The Answers of the Ineffable Part 2 – The Mysteries of Bob Dylan

Part One might intrigue you!

The Mysteries of Bob Dylan

So what does this have to do with video games? We’ll get there, I promise; follow my rabbit trail and you’ll find your reward.

I would consider myself a conoissuer of “rock’n’roll” music. I don’t quite understand when it started and why it happened, but I found contemporary Christian music and pop wholly unsatisfying, seeking different experiences. The Internet, as usual, will provide any alternative you seek, and it happened quickly. The world of rock, from the progenitors of the 1960s to the newest sub-sub-sub genre of today, come under my purview.

However, and I now readily admit shame about this, I never found myself with any great fondness for Bob Dylan, or even bothering to listen to him with any interest whatsoever. Part of this came from my parents; they never liked Bob Dylan because, as most people will tell you, he represented the ultimate in left-wing political folk protest as a follower of Woody Guthrie. Given that “message songs” are exactly the sort of thing I tend to avoid in this genre, I gave an artist’s entire oeuvre a pass, much to my own detriment.


Photos of Dylan with Joan Baez don’t exactly fill you with confidence.

However, in the midst of reading amateur critical reviews of Bob Dylan from sites like George Starostin’s Only Solitaire and John McFerrin’s Reviews of Music, I found two people who eloquently and emphatically stated the greatness of Dylan. General critical opinion also remains rather high, but I honestly didn’t see the fuss about him and his music. Sure, he inspired a whole generation of rock musicians and probably led it to its prominence in pop culture, but he didn’t seem a necessary musician for everyone.

From a purely technical standpoint, all of that seems perfectly true. Bob Dylan writes melodies, regurgitates them, uses his rather awful voice to sing lots of nonsense to a seemingly folksy tune. I mean, how much variation will you find in that vein? Not much, all said. And yet, I couldn’t write him completely off. For one thing, the historical trail of rock’s early pioneers tells you much of the future. I will say, controversially I assume, that most of the stuff after the 1960s is highly derivative of that revolutionary decade, but that’s an article for a different website!

And yet, typing this now as I listen to Blonde on Blonde, a double album many consider Dylan’s finest work, I can’t stop listening to it. I can think of a million criticisms. Dylan writes several numbers that sound completely the same; take generic blues numbers like Pledging My Time, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat for a swing, and you’ll see what I mean. Most of the lyrics make zero logical sense. Seriously, make sense of these lines from Absolutely Sweet Marie:

Well, six white horses that you did promise
Were finally delivered down to the penitentiary
But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

I can think of a traditional Internet phrase to describe it: WTF does Dylan even mean here? Does he mean anything at all? What’s he playing at? Certainly, all of this intrigues you mind with images of jelly-faced women who sneeze and children wearing Chinese suits, but I wouldn’t call that emotionally engaging stuff. As a sum, Blonde on Blonde clearly does absolutely nothing special from a purely technical standpoint.

Yet, I think I can rightly declare it a masterpiece that deserves to be listened by anyone and everyone. Why? Frankly, I can’t tell you why with my adept prose or even through a logical, rational set of proofs. What I can tell you is that I just feel that way. I often avoid trying to say “feel”, because this implies that I hold nothing to back myself up. “Feel” isn’t quite the right word; I know it in my soul that Bob Dylan communicates with me on a very primal level with Blonde on Blonde, and I cannot pinpoint why. I imagine people listening to this record in 1966 thought the same way, and we all still don’t know why. The most important part of music is what isn’t the notes.

Suddenly, after a few spins, everything fell into place. The repetitive, yet indelibly catchy rhythms, draw you into the swirling chaos of Dylan’s thought world. The abstract, and strikingly strange, lyrics run the gamut from hilarious twists of wordplay to literary references both popular and obscure. Sometimes, a brazenly crazy image just hits you in the right way, and the music complements everything brilliantly. There’s a mood to every song, and it hits you just right. I don’t even know why, and it confuses me to no end. At the same time, I totally understand it, and yet my words fail to really make a dent. Paul Williams’ review of Blonde on Blonde says it much better than I:

Another problem, and in a way a much more serious one, is the widespread desire to “find out” what Dylan’s trying to say instead of listening to what he is saying. According to Bob, “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung… the word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound.” But people go right on looking for the “message” in everything Dylan writes, as though he were Aesop telling fables. Not being able to hear something, because you’re too busy listening for the message, is a particularly American malady. There’s a tragic lack of freedom in being unable to respond to things because you’ve been trained to await the commercial and conditioned to listen for the bell.

Take a look at a great painting, or a Polaroid snapshot. Does it have a message? A song is a picture. You see it; more accurately, you see it, taste it, feel it…. Telling a guy to listen to a song is like giving him a dime for the roller coaster. It’s an experience. A song is an experience. The guy who writes the song and the guy who sings it each feel something; the idea is to get you to feel the same thing, or something like it. And you can feel it without knowing what it is.

That search for the message, the meaning, and the ultimate goal of it all, will leave you chasing your tail in circles. Frankly, Dylan confused me precisely because I operated in this mode to “find out” what turned Dylan’s music into something compelling. You must let it wash over you, somewhat like the taste of scotch or whisky. You can’t down either of those substances; they smell like they’ll burn your nose hairs off, and gulping that will just give you a hernia. Let it sit in your mouth a bit, though, and the depths of flavor will reveal themselves, tastes hidden within a sea of alcohol that swirl in and out of your tongue’s senses.

I accept my ignorance on Dylan from a purely intellectual point of view; on the other hand, I totally understand what he says, just not in a way I can convey to you.

And onward, to Part 3!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.