The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Letters, part 2
I was so disturbed by the foolishness of Richard Lehnert's introduction to his review of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series recording in the July issue, that I just had to express my opinion. The actual record review was good, but the first part of the essay reminded me of the song "Energy Vampires," by British singer/songwriter Peter Hammill. It has the following line: "Excuse me while I suck your blood, excuse me while I phone you. I've got every one of your records, man. Doesn't that mean that I own you?"
I am greatly moved by Dylan's music. It is supremely important to me as well. But some of the things written about it have really gone off the deep end. To say, as Lehnert does, that Dylan made "absolutely perfect statements of truth no one had ever known before let alone spoken" is going too far. He is and was only human. Lehnert's definitely getting into religious experiences and deification here. It's talk like this, followed by angry and vicious denunciations and cries of betrayal by worshipping fans with love/hate feelings, that often drives artists insane. You wonder why Bob Dylan is crippled with pain? It's precisely because people treat him as though he's some kind of God---they won't let him be a real human being, and of course he can't live up to the infinite expectations, the unreality, and the madness surrounding him.
I remember when, in the late '60s, critics would perform literary analysis on Dylan's lyrics as though they were in the same category as Shakespeare's work or William Blake's poetry. Or people would go around thinking, after they'd heard one of his songs, that he'd written it about them personally. People were amazed at how he gave voice to their unarticulated thoughts and feelings. The same thing happened with John Lennon, and there's a scene in the movie Imagine, where he patiently explains to a fan that it simply isn't possible---that he (John) can only write about and express his own thoughts and experiences, and that the connections with other people through the songs just happen and there's nothing supernatural about it. It's the same with Dylan. People derive all sorts of meaning from the songs, and read their own meanings into them. It becomes a very magical, personal thing. But you have to understand that a particular song like "Desolation Row," for example, may not have any real objective meaning. It may be just clever wordplay or a juxtaposition of fascinating images, or something from a dream that Dylan had. I think it's wrong to assign something like this the tremendous cultural-historical weight and profundity that Lehnert does.
Most importantly, let's get one thing perfectly clear. Bob Dylan hasn't betrayed anyone. It's ludicrous to think that he owes people anything. Lehnert wants him to stop "betraying" just long enough for him to deliver one more great album. Come on, get a life! At least have some compassion or pity. He was the greatest songwriter of the '60s, and occasionally he still flashes that genius. But, for crying out loud, one person only has so much to say and so much to give. Leave him alone! There are other artists with passion and great songs to listen to. Lehnert claims that Dylan single-handedly invented the singer/songwriter. That just isn't true. Examples of truly great singer/songwriters preceding him that come immediately to mind are Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, and of course Dylan's own inspiration---Woody Guthrie. However, Dylan did make sure it was the only viable way left for those that came in his wake. He was the greatest of them all. But if you don't like what he's doing now, just remember him fondly the way he was in the '60s and get on with your own business! He's already given enough for ten lifetimes, and he doesn't owe you anything.
---Harold Hofstad Berkeley, CA
Why not listen to Bob Dylan's music before you write articles? Oh Mercy is a great record, Slow Train Coming is one of the greatest records ever made. If the tracks left off Infidels were put on the original record it would equal Blood on the Tracks. Dylan's music and especially lyrics are just as good, if not better, than ever.
---Richard Galasso Washington Township, NJ
Why not read my article before you write a "Letter to the Editor," Mr. Galasso? Of our supposed differences alleged by you, we only disagree about Slow Train Coming. Had you read the paragraph that begins at the end of p.173 of the July issue more carefully, you would have known that you and I are in complete agreement on all other points.
Sincere thanks, Mr. Hofstad and Mr. Anderson, for reading my piece so carefully. The phrase of mine Mr. Hofstad quotes ("absolutely perfect statements...") merely paraphrases purplishly what all good poetry does: articulate that which was "often thought but ne'er so well expressed"; I stand by it. Am I guilty of "deification"? No. "Religious experience"? You bet. In the article, I attempted to recreate a sense of the '60s' seance-like approach to Dylan, the Beatles, etc. For better or worse, that's how it was for a lot of us. Dylan was inextricably intertwined with his time, both moved and mover.
Thanks for bringing up Blake---I'd meant to mention him in the same breath as Dylan, but had forgotten. I know Blake's work well, and I do place him and Dylan in the same visionary category (though Shakespeare, of course, transcends them both).
Yes, "Desolation Row" has no "real objective meaning." What is the "real, objective meaning" of Bach's Art of the Fugue? The profundities are more created by the hearing than discovered in the writing---"a very magical, personal thing," indeed. There is exactly as much "cultural-historical weight and profundity" in a Dylan song or a Shakespeare soliloquy as one hearer/reader finds. Bob Dylan's betrayal (which I admit I did not spell out in my article) consists of his continuing to release "product" when he has nothing to say. That's what hurts: that the man who, more than any other, taught us to value song lyrics, has learned his own lesson so poorly.
Yes, Hank Williams and Chuck Berry were/are bona-fide singer-songwriters, but what they did was still, at core, indistinguishable from the entertainment mainstream---it was just better entertainment than anyone else was producing at the time. Woody Guthrie's protest songs were serious in political intent, but narrow in scope and not at all self-reflective or emotionally provocative. Dylan was the first to bring sharply focused, core-penetrating inner vision---and, yes, profundity---to pop music. I stand by my conviction in the matter: The man's influence cannot be overestimated.---RL