Bob Dylan - Tunesmith
This essay is from
NOT FADE AWAY: A Comparison of Jazz Age with Rock Era Pop Song omposers
© 1984 by Walter Rimler
The word "poet" is tied to Bob Dylan much more frequently than the word "composer" but that does not alter the fact the great moments of his career have been musical musical ones. It was his singing that attracted the attention and the respect of Woody Guthrie and John Hammond. It was the melody of "Blowin' in the Wind" that lifted him head and shoulders above other folksinger/ songwriters - a melody that was recognized instantly as a classic and one that was effective in any setting, whether it was performed a capella by street demonstrators or without words by the Boston Pops. Certainly the lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind" were excellent and important but it was the tune that did for Dylan what the melody of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" had done for Irving Berlin and what first great catchy tunes always do for songwriters: it gave him his stripes.
After "Blowin' in the Wind" it was the composition of a second great tune, "Mr. Tambourine Man," which gave Dylan his next big boost. "Mr. Tambourine Man"'s free-association lyrics, though not unimportant, were hardly as intelligible as the words to "Blowin' in the Wind" - they lay like an intriguing patina on top of the tune, piquing the curiosity of Dylan's listeners and thereby increasing the lifespan of the song - but it was the warmth of the music that stuck in the mind. A lush arrangement by the Byrds in 1965 helped usher in the era of amplified folk music called folk-rock. Inspired by them and by other groups, Dylan decided to turn to folk-rock himself and his new sound - one of the rawest and, at the same time, most melodic in pop - enabled him to again take the kind of jump with which his career was now becoming identified. For the next two years he wrote in a bluesy rock and roll manner that, for sheer energy, matched any music that had ever come out of America.
The next milestone in Dylan's career came late in the psychedelic year of 1967. He had not been heard from in some time and there was great curiosity and anticipation over what was next on his agenda. Ostensibly, he was recuperating from a motorcycle accident (Dylan fell off his Triumph 500 a little less than thirty years after Cole Porter fell off his horse), but it is more likely that he was sitting out the year, puzzled by the rapid changes that were taking place in the music business. He had been in the vanguard of the pop innovators in 1965 and 1966 but the Beatles and others were now conducting even stranger musical experiments. Their music had entered the age of multi- track recordings and this was a slow, painstaking process, one that Dylan did not like; nor did he like Sgt. Pepper, which had taken nearly half a year to record. It was important to him that music be immediate and that the performer be tangible. He did not like elaborate orchestration and he could not understand why one would want to put so many tricks between the breath of the singer and the ears of the listener.
Finally, in October of 1967, he went to Nashville to record his next album, John Wesley Harding. Backed by just three other musicians, Dylan finished it in a few days and, upon its release in January of 1968, the quiet restraint of its music single-handedly ended the psychedelic era. Once again a major moment in his career was a musical one.
In the years between 1961 and 1968 he had placed his unique mark on four distinct musical styles: folk, rock, blues and country - and he had done so without in any way diminishing them. He had so strong a personality that every time he turned to a new musical format he enhanced it. In this respect he was the American counterpart of the Beatles. But Dylan's music in each of these styles was always primal. All of the musical elements in his work - melody, harmony, rhythm, structure and instrumentation - were all always utterly simple, no matter what his brand of pop was at any given time. Sometimes it seemed as if he were heading into new musical terrain - the extended length of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," for instance - but he never really was. That song was actually only a brief, if lovely, melody, made long by many repetitions.
When Dylan seemed to be pushing back musical frontiers he was actually doing so in terms of fashion: he introduced folk lyrics to rock and roll and vice versa; he made loud music fashionable among folkies and then he made quiet music fashionable among rockers. He was certainly a more sophisticated writer than Guthrie or Carl Perkins or Chuck Berry, but this was because he entered his prime in more sophisticated times. Contemporary writers such as the Beatles and Paul Simon were far ahead of Dylan in their harmonies and in their instrumental thinking. Actually, Dylan preferred not to do any real musical thinking. His idea of orchestration, for instance, was to let his backup band play what they liked. As long as the sound they made was more or less what he had in mind he was happy. The arrangements for Nashville Skyline, Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks were typical in that they were quickly improvised in the studio. The violin continuo on Desire was the result of a chance encounter between Dylan and a young woman, Scarlet Rivera, who had been walking to her violin lesson when Dylan spotted her on the street.
His music, therefore, was all instinct and, luckily for him, his instinct was usually right on the mark. He was especially fortunate in that melody, the one musical element which must by its very nature be instinctive, was his greatest gift. But Dylan-watchers have always spent most of their time picking over his words. Never before had anyone attempted to apply the fiery visionary style of Blake and Ginsberg to popular song. Still, no one would have given this a second thought had it not been for the music. Professional critics knew - or ought to have known - that it is not all that difficult to write apocalyptic poetry and that such material, like late night auto accidents, is one of the hazards of adolescence. Not that Dylan did not have a special flair for it ("Subterranean Homesick Blues," for instance, was a masterpiece of extraordinary, if disconnected imagery). But if he had written no music - if he had only written poetry - he might at best have won a niche in the popular culture next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He would never have become a dominant figure.
It is not clear whether Dylan himself ever realized that this was so - that the rungs of his career were all musical ones. Certainly in the early days he considered words more important than music. "If you take away whatever there is to sing - the beat, the melody - I could still recite it," he told a friend. And he was, like Guthrie, not above copping a good tune from another source if it suited his ends. "Don't Think Twice," a song from 1963, is based on a folk tune discovered by Dylan's friend Paul Clayton in Appalachia - a fact that was eventually acknowledged by Dylan's publisher when Clayton was paid royalties. Sometimes, he would write a powerful and coherent lyric such as "Maggie's Farm." And there were times too when his wordsmithing was undeniably tender, as in "Just Like a Woman." He could also catch rhythms of speech that were quintessentially American, as in "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." But much more frequently he was turning out random and delirious images. These were often evocative enough to inspire daydreams and even a nightmare or two. But as one became used to the novelty of this kind of thing the effect began to wear off.
Dylan's real contribution as a lyricist in the mid-'60s was his unselfconscious mastery of colloquial speech. And in this respect he was not all that different from traditional pop lyricists such as Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser. He had a great knack for making additions to the national supply of buzzwords and catch-phrases. Just as "Life is just a bowl of cherries," "Brother, can you spare a dime" and "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" were phrases from songs which, while in vogue, possessed overtones which spoke to the national mood, so did Dylan's catch-phrases. His ability to come up with them was probably greater than anyone else's - and doing so became his trademark: "I'm a long time a-comin'/I'll be a long time gone," "The times they are a- changin'," "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," "Love is just a four-letter word," "Don't follow leaders - watch your parking meters," and on and on. Many of his surreal, apocalyptic songs are really just collections of random images placed around a brilliant catch-phrase, which is often the only real idea.
Certainly Dylan did have great talent as a lyricist - that was no illusion. Apart from his knack as a phrasemaker, he had always shown the ability to write words with simplicity and warmth. "Blowin' in the Wind" had had those qualities, as had other, less famous songs such as "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Girl from the North Country," and "Walls of Red Wing." But in the early days, he lost more battles with control than he won. Perhaps it was his eagerness to avoid what he considered the slickness of the professional that made him use a line like "And they threw him in the waters to cease his screaming pain" in "The Death of Emmett Till." But it is more likely that he was just too sloppy to root out errors of syntax and grammar. The lack of editing is evident in much of the early work: "A finger fired the trigger to his name" from "Only a Pawn in Their Game" and "As her thoughts pounded hard/Like the pierce of an arrow" from "Eternal Circle" (a song Dylan never recorded) are just a couple of examples. Urgency won out over fastidiousness again and again: "Come gather 'round people wherever you roam," from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," is, when thought about, a logistical impossibility. "But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears" from "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is the kind of pretentious murnbo jumbo that is all too easily seen through. Maybe Dylan turned to wild personal imagery in the mid-'60s to get beyond the need for self-editing and, at the same time, beyond the reach of grammarians.
But by John Wesley Harding he was becoming uncomfortable with such lyrics. He still felt as if he ought to play the bard and most of the songs on that album certainly tried very hard to appear imponderable, yet all that striving melted away in the last two cuts. In "Down Along the Cove" and on "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," Dylan relaxed and allowed himself some simple, comprehensible and moving lyrics. And it was at this point that his words caught up with his music - they became equally effortless and equally eloquent. With these two songs and then with the songs from Nashville Skyline, which appeared in 1969, he picked up the thread in his work that lay with "Girl from the North Country" and "Walls of Red Wing."
Toward the end of the 1960s the lyrics of the major songwriters - Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones and Paul Simon - sought to break away from the tradition of the simple love song. In the eyes of these writers that form had locked popular song in a vice-like grip for generations. To break free Paul McCartney wrote about an aging spinster in "Eleanor Rigby," John Lennon tackled his childhood in "In My Life," Mick Jagger worked up a short history of evil in "Sympathy for the Devil," and Paul Simon wrote about suicide in "Richard Cory." They were all following Dylan's lead, in a way, for he had touched on all those subjects in his startling songs of the 1960s. But with Nashville Skyline he, of all people, went back to the love song.
At the time, many saw this as a terrible atavism, as an indication of fatigue and mindlessness. But Nashville Skyline was really Dylan's first attempt to keep his lyrics on a short leash. That kind of control had always been evident in his music but the music had been so quick and effortless that controlling it was instinctive, a reflex. It was understandable, therefore, that, as Dylan saw it, consciousness was not to be wasted on the music, for that was a snap. If consciousness were to be applied, then it should be applied to the words. And the lyrics of Nashville Skyline are the work of a craftsman. "I Threw It All Away" ("Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand/And rivers that ran through ev'ry day") shows the unmistakable touch of a man with genuine poetry in his soul. From this point on, every one of his songs would have an understandable point to make and nearly all of them would do so with economy, deftness and class.
But while the lyrics were catching up, what was happening to the music? Up to and including Nashville Skyline Dylan's talent as a melodist had been robust. But then came that fateful year of 1970 - as tragic a time for the rock era writers as 1937 had been for the jazz age writers. The Beatles broke up, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died, and Bob Dylan issued his first stunning disappointment, a double album called Self Portrait which contained only a smattering of new material, most of it second drawer. New Morning, following Self Portrait by just four months, was Dylan's attempt to regroup and it did show an improvement in his tunesmithing ("If Not for You" was just as good as the best of Nashville Skyline and "Winterlude" is a fine skater's waltz). But other tracks on the album were more memorable for their lyrics. The new maturity of Dylan's lyric writing was most obvious in "Day of the Locusts," in which he marshaled his old apocalyptic artillery behind a description of the day he received an honorary degree from Princeton University.
Still, however much one wanted to see in New Morning a suite of songs equaling Dylan at his best, the truth was that these songs were a musical cut below his work in the 1960s. The new decade, which was to have a debilitating effect on nearly every one of the great young songwriters of the '60s, had already gotten its mitts on him. After New Morning he actually came down with a four-year case of writer's block - something that must have come as quite a jolt to a man who had once been seen writing four songs at once, flipping the pages of a steno pad back and forth. He did compose three good songs during this period - "Watching the River Flow," "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" - but he mainly confined himself to redoing some of his old numbers (excellent versions of "I Shall Be Released," "You Ain't Goin'Nowhere," and "Down in the Flood," recorded by Dylan and guitarist Happy Traum in 1971, appeared on the Greatest Hits, Volume II album) and to playing on the records of Doug Sahm and others. This hiatus lasted until 1974 when he returned to the spotlight with a national tour and a new album, Planet Waves. As if there had been no interruption, that album continued where New Morning left off. All of the lyrics were polished and several of them, with recurring images of frozen lakes and cold winter nights, were beautiful. Musically, there were great moments too. "On a Night Like This" was a wonderful opener, made all the more winning by Garth Hudson's playful accordion. "Never Say Goodbye" and "Something There Is About You" are two of Dylan's finest inspirations, each an ideal matching of words and music. But other songs did not come off so well. "Hazel" is uncomfortably similar to that old standard, "Abilene," and other numbers, particularly "Dirge" and "Going Going Gone" are uninspired. They gave the album an unevenness that was unsettling when one considered that these songs had to account for nearly half a decade of Dylan's artistic life. The next year, however, Dylan's musical decline was suddenly reversed. For Blood on the Tracks his melodies were consistently marvelous. George Gershwin, in such pop songs as "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "A Foggy Day," achieved emotional effects through the use of subtle harmonic maneuvers such as pedal points and altered chords. Now, forty years later, Dylan was delivering emotion in a different, but equally striking way. In "You're a Big Girl Now" the melody achieves its most poignant moment in the last beat of the fifth bar where Dylan's voice rises up a major seventh, landing on F-sharp, to create a dissonance against the supporting chord of G. Dylan then holds the note across the bar line while the harmony changes to C, so that for the first beat of the new bar he is singing a second, more disturbing dissonance. Something very similar happened during the bridge of Gershwin's "I Can't Be Bothered Now." But Gershwin's double dissonance (on the same two chords) relied on an F-natural, which expressed a lilting gaiety. Dylan used an F-sharp, which resulted in a memorable piece of pathos.
But after Blood on the Tracks the ominous turn that had been foreshadowed by Self Portrait came to pass, and with a vengeance. On the 1976 album Desire parts of "Oh, Sister" sounded suspiciously like "Girl from the North Country." "Romance in Durango" was a derivative and predictable piece of ersatz Mexicana. "Black Diamond Bay" and "Sara" were equally hapless. Though he continued for a while to display his mastery of the tightly executed song lyric, Dylan's musical muse was gone. Street Legal, which appeared in 1978, did have one strong number, "Baby Stop Crying," but otherwise it was the slimmest of musical pickings. And, without good music, the lyrics, while still many cuts above those of other pop writers, were left high and dry. Inevitably, they withered too.
Dylan's conversion to Christianity was a potentially interesting subject but, unfortunately, it led him to write lyrics which were as vapid as his new music. Faced with writer's block in 1971-1974, he had chosen not to record any albums at all. Now, faced with the same problem, he seemed to be trying to write his way out of the impasse. Following Street Legal were Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). All were to no avail. Dylan was in a difficult situation. He had always taken melodies as they came. Often they were good but, good or bad, he did not like to think about them. As a musical mind, he was the opposite of Gershwin, Kern, Simon and McCartney. He was unwilling to try to make more out of less, to see what extraordinary possibilities lay in an ordinary idea. None of music's elements excited him as a field for exploration - not harmony, melody, form, meter or instrumentation. He was that rarity: a highly intelligent man who relies almost entirely upon instinct. Until 1975 he was wise to do so for his muse was generous. Now, however, when it was not, he could do little but follow it into a kind of musical lockjaw.