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Topic: Bob Dylan ranked with Shakespeare Return to archive
August 20th, 2004 10:58 AM
Ten Thousand Motels Bob Dylan ranked with Shakespeare

By Dan DeLuca

Inquirer Staff Writer


These days, when Bob Dylan takes the stage on his Never Ending Tour - if it's Tuesday, he must be in Charleston, S.C. - he's introduced as "the poet laureate of rock-and-roll."

The songwriting bard has answered to that title since the early 1960s, when the jingle jangle of his "skipping reels of rhyme" exploded notions of pop music's creative limitations, and in the words of Bruce Springsteen, "freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body."

But do great pop songs qualify as great poems? That question is as fresh as Eminem and Jay-Z, and as old as "Mr. Tambourine Man." And in Dylan's case, the answer, according to Christopher Ricks, is not blowing in the wind. It's a resounding yes.

That's noteworthy because Ricks is not just some rabid Dylan fan - though he is that - but because he is one of the most eminent literary critics in the English language. He teaches at Boston University, has been named to the prestigious Professor of Poetry post at Oxford University, and has published books on John Milton, John Keats, and Samuel Beckett.

Ricks has just added to that shelf with Dylan's Visions of Sin (HarperCollins), a 538-page close reading of the scribe who once rhymed "man and God and law" with "everybody says she's the brains behind pa" that scrutinizes Dylan's work with learned authority and an uncontained enthusiasm for Dylanesque wordplay. The book's aim, Ricks says, is to examine "the way in which Dylan resembles the great poets, and is himself a great poet, if what we mean by poet is imaginative availer of the great resources of language."

"In the case of genius - and I do think that Dylan is a genius - we need many ways of going at something," says the 70-year-old Ricks, on the phone from his home in Gloucestershire, in his native England. "I'm not a musician, or a musicologist, and I don't know all the things that Greil Marcus knows about 20th-century American music, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something to be said for this particular line."

As a somewhat arbitrary organizational device, Vision divides Dylan songs both renowned and obscure into categories based on the seven deadly sins, four cardinal virtues and three heavenly graces. "Like a Rolling Stone" falls into Pride, "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" into Sloth and "Forever Young" into Hope.

Ricks' claims for greatness for some tunes, such as the justifiably little known "Handy Dandy," are overblown. And the only Dylan song he can think of that he doesn't like is "Neighborhood Bully," off 1983's Infidels. But no Dylan fan will walk away from Visions without rethinking the quintessential singer-songwriter's art.

Considering Dylan's literary virtues in the context of such syllabus superstars as Alexander Pope and Philip Larkin, Ricks convincingly points out parallels between "Seven Curses" and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and between "Not Dark Yet" and John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." He also laces serious analysis with loads of punny in-jokes: of Dylan's epical "Highlands" - on the 1999 album Time Out of Mind - he writes, "if you fail to notice you're in Robert Burns country, you must be a pad-eared laddy of the lowlands."

"I'd like to think that I've noticed some things about him that other people may have missed," says Ricks.

The professor whom W.H. Auden once called "exactly the kind of critic that every poet dreams of finding" first heard Dylan in 1964, but didn't really find him until friends played him "Desolation Row" in 1968.

Ricks heard intentional echoes of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in Dylan's line "the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow/And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row."

Since then, the clean-pated professor has seen Dylan perform about 45 times (including four this year). Favorite album: Blonde on Blonde. Favorite song: "I Want You," because "I never had an idea about it, and critics want a release from being a bloody critic all the time."

Ricks' previous Dylan essays and lectures prompted the New Yorker's Alex Ross to comment: "Ricks' writing on Dylan is the best there is." In 2000, Dylan invited the professor backstage before a Boston concert, where the singer greeted his interpreter: "Mr. Ricks, we meet at last."

Ricks says his children - he's got seven, four from his first marriage and three from his current one, to photographer Judith Aronson - are "faintly pitying" when it comes to their esteemed father's devotion.

He's not familiar enough with current pop to judge Dylan against his peers: "People have told me that I should pay more attention to Elvis Costello or Lou Reed or the Beatles. But I just admit to not knowing enough about other singers and groups."

Still, he's irked that some reviewers have acted as if he must be "dippy" because he believes Dylan's artistic accomplishments place him in the company of Shakespeare and Picasso.

"There is a sort of snobbery," says Ricks. "Dylan, I think, is very well read. He has said in interviews that when he was younger he read the poets the way people now read Stephen King. The songs are full of allusions to writers."

Not that the rhymer of "college" with "useless and pointless knowledge" needs to have read the great poets to be considered one himself.

As Ricks writes: "Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't... . What matters is that Dylan is doing the imagining, not that he be deliberately or fully conscious of the countless intimations that are in his art."

Pop music and film, Ricks says, "are the creative arts that have serious opportunity to do what Shakespearean theater did centuries ago, when people who were groundlings went because there is a bloody good duel at the end of Hamlet, and lots of low humor, including obscene puns, in the comedies. It was a Basement Tapes world."

And just as Shakespeare provided an evening of ripping entertainment with extraordinary insight, so it is that grandly ambitious artists like Dylan turn up with a guitar and microphone.

"At a Dylan concert," the professor says, "it's possible to have 5,000 people in a room thrilling to a common experience though they are of quite different ages, social experiences and levels of education, and bring to the music quite different hopes. And to have all these hopes quite differently fulfilled. It's marvelous that such things happen."
August 20th, 2004 12:47 PM
Nasty Habits Othello told Desdemona, "I'm cold. Cover me with a blanket. By the way, what happened to that poison wine?" She said, "I gave it to you, you drank it."

Poor boy, layin' 'em straight - pickin' up the cherries fallin' off the plate . . .

August 20th, 2004 12:50 PM
glencar But is Dylan still a hit with the masses? Will Dylan be taught in high school lit/music courses?
August 20th, 2004 01:00 PM
PolkSalad yeah, ok

take the music away and what do you have? same goes for Lou Reed and Willie Nelson...
August 20th, 2004 01:16 PM
Lambchop*
quote:
PolkSalad wrote:
yeah, ok

take the music away and what do you have?


Quite a bit I'd suspect...






August 20th, 2004 06:12 PM
Gazza >Will Dylan be taught in high school lit/music courses?

he already has, I think!
August 20th, 2004 07:45 PM
Ten Thousand Motels
quote:
Gazza wrote:
>Will Dylan be taught in high school lit/music courses?

he already has, I think!




And why shouldn't he be? The world didn't end with Shakespeare. Penning lines is a perpetual endevour.
August 20th, 2004 08:54 PM
Lil Brian For the uninitiated, can we expect any songs from the new soundtrack cd on the ballpark tour?
How are they? I haven't heard.
Bring on Zimmerman!
August 20th, 2004 09:40 PM
gypsy The ballpark tour hits OKC on September 3rd. I'm going!
I just heard on the radio that Phil Collins (yawn!) is playing at the Ford Center that very same night. Hmmm...Dylan/Nelson or Phil Fuckin' Collins?!
I wonder what the audience of a Phil Collins concert is like...probably old and just sitting there...except when he play that Susudio song...then they really jam.
August 20th, 2004 09:52 PM
LadyJane
quote:
gypsy wrote:
I wonder what the audience of a Phil Collins concert is like...probably old and just sitting there...except when he play that Susudio song...then they really jam.



You are killing me today!! LMAO.

You get my vote for funniest poster.

LJ.

August 20th, 2004 10:18 PM
glencar Not too sound TOO Mr. Lawyer/JB-ish here, but I was really depressed when "Just Another Night" came out & "Sussudio" jumped to the top of the charts. I really hated radio back then.
August 21st, 2004 12:10 AM
gypsy Thanks, LJ!
I see I forgot to write "plays," and wrote "play." Sounds kinda P Diddy-ish-"When Phil play Sussudio, we gonna jam, muthafucka!"

Yep, glencar...that was a bad year...I remember we went on some family trip in the car for six hours. And my dad is the kind that doesn't want the radio station changed...so, I remember listening to Phil Collins' duet w/ that other guy--"She's An Easy Lover." God, I was never so happy to get out of the car in my life.
August 21st, 2004 12:45 PM
Martha "At a Dylan concert," the professor says, "it's possible to have 5,000 people in a room thrilling to a common experience though they are of quite different ages, social experiences and levels of education, and bring to the music quite different hopes. And to have all these hopes quite differently fulfilled. It's marvelous that such things happen."

A marvelous thing indeed....and I get to experience it again today in Lexington. YooHoo!

See ya' there Larry Dallas.

So what's this professor look like? Have I seen him at any shows I wonder?

Gypsy......I'm thrilled to hear you got tickets to see Bob in September. Good going!

:-)
August 21st, 2004 12:52 PM
LadyJane Have fun tonight, Martha!

I hope Bob knows what a dedicated fan he has in you!

LJ.
August 21st, 2004 02:09 PM
Soldatti
quote:
Bob Dylan ranked with Shakespeare


??
August 22nd, 2004 10:55 AM
gimmekeef Both over rated imHO
August 22nd, 2004 10:51 PM
corgi37 Never liked either of them. What have they done for me lately?

And, 1 more thing. Dont you Yanks have a high terrorist alert going on? Why cant some one "arrange" the lock up of Phil Collins?

2 years in a Cuban detention camp might persuade him to never record/tour again.

I still have scars of hearing "Easy lover" and "Sussissesusiodio" as well!
August 23rd, 2004 12:14 AM
gypsy I just think it's funny that he's performing the very same night as Bob and Willie. I also wonder how his ticket sales are...even if Bob and Willie weren't playing that night.
August 24th, 2004 03:19 PM
F505 Why not rank Bob with God?
August 24th, 2004 03:21 PM
jb Bob Dylan is very overrated...No one really likes him, but they think it's cool to say they do... I reject Bob Dylan and everything he ever stood for(sorry Martha).

[Edited by jb]
August 24th, 2004 03:42 PM
telecaster
quote:
jb wrote:
Bob Dylan is very overrated...No one really likes him, but they think it's cool to say they do... I reject Bob Dylan and everything he ever stood for(sorry Martha).

[Edited by jb]



jb I just wrote out a check made out to "Israel" after your wonderful and truthful statement

Wasn't it Shakespere that said "Ye Bob Dylan is the most overrated artist in historyith"?
August 24th, 2004 03:54 PM
jb
quote:
telecaster wrote:


jb I just wrote out a check made out to "Israel" after your wonderful and truthful statement

Wasn't it Shakespere that said "Ye Bob Dylan is the most overrated artist in historyith"?

Thanks for the porno link Tel! !This aol is bullshit!!!
August 24th, 2004 04:00 PM
Martha
quote:
jb wrote:
Bob Dylan is very overrated...No one really likes him, but they think it's cool to say they do... I reject Bob Dylan and everything he ever stood for(sorry Martha).

[Edited by jb]



jb, your words stun me.......but not into complete silence.

After thinking it over....and upon reflection...I believe you need to leave the employment of Maggies Farm Inc. and take a long, long sabbatical.

There's simply no other explanation.

Your nerves are shot.

:-)

"I'm not sorry for nuthin' I done..."
August 24th, 2004 04:15 PM
jb Martha, I totally respect your love of Dylan....I just can't see why he is so revered. I just don't get it and never will. I feel the same way about the Dead, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles. Have a great time !!!
August 24th, 2004 04:37 PM
gypsy You forgot to conclude with "Because I'm oldjb." That way Martha can't retaliate...because it's like your word is God.
August 24th, 2004 04:38 PM
Martha
quote:
jb wrote:
Martha, I totally respect your love of Dylan....I just can't see why he is so revered. I just don't get it and never will. I feel the same way about the Dead, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles. Have a great time !!!



I appreciate your respect jb and you have mine. :-)

Bob is revered because of his gifts and talents. He is arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. There is no one like him anywhere to be seen on the horizon.....and that's saying a lot. However, I've been learning this too and only recently...in the grand scheme of my tiny little life.

I used to "not get" the Dead or much about Bob either for many years of my life. It took me listening, reading learning and then finally "hearing" what Bob is saying, which happened last year around this time when I was going through a very private grief process that rendered me ill and down or in bed a lot. It was during this time...my own personal "time out of mind" that my hearing and heart opened up. I couldn't keep the door shut, I didn't have the strength. Letting myself open up to all of the elements necessary to fully experience music's healing gifts is what finally happened to me. This is when I "got it'. Bob's music finally hit me and it hit me hard. I cannot see him enough now. My thirst is unquenchable.

All I know is I don't ever want to go back to my before life.......back before I didn't get this music.

Stay open....maybe it will hit you one day. I'm a bit older than you my dear......so there's still time. :-)

All times are on our side.

peace,
Martha

"Bob Dylan is an artist of almost unrivaled importance in modern, popular music. He is a great recording star, an extraordinary live performer, an iconic figure of popular culture, and, most important, he is the preeminent songwriter of his time." --Howard Sounes "Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan"
August 24th, 2004 04:46 PM
jb
quote:
gypsy wrote:
You forgot to conclude with "Because I'm oldjb." That way Martha can't retaliate...because it's like your word is God.

God ,I love you!!! You are too funny!!!
August 25th, 2004 01:06 AM
Prodigal Son Aw jb, you just don't like him because of his Christian rebirth in 1979. He never swore off his Judaism but many found this to be a betrayal of sorts. Personally, what he does with his religion and beliefs matter little to me. I love the guy and like all his albums except Self-Portrait and Saved. He ranks in my top 5 favourite musical artists of all time (up there with the Stones, Beatles, Neil Young and the Who).
[Edited by Prodigal Son]
August 25th, 2004 02:02 AM
stonedinaustralia
quote:
Prodigal Son wrote:
Personally, what he does with his religion and beliefs matter little to me.



funny you say that PS given that they have such a huge influence on his work which you say you like so much
August 25th, 2004 03:52 PM
Prodigal Son What I meant, or should've said, is that his beliefs and religion are personal choices and it doesn't take up my every thought. Sure, it influences his work so in that sense it does matter I guess. But in some cases where he is too preachy and an old crackpot raving about his opinions, it can take away from the musical experiences. Several songs on Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love and Infidels are good yet their lyrical matter annoys me.

But disagreeing with the views expressed in lyrics doesn't mean you have to hate the guy or not like the song. His views aren't really too offensive in his Christian period, they're just sanctimonious and one-sided. Look, it's all in the game when it comes to a musical career, there's going to be ups, downs and periods of critical attacks. Even the Stones have been subject to this.