Ain’t Gonna Work On Dylan’s Farm

dylanBob Dylan’s recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature has created a palpable buzz in artistic circles. It asks questions as to the nature of literature, the role of songwriting in literature and even the relevance of the Prize itself.

Andrew Bolt, in his News Corp blog, praised the giving of the prize to Dylan. Stephen Wright, in Overland, ‘disses Dylan for ‘whining and perpetuating ancient sexualised stereotypes of women’. There are interesting insights in Overlands twisted take. Patrick McCauley offered the term, ‘misandrist’, reverse misogyny, to describe it. Wright’s essay is generally myopic, but also extremely odd in Overland, which is a bastion of the Left (same as the inner circle of the Swedish Academy.) And Andrew Bolt, normally tarred with the brush of the Conservative Right, has uncritically embraced Dylan. (Well, Andrew has always been a sook for music!) But the shoes are now on opposite feet. The main weakness with both these views is that they are poor reviews — they each lean way too much to one side, or the other. Merge them together and we might get a better understanding of the paradox that is Bob Dylan.

But it’s still good, however, as it shows the whole bunch of us merely have opinions (which contains the crying-when-cut word ‘onions’) — and there is no absolute truth anywhere in the house, despite all the high-falutin’ credentials.

There has been controversy for years about whether the Nobel Prize has validity for measuring anything at all.  The Peace Prize was awarded to Obama after only nine months in office, and to Kissinger while he was bombing Hanoi. Yassar Arafat got one. The Chemistry Prize once went to the inventor of the lobotomy. Literary giants James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain were passed over for the Literature Prize. But without Twain, and his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there could be no contemporary Americana Bob Dylan songs.

I have learned enormously from Dylan — from his true strengths as a writer — but also to avoid his true weaknesses in our own work. A skilled mechanic must be able to take an engine apart in order to put it back together. Change the spark plugs when they aren’t sparking.  The Literature Prize was bestowed on Dylan for a life’s work of introducing ‘literary values’ into popular music, not for any actual literature but for his songwriting alone and, more importantly,  for its impact culturally.

Now songwriting is a category excluded from every single literary prize in the world. Ironically, the very form Dylan writes in — the rhyming, lyric-ballad structure — is discouraged and rejected, like the plague, in every major poetry contest in preference to modernist deconstructive academic wankery. The pantheon of major poet/editors who pay lip service to Dylan now have utter contempt for the very lyric structures he writes in — if they are done by anyone else — except him.

Quadrant‘s Les Murray and Geoff Page are the only serious poet/editors in Australia open to the rhyming, lyric-ballad structure, thank Zeus and Hera. Murray, intuitively, is a champion of the very forms Dylan lives and breathes in. Garcia Lorca once said: “I can imagine no other poetry other than the lyric.” Percy Grainier wrote: “There is no musical notation yet invented that can capture what happens when a folk singer sings.” These poetic and musical visionaries understood what is really going on.

The quality of writing in the brilliant songs upon which Dylan built his reputation: The Time’s They Are a Changin’, Blowing in the Wind, and many other solid folk-based masterpieces from the late 60s, and the surreal fragmented social commentary of the songs on one of his greatest albums, Blonde on Blonde, have all but vanished from his work over the past three decades. His writing has becomes steeped in tepid Americana. Mark Twainism. But his true fans don’t care about this. They have unconditional love. Dylan is Religion for them.

I defy any thinking person out there to tell me wehat the almighty vision is that is contained in one of Dylan’s recently acclaimed album, Modern Times.

His writing, on this album, is so cliche-ridden, and he is so bad at putting language together, that I can barely find the energy to make notes. I really tried. I wanted to be fair. But it’s useless because the man himself is cheatin’. I started on Thunder on the Mountain.’ I put my pencil down when I reached the line, ‘I want some real good woman to do just what I say.’ (A red flag went up: what is this waffle doing in my Bob Dylan song?) Further down, he says, ‘Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches, I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages, I’ve been to St Herman’s church, said my religious vows, I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.” That verse made me laugh out loud. I actually liked that . . . in a perverse sort of way. I could visualize him sucking down there under the cow. (OK,  I didn’t like it that much.) Is this the same mind that wrote, ‘In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand, at the mongrel dogs who teach, fearing not that I’d become my enemy, In the instant that I preach.’ —  My Back Pages? Please . . . anyone . . . just read the lyrics to My Back Pages and then tell me a iPerson hasn’t taken over Bob Dylan’s body, with burrowing tentacles into his spine and grey matter, moving his lips and fingers.

The next couple of songs that I looked at, desperate to write some kind of empowering comment for counter-balance, were so filled with nothingness, that I just kept turning the pages, until this corker stopped me dead: I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain, some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains. Gag. Disgusting and pathetic. (But probably true. Not Woody Guthrie, alas, but et tu Woody Allen?) That little literary jewel of misogyny festers in the middle of a verse of his song, Rolling and Tumbling. The first line goes, I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long. Sound familiar? It should: it is plagarized word-for-word from Muddy Waters’ great classic, Rolling and TumblingSo . . . did Dylan copy the title and key images from Muddy’s song for a reason? To serve some larger purpose? Read it over. There is no reason. There is no larger purpose. Just plain laziness and bad writing — and he thinks he can get away with it on account of he’s Bob Dylan.

Well, he ain’t Bob Dylan no more. And I ain’t gonna work on Bob Dylan’s farm no more.

I acknowledge Dylan’s cultural importance and have personally been influenced beyond measure by his music, knowing many of his best songs by heart. Many of my own songs couldn’t have been written without their influence.  Many will say that this article is filled with venomous, bile, bitter, mean-spirited and immodest comments, forgetting that Bob Dylan, in his prime as a songwriter, was also the most venomous, bile, bitter, mean-spirited and immodest dude in music.

And Dylan gets extremely defensive when people compare his recent songwriting to his classic 60s repertoire.

“If I’ve got any kind of attitude about me – or about what I do, what I perform, what I sing, on any level, my attitude is, compare it to somebody else! Don’t compare it to me. Are you going to compare Neil Young to Neil Young? Compare it to somebody else, compare it to Beck — which I like — or whoever else is on his level. This record should be compared to the artists who are working on the same ground. I’ll take it any way it comes, but compare it to that.”

But this is dead wrong, as that is precisely what has to be done. Self-growth is really about personal best so, in fact, you have to compare it to other work in the artist’s own catalogue. And that is my point: when you do that, Dylan’s contemporary work pales in comparison with his best work. He is on a descending path. He performs very hard — but he now writes . . . too easy.

So why isn’t Dylan capable of transcending his early stuff?  Why did J.S. Bach create fifty solid years of ascending, white-hot masterpieces that only ceased with his death? How could Beethoven create the Ninth Choral Symphony — the key work that influenced all of Wagner’s — at the end of his life, when he was deaf? Some folks keep going, some explode, some implode and some fade away. Dylan is on the slow fade.

It is one of the responsibilities of the artist to shine some light on this process of disintegration which we see happening before our very eyes, over and over again. Artists become extremely famous and rich. The become deities. Then their work atrophies, or they self-destruct. I respect the emotional connection people have with Dylan. I have one too, but in a different way. Let’s remember fondly, and be inspired by, their best work — but let’s also learn something from their profound, and often deadly, mistakes.

In a 2012 article for the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein said:

“Would the literary world be better off without the Nobel Prize in Literature? Certainly it would be no worse off without the Nobel, for as currently awarded the prize neither sets a true standard for literary production nor raises the prestige of literature itself.”

One of the benefits of the great misunderstanding of Dylan receiving this weird Ancient Award might be more respect being given once again to these great lyric-ballad forms in the minds of the academic literary gatekeepers. Perhaps the level of songwriting in popular music will also begin to return to the Golden Age of the Folk Song — the late 60s, when folk-inspired artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Donovan and The Byrds topped the charts. A turn back to real People’s Poetry: the hymn, the ballad, the rhyme. The way children learn to sing and are first exposed to writing.

This is an edited version of a much longer essay to appear in the December, Quadrant. Some portions originally appeared in Meanjin

16 thoughts on “Ain’t Gonna Work On Dylan’s Farm

  • Jody says:

    Bob Dylan is to ‘Literature’ what “Blue Poles” is to ‘Art’.

    • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

      Hear, hear, Jody! And the same goes for the pop-music world as a whole.

      • Jody says:

        I’m pretty sure Lorenz “Larry” Hart never won a Nobel prize for Literature (I know Richard Rodgers won a Pulitzer) for his extraordinary, erudite and complex lyrics: Hart was a celebrated wit at Columbia University – and this wit which found its way into his lyrics: incomparable!!!

        The sleepless nights, the daily fights
        The quick toboggan when you reach the heights
        I miss the kisses and I miss the bites
        I wish I were in love again
        The broken dates, the endless waits
        The lovely loving and the hateful hates
        The conversation with the flying plates
        I wish I were in love again

        No more pain, no more strain
        Now I’m sane, but I would rather be punch-drunk

        The pulled out fur of cat and cur
        The fine mis-mating of a him and her
        I’ve learned my lesson but I wish I were in love again
        The furtive sigh, the blackened eye
        The words, “I’ll love you ’til the day I die”
        The self-deception that believes the lie
        I wish I were in love again
        When love congeals it soon reveals
        The faint aroma of performing seals
        The double-crossing of a pair of heels
        I wish I were in love again

        No more pain, no more strain
        Now I’m sane, but I would rather be punch-drunk

      • Lacebug says:

        While Country and Western music makes pop music look like Beethoven.

    • Patrick McCauley says:

      However “Blue Poles” IS something to ‘Art’ now, irrevocably and necessarily and worthily … and Bob Dylan is something to poetry… and thought.. and insight … poetics .. ‘Art’ and thus literature … without doubt. As worthy as Les Murray is worthy … which is worthy. Its important to acknowledge .. genius/excellence/sublimity … so we can find our way to the light.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Can’t help but think the Dylan Nobel is one of those decadal signposts … an indicator that an era has passed … ironically the era that Dylan helped set up … the end of history .. the final exposure of the vacuum inside PC … the easy leftist … The love songs of Leonard Cohen are the only and last remaining bridge between the old world and the new … where love has been drowned in equity and rights. His good songs were good enough for the Nobel ( and long live the rhyming lyric ballad structure) .. the code of the academy is once again choking poetry away from the people ( taking it hostage) – Oz poetry is concerned with the animals and the environment … way outback of the university without people. I don’t think the use of the word ‘slut’ in a lyric makes him a misogynist … he clearly loved women and there is something very feminine about his presence anyway. Overland’s Stephen Wright … ever the hater of men (Oz men in particular) … brings up ‘male privilege’ as the reason behind Dylan’s Nobel … and there you have it in a nutshell … the end of excellence … the end of art . the end of the contest of ideas … the end of beauty … the end of romance – Diversity has a very particular definition in university circles … and it does not include alternative points of view ( just as well Dylan wasn’t born forty years later … or the PC he helped to create would have destroyed him before he even started)

  • mvgalak@bigpond.com says:

    When it comes to Nobel Prize in Literature and Peace I remain perpetually perplexed. They awarded The Prize to Pasternak for “Doctor Zhivago” and , almost immediately, to Pasternak’s nemesis
    Mikhail Sholokhov for “Quiet flows the Don”. (Actually, the rumours are still circulating that this classic was the result of an open plagiarism)
    They awarded The Peace Prize to Andrey Sakharov, for his human rights crusade in the USSR, and , almost immediately, the same prize went to an arch-terrorist Yassir Arafat. Go figure.
    Bob Dylan. Nobel Laureate . In Literature. Why not? After all, he is as deserving as Barak Obama with his Peace Prize. Bob pinches his lines from Muddy Waters. Barak Obama pinches his famous “Yes we can” from Bob the Builder. Come to think of it – not much of a difference, is there?

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    ‘Bob pinches his lines from Muddy Waters.’ … and its in muddy waters that the best lines lie … The waters are now as muddy as that have ever been in human history … with the gender wars … arguably the most muddy since the dawn of human consciousness ( I know you mean the band.. but it’s such a brilliant line) ‘ I went down to the river … and Susanne wasn’t there … Bob wus fishen muddy waters … and my baby’s go’n fishen too’.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    However I do believe that there is a world of difference between Bob the Builder and Muddy Waters.

  • Lacebug says:

    Bruce Springsteen is odds-on to win next year.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Words in a song are lyrics not poetry unless it’s in the form of a Ballad. The singer is then known as a balladeer.

    Songwriting as literature? Really just another corruption like gay.
    Mind you my kids would probably say Dylan’s songs are gay.

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