Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
We should all be so lucky to grow up with parents who get excited about great lyrics.
When rapper Kate Tempest was a young teenager—12 or 13 years old—her father would play Bob Dylan records and discuss the lyrics with her. It made quite an impression, and now she’s one of the most astonishing lyricists making music today. Interviewed on NPR’s All Songs Considered, she told host Bob Boilen that those early experiences turned Bob Dylan into “a big lyrical presence in my heart and soul.”
Listen to that interview, which NPR posted in June, and you’ll hear Boilen ask Tempest to pick one Dylan song to play. She chooses “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s fifth studio album.
Boilen, clearly overwhelmed by this classic song, says, “It was 1965, and nobody was writing words quite like that. . . . [Dylan’s music] would sometimes have an optimistic feel to it. But not here. . . . There was nothing optimistic in this song.”
But Tempest disagrees: “There is optimism because it’s so beautiful. . . . The fact that you can put words to these feelings, that you can make something that speaks so truly . . . for me, that’s kind of optimistic.”
Boilen, surprised and moved, responds, “I never would have thought of it that way!”
Tempest continues. “For me, it’s the perfect lyric: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ It’s so rich. Although I began my relationship with Bob Dylan listening to him with my dad, this was the first song where I heard this . . . and understood this on my own terms. So this is my moment of Bob Dylan, of, ‘Okay, you’re mine now. You’re not just something that belongs to a previous generation. This is like. . . I get this.'”
* * *
After listening to that All Songs Considered podcast during my drive home from work, I grabbed my iPod and switched over to Bringing It All Back Home. And sure enough, the opening lines of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” seized my attention as fully as they had the first time I heard the song back in 1987.
Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government. . .
With the relentlessness and confidence of a Kendrick Lamar anthem, Dylan’s flow set my foot—my left foot, not the one on the gas pedal—to stomping. I did the easy math and realized that, since the album was already two decades old when I first heard it, it must have arrived at its half-century anniversary. (Sure enough, more vigilant music historians marked the 50-year point back in March.)
Half-century landmarks are complicated affairs to celebrate. Generations now have to work backward to discover Bob Dylan’s early recordings, and they have to show a certain openness, curiosity, and attentiveness to appreciate it.
In Dylan’s case, they have a lot of help, with films like Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Todd Haynes’ ambitious, experimental biopic I’m Not There. They hear covers of Dylan songs by contemporary pop artists. They see an enigmatic old man welcomed like a king to late-night shows (David Letterman’s send-off, for example) and award shows, only to watch him in bewilderment and wonder what the fuss is about.
Me, I first sat up and paid attention to Bringing It All Back Home when I was in high school. For Kate Tempest, it was her dad. For me, it was my history teacher—David Robinson. Robinson was then, and is now, a Renaissance man. He’s a writer, a photographer, and the editor-in-chief of Positive Feedback, a journal for audiophiles on the cutting edge. Not only did he teach history at Portland Christian Schools for many years; he also demonstrated for me that the Christian life was not incongruent with intellectual growth and a rich celebration of arts and culture. (He went on to teach at other schools: Kaplan, Marylhurst, and George Fox Universities, for example.)
When I was Robinson’s student, I was becoming intoxicated with pop, rock, and jazz, and going to extremes to express that enthusiasm. (As a final essay for his Western Civilization course, I completely rewrote the lyrics to U2’s album The Joshua Tree so that each song became a summation of something I’d learned in that class.)
Lucky for me, Robinson was also something of a music historian and an enthusiast for high-end audio equipment. He was eager to contribute to my growing appreciation for the finer things, so he invited me to stop by his house and listen to some of the greatest music ever recorded on his own standard-setting stereo.
Sitting there enthralled before Robinson’s towering speakers, I found my way through layers of sound in my first serious encounters with The Beatles’ White Album, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, Rush’s Permanent Waves. . . and Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home.
And it was there I began to understand that Dylan was not a bad singer; he was a storyteller, a shape-shifter, an actor. Dylan contained multitudes. His lyrics and stories began to work their way into my memory—easier to remember than Bible verses, often urgent and eye-opening, frequently cryptic and mysterious, but lasting in their relevance. They still sound as fresh and urgent as anything on the latest Kendrick Lamar record.
I mean, just listen to this:
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred. . .
I could speculate about how such poetry can perfectly align with today’s political conflicts and calamities.
But then, I still feel like a beginner when it comes to digging for treasure in the deep mines of Dylan’s work. Perhaps the best thing to do is learn from the testimonies of listeners who have lived longer under Dylan’s influence. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share some passionate testimonies from Dylan’s admirers.
First. . . why not check in with David Robinson?
* * *
I found my former teacher on vacation in Maui, and emailed him some questions. He responded with as much enthusiasm for Dylan as I remember. In fact, he wrote, “Without wishing to slight anyone, my list of the top three singer-songwriters of pop-rock-folk in the past 50 years includes Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Joni Mitchell, in no particular order.”
Then he addressed my questions:
Overstreet: Do you remember the first time you heard Bringing It All Back Home? Was it your first Dylan record?
Robinson: I first heard this album in the later ‘60s. . . don’t remember the exact year. It was not my first Dylan album, but was close to it. . . perhaps my second or third. Its effect was really powerful on me.
Overstreet: Which song from that record means the most to you?
Robinson: Ouch. Hard, really hard to rank these. If I had to make a pick, it would probably be the frenetic poetic flow of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” in hot pursuit, and the rest on their heels. This sort of free association—and the extreme economy of language that it embodies—is powerful for me. Ditto the prophetic social satire embedded throughout.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” knocked me out, both from Dylan and from the numerous covers that flooded the radio at the time. The poetry of it stabbed me in the soul; I’ve never recovered. But later, “Subterranean” and “Baby Blue” would come to overshadow “Tambourine” in my estimation.
Overstreet: I’m sure you’ve encountered the common objection to Dylan that “That’s not singing.” Do you have any words to help listeners appreciate Dylan’s style?
Robinson: This gives me such a headache. Not being able to discern prophetic truth and real poetry from “nice” or “pretty” is the hallmark of incomplete artistic development. Even longtime followers and music critics (that often obnoxious rabble) fall into the trap of “beauty” in their evaluations of Dylan. They forget (or never knew) that it is the inner glory, and not the outer appearance, that is the place of the Shekinah. Artistic glory travels incognito, a fact true of Joni Mitchell and The Beatles, as well. Jesus Himself was “not comely,” and had no outward signs of the infinite beauty that resided in Him.
This is a problem with many people, of course: Our prejudices keep us from knowing the full abundance of our surrounding blessings. I consider this sort of thing to be a sin against the fullness of life.
There is no short answer to those who suffer this affliction, and thus cannot see the brilliance of Dylan’s recorded singing and live performances. “Unless you become like a little child,” you will not see the greatness of what you’re hearing. These critics and naysayers cannot judge Dylan’s art; his art is judging them. Criticism is always self-revelation. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” If you won’t listen to the artist, and cannot recognize creative glory, then you’re stuck with (being) the critic. And most of those are miserable creatures. They see the external, write from the outside, and miss the greatness. (I Samuel 16:7 comes to mind here.)
Overstreet: What other artists’ names come to mind if you think about the influence of Dylan’s early work?
Robinson: I can’t think of any pop/rock/folk artist of the past 50 years who wasn’t affected by Bob Dylan—and that includes The Beatles, who cross-pollinated with him, and Joni Mitchell, who was so intensely aware of him that she has recently jousted publicly over his place in the pantheon.
The Byrds did some fantastic covers of his work, and benefitted from the great popularity of Dylan; ditto artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, or great musicians like Brian Ferry who did a fine album of Dylan covers, etc., ad infinitum.
But this is ultimately a discursive rabbit hole. Dylan’s creative footprint is vast, much larger than that of lesser artists, and overshadowing all but Joni and The Beatles, in my estimation. That doesn’t denigrate the contributions of myriad singer-songwriters; it simply puts 50-plus years of pop, rock, and folk into the context of a surpassingly great genius.
Next week: Joe Henry reflects on Bringing It All Back Home.