Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dylan Matters

In an earlier post Abdul referred to Dylan as a poet, alluding to the fact that I'd called him that. To be honest, I don't remember doing that. The truth is I don't think of Dylan as a poet (nor would I think Dylan himself). Dylan's a songwriter, and it's his songs that touch me deeply, not his "poetry."

But heck, today marks the start of National Poetry Month, so it's probably rotten of me to call Dylan more a songwriter than a poet. He certainly has done great things with language, and you could probably make an argument--somebody could, anyway--that the troubadours in the middle ages were poets in the same way that Dylan is today. But that's another day's discussion.

(Remove the music from Dylan's "poetry," his lyrics, and I'm not sure you'll find the same kind of life as in, say, a poem by Pablo Neruda or Emily Dickinson. It's just different. But this demands the question: What makes poetry poetry? But I'm not going to really ask it here. Someone else can answer that.)

Barbara's letter to Abdul on Monday got me thinking about how I got into Dylan back in college and what that experience has meant to me creatively. More than any other "writer," Dylan's songs/music have been a powerful creative engine for me. I can honestly say that his music has had a larger impact on my creative writing than any of the writing from any of the great authors I've followed over the years: Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass, James Baldwin, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Don Delillo, Herman Melville, etc.--all have influenced me during different phases of my life.

Dylan's impact has been longest, and I think it's because his musical repertoire is so vast. I loaned three albums to Abdul, one early album (Another Side of Bob Dylan), one middle album (Blood on the Tracks), and one fairly recent album (Time out of Mind). The reason: he would get a good sense of the changes Dylan has undergone in his career. More than any other songwriter of his generation I can think of, with the possible exception of Tom Waits (and somewhat grudgingly, for me, Paul McCartney), he has had a career that was continually being developed. From his early days singing folk ballads a la Woody Guthrie, to his mid-sixties rock phase, the 70s born again phase, etc., Dylan has reinvented himself throughout.

(Here I need to pause to declare: Some very good books have been written about this, and more will be written. Write on you Dylanologists!)

That appeals to me. His voice appeals to me too. I can't sing, but I've had a long and rocky apprenticeship as a writer, and I definitely understand what it's like when someone says "he can't sing." Used in a writing context, it's like saying "I don't like so and so's voice."

So it's inspiring. David Berman, lead singer of another of my favorite bands, The Silver Jews, wrote in one of his songs "all my favorite singers couldn't sing." And I realize that's true with me too, with "sing" being highly subjective here. Speaking broadly, most of my favorite singers are people many others would say can't sing: Tom Waits, Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie Prince Billy), Leonard Cohen, John Prine. It's a scratchy quality in their voice, a deep gruffness that I find mesmerizing (Lucinda Williams has this quality too, but I suppose most people would say she can sing). It helps also that they write beautiful lyrics.

Following Matt's comment on the blog post Monday, I too have seen a number of Dylan shows, including great shows from Zurich to Stuttgart (where I slept in the train station following the show). There's definitely a good mix in the crowd these days, and I think of all the songwriters of his generation--and yes, I'm probably hopelessly behind the times in my musical tastes--Dylan will "live" the longest. Much of that has to do with marketing, but I won't go into that now.

Look for another Dylan post from Abdul tomorrow, a follow up to his earlier post. And on Friday I'll discuss something else Dylan related. I'm not sure what yet.

Later this month he'll release another album--this was a surprise album, that's for sure. It's called "Together Through Life."

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