By Tony Attwood
If you have ever taken a quick glance at the Chronology Files on this site (see for example Dylan in the 60s) what may well strike you are two things.
First Bob Dylan has had periods of huge output, song after song pouring out of him, but with occasional periods where he has stopped writing. And second that those periods of non-writing have become more frequent, and longer.
Now I have written on this topic before, and outlined those “non-writing” periods in my little piece “Has Bob Dylan now stopped writing songs for good?” but I want to try and add a little more to that commentary by delving further into the world of creativity itself.
And for most people who do delve in such a way, “creativity” is a very troublesome area to examine because few can agree on a definition. Simply defining “creativity” as “doing something new” is generally thought to be insufficient. For although novelty is obviously part of creativity, there are aesthetic and moral judgements involved too. Mankind has been expert at inventing new ways of hurting humans seemingly since the dawn of the species, and yet most of us don’t call each new approach to torture, “creative”.
And likewise a child’s scream when it can’t have an ice cream might be novel, but most parents don’t consider that novelty and proclaim that their child is a creative wonder. There might be sixteen different ways of getting from one side of a swimming pool to another but again, finding them is mostly considered trivial, rather than creative.
Thus creativity is combined with value judgements and so when people call Bob Dylan, JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven Leonardo, Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marie Curie, Jackson Pollock, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Ada Lovelace etc etc creative geniuses, they do so from within a set of value judgements rather than anything that can be measured as simply as “novelty” or “originality,” although each of these is part of the overall show.
The creative genius is also generally measured by his/her greatest achievements, not by everything produced, although in the case of Shakespeare (excluding the co-written works), Beethoven and Bach, pretty much everything is considered to be works of creative genius. But even here, looking at these individuals and their work does not help us tie down a definition of creativity. An artist like Picasso on the other hand is considered to have reached his highest point of creativity with “Guernica” and slipped back.
Some of these people however, with what seems to be almost an “other worldly” talent, have kept their creative genius going throughout their lives, and I don’t know enough about each field of creative endeavour to draw an absolute conclusion about whether the norm in each field is to keep going producing works of genius, or whether stopping is commonplace. Shakespeare we know just stopped writing, left London and went home to the Midlands for a spot of family life. Dickens was still writing masterfully when he died.
So there are few generalisations to gather, and even fewer to be found about where these extraordinary and rare people get their ideas from. Indeed the notions just seem to be there in their heads.
Now if this is true, if all there is, is ideas in their heads, there is little we can do to understand the process more fully – meaning it is hard to know why the creative genius stops creating.
However I do believe we can go further than this, because in looking through Dylan’s entire output of songs, as I have been trying to do on this website over the last few years, we can see that elements of his creative inspiration have as often as not come from his own interests in the world around him, and the literature that he reads (as well as a few movies along the way).
This is not so much to say that Dylan just writes about people he knows, or takes elements from books he reads, the films he sees and the situations around him, but rather he draws his inspiration from these on occasion. This is the inspiration upon which the creativity is built.
Thus the invective within “Positively Fourth Street” and “Like a Rolling Stone” might well have been brought to his mind by his reflections on some people he knew but really, really didn’t like, but that doesn’t mean that Dylan was simply composing a piece of music about that person. Yes he was doing that, but he was also allowing us to generalise out to think of the people we have met who have behaved just as badly or just as stupidly and who we dislike just as much as Dylan disliked the target of his outpourings.
The creativity at this point came from seeing the person he did not like, and wanting to express his view very personally in a song – and make that a song that other people wanted to hear. And indeed not only hear once but over and over again. The genius was that he managed to do it.
So in this consideration of Dylan’s creativity, I am heading towards his ability to head into new forms of expression within popular music. I have written before of the simple statement given to me by my tutor Professor Keith Swanwick at London University in the early days of my working on my research degree on popular music. He said words to the effect that pop music was virtually always about love, lost love and dance.
Of course one can immediately find exceptions, but his generalisation holds up very well – or at least held up very well back in the 1970s when I was studying. But even at that moment Dylan had torn down the edifice of the three towers of what pop could be about by adding these songs of disdain. And I would argue that this move took a fundamental step of creative genius to achieve. Redrawing the notion of what is possible is rare and to be prized, in my view.
But Dylan did this more than once. He also wrote songs about the way in which the past was being torn up and people destroyed by the process, putting it first in the form of contemporary folk music based on old folk traditions (one thinks of Hollis Brown as a prime example) but then later putting into pop music itself. Whereas, when pop music had had a political message, it was one which in essence was an evolution of the thoughts within “Times they are a changing”. Curiously, maybe perversely, Dylan named the album after the one song that looked forward. The rest of the album looked mostly to the past.
Thinking of these songs it is clear that Dylan’s creativity was stimulated by a combination of the songs that he had heard from his interest in earlier folk music, and contemporary events. This was true right from the start with compositions such as Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues in which Dylan took an established form of music and intermingled it with a contemporary event.
So from this very quick look at Dylan’s early compositions we can see the creative urge comes out of three sources: people he came across and contemporary events, and the music that he had experienced in the past. In short Dylan’s creativity was stimulated by the world around him and the music he loved.
And this has continued through his life, from Ballad for a friend through to the reflections of the world gone mad in It’s all right ma and the political commentary of Desolation Row This form of creative writing has continued with Dylan through most of his career right up to a song like It’s all good. It’s his concerns, expressed in a unique way, reworking the musical forms of the past.
Of course along the way he has found many new formulations to work on – the religious period for example is not one within which I can relate to the lyrics personally, any more than I can personally relate to the B Minor Mass as a religious work, but in both cases I can appreciate the work as music of the highest order. Take “When He Returns” for example – not the album version but the astonishing live versions Bob produced. An extraordinarily brilliant and original work. Creativity at its highest. Exactly as was “Love Minus Zero” many years before.
However such a form of stimulus for creative thought is more than likely to become less powerful as time passes, simply because as we get older most of us become more reflective and less revolutionary in our thinking. Fewer new thoughts are allowed to hit the brain and send us in new directions. Imagine a world in which you had written “Jokerman” and “Tambourine Man” and “Tangled up in Blue”. Really, where do you go now?
Tangled itself was a radical evolution of the way in which a popular song could be written, transforming the time line, and re-writing the lyrics, but after that… how on earth do you reach those heights again? Probably not by writing “Mixed up in green” but rather by having to make another leap into another musical and literary form. And for this one needs another major burst of creative insight.
But of course these are not the only song types Dylan has written, for he has indulged in love and lost love songs – two of the staples of popular music that Professor Swanwick noted (the third was dance, which isn’t to Bob’s taste at all it seems). But just as the observations of the world gone wrong, the political commentary, and the song written about a friend in the band all do get a little dulled by advancing age, so does the imperative to write more love and lost love songs. After one’s done it a few times, what more is there to say?
However Bob Dylan also gave us, as well as love, lost love, protest against the way change leaves the poor behind, protest against the madness of government, and the religious songs, something else that was completely new: impressionist songs.
For me, two works of utter genius “Visions of Johanna” and “Tell Ol Bill” fit into this category. (One can argue that “Tangled up in blue” is part of it as well. Each give us glimpses of another world, without ever fully reconciling where it is and what is going on. They are masterpieces of being tantalising – the half glimpsed world that we can appreciate but never grasp. Impressionist paintings in song.
But these works are few and far between – works of sublime inspiration and insight which come to even the genius, seemingly but occasionally. Besides who else has ever successfully attempted such songs?
Which brings me meanderingly to my point: Love and lost love are less likely to be the source of inspiration to the creative genius as he gets older. The notion that the world has gone wrong in every sense is there still, but it provides fewer opportunities for expression, and the impressionist works are seemingly much rarer in the Dylan canon, because, I suspect, they are so hard to write.
In short what is he to write at this stage of his life? The blues pretty much dominated Dylan in 2008/9, whereas Tempest did not seem to have so much of a central theme to me – it was more a collection of individual ideas and reflective stories. That doesn’t make the songs less meaningful or lesser works but when there are no themes, it is harder to put together a whole collection of songs for an album. Probably not something one can do once a year.
You can, after all, only write one “Roll on John”, one story of Tempest, and a limited number of Shakespearean musings such as “Soon after midnight”.
And thus I reach an understanding of the creative problem for Bob, as I perceive it. What is the source of his creative inspiration now? On the last album of his own compositions, he tries storytelling, but I am not sure it is 100% successful, and besides each story needs a new theme; the storytelling is not like “the blues” or “lost love” or “weird characters” or “tales from America’s past” (as in JWH) because each story needs to start again from scratch, rather than have a template in which it can exist.
I suspect that Bob can’t revisit these past themes because anything newly written would feel to him like a re-hash of the past. If a new inspiration came to him, or if he could find the door that opened onto Visions of Johnanna or Tell Ol Bill then he could fly once more into new musical creations, without relying on a re-working of songs from past eras, and artificially created chord sequences.
Which is not to say that his later work is not of the highest merit – it certainly is. But I think through this little meander it is possible to see what Bob was saying when he stated, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.”
It was as clear an indication as we have ever had that he has not too much is on the horizon. He doesn’t want to do more of what he’s done before, and he most certainly doesn’t want to produce anything that is second rate. It’s just that the themes that interest him have been explored, and anyway, who am I to suggest to almighty Bob that he might be able to find some new arenas within that field of musical impressionism?
Maybe it is now Bob’s time to sit here stranded, at least in terms of another great creative leap forward. And why not? He’s given us more than we have any right to deserve out of one lifetime.
But I asked, “What could kick start it?” “Johanna” and “Tell ol Bill” focused at the outset on locations, and then the people within them. Maybe that’s the trick Bob. A person, a place, and not much happening…
What 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.