He Can’t Help It If He’s Lucky

By Philip Martin

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 10/18/2016

“Who are you?”

“That’s a good question.”

–Bob Dylan’s Alias answering James Coburn’s

Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I don’t know why anyone should begrudge anyone else getting a prize; prizes are nice to get but they really don’t mean much to anyone other than the honoree. Prizes get awarded for all kinds of reasons, most of which can be dismissed by those who didn’t win the prize as trivial or “political.” Not getting a certain prize doesn’t say anything about you other than it wasn’t your turn.

Most of us never get a turn. There’s no dishonor in that. Most of us simply aren’t that lucky.

Bob Dylan can’t help it if he’s lucky. He can’t help if his life’s work–which is really more than the sum of all the words and music he has produced; it’s his persona and his myth–has had such a profound effect on so many people around the world. That’s not what he was trying to do. He was trying, like every artist, to do something essentially selfish, to somehow make the maelstrom within a thing in the world. And the genius of Bob Dylan is that he didn’t end up telling us about himself. He ended up telling us about ourselves.

He made explicit a shadow America, a place out of time and history where the Abrahams might congregate. A place of dime stores and bus stations and concrete and cascades. A floating, chimeratic America that waits just beyond the headlights of our shiny cars groping through the everlasting night.

Dylan has a magpie eye and the nervelessness of a thief. He is Coyote, and grinning reformed journalist Alias, balancing his blade and printing the legend. He made it possible for me to write a column like this one, confident that at least some faction of the presumptive audience could catch on, could project their own truth into the false tropes and dusty mannequins he trots out.

Because Dylan is a magician in the sense that none of his shtick works unless you choose to collaborate with him, to invest in his honks and wheezes and windy words that can so help me seem like second-rate college literary magazine slush-pile fodder. Some people say it’s poetry and some people say it isn’t, and while I can teach it either way I’d rather take it for itself than reduce it to typography. For Dylan, like all poets, needs the sound and rhythm to thrive.

You can’t divorce “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” from its chord structure without doing it life-threatening harm–maybe the words still work as sub-Blakesian doggerel, maybe they’re all right–at least until the third verse when the singer brings up grudging pawns and “ceremonies of the horsemen” which feels to me like a lapse of discipline (except now, because in Dylan’s time-warpy way they seem to loop in Stanley Kubrick and secret rituals businessmen get up to in their underwear).

But the song needs its melody, the tripping of descending chords, the drop from (the way I play it) D to Em (or Em7) as well as the baggy timbre of the singer’s voice to completely succeed. Yes, there are lovely covers–Ricky Nelson did it best, the Walker Brothers were OK, and if you care for Joan Baez’s schoolmarm-ish precision her pure-toned version is out there as well–but none of these really come close to Dylan’s bright, fuzzy authority.

Sure, there are plenty of people shaking their heads because they never got Dylan as a singer or a maker of music (though that’s all he ever really wanted to be; most likely he’d have probably settled for a dark chocolate tenor and a gold lame jacket and a bunch of hits with “love” in the title had some stranger unfurled a contract at some crossroads) but let’s stipulate that (a) most people don’t get most things; (b) popularity isn’t any guarantee of quality and (c) it matters a whole lot less whether someone can sing than whether they can connect.

As unlikely as it might seem to those of us who realize that show business is mostly hustle and flow (and, that like David Geffen said, there’s probably never been anyone more interested in money than Bob Dylan) every once in a while you have to acknowledge the power of a song to break your heart. What Dylan did was to make rock ‘n’ roll–American popular music–a fit pursuit for grown-ups, a legitimate way of expressing and exploring the complications of our real and dream lives. He curated our national subconscious and dragged out into the spotlight the forgotten bones of old traditions and set them aclatter. Dylan rescued and re-animated what Greil Marcus has called “the old weird America,” and set it loose in our heartless modern wilderness.

I don’t know that Dylan is a poet, but I know there is poetry in Dylan, and that we are in a season sorely lacking in that quality, an age too full of literal and vulgar minds seeking only immediate advantages and the cheapest of sensations.

I don’t know that there aren’t hundreds more “deserving,” and I’m sure that there are many who are disappointed. And I don’t know that if they’d asked me that I’d have nominated Dylan–in part because Dylan needs no nomination and his bank book is plenty big enough–but I’m just fine with him getting any roses anybody wants to throw his way.

Because I owe him a debt that I can’t pay.

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