Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Bob Dylan--Nietzschean tragic genius

Nietzsche once wrote that most great men weren't purely great but were instead beautiful failures injured by society who produced great things nonetheless. In my mind Bob Dylan falls into that category. Even though he's one of the greats, there's a tragic but somewhat under the radar theme in his music that suggests that whatever constitutes truly escaping from one's own problems was something that he never quite achieved. One of the easiest ways to see this is to look at his songs relating to women.

The political songs, the songs about society, the philosophical songs, are all wonderful and varied, but it seems like every song about women was in his '60s to mid '70s stage tainted with a real undercurrent of resentment. Not outright misogyny, or even overt blues like sentiments of women just having done him wrong, but just under the radar resentment, for example "Like A Rolling Stone", "Just Like a Woman", "Queen Jane Approximately". Few songs about straight out love, most of them about flaws in women. I take this to mean a flaw of some sort in Dylan himself, something relating to the way his relationships with women went that he never quite got over and instead translated out into his song lyrics. It should be noted, though that the albums just before his withdrawal from public life in the mid-'70s were much more even on this score.

His withdrawal and subsequent conversion to Christianity, first fundamentalist Christianity then more moderate forms, was likely a last gasp before he hit a dead end. The albums of the early '80s in particular were really not good, and Dylan was rumored to be an alcoholic wandering aimlessly through Manhattan. One of the pictures of him from this time shows him in a hoodie with the hood so tightly drawn that you can't see his face at all, something more associated with mentally disturbed homeless people. Whatever problem he felt he had with his career and its direction, it seems that after putting his faith in Christianity to save it he found that that wasn't the kind of solution that would change everything that he thought it would be, and feeling that he exhausted his options he gradually sunk down into a deep alienation from life.

This alienation in a more developed and less shocking form would manifest in the creative outputs foreshadowing his current success, particularly '89's "Oh, Mercy", "Good as I been to you" from '92 and '93's "World Gone Wrong", all of them incorporating either sounds and/or themes that would crop up in the more familiar "Time Out of Mind" and " "Love and Theft" ", not to mention his more recent releases. A blend of traditional pre-modern southern folk and blues music, lyrics about the pointlessness of the world and of personal tragedy, and strangely modern jazz influences and recording techniques, they provide a sort of development of the weltschmerz that Dylan had become afflicted with in the 1980s. Women figure into these later recordings as well.

However, the perspective on relationships has deepened in them from the underlying current of resentment in his earlier works to a developed philosophy based on a mild conservatism relating to traditional gender roles. This was foreshadowed by songs like "Sweetheart like you" from '83s "Infidels" album where Dylan presented the woman who didn't work and stayed at home as getting more respect and leading a better life than women who go into the workplace. Although this might be seen as reactionary, the song itself is more nuanced than that, even if it was mightily out of step when it was released. The current albums are less political statements now than albums where a milder support of the same sentiments is incorporated as one of the elements that make up the general worldview of the songs themselves. However, the fact that one of the biggest songwriters of our age has ended up in a depressing view of the world that turns its back on our current society is tragic in and of itself.

Dylan, it seems, has either transmuted the earlier flaws that informed his work into something more constructive, or his personal demons have still not let him escape the trap of himself and of whatever put him there.

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