I wrote this in October for my monthly column in The Bangladesh Daily Star shortly after Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ever since he appeared on the New York folk scene, presenting himself as an anonymous exile from a place of no distinct identity – ‘My name it means nothing, my age it means less, the country I come from it’s called the Midwest’ – Bob Dylan has worked to elude definition.
In fact his name was soon going to mean a lot. It already signalled his recognition that a short homespun handle like Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry was required if you wanted to get somewhere in American popular culture. Matt Dillon, the fictional sheriff in a Wild West TV series called Gunsmoke, seems to have been the original inspiration before a change of spelling added a reference to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Soon enough Dylan’s disinclination to be pinned down would cause disillusionment among political followers. For a while he seemed to be the voice of a movement, telling the older generation that their sons and their daughters were beyond their command, but he was disinclined to attend rallies or endorse causes.
He famously offended folk music aficionados who had claimed him as their own when he went electric, responding defiantly to shouts of ‘Judas’ during a concert in England and turning the volume up. In the late 70s he caused consternation among fans when he declared himself a Christian and took to proselytizing from the stage. And through all these phases he has legitimately claimed the freedom to reinvent his own songs in performance. His refusal to show deference or even politeness to the Nobel Committee comes as no surprise.
One of Dylan’s qualities is that he has stayed true to his vision, following where it takes him. Songs like Highway 61 Revisited and Tangled Up In Blue, in their sweeps of impressionistic narrative, offer more density of meaning and suggestion than most words written to be sung. But when he touches on the interpersonal, Dylan’s vision becomes singularly myopic.
His refusal to be pinned down has shown up in his writing, less attractively, in relation to women. Moving on is what his male characters and alter egos do, usually with more resentment than acceptance: ‘You just kinda wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.’
That last phrase appears in the chorus of another song, addressed this time not to a girlfriend but to a mother: It’s all right, Ma (I’m only bleeding) and strikes a similarly sour note. Here, in the context of apocalyptic images of eclipses and warfare, we are exhorted not to be owned, not to give up our autonomy to any person or organisation: ‘To keep it in your mind and not forget that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to’. But the warning comes in response to the realisation ‘that somebody thinks they really found you.’ The song urges us not simply to take ownership of ourselves, but more weirdly, to remain hidden, to resist the normal human desire to be seen and recognised.