Jan/Feb 2000 Salon

When He Paints His Masterpiece

by Stanley Jenkins


"Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill,
Running out the clock, time standing still"

--Bob Dylan, "Neighborhood Bully", 1983


I saw Big Joe Williams once in a swanky club in Chicago. He wore a tux and no one in the audience pumped their fists in the air or made loud noises. It was a class act. I came in feeling like a redheaded stepchild but left feeling clean.

It was the way he carried himself. The voice without apology. And smooth like $25-a-shot scotch. He's dead now. Big Joe Williams. And there aren't many like him left. And truth be told there never has been many like him. What is it in a performer that can leave you feeling like you're a better person for having heard the performance?

I'm beginning to think whatever it is, it's about restraint and the refusal of release. Performance as catharsis is greasy kid stuff. The greats will take you there and leave you there. Won't let you escape. Wings beating at cold crystal ceilings. Bruised wings. Until you learn to love your limits. Until you don't want to be anywhere else but where you have no choice being.

I think Bob Dylan is one of the greats.

"....it's like I'm stuck inside a painting That's hanging in the Louvre, My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches But I know that I can't move" ("Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight", 1983).

The voice, of course, has always been problematic. You have to train yourself to listen--to hear. And not merely because it's an ugly voice, but because voices are not normally used this way. So artificial. So mannered. So stylized. Why does he sing that way? Clearly it's on purpose--or at least, once was.

Indeed, in the early seventies, after the goldenboy Civil Rights folky years and the fey, howling Chicago blues years, Dylan emerged with a completely new voice--and this one revealed the intentionality in all the other voices. "Nashville Skyline", in particular, found Bob crooning like a country Nat King Cole. Pretty as you please. The lesson is clear. If the voice had been in the past--and would be in the future--ugly, to a certain degree, it was so on purpose.

I've actually thought about it. As far as I'm concerned, it goes far beyond any attempt to capture the bark and husk of rural southern singers--even beyond the ravages of time. The ugliness seems an intentional distortion of his given voice. He chooses to sing that way--or at least, at one point he did so choose--and over time the consequences have become irrevocable. Caruso through a kazoo--and there ain't no turning back.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the highly distorted depiction of human figures in religious icons. Natural beauty is rendered conventionally--unrealistically--to highlight what the scholastics would call "supernatural" beauty: a beauty both transcendent and immanent.

"Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine" ("Shelter from the Storm", 1974).

And there are the words to contend with as well. It doesn't take too long to realize that for the most part the words are a boondoggle. And without the music, perishable. Read the lyrics to anything from "Highway 61 Revisited" without the music or phrasing--or listen to William Shatner (or was it Leonard Nimoy? Sebastian Cabot?) doing an interpretive reading of "Mr. Tambourine Man"--and it becomes clear that this is hardly great literature we're talking about. Bob is a "song and dance man", as he calls himself. T. S. Eliot is a poet.

That's not to say, of course, that Dylan isn't handy with a turn of phrase, or an image--but rather to point out that in and of themselves the words aren't the point. The words, too, are perhaps strategies. Performance strategies. Magic tricks revealed in order to point to some real mystery. The mystery that can't be said--but perhaps only breathed.

"....the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control...." (Liner notes to "Highway 61 Revisited", 1965).

And then there is the repetition. It becomes more clear on recent live recordings--and especially those not officially released. In any case, in live performances harmonica solos, for instance, explode the melody and recombine it in short repeated fragments. When he is truly on, his harmonica splatters sound into shards like light through a prism. The fragments are repeated endlessly until the slightest variation becomes meaningful. Wounds reopened. Guitar solos tend to consist in variations upon three notes played over and over. They never quite reach a crescendo. They are tones trapped. There is something a little perverse and cruel in all this.

Indeed, if the band insists upon playing the music whole--decadent and selfish--as if the deluge had never happened--as if Babel had never fallen--it is hideous, monstrous. Dylan is a sad old man whose day has come and gone. But if the musicians are willing--and able--and the old man is on--out of Dylan's found fragments there arises something truly wonderful. The brokenness itself seems lovely--achingly fragile. The repetition ceases to merely irritate--it liberates.

"I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me. I am hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan Like every sparrow fallen, like every grain of sand" ("Every Grain of Sand", 1981).

And the phrasing. Much has been made of how Dylan is constantly re-inventing his songs in live performances. What is striking, however, is not so much how he re-interprets the songs--giving them new meaning--but how the songs themselves become the occasion--the platform--the stage--for engaging in the creative process once more.

It all begins again. Words are unmercifully stripped of meaning. Here, melody is never taken literally. Intoned words are sonic and rhythmic tools. No more, no less. Rungs on a ladder. What is truly compelling in his performances is his willingness to leap. Speak gibberish. This is a man without a net. Again, there is something horrifying in this--the results can be almost obscenely ungainly--like watching the birth of monsters--the dull thud of falling flesh.

It continues. Sentences become curiously clipped phrases. Concluding vowels will be elongated on a whim--and then the whim might be repeated at the end of each phrase--until the whim becomes an incantatory chant--a hypnotic pattern of not-quite pure sound. He's not that skilled however, he misses notes. He cannot maintain the pattern. Ugliness becomes mere ugliness. But he continues. The pattern is repeated--a tension is left unresolved. We resolve it in our inner ears or not at all. And all the while there is a poignancy--a fragility. Beauty!

Physically Dylan is surprisingly slight--even these days. One wants to either protect him or to hurt him.

When the performance is over--absolutely nothing at all whatsoever has happened. And that's a real kick in the ass. The stars do not fall like ripe figs and the heavens do not roll up like window shades. But those who have listened are nonetheless not the same. Life seems a bit more fraught, vulnerable, fragile. There is a tenderness. If you listened you somehow know that you are a better person for it. You are clean.

It's the damnedest thing.

"I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free, I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline that separated you from me. You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above, And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love, And it makes me feel so sorry" ("Idiot Wind", 1974).

One must only wonder at the price of greatness. Count the cost. Pray that the roof stays on.


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