I remember I first listened to Bob Dylan’s songs back in 2004 when I was studying in the small town of Colchester (the oldest town, and the first capital of Britain). I found myself relating to his songs in a way that I had never related to music before. The combination of his powerful lyrics and wildly raw singing style left me enthralled. For instance, I still can’t get over how someone can write the following lines:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Or consider these lines from the song, It’s Alright, Ma (I m only bleeding):
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only
How does someone even begin to write like that? Of course, Ghalib, the great poet of the Indian subcontinent had already revealed the ‘secret’:
These themes come to me from the world unseen,
Ghalib, the scratching of the pen is the voice of the heavenly angel
So during those days Bob Dylan’s connection with the heavenly angels was ultra strong. He wrote song after song that moved and inspired an entire generation. The fulcrum of the songs was centered on the political and social themes that fired up the 60s. However, what made Dylan special was that like Iqbal, Pablo Neruda, Faiz and Sahir, before him, even his most political songs are deeply poetic, and he never loses sight of his role as an artist. Conversely, during those days, Dylan also remembered that an artist’s role as a political and social commentator cannot be divorced from art. Therefore, at that time, his poetry didn’t adhere to the model which emphasizes art for art’s sake.
However, as time passed, Dylan’s attitude changed. He came to disavow the protest poetry that he had done earlier. He claimed that people misinterpreted him and ascribed more meaning to his lyrics than he had intended, or worse, that he wrote that stuff because that was what people were buying. However, the real reason for his disavowal can perhaps be found in the poignant song, Things have changed from the year 2000:
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can’t win with a losin’ hand
And this sad attitude culminated, quite logically, with Dylan accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year from Barack Obama. O well, as Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. So in trying to “get as far away from himself as he could”, Dylan landed in the arms of the Master of War himself.
I conclude with a song dedicated to him:
The Ghost of Bob Dylan
We shall overcome one day?
Like this? Who was to say!
A black man is president
The leading devil resident
Isn’t it all a lore?
Two and two five?
Or two and two four?
Endnote: A belated birthday tribute to Bob Dylan born May 24, 1941.