Nothing makes the soul sink faster than witnessing the conversion of youthful idealism and passion into new ways of getting yet more money from our wallets. In the midst of a world that is insane with immoral wars, terrorism, and increasing occurrences of natural disasters, we seem ready to have our past sold back to us, and worse, retold to us, as if our own recall and reports from the front lines were inadequate for the purpose of History. Apparently, you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
No matter, I suppose, it's a discussion I'll join anytime, venturing forth opinions on The White Album being a greater double record set than Exile on Main street, whether Dick Cavett was actually any smarter than Johnny Carson, or if Norman Mailer ever got those bossy feminists about what's really important in this man's world. We are eager to surrender our disbelief and fight the battles over again, reciting song lyrics and mounting arguments about the inevitability of a Revolution that will change the meaning of everything. Everything has changed, yes, but not even remotely as we might have imagined. So the passing of every artifact and every minor player from the Fifties and Sixties becomes significant, if for no reason other than to remind us that we all inch nearer the end of our individual tethers. So we distract ourselves and glory over the memories of the formerly great and the inconsequential with the same indiscriminate vigor.
Presently we are in a moment of time when Bob Dylan is set to be deified; a benediction is underway. His memoir, Chronicles Volume One, sold well in hardcover and has just been released in trade paperback, Martin Scorsese has prepared an extensive documentary on his life and career that will be broadcast over PBS at the end of September. Perhaps a Supreme Court nomination should be offered to cement the idea in place that Dylan has become the most overexposed and overpraised man of verse since the glory days of Robert Frost. The mention of the evokes so many associations that have little or nothing to do with his art, songwriting that we are in danger of losing all honest perspective on his writing, and the elements that gave it the power to begin with.
Someone posted his lyrics to his middle period song "Shelter From the Storm" online as a way of commemorating the ghastly devastation of New Orleans, something I thought suspect because this happens to be particularly weak lyric; unfocused, unsterilized, cryptic without being evocative, the cliches and the desperate overwriting to avoid cliche make this a twisting bitch of tune to parse in any convincing way. I was about to write something to this effect when the same person posted a stronger lyric, the brilliant "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". The strength of Dylan's best writing became clear again, momentarily liberated from image, innuendo and celebrity worship.
"Hard Rain" is one of Dylan's greatest lyrics, and certainly packs more poetic power than the much later "Shelter from The Storm". "Hard Line", inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis, was written in a pitch of national anxiety as to whether we were about to enter a Third World War, a fact that gave Dylan's lyrics a honed edge and a kind of Biblically inspired surrealism whose images suggest the sorts of undreamed things occurring just prior to a last day of reckoning. We might have averted the nuclear holocaust back in the day, but the song's genius is such that speaks over the decades and resonates louder and less ironically than it did in 1963; it is potentially even more political today than it was so many years ago.
"Shelter from the Storm" is much later Dylan, and it has never sounded more than someone trying to get up a full head of steam again, only to end up parodying their own best work. It might seem weird today, but I could never figure out what it was Dylan was talking about, or why any of the rustic fantasies and idylls that dominated much of his middle work were worth constructing. Suspend my disbelief as hard as I might, I could never buy into the image of Bob Dylan as a wayward traveler, rambling from town to town, taking odd jobs and having strange affairs with cryptically inclined women who end their affairs with morals that are enshrouded in magic-ball vaporings. It's not that the lyrics in "Shelter" were merely enigmatic--that would be a relief--but that there's an implausibility so conspicuous that I sometimes wondered about Dylan's mental health. It occurs to me that such worries demonstrate a inner stability on my part, and that is something I ought to thank Dylan for someday, but not before I max out yet another credit card acquiring as much thirty-year arcana as a man in his early fifties can stand to have.