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LAST JUNE-within the space of two weeks-Bob Dylan accepted an honorary degree from Princeton and issued a double album, "Self Portrait." It was hard to decide which seemed the sadder indication of his degeneration. On the one hand, accepting a degree-and especially an honorary degree for being a pundit-seemed to be just the sort of thing that Dylan had always promised himself he'd never do.
But on the other hand, accepting a degree was not really something that hurt the people who had been buying his records and believing in them for years; he does not belong to his fans, after all, and if he wanted to have a Princeton diploma to hang on his wall, no one had any right to feel betrayed. In contrast, issuing "Self Portrait" was a direct insult.
It was a miserable, sloppy, hastily done record; and listening to it, I felt as if Dyland had gone out of his way to thumb his nose at everyone who bought his records on faith. He had put his name on a record and asked us to plunk down six dollars expecting maybe "Desolation Row" or "All Along the Watchtower" or at minimum, "Country Pie." But all we got was: "Ba-loo a-moon, you saw me standing a-lone."
It was a rotten summer for Dylan watchers. In the background were those live recordings, in which he sang "Like A Rolling Stone" as if he didn't even know what the words meant, just coasting through them like Perry Como. And there were rumors that he would make a Hollywood movie produce a Broadway musical. It was like hearing a friend. newly emerged from a siege of electro-therapy, his brain burned into a gray powder, say over and over, "Nice weather we're having, isn't it?"
"New Morning" proves that there is activity in his brain, that he is again thinking, creating, telling us something, Thank God.
The album is a mixture, lacking the carefully plotted unity of his greatest records: there are religious songs, a waltz, love ballads, and one puzzling cut that approaches his old despair. Several of them succeed brilliantly, and none of them are painful or infuriating to listen to.
"Day of the Locusts" describes the Princeton commencement at which Dylan got his degree, hearing in his mind a chorus of insects warning him that he might not be doing the right thing. He obviously wondered what the hell he was doing there: "The man next to me, his head was exploding/ I was hoping the pieces wouldn't fall down on me."
IN MANY of the songs. Dylan has turned from asking the questions to giving some answers. Sensing that they are probably all wrong, he gives a lot of them. His most frequent theme is escape. At the end of the ceremony recounted in "Locust," Dylan says:
I put down my robe
I picked up my diploma
Grabbed my sweetheart
And away we did drive
Straight to the mountains
The black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
Later, in "Sign on the Window," Dylan finds himself surrounded with signs of rejection, of loneliness, of despair. The only way out, he concludes, is to.
Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, raise rainbow trout
Have a mess of kids who call me pa
That must be what it's all about.
But if he wants to escape, he knows as well that he can't do it yet, if ever. Because his head is just as divided and contradictory and imprisoned as ours. A lot of the record is a tribute to old popular music and jazz, including a Dylan waltz ("winter-lude/this dude thinks you're fine"), and "If Dogs Run Free," a beautiful Mose Allison-style piece which makes no sense at all, but features fine piano and coat-singing in the background.
In "The Man in Me," Dylan shows what must have made him want to back a Broadway musical by stealing almost verbatim a couplet from My Fair Lady; "Oh, what a wonderful feeling, just to know that you are near."
In the last two songs, which are about God, Dylan suggests that he may seek his escape through religion. Perhaps, but the songs are probably the least satisfying of the serious answers he gives.
It is worth noting that none of the songs about escape through love, through going back to the land, through religion, are nearly as moving as "I Went to See the Gypsy," which is about the frightening involvement with life that his earlier songs described so brilliantly. It is about an ambiguous encounter with a big-name Las Vegas hustler, a sort of underworld angle, who presents Dylan with salvation and then disappears. Musically, it is a slow rock piece which sounds close to "Blonde on Blonde." At the end, when Dylan decides to accept the Gypsy's offer, it is too late, and the listener, although only half-understanding, feels his loss deeply:
Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears
I walked in from the distance with the music in my ears
I went back to see the Gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The Gypsy's door was open wide
But the Gypsy was gone
And that pretty dancing girl
She could not be found
So I watched the sun come rising from a little Minnesota town.
So that's it: Dylan's chance for escape blown, he will linger here with us a while longer. And thank God. If he ever made it out, we would really be alone.
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