I’m not sorry for nothing I’ve done. I’m glad I fought, I only wish we’d won.
Pretty wry for a spry guy, this Bob Dylan character. The codger’s got plenty kick left in him yet. Feel like a fightin rooster, feel better than I ever felt, but the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess, and the Denver road is about to melt. Plenty parables too. There may be no second acts in American life, but at 60, Dylan could care less. Like Miles Davis and his shadow, that asshole Pablo Picasso, Dylan has given us one long act to chew on, and one long song: a peerless and exquisite display of craft, nerve, and wit. His riddle-rhyming trail is marked by the silence, exile, and cunning of the hermetic populist—Joyce, Pynchon, Reed, Clinton. Occasional lapses of taste and crises of faith, periods of doubt, self-derision, and personal revival too. Rare among American artists, he shouldered the burden of a great and precocious gift. He crashed but did not burn out after the ’60s. Now contemporary evidence, a new release called “Love and Theft,” suggests that the poet of his generation is once again prophet of his age.
The current saber-rattling is probably giving him more than a slight case of déjà vu right about now. This is where he came in, way back when, our freewheelin’ troubadour, with his “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” his “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” his “Masters of War.” Before 9.11.01, “Love and Theft” was an abstract expressionist painting Dylan could never have intended to carry a topical frame. Funny what a little moonlight can do: Now poets are bringing us the news. Before that fateful Tuesday, “Love and Theft” could not have been so easily read as Dylan’s contribution to the literature of the apocalypse. Now so nakedly he seems revealed, bounding out of the wilderness in high prophetic mode: I see your lover man coming, across a barren field. He’s not a gentleman at all, he’s rotten to the core, he’s a coward and he’s steel. My captain he’s decorated, he’s very well schooled and he’s skilled. He’s not sentimental, it don’t bother him at all how many of his pals he’s killed. We could have gleaned as much intelligence data from the RZA, the GZA, and the Ol’ Dirty BZA, but who besides your Five Percenters and wigga types were paying serious attention to a buncha crypto-alarmist niggas from Shaolin? Get your shit together before the fuckin‘ Illuminati hit. Nostradamus gave advance warning, they tell me, the Book of Revelations, Rastafari. The eons-old Mayan Calendar of Cosmogenesis predicts a cataclysm will reset the world calendar to zero in 2012. The astronomical lore of the pyramids, left behind over 10,000 years ago, informs us that the earth’s axis is about to reverse, flipping the planet back to the Stone Age whether we bomb the Taliban there first or not.
This may be the dawning of the age of Aquarius but some of you know we’re still in the Age of Pisces—a time of severity and strife, suffering and service, a time whose ruler Neptune is the planet of mystery, illusion, and deception. Four jetliners. Nineteen allegedly surly Middle East passport-carrying muhfukuhs with knives and box cutters breeze past security when your lone black ass can barely make it through with house keys and pocket change. Where was racial profiling when we really needed it? None but the truly twisted will find even grim solace in that observation. If there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go, Curtis Mayfield croons from the wings. The Jamaican family of my man Michael Richards, a brilliant sculptor whose final resting place was his studio on the 92nd floor of tower one, can attest to that, as can that of my man, Guyana’s Patrick Adams—former proud security presence here at the Voice and still missing.
Dylan’s impact on a couple generations of visionary black bards has rarely been given its propers—Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Charles Stepney, Terry Callier, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, Chocolate Genius would not for a second hesitate to acknowledge coming under his spell. Like Joni Mitchell, Gil Evans, and Charlie Haden, he’s left deep, yeti-sized footprints in this thang we call Black Music. It’s a matter of record, of sublime and divine social intervention.
Like Miles, Dylan, born May 24, 1941, is a Gemini, the sign ruled by Mercury, messenger of the gods. According to Goldschneider and Ellfers, those born on the day of the magnifier and clarifier also fall under the sway of Venus, but are far more skilled at communicating love than giving it. They tend to favor the dispossessed over the privileged, but must guard against sarcasm and harsh criticism of their friends and also against their own fanaticism and zealotry. I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered, I’m gonna tame the proud. Those of Yoruba persuasion might recognize Dylan as an Elegba-Eshu vehicle, those of the Dahomean faith as Legba, devotees of the vodun syncretism as Legba-Pied Cassé. Trickster gods, cosmic jokers who control the crossroads. Dylan ain’t just whistling “Dixie” when he pursues archaic, fallen, and decayed American musics. There’s souls in them thar hills. And a taste of our cowpoke president’s newspeak as well: George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian, and the Jew, you can’t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view. They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5. Judge says to the High Sheriff, I want him dead or alive, either one I don’t care.
The voice you hear on “Love and Theft” is not that of the cocky young rock star who wrecked folk by simply strapping on an electric guitar, nor is it the vengeful and crotchety man who dripped Blood on the Tracks. This Dylan is older, wiser, and grousier, but sweeter, more sanguine if still unsettled too. There’s a bitter taste in his mouth, but it’s not bile. He might moan but he doesn’t bitch, and whether you project the immediacy and portent in his words that I do, the depth and reach of songcraft remains monumental and omnivorous. “Love and Theft” presents an assured master working with a cornucopia of tuneful frames, all set out on leisurely, laconic display. There are blues forms and jazz forms here, gypsy-jazz folk forms, Tin Pan Alley and rockabilly, boxcar rounds, campfire sing-alongs and sea chanteys, cowboy songs, madrigals, and various alchemical mixtures as they’re needed. His current band speaks his language, being connoisseurs of antiquity too, and are as adaptable, supple, and blissfully out of touch as any he’s ever had. They understand how to support and navigate his juke-joint rhythms and cascading, sometimes colliding, cadences. Even at its most foreboding, this is good-time music. The overall impression it leaves is that of bodies in motion and bodies at rest, sometime at breakneck speeds and sometimes arrested, of folks flying forward and folks stopped dead in their tracks, having finally looked back to see what’s been gaining on them. There is an economy, transparency, and conviviality that complement the newfound humility, civility, and camaraderie of our city—a place that, achingly, feels so much smaller in scale without our twin megalopolis-marking towers of money and babble, traded in now for a massive laying-on of hands.
So many prescient, portentous lyrics beg the question: What did Dylan know and when did he know it? Some up-to-the-minute somebody at the Federal Bureau of Immigration, very few Angolans, and no Haitians at all will surely wish to inquire about the former Mr. Zimmerman’s connection to Osama bin Laden: Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee they’re throwing knives into the street. Two big bags of dead man’s bones, got their noses to the grindstone. Living in the land of Nod, trusting their fate to the hands of God. “Bye and Bye” ‘s breezy B-3 lounge jazz skates beneath lines I hear as fair appraisal of the conduct of our mayor and wartime consigliere, who will waltz out of office on a heroic grace note: Bye and bye, on you I’m casting my eye. I’m painting the town, swinging my partner around. I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust. I’m watching the roads, I’m reading the dust . . . The future for me is already a thing of the past. You were my first love and you will be my last. The national psyche, the national moment, the nightly jingoistic appeals to revive the national resolve, avenge the national honor, and spill the national blood can strangely, spookily be heard sounding their retort in this music Dylan wrote who knows how many months ago: I’m gonna baptize you in fire, so you can sin no more. I‘m gonna establish my rule through civil war, make you see just how loyal and true a man can be. Dylan’s sleeping giant is more wary, weary, and diplomatic than the one who rose out of Pearl Harbor, but just as ready to applaud good old American know-how and the desire to just get the job done.
There are also intimations of the lumpy-throated suspense we’re all held in now, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, the proverbial ax to fall, and what comes next, our collective jumpiness as it were: Last night the wind was whispering, I was trying to make out what it was. I tell myself something’s coming, but it never does. In this Dylan you can hear the banjo-strumming wagon-train ghosts of America past riding shotgun with our after-the-innocence future shock, but because it’s Dylan you also hear this place where the personal and the apocalyptic mesh. You don’t understand it, my feeling for you. You’d be honest with me if only you knew . . . I’m here to create the new imperial empire. I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require.
“Po’ Boy” is what hiphop would be if it told the tale of all those players doomed to lives of quiet desperation—Po’ boy need the stars that shine, washing them dishes, feeding them swine. But it is in “Sugar Baby,” the album’s swan song, a final address to a tearful, fearful nation, that this record’s kinder, gentler, crustier, creakier Dylan quietly dons his gold lamé glittersuit one last time and goes for the jugular with run-down, melancholic glee: Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick. Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick. Any minute of the day that bubble could burst. Trying to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse. Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one. You’ve got a way of tearing a world apart, Love see what you’ve done. Whether he’s speaking as Dylan the martyred lover or as some kind of Jesus, the message appears abundantly clear: These may be the last days, but not even armageddon is going to save us from growing up, and our learning curve remains steep.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 25, 2001