Dylan by A. Fortier
Portrait  by  A. Fortier


by Michael Crimmins

Do You Trust Bob?

“I got a sense that he was a kind of character that had stepped out of a Kerouac book, and Kerouac’s sense of a changing landscape, a changing kind of culture, was really interesting to me. That he saw people coming into the main stream culture, off the road, and not out of graduate school, and not out of literature, or of the traditional school that we took our important people.”

D.A Pennebaker talking of his impressions on first meeting and working with Bob Dylan for the 1965 documentary film ‘Dont Look Back’. This observation came as part of a more recent documentary programme by the BBC in 2001, looking back over the work of filmmakers Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

To my mind Pennebaker with those few words managed to place Dylan’s evolution within music and poetry of the time exact. What was viewed by the main stream, as a non academic infiltration, according to Pennebaker’s perception of Kerouac’s changing landscape, was of course what was to become known as the counter culture.

Descriptions of what constitutes main stream or counter culture, if there is such a thing, I am afraid could drive you mad. For instance just look at some of the lyrics that served as pop song before Dylan came along! Still we all know what Pennebaker was driving at so I will stick with that angle for the time being.

Woody Guthrie was the instigator of Dylan’s changing landscape. Dylan was Guthrie! Dylan brought forth from ‘Bound for Glory’ the fictional, as well as the real Guthrie therefore even though Dylan moved away from the Guthrie persona, they are forever intertwined. Neither Guthrie nor Dylan would have been recorded in history in anywhere near approaching the same light, had it not been for the other. In a sense the whole counter culture from the fifties through to the early sixties was waiting for Dylan as Messiah/ spokesperson for a generation. Bob Dylan was undoubtedly through his songs and whether he liked it or not, that person.

The Beat poets, that Dylan embraced, such as Allen Ginsberg whose whole ideology, that was to be found within their poetry of preached truth attacks, that became that of the counter culture, were quick to fall in behind Dylan and herald him as their chosen one. Ginsberg in an interview by Jeremy Isaacs (Face to Face) as late as 1995, was still expounding Dylan’s stance:

“You know the word ‘Lyric’ comes from ‘Lyre’ a stringed instrument. Bob Dylan is the perfect lyric poet and maybe the greatest poet of this half of the century, and certainly better known than me, incidentally I’m not the most well known poet, I’d say Bob Dylan is, and he’s a respectable poet too…”

Hmm! “and he’s a respectable poet too…” that last bit is interesting, nobody in their right mind would have described the likes of Kerouac and Burroughs as respectable a decade or two back! But then again Ginsberg did say this in 1994 the year after Dylan played at the inauguration ceremony for Bill Clinton!

Dylan does seem, especially, and more recently, in the nineties, to have come full circle and to be embracing the main stream. Even if Country Joe McDonald was selling Pepsi on American TV in 1994, it did come as a bit of a shock to hear Dylan’s “The Times they are A-changin’ ” being used in some sort of financial advertising campaign.

The fact that Dylan started to deconstruct himself and the counter culture along with him, though possibly not consciously, and that this process began almost as soon as he first started to gain any sort of recognition, either gives him a special place, with his dogged independence and restlessness, acting as his badge of sincerity, or it leaves him painted as a lesser individual. The manner with which in 1979 Dylan suddenly appeared to throw himself in Christ’s direction suggests that the former of those theories be the correct one, and also that the latter be incorrect. Of course you would have to believe, like I, that the artist was indeed sincere in 1979 for that to be any use as a gauge.

Dylan has always been so very hard to define. His product is, speaking for myself, so easy to love, ‘Self Portrait’ included, and yet barring that period from 79 to 81, I have never really been implicitly sure of his sincerity. Who was it that said something like “Never trust the artist trust the tale”? Well that is the way I feel about Bob Dylan! I have never really been sure! I do trust the tale implicitly. How far can the ventriloquist throw his voice? And how many voices….

“Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie” claimed the artists independence, while the later “It’s Alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” betrayed frustration and resignation. Both of these I consider to come from the pen of integrity. The artist is entitled to another side. Dylan is only after all a human, and as such I realise that he, like the rest of us is capable of contradiction and periods of misjudgement and of course he will be prone to artistic uncertainty, he is also quite entitled to periods of not caring, after all we do not own him! Bob Dylan has given me so much pleasure through his music that I feel that to withhold any negative thoughts in writing about him would only somehow discredit the positive. The recent arrow to the heart, if I’m going to be totally honest and not wear my brave face, was Victoria’s secret. Dare I say that we, the fans, were a bigger and more unsuspecting target than perhaps the last one, the Dylan biographers, who were told in no uncertain terms that they know nothing and should get a life.
“Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan”

I would like to make it clear that I am very grateful to everyone who ever wrote anything on the subject of Bob Dylan and his art. Make no mistake either, Dylan was as glad as you or I to see ‘Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography’ by Anthony Scaduto hit the shelves back in 1971. “I like your book .That’s the weird thing about it”. We all know that he actively encouraged both Scaduto and Robert Shelton in their endeavours.

The music that Dylan has created over the years has, in most part, been sensational. So I have no complaints there. That same music though was so influential that it did shape the way we think, and as David Bowie so eloquently put it in his ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ “You sat behind a million pair of eyes and told them how they saw”

While not wanting to accuse Bob of being a doctrinaire, surely there has to be a little responsibility for influential writing of any kind, though on the other hand one could say, any was excused in songs such as “My Back Pages”.

It is songs such as “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” with lines like “Advertising signs that con you into thinking that you’re the one…” that make Victoria’s secret hard to take –come on! this IS Bob Dylan! Do we have to pretend that we ever expected Flesh coloured Christ’s from the man that ended that same song with: “And if my thought dreams could be seen they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”?

Well maybe not. Not that is, until the song, “Trust Yourself” from Dylan’s1985 album ‘Empire Burlesque’. Beside this song that ironically purports to deal with truth, we first had to get past, in more ways than one, Bob Dylan coyly posing on the cover in a modern romantic jacket!!! It was a disappointing album to say the least, with a disappointing sound that had nothing to do with the Bob Dylan of even five years before. Dylan would be hard pressed to deny that he was chasing a contemporary sound and look. Though middle of the road mediocrity is no crime this is the point from whence my mistrust stems. Even if the song “Trust Yourself” only seemingly reneges on the philosophy of “Gotta Serve Somebody” I’m sure that Dylan would have been fully aware of it.

“Well you’re on your own. You always were, in a land of wolves and thieves.
Don’t put your hope in ungodly man or be a slave to what somebody else believes”

It’s not that it harks back to ‘don’t follow leaders’ that bothers me, it’s that the ‘ungodly man’ line seemingly chickens out of the ‘your on your own’ theme. On ‘Empire Burlesque’ Dylan is back down to earth with a thump. He once more feels the weight of his own pen. If ‘Infidels’ was confusing, well it was for me, at least ‘Empire Burlesque’ is human, in as much that Dylan deals with all the old demons and temptations that he had to deal with before his Christian conversion. He expresses normality. The best song on this album to my mind is “I’ll Remember You” and it is the exact opposite while being closely related to “Trust Yourself”. This song has warmth and compassion. Although I don’t feel it to be a love song with the usual connubial connotation. Dylan speaks plainly enough here of the one he has tried to love.

Didn’t I, didn’t I try to love you?
Didn’t I, didn’t I try to care?
Didn’t I sleep, didn’t I weep beside you
with the rain blowing in your hair?

With “Trust Yourself” Dylan deals his short comings, he’s cold and uncomfortable and it cuts through. Dylan directly asks us not to trust him, it is also a little disconcerting, after ‘Slow Train Coming’ and ‘Saved’, that he tells us not to be a slave to what somebody else believes! The saving grace is though, and it’s taken me a while to get to this, that by revealing his weakness and placing himself in a cold light and among the vain people that he sings of, he actually is being as honest as he can be! It looks like, after going round the houses, as we say up north, that I do trust Bob Dylan after all! Do you?

There are some good songs on ‘Empire Burlesque’ but the horrible production rendered by Dylan himself and remix specialist Arthur Baker make them hard to get at.

Sometimes contradiction can be the result of too much thought, too much theorising. Dylan came close to this in my book with songs like “Trust Yourself” and I realise that I have come more than close in this article! Still it is just me exorcising my own doubts, my own demons-and you don’t mind do you?

For information on Michael's band "Dylanesque", including a gigs guide, go to his website.