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Books & CultureMay/June 1998


It Ain't Me, Babe
Bob Dylan, reluctant prophet.

As I first said, it's a privilege and an honor and a courtesy at this time and at this age to be able to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I'm gone.

—Legendary Delta Bluesman Skip James, in concert, Circa 1967

1. This year Bob Dylan will be 58 years old. This does not seem very strange to me—not nearly so strange as the fact that, had he lived, John Lennon would have turned 58 last year, or that Paul McCartney will do so next year. Lennon and McCartney represented what came to be called, in the decade of the Beatles, "youth culture." Dylan may have appealed to many youths, but ultimately the sources of his power were to be found elsewhere: he never spoke as a young man, but rather as the custodian of ancient traditions. From his first arrival in New York City when he was still a teenager, he may have looked absurdly young, but he was clearly an old soul: all his songs said so. When, in 1967, Dylan retreated to a rented house in upstate New York with the group of musicians who would later be known as The Band, he so deeply immersed himself in country, gospel, and blues songs that no one around him could differentiate Dylan's own work from those old tunes.

As Robbie Robertson, The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter, told Greil Marcus, "He would pull those songs out of nowhere. We didn't know if he wrote them or remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn't tell." The songs Robertson refers to, or many of them anyway—some written by Dylan, some by his troubadour predecessors, some by no identifiable person—were released in 1975 (and repeatedly, before and after, in various bootleg versions) as The Basement Tapes, and they are the subject of Marcus's new book, Invisible Republic.

It is an amazingly bad book, filled with page after page of wobbly Kerouacky ramblings. The style is supposed to be hip and allusive; Marcus intends to impress us with his range of cultural reference and what he must think of as the panache with which he offers it to us. But what we really get are huge chunks of undisciplined prose that collectively constitute the best argument yet for the abolition of American Studies programs.

Here's an example, chosen almost at random, from Marcus's hermeneutically overdriven reading of a couple of lines from Dylan's song "Lo and Behold!" ("The coachman … asked me my name / I give it to him right away, and I hung my head in shame"):

"And he asked me my name," the singer remembers; as he spins the incident back, he can feel how he'd pulled away, and underneath the worry that's how he sings it, a cold half smile on his face, his fish-eye all over the coachman's mug. … His name? He's not supposed to have to tell his name. Suddenly all his confidence is gone, as if the seat holding his back has fallen away like the chorus giving up its last word. Now he is faced with a demand that goes just past the endlessly rehearsed gestures of fellowship and distance, acknowledgment and evasion, that in 1835, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville caught as the very stuff of a democratic walk down the street of the American small town—"that same small town in each of us," as Don Henley could still imagine in 1989, in "The End of the Innocence."

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not object in principle to the citing of Tocqueville and a former member of the Eagles in the same sentence. Rather, I object to the fatuousness of this particular sentence. Don Henley aside, Marcus's references to popular music are usually well-chosen and appropriate, but his invocations of American "high" culture (Tocqueville, John Winthrop, Michael Wigglesworth, Lincoln's second inaugural address) are another matter, since they all seem to come straight from The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Was there any chance that Jonathan Edwards, whose portrait may be found on the back of the dust jacket of Invisible Republic, would be referred to here as anything other than the author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? As a cultural historian, Marcus is a rock-skimmer rather than a scuba diver.

Marcus has always had a propensity for stylistic hyperinflation and intellectual wooliness, but it has worsened as he has gotten older. It only occasionally afflicted his early and fascinating Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music (1975)—which has an excellent chapter on The Band—but it made Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) almost unreadable and Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991) scarcely less so. Today one can say of Marcus's writing what Mark Twain said of Wagner's music: it has some wonderful moments, but some absolutely terrible quarters of an hour.

This decline is a shame, because if Marcus could either discover the virtues of editing or cut back on the caffeine and sugar he would be a fascinating commentator on the contemporary scene at least. In Invisible Republic, his instincts always lead him in the right direction, even if they can't make him keep his verbal car on one side of the double yellow line.

Above all, he understands both the centrality of Dylan to American culture and the centrality of The Basement Tapes to Dylan. Sometimes brilliantly, Marcus traces Dylan's summer in the house called Big Pink back through Harry Smith's enormously influential 1952 collection (recently reissued on cd), Anthology of American Folk Music—"Smith's Anthology is a backdrop to the basement tapes. More deeply, it is a version of them, and the basement tapes a shambling, twilight version of Smith's Anthology"—and back to figures like the Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs, and then further back into a folk culture bereft of names.

Of the basement recordings, Marcus writes, "the stronger the songs get, the older they feel," and this is the most important thing to say about them. No wonder Robbie Robertson couldn't tell whether Dylan had just written "Tears of Rage," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "I Shall Be Released," or had found them. As Elvis Costello once said, "I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he's just found them under a stone."

But the songs from the summer in Big Pink's basement aren't the only Dylan songs that sound that way. That's how his career begins, with covers of old songs and "new" ones that aren't really new at all: "Girl from the North Country" is obviously a take on "Scarborough Fair," while "Blowin' in the Wind," as Marcus notes, steals its melody from a song sung by runaway slaves in the midnineteenth century. And from time to time in Dylan's career he has found it necessary to reconnect himself with those folk traditions: sometimes just by following their styles, structures, and patterns of instrumentation, as in that landmark of American music, Blood on the Tracks (1975), but sometimes simply by recording some great old songs that he hadn't written. Fans were puzzled and frustrated when he did it the first time, in the country standards of 1970's Nashville Skyline; perhaps they were more used to the idea by the time he did Good As I Been to You (1992) and the especially potent World Gone Wrong (1993), which are all old folk and blues classics. After all, by then, as we will later see, there was reason to think that good things would come from such a return to the sources. Ad fontes!

2. In Dylan, the prophet meets the bluesman: the ancient laments of Israel rejoin songs born in slavery and the cotton fields. From this vantage point it seems that it should have been obvious—though of course it wasn't—that Bob Dylan would become not just a monument of popular culture, but also a key figure in the social history of American religion.

"Popular culture," "folk culture," "mass culture"—these are terms that need discriminating usage. The "folk" that the early Dylan spoke for were hardly the working classes, though they envied the workers' authenticity; they were instead the disaffected and confused children of the middle classes, children who certainly felt their own inauthenticity. If they pretended to intellectuality, as many of them did, they read their own situation in Sartre's accounts of living by "bad faith," in Holden Caulfield's protests against "phoniness," in the Beats' determination to leave bad faith behind by going "on the road."

"Invisible Republic" Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes
by Greil Marcus
268 pp.; $22.50

Some historians write as if real folk or popular culture can only be achieved by the illiterate and oppressed, but the bourgeoisie can have their unofficial and unsanctioned mythologies too. Dylan came to incarnate one such myth, and to do so by drawing on musical forces that came from way down and way back in American history.

As Sister Rosetta Tharpe once said, "There's something in the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it."

The tone Dylan characteristically assumed was that of the prophet; his trademark genre was the jeremiad, though his more popular early songs tended to soft-pedal the wrath a bit: "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changing." Some critics have associated the outrage typical of the early Dylan with his Jewishness, but, as the historian Sacvan Bercovich has argued, the jeremiad has been deeply imbedded in American culture since its origins. To condole the innocent downtrodden and condemn their wicked oppressors, preferably in a very loud voice, has for much of our country's history been a highly favored and much-relished practice. Few have done it with more flair than Dylan.

Early on he was celebrated in the New York Times, and the managers shook out their moldy wings and quickly descended. Certainly Dylan profited by their attentions and came thereby to believe all the more firmly in his prophetic stature, the righteousness of whatever cause he happened to promote. Would he have indulged in pretentiously obscure symbolism and two-bit surrealism, as he did so often in the midsixties, had he not been surrounded by the professional sycophants of the record business? Perhaps not; but Dylan's later history suggests that his self-confidence needed no external support.

He quickly showed that he was determined whenever possible to reinvent himself in ways that drove the managers batty. His notorious decision, in July 1965, to "go electric," at the highly publicized Newport Jazz Festival no less, infuriated his most dedicated fans—Marcus details their consternated cries of betrayal—but it was to be only the first of many such occasions. There is no doubt that Dylan has repeatedly been used and invoked by the purveyors of mass culture; but he has repeatedly sought to remain faithful to some conception of his calling that evades the constrictions of the managers.

From the distance of two decades, the 1975 recording Blood on the Tracks seems to mark a crossroads not only in Dylan's career but also in the self-understanding of the generation for whom he was, and perhaps still is, an icon. It is arguably Dylan's finest musical achievement, and, as I have said, surely a landmark of American music.

This record came at a curious juncture in Dylan's career. Dylan had made a success of his transition to amplified music; he had lost some of his earliest fans, but probably gained more new ones. Then, in 1966, he was in a serious motorcycle accident, the details of which are still not known, and disappeared from the music scene for more than two years. When he returned, some of his authority seems to have left him: while he produced some fascinating music (including the basement recordings), he failed to capture audiences or critics as he once had. Through the early seventies he continued to make records, but their critical reception and sales never matched those of his earlier music. Scarcely more than a decade after his first appearance in New York City, Dylan seemed to many observers to be finished. And indeed, in those days, ten years seemed to be the extreme limit of rock-and-roll careers; almost no one even hoped to last so long.

Then came Blood on the Tracks. For a singer who had so often emphasized political causes or symbolic obscurity, its songs were for the most part astonishingly personal. Dylan's marriage was disintegrating, and, though he has always repudiated autobiographical interpretations of the record's songs, the listener cannot help connecting the music with that event. Several of the songs are more simple and direct in their emotional expression than anything Dylan had ever written. And yet, something much more than the idiom of confessional love song is going on here; the stakes throughout the record seem much higher.

Dylan had returned to his native Minnesota to record many of these songs, had sought out local musicians, and had avoided electric instruments; a back-to-the-roots imperative was clearly at work. But one gets the impression that Dylan did not feel that he and he alone needed such self-examination and retrenchment; perhaps his whole generation needed it.

The harshest song on the album, "Idiot Wind," is reminiscent in some ways of some of Dylan's contemptuous insult-songs of the sixties:" Idiot wind / Blowing through the flowers on your tomb / Blowing through the curtains in your room / Idiot wind / Blowing every time you move your teeth / You're an idiot, babe / It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe." But in the end Dylan condemns himself just as fully and just as bitterly: "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 are idiots, babe / It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves."

Dylan had the intelligence and the honesty to conclude that the self-righteousness of the sixties radicals for whom he had once spoken was utterly misplaced.

The song is a powerful one, and it is admirable that Dylan so forthrightly includes himself among the idiots he chastises; but one recognizes here the screechy tones of a Jeremiah who knows what to condemn but who has lost contact with the truth on behalf of which the condemnation is supposed to be conducted. What alternative is there to idiocy? One might have expected the Dylan of a decade earlier, or your average sixties radical halfway into a new decade, to denounce Nixon (whose resignation dance was being performed as Dylan recorded these songs) as an idiot, while claiming for him- or herself the sagacity necessary to rule a nation; but here there is no claim to privileged wisdom. A decade earlier Dylan had given a radical political organization its name when he wrote these words: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"; but now all he knows is that the wind is an idiot wind, blowing through a nation of empty heads.

I contend that Dylan had the intelligence and the honesty to conclude that the self-righteousness of the sixties radicals for whom he had once spoken was utterly misplaced, and further, that he could offer nothing with which to replace it. Lionel Trilling once wrote, shrewdly, that "the modern self is characterized by certain habits of indignant perception." But Dylan, I think, came to understand that indignation is not enough. And in light of his personal pain and of his generation's confusion, there was no need to be surprised when, about five years later, it became known that Bob Dylan had become a Christian.

I was a young Christian myself at that time, as well as a big Dylan fan, and it is hard for me to express how confirmed and sustained I felt by Dylan's conversion, or how infinitely laughable I felt the widespread outrage and disbelief to be. When Dylan's first Christian record, Slow Train Coming, was released, Jann Wenner, the founder and editor of Rolling Stone, would trust none of his writers with the review but instead wrote it himself. I smirked for weeks over Wenner's ingenious attempts to argue that the record didn't prove that Dylan was a Christian, his desperate protests that songs like "I Believe in You" and "When He Returns" didn't necessarily refer to Jesus. I saw Dylan perform on his first tour after his conversion; he had already been greeted by boos and whistles on earlier stops on the tour (just as he had been when he went electric), and when I entered the auditorium people were handing out anti-Christian pamphlets. But I smiled through it all, because Dylan and I were on the same side. (I should note that most of the audience that night, in my Bible Belt hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, were on that side too; he got rousing cheers and seemed genuinely to appreciate the warmth of his reception.) Perhaps for the first time, the prophetic voice had discovered a genuine source.

What does Dylan believe today? No one really knows. He has clearly reconnected himself with his Jewish heritage in some manner, a movement attentive fans noted even in the early eighties: the back cover of his great 1983 recording Infidels, which contains a passionately Zionist song called "Neighborhood Bully," shows him squatting and staring at the ground on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. But while he has ceased to write Christian songs, he has never repudiated what he wrote then: "Maybe the time for me to say that has come and gone," he said a few years ago, but also "whoever was supposed to pick it [that message] up" did so. About this, as about so much else, Dylan has for the most part remained evasive.

The questions about Dylan's beliefs have intensified in the last year, in the aftermath of a much-publicized heart ailment and the acclaim that greeted his first record of original songs in seven years, Time Out of Mind. "I thought I was going to see Elvis," he said soon after being released from the hospital, a remark that in its substitution of Elvis for Jesus is both a witty reflection on American culture's uncertainty about the identity of the true King and a tantalizing comment on Dylan's own religious pilgrimage.

Asked a few months later about his beliefs, Dylan gave virtually identical answers to Jon Pareles of the New York Times and David Gates of Newsweek:

Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

That's from Newsweek; to Jon Pareles he also invoked Hank Williams's great country gospel song "I Saw the Light," and added, "I've seen that light too."

These comments are as straightforward as we are likely to get from Dylan—indeed, some people will think them unambiguous, though for an evangelical like me, with an inherited suspicion of ecclesiastical Christianity that I may not yet have overcome, there remains the desire to say, "That's great, Bob, but tell me what you think about Jesus. Do you accept him as your Lord and Savior?" To that question, I don't think I would get an unambiguous answer.

In any case, Time Out of Mind, which recently won Dylan three Grammys, amply justifies his claim that the old songs are his "prayer book" and "lexicon"—and, moreover, it confirms the hypothesis that when Dylan immerses himself in the world of what he used to call "historical-traditional music," something powerful is likely to eventuate later on. Every song on Time Out of Mind is deeply, deeply saturated in that ancient music.

Perhaps the strongest song on the record, "Trying to Get to Heaven," directly quotes as many as a dozen old songs: country gospel ("I've been walkin' that lonesome valley"), mainline American folk music ("I was ridin' in a buggy with Miss Mary Jane"), even bluegrass ("I'm just goin' down that road feelin' bad")—and then, of course, there's Dylan's self-citation, the echo in the song's refrain ("I'm just tryin' to get to Heaven before they close the door") of a secular hymn that has already entered the pantheon, and that he sang for Pope John Paul II in Bologna last September: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

So Time Out of Mind is deeply, powerfully, self-consciously traditional, but it is also the most emotionally naked Dylan record since Blood on the Tracks. Indeed, it is this nakedness that Dylan himself seems to think most noteworthy about the record: "I don't think it eclipses anything from my earlier period"—as if the wild and unpredictable rides Dylan gave his listeners for the past 35 years could be casually filed under that heading!—"but I think it might be shocking in its bluntness." Some reviewers have complained that the songs lack the poetic resonance and metaphorical exuberance of what they think of as Dylan's best work, but to Dylan this is just the point: "There isn't any waste. There's no line that has to be there to get to another line. There's no pointless playing with someone's brain."

This directness is evident in song after song, line after line, and as Dylan himself acknowledges, sometimes the effect is "spooky": "There's not even room enough / To be anywhere / It's not dark yet / But it's getting there." Flashes of hopeful light occasionally illuminate this dimming landscape: Dylan is still trying to get to heaven before they close the door, and at one point he sings, "There are things I could say, but I won't; / I know the mercy of God must be near." It's just that the road is long and hard and it goes right through the middle of that lonesome valley.

Time Out of Mind's remarkable combination of unsentimental, unindulgent honesty and a deep historical sense makes almost everything else in today's pop music seem trivial and small in comparison. Every rock star with pretensions to "seriousness" should be locked in a room with this record playing for a solid week (or, in the case of U-2's Bono, a month): this would be a tonic and restorative for the popular music scene.

But Bob, really, what do you think about Jesus?

3. In 1991, when Rolling Stone interviewed Dylan on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, he gave a curious response when the interviewer asked him if he was happy. He fell silent for a few moments and stared at his hands. "You know," he said, "these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, 'Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.'"

It is pleasurable to contemplate the reaction of the typical Rolling Stone subscriber to that comment. Here, at least, is a voice connected to something more than the speaker's conviction of his own virtue. For a long time now, Dylan has reminded his generation, and anyone else who cares to listen, that the enormous self-confidence they had in the sixties proved to be misplaced: the self that trusts in the righteousness of its own "indignant perception" must eventually discover that it does not inhabit a house of many mansions, but rather a place in which there's not room enough to be anywhere.

Last November I heard Dylan play a brilliant and energetic set of music, with several songs from Time Out of Mind. Some Dylan fans thought it the best show of his they had ever seen, and I wasn't inclined to argue. Still, I found myself thinking back to a show four years earlier at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. Then too he played with force and energy, though perhaps less joy, for two full hours—something he doesn't always do—but I think what I will remember best is his encore. Returning to the stage, he played a song from the 1989 recording Oh Mercy, "What Good Am I?" The song concludes with these words: "What good am I if I say foolish things / If I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings / If I just turn my back while you silently die / What good am I?"

I thought these would be Dylan's last words to his audience; and they would have been good ones. But he played one more song, one from the sixties that, in light of the messages he has been preaching for 15 years now, and in light of the roles that so many have wanted him to play for so long, took on a new meaning that seemed even more fitting: "It ain't me, babe / No, no, no, it ain't me, babe / It ain't me you're looking for, babe."

Alan Jacobs is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His essays and reviews appear in Christianity Today, First Things, The Weekly Standard, The American Scholar, and other publications.


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