Decoding Dylan


Decoding Dylan –
Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture
By Jim Curtis
McFarland & Company – $35.00

The night song had diminishing social resonance and power to evoke feelings, so Dylan took what seems in retrospect a logical step. He took the longing caused by ineradicable memories of the symbolic woman, and made a metaphysical dilemma out of it.

               (‘Songs of Transcendence’)

[…] his visionary imagination produced a trilogy of songs united by the theme of transcendence: ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Desolation Row,’ and ‘Visions of Johanna.’ These songs have a remarkably consistent pattern when we think of them as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. It is only a moderate exaggeration to say that everything that he wrote before those three songs led up to them, and that everything that he wrote after them followed them in one way or another.

               (‘Songs of Transcendence’)

As is nearly always the case whenever one reads a new book on Bob Dylan, one normally comes away with an entirely new angle; or at least having learnt something new about his extraordinary song-writing ability and all-round towering technique. Decoding Dylan – Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture is no exception.

The second of the above two quotes (alone) will, or could, undoubtedly trigger an avalanche of seemingly dense debate among Dylan aficionados.

To be sure, it almost reads like that of a university assignment, with the only things missing being a question mark at the end of the quote itself, immediately followed by the word: Discuss. So, calling all Dylanologists: feel free to respond.

Moreover, like every good university literary assignment, Jim Curtis does much to substantiate his thinking when he writes: ”No matter what creed Dylan has taken up, be it social activism in the 1960’s or Judaism and then Christianity in the 1970’s, sooner or later his restless psyche wants to transcend the limitations of the creed in question. That pattern suggests that he cannot remain satisfied for long with any particular set of beliefs, since he has a spiritual restlessness that will be satisfied only with transcendence itself.

Naturally, this is not what Dylan thought he was doing in 1962 and 1963, or even in 1966. He did not set out to write a cycle of songs about transcendence any more than Picasso had set out to invent Cubism in Paris some 60 years earlier. Creativity is rarely, if ever, a matter of conscious intention. It would seem that creativity has a mind of its own, so to speak. We can now make sense of what he did because we have had lots of time to think about it. We know what came before Dylan, and what came after him, and that knowledge makes the patterns of creativity clearer and more identifiable. And these patterns allow us to decode his mysterious songs.’’

To my mind, the word ‘decode’ might be considered somewhat questionable or off-putting to varying degrees; as to spend time decoding Dylan, surely misses the point?

Misses the point within the context of his vision and the actual art itself.

That said, from a purely wanting to find out more perspective, there’s clearly a great deal of idiosyncratic inspiration to be gleaned from the (trivial) pursuit of decoding. Not to mention analysis. As one can go on forever. And ever.

This is what essentially accounts for Decoding Dylan being such an invigorating read; as it highlights so many aspects of the songwriter’s work that one wouldn’t normally think of.

For instance: Dylan’s fascination with Chagall has a larger meaning as well. Although Dylan had grown up on popular music, soon after he got to New York he abandoned the widespread notion common in America that popular culture is exciting and high culture is boring. In his music, he is primarily interested in popular culture, whereas in literature and painting he is primarily interested in high culture. Nevertheless, he would never say that high culture is better than popular culture, or vice versa. I emphasize this point because none of Dylan’s political opinions in the early 1960s were even remotely as radical and subversive as his acceptance of, and respect for, both high culture and popular culture’’ (‘Bob Dylan’).

Given much of the above, each of this book’s eight chapters are as informative as they are challenging (the seventh, ‘Dylan and Springsteen’ in particular).
Hence it being such an imperative read.

David Marx


6 responses to “Decoding Dylan

  1. 2468archie2

    It’s been a good year for the roses…

  2. This statement from Jim Curtis: ” That pattern suggests that he cannot remain satisfied for long with any particular set of beliefs, since he has a spiritual restlessness that will be satisfied only with transcendence itself” is very questionable, in fact I think it is wrong. The moral principles from which Dylan has operated have remained basically the same during his entire career.. These moral principles are based on the Judean Christian Bible. The way he expresses these principle have gone through different phases. An example from his lyrics in his song “Every Grain of Sand”: ‘Onwards in my journey I came to understand that every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand”. This new understanding is WITHIN the frame work of his unchanged moral principles.If he would denounce this moral code, then this statement might be true, but that is not the case.

  3. Unless you are actually in the mind of the great Dylan, you can only assume his thoughts and feelings. I am amazed at some of these writers, as I am sure Mr. Dylan is. I have been with him from the beginning,,I and a child of the same era.A person feels his music, they don’t dissect it.

    • I don’t entirely agree with Mary. It is not only a matter of feeling but also of objective words which refer to certain absolutes. Over the years, in many a interview he has made it clear that he has something to say, that he has a message.If it would only be a matter of feeling his music, millions of contradicting interpretations are possible. Is that what he intended? I doubt it.

  4. Indeed Mary – although makes for interesting reading….

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