Pandaemonium

LISTENING TO DYLAN IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

bob-dylan

Even the president of the United States
sometimes must have to stand naked.

Perhaps my favourite of all Dylan lines. Though another from the same song, It’s alright Ma, (I’m only bleeding), runs it close:

And if my thought dreams could be seen 
they’d probably put my head in a guillotine

And both seem as relevant today as they were when Bob Dylan first penned them in 1965. In fact, so many of Dylan’s songs seem as insightful about today’s world as there are about the world as it was when they written. Songs about race, class and the state of the nation. Songs of rage and fury and despair. Songs of myth and memory and forgetting. So, in the weekend that the Novel Prize for literature was formally awarded to Dylan (in absentia), and at the end of a tumultuous political year, here are ten Dylan songs to listen to in the age of Trump. There are many more that I could have included. And many of his more personal works or love songs I deliberately excluded (I may return to these another time).

‘Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”.’ So wrote Dylan in his letter to the Nobel prize committee, read out by Azita Raji, the US ambassador to Sweden, at Saturday’s prize giving ceremony. But rather rerun the tired debate about whether Dylan’s lyrics constitute literature, let us celebrate his real genius. In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee observed that it was ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. That Dylan has done so is unquestionable. But, more than that, what Dylan possesses is a rare ability to capture a moment and a feeling, and to link the personal and the political, the inner world and the outer world.


.

It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)

And if my thought dreams could be seen
they’d probably put my head in a guillotine

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to

Money it doesn’t talk, it swears

He not busy being born is busy dying

A seven minute masterpiece, a ferocious assault on false gods, from which lyrical gems tumble out in breathless pursuit of each other. And perhaps the most relevant of Dylan’s songs for the age of Trump.

.

Blind Willie McTell

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, ‘This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.’

An inexplicably underrated song (including by Dylan himself – it was an outtake from the Infidels album, and which Dylan only started playing live after the Band championed it). A song that both acknowledges Dylan’s debt to the black musical traditions and provides a savage, yet haunting, allegorical take on America’s racial history. My favourite version of possibly my favourite Dylan track.

.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

A devastating dismissal of innocence. Another song whose every line seems a classic. And as Rolling Stone magazine once observed, it’s become one of Dylan’s most covered song, but few deliver the line ‘strike another match, go start anew’ with the menace of Dylan himself.

.

Ballad of a Thin Man

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

The critic Mike Marqusee called thisone of the purest songs of protest ever sung’. In the 1960s it was a scathing, sneering put-down of the bourgeois intellectual who could not make sense of the counterculture. Today it reads as a dissection of those for whom the more questions they ask, the less the world makes sense.

.

North Country Blues

They complained in the East
They are paying too high
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging
That it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

So the mining gates locked
And the red iron rotted
And the room smelted heavy from drinking
Where the sad silent song
Made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking.

Long before the word ‘globalization’ crept into every article about the working class, Dylan was dissecting the effects of  global capitalism on what are now called ‘rust belt’ towns.

.

Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.

More than Dylan’s straightforwardly political songs, it is his more poetically ambiguous works that seem to speak to the contemporary state of mind.

.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift

You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

The American Dream, Dylanised. A Jack Kerouacish stream of consciousness that Dylan called ‘a subconscious poem’. A fractured rage that feels so apposite. And, of course, there is that video…

.

Hurricane

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed
To live in a land
Where justice is a game

In Patterson that’s the just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat.

Unlike many Dylan fans, I don’t like Hurricane very much – it’s too clumsy and didactic. But listening again to Dylan’s 1975 account of the imprisonment and trial of black boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter is a good reminder of how little, in certain areas, things have changed.

.

My Back Pages

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Dylan’s seminal song signalling his disillusionment with the sixties protest movement and his rejection of idealism and protest. He himself saw it as moving away from ‘one dimensional songs’ to create ‘three dimensional’ work. A fitting song for today. (This video is from the 1992 3oth anniversary tribute concert to Dylan, with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and many others.)

.

Idiot Wind

Now everything’s a little upside down,
as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

Dylan is a master of venom and bile, and there is probably no song in his oeuvre more venomous and bilious than Idiot Wind. It’s both a ferocious scream against the falsity, cruelty and emptiness of the world and despairing acceptance that these are inescapable stains of the human condition. It sounds like a very personal song, though Dylan has always insisted that it isn’t. It also seems an anthem for an age of despairing rage.

One comment

Comments are closed.