by Sam Buntz
“A lion is made from digested sheep.” – Paul Valery
“Genius is always the enemy of genius through over-influence” – Goethe
This is not an article about the notorious 1989 album, Dylan and the Dead, widely considered to be the worst recording of both Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Rather, it is actually about the significance of the Illustrious Deceased, the long-gone musicians who inspired Dylan but also provoked him to overcome their influence, completely mastering their styles and proceeding to transcend them. The young Dylan fully absorbed the canon of folk, blues, and popular music, and his first album shows him wrestling with these influences. His self-titled debut consists primarily of covers, and recording a cover version of any song necessarily and most obviously means trying to make something past sound fresh—which is easier said than done. Every now and then, Dylan releases another album comprised largely of cover versions, a habit that has something to do with accessing that stream of primordial influence, being able to finally do-your-own-thing only after getting through what Zen Masters called “The Barrier of the Patriarchs.” One emerges from the whirlpool of the past with original ideas.
Great actors and actresses speak their lines as though they are coming up with them right there. They “seem to be a moment’s thought.” Similarly, the trick of the successful cover song is to make a ventriloquist’s dummy out of a song written by someone else, rather than, oneself, becoming that ventriloquist’s dummy. Failing, one looks like a parrot, trying to hide uninspired ideas in a flutter of superficial colors. But the expression must seem like an authentic utterance, conveyed by “the same voice that spoke from the burning bush” (in the words of A. Ginsberg’s finest observation.) The successful cover is probably exemplified by Jimi Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s own “All Along the Watchtower.” It doesn’t seem as though Hendrix were copying Dylan, so much as he and Dylan were both managing to add their own unique inflections to a song that had always existed somewhere out in the ether. They managed to incarnate the song, give it the pair of embodiments it demanded. Both songs feel inevitable, like Time needed them to happen. This would not be the case for—not “to break a butterfly upon a rack”—Limp Bizkit’s cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” Even one of the two original songs on Bob Dylan offer tribute to the past—“Song to Woody” pays homage to Woody Guthrie and exemplifies his influence. (Admittedly, Woody wasn’t dead at the time, but he was dying. Dylan used to come and play for him in the hospital.) Yet at the same time that he was repeating and covering the masters of folk and blues, Dylan was overcoming them, doing what they did just as well and better. By the time he released the almost entirely original The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he had gone through Guthrie’s sphere and come out on the other side. The son became distinct from the father, though his existence would’ve been impossible without him.
Dylan’s relationship with the past masters is partly what clouded the reception of his maligned 1970 album, Self-Portrait. The title had raised expectations too high in the first place—people expected a big, defining statement, and not a double album full of covers, inferior alternate versions of cherished hits (like “Like a Rolling Stone”), and sparse original material. But part of the conceit of Self-Portrait is that the “self” doesn’t come delivered up as a unified whole—it’s forged out of the grab bag of the past, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” in Yeats’ phrase. I’m by no means original in observing this. When one stops expecting another Blonde on Blonde, the album actually sounds pretty good. As T.S. Eliot said, “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Without a passion for the past, an enthusiasm for doing and out-doing what the Old Masters did, an artist’s work can never mature. It will be malformed or infantile—the equivalent of finger-paintings and knitted kittens. On the other hand, the big flaw with Self-Portrait is that doesn’t exactly try to out do Dylan’s predecessors, being content to mimic them with a fair degree of hokey style.
Dylan’s great talent lies in stealing the voices of the dead and forcing them to sing of the present. This miraculous sense of time-past and time-present interpenetrating is what has kept Dylan’s fan base large and intact, with 2006’s Modern Times becoming a number one album. That’s why Alicia Keys is suddenly evoked like a long last flame from a ragtime riverboat on “Thunder on the Mountain”. As many have noted, it’s the only line on the album that couldn’t have been written eighty years ago. And the fourteen minute ballad “Tempest” from 2012’s album of the same name, similarly mingles the past and the present, singing of the sinking Titanic in terms that would not have been out of place when Thomas Hardy lamented its demise—while, simultaneously, referencing Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from the movie. Even events from the more recent past—like John Lennon’s assassination in “Roll on John”—are recorded with a knowingly antique charm. The late Dylan can talk about a fictitious girlfriend’s adulterous booty calls and the Book of Revelation on back-to-back tracks without causing any significant dissonance for the listener (“Cry Awhile” and “Sugar Baby” from Love and Theft). We drive our carts over the bones of the dead, hearing with satisfaction their crack and splinter.
Like the best musical creators, Dylan is always somewhere between being waist-deep and shoulder-deep in the temporal world. His head and his arms are free from above, yet he knows his element and works in it. Like Thomas Carlyle, his “seed-field is Time”, where the past fertilizes the present and the present fertilizes the past. And what of the future? The future exists in embryo, lying in songs already written—if but the aspiring musical Titan can wrest the latent strength from them and reshape their content into new forms. Dylan is so adept at doing this, so learned in the canon that, at this point, it’s second nature. On the one hand, we miss the Rimbaud-style craziness, the dazzling image-associations characterizing the great albums of ’65 and ’66, from a time when Dylan did everything the folk masters never did, while still working within their broader musical conventions (following the metric of the blues, for instance). But the more traditional elements of song-craft and lyrical content are free to return in Dylan’s late work, utterly refreshed and seemingly brand new.