating them.) “Did Carolyn say that? You tell her she can come around and see me any time now that she’s liberated.”
Then there was his definition of peace, “The moment when you reload your rifle.”
And “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself.”
- There doesn’t seem to be any tomorrow. Every time I wake up, no matter in what position, it’s always been today.
- WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is a good cause, I support them, and am proud to lend my music to this effort. Early on, animals were the only ones who liked my music. Now it’s pay back time.
- What good are fans? You can’t eat applause for breakfast. You can’t sleep with it.
If he’s gone off humour of late, well, he’s come and gone through most things so that’s not really a surprise. And it gives us a chance to take a more relaxed view of Dylan through a few articles.
Of course the problem with humour is that for many people, if the humour isn’t their humour then it’s either sacrilege or just plain dull. Try and have a laugh about someone else’s prophet or messiah and just see what happens. All my friends and I loved the movie “The Life of Brian” and we still crack the jokes to each other (we can be very tedious people sometimes). But there are an awful lot of people (at least in England) who found the movie profoundly insulting.
So it goes.
We didn’t set out to do a series of humorous pieces about Bob – they sort of emerged along the way, which is one of the joys of this type of writing. I was composing my reviews of Dylan’s songs from my own perspective, and Larry comes along and writes his pieces on Dylan and poetic influences, and that then takes a turn and some humour turns up.
There is an index of these more lighthearted pieces on the site: The Lighter Side. Like all the indexes you can find them listed under the picture at the top of each page. And we also have a category now on the home page – so if you don’t want anything we consider amusing, you know which bits to miss.
But this leads me in a meandering sort of way, to one last point.
I have mentioned on occasion that I also write a football (soccer) blog, which in contrast to most such ventures about the team I choose to go and watch (Arsenal), is by and large fairly positive even when the club is not winning and not playing well. My journeys to London to watch the matches are taken with friends, and often include a lot of laughter. I have a season ticket so I always sit in the same seat and the guys either side of me (whom I only know because they sit either side of me) and myself share a lot of fun, as well as the anguish when the team loses.
However most of the thousands of blogs that exist commenting on the issues concerning Arsenal are resolutely critical and negative. I guess that just reflects the writers’ personalities.
And that seems to me to be similar to the point I made at the start about the occasional person just writing to this blog to say the writing is rubbish, the commentary is nonsense, and the approach should not be used.
Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t.
At least I smile more than they do – and I suspect by and large I have a much more enjoyable life.
What else is on the site
- 1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
- 2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
- 3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
- 4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
- 5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
- 6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines