Dylan ’65 Revisited

Dylan in 1965, on the set of the documentary, 'Don't Look Back' (1967)

Bob Dylan is a poet that I’ve come to know, to appreciate on an exceedingly intimate level. I use the term “poet” instead of “musician” not because I’m trying to tritely pay a “pretty” compliment to a good musician, but because Dylan is truly a poet first and musician second. I think this is what his “devoted” fan base misunderstood back in 1965 when he plugged in and eschewed “folk music,” for his songs were still strongly poetic, if only less directly political. After being pointed to as the poster-boy for the Greenwich Village folk music scene, which was taking up peaceful arms for the impassioned civil rights movement and against the brewing war in Vietnam, Dylan quickly escaped; but oh, what an escape: not only did his music become more raucous, but his lyrics also became maddeningly enigmatic. If his songs were considered metaphoric before, they were downright cryptic now. Some people argued that his lyrics had lost all meaning, whereas others said they gained meaning, claiming the signified was no longer restricted to a single, easily discerned meaning but was instead open to a vast assortment of diverse, sometimes contradictory meanings. This boils down to the fact that some people heard his music and thought, “He’s just singing nonsense,” while others thought, “He has ascended to a whole new level of genius!” I’m not sure that I quite agree with either category completely, but I certainly do think that his lyrics in 1965 achieved a new level of lyric beauty and sublimity.

It’s for this reason that I do not typically try to straightforwardly analyze Dylan’s lyrics. Take, for example, this snippet from “Mr. Tambourine Man”:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Breathtaking imagery, a fluid rhythmic pattern, sonorous-sounding word choices: these eight lines entirely capture Dylan’s poetic genius in this period of his career. When you read it–preferably reciting it aloud–you realize that the lyrics don’t really need the accompanying music to help them reach an admirable level of artistry as does, say, The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” (which, it should be noted, was written around the same time as “Mr. Tambourine Man”). Even when Dylan’s lyrics reached an astonishing level of inscrutability in Highway 61 Revisited (1965), his poeticism did not diminish, as this excerpt from “Ballad of a Thin Man” demonstrates:

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Despite its superficial absurdity, we can nevertheless recognize the dejection and alienation that permeates this excerpt. Does it mean anything “big”? Well, let me answer that question with another question: “Does it have to mean something? Can’t a poem just be about emotions?”

Dylan in the Studio (1965)

Because Dylan’s lyrics, particularly in 1965, clearly meditate on this aesthetic question, I consider Dylan to be one of the most important innovators of poetry in the 20th century. His music–which is usually (but not always) fun–is really secondary, and necessarily so. After all,  the music would have to be unfathomably grandiose to surpass or even match lyrics as astonishing as these. I would also like to clarify that I do not find Dylan’s pre- or post-1965 lyrics less important or less extraordinary than those written in 1965, but that, because the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited are so ingenious and inventive, we must credit Dylan’s writing in this era as truly ground-breaking, particularly for a musician whose songs regularly broke into the Top-40. The test of time is typically a good indicator of a particular poet’s influence and importance: my prediction is that people will still be reading–or at least listening to–Dylan’s lyrics when we have all been long-forgotten.

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