Bob Dylan’s Up to Something…
Bob Dylan’s up to something. I don’t know exactly what it is, but he has released two new songs in as many weeks, giving them away free of charge, dropping them right into my mail box, free of charge.
His newest release, “I Contain Multitudes,” illustrates an essential fact about Dylan: He has become poetry incarnate. Everything he writes is poetry because he wrote it. This is a mystical process that almost no one other than poets themselves are aware. (Walt Whitman was very conscious of this characteristic within himself, which is why he kept every scrap of writing he ever wrote.)
It feels almost as if he has decided to come out from behind the camouflage he has always used to separate himself from his public persona. it feels almost as if the public Bob Dylan and the private one are finally merging together and becoming the whole man that we always knew was in there somewhere, whispering secrets into our ears, but leaving us to figure out for ourselves what they actually mean.
In this song, a relatively short Dylan song at 4.37 minutes compared to the 17 minutes of the recently released “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan once again refers to historical figures that he considers precedents to his own work, including Edgar Poe, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, the Rolling Stones and, most significantly, William Blake, who in many ways a literary precursor to Dylan himself.
Edgar Poe, like Dylan, was a fairly mysterious man whose childhood and upbringing simply didn’t match up with the insane brilliance of poetry and prose he produced, to the point where both men are tied together by the strange circumstances around their names.
Bob Dylan’s birth name was Robert Allen Zimmerman. Poe’s birth name was Edgar Poe but, during his childhood and adolescence, he was known as Edgar Allan, with Allan being the surname of his foster father. Later on in life, Poe referred to himself by various names, including Edgar Perry, and Edger A. Poe but rarely referred to himself as Edgar Allan Poe.
Anne Frank was a journalist, in the sense that she kept a journal in which she recorded her impressions of the events in which she was involved. Dylan’s entire body of work can be seen as a journal of his experience, the results of his role as an acute observer of religion, politics and society. Indiana Jones was a delver into the mysteries of the past, a roll Dylan has performed in several successive albums in which he dredges up and refreshes songs from the Great American Song Book. The Rolling Stones is an ironic reference to Dylan years as kick-ass rock and roller, a period that now appears to have ended as Dylan embraces the roll of the balladeer once again, which is of course where he started out from.
Some people have criticized “Murder Most Foul” because it doesn’t seem like a song at all, but that’s because it is spoken lyric song, a poem set to music, much like the William Blake(1757 -1827) masterpiece, “Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience,” which is a collection of poems that were written as though they were song lyrics rather than the traditional poetic forms of the period. What they are really criticizing is that “Murder Most Foul” signals the end of Dylan as a rock and roller (although I’m sure he will continue to play those venerable old rocker songs in concert, whenever we are allowed to have concerts again) “Murder Most Foul” is a ballad, rather than folk music or rock and roll, the two forms with which Dylan is most closely associated.
Blake, like Dylan, was a poet, a painter, and a mystic who delved deeply into the mysterious relationship between the poet and the recipient of the poet’s insights. Unlike Dylan, Blake was largely ignored during his lifetime but has since become recognized as the single most important English poet since Shakespeare.
There are curious similarities between Shakespeare and Blake. Shakespeare’s father started off in life as a glover. Blake’s father was a hosier (someone made “leg wear” which was essential to the fashion styles of the period.) This meant that both men were working class people who had significant contact with their ‘betters.,” higher class people who wore gloves and hose.
Both Shakespeare’s father and Blake’s father were dissenters. Some historians believe that John Shakespeare was a secret Catholic during a period when persecution against Catholics was rife in England. Blake’s parents were English Dissenters, protestants who broke away from the Church of England on the issue of the separation of Church and State. Many Dissenters made the crossing to New World, and especially to New England (where they founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts), laying down the belief systems that were later incorporated into the First Amendment of the Constitution. Both Blake and Dylan have strong attachments to Christianity while harboring an equally strong distaste for organized religion.
Back to the song. “I Contain Multitudes” is simply beautiful, by which I mean it is both simply played and beautiful. We don’t know when this was recorded for sure but, on this recording, Dylan uses a deep, rich, resonant voice, having almost obliterated his former trademark twang. Unlike “Murder Most Foul,” which was built around numerous obscure references, the only obscure reference in this song is in the line, “I’m going to Berlinale; I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me.” Berlinale is a German film festival but, in another version of the lyric, the word is spelled “Bally Na Lee” which is a Polish version of an Irish folk song of the same name.
It’s hard to shake the impression that Dylan is still talking to his first wife, Sara, as suggested by the lines, “I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed” followed several lines later by,
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you.”
In another place, Dylan continues to portray himself as a rogue, when he sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives.” The pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was notorious for carrying four pistols and two large daggers in addition to his swords.
Taken all together at once, Dylan is portraying himself as the outcast lover, a street racer, someone who embraces the fast life, but then he also likens himself to the angst-ridden Poe, the mystical Blake, the doomed Anne Frank, and fictional archaeologist who, among other things, managed to find both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.
That last part should make you stop and think. Throughout his writing career, Dylan has fused his Jewish identity with his Christian identification and while, today, he claims not to practice any particular religion, he calls up an image of the only character in fact or fiction who is associated with two mythical artifacts, one being the most sacred relic of the Jewish religion and the other being the most sacred artifact of Christianity.
When you are attempting to psychoanalyze a Bob Dylan song, you have to keep your wits about you. You have to keep remembering that never simply throws shit into a song just because he need a word to rhyme with another word because he’s quite capable of doing without rhymes if necessary. If there is an arcane reference in a song, you need to dig out the meaning that Dylan intended you to find there.
At this time, in the middle of a epidemic, for Dylan to suddenly start releasing songs like these is itself making a statement….I’m just not sure what the statement is, which is part of the fun.
With Dylan, everything is always open to interpretation.
Taken as simply a piece of music, “I Contain Multitudes” is a minor gem, but it’s also an important piece in a jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working for more than fifty years, along with thousands of other unapologetic Dylan addicts.
Finally, there is a curious rather disconnected line in the middle of the song, “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I have no apologies to make.”
That sounds like a summation line to me, almost as if it were an epitaph.
One of the things that most Dylan critiques don’t get is Dylan’s role as a teacher. He has nurtured many performers along in their careers, helping several out of financial hardships along the way, but he’s also a teacher in terms of the way he lives his life. Most importantly, however, Dylan has been teaching people to think since 1959, when his first album came out because almost every Dylan song in his catalog throws out obscure references that you have to investigate to fully understand the songs…and that’s Dylan’s special gift: he makes you want to figure out what he’s saying and what he means.
Not only did he deserve his Nobel. He has probably reached more people with his songs than any other poet with the exceptions of Shakespeare and Rumi, and we were fortunate to be around to catch his act when we could.
And, now, I have to go back and read William Blake. Who knows what associations I might find there?