The ge­nius of Dy­lan’s sto­ry­telling

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ALYSSA ROSEN­BERG

WASH­ING­TON: On Thurs­day, we learnt Bob Dy­lan had won the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture for “hav­ing cre­ated new po­etic ex­pres­sions within the great Amer­i­can song tra­di­tion”. I’m de­lighted for Dy­lan, and for the propo­si­tion that a medium like pop­u­lar mu­sic has been deemed wor­thy of one of art’s high­est hon­ours.

His win is also an op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss any num­ber of sub­jects in which a cer­tain pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, bless­edly, has no place: the sta­tus of pol­i­tics in pop­u­lar mu­sic, what makes for a clas­si­cally ex­cel­lent singing voice as op­posed to an emo­tion­ally ef­fec­tive one and the na­ture of anonymity and blurred iden­tity in art, a topic su­per­charged by the re­cent out­ing of the woman be­hind the Elena Fer­rante pseu­do­nym.

But be­cause mo­ments of pure plea­sure seem rare in these tor­tured days, this news gives me an op­por­tu­nity to go back to some of my favourite Dy­lan songs and to re­flect on the thing that has al­ways touched me most deeply about his work.

The No­bel com­mit­tee honoured Dy­lan for “po­etic ex­pres­sions”, but I love him best as a writer of short sto­ries. Take Lily, Rose­mary and the Jack of Hearts, a song from Blood on the Tracks. It traces the events lead­ing to the death of Big Jim, a di­a­mond-mine owner who is mar­ried to the long-suf­fer­ing Rose­mary and is hav­ing an af­fair with Lily, a dancer who is also taken with her for­mer lover, the Jack of Hearts, a clever and charm­ing bank-rob­ber. The song is si­mul­ta­ne­ously spe­cific and un­moored in time: it could be the con­clu­sion of a sea­son of Dead­wood, David Milch’s show about the rise of a new so­ci­ety in the Dako­tas, or of West­world, HBO’s new se­ries about a sim­u­lacrum of the Old West.

But for all those sim­i­lar­i­ties, Lily, Rose­mary and the Jack of Hearts draws unique power from the fact that it’s a song, not a TV show. The in­flec­tion in Dy­lan’s voice when he tells us that “Lily had al­ready taken all of the dye out of her hair” af­ter the mur­der of her lover, the ex­e­cu­tion of his wife and the van­ish­ing of the Jack of Hearts cap­tures ev­ery­thing we need to know about her im­pend­ing trans­for­ma­tion.

Des­o­la­tion Row, from High­way 61 Re­vis­ited, is more sprawl­ing; it’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously a col­lec­tion of vi­gnettes and an act of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. In this world, where Cin­derella knows who Bette Davis is and im­i­tates her ges­tures, Ein­stein im­i­tates Robin Hood’s puck­ish­ness and Ophe­lia sees Noah’s rain­bow made man­i­fest as she con­tem­plates her sui­cide, Dy­lan shows us how we un­der­stand the world by fit­ting great peo­ple into old archetypes and how we shape our fairy tales to con­tem­po­rary cir­cum­stances.

His fi­nal warn­ing – “Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more let­ters no / Not un­less you mail them from Des­o­la­tion Row” – is an eerie im­age of a nar­ra­tor pass­ing from the real world into one of metaphor and al­lu­sion. He has achieved what so many have dreamed of and found his own way into the fairy tale, but go­ing into the woods ob­scures as much as it re­veals.

Dy­lan can work with greater econ­omy, too. Sim­ple Twist of Fate is a story about a one-night stand that comes to as­sume enor­mous sig­nif­i­cance for the nar­ra­tor, who be­gins to wan­der the docks where he met the woman he be­lieves “was my twin”, hop­ing “Maybe she’ll pick him out again”.

Here, Dy­lan doesn’t need a de­vice like Cin­derella, or a Hang­ing Judge or the Sen­a­tor wan­der­ing the streets in Stuck In­side of Mo­bile With the Mem­phis Blues Again to achieve the proper mag­ni­tude of feel­ing. And he doesn’t fall into what Ellen Wil­lis once de­scribed as Dy­lan’s “pro­lix verses, hor­ren­dous gram­mar, tan­gled phrases, silly metaphors, em­bar­rass­ing clichés, mud­dled thought”. He just ex­plains that “Peo­ple tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within”.

We’ve all felt that heav­i­ness, the weight we put on other peo­ple, who are ul­ti­mately ex­hausted by the mag­ni­tude of our feel­ings.

I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s fab­u­lous, fluid biopic of Bob Dy­lan, which fea­tures six dif­fer­ent ac­tors – Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Chris­tian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Mar­cus Carl Franklin – rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of Dy­lan, works be­cause it cap­tures these same qual­i­ties as Dy­lan’s own best short sto­ries. It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously el­lip­ti­cal and direct, frag­mented and whole. I’m Not There forces you to stop look­ing for a sin­gu­lar, real Dy­lan and en­cour­ages you to try trav­el­ling down the dif­fer­ent, di­ver­gent paths his work of­fers you.

The Arthur in­car­na­tion (Whishaw) ex­plains that he has “Seven sim­ple rules of go­ing into hid­ing: one, never trust a cop in a rain­coat. Two, be­ware of en­thu­si­asm and of love. Both are tem­po­rary and quick to sway. Three, if asked if you care about the world’s prob­lems, look deep into the eyes of he who asks. He will never ask you again. Four, never give your real name. Five, if ever asked to look at your­self, don’t. Six, never do any­thing the per­son stand­ing in front of you can­not un­der­stand. And fi­nally seven, never cre­ate any­thing. It will be mis­in­ter­preted, it will chain you and fol­low you for the rest of your life”.

Dy­lan’s prize prob­a­bly won’t help with that last prob­lem. But it does sug­gest that love and en­thu­si­asm may be more last­ing than Arthur ex­pected. – Wash­ing­ton Post


A 21-year-old Bob Dy­lan, about to burst on to the mu­sic scene, takes a break in New York City in this photo taken in 1962.


Joan Baez and Bob Dy­lan per­form to­gether dur­ing the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom in 1963.

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