I've been listening to Bringing it All Back Home in the car on the way to and from work for the past several weeks, in preparation for writing this piece. I was worried about what my angle would be—and in a sense I still am. I don't really know how to begin talking about Bob Dylan's music. Everything I've read about it seems to involve some thesis about who Bob Dylan, the man, the legend, is, of which the music is an example. But I don't really care about the historical person "Bob Dylan." In fact, I've barely gotten over the relative novelty (for me, anyway) of listening to a CD in a car during a commute. I'm so used to walking and using headphones, but for now I am consigned to use the old-fashioned, aux- and bluetooth-less sound system of my 2005 Dodge Stratus. If I hit a bump, the CD skips. The check engine light is always on because there's a leak in the fuel pump; by the end of the summer I will have to get a new car. But for now it's me and a motley assortment of CDs I bought because I was tired of listening to the radio while I drove. About half of them are by Bob Dylan. You can make of that what you will.
The Dylan that one finds leafing through my car's CD wallet is the result of what my friend Zach calls a "folkectomy." With a few exceptions, I dispense with the acoustic Dylan altogether, preferring to start when a backing band shows up—which means with Bringing it All Back Home. But I lose interest when that band becomes the Band; I don't care about polished surfaces and accomplished songwriting. At least, that's not what I listen to Dylan for. An aficionado might object: but the messiest Dylan is the youngest one, trying valiantly to imitate Woody Guthrie! To which I can only respond that the least interesting part of listening to Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan himself—or, more precisely, Bob Dylan by himself. He needs a band to keep him honest, to rein him in when he needs reining in, but also to accentuate those moments when he flies off the handle in ways that are at least interesting, if not downright beautiful. This is why I have no truck with the Band. By the time they show up, Dylan knows he needs them; this knowledge undercuts the bravado that gave us the best, or at least weirdest, rock albums of the 60s—Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Gone is the proto-punk thrill of wondering whether he meant to play that note, make that noise, miss that beat, say that word. When you get to The Basement Tapes, the answer is always "well, yeah, this seems intentional." And where's the fun in that?
Bringing it All Back Home introduces us to the bewildering, short-lived encounter between Dylan and a parade of brilliant studio musicians who are tasked with getting Dylan out of his own way while keeping him from becoming formlessness personified. Every song here is a balancing act that doesn't quite work out, resulting in a systematic sonic unevenness. In fact, by the time we get to the shift from Side A to Side B—from electric back to acoustic Dylan, but without any of the conscientious, "finger-pointing" lyrics for which the folk Dylan is often venerated—by the time we pass from "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" to "Mr. Tambourine Man," we are liable to suspect that the shift between sides is itself an accomplice to this unevenness, a calculated and deliberate moment of silence that primes us to expect a shift in gears that never quite happens. The shift from a rollicking, full-band electric blues to the spare and more melodic second side is ultimately a joke at the expense of the listener. We are led to believe that Dylan has gotten rock music out of his system, and is returning to a simpler, folkier time. But then "Mr. Tambourine Man" keeps going and going, and doesn't make much sense. I mean we could read the lyrics closely (I do not like Dylan's lyrics as a general rule, so I leave the task for someone more interested in them), but they lack the social sharpness of early Dylan, the sense that he's singing about a collective struggle against injustice. The allegory is more private than public now, and its basic message is borderline obnoxious: leave me alone.
This is what I love about rock and roll Dylan, to whom Bringing it All Back Home introduces us. He updates Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" for us, rewriting "I prefer not to" as "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more," suggesting that pure refusal can, in itself, be a desirable end. It's a little embarrassing to write about loving this aspect of Bob Dylan. But it's also way more interesting to me than the Dylan who conscientiously objects to the US war machine, not least because of how embarrassing I find it. I mean, why is it that I—or maybe we—blush, balk, hesitate, rationalize when Dylan blows us off? What do we expect that he has failed to deliver unto us? Do we assume he has an obligation that he has failed to fulfill? As I write this I wonder if I'm not just describing a general tendency in 1960s rock music, which, as I have learned from movies, TV, and my parents, was met with scorn, derided as hedonistic, and subsequently the cause of pretty much every bad thing you can think of in that decade. Probably it is wrong to say this is specific to Dylan. But is any of what is interesting about Bob Dylan specific to him? If you dispense with the various charismatic personae as I began by doing, what's left? I see two things. There's the studio musicians, who are brilliant and who do most of the work. About them there is not much else to say, except that they do most of the heavy lifting here and elsewhere, and the best reason I can think of to go back and listen to any given Bob Dylan album from this era (which, recall, is the only one for me, post-folkectomy) is to listen to what they're up to behind the scenes.
And then there are the conversations about Bob Dylan that spin out from this basic question of whether or not Bob Dylan is a singular entity in pop music. Obviously these are legion, and ongoing. I'm participating in one right now. And I think about this kind of talking and writing when I drive from Holyoke to Amherst and then back to Holyoke on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—a trip I will continue to make this coming fall, but which will probably change next spring, since I'm not teaching the same class anymore then. Suddenly I find myself talking, not about Dylan's music, but my own life; not about the unpredictability of Bob Dylan in the studio, but the unpredictable rhythms of my contingent, precarious employment. But this shift is itself an argument about why people are so hung up on the particularities of Bob Dylan. An artist who so frequently and explicitly changes gears and directions invites us to talk about these changes. In doing so he opens a window onto history, which is made up of changes much bigger than swapping an electric guitar in for an acoustic one, and yet which it can be helpful to think about figuratively, using the guitars to model on a small scale what happens on an impossibly large one.
Which brings us back to the tone of belligerent refusal: isn't this a kind of novel way to relate to all of these shifts and changes? Not with hope or fear, joy or sorrow, excitement or disappointment, but just feelingfulness untethered from any particular referent. It is, of course, a kind of open-endedness that a white straight guy like Dylan can embody more readily and with less possible risk than the rest of us. But I think we should take from this what we can, especially as it reminds us that the serious twists and turns of history often result in extremely unserious, downright petulant childishness, the official name for which is "art," which is what implicitly I have been discussing all along. The tone of Dylan, then, reflects back at us our basic desires for art; it does so in a way that reminds us that our stated preference for composure and maturity is always about to be undone by a gesture equivalent to throwing a pie at someone in a cartoon. (This is probably the best way to understand stupid slogans like "the children are our future," where the emphasis is on children as agents in their own right instead of on the implied act of procreation.)
All of which is at the forefront of my mind driving back and forth from work these days. Soon I will have to do something very mature and replace my 2005 Dodge Stratus with a car that does not have a leak in its fuel pump and which is therefore much safer to drive, but which I will have to make monthly payments on. I will, in this new car, probably be able to expand my listening repertoire beyond what I've got in my CD wallet. My personal version of "going electric," I guess. At least insofar as it involves kicking and screaming. And it is this more than a new car or an aux cord that finally returns my thoughts to society, that makes me wonder what kind of kicking and screaming might go along with the whole world going electric—which would mean changing everything about the way we live and relate to one another, whether we think we can or not. Such a radical change seems increasingly urgent, and it is increasingly clear that it won't come about through appeals to reason and polite compromise. The pump, as it were, doesn't work; the vandals took the handle. What better way to respond to this state of affairs than absolutely childishly?
—David W. Pritchard