Dylan’s reign of words



By Warwick McFadyen

 Early Sunday morning (Australian time) a nervous Patti Smith sang, and stumbled in part, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. She was the proxy for Bob Dylan at the award ceremony for the Nobel Prize. Dylan, well, he wasn’t there. He apologised and sent his gratitude and some words.

These are some of them and it shows that he was truly humbled and rendered speechless when the news came through. It also shows that the artist knows deep within them what they are doing because they are what they do and what they do helps creates them. It is an exercise in becoming. Others interpret, often wrongly, how they believe that art should be labelled.

Dylan wrote: “I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’ His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place? ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question. ‘Is this literature?’

The full speech is here: http://tinyurl.com/zxfrhrv

Patti Smith told the audience: “I chose A Hard Rain because it is one of his most beautiful songs. It combines his Rimbaudian mastery of language with a deep understanding of the causes of suffering and ultimately human resilience.

“I have been following him since I was a teenager, half a century to be exact. His influence has been broad and I owe him a great debt for that. I had not anticipated singing a Bob Dylan song on December 10th, but I am very proud to be doing so and will approach the task with a sense of gratitude for having him as our distant, but present, cultural shepherd.”

Hard Rain is par exemplar of the man’s lifetime achievement.

I came to it via the double album Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. It was on side 3, along with All Along the Watchtower. As a teenager I played that side to death. It was my first Dylan album. I can’t remember why it was first before the actual original albums, or even how I came to the man himself and his songs. But after Vol. II, I went backwards in time to Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home, Another Side of Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and John Wesley Harding. Hard Rain the song was on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It was in the company of greats such as Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, Girl from the North Country and Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.

Some songs go deep into a mystery made from the possibilities of words and music. They are home to echo and resonance, light and shade, they enter and reside. It’s All Right Ma (I’m only Bleeding) had the same effect at the time.

Lyrics in his hands were more than rhyming couplets. Dylan wrote songs on a typewriter. There was a bedrock of hours upon hours of reading in the lyrics. Dylan wrote in Chronicles of his devouring of works of literature in the early years in New York.

Hard Rain was poetry in motion, not spoken motion but sung motion. It had a propulsion with if not a back beat then a strumming and a thrumming of rhythm. It was an insistent building up of images that folded back and back again with the borrowing of the introductory motif: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”  On first hearing it Dave Van Ronk said, “I was acutely aware that it represented the beginning of an artistic revolution.”

A member of the Nobel committee, Professor Horace Engdahl, said at the ceremony in Stockholm that Dylan “panned poetry gold, whether on purpose or by accident is irrelevant … he gave back to poetry its elevated style, lost since the romantics.” His full speech is here. http://tinyurl.com/j25rds9

The genesis of Hard Rain is well-known, as Dylan said: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

This was the time of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 when the world was on the brink of nuclear strikes between the Soviet Union and the United States. Cuba, under Fidel Castro, had asked for Soviet nuclear missiles to be planted on its soil after the US in 1961 had tried to invade Cuba in what turned out to be known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Cuba thought nuclear missiles aimed at the US would be a powerful defence against another invasion attempt.

Apocalypse could have turned on the press of a button. For a songwriter, annihilation can concentrate the mind wonderfully well. It was a song of survival, now more than 50 years later it is a song of Nobel bearing.

As a structure, it is simple. Barely a handful of chords, minimal variation. Well, none actually. It is the layering of image upon image that gives rise to its potency. It is a poem that uses language to report from the city of the heart, its main and mean streets and its myriad laneways, and its horizons of the mind.

The blue-eyed son is a traveller, time-worn and timeless. He speaks to all of us.

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

He is a witness:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.

He is also conscience:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number.

In one of the rare moments when Dylan explained a song, he said at the time: “It’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.  In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”

And in their election campaigns.

Leonard Cohen, shortly before his death, said: “To me, [the Nobel win] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

Hard Rain has a life that like the best of poetry resides in its permanence against the weather. It denies the passing tempests of time, wind and rain (even a very nervous Patti Smith tripping on a line).

It endures.

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor





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