With singer-songwriter Bob Dylan turning 80 on May 24, it seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on the artist’s enduring relevance.
Writing furiously at his typewriter, cigarette in his mouth and the legendary Joan Baez by his side or in the background, a prolific young Dylan tapped into the spirit of a burgeoning counter-culture with his folk-inspired work. Performed with harmonica rack, active acoustic guitar and a distinctive voice defined by a croaky pathos, songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” expressed topical concerns, underscored generational schisms and arguably made manifest reconfigured archetypes residing in the “collective unconscious,” to frame the impact in terms of Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic theory. Epitomized by Dylan’s contributions, art of that era appeared to swim in archetypal ideas, present in some form throughout history and with which the emergent culture reinterpreted and became awash.
Exploring all the above decades later as a teenager around the late 90s and early 2000s got me into Dylan’s work. What in retrospect probably turned me into a dedicated, longtime Dylan fan, however, has more to do with the way this one-time, would-be Woody Guthrie reincarnate turned rock idol managed to articulate the depths and contours of the human condition throughout his oeuvre.
Not for nothing did the Swedish Academy award Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Not surprisingly did Dylan decide not to attend the award banquet, instead opting to furnish a banquet speech comparing himself to Shakespeare.
“I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist,” Dylan wrote in the speech delivered by Azita Raji, then US Ambassador to Sweden. “The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’ His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’”
For his part, Dylan noted, he’s often been focused on “life’s mundane matters,” and the details of making art – like whether a song is in the right key, if the studio sound is right, etc., leaving little time or energy to reflect on whether his work ought to be considered literature.
But a closer look at Dylan’s lyricism reveals the power of his poetry (and music more generally) to do what great literature always does, distilling down the omnipresent themes characterizing human struggle and strife, and in so doing offering us prophetic “shelter from the storm,” to borrow the title of a famous Dylan track discussed below.
Dylan recorded a lengthy, lesser-known poem commemorating Guthrie in 1963 that does just that, affirming both human need – as well as grounds – for hope.
And where do you look for this hope that you’re seeking? / Where do you look for this lamp that’s a burnin’? / Where do you look for this oil well gushing? / Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’? / Where do you look for this hope that you know is there and out there somewhere? / And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads / Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows / Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways / You can touch, and twist and turn two kinds of doorknobs / You can either go to the church of your choice or you go to Brooklyn State Hospital / You find God in the church of your choice / You find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital / I know it’s only my opinion, I may be right or wrong / You find ‘em both in Grand Canyon, sundown
By the end of his seven-minute spoken word tribute, Dylan all but deified Guthrie with his juxtaposition, but in so doing, he also opened up the nature of the divine.
He did this elsewhere in the synesthesia-invoking “Chimes of Freedom,” from “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” an album released the following year. That track conjures up both apocalyptic and revolutionary experiences borne out in what we might envision as “messianic time,” an historical conjuncture which for secular, socialist-humanist theorist Erich Fromm entailed integrating newfound self-awareness and transcending our estrangement from each other that followed the evolution of consciousness. Human’s, the historical narrative goes, underwent transformative expansion in critical self-awareness, akin to the proverbial “fall” when our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit and gained new knowledge, to borrow the biblical language Dylan has often deployed with heady effect.
The imagery in the song is predicated upon the rapturous chimes that Dylan describes and simultaneously echoes on a microcosmic level, prefiguring (perhaps) the feeling of freedom conveyed by the music.
As he put it,
Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
The plural pronoun “we” appears significant here, as it can imply shared struggle and solidarity while also suggesting intimate union against the unfreedom of estrangement.
The observers alluded to in the song gaze upon the chords of freedom as we all listen to Dylan recount (in the past tense) a liberatory future hitherto unrealized.
The song strikes me as illustrative of the sort of art described by social theorist Herbert Marcuse. In Marcuse’s view, art ought to remain alienated from established society insofar as the aesthetic dimension can offer sensuous experience of an awe-inspiring world that does not (yet) exist but perhaps could be – a latent world capable of being catalyzed by newfound sensibilities and apperception elicited by art itself, and through its appreciation. That beautiful, heretofore nonexistent world represented through art also offers an indictment of existing reality by point of contrast. In such artwork, “the aesthetic dimension assumes political value,” Marcuse claimed, “especially in the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan.” For Marcuse, it is in the artistic “transformation of reality into illusion, and only in it,” where we find “the subversive truth of art.” Moreover, Dylan’s use of the past tense in “Chimes of Freedom” harkens back to the Marxian theory of “recollection,” which Marcuse took as tantamount to art that recognizes and maybe even excites “a repressed quality” in human beings. “Beauty returns, the ‘soul’ returns,” as Marcuse explained.
In lyrics lamenting incarceration antithetical to the human soul within the verse spelled out above, and elsewhere conjuring emancipatory bells with lines like, “Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed / For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” Dylan is able to “let suffering speak,” as Cornel West would put it, and as Theodor Adorno before him termed a precondition for truth.
The song “Chimes of Freedom” also acknowledges the individual anguish of those “lonesome-hearted lovers,” and the “we” within the narration also ostensibly carries connotations of erotic union intimated elsewhere in Dylan’s oeuvre. The “we” can either position you closer to the artist within the confines of the track, or it can elicit images of you and a significant other witnessing the zenith of this storm “blowing from Paradise,” to borrow the words of another Frankfurt School theorist, Walter Benjamin (who used the phrase to refer to what “we call progress”).
One reading of Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” released on the celebrated album, “Blood on the Tracks,” a little more than a decade after the aforementioned “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” has the artist materializing divinity once again, in feminine form. As he explained,
Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’
One could surmise from this that Eros and the realization of the desire it produces are inseparable from salvation. Put in another register, “the personal is political,” to quote the poignant phrase from the second-wave feminist movement that gained traction a few years before that song’s release. Granted, entering into and creating history entails separation. “Now,” as Dylan’s lyrics continue, “there’s a wall between us, something’ there’s been lost / I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed,” which could describe the individual predilections responsible for severing many romantic connections. It could just as easily refer to our innate-yet-cultivated proclivities that have served to sever our connection with source – or, put less opaquely, it could allude to our alienating disassociation from the rest of the organic world of which we are a unique part.
Recollecting once again as part of a message of solace, Dylan continued: “Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn / ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’”
Shortly thereafter, he poses a rhetorical question in the song about the abject suffering endemic to human existence (and exacerbated by existing institutions), before reminding us of the recurring, revelatory riposte.
I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’
Using geographical metaphor to convey our condition of estrangement, he proceeds to state he’s “livin’ in a foreign country,” yet he’s “bound to cross the line.” What is more, Dylan articulates that artful tension described by Marcuse, the dialectic between the beautiful ideal and the real expressed through the aesthetic domain, by asserting: “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.” And he ends the song with another reference to the recuperation of our divine sensibilities, reflecting, “If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born / ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’”
And after eight decades on earth, he maintains those same sensibilities. Employing simile in “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” a song from his 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” Dylan sings, “My heart’s like a river – a river that sings / It just takes me a while to realize things.” The obvious message? Realization of true potential can sometimes take a while, though it is often worth the wait.
“I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn,” he went on to say, “I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone.” The line is not unlike a lyric from the late Leonard Cohen, one of the few songwriters on Dylan’s level who died at age 82 in November 2016, shortly after the release of his final album. In “Dance Me to the End of Love” – a love song reportedly and paradoxically inspired by the Holocaust – Cohen crooned, “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone / Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon.”
Dylan ends that fourth track on his last album with more terrestrial references, a hope expressed in relation to “the gods” (plural) and an affirmation of belief punctuated by a decisive refrain, the ultimate form of embodied mutual aid.
From the plains and the prairies – from the mountains to the sea
I hope that the gods go easy with me
I knew you’d say yes – I’m saying it too
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
It might be that in those radical acts of giving that we come closest to whatever one takes “God” to mean. “Giving,” as Erich Fromm wrote in, “The Art of Loving,” “is the highest expression of potency.” Although giving in this manner implies vulnerability, it also engenders an “experience of heightened vitality and potency,” a joyous affair, as “in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.” Fromm specifically cites “the sphere of sex” as an example. “The culmination of the male sexual function lies in the act of giving; the man gives himself, his sexual organ, to the woman,” he wrote. “At the moment of orgasm he gives his semen to her.” And woman “gives herself too; she opens the gates to her feminine center; in the act of receiving, she gives.” The “premise” of erotic love, for Fromm, requires that I “love from the essence of my being—and experience the other person in the essence” of the other’s being. If we humans share one essence, as Fromm intimates, love is the expression of that. But that love “is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment it is a promise,” as Fromm wrote and Dylan averred.
Indeed, Dylan’s poetry put to music has long put forward a prophetic promise. As Fromm explained in “You Shall Be As Gods,” the prophet in the Hebrew tradition “sees the future” not via visions of predetermined events, but rather “because he sees the forces operating now and the consequences of these forces unless they are changed.” And as Dylan informed listeners, admittedly a little tongue-in-cheek, in the single, “False Prophet,” off of the album released last year, he’s “the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife,” he’s “the enemy of the unlived meaningless life,” adding: “I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know / I go where only the lonely can go.” But it is arguably only by going to that lonely place, by having “traveled the long road of despair,” and having “met no other traveler there” – as he sang in “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself to You” – that one can emerge ready to realize the inherent value in another. To truly become one with another human being without extinguishing the dignity that resides within each of us, prior solitary despair can be rather generative.
It is that realization that might redeem human history. In Fromm’s heterodox reading of the Old Testament and its tradition, “messianic time” can mark an epoch of “return,” invoking the Judaic notion of “baal teshuvah,” referring to the sinner who repents and becomes “the master of the return.”
Although Dylan’s gospel music in the late 1970s and early 1980s mostly came across to me as preachy and proselytizing, his whole body of work is peppered with symbolic Biblical references and anticipation of a messianic age.
“Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake / Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break,” he sang in “Every Grain of Sand,” in accord with what Fromm describes as the Talmudic insistence on a complete absence of guilt during the “messianic time,” and in tune with a prophetic intention of rupturing what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous, empty time.”
Dylan’s art might not create heaven on earth, but in providing us a little respite from our weariness, some shelter from the proverbial storm, his music has proven durable enough to sustain us through our individual and collective peaks and valleys. I for one can’t wait to see what else he might deliver on the other side of 80.
James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes in the Communication Studies Department at Riverside City College and in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. He also taught a class at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.