Is Bob Dylan an Artist?

By Karwowski, Michael | Contemporary Review, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Is Bob Dylan an Artist?


Karwowski, Michael, Contemporary Review


BOB DYLAN invented a new creative medium when he fused poetical lyrics and rock 'n' roll to form what became known as 'rock music'. It was The Beatles who made rock accessible to the masses, but the idea of marrying significant words with popular music was Dylan's.

Ever since the birth of this bastard child of one of history's most unlikely couplings, the legitimacy as an art form of rock in general and Bob Dylan's lyrics in particular have been fiercely debated by critics and academics. The debate moved into a new sphere in 1972 when the British playwright David Hare first compared Dylan with Keats. The comparison was seized upon by the then Professor of English at Cambridge University, Christopher Ricks, whose admiration for Dylan was, and remains, unbounded.

Since then, Ricks, now Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, has made himself a leading champion of Bob Dylan as a major poet. While publishing works on Milton, Tennyson, Keats, T. S. Eliot and others in the pantheon of English letters, Ricks has consistently promoted his literary protege, particularly in a number of BBC radio talks, most recently to celebrate the singer-songwriter's 60th birthday in May, 2001.

Christopher Ricks has just been elected to the prestigious post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford which gives him even greater influence on public opinion. In his recent biggest-ever book, a whacking 500 pages long, entitled Dylan's Visions of Sin, he is making his case for Dylan as one of the great English-speaking poets. His scheme is to use the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues and the three heavenly graces, which, he claims, make up everyone's world, 'but Dylan's in particular', as a tool to analyse the lyrics. He then illustrates his arguments through forty or so essays in literary criticism on particular songs, treating all of Dylan's many phases with the same breathless reverence.

Leaving aside the appropriateness of bracketing song lyrics, which are meant to be sung to music and not read to study, with poetry, the book suffers from being written by an uncritical Dylan admirer who brooks no criticism of his idol. Indeed, Ricks will write nothing that might portray Dylan as a fallible human being, albeit one who is also a great songwriter.

Thus, for instance, in writing of Dylan's treatment of the sin of lust, he chooses two songs, Lay, Lady, Lay, and On a Night Like This, neither of which catches Dylan in flagrante delicto or, in fact, has very much to say about lust at all. Indeed, On a Night Like This makes far more sense purely as a mystical song. In a similar vein, the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross reportedly sang the love songs of his day, where the object of his devotion was most decidedly metaphysical rather than physical.

Ricks's too-reverential attitude is a pity, because it is not as if Bob Dylan has not written incomparably about lust in his songs. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more potent description of lust anywhere in world literature, and particularly in an undoubtedly mystical song, as this line from Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) on 1978's Street Legal album:

       I bit into the root of forbidden fruit with the juice running
       down my leg.

Or how about this from Desolation Row on 1965's Highway 61 Revisited album:

                     Here comes the blind commissioner
                     They've got him in a trance
                     One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
                     The other is in his pants.

Isn't that an excellent description of so many power-crazed politicians, whose self-image as they negotiate the delicate balancing act of power is buttressed by lashings of lust?

Then there is Dylan's summation of his own sexual relationships in another pointedly mystical song, You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go on 1974's Blood On The Tracks album:

                   Dragon clouds so high above
                   I've only known careless love,
                   It's always hit me from below. 

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