A Bob Dylan Odyssey
Lyrics, 1962-1985 By Bob Dylan Alfred A. Knopf; 524 pp.; $21.95
BOB DYLAN'S Lyrics, 1962-1985 doesn't contain an introduction or an afterword, a chronology or a summary, a preface or a publisher's note, a jacket biography or even a jacket. Sturdily bound in a glossy gray hardcover, it looks more like a junior high school science textbook than a definitive edition of a great artist's work. Inside, on heavy-stock paper and printed with big, easy-to-read letters, is page after page of lyrics, liner notes and line drawings penned by the former Robert Zimmerman in the 24 years since he arrived in New York City.
Beyond that, the book defies description. Dylan's decades-long lyrical odyssey through heart and mind is a journey so rich and varied, so reflective and honest that a ready encapsulation is impossible. Opening the book to any page is enlightening, while as a whole the volume stands as a testament to a brilliant artist who has managed to internalize the ideals and failings of a generation of American life. Lyrics is as much a catalogue of a society's groping for purpose as it is that of one man. It's not a question of whether the volume is worth your time--rather, it's how best to make sense of a man whose constant dissatisfaction with any particular Answer has led him in turn to inspire and to disappoint nearly every constituency in popular culture.
With a compendium this massive, the unavoidable starting point is the familiar songs, the ones that flit by on the radio whenever a disc jockey feels guilty or important. "It Ain't Me, Babe," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Just Like a Woman," and the other early folk-rock crossover songs that established Dylan as a popular artist as well as an intellectual hero resonate as you stare at the words on the page. At once they seem to be both more and less than what they are when sung.
Without the music to add complexitv and depth, an aural crutch suggesting richer emotion is gone. With the words on paper, without Dylan's raspy slur to disguise them, they can sometimes seem quite forced:
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to be juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it.
But then, after you've turned more pages and examined more songs, the respect returns--freed from Dylan's less-than-relined voice or from the Sixties pop twangs that propelled his songs up the charts, a different sort of appreciation builds.
Dylan can twist his words into stunningly complex alliterative or rhyme schemes, using the sound of the words to build associations and feelings, or he can tell a simple story, constantly repeating verses or choruses with his improvised country diction to make his point. He can write about the endless variations of love or about the emptiness felt inside watching a derelict die on the street. His earliest songs, many of them never recorded, are wide-eyed youthful reflections on the misfortune and injustice he saw as he journeyed through America. He writes about having no money, he writes about a Black man being lynched in the South.
If Dylan wanted only to revive interest in his amazing first decade of work, he could have simply republished 1973's Writings and Drawings, a collection of his lyrics through the New Morning album. In the 1985 update, "Saved" appears a mere 352 pages away from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and the familiar unflattering comparisons of Dylan's clear-sighted youth with his muddled middle age are unavoidable. But Lyrics serves equally to demonstrate the continuity of Dylan's work--even the embittered but unsophisticated idealist of "Masters of War" (1963) seems to emerge some 20 years later:
Democracy don't rule the world You'd better get that in your head.
This world is ruled by violence But I guess that's better left unsaid.
DYLAN'S THREE-ALBUM flirtation with Born Again Christianity is among the more difficult events to reconcile with his legacy; for many fans, it was as though he rejected two decades of intellectual and emotional reflection on life's deepest concerns in favor of a simplistic interpretation of received truth.
Read as a chronological document, Lyrics confirms that view--after the power of his early visions, Dylan's Seventies works can become introverted and worn. Songs like "You Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979) may seem like an unsatisfying resolution to Dylan's midlife malaise, but the fact that even as literate a mind as his could unabashedly turn to apocalyptic faith for purpose is cerily unsettling. That Dylan became disenchanted and moved on only confirms that his stop at the pulpit was just another chapter in his unending search
And he's following a star The same one them three men followed from the East. I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace he wrote on 1983's Infidels, regaining his focus.
But where that focus will lead next, there's no hint. Freewheelin' Bob is constantly on the move, and Lyrics, 1962-1985 is not a last gasp but yet another edition of Dylan's works in progress. Capturing so much of the human experience with his wit, insight and honesty, and more or less a sense of rhyme, Duluth, Minnesota's most famous son has published an awesome volume for anyone who cares about anything. And more than that, it's a tremendously good read.