They say, “Dylan never talks.” What the hell is there to say? That’s not the reason an artist is in front of people. An artist has come for a different purpose. Maybe a self-help group — maybe a Dr. Phil — would say, “How you doin’?” I don’t want to get harsh and say I don’t care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. But it’s a different kind of connection. It’s not a light thing. [Pause.] It becomes risky. I mean, you risk your life to play music, if you’re doing it in the right way. –Dylan to novelist Jonathan Lethem, Rolling Stone, September 2006
I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it — trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot. — Dylan in his unconventional autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One
Sometimes the “you” in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else. If I’m talking to me in a song, I’m not going to drop everything and say, alright, now I’m talking to you. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of times it’s “you” talking to “you.” The “I,” like in “I and I,” also changes. It could be I, or it could be the “I” who created me. And also, it could be another person who’s saying “I.” When I say “I” right now, I don’t know who I’m talking about. — Dylan as clown Talmudic scholar getting all tangled up in himself. To Scott Cohen in Spin Magazine, 1985
Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it. — Dylan to Lethem.
I’ve been thinking more about that Dylan Suite you guys are hard at work on.
The obvious thing for a dance to do with a pop song is act out its story, but one of the most powerful things about pop songs, including Dylan’s, is that they address “you.” The singer is serenading or regretting you. That’s the big reason people become groupies of pop singers.
Dylan’s singer talks to “you” a lot, but he’s also shifty, migrating within a single song from “you” to “he” or “she” — to story. And his “you” is so vividly specific — and often such a pain in the ass or the heart — that we end up shifting around too, just to make it through. When the Dylan singer is too much to bear — too angry, too full of longing, too struck by our absence — we turn ourselves into voyeurs, relinquishing our special place to someone in the song.
Whatever you all choose to do with the miasma of shifting roles, don’t ignore them and don’t try to fix them. Perhaps the worst thing in the legions of problems with Twyla Tharp’s Dylan fiasco (to close November 19 — sooner than I guessed, but not too soon) is the revenge she seeks on the slippery songs. She wants them to give up their nature and hold still. But even in neutered Broadway renditions, the songs slip away, leaving her in a vacuum.
A Dylan song is more than a letter posted to the air, though — more than “you” and “I.” The imagery grounds the songs and transcends the singer. The singer takes up a lot of room, but the song doesn’t rest with him: why people like to call Dylan a seer; he sees past himself. The language has its own gravity and direction.
So does the music. The instrumental sections — which in live shows distend; bootlegs give a better feel for the tunes — make clear how beautiful the music is, as well as the genre Dylan is tweaking: rhythm and blues, country-western, waltz, etc., etc., etc.
People like to say that rock is relatively static. Dylan isn’t. It’s not that the musical patterns are complicated or even that they change a lot in the course of a given song — though they change radically from song to song. In fact, they tend to set their course and repeat it. But they set out a vision of time that corresponds with the story they’re telling. They both move in time and characterize time and, by association, this moment in a life.
The twilight chords of “Not Dark Yet,” from the 1997 album “Time out of Mind,” lap forward, then slip back. We’re waiting for the tide to rise and sweep us under once and for all.
In early songs such as “Tangled up in Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” time holds steady, the music a jangly loop that makes a hazy home out of “no destination home.”
It’s not just “the times” or even the history of American song that this magpie artist roots himself in, but also the future and past that a given moment assumes. “Like a Rolling Stone” imagines a past of privileged oblivion for its fallen and let-loose heroine; her future is unknown — and so is the singer’s. He uses her to wonder about himself.
“Not Dark Yet” is saturated in sunset, the music savoring the light that has mainly faded for the singer.
Again and again, time — the texture and density a moment accrues from the future and past inside it — is Dylan’s subject, which is why he’s so well suited to dance, where time is always the subject, whatever else is, too.
What’s that? You say you don’t want to do a dance to Dylan? You’d rather do Sleater-Kinney, Lauryn Hill, someone — anyone — else?