A Music Beyond Conclusion: Notes on Bob Dylan, the Arts, & Faith

This world is not Conclusion
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
Emily Dickinson, #501, excerpt

To lead with a quotation by Emily Dickinson, one of the most significant American recluses in our tradition, in an essay on Bob Dylan is almost perverse. For thirty years, Bob Dylan has been playing shows on his “never-ending tour,” one hundred dates a year, a staggering public commitment. But in other ways it’s not inappropriate, in mind of Dylan’s own fame, inscrutability, and even solitude.

Since his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, it’s become more fitting to note literary antecedents. The Nobel is rare for an American writer; the last one primarily identified with the American tradition was Toni Morrison, 23 years earlier. As to Dylan’s aloofness to contact closer than the stage, only recently has he given lengthy interviews that seek to do something beyond mocking the form, drawn out perhaps by awareness of his own late-career stature, first most notably in No Direction Home, the nonfiction film by Martin Scorcese. But even here, almost four hours of “deep, sympathetic, perceptive” exposure, as Roger Ebert observed, leaves “Dylan shrouded in mystery, which is where he properly lives."

The mesmerizing, withdrawing, yet searching poet Dickinson seems appropriate. Dylan too has always been a searcher, offering tantalizing and oracular images and claims through his visionary art while also resisting easy statements or philosophizing, determined that while the world is not conclusion and that a species must stand beyond, it’s also true that sagacity passes through a riddle. Such a riddle might be the existence we would use to know this beyond, the language we would seek to call it with, the truth we are after finding, disappearing much as the euphoria of song silences after the final bars. “You gotta serve somebody,” goes one of Dylan’s most useful provisions – wise, levelling, egalitarian, submissive to something greater and applying to ambassadors, heavyweight champions, and rock and rollers alike. But then comes the riddle – “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you gotta serve somebody.” It is not less wise for that; certainly, one can’t do it all alone, and living for oneself has a way of falling short. And yet the person who’s telling us this in some way seems to. Perhaps he does it in service to us.

Dylan has always been a searcher, offering tantalizing & oracular images

Now on the plateau of the major artist—a Toni Morrison, a Picasso—we begin to take note Dylan’s dialogue with other arts. His Nobel drew attention to a long association with the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who never received the award themselves, but now gain a footnote to it. Martin Scorcese’s Rolling Thunder Revue film for Netflix this past summer , in which Ginsberg is a significant presence (the last speaking character on camera, urging the audience to collective, creative action), marks Dylan’s continuous relationship with cinema. The camera has always (oddly?) loved Dylan, whether in front of striking workers in black and white Kennedy-era footage; in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 cinema-verite meltdown among London-mods, Don’t Look Back; or in the summer 2019 redux of 1975 concert tour by way of a more-than-usually playful Scorcese.

We see Dylan in 70s make-up leading a clan of acid-gypsies; wizened, wise-cracking Dylan the old bluesman whose wrinkled eyes have now seen it all. Maybe it’s only because Dylan dabbles at being a sage that we don’t expect him to be image-conscious. Travelling Wilburys pal Tom Petty once observed that Elvis’s greatest sin against his rock and roll career was to let his fans see him fat. Rock music has always been at least half about fashion, even if the fashion is sometimes anti-fashion. Dylan’s consciousness of and embodiment within images of himself-as-other was early in development; from the first, his name was that of British poet surnamed Thomas, his voice that of Woody Guthrie, and his Northern Minnesota Jewishness – however that might be imaged or imagined – way in the rear-view mirror. Don’t look back, indeed.

This vision of Dylan finds its apogee in the 2007 Todd Haynes film, I’m Not There, where six different actors play versions of the singer at different stages, real and invoked, including white woman Cate Blanchett chain-smoking her way through a “Ballad of a Thin Man” art-carnival and black youth Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody,” anachronistically riding the rails in imitation of his Depression-age namesake. Haynes, who both wrote and directed the film, is a sage and trickster himself, and like Scorcese, a director who has been able to “smuggle” (Scorcese’s term) subversive content into commercial movies for several decades. Associated with the New Queer Cinema, Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), and Carol (2015), among others, showed he could enjoy success beyond the arthouse, but this only after his earlier, scandalous Karen Carpenter Story (1988) announced him as a provocateur unafraid of bold moves.

Brashness bona fides for Haynes in place, I’m Not There was a passionate project for him—obtaining Dylan’s consent (whom Haynes did not know) by writing him a letter with an outline of the script, with explanation of its outrageous suggestion of playing him with six different actors. Smart about Dylan’s rejection of the folksinger image, which would have kept him as a spokesperson for causes evermore, except his own cause (or as Dylan himself styled it, in one of many lyrical jibes, “They say sing while you slave and I just get bored / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”), the film also handles the issue of Dylan’s fame with nuance and complexity.

One of the Dylan avatars is played by Heath Ledger as actor playing a Dylan character, and so I’m Not There shows some iconic moments in the life played twice, first for real by one Dylan (primarily a Rimbaud-inflected Ben Whishaw), and a second time in front of cameras by a leather-jacketed, boorish Ledger. The soundtrack features a boatload of amazing covers, including by Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Richie Havens, Thurston Moore, Jeff Tweedy, and Sufjan Stevens, many backed by the supergroup The Million Dollar Bashers, themselves sporting Tom Verlaine, Lee Renaldo, and more stars than a can of kids’ chicken soup. The whole project was a loving gift to avant-Dylanologists, populated by a small heaven of film and music artists.

Haynes’s biggest misstep may be on the issue of faith, assuming, in a film called I’m Not There, that because Bob Dylan has assumed many roles in his life, there may not, in some of them, be any “there” there. The reality is more complicated, and goes to the DNA of art and literature itself. We should not confuse the biography of the artist with the work the artist creates. Early Dylan may have styled himself as an Okie and sung with a drawl he didn’t come by through his own experience, but he still wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that helped fuel the Civil Rights movement and sounds today so eternal that it’s hard to believe someone still living wrote it. That song alone would have been enough to make him renowned; Dylan’s output is ever replete with such examples, even as he changes costumes like a Shakespearean player, and long ago was “the joker” in Don McLean’s “American Pie.” (“…[O]n the sidelines, in a cast” is said to have referred to Dylan’s motorcycle accident.)

Employing artifice, the artist may still create the authentic, and whether we find authenticity when we look at the life of the artist is beside the point. We see this too when Haynes looks at Dylan’s spiritual conversion. I’m Not There seems at pains not to acknowledge the possibility that Dylan could truly have had a meaningful, born-again experience, or that his song could embody an authentic experience whether or not the artist is riding along with it. This is not the case in the powerful version of “Pressing On” from the I’m Not There soundtrack, by John Doe, frontman of the Los Angeles punk-band X, who delivers Dylan’s lyrics from the album Saved with blues-preacher authority that’s beyond even Dylan’s own version—

Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, "Prove to me that He's the Lord, show me a sign"
What kind of sign they need when it all comes from within
When what's lost has been found, what's to come has already been?

Haynes backs away in the film from these lyrics that challenge atheism rhetorically, and in general, treats the character as one less to be taken seriously than the other avatars. Perhaps this is due to Haynes’s investment in the anarchic, poet-artist Dylan. Perhaps also, Haynes is suspicious of Dylan’s born-again direction in reply to the long history of conservative Christian animosity and judgment against queer identities. (It is notable, framed this way, that a central incarnation of bad-boy Dylan is played in Haynes’s film by a girl.)

Or perhaps it is as Ebert suggests, that Dylan’s shrouding in mystery is so much where observers of his career have found him over the years, it is easy to write off a Dylan positioning with which we don’t identify as a blind passage. Pop music is so wrapped up in the identities we make for ourselves—whether it be “The Times They are a-Changin,’” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” or “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” a.k.a., “Everybody must get stoned”—that Dylan has long been a warehouse in which to shop for identities, where we can also write off those to which we don’t take a fancy. 

The mystery with an absence at the center is a motif featured in a number of Dylan songs, nowhere more prominently than in “Isis,” from 1976’s Desire album. In this song, a man who has left his wife is approached by a stranger, who convinces him to journey into the North after a lucrative treasure. The pair travel through snow and howling wind until they find pyramids embedded in ice, which they chop all through the night. The stranger dies but the narrator goes on. Finding the sarcophagus at last, the man breaks it open—and finds it empty.

Haynes’s last Dylan avatar does not travel with the biography much beyond this late 1970s moment. This version, acted by Richard Gere, ends up something of a loner in a Western company town peopled by medicine show characters such as are seen on the Dylan’s Basement Tapes cover, fighting against an aging owner bent on exercising ruthless power and backed by thugs. The town itself is called Riddle.

Watching these scenes again may be what put me in mind of the Dickinson poem.

Emily herself rarely drew attention to her work as an artist, but it was continuous from her teenage years onward. She wrote poems on pages in her upstairs room between the late 1850s and the mid-1880s that she grouped and stitched into small booklets that she kept in her desk. She kept many dozens of others unstitched, with different variations. She wrote poems in letters to relatives and friends and she wrote more poems and lines for poems on seemingly every piece of paper that came to hand, sometimes on strangely cut pieces of paper that she might pin together so they made oddly constructed objects. There are nearly 2,000 poems in her collected poetry, but these poems don’t count the poems that were preserved in more unusual ways, that get recovered and added to the store of Dickinson materials on a regular basis. Emily is thought today to be one the greatest writers in American literature. It is clear both that she devoted herself entirely to her art, that she never ceased innovating and reworking her ideas, and that she foresaw a time when others would discover her work. Leaving behind the expectations others had for her, she saw her ultimate vocation as that of the artist, and the expressions she found there were more powerful than she could discover anywhere else. “I’m ceded –” she writes in a poem early in this progression (#353), written in the first full year of the Civil War, with echoes of a stage in Dylan’s own rebellion, “I’ve stopped being Theirs –.”

“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music.” - Dylan

One can cherry-pick Dylan quotations more or less to suit any argument, but I find this among the most compelling to give the final word. It’s from 1997, after an infection on the lining of his heart almost killed him, a couple decades after his conversion experience, even further from his folk period and the motorcycle accident. "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light' – that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs." 

More recently, in 2009, when Dylan released his Christmas album (I don’t recommend it), an interviewer was impressed by his version of “’O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “You sure deliver that song like a true believer.”

“Well,” said Dylan, in an interview full of similarly laconic responses, “I am a true believer.” —Ted Pelton