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Monday, 6 June 2011

Bob Dylan - A Sloppy Lyricist

The most recent edition of Rolling Stone magazine has Bob Dylan as its cover star. It is his 70th birthday, after all, so what better time to celebrate his unique contribution to popular music in the second half of the 20th century and to indulge in unrestrained eulogizing of the great man's songwriting. The Rolling Stone piece opened with "All sorts of people can write a great song. It took Bob Dylan to rewrite our idea of what a great song can be." Even more generously, they described Dylan's 2003 film Masked and Anonymous as "underappreciated", when really anything short of scornful ridicule is overappreciation where this turkey is concerned.

The thing about much of Dylan's most acclaimed work is that it is so oblique of meaning that it's hard to judge. Is "Desolation Row" a wide-ranging state-of-the-world address or a string of broken images? Did Dylan's innovation consist in a facility with juxtaposing unexpected images or was he engaging with something beyond his own mental processes?

Some of Dylan's writing is rather sloppy and lazy, undoubtedly. One example of this for me is in "All Along the Watchtower", one of Dylan's most famous and most covered songs. The last lines go:

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Hendrix's version, as Dylan's isn't on YouTube.

It's always struck me that a wildcat growling in the distance is not what Dylan actually means. A growl doesn't carry, and a distant one would be inaudible. What he actually means is that the wildcat howled, but he can't put that in, because the next line ends in howl. So he sticks in growl because it rhymes. Problem solved, but when you think about it, it doesn't make sense, and may cause you to wonder just how much Dylan was paying attention to his words.

It's also worth noting the criticism folk musician Dave van Ronk made of the title of "All Along the Watchtower": "a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it." Spot on. Van Ronk strikes a blow for the pedants among us.

Or how about in "One More Cup of Coffee" from 1976's Desire. Specifically the line "Her eyes are like two jewels in the sky". I guess Dylan was taking his influence here from children's rhyme "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", which shines "like a diamond in the sky". The children's rhyme makes sense: the little star is in the sky, and it shines like a diamond.

Dylan's version not available on YouTube, so I went for Roger McGuinn's (and Calexico).

But Dylan's line doesn't make sense. Her eyes are like jewels in the sky? What are jewels in the sky like? Perhaps her eyes shine like jewels, but why do they have to be jewels in the sky? Are her eyes "in the sky"? Again, I think it's just sheer carelessness. The image is childish enough as it is, but also totally nonsensical.

I've always been puzzled, too, by the line in "Just Like A Woman": "When me meet again, introduced as friends". How can two people be introduced as friends? "Hey, Bob, this is Edie [or whoever]. You two are friends." Does he mean introduced by friends? That would make sense, especially in the context of the next line: "Please don't let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world."

Or how about "Tombstone Blues" from Highway 61 Revisited. It includes the lines:

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”

This implies simultaneous screaming and moaning. She moans "I've just been made" while screaming. This is of course, impossible.

Dylan's version of this isn't available either (damn, his record company is assiduous in preventing free access to Dylan tracks), so I've gone with Richie Havens's.

At this point, the extreme pedantry of my complaints may have irritated some. All I can say is that this is quite important, for me, and revealing of a guy who's writing from the top of his head and isn't paying attention to what he's saying, because sometimes he's not saying anything. I find it offputting to listen to lyrics where one comes across such evidence of the writer not bothering to express himself properly. And they're asking for the Nobel Prize for Literature for this guy? I'm afraid I'd have to demur: powerful as his compositions, at their best, are, on the printed page their faults are more clear, so as literature they're not worthy of such an accolade.