Dylanology No. 7 (2021/11) - Naked Poetry, Naked Persons, and Naked Shadows
1: The Poetical Lessons of Mr. Tambourine Man - 2: A Poem Is a Naked Person. Reflection on Shadow In The Night and Dylan's singing - 3: Musical Archaeology: Let's Keep It Between Us
“Though You Might Hear”: Reflections on Poetical Lessons of Mr. Tambourine Man (4:5)
What are the phases of creativity and how can they be described, from the point where you realize that your ideas don’t work, to attaining a freer, satisfying way of expressing yourself? Jakob Brønnum reads Mr. Tambourine Man as precisely that
By Jakob Brønnum
In the opening instalment of this series about Mr. Tambourine Man, in Dylanology No. 4, I made the allegation that this song is in fact a form of poetical manifesto – what the ancients have been calling an Ars Poetica: a text about how poetry works or how it is created. The concept stems from the Roman writer Horace, who wrote a book with this title, Ars Poetica, shortly before the beginning of the Common Era.
According to this I have been trying to read the verses as referring to four stages of creative writing, or – if you wish – of any creative process. The first verse was a story about how it feels when you grasp that what you are doing won’t lead you anywhere.
The second verse viewed like that is about trying to change your mindset in such a way that you can actually direct it towards a creativity founded some place other than that which has brought your efforts to a standstill.
It is impossible to overlook the fact that this song was written exactly at the time when Bob Dylan left the Folk Revival Movement and began to write surrealistic and much more literary and artful lyrics, in a way not commonly found among the folksingers. There, the priority is to write in a way that the people and the masses can understand and apprehend.
Where does the third verse take it? Let’s look a little deeper into what actually carries this song, exactly the consequential result of the process of breaking away from the Folk Movement: The metaphor.
The first verse is full of images pertaining to architecture and to the body – houses of people and of the mind. There is a problem with the structure and with the senses. “Evening’s empire has returned into sand” and the narrator is left “blindly here to stand,” weary, but not able to rest. So, he calls upon “Mr. Tambourine Man” to take him to still unknown realms of vitality.
The second verse prepares for this: “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship.” The verse almost only has metaphors about what in hindsight might be called “the song and dance man”, the description Bob Dylan, notoriously sarcastic, gave of himself at a press conference in San Francisco, around the time of the publication of “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965.
But the senses and the body parts used for this prove to be useless. They are stripped, they can't feel to grip, they are too numb to step. The second part consists of the promise to get going.
The third verse, you’d expect to then finally set out on the trip. But it doesn’t. It is full of excuses for what may go wrong, and why, and how it maybe cannot be done.
The amassed metaphors in the long verse lead up to the conclusion that the narrator – although seemingly on the move with the magic of Mr. Tambourine Man – isn’t up to it after all:
Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ …
it’s just escapin’ on the run …
it’s just a shadow you’re
seein’ that he’s chasing
One thing has however definitely changed from the first two verses. The movement, so much longed for, has finally begun: “laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’”, “escapin’ on the run” and even “skippin’ reels of rhyme”. And where does it take place? Under the sun at large – everywhere possible. The only limit is the sky itself: “And but for the sky there are no fences facin’.”
In the centre stands the narrator, as what? A hero who has finally seen the light? A loser, helplessly lost? No, something in between – a ragged clown.
The clown – especially in the heyday of the famous circus clowns like the Catalan Charlie Rivel and the Soviet clown Oleg Popov in the 1960s – is partly a loser, partly a soothsayer. The protagonist of the novel The Clown from the same time (1963; the full German title is The The Face of a Clown) by the German author and Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, is a ragged clown.
Self-critically, the verse goes into psychological depths – talking directly to “Mr. Tambourine Man” whose prophetic promise he has vowed to go under in the verse before:
Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun,
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’.
It is as if these lines say: “Well, I was impeded and useless, so it might seem as if I’m a going to the other extreme now. But I’m not, I’m alright – it is just that the contrast seems so absolute.” And they continue on that track:
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
seein’ that he's chasing.
The narrator goes on explaining and excusing himself: “And if you think I go to extremes, losing my cool trying to “go under your spell” (Verse 2), you might also think that my efforts are somewhat ridiculous – a clown – and it even looks like I’m going back to my old unfruitful ways, chasing the shadow of myself – but it is just that you can’t leave “all your stepping stones behind” (“It’s all Over Now, Baby Blue”) when you begin anew without being somewhat shaky at first.”
What a ride! And this is completely true, of course. Anybody who has been sitting biting an old pencil late at night knows these three stages – lined out in the first three verses – of trying to repair your stalled creative process:
1) The hard-earned experience that what you do is not good enough, 2) the time you need to readjust – full of extremes like pain, shame, as well as hope and the will to promise everything, as long as it works, and 3) the self-critical recognition that just saying that you want to go somewhere is not enough to get you going.
And finally we should be ready the take off properly – the fourth verse, where the narrator finds that he can master a freedom of action that he has never known before. And we may finally reach a possible understanding of who “Mr. Tambourine Man” is, whom our hard-working poet-protagonist so dearly wants to follow.
We’ll propose to even raise “Mr. Tambourine Man” from its routine interpretation as a drug song: “Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind …” The smoke rings – as well as the frozen leaves refers to aspects of the creative process - to how the minds works when he is not at where he ought to be.
A sort of time-capsule: The EP from 1966 with three song from Bringing It All Back Home (1965), showing the popularity of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and what kind of artists you’d put on the back cover of an album with his songs, and that the electric and acoustic songs – separated on the album – here blend together perfectly
A Poem Is a Naked Person
Shadows in the Night and Dylan’s Sinatra Period
By Eyolf Østrem
Shadows in the Night is perhaps Dylan’s most poetic album.
On this album, the words don’t stand in the way of the poetry that song can express.
And conversely: on this album, the beauty of song does not stand in the way of the things words can express.
Confessions of a Music Guy
When Dylan released his Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart in 2009, consisting mostly of songs from Sinatra’s Christmas albums, most people probably thought of it as an amusing one-off project. When it was followed in 2015 by Shadows in the Night, it became clear that this was serious, and with Fallen Angels and Triplicate, a certain fatigue set in – no matter how benevolently one would otherwise meet Dylan’s whims.
At least that was how I reacted. I thought two things: Dylan may love these songs, but they are as far removed from his natural singing style as one can possibly get; and if I want to listen to Sinatra songs, I prefer to hear them sung by Sinatra.
Therefore, Shadows in the Night was a surprise to me, once I sat down and listened properly. It puzzled me:
I’m a music guy. When I play a song or an album, I listen to the music; I rarely pay much attention to the words, even with Dylan.
With Shadows, I catch the lyrics. That's definitely a good sign.
I’m even captured by them. And I actually care about what is being sung.
For once, the communicative process of music making is influenced by the words, and not just by the sounds of the words.
Dylan is singing! He is actually singing!
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