Bob Dylan’s genius & oceanic work have been on my mind.
He not busy being born is busy dying.—Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” 1965.
Bob Dylan’s work is like barbeque or Mexican food—some is better, but it’s all good. It was news last week that he got the Nobel Prize for literature. It hasn’t been news for a long time that he’s a genius. But then, genius is simply brilliance plus output. Then again, he’s a genius among geniuses. I count it as my good fortune to have lived during a time when an artist on the order of William Shakespeare has been belting it out for us.
He’s written timeless gems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and surreal masterpieces like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and born-again testaments like “Slow Train Coming” and “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody,” along with too many love songs to count. He created one of my favorite sub-genres: his own spooky Mojave stories like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Man in the Long Dark Coat.” And, always, shooting through everything, the blues.
There’s something for anyone in Dylan’s phases. You can start anywhere, and work forward and back. But I might suggest Blood on the Tracks. If you demand his prettiest voice, there’s Dylan’s wonderful Nashville Skyline, recorded with Johnny Cash. Critics are fun, though uneven as guides except for maybe Greil Marcus. Most of them utterly missed the beauty, power, and risk of Dylan’s overtly Christian period.
• • •
Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind—“Mama, You Been on My Mind”
Sometimes it’s Dylan’s smaller songs that stick in your mind and reveal the bones of his lyrical and musical greatness. For me, this week it’s been his celebrated love song “Mama, You Been on My Mind.” Recorded for Another Side of Bob Dylan, in 1964, it wasn’t included and wasn’t released until 1991. The song is revered for its sentiment, colloquial snap, and catchy tune. Just looking at the language in the opening line, the diction is simple but arresting. How is the sun cut flat? Then there’s the soft internal off-rhyme and assonance within the line:
PerhAps it’s the color of the sUn cUt flAt
The second line cements the singer in place at a literal crossroads, the hobo boy:
An’ Cov’rin’ the Crossroads I’m standing at
The more usual word would be “flooding,” but “covering” is interesting and gives Dylan the alliteration of those delightful Cs. This line isn’t strictly necessary, but it partly explains, without ruining, the magic of “sun cut flat” in a visual image. You can picture very low early or late sun rays strafing the poor suff’rin’ singin’ waif.
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
Well what can I say? How about Freaking perfect, Bob! So simple, and gives him a rhyme with “at” above—but most of all gives the singer’s wistful, puzzled state. We’ve been there, or want to be. The end of each stanza deepens that feeling: for whatever reason, ex-lover, you’ve been on my mind.
The song’s last stanza—what an ending! Dylan so catches youthful yearning, arrogance, and wounded pride:
When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror
You know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near
I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind
• • •I haven’t mentioned Dylan much, though I wrote about his memoir, Chronicles, primarily in regard to his brief relationship with poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, who recruited him to craft songs for a musical. Dylan folded that failed project into New Morning, a fine album that includes his mocking “Day of the Locusts,” about accepting an honorary doctorate from Princeton (after lots of nagging by his wife and David Crosby).
Dylan reportedly still hasn’t acknowledged his Nobel Prize or told the academy he plans to attend the awards ceremony. He’s ornery. And busy, so very busy. Currently on tour as a singer, he’s also a painter who’s recently been featured for his work as a sculptor. According to a September article in the New York Times, he built the iron archway for a $1.3 billion resort casino at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor. As he told us in 1964’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”
So much choice in Dylan; so many songs for every mood. Naming “Tambourine Man” my favorite Dylan song is fraught. But the stunning beauty and depth of his artistic pledge makes it special to me. Dylan swore to follow his muse even in the “jingle jangle morning,” even after his dreams of night had vanished, and he has. No one can doubt he would’ve died in the gutter for his art. Instead, he’s a Nobel laureate and still cranking it out at age 75. His songs feel perfectly handmade—while any one being sung, and sometimes recorded, might be rough as a cob. I bow down to this trickster troubadour and his oceanic work. Here’s to you, Bob.
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow—Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”