|BOB DYLAN -- BRINGING SOME OF IT ALL BACK HOME|
|by Clive James|
IF SUCH a thing as the rock culture can be said to exist, then a thorough-going anti-intellectualism was probably a fundamental requirement for its coming into being. Artistry can't afford to be inhibited by criticism -- not, at any rate, until it has passed the point of mere self-assertion and reached a stage of self-assurance. In the last long interview he gave before his suicide, John Berryman pointed out that in his early days he simply couldn't allow himself to think about how his poems stood up against the poems of Yeats: he would have had to stop writing.
From all the other arts, and from all the other artistic epochs, hundreds more such individual cases could be adduced. It's a kind of willed deafness -- a way of not letting any outside voices interfere with the attention you are struggling to pay to an interior voice which is not yet speaking clearly. And what has always been true for individuals was also true, I think, for the rock culture as a whole. It was establishing itself in spite of massive internal contradictions, and the only way to deprive them of their disintegratory force was to find a way of not listening to them: anti-intellectualism had to be institutionalised.
Pretending to be in revolt against capitalism, the rock culture could scarcely afford to listen to anybody who pointed out that the rock culture was entirely and exclusively a capitalist product and depended for its continuance on capitalism continuing, too. Favouring a 'new' music over an older music, the rock culture could equally ill afford to consider that this very act of comparison was in itself a critical act, implying further critical acts to infinity.
Total discrimination against the past, and totally indiscriminate enthusiasm for the music of a continuous present: the only way to handle such a frightful contradiction was to switch off the collective mind and drain the vocabulary of many terms other than the purely -- and inertly -- descriptive.
At bottom this was a protective tactic, and I don't need to point out that a defensive stance was fully justified: the bitter counter-offensive mounted by the established culture was in nearly all cases utterly irrational, as those of us who tried to ward it off in the pages of established publications are well aware.
But a consequence of this protective tactic was a widespread tendency to elevate the key creators in the rock field to a plane of historic destiny -- in a word, determinism. And the characteristic intellectual mode of determinism is not investigation by criticism, but justification by description: an intellectual mode which might just as well be called anti-intellectual, since no matter how much information it aspires to deal with it can never arrive at a judgement. The rock culture grew up in a mental vacuum; and the fact that it grew at all -- and grew so fast -- was in itself sufficient proof of the aesthetic truism that creativity is a primal urge, antecedent to rational mentality. Making and understanding might appear to be unified, but the consequences of insisting on this unity are disastrous when the unity breaks down.
The established culture, noticing that the rock culture was devoid of understanding, assumed that no making could possibly be taking place. The rock culture, assuming that making was understanding, declared a separate system of understanding to be not only unnecessary but actively noxious. Logic belonged to neither side, and in fact can only belong to the less immediately employable (but finally the only possible) philosophical truth - which is that making and understanding are separate, and have to be separate in order to be connected.
Recognition of this truth was long delayed, the necessity for it obscured by the clamour as the rock culture built up on its dangerously shallow beach-head. But eventually the recognition did come, and came through the inadvertent instigation of Bob Dylan.
As a rule of thumb, it can be said that every change in Dylan's musical course -except the last change -- was accepted uncritically, and that this uncritical acceptance was, on the whole, correct. By saying this, one is trying to give the receptivity of the rock culture its due. Dylan's change from acoustic to electric music, for example, was in the end a fruitful change, and the reaction against that change was correctly identified was a prejudice, not a valid criticism. To take an earlier instance, in Richard Mabey's neglected book of 1969, The Pop Process, Mabey quotes in extenso from an intelligent article by David Horowitz, responding unfavourably in late 1964 to Dylan's fourth album, Another Side. Horowitz was fully capable of appreciating Dylan's command of language, but he was too quick to decide that the confusions on that album were retrogressive: as we now know, they were the birth-pangs of a whole new elaboration. Horowitz's article was a clear case of artificially stabilising a process. But he didn't arrive at this through being critical. He arrived at it through being not critical enough.
When we look at his retrospective analysis of the previous albums, we find his procedures damagingly tilted towards the descriptive: he hasn't done much to discriminate between the disciplined and the undisciplined in Dylan's writing, so what he's asking for is that Dylan should stabilize himself on an unpredictable course by refining the qualities he already possesses.
A good deal of the intelligent criticism levelled at Dylan had this bias, leaving us with the paradox that unintelligerft receptivity was better adapted to events as they subsequently occurred. At its best, the criticism was simply an articulation of the silent, mass receptivity, which never got further than liking some Dylan songs more than others. The basic critical problem -whether the good songs were really as good as they could be was left untouched.
I've said already why this problem remained undealt with: it was in the rock culture's interests not to deal with it. But one could easily conjecture that it wasn't even seen to be a problem, and that the question of dealing with it consequently didn't need to be ignored, since it didn't even arise. An argument about the real quality of Dylan's achievement would have to centre itself in Dylan's handling of language, and for a whole generation Dylan was language discrimination would have meant not just soul-searching but a painful dissection of one's own vocal mechanisms, performed without anaesthetic.
In the rare cases when a first class critic of written English came across a Dylan record, he was unlikely to be involved in the rock culture deeply enough to feel any obligation to argue at length. It's worth noting, on this last point, that Philip Larkin briefly noticed Highway 61 Revisited in his Daily Telegraph jazz column and found a clear division between the tune of 'Desolation Row' ('enchanting') and its words ('possibly half-baked'). That's all the contact ever made between the finest poet since Auden and the wunderkind of the emergent rock culture.
From within or from without Dylan's cultural context, his leading gift went largely unexamined, even during the most violent changes of emphasis: the question of his symbolism's validity, for instance, never focussed on the language he was creating the symbols with. Briefly, Dylan's verbal talent was held to be a monolith: the idea that there might be conflicts inside the talent itself simply never gained ground.
Not, that is, until his talent began going into abeyance. From Nashville Skyline onwards, the creative pressure was felt to be slackening. In the same way that Altamont was a political crisis for the rock culture, Dylan's retreat into the unremarkable was an aesthetic crisis -- a far greater one, in my view, than the break-up of the Beatles.
The Beatles' split dramatised a political problem for the rock culture, but glossed over the aesthetic one. As the Beaties transferred from a cosy collective to bristling individuality, the rock culture was left to make what it could of the occurrence -- which mainly meant sticking with the all-purpose opinion that collectivism and individuality were somehow the same thing.
The aesthetic problem was taken care of, as usual, by sheer description: if the music of the separate Beatles was less interesting than the music of the ur-group, it must be because of the split. As a matter of fact, however, the music of the Beatles was already wandering towards vaprous sophistication before the split happened. The Beatles had hit the point where they were required to take on new mental materials by conscious effort: the point every artist is bound to reach once his initial stock is used up. What the Beatles then assimilated was mainly destructive of the accurate simplicities they had previously achieved: instead of moving on to accurate complexity, they moved on to inaccurate complexity.
But this crisis in their creativity was almost wholly obliterated by the brouhaha kicked up when they split, so the aesthetic problem was never clearly dramatised. With Dylan it was a different case. Inspiration had clearly dried up, and political or sociological reasons for its disappearance were not all that easy to point to. For the first time, the rock culture was faced with a Cinerama-sized example of creativity running out of road. A full-scale intellectual crisis rapidly developed -- a devil of a thing to happen in an intellectual vacuum.
At the moment the response to Dylan's artistic evaporation seems to have shaped itself up into two main kinds of argument: the socio-political argument, and the argument by manifest destiny. The socio-political argument tends to discover reasons in Dylan's life for his loss of creative drive, and has recently been given great weight by Scaduto's biography.
Scaduto's book is an able effort, praiseworthy on the story-telling level and reasonable in its minor judgments. But the art and the life of its hero are drawn together in a simplistic pattern of correspondence which sweeps the question of cause and effect under the carpet. It emerges -- all too readily emerges -- that Dylan was a calculating little handful when his work was still challenging, but eventually transmogrified himself into a home-making citizen whose comfortable music now gently celebrates his oneness with existence.
On Scaduto's terms, it would be very difficult to introduce the notion that Dylan's later phase might have something to do with his running out of creative potential. At best, the reader of this 'intimate biography' might concede that Dylan had run out of will.
The argument by manifest destiny has nothing so impressive as Scaduto's book to support itself with, but stays potent simply through the fly-wheel effect of the last fifteen years, in which scarcely any other kind of argument has been allowed about anybody. On this view, Self Portrait was an expansion of Dylan's range of musical apprehension, the signal for a fresh, comprehensive identification with modern America. It followed as the night the day that the suppression of Dylan's biting individuality was a deliberate sacrifice, and any song that failed was meant to fail. Like the appreciators of the latter-day Godard, adherents of th is argument take positive courage from the fragmentary and the inadequate -- disintegration being the final proof of the hero's integrity in pursuit of his historical role.
A third line of argument, more realistic than either of these two, has been gradually coming to the surface. It would have surfaced faster if it could have been confident of its terms, but of necessity these terms had to be critical terms, a commodity in short supply. When a properly critical view of Dylan is at last formulated, I think it will look to be lacking in self-confidence compared with the two lines of argument I've sketched above. To begin with, it won't be anything like so generous in making biographical references, or cheerful about supposing Dylan capable of perceiving his own historical role. What it will do is make Dylan look more like other artists who have done good things for a while and then dried up. And by that I don't mean Arthur Rimbaud (who is so often mentioned in the same breath with Dylan, but who really was a full-blown genius, and no arguments): I mean all the young rock artists who have worked out their vein of material and found themselves ill-equipped to go further.
Early collapse isn't a law of rock, but it is a characteristic: not of the musical form itself but of the mental patterns which have so far given rise to it. Like other artists, Dylan went to the limit of his instictive, unstudied spontaneity -- went to the limit of all those terms which the rock culture fondly imagines are automatic guarantees of quality. Since Dylan's stock of instinctive, unstudied spontaneity was almost incomparably more abundant than anybody else's, his limits lay a long way down the pike. But eventually he got to them, confirming the principle that at some point an artist must either find a way of ensuring inspiration's arrival or else wave it farewell.
The element of uncaringness in Dylan was always a portent. His expansiveness was always the undisciplined enemy of his intensity; his inclusiveness was always at war with his grasp of detail; and when he finally discovered that he could suggest the totality of experience without going to the trouble of concentrating on any part of it, the temptation to rest on his oars became irresistible.
Such an estimate -- which is made with a full realisation of the lasting importance of his achievement -- is, in my view, easily deduced from his handling of language throughout his career. The freedom of his linguistic invention, even at its most marvellous, has always had something to do with a fatal detachment from the discipline of concrete perception: Dylan makes a virtue of not knowing exactly what he means. He can't distinguish, in his own work, between the idea that is resonant and the idea that postures towards significance, the image that is highly charged and the image that is merely portentous.
The long receptivity which uncritically appreciated everything Dylan did was admiring the cancer as part of the body, which didn't matter so long as they both expanded together, but which mattered a great deal when the body started to shrink as a result of the cancer's growth.
The difference between Dylan and Rimbaud, if it still needs pointing out, is that Rimbaud's unbelievably rapid ascent was an ascent to purity of utterance -- it wasn't just an expensive giganticism. You look at a poem like Bateau Ivre and see instantly that such writing can't go much further. But even in the best of Dylan's songs 'Like a Rolling Stone' -- your critical faculties can't be silenced for more than single stanza: they're at war all the time with your acceptance of what's on offer, wincing at the song's slipshod organization, missed opportunities, easy rhymes, unfocussed images.
Unless, of course, those same critical faculties have been anaesthetised by the means of descriptive justification which refers every awkwardness back to the traditions from which Dylan drew his influence. On that view, there isn't a limp or stumble which hasn't got its validation in Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie or elsewhere: once again, awkwardness and incompleteness are certificates of authenticity. But the elementary counter to that view is that Dylan sets standards in one part which automatically criticise his performance in another part -- his unevenness is self-demonstrating. To take a glaring example, isn't the stanza about the Mystery Tramp in 'Like a Rolling Stone' the first stanza of that song that anybody learns to quote entire, and the stanza beside which all the others are felt to be somewhat disjointed or blurred? And the order of the stanza is not established as inevitable, with the consequence that a whole dimension -- the dimension of emotional progress -- is heard to be missing.
Nobody contends that what is superb in the song isn't superb. One only contends that the superbness shows up the barely adequate in a cruel light, proving Dylan's sense of strategy to be fragmentary even at its peak. The maturity of lyricism occurs when the poet sees that the forces operating to unite his best image must be followed through until they unite entire lyric -- at which point the lyric can be said to be complete. This is the maturity Dylan hasn't reached: instead, he has developed his precocity.
Dylan's unstable sense of organisation is most readily noticeable in the long songs that don't justify their length. 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' is too obvious a case to bear examination -- it would be a dunce indeed who imagined that in purchasing Blonde on Blonde he had got hold of much more than one and a half LPs.
Less obvious cases are 'Desolation Row' and 'Gates of Eden.' In 'Desolation Row' the boredom attendant on Dylan's compulsively additive writing has been widely felt, but is usually accepted as contributory, as if the cleverest thing a song about desolation can do is to make the listener feel desolate with ennui. In refutation, all we need do is point out that the song would have had greater point if it were more concentrated -- while remembering to insist that concentration means much more than just lopping a few stanzas off.
'Gates of Eden', however, is a more rewarding case, since here, in order to articulate our sense of the song's inadequacy, we're obliged to get down to the level of the language. Using those extended stanzas which are his biggest single contribution to rock writing, Dylan is exploiting a colossal build-up of argument which -- when the trick is worked successfully -- explodes into the tag-line with a whopping release of tension. The effect can't fail so long as the stanza's argument remains intelligible. Yet intelligibility is precisely what he throws away. Taking a representative stanza, we find the argument developing like this:
The motor-cycle black Madonna,
A detailed criticism could be made of this, but it wouldn't alter the fact that some kind of story is going forward in a way the listener can just follow, so long as he takes the essentially private nature of the imagery for granted and forgives the makeshift syntax. (If the Madonna's on a motorcycle, by the way, we already know how many wheels she's got and don't need to be told again -- but let it pass.) The crippling blow comes in the next two lines, when Dylan shifts the field of attention, snaps the continuity and turns his big effect into a fizzler.
As he weeps two wicked birds of prey
The blurred imagery wouldn't matter so much if it weren't grouped around a solid narrative spine: but with the narrative so spongy -- so obviously willing to go anywhere -- the stanza is robbed of its drive. It's not just that 'breadcrumb sins' is a weak notion -- it's that the ideas in the stanza are diminishing all the time, each one being introduced under less logical pressure than the last, with the sole object of padding the stanza out towards its big finish. And the QED clinching line callously demonstrates the hollowness of what has led up to it. Dylan's ability to invent such a flexibly argumentative stanza, coupled with his inability to see that he must argue in it and not just flannel: the two things amount to a crashing contradiction.
Dylan's talent for discovering capacious stanzaic forms comes from the precise side of his gift -- he has an enviable intuitive grasp of how a lyrical stanza should be shaped in order to be best inhabited by music. This intuitive grasp can be enjoyed by the listener even when the subsidiary forms occupying the stanza are inadequate: indeed half the thrill of Dylan lies in following his clear architectural outline and emotionally solidifying it with an imaginative content it hasn't really got.
Unfortunately the patchiness of the imaginative content it has got can't usually be overlooked for long enough to keep the thrill going. The imprecise side of his gift is just too confoundedly fertile. His handling of language is self-forgiving at a fundamental level, the level of craft: never has much arbitrary stressing met so much melodic angularity in so many awkward marriages.
By the time we get to the level of imagination, the reluctance to blot a line is an open invitation for almost any old notion to amble in and set up shop. Yet when all is sung and done, it can't be denied that the total effect is on a huge scale: he dreams great buildings, even if the walls remain untimbered and the roofs are open to the sky.
As a critical estimate of Dylan comes within reach, it will always be necessary to remember that we seek it out of gratitude. If we place limitations on his achievement, we place them out of our desire to see exactly how much has been done -- which is the only way we will be able to see what needs to be done next. A purely descriptive survey of his work can only give us an account of subject matter, leading us into the fallacy by which it is assumed that certain subjects ('protest' for example) have been exhausted.
What Dylan has exhausted is not any kind of subject matter, but a specific kind of approach to the song: the approach that relies on the indiscriminate imagination.
If rock is ever again to produce anything to equal what he has done, it will have to be something considered, disciplined and integrated. No resonance without clear statement: no radiance without clean edges. That's the rope which, by breaking it, the most talented songwriter in rock proved to be binding.
Cream, September 1972
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