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Filtering by Tag: The Beatles

Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin’

Jayne English

dylanpost“Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now."     —Bob Dylan

My brother began listening to Dylan when he was 17. That means I heard iconic lyrics like: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good/They’ll stone you just like they said they would” and “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” drift through the house when I was 14. The guitar and harmonica, Dylan’s sometimes smooth, sometimes raspy voice wove their way through my mind and for years resided in the grooves of fond memory. I was immersed in “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Tamborine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as they spun their familiar sounds from the turntable. Recently, feeling homesick for those songs, I listened to them again. I was surprised to find that the Dylan I knew opened to new and deeper levels.

It wasn’t just that I was older. During this same time I went back to listen to other music I inhabited as a teenager. Returning to Carole King and Carly Simon, for instance, felt just the same as it did in the past. But Dylan’s music now spoke in ways I never heard before. How is it that even his old songs can still be fresh today? Italian author Italo Calvino offers a simple point about what makes a literary classic: “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” Dylan’s work is new over time because it is deeply meaningful.

It continues to have something to say because Dylan has always been open to change, not holding himself to a constraint others wanted to impose. He got a lot of grief for it. He was constantly moving artistically, from writing topical songs like Woody Guthrie’s, to protest songs, to flashing image songs, and he famously switched from acoustic to electric guitar. He probably would never consider himself brilliant, but there is brilliance in his lyrics, music, and knowing not to hold onto categories, but to allow himself the freedom to chase change and ambiguity.

Dylan’s style could change because he is true to his inspirations. Among the many are Herman Melville, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud (“When I read [Rimbaud’s] words the bells went off.”), and Paul Verlaine.

After passing through the familiarity of nostalgia, I found in Dylan so much of the poetic soul of the Beats. When he was 18, someone gave Dylan a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. Dylan said the book blew his mind. When poet and friend Allen Ginsberg asked him why, Dylan told him, "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language." Ginsberg continues to explain Kerouac’s influence on Dylan: “So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like ‘the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover,’ they're influenced by Kerouac's chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing.” In Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (1965) he blends these images and more: beauty parlor, circus, Bette Davis, Romeo, Hunchback of Notre Dame, iron vest, Noah’s rainbow, Einstein, a monk, pennywhistles, and mermaids. The Beatles were taken with Dylan’s lyricism and style. George Harrison says of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, "We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful."

As his audience attempted to confine him, Dylan resisted with all his creativity. In a 1966 Playboy interview, Dylan is asked, “Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?” Dylan responds with an explanation that was more like an improvisational riff. He spun a tale of images that included a card game, crap game, pool hall, Mexican lady, Charles Atlas. It flows in a pastiche of people and plots and scenes. When he’s finished, the interviewer says, “And that's how you became a rock-'n'-roll singer?” Dylan replies, “No, that's how I got tuberculosis.” Dylan talks in imaginative circles and was often considered “contrary” by journalists because he knew that many people were not willing to listen to, and probably would not understand, his views on the artistic process.

In the same 1966 interview, Playboy reminds Dylan that he told someone he had done everything he ever wanted to do. “If that's true,” the interviewer asks, “what do you have to look forward to?” Dylan replied, “Salvation. Just plain salvation.” Dylan’s work, as it continues to speak, does offer a kind of salvation. As one author puts it, “it is in the nature of beauty to suggest the divine and the eternal.” I’m so glad I followed nostalgia’s pull to Dylan and found more of the place where beauty saves the world.

More Popular Than Jesus

Brad Fruhauff

portrait As I prepare to host some friends for a 50th anniversary screening of the The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, I've been thinking about that period in history when people went so nuts that John Lennon could suggest The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Beatlemania really was something like a religious experience; kids acted as if rock and roll could save them.

Some American Christians responded to John's comment by burning their Beatles records and banning their songs from the radio. Today Lennon might only get some "Farewell, John" tweets, some blog posts about our anti-religious culture, and then some counter-responses trying to rise above the fray by suggesting there might be some truth to the idea.

I also imagine a facebook meme, in black and white, of Jesus in a collarless Beatle-suit being chased by adoring fans down a London street over the word "JESUSMANIA." This would be an inevitably ironic reference to the opening scene of Hard Day's Night, which, if anything, dramatizes the very phenomenon that sparked Lennon's comment. And it's hardly even drama; the film used actual fans and The Beatles themselves were amateurs, so what we get is not just a New Wave realism but nearly cinéma vérité. Nor are we over The Beatles; witness the number of tribute bands, or the continual release of repackagings of their music, or even The Beatles Rock Band. I myself avoided them until college precisely because "everyone" was into them, but when I actually started listening, they quickly won me over. I can't imagine myself getting flushed and sweaty and screaming just for being in the presence of the Fab Four, but maybe a part of me is fascinated by that ecstasy, that longing for a fantasy of total freedom. I rarely have that in music, art, or faith. In fact, I suspect it, like they did in the 18th century, of "enthusiasm."

After all, rock and roll channels a liberative, individualistic, often sexual energy that the Church will always be in tension with. Rock says: It's all about you. If it feels good, do it. Christianity says: It's all about the Christ. If it pleases Him, do it. That will never be a popular line.

Christ also said to cut off your hand if it offended you, so it's not entirely far-fetched to think it better to burn your Beatles CDs than to burn in Hell, but we also know to suspect absolutes: some people might need to trash their CDs, but that doesn't mean we all do. It's not necessarily The Beatles that should concern us but our relationship to them. If they really were more popular than Jesus, that couldn't be their fault (nor should it probably be very surprising).

What's strange (or not) is how we look to things like rock groups (or politicians or self-help gurus or Bachelors) to save us. It's the old "you have to serve somebody" line. The Beatles' broad appeal enables them to offer an attractive version of the self as acceptably erotic and rebellious. You can't found your whole life on that, but you can enjoy it for what it is for the brief time you're engaging it if we understand the difference between enjoying and idolizing.

If you've never seen the film, the anniversary is a decent excuse to enjoy a movie characterized by creative cinematography, an anarchic sense of humor reveling in wordplay, a reflexive system of metaphors for celebrity, and really fun music. I have to think God likes us to enjoy these things so long as we don't depend upon them.