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Dylanology No. 5 (preview): "Love And Theft", 9/11, and The Essence of Great Art - 2: Dylan in the Eighties - 3: Mr. Tambourine Man · 4: Wedding Song
In the fifth issue of Dylanology, Eyolf Østrem reminisces about a walk through Stockholm on a very special day: 11 September 2001. This turns into a reflection about what it is that great art does.
The sixteenth volume in the Bootleg Series, Springtime in New York, has just come out, with a tremendous collection of songs and tracks from the not-so-tremendous eighties. In the next issue of Dylanology, there will be a thorough discussion of the new volume. In this issue, Østrem prepares the ground with a historical overview of the decade usually held to be Dylan’s weakest. What was he trying to achieve? And did he?
Jakob Brønnum continues his exploration of “Mr Tambourine Man”, where he finds a complete Ars poetica, a key to a poetic art that the narrator of the song seems to be in dire need of the possibilities to explore. Here, it’s about empires made of sand, boots made for walking, the freedom of loneliness, and who is the Tambourine Man anyway?
“Wedding Song” from Planet Waves (1974) is one of those rare moments of deeply personal expression from Dylan’s hand. His love confession is seemingly simple and direct, but Brønnum scrapes the surface and finds enormous implications.
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9/11, “Love And Theft”, and The Essence of Great Art
By Eyolf Østrem
It was twenty years ago today. There was a new Dylan album out. Not in itself a groundbreaking event, you might say, but back then, in 2001, it actually was: rumour had it that it was actually a good album. Not even just a fairly good album, but a fairly damn good album, and that was exceptional, because it would mean that for the first time since 1976, Dylan had followed a very good album with another very good album.
In other words: this was proof that Dylan wasn’t dead, that Time out of Mind wasn’t just a fluke, unlike Oh Mercy, his former “fairly damn good” album, which had come out after a wilderness wandering of misery and was followed, alas, by even more desert sand.
Now, on the other hand, everything seemed to indicate that he could in fact do better than occasional flukes. Two fairly damn good albums in a row – this was cause for celebration.
Dante in Stockholm
So I took a train from Uppsala to Stockholm to meet up with the hard-core fans in the big city, the guys who had entire walls in their living rooms filled with concert tapes and who knew everything there was to know about Dylan. They were going to gather at a pub in Stockholm, and I was invited.
I combined it with a meeting at Stockholm University in the morning – something related to medieval music – and after my meeting, I rang up my man in the inner circles, Hynek Pallas, from a payphone in the locker-room area at the university, to decide on a meeting place.
It turned out to be a weird conversation. He told me that his girlfriend was working in the World Trade Center, and that she had been evacuated because a plane had crashed into it. I was very confused. It took me a while to realize what was going on: that she was not working in New York City but that there is a WTC in Stockholm as well, and that a plane had actually crashed, not into the WTC in Stockholm but the one in New York City.
I remember thinking that it was odd, not so much that a plane had hit a skyscraper in New York – they are after all quite tall and accidents may happen, I thought – but why would an office building with the same name in Stockholm need to be evacuated?
Anyway – Dylan had released a new album, it was more than fairly good, and it was time to celebrate. So I took the subway downtown to meet up with Hynek.
And thus began my Dantean walk through Stockholm. When I reached the Central station, there was news that the second tower had been hit by another plane. So it was not an accident, then.
A little further on my walk I stopped by a TV shop to watch the screens on display in the window. It was reported that the Pentagon had been attacked. I hung around in the shop for a while, exchanging incredulous inanities with the owner. We were both convinced that there was more to come – that what we were seeing now was perhaps just the beginning of a complete attack on every single institution in the USA, perhaps in the Western world. That the whole system was perhaps going to collapse under the weight of a ruthless, coordinated attack. That there was little one could do to stop a determined opponent who was not afraid to give up his life. I walked on.
In the old restaurant at Slussen, I stopped and watched the live images from New York. Horribly majestic, unchanging images of two burning towers. I left in order to meet Hynek in time, probably mere moments before the South Tower collapsed.
We finally met, had a beer, discussed with the bartender and were informed that the Towers had fallen. I heard the name Osama Bin-Laden for the first time.
There was also plenty of opportunity to reflect upon the amazing coincidence: that the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers at the exact time when the record stores in New York would open and start selling Dylan’s new album, where he sings lines like:
Sky full of fire, pain pouring down.
Coffins dropping in the street, like balloons made out of lead.
Well, my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast.
I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past.
Your days are numbered and so are mine.
Nowhere to escape.
If Dylan had ever seemed to have prophetic gifts, this was the moment. (And if that isn’t enough proof, then consider this: Under The Red Sky (1990), which also has a certain doomsday quality, at least the title and the cover, was also released on September 11.)
Art, Reality, and Memory
There are two things I want to say with this little recollections of my movements on that fateful day, other than going through the ritual of retelling the story together with everybody else, as a form of collective therapy session.
“Love And Theft”, the WTC, and Stockholm – the three are forever united in my mind. I can’t walk through Stockholm without thinking about that TV shop and the chill of the realization that the world was perhaps about to go under. I can’t see images of the burning towers without thinking about “Highwater” and that restaurant at Slussen. And I can’t hear “Love And Theft” without being transported back to those days 20 years ago and hearing the violence of the “sky full of fire” in every track of the album.
To read the rest, including what all this has to do with the notion of great art, …
What kind of a story is the tale about Dylan in the 80s?
By Eyolf Østrem
The biographical timeline of the 80s starts with a cross that was thrown on stage some time late 1978, leading to Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and the Gospel Period, followed by a mid-decade disillusioned (perhaps even cocaine-and-booze-fueled) midlife crisis with the strange movie Hearts of Fire as the most iconic representation, then for some reason a reinvigoration, resulting in the start of the Never-Ending Tour in 1988, the end point of which we haven’t really seen yet although he has turned 80 and the pandemic halted the actual touring.
The albums timeline is parallel: after a start on a high with Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) preserved the energy but not the creativity, and Shot of Love (1981) seems to have tried but failed to reverse the downward trend; Infidels (1983) was a flawed outcome of what in hindsight appears as a tremendously exciting achievement (and the upcoming issue of the Bootleg Series, dedicated to this period, is going to confirm this beyond any doubt!); but that was the end: Empire Burlesque (1985), Down in the Groove (1986) and Knocked out Loaded (1988) can only with the obsessed fan’s most loving goodwill be saved from the bottom of the Best-Of lists. Oh Mercy (1989) was an injection of hope to most, but Under the Red Sky (1990) did what it could to frustrate that hope.
Hence the question in the subtitle. I’m not so preoccupied with the first part, about what went wrong, and especially not about the potential causes of the demise, but I am interested in the second part: what went right again? and for that reason only, I will have to go into a description of what went wrong.
I am deeply in favour of an approach to criticism which does not start with expectations and projections, as Steve Berkowitz, co-producer of the Bootleg Series, calls it in a recent interview.
“You can’t look at Picasso and say, ‘man I love that blue stuff with the guitars, but what’s that crap with the eye outside of its head?’ You’re talking about Picasso, Jack, so you should step back and try to get the whole thing in, try to understand the journey that he’s taking.”
That captures what the Dylanological undertaking is all about to me: to step back and ask: what is he trying to achieve?
But regardless of whether one thinks the criticism of Dylan’s mid-eighties albums is justified or not, Berkowitz’s benevolent approach does not make the decade any less mysterious. The greatest mystery of them all is precisely this: What did he want to achieve (and what did he think he actually achieved), with albums such as Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque? Why would he want to save for posterity his takes on “Precious Memories” and “They Killed Him”?
To read the rest,
The poetics of Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man - The first verse
By Jakob Brønnum
In the prologue to the reading of Mr. Tambourine Man in Dylanology No. 4, I suggested that Mr. Tambourine Man could be viewed as a very consciously structured reflection over the practice of writing. A reflection that evolves into a genuine Ars Poetica.
An Ars Poetica is a handbook of poetical writing – known in the history of literature all the way from the roman poet Ovid, maybe even with basic inspiration from Aristotle. It is almost always written in a poetical form. There is no settled convention of what the Ars Poetica should consist of.
Bob Dylan describes the process of writing in a perspective where the narrator of the song is struggling not only with his writing but also with himself. The lyrics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” works through the use of very basic symbolism, taken from our concept of existence. There will be talk of the hands, of feet, of walking, of sleeping, of seeing, remembering, of forgetting, of the sky, the trees, the leaves, the beach.
The imagery is so basic that maybe we don’t even perceive it as symbolism – but the fact that the long poem only uses such basic imagery points to a fact about the piece itself: That it deals with something very basic in life, maybe even life itself.
This, however, remains to be seen only after a thorough reading of the poetic language used throughout the four long verses. Each of them could be understood as treating an element of the creative process, a phase of creative writing that everyone who writes recognizes.
The first verse begins where the problem is – with the experience that what you work with doesn’t work. That you inspiration eludes you:
Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand
Where are we? The day after. The “evening’s empire” turned out to be something like a sandcastle and had disappeared in the morning.
It is not an uncommon feeling. You sit through the night and dream up things you want to do. It is as if the night itself evoke these dreams. You sketch and plan. Everybody does that from time to time. Nothing seemed impossible just then. The next day you see that nothing became of it. This is the sentiment the first line in the first verse talks about.
Sometimes people do this together – talk about the future, and what could be done and what should be done. What we want to do with our lives and the world. The young Dylan has of course been in conservations like this during his stint in the folk revival movement, evenings soaked in red wine, dreams, and illusions about what the movement could achieve. In hindsight it is easy to see that Bob Dylan doesn’t fit there. In this context the image “empire”, as something vast in its own imagination is especially well chosen.
To read the rest,
Bob Dylan - the universal lover (Or: The philosophical wordplay in Wedding Song)
By Jakob Brønnum
The Dylan album Planet Waves ends with the little-known “Wedding Song”, one of a few songs where you’d have the feeling that Bob Dylan is actually referring to his own private life:
You gave me babies one, two, three, what is more, you saved my life. (Verse 4)
In “Wedding Song”, Bob Dylan goes, if possible, one step further. The song ventures deeply into a form of logical-philosophical love making. A form of word play where the next concept consistently supersedes the former in scope and reach. We get some of the most elegantly thoughtful varieties of I-love-you ever put on paper. It all happens in the first verse:
I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love
I love you more than money and more than the stars above
Love you more than madness, more than waves upon the sea
Love you more than life itself, you mean that much to me
What seems to be a lighthearted confession initiates a far reaching journey:
I love you more than ever
All is said! How can you continue from here?
To find out how, read the whole text, by…
Among the stories in the next issue:
Springtime in New York - Bootleg vol. 16 and Mr. Tambourine Man - second verse
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