Bob Dylan is often cited as the central figure who brought a literary sensibility to rock and roll. He combined the forms he’d learned in folk music with the driving energy of Elvis and Little Richard. As he says in the extended Biograph liner notes: “The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough. ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ were great catch phrases and driving pulse rhythms and you could get high on the energy but they weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings… If I did anything, I brought one to the other.”
So he did, and so I found myself pondering while listening to disc 2 of Biograph some of the specific literary modes, styles, and approaches Dylan uses in his songs, to elevate them beyond the realm of “Tutti Frutti.”
Epics and Ballads
“Epic” and “Ballad” are two words that have drifted pretty far away from their literary definitions. Now we use “epic” to mean “awesome” (itself a victim of linguistic drift), and “ballad” gets applied to any slow song, especially one about love, especially especially when played by a normally more aggressive band. “Epic ballad” now means something like, oh I don’t know, “November Rain”.
But closer to its origin, “epic” meant an extended poem, generally centering on a heroic figure. Likewise, a ballad in the folk tradition is a narrative set to music, usually in a consistent rhyme scheme and stanza structure, and frequently returning to a refrain at the end of each stanza. Into this frame fit several of the songs on this disc, including one of Dylan’s greatest songs ever, “Tangled Up In Blue.” Most rock songs go verse-chorus-verse, for a few minutes, but “Tangled” goes on and on, verse after verse with no chorus, spinning a love story that spans across miles and decades, to incredibly poignant effect. Like the traditional folk ballads, it hews to a specific and consistent structure, and each verse lands on the title refrain.
“Isis” fits even closer to the epic mode. It’s a tale of adventure, but with a twist: the motivating force for the hero’s journey is his inability to live within his marriage. So he takes off, “for the wild unknown country,” and there stumbles into a scheme which he fantasizes will allow him to shower his beloved with turquoise, gold, “diamonds, and the world’s biggest necklace.” The scheme falls apart, ending in death and desolation, and the hero returns to his wife. He has no riches for her, but brings instead the conviction he lacked before: “She said, ‘You going to stay?’, I said, ‘If you want me to, yes'”. In the studio version, this sounds a bit diffident, but in the live performance on Biograph, Dylan roars out “YES!”, an explosive climax in the twelfth verse, swept up by swirling violins, guitars, and dobro.
Other songs aren’t quite so narrative, but still follow the ballad form, layering it with a series of moments or images. “Visions Of Johanna” is the longest song on this side, and in its seven-and-a-half minutes layers five long stanzas, the first four of which each follow the same A-A-A-B-B-B-B-C-C rhyme scheme, and each of which ends with some variation on the phrase “visions of Johanna.” In the fifth stanza, Dylan really lets the fireworks loose, stringing together seven B rhymes (showed, corrode, flowed, road, owed, loads, explodes) before landing back on the refrain. The song doesn’t tell a story, but similar to “Desolation Row”, it vividly limns a state of mind.
“Abandoned Love” is a little closer to earth, but not quite a narrative. Dylan uses the song’s structure to explore different thoughts and viewpoints on a relationship, progressing slowly from feeling trapped within it to feeling ready to leave. “Every Grain Of Sand” has a similar lyrical structure, but an entirely different theme, this time expressing Dylan’s faith in a higher power, the “Master’s hand.”
Apostrophe and Dramatic Monologue
When he’s not telling a story or stringing images together, Dylan is frequently in first-person character, directly addressing someone or something. In other words, he’s in apostrophe mode. In literary terms, an apostrophe is not that punctuation mark that appears in my last name and breaks computer systems. Rather, it’s a poetic mode in which the speaker addresses something or someone who is not there. It could be a dead or absent person, or it could be a personified concept or object, such as death, or autumn, or MacBeth’s dagger.
An example from this disc is “Dear Landlord.” In this plainspoken track from John Wesley Harding, Dylan makes his case to a landlord who is probably not standing there listening, and may in fact be more of a concept or metaphor than an actual human character. Of course, with many of Dylan’s songs it can be difficult to tell whether the party being addressed is present in the poem, which means that many of these songs float in the grey area between apostrophe and dramatic monologue. In the latter mode, the speaker of a poem is a character in the midst of a scene, often interacting with or addressing other people.
Obviously the “From Me To You” mode of address is extremely common in rock songs, including that very song and the vast majority of other early Beatles tunes. What sets Dylan’s songs apart is their emotional and lyrical complexity, their often brutal directness, and their frequent willingness to name a specific character or personification.
Exhibit A: “To Ramona.” The singer addresses his words to a named character, and over the course of five verses moves through a panoply of emotions about her. He wants to comfort her at first, and confesses his ongoing attraction to her, only to immediately run down a list of ways she’s deceiving herself. He deflates her naive hippie notions of equality with devastating logic: “I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one, and no one is better than you / If you really believe that you know you’ve got nothing to win and nothing to lose.” Finally, he gives up, knowing he can make no difference and that she’s just going to do what she wants to do anyway. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” continues where this leaves off, unsparingly detailing the finality of an ended relationship.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” conjures a whole different range of feeling. In it, Dylan writes about music in general, under the guise of speaking to an archetypal character. It’s one of his most romantic songs, revealing a much more joyful love than comes across in most of his love songs. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” is such an indelible image, and one that perfectly and beautifully captures the utter elation of musical elevation.
Back in the realm of human relationships, there’s “more despair, more sadness.” “You’re A Big Girl Now” is one of the most heart-rending songs in Dylan’s entire catalog, an absolutely piercing portrait of a failed relationship. The version on Biograph is both more resigned and even more aching than the one on Blood On The Tracks — it’s amazing that’s even possible. When a relationship breaks, there is almost always one person moving on and one person left behind. This song is told from the point of view of the one left behind, and it evokes that excruciating pain with awful and yet understated accuracy.
On the more triumphant side of sadness are the kiss-offs, and two of Dylan’s best adorn this disc. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is a classic with good reason — it couldn’t be more merciless as a relationship ender, but it does so while surgically dismantling the set of delusions that underpin almost every immature love affair. Then there’s one of my favorites, “Positively 4th Street.” Over a gorgeous-sounding track of joyful organ and chiming percussion, Dylan excoriates a false friend with perfect rhymes and savage honesty. I’d like to quote it, but I’d just end up quoting the whole thing — every word is just that good.
Comedy and Absurdity
Because of his amazing facility for writing powerful and emotional songs, it’s easy to forget that Bob Dylan can also be a straight-up goofball. But think about “Motorpsycho Nitemare”, “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35”, “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”, or some of the wackier songs from Freewheelin’. The guy can be very silly, in a fun way, and we get a little bit of that Dylan on this disc. “Quinn The Eskimo,” for one, is just a strange song but clearly a playful one — lines like “it ain’t my cup of meat” display a Dali-esque absurdity. On the briefer side, “Jet Pilot” merrily saunters through a similarly offbeat realm.
“Million Dollar Bash” is even goofier. I mean, the ridiculous lyrics are one thing, but beyond that is the over-the-top ludicrous way he sings it. He sounds for all the world like an exaggerated Dylan imitator on “I punched myself in the face with my fist / I took my potatoes down to be mashed.” Or, to be more accurate, “I puuuunched myself in the faaaaaaace with my fiiiiiist! / I took my potaaaaaatoes down to be maaaaashed.”
It’s easy for me to rhapsodize about Bob Dylan, but songs like these are welcome reminders that he’s still just a person, and that his idea of music emphatically includes fun, as well as all the deeper, more wrenching emotions of his other songs.
There are a couple of lesser lights on here — “You Angel You” sounds like Dylan was making it up as he went along, and in the liner notes he confirms that he probably was. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is fine, but it’s one of those tracks that was unreleased for a reason. Not awful, but a long way from his best work.
Still, overall, what an amazing collection this second disc is. I think I liked it even better than the first one. Disc 3 is coming up, and I’m less familiar with a lot of its songs. The thrill of discovery awaits!