Today is June 16th, otherwise known as Blomsday, the day on which James Joyce’ masterpiece Ulysses is set. As such, I’d thought I’d re-post my essay on Bob Dylan and James Joyce for those new readers who may not have checked it out originally.
Imagine today, if a young rock and roll artist emerged on the scene, writing dozens of songs capturing the zeitgeist. Other popular artists cover his songs, and his lyrics are studied like a pop-culture Bible. Influential poets and thinkers, even called the “spokesman of a generation”, embrace him. In the process, he changes not only popular music but also the cultural landscape at a mere 24 years old. Imagine this same artist, at the height of his popularity, turns his back on his audience picking up a new musical direction. Viewed as a traitor to the scene, his new guise also redefining, becoming a standard by which everything else that follows is measured. Except this no fictional rock and roll artist. This is Bob Dylan’s influence and power in the mid 1960’s.
No singular artist in the latter half of the 20th century has redefined the popular musical world as much as Bob Dylan. It is often argued Dylan is a true artist because of his achievements and not just one in the rock and roll medium. But what does being a true artist mean, and how does this apply to Dylan? The answer might be found in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce tackles artistic integrity through the protagonist Stephen Dedalus. Throughout the novel, Joyce presents several forms, which must be followed in order for a person to truly become an artist. Using Joyce’s outline and Stephen Dedalus as a model, the argument for Bob Dylan being seen as a true artist is even more evident.
Portrait follows the life of Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of Joyce) an ambitious young artist conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his artistic visions. At the end of the novel, he discovers the only way to be an artist is to completely abandon the familiar, leaving Dublin for Paris. As the novel progresses, Joyce’s words become more complex paralleling Stephen’s own revelation. When Bob Dylan started his career, his lyrics, music, and persona moved in a similar fashion to Stephen’s. When Dylan first arrived on the scene, he began as a protest-singe. When he grew tired of “finger-pointing” (as he called it), he abandoned folk for rock and roll, again creating a standard by which almost other rock and roll is measured. Just as the world caught up to Dylan, he disappeared from the pubic eye, and created some of his best music while no one was watching. Dylan, like Stephen realized you must abandon the familiar and follow your own artistic visions.
In Portrait, Joyce (through Stephen) presents three forms outlining the progression of the artist. The first form is the lyrical form “wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relationship to himself.” In the epical form the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.” The third and final form is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life.”
Dylan’s lyrical stage begins with his early albums and protest songs. Even early on, Dylan had major ambitions. He wanted to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie. Much like Guthrie defined the post-depression era with his songs, Dylan captured the spirit of the early 1960’s with songs such as Blowing in The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and Masters of War. Dylan sang these songs in the first person, essential to the lyrical stage. Yet at the same time, these songs connected with the masses because they reflected the turbulence that many felt during the early 1960’s. These songs and others brought Dylan national attention; earning him the infamous label “the spokesman of a generation.”
Except Dylan wasn’t just interested in protest. Much like Stephen feel hinged by Catholicism, Dylan felt similar to protest. Numerous artists were covering his songs, and soon many people were copying his style with less impressive results. As everyone was waiting for Dylan to make the next profound statement, he had no interest in doing so. In 1964, less than a year after The Times They Are A-Changing, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, a collection of songs hardly touching on protest. Another Side presents Dylan as funny (Motorpsycho Nightmare), heartwarming (To Ramona) and even scathing (I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)) – themes barely present on his previous three albums. Following the trends of rock groups like the Beatles, Dylan went even further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home – an ambitious album featuring two sides of music split between rock music and acoustic songs.
With Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had no intention on turning back, and writing more protest songs to appease his growing fan-base who worshipped his every single word. With this stroke of genius, he had now reached the epical stage of the artist. Joyce says the epical stage is reached when the artist no longer presents himself in the first person and becomes part of an event. Whereas Dylan’s early songs were mostly song from the first-person to reflect a greater truth, Dylan himself was barely present. Even when he was, it was a fictionalized version of himself – as Joyce suggests, less personal.
Influenced by a combination of surrealism, drugs, and Beat poetry, Dylan’s lyrics reached a new sophistication and height. Much like Joyce’s own Ulysses weaves in and out of character’s sub consciousness, narrative, and third person, Dylan was pursuing a similar path. His songs became filled with literary, Biblical and historical figures doing bizarre acts, and taking part if bizarre situations. And Dylan also put himself in the middle of all this craziness – the center of “epical event”. No more is this clear than Desolation Row off Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan’s first full rock album). Desolation Row’s minutes follows characters such as Ophelia, Casanova, and TS Elliot who appear damned on a fictional placed called Desolation Row. Dylan himself does not appear until the last verse, where it is revealed he is on Desolation Row as well.
Dylan’s fictional self was no limited to his music, either. Early in his career, he had been warm and funny in interviews – and most of all appeared sincere. Now, he traded his “every-man” image for that of a cynical hipster. Constantly under the influence of many drugs, Dylan began answering interviews in a vague and mysterious manner and could sometimes be antagonistic. When Blonde on Blondewas released in 1966, “the spokesman of a generation” was nowhere to be seen. The music was louder and wilder, the lyrics even more abstract – but never lacking intelligence. Just as he did with modern folk music, Dylan was changing the rules for rock music.
Dylan’s retreat from the public eye leads to third and final form. Joyce suggests it is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life”. Just as Stephen leaves Ireland and goes to Paris for his artistic integrity at the end ofPortrait, Dylan created some of his most celebrated music while no one was looking. Taking cues from Americana, he recorded dozens of songs in his New York home with The Hawks (who would later become the known as The Band) at his home in Woodstock, New York. Freer, funnier than anything Dylan had previously recorded these songs with no pretense. More than anything, these sessions showed Dylan truly comfortable in his own skin. Never meant for official release, these sessions became bootlegged for years – eventually released as The Basement Tapesin 1975.
When Stephen reappears in Ulysses, he is wiser and much more intelligent. Yet, he lacks self-confidence even at one point dismissing his own ideas near the end of the novel. Dylan too faced a similar problem after his mid 1960’s peak. He had a hard time living up to being “Bob Dylan” -releasing almost unlistenable albums including the critically panned Self Portait. Almost ten years after Highway 61,Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered another highpoint of his career. In the past 10 years, he has enjoyed a renaissance – he has released four critically acclaimed albums and artists constantly cover his songs in concert. Dylan never stayed in the same place twice, and like Stephen discovered you “gotta keep on keeping on.”