The hero of Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel, Great Jones Street, Bucky Wunderlick, is a wildly famous musician; so transparently inspired by Bob Dylan that it is a wonder the author was able to make the figure into his own character. Bucky is hounded into seclusion by fans, hustlers, gangsters and the world at large. I had a hunch DeLillo would win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year; he can’t be surprised Bob Dylan did.
I’m a poet, I know it, hope I don’t blow it, Dylan sang 52 years ago in I Shall Be Free No. 10, a hilarious bit of doggerel from his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. He hasn’t blown it; the words on Tempest, his most recent album of original songs, from 2012, are as expansive and blazingly ambitious — especially on Early Roman Kings and Long and Wasted Years — as anything you could hear anywhere.
What gave each of his words in those tunes their full body was his performance of the songs. When he took the new songs onstage, putting his own body behind theirs, the songs got bigger, until they almost seemed to burst the buildings that enclosed them. But whether Dylan is a poet — yes, he is being compared right now to Sappho, Homer, the great bards who sang — has never been an interesting question.
Dylan has put his words out into the world in vessels with too many dimensions to be broken down into elements: As songs. Think of a song as thrillingly alive with the furies of creation, discovery and experiment, with the resolution of each verse reaching a pitch of such insistence, humour and force that the next has to push further or die.
Think of Highway 61 Revisited, from 1965 — a song that Dylan performed week before last at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California. There is no way to tell if the words incited the music; if the music, playing in the songwriter’s head or in the studio as the song came together, incited the words; if a certain run on Michael Bloomfield’s guitar or Al Kooper’s electric piano put the feeling of a rubber band snapping back in your face as Dylan sang the line Now the fifth daughter on the 12th night; or if the words incited the musical phrases that made the words seem less written than preordained, facts outside time or intention.
Or was it the way the words came out of Dylan’s mouth? Or the way the engineer on the recording session made it seem as if he’d put Dylan inside his own microphone, so when the musicians listened to a playback of an early take of the song they could hear where the song itself wanted to go? The song may have reached its most intense pitch in a performance with the Band in Oakland, California, in 1974, when a broken riff from the guitarist Robbie Robertson between verses shot Dylan’s attack for the final stanza — about staging the next World War between bleachers set up on Highway 61, the road that now runs from Minnesota to New Orleans — into a realm of vehemence, of “Watch out!” that the song had never known before.
I once asked Robertson where that brilliant riff came from. It was the heat of the moment, he said, when he thought he’d lost the song: “A moment of panic.”
Songs move through time, seeking their final form. What happens on that path is only partly up to the writer, the singer, the musicians. It may be partly up to the audience hearing the songs, watching them as they are performed, with the response of the audience, even of a single member of the audience, coming back to the performers and, in ways that can be felt but never determined, reshaping the song. That is why, perhaps, it is the fact of Dylan’s songs moving through time, and the way they have taken on elements of those times as they moved through them, that matters most on this interesting occasion.
In 1954, Vernon Green, the singer and songwriter of a Los Angeles doo-wop group called the Medallions, wrote a song called Buick 59. The idea, he explained much later, was to postdate the song so it would stay on the radio, and make more money, and give the group something it could perform for years to come. It worked: The record was a hit in 1954 and a local hit again in 1959.
Dylan first performed Masters of War in February 1963. It appeared that May on his second album, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. It was, at least on its face, a song about arms merchants; the idea, Dylan has said, came from former United States president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address. The song went out of Dylan’s performing repertoire after 1965, until he started playing it again in the late 1970s. But it has come back with a special vengeance in this century, especially on election night. Dylan sang it in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota on November 4, the night Barack Obama was elected President, in a wistful, almost elegiac manner — with no hint of the fury he put into the song at the Kolf Sports Center in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on November 2, 2004, when John Kerry was defeated.
It is not an elegant song. The words are overstated. They search too hard for metaphors and similes; you can hear the writer pressing. But it has held its shape because it has changed shape — and because the world has not run out of wars. Dylan has performed it in a circle of musicians playing acoustic instruments, like a coven; he has thrown it out to crowds like a grenade.
When he used the song to close his performance at Desert Trip week before last, the song took on a shape, a voice, a face, that it might have never taken on before. Dylan sang the song as if it were by someone else, as if it were a poem he’d first read in high school, or an anonymous British street ballad from 300 years ago, something he’d been reading, or listening to, all his life — and as if its full force had only now, that night, revealed itself. How much do I know / to talk out of turn, the song goes. You might say that I’m young / You might say I’m unlearned.
When Dylan sang those lines this month, he might have smiled to himself, but there was no irony in his voice: For all of his power as an artist, as a factor in the world equation, Dylan has no more power today than he had in 1963. So he sang Masters of War not as a threat, as he did at the start, but as a reckoning — as a judgement you could feel coming down on those who deserved it. The moment hung in the air. The song will move on.
— New York Times News Service
Greil Marcus is the author of several books and a co-editor with Werner Sollors of A New Literary History of America