Seeing Bob Dylan and/or Divine Revelation, p.2
December, 2001


Everyone knows that Dylan went a little crazy in the late seventies. He became a born- again Christian, then went back, then who knows, now he’s on Chabad telethons – the idea that we could ever understand Dylan, like fans hoped to in the Sixties, surely isn’t around anymore. The young kids might not know about this five year glitch in Dylan’s biography; maybe for them it’s straight from Highway 61 to now. (Bless them, they don’t even know about the lame years, or albums like Knocked out Loaded.) But for most of us, Dylan’s like a milder form of Michael Jackson – just a little bit... weird.

I have no problem with the religious phases or the elliptical remarks at award ceremonies, though. Eccentricity – all for it. The part of Dylan I never understood was the love-song part. The first album after the Christian period, Shot of Love, is to me much more puzzling than Slow Train Coming and Saved. What’s Dylan doing? Is he just writing random love songs to people who don’t exist? We know it’s not Sara and Blood on the Tracks anymore -- that’s ancient history, even though for many of us it’s the last data we have on the man’s personal life. Of course, there are two sides to the fact that Dylan leads a private life. Maybe there are lots of women who have been his muses, and all these love songs mean something real.

I don’t think so, though. Tight Connection to my Heart? Under Your Spell? Come on. Certainly the new, stylized songs – Moonlight, for example, on Love & Theft – are love songs as stylistic objects much more than they are personal, bard-tradition confessions. The point of Moonlight is not whether there is a real woman that Bob Dylan is asking “Won’t you/Be with me/Under the moonlight all alone?” The point is that he’s a crooner – the immortality is in the music. This is not Dylan confessing – it’s him singing a self-consciously styled pop artifact.

Or is there more? I want to suggest an audacious second theory of Bob Dylan. The love songs are to God.

Arrrgh! No! Say it isn't so! If false, it's silly. If true, it ruins every love song the man sings – like You Light Up My Life after Debbie Boone revealed that it was for Jesus. And, ugh! Isn’t this the sort of preposterous Dylanology that “scholars” in the Sixties used to publish as if each new reading of Desolation Row was the next Isis Unveiled?

Now, let me explain. I don’t really mean that Dylan is singing every love song he sings for God. I mean that Dylan has cracked the blues code. Singing about heartbreak and love is really singing about suffering and life itself, whether the pain comes from slavery or Jim Crow or any of the other pains that informed African American music. Songs that say “The politicians are cheaters, the environment is being destroyed” usually sound idiotic. (Except for some Dylan wrote, of course.) But songs that say “You done and left me, my world’s gone wrong” capture the pain. They refract it through a common language that doesn’t try to explain the source of our confusion so much as project it onto a set of standard terms and tropes that we all understand. I don’t want to know what crisis really is behind every singer who sings the blues – I want them to tell me the Thrill is Gone and let me feel for myself the truth in the words, bringing to the show all of my pain, which isn’t theirs. Who believes that “Crossroads” is really about standing at an intersection and trying to hitch a ride? That’s what it’s about on one level, but on another it is about being stranded far away from comfort, wasting away, being ignored by those around you. We know this to be true, those of us who love the song, even if we’ve never hitchhiked before. Because the song speaks the pain. Love is how you sing about whatever hurts.

Okay, now look at “Sugar Baby,” Dylan’s final statement on Love and Theft. Part of the song, like Things Have Changed, seems to be about the darkness (maybe fear of mortality, maybe just sadness) that has animated so much of his best work these last few years:

I've got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
Can't turn back, you can't come back, sometimes we push too far
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where you are

But some of it seems to be directed at a woman ("Sugar Baby") that done him wrong:

Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one
You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done
Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born
Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn

I used to feel kind of let down that Dylan was just writing a love song in place of the grand summation that was Highlands. But this is the secret of the blues: it’s all the same hurt. The hurt from the woman, the hurt from the world. And the love of the woman, the love of the world. Why are so many great songs about love, and so few about anything else? There are exceptions – the 59th Street Bridge Song, Born to be Wild, Spanish Bombs. But is it that hard for anything in the world to really rival love in its power to inspire art?

Or is it that love, as perhaps the only experience that we dream is open to every one of us, is the language in which all delight is expressed, and the lens through which we view all sorrow?

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