T for Tom

Looking Back On Bob Dylan

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Prose by johnsontoms on August 2, 2016

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If we just look at the man’s best work, we can easily ascribe him the traits of a Titan. Like legends, myths, and even gods, they transcend above the level of relation to become superhuman. These are the immediate significations of Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and surely are deserved.

But looking back at it all, if you can find the time to go through every one of the pieces of work, the artist is reduced to their human qualities. Bob Dylan, like Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Newton or Einstein or Plato or Johnny Cash, is a human being; he experiences the same range of love, hate, bitterness, regret, happiness, success, and learning that should be welcome to any modern human being lucky enough to live a full life. It’s what they do with those emotions, spread out over time, that separates the legends from the men. But we are all surely men.

  1. Bringing It All Back Home – 1965
  2. Blood On The Tracks – 1975
  3. Blonde On Blonde – 1963
  4. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1966
  5. Modern Times – 2006
  6. The Basement Tapes – 1975
  7. Highway 61 Revisited – 1965
  8. Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964
  9. John Wesley Harding – 1967
  10. Tempest – 2012

Bob Dylan’s greatest albums stand alone above the rest of the crowd. They are the works of genius that will live on forever, and for their greatness the remainder of his output will succeed in longevity as well. Ranging from the direct to the surreal, Dylan finds a way to syphon from life its truest and most mysterious meanings, leaving us with a direction that can be found in Guernica or the Mona Lisa or Newton’s Laws.

And like the best, his work is symbolic and derivative of his own life. Henry Miller wrote the best essays and novels I’ve ever read, because they are subtracted from his own life. And his most cherished, Creative Death, succeeds in discussing the merits of the greatest works of art: that those who create for us the finest pieces of beauty are utter disciples of the balance of life and death, together – “that life leads only to death cannot be avoided…” that “to seize all of life we must seize all of death.” This can be found by working with the experiences that are befallen to us as individuals.

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Bob Dylan took his life as an insignificant Midwesterner and established a prose for the whole of the country, and eventually the world. If he had a more succinct set of experiences, or a more stressful existence, his art might have been more pointed. And for it he was able to speak to the general mass, and tackle the significant issues at large. It wasn’t until he himself had struggles, those of being famous and in demand, that his music lingered into the abstract. But even still, his music progressed and changed and bettered itself – the mark of a genius is his ability to practice and improve. Nothing more.

  1. Oh Mercy – 1989
  2. Shadows In The Night – 2015
  3. Saved – 1980
  4. Infidels – 1983
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – 1964
  6. Desire – 1976
  7. Self-Portrait – 1970
  8. Time Out of Mind – 1997
  9. Before The Flood – 1974
  10. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – 1973

He was never the greatest instrumentalist, and never mastered his guitar or his harmonica. But he knew that it wasn’t important, so long as he continued to say and be the person that could stand on higher ground, even if he was misunderstood. For all the mystery he presented, it was his confidence and assuredness that brought about our affection and zeal. Even as he struggled with his fame, he never struggled with his release, manifested through his music.

As his personal hardships increased relative to his fame, the music became the focus. But like those masters before him, he couldn’t forego his strongest subject – himself. Even as he moved onto Nashville Skyline and New Morning and into the gospel years, we saw Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The only thing he knew how to do and to do well, was speak from the heart.

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His progression as a human being worked to expel the things he could devote his attention to, moving from the world while a hopeful and impassioned youth on into the personal issues of middle age and fatherhood. And even while the public demanded for works that spoke to them when it meant they needed a savior, we found out over the years that what we needed most, was music that described the things we all went through – heartbreak.

It could be heartbreak from love, or heartbreak from life, but the recognition that this life will not serve you your dreams, is the source for all our troubles. And so it is that “Simple Twist of Fate” can make most anyone with a heart cry. Again: life and death cannot be separated.

  1. Hard Rain – 1976
  2. New Morning – 1970
  3. Love and Theft – 2001
  4. Nashville Skyline – 1969
  5. MTV Unplugged – 1995
  6. Planet Waves – 1974
  7. Fallen Angels – 2016
  8. Together Through Life – 2009
  9. Bob Dylan – 1962
  10. Street Legal – 1978

For as much as he changed, I can say that one thing remained constant – he never really wrote a bad song. I’ve put together a full order of the albums, by my liking, and I can say with absolute assurance that anything above 30 is a great record and worth a listening. Those ranked 31-40 aren’t even horrible, but simply don’t measure up to this otherworldly standard.

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You’ll notice that those albums at the bottom all came between 1970 and 2000, with none before or after those dates. Most even, from 1980 to 2000. It was the only period that Dylan didn’t write music for himself. Having come out of his divorce, losing his children, and losing the faith of his fanbase, he tried to write music that people could like. This, of course, was a complete contradiction to everything before, and proved to be his weakest material. Bob Dylan never did anything because people liked it. In fact, quite the opposite.

  1. Real Live – 1984
  2. Slow Train Coming – 1979
  3. Empire Burlesque – 1985
  4. Good As I Been To You – 1992
  5. World Gone Wrong – 1993
  6. Under The Red Sky – 1990
  7. Shot of Love – 1981
  8. Knocked Out Loaded – 1986
  9. Down In The Groove – 1988
  10. Dylan – 1973

In his late age, he resurrected like a phoenix because he tapped into death – there was nothing left for him, in old age, except his music. And somewhere, though I don’t know the circumstances, he set about to keep the ideas together. Most of those records from 1997 on are near the top of this list, and some within the top 10 and top 5. By then, his heart had been broken. And he knew that only life could exist because it would end on down the line.

That’s the lesson to take from a full retrospective of a man’s work. Like studying all the paintings of Rembrandt, it takes a full read on his life and his habits and the circumstances that the artist goes through. What you’ll see is that no one is any different than you and I.

But the greats – they find the time to be great. Bob Dylan used his time only in that way.

I am extremely glad that I spent this time studying and listening to a true inspiration. Where others failed before him to represent the entirety of life, Bob Dylan never failed to discuss life as whole – one of success and tragedy, both. There was never anything to hide with him. I can only hope that I might show the good and the bad. Anything more fantastic is false, but anything more negative isn’t hopeful enough.


Epilogue

There’s a lot to say about spending 40 days listening to a single record by a single artist, chronologically until complete. But I won’t spend all the time in discussion of the act, and simply relate a few things.

It’s at first exciting, then overwhelming, meddlesome, exhausting, and rewarding, in that order. I started out looking forward to what I would learn, before realizing how it would impact my habits every day, until I let my daily habits get in the way of my goal, before sticking to my guns and dealing with the trouble I’d awarded myself, only to become extremely pleased and thankful to myself for having done something creative, if not important.

Even more, I think I’ve learned more about myself than I could have Bob Dylan. That’s something I can recommend, if you can deal with the rest.

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