Dylan and The Symbolists

Bob Dylan is not many people’s idea of a vigilante but one day in 1970 the Voice of a Generation decided to dispense a bit of summary justice on the streets of New York.

“I’m on Elizabeth Street and someone jumps me, starts punching me” remembered Dylan’s prey, A.J. Weberman. “I turn around and it’s like – Dylan. I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? I’m getting the crap beat out of me by Bob Dylan!’ I said, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ But he keeps knocking my head against the sidewalk. He’s little, but he’s strong. He works out” What had tipped Dylan over the edge?

Dylan’s early albums had been lyrically direct. His first was made up mostly of covers of old folk songs. He found a voice of his own on his second and third albums, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ in 1963 and 1964. These alternated between topical ‘protest’ songs and personal songs. For his topical songs, like ‘Talkin’ World War Three Blues’ or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, the subject matter sprang from the days papers; for his personal songs, like ‘Girl of the North Country’ or ‘One Too Many Mornings’, the lyrics were clear, evocative images from real life.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair hangs long
That’s the way I remember her best

This began to change on Dylan’s fourth album, ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’, recorded in one boozy session in June 1964. Aside from a light hearted reference each to Fidel Castro and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, the politics were gone. In their place came a song like the beautiful ‘Chimes of Freedom’ which started with a simple thunderstorm before spiralling into poetry.

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorways, thunder went crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

A song like ‘My Back Pages’ skipped any pretence at a lyrical realism, opening with the lines

Crimson flames tied through my ears rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps

What had garnished an intimate album like ‘Another Side’ was developed fully on the next three albums, Dylan’s famous electric trilogy; ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ (1965), ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965) and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966).

Dylan unleashed seemingly nonsensical lyrics

The motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause the gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

What on earth did this mean? The man who, just a couple of years before, had been articulating widely held fears and concerns about nuclear war and civil rights was now, seemingly, talking gibberish.

Some found this impossible to believe of their idol and convinced themselves that he was, in fact, speaking in some sort of code. At the lunatic end of the spectrum this prompted Weberman to root around in Dylan’s bin bags looking for clues to crack it, succeeding only in scaring Dylan’s wife and incurring his wrath, hence the beating.

But even supposedly serious people started to come out with their own interpretations. ‘Cultural critic’ Greil Marcus wrote a short yet tedious book called ‘Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes’ (1998) in which he wrote that the songs Dylan recorded at home while recovering from a motorcycle crash in 1967 were “palavers with a community of ghosts” and that “these ghosts were not abstractions. As native sons and daughters they were a community”. Quite. The truth is that Marcus probably spent longer writing about a song like ‘Apple Suckling Tree’ than Dylan spent writing it.

At the same time it’s difficult to believe that Dylan was filling his songs with inconsequential babble. Despite cranking out records at a fearsome rate (his seventh album was released just four years after his first) he took care over his songs, carefully crafting them. He agonised over the track listing of ‘Freewheelin’’ until the last minute. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sat around for over a year before Dylan recorded and released it. When ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ didn’t work as a waltz Dylan rewrote it in 4/4 time.

If it wasn’t a secret code and it wasn’t nonsense, what was it? We know that around 1962 or 1963 a girlfriend introduced him to nineteenth century French poetry. He later went on to name check two of the poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, in song.

Verlaine and Rimbaud were part of the symbolist movement. In the same way that Dylan moved away from his lyrical directness the symbolists had sought to move away from the then dominant trends of realism and naturalism in the arts. These movements, the symbolists believed, had restricted communication by tying words to their literal meanings. Words and images had a value beyond the merely descriptive and, when placed in new often unfamiliar contexts, could communicate deeper meanings. As the critic Jean Moréas put it in the ‘Symbolist Manifesto’ in 1886.

“In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

Given this, it is possible to see Dylan’s songs from that period as works of symbolism. He was using words as the symbolists had; as tools to directly generate an emotional response, in some ways the songs were a prolonged attempt at Synaesthesia. Take the following from ‘Desolation Row’ as an example.

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row

Dylan isn’t challenging the listener to identify who Einstein disguised as Robin Hood really is and neither is he engaging in stream of consciousness doggerel. The effect is too powerful for that, too deliberate. The effect is sadness. Stripped of the famous scientists, monks and drainpipes, this is simply a powerful image of a man past his prime, an image of decay. Don’t try and decode who he is, he could be anyone.

Take a line from ‘Visions of Johanna’; “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”. Literally that doesn’t mean anything but the feeling it conjures up in the listener is crystal clear. It’s that sensation that shoots up your spine as you look at a lovers face and lose yourself in every detail, trying to find the particular magic, the ghost of electricity, that draws you to them.

The symbolism subsided after his motorcycle crash in 1966 and when he re-emerged with the album ‘John Wesley Harding’ in 1968 the electric surrealism was replaced with rootsy tales of frontier folk bathed in Biblical imagery. Not for the last time Bob Dylan revealed yet another side. “I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on…I’m mask-erading” he had joked with an audience in 1964. It’s a thrilling masquerade which has continued to the present day.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine