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Dylan's Message

An essay that explains what Dylan is saying and calls "John Wesley Harding" an album ab out the process of seeking truth

By John G. Short

(With acknowledgements to Andrew Klein, Vinton Tompkins, and Paul Holleb for their special knowledge of the trade magazines, the Bible, and the Midwest respectively.)

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Abe said, "Man, you must be putting me on."

God said, "No."

Abe said, "What."

God say, "You can do what you want Abe. But. The next time you see me coming, you better run."

Abe say, "Where do you want this killing done?"

God said, "Out on Highway Sixty-One"

People ask Bob Dylan if he has a message and what it is. Sure, try asking Robert Lowell if he has a message, he won't want to talk to you. Bob Dylan's message (what he says, sings, writes) isn't any one particular idea. That is to say: sometimes he's saying man's so sinister that he's even written it into his bible, The Bible; and sometimes Dylan's talking civil rights, or sometimes he's talking about the way some people (like him) are living.

Up to his most recent and greatest album, John Wesley Harding, he talks up the American social landscape a lot. Of course many other folk singers have been talking about what's been going on. But they did it in lyrics and, in effect, recreated the feeling or romanticism of what was happening, and a lot of the time moralized about it. Eric Anderson singing about marches in the South: You been longing on the open road. You've been sleeping in the rain. From the dirty words and mud of your clothes are dark and stain-

But the dirty words, the muddy souls will soon be judged insane."

Dylan does things in poetry (words chosen, not to fit the lyrics of a tune, but for what they mean to the other words, the imagery, and the message). And although some of his earlier songs were out-and-out civil rights propaganda (i.e., they had a defined moral and even political message), most everything Dylan writes is seeking, often finding, and brilliantly revealing something that is true. In other words, there is a hierarchy of messages folk singers work with--things ranging from describing a visual and sensual environment to moralizing. You get the idea from listening to all nine of his records in a row that Dylan not only puts Truth at the top of his hierarchy, but also is finding messages that are true as he writes, not having known before he started writing what they were.

Robbed by Whores

I like to think that Dylan has a message (in the singular) because every time I listen to him or see his movie, Don't Look Back, I get this same identifiable feeling of understanding for not just what he's saying out why he's saying this. What this message, in the singular, is, is an understanding of the kind of life Dylan's living. That's not the details of his life like whether he's wandering around Mexico getting robbed by whores as in Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Knowing those details would be kind of interesting but it's more than we could ask Dylan. And what's really important is just knowing the way Dylan thinks and philosophizes and approaches things. But Dylan's message is what he's saying, not a singular idea.

I have this fairly simple theory about media. The idea is that each medium has its dynamics--the elements that make up the medium, define it, and limit it. In film, for example, the dynamics are what effects the lenses have, how easy it is to move the camera around, what kind of thing the camera records, and so forth. Now in order to be able to function well within a medium, you have to work primarily with the kind of things the medium was designed to deal with. That's why some rock groups that have a great loud, heavy sound live don't come across on records. They write music to be played and use the record as a form of reproduction, whereas the Beatles, in contrast, write for recordings. Their earlier songs were great media for the radio; and their songs since Rain have usually been on so many tracks that they probably couldn't be played live.

Dylan is great media. Unlike the Beatles, he isn't producing a sound, but rather a poetry with music worked in as an important cohering force and part of the emotional message. If D. A. Pennebaker's film on Dylan is any indication of the way he walks around thinking and talking (and I think it's close enough), then Dylan's mind is always popping with the same kind of surreal and often religious imagery that he strings together in his songs. And his desire to find out only what's true and his rabid hate for cant are sincere. The message is that Dylan's a bookish intellectual who thinks to melodies and casts his ideas in scenes. The message is that Dylan is great media because he writes songs as his natural outlet of expression about things he's thinking about because of the way he lives.

The message is Don't Look Back.

Some Children

Someone from Newsweek asks him how many children he has. "Some," Dylan answers. It's funny. The point is also that you don't look back. Ideas flash into your mind; you find truth where it is instead of lying in wait for it. You call to mind experiences and ideas and characters you've read before when the occasion makes it right to use them. You DON'T try to go back over ideas you've had before to tell a Timemagazine reporter what the message of your songs is. And when someone from Newsweek asks about your children who are no-where near, you don't try to remember all the births. You say what's most relevant -- "Some."

If Dylan is living some sort of stream of consciousness, it's in a certain meaning of the phrase. One kind of stream of consciousness (represented in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse) is a highly sensitive awareness limited to what is actually happening around the character and the immediate associations the environment brings. Dylan's is more historic, but in an abstract sense. On the personal level of experience, Dylan and the characters of his songs (most of whom are "I") never worry about the past or future. But most of his songs are based on echoing previous abstracted intellectual experience (like what Woody Guthrie meant to him or religious imagery in Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands). Maybe what he has read is sort of a "cumulative present" in his mind. But those are just words. The way he works his past abstracted experience into his songs, thus interpreting the present, is remarkable.

Look at what Dylan does with time. The past is sung as if it were just happening now. The present becomes the only kind of reality. The future isn't mentioned unless it's predetermined; if the future is determined, its reality is already there in the present. Take Dylan's story of God and Abe. As a historical anecdote it only has meaning in the way it relates to the present and in the way it is happening in slightly different contexts right now. So Dylan slips almost unnoticeably from "God said" to "God say." There's no difference between the two for Dylan or anyone else. The past is the present.

Now catch what happens to time in Desolation Row. He presents a rambling view of the half real, half surreal things famous characters from books and fairy tales are doing. The tremendous feel for the immediacy of what happens Dylan gives us in the chronological one-after-another present tense. But actually the whole story is a Dylan-modified version of a letter he read "yesterday." "All these people that you mention. Yes I know them they're quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name." Dylan tells his correspondent that it's too difficult for him to understand the people who aren't on Desolation Row, and he tells us that the only reality he sees them in is the present. He describes a raid on Desolation Row, which is presumably a refuge of social dropouts and intellectuals. "At midnight, all the agents and the super-human crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do." The raid could have happened in the past--Dylan could have read it in the letter or just remembered it. Or it could happen in Dylan's imagined future. But it could not be happening in the moment of the song, when Dylan is remembering the letter he received. Dylan sings it in the present, though, and we understand unquestioningly because that's where the raid's reality and meaning is.

The message is in the new album. John Wesley Harding.

When Ken Emerson, the rock reviewer for Avatar, and I interviewed and photographed Country Joe a few weeks ago, we asked him what he thought of Dylan's new album. "You know," said Joe, "I used to really dig Dylan and what he was doing. The new album, I'm not really sure. That hillbilly stuff just isn't our kind of scene. You know, all those Okies." I figured he just missed the whole album. There is only one song, the last one, where the message is the Okie sound. Though that one really threw people because Dylan had never put anything like it on his albums before. When you think about it, his records just before the last one were almost restricted in the way he stuck to hard electric sound and dirty big-city imagery. The messages of the songs on Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited were generally pessimistic and unloving, though it's almost totally absurd to generalize about any group of Dylan's songs.

Life Before Death

Take for example Visions of Johanna, one of the half dozen best songs Dylan has ever written. Listen to it. Dylan is lying in bed with his girl, named Louise, wondering about Johanna, salvation (life after death), and life before death. He constantly abstracts himself into the third person, first as Louise's "lover," then as a little boy. He sings: "Now a little boy lost. He takes himself so seriously. He brags of his misery. He likes to live dangerously. And when bringing her name up, he speaks of a farewell kiss to me. He's sure got a lot of gall to be so useless and all, muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall. How can I explain? It's so hard to get on. And these visions of Johanna have kept me up past the dawn." The Dylan that is out in the hall is the Dylan that's lying in bed wondering about what the "little boy" Dylan has been doing up to now. His songs are "muttering small talk at the wall." Later he wonders in his visions if life after death ("salvation") is a museum of all of history complete with sneezing old ladies looking at everything. He thinks that Dylan has a lot of gall for being so useless and all; but later asks anyone to show him a man who isn't a parasite. Get it? The message is, "Dylan's got no excuse. But the people making noise in the street are worse. So where do we go from here?"

After Blonde on Blonde a lot of people said they thought Dylan was into suicide. I doubt it. He had a motorcycle accident that the public wasn't told about, and spent a long time recovering, first in a hospital, then in a neck brace. For two years he didn't put out a record. Rumor has it that he was trying to break his recording contract with Columbia because he had wanted the two records of Blonde on Blonde to be released individually instead of in a package. He lived in Woodstock, New York, making a new film and editing one that had already been shot. He was reworking a book he had finished titled Tarantula. The book is reported to have been quite bad. It was just about to be printed, the plates already having been made and the publicity posters already printed, when Albert Grossman, his manager, told the publishers that Dylan had decided not to release it. The cover of his new album was photographed in Woodstock with, upon Dylan's insistence, a Polaroid. For the last year Dylan is said to have been working very hard producing up to ten songs a week. Rolling Stone magazine printed a list of song titles early last fall that the magazine had heard would be on the new album; only a few made it. He got out John Wesley Harding by the beginning of this year.

The message in John Wesley Harding comes through with Dylan's same brilliant expression, and is imbued with all his earlier philosophy. It's only the sound that's changed from big-city to country. About this being an Okie record: there are three ways Dylan has made the sound different. 1) The music; he's cut out Mike Bloomfield and the electric guitars, and put a drum and bass beat through the whole record that makes all the sound vaguely similar. 2) The language: he puts his songs in the country idiom (instead of the hip) by using a lot of twisted cliches, saying "whom" a lot instead of "who," and throwing awe-struck interjections to "the Lord" into the speech of his characters. 3) The stories in his songs: he's put plots with beginnings and endings and protagonists other than himself into the songs. Some of his earlier songs--Corrina, Corrina, and Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance -- are heavy imitations of Country & Western sound. Dylan comes from Hibbing, Minnesota, a town he describes with great amusement on the printed insert that comes with The Times They Are A-Changin'. A college classmate of the wife of a former editor of mine went to high school with Dylan, and said he was small and nobody talked to him.

Dylan, on the new album, is doing something that's similar to his early folk style, but he's not going back to anything. The message of these songs is so amazing, put across so convincingly that a friend told me, "Wow, think of all the people who are going to hear this and then turn around and look over their shoulder and wonder where they've been going."

Listen to I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine: "And I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to death. And I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified. I put my fingers against the glass and bowed my head and cried." Saint Augustine is a despairing Christian philosopher who tears around trying to convert the un-Christian. Dylan admires him tremendously. Not because he believes Christianity is cool or because he even necessarily believes in God. The message is that it's really important to believe in something, anything, any religion, anything meaningful enough to tell you why we're around and to answer all the questions he asked in Visions of Johanna. Saint Augustine has "a voice without restraint"; and Dylan, who doesn't preach anything, can't say he was wrong and doesn't doubt the sincerity of his actions. Sincerity, what a great thing.

Dig Yourself

Remember that in the beginning of his movie Dylan is flashing the words to Subterranian Homesick Blues on the screen. In the middle, he throws in "Dig Yourself." That's what Dylan is always trying to tell us, and the song is about what a hard time he has trying to help other people he's responsible for Saint Augustine on the new album is responsible for everyone. Staying alive is the struggle of the necessary cooperation of people to provide for themselves. You've got to work with other people. Saint Augustine expands the common struggle people share to include the necessity for a religion to explain things. If Dylan weren't trying to help people seek a comparable truth, he would not be making records like this one.

The new album represents a stylistic change in his expression. Dylan's earlier efforts to find truth as an object is replaced by songs that try to identify a truthful process. This change in what Dylan is doing I think explains why John Wesley Harding is the title song. The hero is a cowboy (your standard American mythology) who is always trying to do right (read: seeking truth). The song doesn't complete a story; we never learn what he wants or what happens. Dylan has just identified his character to be the spirit of the album--the truth seeker.

A number of major reviews of the album have said the music is Dylan's most important change. Notable was Jon Landau in the May issue of Craw-daddy!. He wrote: "On this album he is above all a musician, a singer, first, and in looking at how these over-all characteristics manifest themselves on the particular songs of the album it will help us to look especially at how Dylan is using his voice." Landau is too used to writing about rock sound. Dylan is always working on his message. The music helps him say it, but it's only the process. Mike Bloomfield was quoted in an interview in Hit Parader magazine as saying that Dylan didn't really care what the music was like when they were recording Highway 61. He would just give them a few chords, Bloomfield said, and let the band work out the rest on their own. Dylan got rid of the electric band, but probably let Charlie McCoy work out a lot of John Wesley Harding.

Maybe Dylan does believe in religion, or at least pretends to, or is trying to believe in it for a while. Drifter's Escape is a straightforward parable of the story of Jesus' trial and Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, the murderer the crowd would rather set free than Christ. The Drifter's judge shows the same reluctance to sentence execution as Pilate until forced to by the jury (crowd). The lightning bolt setting up the Drifter's escape is Christ rising on the third day to heaven. And by putting the story in a contemporary setting he's telling the people with a Bible in the desk, who think "it can't happen here," that it could and they would probably be the ones to do it (kill Jesus, or his equivalent) as soon as they got the chance.

Maybe Dylan believes in the early Christians. They were believable. The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is the story of what happens to a modern hero who gets tempted as Christ was by the Devil in the wilderness. The hero, Frankie Lee, dies in a whorehouse that Judas Priest convinced him was some sort of heaven. In this one, Dylan twists his images a little more the way he used to. Frankie Lee is Dylan's conception of most people. "Nothing is revealed," says a little boy (Dylan) at the end. He is saying Frankie is revealed to be a nothing. And if Dylan mumbled the same inanities that I did in my childhood, then "Judas Priest" was one of the accepted nice ways to scream the epithet, "Jesus Christ."

Side two of the album is the straight side. Dylan isn't hiding anything. "I pity the poor immigrant when his gladness comes to pass," is the last line of a beautiful song that rings true as one of the most accurate social observations of our time. "And I do hope you receive it well depending on the way you feel that you've lived," is one of several great lines in Dear Landlord explaining a philosophy of interaction between two dependent individuals. There's the suggestion that Dylan is talking about his relation to God (the landlord); but I won't go into it further because the song pretty much explains itself once you've decided whom Dylan is addressing. If you think the country style is new, compare Down Along the Cove with It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, cut three on side one of Highway 61 Revisited. And I'll Be Your Baby Tonight is there to tell us what Dylan's feeling like since his motorcycle crash and silence for two years. Wicked Messenger reminded me of something that made me wonder why I had never wondered about it before--is Dylan, the folk hero of the new generation (nee Robert Zimmerman) Jewish? Wicked Messenger is a parable for Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt; the song echoes Dylan's earlier messages of the importance of believing in something and working with pepole. He is Jewish; about two years ago there was a press report that he was back in Minnesota for his brother's Bar Mitzvah. But the blessing is lost on him because he clearly grew up being taught both ends of the Bible. It's in all his songs.

Another thing that Country Joe told us was that he didn't really like the way Dylan had copped out on politics, including the anti-war scene. But Dylan's message isn't with organizations. His message reaches its most advanced state of development in three songs he's written recently. One's in the middle of the first side of the new album; the other two he wrote for a couple of other groups.

Pushing Skag

The Mighty Quinn he wrote for the Manfred Mann. It's just recently fallen off the tunedex. It's also about a guy who's pushing skag. Want proof? "When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, all the pigeons gonna fly to him." and "When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody's gonna want a doze." The last is a pun on "want a doze." and "want a dose." Of course the whole scene is a lot like Waiting for Godot, which brings in God and religion and which sounds right for Dylan. And maybe H can be a religion. What this song's got in common with the other two is the message in the following lines: "Everybody's building ships and boat; some are building monuments; some are jotting down notes. Everybody's in despair. Every girl and boy. But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody's going to jump for joy." People are despairing because what they're doing--building monuments or jotting down notes to songs like Dylan--is as useless as Dylan said it was in Visions of Johanna.

Too Much of Nothing, sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary is another song Dylan wrote. The Nothing is the same nothing Dylan saw in Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. "Too much of Nothing," Dylan writes, "can turn a man into a liar. It can cause some men to sleep on nails, the other men to eat fire. Everybody's doing something, I heard it in a dream." Sleeping on nails and eating fire are obvious acts of faith, and are at least some kind of answer to a life where a man who "don't know a thing" can be made a king. Again-the idea is that our society, where the Protestant Ethic places the highest value on the work of businessmen, has no meaningful purpose or values--is nothing.

Finally, All Along the Watchtower is so unsettling that some people are afraid to listen to it when they're on mind drugs. "There are many here among us that feel that life is but a joke ... let us not talk falsely now;S-

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