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Date: Thu, 20 Dec 2001 14:39:44 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Rock of Sages
Rock of Sages
19 December 2001
by Todd Gitlin
Monuments have toppled all over the world, but Bob Dylan stays on his
feet indefatigable, protean, transcending his every generation.
openDemocracy's North Americas editor asks whether the source of his
endurance lies precisely in the fact that he started old?
"Did you know Bob Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times?",
stage-whispered a young student, sitting behind me at Madison Square Garden
on November 19, as we waited for Dylan's concert to begin. The combination
of awe and knowingness seemed, in that moment, to echo as much as to
There are popular artists who succeed by mere survival, or by momentarily
bridging generations in their art or appeal. Dylan has done far more. His
songs have articulated and reshaped American society's thought-dreams over
forty tumultuous years and because American, much of the world's also.
Like no other artist, he has made the changing times his own.
For all these decades Dylan has put words and music to a resonant awareness
that nothing comes easily, that the city on the hill is mined. The sense of
ageless doom that accompanied his youthful journey from Minnesota to New
York has remained at his core, a protection from facile optimism or
cynicism. He has belonged always to himself. On this New York evening, more
than ever he seems to embody as well as fully earn the complex feelings
invested in him.
In the mouth of a graveyard
If the search for meaning after catastrophe is to be more than clich, then
the small figure intoning ancient texts in a nasal rumble, and lunging with
little dance steps around the stage in a pink suit, is always in the
running to be one of its prime sources.
It turns out that Dylan can perform A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, written
almost forty years ago by a fevered 21-year-old in the midst of another
global crisis (over Cuba), and make the song remain an ever-ready prophecy
of apocalypse, as if scripted for 11 September:
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken^I met another man
who was wounded with hatred^ I heard the roar of a wave that could drown
the whole world.
Indeed. If Americans who lack the taste for apocalypse are now getting to
know the grain and texture, the look and the stench of doom, Dylan must
have been less surprised than most. For he always exuded the confidence of
a battered man who suffered, who was there and who emerged from the wreck
convinced that he knew how the blame for the crash was shared around.
Yet Dylan has also resisted the didactic impulse by implicating himself in
the common fate of age, time, death, pain, loss. How do you grow old in
public? Ironically. It turns out too that he can sing his way painlessly,
not self-pityingly, through and past the line, The girls all say, 'You're a
worn out star!' (Summer Days, from his latest album Love and Theft),
A person, and a country, can't pretend its way into starting all over
again. Dylan's self-mockery avoids the mawkish because, as it were, he
started out broodingly old in his twenties, longing for or pretending
to a magisterial presence from the start, chronicling failure as an
achievement, brightly and rhythmically desperate, and always droll about it.
"I'll die first before I decay"
The idea of an aging rock star sounds an instant oxymoron. Rock and its
variants were born to be young, news. Chansoneurs maudits, dark angels of
song would seem equally unpromising candidates for cultural longevity. They
were surely not supposed to last long enough to produce grown children and
retrospectives, or to be heaving themselves onstage into a seventh decade.
No minstrel of angst would have anticipated growing old in public, still
Yet in Dylan's case, it makes sense. Perhaps the more precise word to
describe his younger persona is not old but venerable. It turns out that
lyrical darkness and deadpan surrealism wear well, and are not
intrinsically hostile to ironic review or self-renewal. Maybe it is sheer
luck that he never overdosed from toxic experience. If so, he earned his
Both flawed and blistering, the lifelong presence on the New York stage
delivers the existential message: still alive, in process, underway. The
bearer of the defiant voice is with us, is surprising, is unfinished, is no
more nor less mortal than anyone. Chronicling his inner life, he
accompanies our own, a rock of sages in a fallen land.
Not dark yet
Dylan's artistic standpoint, and one of the key sources of his early
impact, was a moralism rooted in some core complexities of American
experience religious, racial, musical yet holding them in balance. His
most earnest political songs interrogated their times without fully
surrendering to them, his romantically personal ones challenged as well as
consoled, his visionary ones warned even in the act of inspiring.
When Dylan the trickster later cultivated weirdness, taking up residence
among clowns, seers and paranoids, he always conveyed the sense that his
life was or could also be ours, seen differently. Making the weird
commonplace, he compelled us to see that the world had gone wrong yet
Through all these phases, his imagination careened around frantically,
assuring us that he'd seen it all, there's really nothing to be surprised
at or to fear: Down Positively 4th St. and Highway 61, blown by an Idiot
Wind, always believing there must be some way out of here. From the
defiance of I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more, the menace of The
senator came down here, showing everyone his gun, the timelessness of
Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth, to the radical
anger of Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to
stand naked. Allusions to the piercing texts only preserve their
crystalline artistry. The accidental gift of Dylan's new work is to
underscore the continuing vitality of the old.
But the underscoring is intentional, in part, because Dylan has offered up
melody as his sacrifice to time. Dylan was always more melodist than he or
his critics let on. Without music, his words sometimes read like precocious
ramblings Rimbaud left in the oven too long.
In recent years, his work suffers when he tries to rejuvenate his oeuvre by
fiddling with his own melodic and rhythmic achievements. When he sings
Blowin' in the Wind with a discordant updraft at each line's end, an
outsider can only believe that he strives to refresh himself. To do so
would challenge any performer who tours for hundreds of shows as custodian
of a high-demand repertoire. It'd be harder still when live performances
must compete with the technical perfections of the studio. The wages of
success are boredom. What do you do for an encore? Too often Dylan's
recourse is self-mutilation. The jester trashes his own lines.
The best to be said for this rewriting is that the master is frolicking. It
is a kind of modesty that he practices. At times, he rises above past
excess: his snarl is stylized now, stripped of the meanness, say, of You
just kind of wasted my precious time. A straight-ahead work like Forever
Young is one of the few songs that gains from recasting. But mainly,
erasing his past achievement, Dylan in trying to make himself new doesn't
surpass himself. Rather, denying himself his melodies and muffling his
lyrics, he slips away into his own Cheshire presence.
As Dylan departs the Madison Square Garden stage, only one stop on the
'never-ending tour' that has become his public life, he leaves behind a
crowd and a city that, like him, are having to manage the muted joys,
discoveries and ordeals of a somehow still open future. That this strange,
flawed angel of our disorder remains, still awed and knowing, alive to
reality, trying (against the odds) to find something new in himself, is
small but real consolation as the hard rain continues to fall on Manhattan
and the world.
Todd Gitlin is North America editor of openDemocracy.
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