Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde

I've been itching to write one of these ever since the Better Late Than Never feature started, 'cause I have a doozy. Now, I know we all worry that we're missing something big. For some reason—okay, let's just blame the Internet—we hold ourselves responsible nowadays for knowing practically everything. The tribalism that used to save us from, say, taking disco seriously, has gone away. Guys like Nick Drake get dragged out of the archives and dropped on the college kid must-know lists. Hell, people even talk about David Axelrod.

Except I'm not going to whip talk about any of those people. Here's my confession: in all my life, and after several years of writing about music, I have totally slept on Bob Dylan. I don't mean that I didn't spend enough time on Dylan. I'm saying that until a couple months ago, I had never played a Dylan record straight through. I had zero interest in the guy. And I have no excuse.

It's not that I haven't had time: I'm 34. It's not that I skipped the '60s: when I was a teenager in the pop dustbowl of the late-'80s, I chewed through bands like the Beatles or the Dead. And obviously I knew who the guy was. Dylan touched at least half the musicians I ever listened to. He slipped weed to the Beatles and helped make the film Help! so hilarious. He kicked Phil Ochs when he was down—and there's a guy I did listen to, thanks to my parents' copy of Pleasures of the Harbour. Even science fiction gives you no escape: take Douglas Adams' mice quoting "Blowin' in the Wind," or the smarmy way Cameron Crowe shoehorned The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan's sleeve into Vanilla Sky, or—most bizarre of all—the Cylons singing "All Along the Watchtower" last year on Battlestar Galactica. Dylan's so heavy, he's intergalactic.

Baby boomers trip over themselves talking about his genius. On HBO's In Treatment, Gabriel Byrne enjoyed a quick smug moment of comparing him to Walt Whitman, and he's not the first to stick Dylan in that canon. And that's his biggest problem: he still belongs to the boomers. They discovered him, they claimed him as the voice of their generation, and to this day they're insufferable about the guy. One of my uncles—the one I stole so many Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull records from, back in the day—put it this way: to get Dylan, you really had to understand those times.

About Dylan, I'm an endless font of ignorance. For my crash course I focused on 1966's Blonde on Blonde—one of the top ten greatest rock 'n roll records ever, according to just about every critic over 50—and I prepped with exactly two sources, the documentary No Direction Home, and Wikipedia. I learned some pretty fascinating stuff. I had always pegged Dylan as an icon for hippies—but I didn't know that he was the entertainment at Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I knew the folkies got ticked when he made it big and left behind the "topical song" movement, but hearing folks like Pete Seeger talk about how a torch had been passed from Guthrie down to Dylan—and how Dylan basically left it smoking in the Village somewhere, to be picked up by pretty much no one of consequence—well, I can see how that hurt.

Most refreshing of all, I also learned that Dylan's a bullshit artist. It's not because he kept making up his biography, or pulled stunts like stealing all those Woody Guthrie records before he came to New York, but because he's mastered the art of distorting small facts to get to the big truth. And sometimes he gets caught. When someone who knows him as well as Joan Baez nudges him off his pedestal, it reminds you not to get too swept up in his mystique. In a clip in No Direction Home, we see Dylan playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" for a workshop at the Newport Folk Festival. As he unspools one endless, cosmic lyric after another, you can almost catch him crack a smile—like he's saying, "I know, I know." When you realize he's not sure where all this comes from either, it makes you wonder about the rest. And that's about when you get hooked.

But Blonde on Blonde has a pretty low bullshit content. For one thing, much of it's about women, and when you go there for real, it's hard to get cocky. For another, Dylan has said that Blonde on Blonde is "The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind"—and the honesty shows. Neither rushed nor lazy, it reminds me of works like John Fahey's America, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, or Dr. Seuss's One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish—a work with no sharp peaks or ruts or concern for loose ends, that feels like one long train of thought.

Blonde on Blonde has been praised for hopping across several genres—it's pop, it's country, it's blues, it's surreal—and for how naturally the styles blend into one another: after you get past the first two tracks, it settles into a spacious, organic vibe that's far moodier than his previous electric albums. The record opens with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," which I started skipping—it's too pat, and familiar from classic rock radio. It doesn't hit its stride until track three, with "Visions of Johanna." You can hear a harder, steadier version of it on the soundtrack album to No Direction Home, and hearing that made me appreciate even more what a perfect few minutes they caught here—the organic ramp-up, the way every lick from the organ and guitar supports Dylan's voice, the lyrics that catch the spotlight—"Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues/You can tell by the way she smiles"—and the impressionistic lines that stitch right into the absurd ones. It pulls off the great rock and roll trick of sounding like the easiest, most natural thing in the world.

I won't try to parse the lyrics here: I'll just leave them where most of the blurbs on Dylan do, and say they're "surreal." Except when they're not. "I want you, I want you/I want you so bad" makes sense. "Just Like a Woman" may puzzle with its oblique references to real lovers and its vague misogyny—which would be easy to criticize, if so many of us hadn't been there too, abusing the first good hand we have against a lover. (He puts it a little more sympathetically in No Direction Home: "You can't be wise and in love at the same time.") I've often heard people describe Dylan as "difficult," either because the songs are long or because of that voice. But the production is too warm to resist, and as for the crooning, he doesn't really start moaning from the gullet until the last track, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." But that's a love song, so it's hard to complain; if anything, it seals my first impression of the album: this is one of the greatest make-out records in rock history.

But while I worked on this piece, I figured out something else. I finally understand why I never got into Dylan. And even though I try to be cavalier about the whole thing, I'm starting to think it's a personal failing.

One thing Dylan clearly taps into isn't just the voice of a generation, or the reaction to the '60s, or the spirit of rock and roll. He's part of the music of America. In addition to taking one torch from Guthrie, he picked up another from the Beat Poets. Here's a quote from his '66 Playboy interview, where he's been asked what drew him to rock and roll:

Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy—he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

It's beat, American, glorious, and totally fake—like amber waves of bullshit.

But here's the thing: I'm in awe of the old beat road fantasy—but I'm also wary. I've never read Kerouac's On the Road. But every couple years I reread Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a 1962 novel that doesn't say much about the decade to come, but that could be fairly called a grandfather of cyberpunk. The protagonist, Binx Bolling, lives in a bland suburb outside historic New Orleans. Forsaking his romantic southern ancestry and its doctors and war heroes, he works as a stockbroker, and watches a lot of movies. He observes everything but doesn't risk much; he's too busy watching a scene to take part in it.

Bolling's kind of a twit. But if you're a pop culture nerd, it's easy to relate to Bolling—to his profound, pointless quest for meaning, and his knack for seeing through other people's bullshit. Watching No Direction Home, I was intrigued by some of the exciting history it captured—the scene in the Village, the Newport Folk Festival, the great concerts and parties and freak-outs that would come throughout the '60s. But let's say you had the chance to travel back in time: would you dive right in and blow your mind? Or would you worry about not being at the right place at the right time? Would the hippie jug bands and finger-pickin' freaks drive you nuts, and would the student radicals just sound like a pack of… students? Or worse, would you get scared of missing the whole point and wallflowering at the back, and never get high, laid or enlightened?

I grew up listening to music that was either overcomplicated or overanxious, autistic composers playing prog and avant-garde or post-punk pop bands that jittered and trembled. But as I hit middle age, I'm trying to calm down. The song that sticks in my head from my Dylan crash course is one of the slightest on this record, "4th Time Around," with the crisp, rat-a-tat drum beat and Spanish guitars that are so staccato they almost sound like the drums-and-wires I favor—except instead of nervous, they sound exciting, and they can stay right on the edge without clenching up. I know I can't do that.

Everyone sees a mystery in this guy. Joan Baez slept with him, and got to hear about it on this record—and even she can't figure him out. I'm just starting, but now I'm hooked, too. I want to know how that nervous, wound-up kid you see in the footage from the '60s can sound so sure and bold for hours at a time when he's onstage. How he could stop staring at the crowd and make it stare at him. I need to know: how'd he learn to believe in his own bullshit?

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