Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bob Dylan's Lyrics

Bob Dylan’s Lyrics

As I type these words I am listening to Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountains” from his wonderful recent album Modern Times (2006).  His voice is much more cracked and much rustier than ever, but the rhythms, the rhymes and the lyrics are as wonderful as ever.  I have just come back from the local mall, Omni Centre, Santry, near which I live, having bought this latest CD from this guru of song, a book called Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001 (Simon & Schuster 2006) and my monthly copy of the music magazine Uncut (December 2006).

A portrait of an aged and grizzled Bob adorns the cover of this latter magazine.  There is quite a provocative and wonderful article within with the equally provocative title “Should we worship Bob Dylan?”  It quotes a singer/songwriter from both sides of this rather contrived and useless debate.  The first quoted is Mark E Smith of The Fall (neither of these have I ever heard of nor indeed listened to) who declares a solemn “no”, giving as his reason: “I find his lyrics extremely annoying.  It’s like ‘the moon in June’, it’s a rhyming dictionary.  It means nothing to me.  I’m allergic to it…”  But, to my mind, this rather sad individual Mark E Smith gives the game away by revealing his jealousy and envy for Dylan when he goes on to say, “I also had the unpleasant experience of playing just before him at Glastonbury.  There were 15,000 Dylan fans there and about 500 Fall fans.  I was so depressed I walked off and fell asleep the minute he started playing.”  (Uncut, Dec 2006, p 40)

Luke Pritchard of the Kooks (just as above neither of these have I ever heard of nor indeed listened to) who declares a solemn “yes”, giving as his reason: “What Dylan did that was totally original was to be constantly changing, but also forcefully direct, and have so much anger in his music.  And not necessarily about politics.  It’ morality.  His songs try to right wrongs, and that’s f------ genuine.  He inspired a generation.” (Ibid., p 41)  I agree wholeheartedly with this latter gentleman musician who sees himself as being influenced by this great bardic bearded song-writing American poet.  I wholeheartedly share his sentiments that Dylan is at once a great poet and a brilliant songwriter.  He shares this double wonderful accomplishment with his Canadian contemporary Leonard Cohen.

Flicking through the Dylan Lyrics book I alluded to above my eyes catch all those wonderful lines worthy of any great poet.  As an avid poetry reader, or rather an avid reader of poems, I find myself reading Dylan as I would the poems of any poet – just flicking through them and letting my eyes fall on the wonderful lines, this marvellous verbal candy.  I’ll finish this post with some random candy that caught both my eyes and indeed my ears.

Take these marvellous words of praise for that inimitable pioneer of American folk music Woody Guthrie:  “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song/ ‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a comin’ along/ Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn/ It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.”  Then there’s the wonderful “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which borrows a lot from ancient ballads or folk songs.  Then again let me take these lines as an example of sheer ecstatic poetry worthy of Bacchus himself: “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.” (1964)  Or again one can sense the loneliness in these lyrics: “How does it feel/ How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown /Like a rolling stone?” (1965)  Or the sheer simplicity and naturalness of these lines: “Close your eyes, close the door,/ You don't have to worry any more./ I'll be your baby tonight.” (1968)

Who could not love the lyrics of the veritable prayer and blessing contained in the wonderful “Forever Young”?: May God bless and keep you always,/ May your wishes all come true,/ May you always do for others/ And let others do for you./ May you build a ladder to the stars/ And climb on every rung,/ May you stay forever young,/Forever young, forever young,/ May you stay forever young.” (1973)  I could go on forever, but I’ll finish with a snatch from the wonderfully melancholic “Tangled up in Blue”: “Her folks they said our lives together/ Sure was gonna be rough/ They never did like Mama's homemade dress/ Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough./ And I was standin' on the side of the road/ Rain fallin' on my shoes/ Heading out for the East Coast/ Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through,/ Tangled up in blue.” (1974)

However, as music is the very language and indeed food of the soul, it is better to return to listening to the marvellous guru-like bardic singer-songwriter himself.  When he chose the name Dylan after the famous twentieth century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, not alone did he do something prophetic but he did something metaphoric or poetic.  As this Welsh bard put it, “Man be my metaphor”!

A presto, TQ.