WHAT WAS IT YOU WANTED?
by Jim Gillan
Every now and then something, perhaps a book, a piece of music, an idea catches, then grips the attention. And whilst at one level the attraction might be obvious, at others it is highly elusive, maybe contradictory. Out of which might just grow the desire to try to better understand the enigma. If so it could well be a long journey, with no clear destination and little in the way of obvious landmarks.
Love and Theftis most decidedly the one Dylan CD that up to now has had more of my ear time devoted to it than any others in my pile of official releases (all of them) and boots (presently around 400 – there are a lot of gaps, so offers to fill enthusiastically embraced). And it still feels as if it can stand any amount of further listening before I begin to think that I am even remotely familiar with it. It’s been played in album order, reverse order, shuffle mode, repeated track mode and back to back with Time Out Of Mind. It has also shared the player with a load of stuff from across the ‘Americana’ spectrum; in recent days some Duke Ellington, 20’s/30’s country blues, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Paul Burch, Steve Earle and Mary Gauthier. To name but a few. Of course hearing isn’t the same as listening. And listening isn’t the same as comprehending. But even if I fail to understand, I will, of course, still have to try.
I have also played a fairish number of the circulating versions of live takes on the Love and Theft songs, read the lyrics and dipped lightly in to some of the musical and other influences that have been associated with the album. I know with utter certainty that I have barely begun to touch on all that the songs have to offer. And whilst I have skimmed over some of the commentaries that have appeared in Isis and elsewhere, on the whole I’ve deliberately not made much use of them. What! Ignore all the research, analysis and any amount of effort put in by learned Dylanologists? ‘Fraid so, The best I can manage is to note some (though not much) of what appears, but to keep mostly on my own road towards what might make sense to me. It’s not always the easiest path to follow and it frequently wanders down blind alleys, but for me it is the best way of developing my sense of the album. Anything else carries the risk of only adopting/adapting too much of another’s ideas.
Oh come on! It’s only Bob – who whilst always newsworthy, is not exactly the most important thing on the planet! It’s not like you are going to be morally scarred and/or aesthetically corrupted by reading up on a few rants and theories! True for you, but it’s not that straightforward. It’s really about understanding the difference between thinking for myself and being steered in that by others. Sure, there is a balance, though one that is not necessarily easy to find. Explain please!
OK. I acknowledge that it can often be stimulating to consider another’s take on something, though too often opinion is presented as fact. Consider also the underlying motive, which may be less to do with offering enlightenment than it is about making a few quid. Though that is OK as long as it doesn’t distort what is being presented. What is a problem is the attitude of those who believe that their view is somehow more authoritative, more valuable than any others, yours included. Politicians, prelates, critics and ‘experts’ are amongst those who suffer from that delusion, and you know how much damage that lot can do. However, there are very, very few ‘truths’ and ‘realities’ (perhaps none) that can’t be recast by perspective. But whilst authorities (in every sense) may in passing acknowledge that, fundamentally they want the wider mass to subscribe to the truths/facts/certainties put before them, however doubtful or destructive these might be.
Leaving Bob aside for the moment, consider the concept of the ‘free market’. This is widely promoted as delivering gains and benefits to all, though manifestly such is not the case. However, with the exception of those who believe that the dominant political and commercial ideologies of the ‘developed’ nations make the interests of humanity and the planet mutually exclusive, there is very little by way of a sustained challenge to ‘market forces’. For the majority living in the West there simply is no real imperative to think things through, still less to re-think them. Whilst in the third world, the wholly understandable aspiration is to get in on the act. Indeed trade and aid packages presently leave them little practical alternative. But will the world really be a better place if the Coca-Cola corporation realises its corporate goal of putting a bottle of Coke within reach of everyone on Earth? Think for a moment what that ambition signifies.
Most people (myself included) tend to settle for what is convenient and comfortable, usually accepting things pretty much as they are. We might moan a lot, but our complaints rarely result in a significant change. We broadly accept the doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’. What is actually our abject docility is portrayed as ‘rational’, ‘responsible’ and entirely proper behaviour within the framework of democratic governance and benevolent enterprise. Any challenge is regarded as subversive, antisocial and deviant.
Gor blimey! You don’t half go on! You an agitator or what? Anyway, what has any of that got to do with listening to Bob! Or taking a steer from a seer?
OK. See if this works. It’s the USA in the years between 1945 and 1960. A kid is standing on a crossroads. One direction takes the route through the Fraternity House, Smallville, Jim Crow, Gene Autry, husbands/wives/parents, the Elks, the idea of the American Dream. The other has on it the likes of Hot Horse Herbie, James Dean, Jean Paul Sartre, Woody and the painful promise of lovers, maybe lots of them. The music rises up from the fields and spills out on to Beale Street. The carnival is rolling. The radio plays. It says ‘there is a party going on out there…’ What is a poor boy to do? Follow someone else’s thinking?
In the second helping of Judas is a nicely fashioned piece by Alan Davis, ‘Writers & Critics’. In it he refers to the John Gibbens article, Bow Down to Her on Sunday, saying:
“…Gibbens has seen something, and was trying to help me to see it too. It isn’t, ultimately, the facts he presents that are likely to transform my perception of Dylan’s art. It’s his vision. John Ruskin, perhaps the greatest of all critics and a powerful transformer of perception in his own right, wrote about this very thing back in 1856. His words are no less valuable, no less penetrating, today: The greatest thing a human soul can do in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
So having paid John Gibbens the generous and perhaps appropriate compliment of likening him to Ruskin, Alan goes on to write : “I've always found this to be at the heart of the most effective critical writing. ‘I've seen this,’ says the helpful critic. ‘Here's how you can see it too.”
Nicely put. But the problem that I have with the notion of adopting the ‘I see it like this, so can you’ model is that whilst might well be illuminating, thought-provoking, rewarding etc, it is intrinsically deferential. Well all right, there are degrees to everything and in most cases there is plenty of room for the individual to develop her/his own take on things. But here is why I think it important to resist the siren-like appeal of ‘helpful critics’:
We live in a world where ‘conformity’ is encouraged and rewarded, where genuinely iconoclastic thinking is cast as being impractical, and where dumbing-down is promoted as a virtue. Is this over-reaction on my part? Or simply a crude attempt to be contentious? I can’t think for you, you will have to decide… H’mmmmm. That has a familiar ring. Damn! It’s hard to be original.
Gotcha! Your sketch of the USA only partly works. Bob could never have done what he’s done if he hadn’t taken pointers from others. And lifts. And their record collection.
You might be right – except that doesn’t entirely fit with his pretty consistently going against the prevailing grain and his rejection of labels, who ever they are from. No sooner is he hailed as one thing than he presents himself as something else entirely. And, what’s worse in some people’s eyes, he won’t even say what that is. Could it be that he sees in the ideas of others only the impetus to think for himself? On with the dialectic – or should that be diatribe?
The impetus for individuals to think for themselves is much diminished in a society that provides any amount of diversion at the flick of a switch, the press of a key, the turn of the head. I’ve long since lost count of the number of TV and radio channels that are available, whilst the Internet offers a seemingly limitless stream of material to engage the interest, as distinct from stimulating it. Billboards, news(?) papers, computer games. And you are never alone with a mobile phone…
It’s systematic, pervasive and widely cast. Interests and opinion formers from across the political, social, economic and cultural map long ago discovered that competing for the attention of the audience/consumer is much less productive than co-operating. A shared approach makes it easy to shape expectations and direct behaviour. Which means that overall returns are maximised. At the same time it is possible to leave genuine needs relatively unaddressed, whilst any concerns that might be voiced on the really big issues can be diluted and deflected by ‘spin’. And if all this seems a long way for the simple pleasure of listening to Love and Theft, it’s just that the only place I can do that is on planet Earth. Which at the present rate of consumption and with the likes of Murdoch, Nike, Disney, MTV and so on pulling the strings that go through Bush, Blair, Chirac et al doesn’t seem to have much of a future. Paranoid? I hope so. The alternative being apathy.
Which brings me back to Ruskin, who was anything but apathetic. But for all his good works and his cartloads of ideas, his assertion about ‘those who can see’ is ultimately elitist. It may have had more relevance when considered against the backdrop of Victorian England, but even then the real challenge was not to find the few who could ‘see’, but to help everyone to do that. However, even if you do find someone who you believe really can ‘see’, how do you know that they can distinguish between ‘vision’ and ‘fantasy’? Or recognise that maybe only a few ideas of theirs are of any worth. In the country of the blind the one-eyed man could well be in the zoo.
All of which might seem unkind to the likes of Clinton Heylin, Andrew Muir, John Gibbens or whoever else you choose to adopt as guru, mentor, guide. Though it is ironic that an artist who has pretty consistently developed his own take on things should attract huge numbers whose mission (other than making a living from their pronouncements) is to explain it all. It’s less a matter of scale than of principle. If you are willing to let someone else do a chunk of your thinking for you on something as trivial as the stylistic and other influences on Dylan, then it is but a tiny step to letting others shape your views on what really matters.
And as for eloquence, well it is simply no substitute for substance. Politicians, lawyers, management consultants, preachers, estate agents all have eloquence in abundance. It is the stock in trade of those with something to sell. Including books. Speaking of which, when I exited Brighton Conference Centre after Bob’s opening UK 2002 gig, a couple of people were selling copies of John Gibbens’ ‘Nightingale’s Code’. Which ain’t a bad read, at least in places. Are you John Gibbens? I enquired of one. No, he couldn’t make it, replied the lad. Did you get to the show? No, couldn’t afford it. Sold many? About 20 so far. All of which proves nothing, but may in its own way be instructive.
For an idea to resonate with an individual, it must strike a chord with whatever mix of the cognitive, emotive and intuitive happens to appeal to her/him. Now and then I find something in the works of Clinton Heylin, Paul Williams, Andrew Muir, CP Lee, Jonathon Cott, Paul Cable, Howard Sounes and Todd Harvey, to name but a few. Even bits of Michael Gray’s writing thrums, but taken overall, his mean-spirited way with others, Dylan included, sours things. Ian Woodward and Derek Barker are good examples of people who are well versed but never arrogant. But then there is another lot, who take everything and anything, however remotely connected with Bob and contrive to present it as the ultimate explanation. But however well their mix of detective (should that be defective?) work, dogma, theological abstraction and smugness reads/sounds, it is no substitute for listening to the music. Even then you need to be selective.
One facet of Dylan’s genius is his ability to pull together bits from all over – the Tarot, literature, theology, mythology, street culture, astrology, humour, the gum on the sole of his shoe - and fashion it into something that strikes a chord in others. Whether entirely deliberate or the product of a series of happy accidents, his work and the ways in which he gives it expression is dynamic and chameleon-like. All attempts to explain why that is, how it works, what it means and how it compares with whatever is held up against it, are therefore always going to be limited. But don’t take my word for it. Just think it through for yourself.
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