The Magazine

Hark! the Heralded Dylan Sings

Bob Dylan fans are the battered wives of the music industry.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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He is one of the great artists of the century.
--Andrew Motion,
England's poet laureate, 2000

The great artist of the past fifty years, I believe.
--Joe Klein, Time, 2009

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead,
Wiggle, you can raise the dead
--Bob Dylan, 'Wiggle Wiggle,' 1990

If you needed more evidence, the release this month of Bob Dylan's Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, should close the case. Dylan fans are like Baby Huey dolls, those inflatable figures with the big red nose and the rounded bottom, weighted so that when you punch them--punch hard, punch with all your might--they bounce right back, grinning the same frozen, unchangeable grin.

We can only make a guess how Bob Dylan truly feels about his fans. But it can be a good, strong guess. He's been punching those Baby Hueys for a long time, hard.

It's not too unusual for a performer to lack respect for his most worshipful admirers; he hears himself as they do not, knowing how far short of his hopes his performance invariably falls, despite their wild applause. Sometimes an artist will even hold his audience in contempt, though he's careful, for business reasons, to keep the contempt at least thinly concealed; Abstract Expressionist painters come to mind. But not since Don Rickles at the height of his powers--the second greatest artist of the past 50 years, some believe--has a performer taken delight in actively abusing the people who pay money to enjoy his act. And when Rickles did it, the people were supposed to laugh, and did. When Dylan does it, the fans pull their chins and think hard. Then they pop right back, Baby Huey-like, and start explaining.

This has been going on a long time. The first instance followed an album called Self Portrait, released in 1970. In a single two-record set, Dylan embraced every musical convention that the revolution he helped lead a few years before was meant to destroy. Self Portrait's sound borrowed equally from the hillbilly corpus of Frankie Laine and the champagne music of Jackie Gleason. Dylan used his Voice of a Generation to sing "Let It Be Me" backed by celestial choirs and swelling strings, and he led a slick, bored-stiff studio band through Tijuana Brass instrumentals. From the hamper of his own work he produced songs of surpassing idiocy--"All the Tired Horses," for example, which featured a choir repeating its only lyric: "All the tired horses in the sun / How'm I gonna get any riding done, hmmm?"

At first, in the pop music world, there was dismay. Then the chin-pulling began. What was Dylan up to? With the honorable exception of the unillusioned Greil Marcus, who opened his review with a reasonable question ("What is this s--?"), critics tried to puzzle it out. Deep thinking reviewers from Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone began toying with what has since become famous, to me at least, as the Dylan roots theory. It has proved remarkably durable and elastic. Whenever Dylan did something artistically egregious, in poor taste, inept, schlocky, or otherwise incompatible with his reputation for genius, the reviewers would explain that he was a kind of musicologist, plumbing the roots of Americana, absorbing within himself the variegated traditions of our native music and transmuting them into art uniquely his own. Hence "All the Tired Horses." Stupid? The work of a tapped-out songwriter who doesn't know when to quit? Think again. Dylan was simply wandering in realms of the spirit the rest of us hadn't yet reached. As his audience has been saying ever since, he's always one step ahead of his audience. The fact of his genius became unfalsifiable. Nothing he did could contradict it.

So Dylan turned and hit 'em again. He became a born-again Christian. He performed in Kabuki make-up. He performed drunk. He wore funny hats. He veered from headbanger rock to Opryland cheese. He made boring, pretentious movies about himself. He played with the Grateful Dead. Nothing seemed to work; his admirers just dug in deeper, gaining confidence as their ranks grew even to include England's poet laureate. At last, in what for any other performer would have been a self-administered death blow, he adopted the stage style he's famous for today: the adenoidal voice mumbling unintelligible lyrics, the chain-saw arrangements mangling the most beloved Dylan standard till the body can't be identified. He tours continuously, doing this night after night.