Bob Dylan and the genius of myth-making
This blog post is by guest blogger Hoatzin Aname
If I wanted to stop whatever you are doing right now and make you go and buy a music album or a concert ticket for a specific artist or band, how should I go about it? I could praise extravagantly the music act’s latest album or enumerate awards won over the years. I could do all that and hope to make an impression. But what if I have doubts about how you will receive the artist if I manage to win you over? And even if I am reasonably confident that you will be thankful for my recommendation, what if I wanted to extend this to a multitude of album buyers and concert goers and not just one person? Tastes are varied and even if I choose my audience segment carefully, it is likely that a moiety will be immune to the artist’s impact. This is not to suggest that I am a charlatan who soullessly pushes unworthiness onto a gullible public. While I may be convinced about the virtuousness of my quest, I earnestly seek a certain vital ingredient that would inject magical powers to my message that would ride over the eddies of confusion. And that ingredient is myth. Which is the central theme of this essay. Nothing works quite like a halo around a head to boost an artist’s star power that goes well beyond establishing their artistic credentials.
The above is just the presentation of an argument. Please be assured that I am not trying to perform that exercise here. What I am trying to do is to look at mythmaking mechanisms that have succeeded spectacularly. I aim to do this not with a critical eye but with the detached, benign view of one who neither objects nor endorses. The idea here is not to write an expose to bring down a legend. It is to show how the practice of mythmaking is occasionally deployed to lubricate the pathway to revealing one’s genius to the masses. The artists may sometimes feel that their work alone is not enough to convince followers of their genius and feel a compelling need to legitimize their iconic status with some mythologizing. Time now to dive right in and look at specific examples. Bob Dylan’s career offers plenty of those.
Dylan’s early interviews contained vague references to childhood experiences in the exotic American southwest. It is not my intention to speculate on the veracity of these claims. Regardless of the truth value of these references, that the artist felt the need to mention these experiences in a manner that invites mythologizing is significant. Sure, Dylan does not have to wear the dust of the “crooked highways” and “misty mountains” and “sad forests” and “dead oceans”, but it helps to don the mantle of one who has been somewhere and seen and experienced things. And from those “sightings” came visions born out of an intense curiosity. Of course you cannot take this to extremes and expect the artist to actually experience mountains being washed to the sea before expressing the idea that even mountains can get tired of being themselves forever.
Let’s consider a different medium, the album covers. Just two years separate the baby faced innocence on the first album to the gaunt unsmiling face on the third, with the happy wintry freewheelin’ huddle on the second. Forward another couple of years to even more sweeping changes in style and attitude, an eclectic record collection and a lady companion in red, a defiant stare at the camera wearing a motorcycle themed shirt, shivery focused in dark jacket with checkered scarf. While these changes certainly reflect Dylan’s personality changes and his songwriting themes, they also suggest a conscious manufacture of the artist’s image. This is not to suggest any deliberate falsification but the shaping of the image is as much a part of the artist’s development as is the outcome of his artistry, the albums and concerts.
Of course, you would expect me to talk about the infamous May 17, 1966 “Royal Albert Hall concert” (actually at Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England) and I am not going to disappoint you. The concert itself is not a myth and the “Judas” taunt by an audience member is not a myth either. You can hear these on record (Bootleg Series #4) and Dylan’s rejoinder “I don’t believe you!”…pause…”You’re a liar!” and then an exhortation to his band to “play it f**kin’ loud!”. This last bit is said to be uttered by someone else by a band member. While you can hear these on record, it strikes me that the momentousness of the event has been magnified way beyond what really occurred on that day. The Judas shout has a very casual throwaway feel to it that is confirmed by the easy laughter that accompanies it among those present. Dylan’s rejoinder is uttered after a long pause. “I don’t believe you…You’re a liar” is hardly what the accused himself would say, it belongs more to a 3rd party responding to a witness. It is not expressed in outrage, but intoned in measured deliberateness. The context of this exchange is, of course, Dylan’s supposed betrayal of his folk following in choosing to express his genius through cacophonic electric rock and roll. This incident amplifies this betrayal to biblical proportions and why not milk it to its fullest extent? My appreciation of Dylan’s artistry is fuelled almost exclusively by his electric output, but I’ll be the first to say that the excellent musicians on stage that evening played poorly after an excellent acoustic “folk” set by the solo Dylan.The Judas remark is very timely occurring as it did towards the end of the electric set.
With three of rock’s greatest albums (one of them a double – arguably the first ever in rock) recorded within a span of 14 months with varying musical ensembles and record producers, and intense tours of Europe and North America featuring persistent booing at various venues within the same time period, something had to break loose. It was a motorcycle accident with no other vehicles. Whether or not it actually happened, it had to have been invented. Dylan explained the transition from his work before the event to after as a transfiguration. Regardless of what actually transpired in his life, what we come to next in the catalog is John Wesley Harding, a collection of quieter songs with mystical and religious allusions, sung with a subdued vocal style unlike his earlier aggressive vocal delivery. The choice of album title and the eponymous opening track is strange and controversial. None of the real life JWH’s historical stories seem to justify his elevation to Robin Hood status and Dylan’s motivation in doing so is unclear. The album cover featured Dylan flanked by Bengali Baul singers and the liner notes did nothing to help the listener in coming to grips with this strange new album. Come to think of it, even the liner notes on the earlier albums were in a similar tangential vein. The words and music were much simplified after the heights scaled in the previous albums. However, this simplification did not make it any easier for the interpretation of the meaning of the album. Why this, when the rest of the world were deep into psychedelia? While Dylan’s myth making about others (the JWH title character) may not have been as impactful, the aura created by his retreat into the countryside and his musical and philosophical direction survives, as is evident by the number of covers that it engendered (the entire album was covered in 2012 by Thea Gilmore, Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower became an enduring classic).
So what does all this myth making lead to? However much you boost an artist’s profile, the myths won’t hold up without the artists doing their part to fit with the halo. You are on safe ground with Dylan who plays his part as well as you might expect him to. He keeps everyone guessing with cryptic statements, lets everyone build stories around his songs, always one step ahead of what everyone expects him to do. You want me to keep singing protest songs troubadour style? Here is some nasty loud electric rock and roll. You want even more rock and roll? Here are a bunch of country songs sung in a soft croon. You want to hold a massive counter culture festival right outside where I live? Have a great show but don’t expect me to show! Listen to his late career tracks like Not Dark Yet, High Water (For Charley Patton), Pay in Blood and the more recent False Prophet and you can hear the voice that can sustain all the myths.
I’ll finish by presenting my own attempt to add to the Dylan myth. Dylan sought far and wide to obtain the specific sounds he was seeking as the multiple takes on the Bootleg series releases testify to. Some of these takes seem to me to be almost as good (if not better) as the ones that ultimately made it to the released albums. Several takes of the haunting dream like Visions of Johanna each vie for top position in my own personal carousel of Johanna visions. Of course, Dylan was right to wait months to find the right musicians and recording technicians who ultimately delivered what he was looking for despite the excellence of the earlier takes. Take 8 (in the “Cutting Edge” Bootleg Series #12 release) is particularly striking with its horse carriage cadence that transports the visions to us. It peters off into band noodling at the end, but not before Dylan does something different from the other takes. He erupts into two short bursts of wordless but tuneful howling after singing the last verse. I cannot conceive of these as having been delivered by a cold calculating composing mind. These seem to me to have emerged from a spontaneous well of rapture and/or longing that must have taken possession of the artist at that very moment surprising himself. You can certainly break this myth by listening to the adjacent takes and find that the tuneful howl is present elsewhere too, but why would you do it given how convincingly I’ve persuaded you with the need for mythmaking?
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