Joni Mitchell isn't one of my favorite songwriters or performers, but I like some of her stuff a lot, and I admire her musical intelligence and creativity. To read this from her, on Bob Dylan, is satisfying; Dylan has always seemed to me vastly and inexplicably overrated.
Below (click "More") is a long post on Dylan I wrote for my previous blog. Sorry the formatting makes it look strange here.
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I've never understood why so many people revere Bob Dylan's lyrics. I thought I'd try analyzing one of his most-admired songs, "Visions of Johanna," in search of enlightenment. Then Germaine Greer weighed in on it:
It's not verse, not even doggerel. Nor is it prose, because it doesn't make sense. Its combination of pretentiousness and illiteracy isn't surprising, which would be something; it's just annoying.
Norm Geras, the most intelligent Dylan fan of my (Web-only) acquaintance, responded:
I think Germaine Greer has bitten off more than she can chew. She doesn't rate Bob Dylan as a lyricist. I don't have what I'd need to establish that she's wrong about that, though I'm pretty sure she is wrong. . . .
[Y]ou can't show that his lyrics are no good by citing one example of (what you take to be) some poor lines. That there's a ginger cat living next door doesn't show that the street is full of ginger cats. Third and decisively, there are just those songs in their gathered assembly. Stacked up against Greer's little number here, they don't give her much of a chance.
I decided to analyze all the songs Norm listed. What happened, though, is that I got through only the first four, and only partway through each of those, because I liked none of them well enough to finish. If you're interested, click "More" to read what I ended up with.
(Note: I'm using the versions posted at Dylan's official site. They differ in places from the recorded lyrics.)
I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love,
He loves time? How does one love time?
I love you more than money and more than the stars above,
The stars above? As opposed to stars where? Is there a rhyme with "love" triter than "the stars above"? (It was trite even when this song came out.) Why does he love the stars? They're objects; does he love them as he loves the abstractions "time" and "love"? Also, among "time," "love" and "stars," "money" doesn't fit. It's tangible, mundane, man-made, utilitarian.
Love you more than madness, more than waves upon the sea,
He loves madness? Whose madness? What sort? Also, why doesn't he begin this line with "I" as he does the first two? There needs to be a reason for that kind of change, and I can't find one.
Love you more than life itself, you mean that much to me.
Two hackneyed clauses to end the verse (and again the unexplained absence of "I" at the beginning of the line). "Love you more than life itself"—is he saying that he'd die for her? Why does he need to add, "You mean that much to me"? If he has to tell her he's sincere, then she's unsure of him, and we need to learn why (we don't). If he doesn't have to tell her he's sincere, then they're six empty syllables, added to rhyme with "sea."
It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don't matter, anyhow
Very different diction: double negative, "ain't," "It don't matter." Writing in dialect. Fine with me.
An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don't know by now
Will we learn why? (No, not precisely.)
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Why "break of dawn"? Why not just "dawn" or some phrase fresher than "break of dawn"?
Look out your window and I'll be gone
You're the reason I'm trav'lin' on
She's the reason? He has nothing to do with it? That seems an evasion of responsibility.
Don't think twice, it's all right
"Don't think twice"? To think twice is to reconsider something one might do. Is that what he means? If so, reconsider what? If not, what does he mean? And what's all right? The song in full gives the sense that he's leaving because she hurt him, and he's telling her not to worry about him, but we never discover what happened between them.
It ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
"Knowed"? He's reaching, maybe crossing, the edge of believability with that dialect. And what does he mean that he never knew her light? Is the light metaphorical? If so, what does it represent?
An' it ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road
"Dark side of the road"—simple, terse, evocative image. But I'm picturing her at the break of dawn turning on her light. If she does that, and the light's near the window, then the window goes dark and she can't see him, whichever side of the road he's on. So a decent songwriting moment becomes confusing.
Still I wish there was somethin' you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talkin' anyway
He wishes there were something she "would do or say." Then he notes that they never "did too much talkin'." Did they ever do much doing?
So don't think twice, it's all right
Again with the thinking twice. What is she reconsidering? Or does he mean "Don't give it a second thought"? Maybe that's it. If so, why does he substitute for the phrase he intends one that means something different? If he doesn't mean "Don't give it a second thought," I don't know what he's talking about. Also, by the end of the song he's told her four times not to think twice.
"I and I"
(I hate the music to this song, and Dylan's vocal.)
Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed.
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams.
Interesting second line. We can infer that his dreams aren't pleasant. "How free must be her dreams"—nice phrasing.
In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.
She "must have"? Those are the only explanations for her good dreams now? Is everyone who enjoys pleasant dreams reincarnated from royalty? I'm guessing that the "righteous king" is David, but who owned the world? Maybe in this couplet he isn't referring to her dreams, and she also possesses a queenly beauty. If so, he should tell us, because without that clarification these lines don't make sense. Also, there are way too many syllables for the melody.
I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives.
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.
Abrupt change in tone. Much more formal than the verse. The fourth line's a reference to the Book of Exodus, I think, so we seem to be wandering in the Old Testament. Does he intend "I and I" to refer to "An eye for an eye," a phrase that appears later in the song? If so, why? Does the second line have Biblical connotations? If so, what are they? It reads as though the narrator intends it as wisdom, but I can't make sense of it. Is "creation" God's creation? Or is it man's act of creating, such as writing a song? The lyrics need to be comprehensible, and they aren't.
Think I'll go out and go for a walk,
Abrupt return to the tone of the first verse. Why? And why use "go" twice in the line?
Not much happenin' here, nothin' ever does.
Is he trying to lighten the song, make it modest again, after that heavy, cryptic, and possibly grandiose chorus? If so, he fails. The effect is disjunction.
Besides, if she wakes up now, she'll just want me to talk
I got nothin' to say, 'specially about whatever was.
I'm starting to think that the narrator of the verses is not a mere man, but the celebrity Bob Dylan. (Later verses strengthen that impression.) Let me express an artistic belief: if a song makes sense only when one knows the biography of the songwriter or the performer—in this case, that he's someone with whom a "strange woman" would want to discuss "whatever was"—then the song is shoddy.
I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives.
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.
Maybe by "creation" he's referring to artistic creation. If so, then he might mean that writing demands an attempt to see one's own character accurately, without "honor[ing]" or "forgiv[ing]." The I who speaks in the fourth line would be his hidden self, whom the other I tries and fails to see clearly. No man can bear to confront his true nature, is the implication; he can't live with full self-knowledge. That interpretation might also explain the differences in tone between the verses and the chorus: the verse is the I who must try to confront the I of the chorus.
That's just an elaborate guess, though. All an artist can reasonably ask of a critic (the role I'm playing here) is careful attention and thought, and some awareness of the challenges the artist encounters. If even now I can't tell what's happening in this song, then the songwriter didn't do his job. I'm using my own tools and skill to try and patch holes he left. Understanding shouldn't require so much effort. (I've just lost any Finnegans Wake fans.)
When I was very young I listened hundreds of times to Peter, Paul and Mary's version of this song. I haven't heard it in years.
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Are the roads symbolic or literal? I'm guessing the former. Who is "you"? This song is widely considered a protest song, so maybe "a man" means "a black man" (Dylan released it in 1963), and "you" is everyone who considers a black man worth less than a white man. In which case, I'm not "you," and the narrator's referring to someone else, morally inferior to himself. So either the narrator's arrogant, lecturing the benighted, or he's inane.
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Does the white dove symbolize peace? Probably, or he wouldn't make it white. It's an awfully tired symbol for an artist to use without acknowledging its familiarity. Also, do doves cross oceans? I don't know, but I don't think so. And "sleeps in the sand"? What dove sleeps in sand? Maybe this is poetic license, but it's sloppy.
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
Ban cannonballs? Who'll enforce the ban? Not the dove (literal or figurative). And by what means? This song may have seemed profound to the young and uninformed when it first appeared—it probably seemed profound to me—but these days, with Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, etc. awash in blood, and pure diplomacy ineffective as always in ending the carnage, it's preposterous. As dated as the Macarena, and much more irresponsible.
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
I'm having trouble separating this song's reputation from what I'm hearing. If it's a protest song, then these lines may refer not only to the sense that the culture is changing (e.g., attitudes toward Vietnam, women's status, and civil rights, and the supplanting of the World War II generation by the baby boomers), but also to the danger of fallout from nuclear weapons. As I listen now, though, the lines suggest futility, as though his questions are unanswerable. I can sympathize with that kind of fatalism, but it turns the song into a series of pointless questions. Probably the protest-song view is right.
I'd stop there, but I have to note this couplet from the next verse:
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
"How many ears must one man have" is the worst bit of writing I've encountered lately. It forces me to picture a man with ears all over his head.
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So, as I expected but not as I hoped, I find myself siding with Ms. Greer.
Later: I received an email from a very smart fan of Dylan's who didn't want to take the time to write an extensive reply (can't blame him), but who disagreed with the tenor and the details of this post. He offered two specific examples of his disagreement. One:
"She's the reason? He has nothing to do with it? That seems an evasion of responsibility". Dear, dear. You sound like a marriage guidance counsellor. It's a song, not an arbitration. Sung from his point of view!
Exactly. I'm making an observation, not a criticism. The narrator is dishonest, and therefore untrustworthy. That's worth noting as an element of his character. (My favorite rock track features an untrustworthy narrator.) Does my commenter think I'm scolding the narrator? Evidently so.
Love you more than madness...
is unlikely to mean that he loves madness; more likely it's that his love is greater than a love that's mad.
This is the kind of defense of Dylan that I'm used to.
My commenter's interpretation didn't occur to me. It's plausible, especially when the line stands on its own. There are problems with it, though. First, and obviously, it's not clear that this reading is correct (even my commenter calls it only "more likely" than mine). Second, if it's right, then the narrator's suddenly using "more than" to mean something different than in the preceding and following lines, where it means "more than I love." That's shoddy writing. So either the line is incoherent, or it's poorly made. Or—I suppose this is a valid option—the song's about an inarticulate, unoriginal man professing his love. Such a song could be interesting, but this song isn't.
What I find dejectingly familiar about my commenter's second point is how much more forgiving he is of clumsy lyrics than he is of imprecision in other sorts of writing (you'll have to take my word for it). I don't know why most people can't say, "This is bad, but I love it." I say it all the time.
Anyway, these songs are bad, and I dislike them. As I've opined before, soon no one's going to understand the fuss once made over Dylan.
Later: Another highly intelligent Dylan fan sent me links to a couple of songs. One of them, "Like A Rolling Stone," I know well, so I don't need to study it. The other, "All Along The Watchtower," I'd hardly heard, so I listened to it tonight. I won't go into detail, but some thoughts:
"Out of here": where is "here"? The line suggests that the speaker's trapped. But if he's one of the riders in the final verse, can't he just get on his horse? If he isn't one of the riders, who are they?
Are businessmen stealing his wine, or did he offer it to them? Or did he produce it and sell it to them? (That's the kind of ambiguity some Dylan fans consider profound, and I consider sloppy.)
What does the phrase "along the line" add to the line's meaning? Is it there just to rhyme? (I think so.)
Why the change in diction in the first verse from "There's" and "can't" to "it is"?
In the second verse, is "this" ("this is not our fate") the same as "that" ("we've been through that")? If not, what does "this" refer to? Being trapped?
"Barefoot servants too": I'm sure "too" is there only to make the rhyme. That's lazy writing. Not that it's unusual. For instance, Huey Lewis and The News do the same thing in "Heart of Rock 'N' Roll." It's less irritating, though, in an entirely unambitious song.
In the final lines, "Two riders were approaching" puts the listener in the castle (or the fort, or whatever it is). Would someone there be able to hear a wildcat "growl" "in the distance"?
I don't enjoy disagreeing with people I respect, but Dylan's reputation baffles me.