Bob Dylan: too freewheelin’?
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Bob Dylan: too freewheelin’?

“Images don’t hang [my current audience] up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.”

Can you guess what immensely important singer/songwriter uttered these sentences in a recent interview with music journalist Bill Flannigan? I’ll give you a hint: he has a new album entitled “Together Through Life” coming out on April 28.

These words come from the illustrious Bob Dylan. And if you guessed correctly, it’s probably because what he’s saying here is strange and doesn’t make much sense. After all, Bob Dylan is infamous for saying, doing, and singing things that don’t make much sense.

Of course, most music fans consider Dylan to be the greatest songwriter of all time, and I’m happy to agree with them. But I think the advent of a new Dylan album is a good opportunity for us fans to become a bit more critical in our attitudes toward Dylan. Yes, he has given us some of the greatest songs in the canon of popular music. Yes, it is an indisputable fact that he is one of the most influential musical entities to have existed within the last century.

But, again, Bob Dylan is strange. And some of what he does is downright absurd.

Consider again the quote from the recent interview. Literally, it sounds like Dylan is saying that his audience today is advanced to the point of not viewing him as a bona fide prophet. Does that mean that he thinks his audience in the past saw him as such? I find it hard to believe that anyone (barring a few crazy fans) would believe that the human race was doomed just because Bob Dylan said it was. And Armageddon seems like a drastic conclusion to draw from the existence of a horoscope writer who happens to be a convict.

But, of course, his claims in this particular interview are rather tame considering the bombastically absurd statements Dylan has made over the years. This is, after all, the guy who in 1965 told “Time” reporter Horace Judson, “I’ve got nothing to say about these things I write. [. . .]  I don’t write them for any reason. There’s no great ‘message.’” Really? The line “he not busy being born is busy dying”—a line that has been sending chills down the spines of its listeners since 1965—was written for “no reason” and has “no great message?” Come now.

And, lest we forget, this is also the guy who intentionally sang like Kermit the Frog on 1971’s “Nashville Skyline” and who played the part of the “creepy old guy with a cowboy hat” in that Victoria’s Secret commercial a few years ago.
So, what I’m driving at here is that we need to deal with Dylan’s absurdity. Does it enhance or negate our impression of him as an artistic genius? Ultimately, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Is this guy for real, or is he full of it?”

The way I see it, there are three possible answers to that question:

1) Yes, he is for real. All of his seemingly nonsensical behavior is either (a) an intentional effort to create a persona from which to deliver his songs, (b) too advanced for the normal cognitive apparatus to grasp, or (c) both (a) and (b).
2) No, he is not for real. He knows how absurdly he acts and does it on purpose. Meanwhile, he is laughing all the way to the bank while people buy millions of his records and try to analyze his every move.
3) He means everything he says/sings, but he isn’t as advanced as we think he is. In other words, he is merely eccentric and not a genius.

Or maybe all three answers are correct to some degree. I think, for instance, the quote I took from the interview with Flannigan gives some credibility to answer No. 3.  I understand, I think, the point Dylan is making, which is that contemporary audiences don’t overanalyze his lyrics. Perhaps this is an important observation, but it’s hardly worth the confusing and irrational illustration he uses to explain it. Thus, Dylan is eccentric here without being brilliant.
And while it’s hard for me to imagine that Dylan—a man who wrote songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Every Grain of Sand” – is a diabolical mastermind, answer No. 2 does make some sense of his actions. He has indeed often knowingly acted absurd, mostly to get reporters off his back. His claims in the interview with Horace Judson, I think, illustrate this point nicely.

Finally, of course, it would be incredibly difficult to deny that Dylan is a genius in some capacity. “Like a Rolling Stone” alone is enough to prove that Dylan has an uncanny ability for songwriting.

Dylan has been so mythologized that we often accept his work and his actions uncritically. Bob Dylan is most assuredly one of the all-time greatest figures in popular music, but that does not mean that everything he does emanates from some godlike spark of enlightenment. He does and says crazy things, and sometimes that’s all they are:  crazy. He’s human after all, just like the rest of us.

I’m looking forward to the new album. If his work over the last 10 years is any indication, the album will be good – certainly worth the 15 bucks – but nothing transcendent or all that important. He is understandably past his prime, and expecting him to give us another “Blood on the Tracks” would be as unfair as asking Hank Aaron to hit a homerun today. So let’s give the guy a break, shall we?

Jason Hardy is a senior English writing major. Email: hardyj@pop.belmont.edu

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