Bob Dylan – New Music Deep Dive
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”
― Walt Whitman
The artist, in order to survive, must live by the most baseline axiom: Express freely.
And to have this sense of movement an artist must restlessly push against all definitions including his/her own.
An artist must be willing to risk-all and reinvent. Even to turn on oneself in some cases — and to turn on those who might best support the artists’ vision.
In the 1960s, personifying this edict, Bob Dylan came as a wholly new kind of icon. He wasn’t required to please or to fawn over his audience. He was perceived as a scrappy lovable mid-western chubby-cheeked folkie from an imagined past. Part-Woody Gutherie, part-Billy the Kid. From here Bob Dylan created a future.
Despite what narratives we projected on young Zimmerman, it was as always the love of the music that was at his core. And so when he felt most hemmed-in by the mass-media perception of him as ‘’a voice for a new generation’’, he presented a new idea about who he was — an idea that was in some ways contradictory to his previous carnation. He would continue to evolve in sometimes contradictory ways throughout his career– dodging perceptions. He contains multitudes.
Whitman’s embrace of an inner global-community and an acceptance of a plurality of voices even from one’s own head underscored the bold sense of possibility at the service of self-invention. In its best application, it gave license to empathic understanding of his fellow man.
This was a very American idea – a core American value. One was not relegated to a caste in the American civilization. Power was in the hands of a few perhaps – but great tales of economic success, of popular success, sprung forth from the idea of the reinvention of the self. It has since become an expected artistic career strategy. Sometimes deployed to great effect. Other times such attempts of wriggling out of definitions can seem forced, self-conscious, and contrived. Surfing these self-inventions are difficult for some, maybe the most qualifying mark of a great artist. Though others may prefer the unwavering identities of artists who establish a trademark, a specific language, and stick with it over the decades with little variation.
Dylan wasn’t the first to adopt this strategy – Jazz had its share of contradictory changelings. Modern art had its Picasso and Ernst. But Dylan was the first popular artist under the glare of the media to take this stance. He didn’t care if you liked him. He rejected the trappings of crass commercialism that often come on the back of young success. He was gonna do things his way. At his most extreme he could seem pretty cold.
If you’re a critical Bob Dylan fan you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time wondering: Does he care anymore? Is he still sharp? And over the years often Dylan’s efforts bewilder and occasionally falter. There’s a lot more competition now than there was in 1963or 65.. or 75…so while Dylan continues to have his captivating moments there’s an endless stream of musical auteurs from established names, like Nick Cave, Patti Smith and Sufjan Stevens to newer ones like Kevin Morby, Kate Tempest and Donald Glover that equally deserve our attention.
Additionally, Bob’s live shows are hit and miss – and while the faithful may disagree – these can be pretty lackluster and shambolic. But there are occasions on every tour where Bob seems fired up and VERY much in command. It can be riveting.
Bob Dylan being an incredibly clever man knows he’s got a captured audience in the epoch of the quarantine so out of Southern California by way of Hibbing, Minnesota comes the Tiger King of music-streaming. Bob’s first quarantine-single, “Murder Most Foul” received equal measures of acclaim and dissent. And I fell into the latter category. The mad ramblings of a guy who lost the plot, I declared. The pop-historical references were all over the map. The rhymes were kind of dumb or awkwardly forced. The 17-minute epic sees Dylan take on many voices and personalities of the 1960s some of wicked intent. In its best moments, one was reminded of Bob’s work on Hurricane, Who Killed Davey Moore and Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll where all the voices are gathered for a single exposition around a folly of justice. But in this case, Bob seems unfocused and unsure where to place emphasis on pop culture or political culture? Through the eyes of perpetrators, or those most impacted by the violent act of the assassination.
So when I heard Dylan was back with yet another quarantine-single, I braced for disappointment. However, “I Contain Multitudes” grabs one right away. Dylan is concise, funny, and sharp. He is provocative and hitting in all the right ways. While “Murder Most Foul” grates in its attempt to encapsulate everything post-JFK. Here Dylan is focused. He teases and plays with our perception of him. He delivers himself as the cowboy, the jokerman, the painter, the adventurer. He’s in hiding in others, inhabiting others. He’s believing in the goodness of people ”like Anne Frank” but he could stab you with his six-shooter and his two knives. He’s a bad boy ”like the Stones”. He even credits his acolytes like Bowie and Ian Hunter with his references to, ”All the Young Dudes”. He is dark like Poe and ethereal like Blake.
Dylan reminds us of his methods. He’s become a great teacher in recent years as anyone who has read his book, ”Chronicles”, will know. He makes it clear for us. He pushes toward the edge.. the edge of his own definitions, the edge of our perceptions.. he drinks to the truth but for Dylan, the truth is an endless shape-shifter. He’s got no apologies to make. He’s ”lost but will make good again”- and he certainly does. He’s a peripatetic explorer ”like Indiana Jones”. He dares us “greedy wolves” to come closer. And so we do… he deflects, pivots and spins around and he’s someone else again, familiar in the shadows, our elusive bard, Bob Dylan. The Contradiction King. Still like no other. A champion. Not unscathed but triumphant just the same. Catch him if you can.
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