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There’s Hot Stuff Here And It’s Everywhere I Go

[A Young Person’s Introduction to Modern Times]

by John Gibbens

The article below was written in autumn ’06 for English Review, a magazine circulated to A-level English literature students, but it was eventually deemed too little lit-crit by the editorial board. Though the readership I had in mind was British sixteen- to eighteen-year-old school pupils, who, it was only fair to assume, would not be particularly versed in Dylan’s music, I hope the piece may be informative for the more general and perhaps even the more specialised reader.

Epic – Sublime – Stunning – Superb – I couldn’t help feeling a little queasy at the superlatives quoted in the ads for Bob Dylan’s latest album, Modern Times. Of course, as someone who’s loved his music from childhood up, I’m delighted he’s still making work in his sixties that can stand with his best. There’s even some personal vindication in it. I started writing about Dylan in the mid-1980s, at a time when he was really an embarrassment to all but loyal diehards. He made a record called Empire Burlesque: “I know it was all a big joke,” he sings, “whatever it was all about.” He was one of the kings of rock, but he seemed baffled, like a king who could only get one buttock on his throne. Yet still it seemed to me that Dylan, of all the rock stars, was the one most likely to produce a whole lifetime’s worth of art.

So you see, now – at sixty-five he’s the oldest person ever to have a new album enter the US charts at Number 1. He’s written a wonderful, odd book, Chronicles, whose positive reviews, he said in an interview recently, almost made him cry – because people who write about writing know whereof they speak, whereas those who write about music seldom can play. He’s been the subject of a film by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home, which was received as a benchmark in music documentaries. And best of all he has completed what his record company calls a “trilogy” of albums – Time Out of Mind (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001), and now Modern Times. They may have a point (we’ll look into this idea of a trilogy later), but I think what they meant actually was a hat-trick – three hits in a row.

In a word, he’s riding high. And yet, Epic – Sublime – Stunning – Superb – each in its own way seems off-centre as a summary of this music. Is it Epic? Ezra Pound said an epic was a poem containing history. Modern Times certainly contains a lot that’s old, but it seems to invite us to suspend our belief in history altogether.

Is it Sublime? Does it rise above the mundane into the peaks and thunderheads of great abstractions? No, its matter is mostly grit and grease, eggs and trombones and mules.

Is it Stunning? No, it’s awakening.

Is it Superb? In the sense of very good – yes. But superb in its root sense of proudly magnificent, grand, majestic, overbearing? No; indeed one of the things that makes it marvellous is humility.

A better list of adjectives can be found on a website called allmusic.com. Alongside a good, heartfelt review there’s a set of links, designed to lead you to other records that match this one by “Mood”. Now these are closer to the mark: Wry, Poignant, Passionate, Playful, Literate, Freewheeling, Organic…

Being in an organic mood, I followed my mouse, and the first thing that came up was Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be: Early American Rural Music. And now we are right in the birthplace of Modern Times – the old weird America, as people have taken to calling it. Listen to a sample of the first track: Prince Albert Hunt sings, “Dig your taters, dig your taters, it’s tater diggin’ time. / Old man Jack Frost, darlin’, killed your vine.” (Now that’s weird: Jack Frost is the pseudonym under which Bob Dylan has taken to producing his own records, and the last song on Modern Times, ‘Ain’t Talkin’’, begins, “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, / The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine”.) We are in the world of the Dying Soldier and the Sinking of the Titanic, of ‘How to Make Love’ by the Southern Moonlight Entertainers and ‘The Tail of Haley’s Comet’ by the Happy Hayseeds.

When Dylan ‘sold out’ to rock’n’roll in the mid-Sixties and ‘went electric’, he was accused of having betrayed folk’s clarity of communication, its accessibility, its moral integrity. And he replied that at the heart of traditional music, as he understood it, was mystery, and it was that mysterious dimension he was trying to get deeper into; that he wasn’t leaving the tradition but entering it.

His is a tradition in a peculiar sense, though. It is not acquired, as orthodox folk theory would demand, by oral transmission, but chiefly from records – like the famous LPs, the Anthology of American Folk Music, that were compiled by a maverick scholar named Harry Smith from his own collection of salvaged 78s, and which became a standard text for folksingers. In effect, mechanical reproduction turned ‘folk’ into a literature, radio and records enabling songs to jump from place to place and across generations just as writing and printing had with poetry and stories and drama.

A pan-American ‘tradition’, such as portrayed by Smith, unbound by specifics of place or time, is Dylan’s tradition. Indeed, that’s probably why he became Bob Dylan, a hobo from the back of beyond, instead of Bobby Zimmerman, a boy from Hibbing, Minnesota: because as such he could inherit this non-traditional tradition entire, the cottonpicker’s blues from down in the valley and the ancient ballads from up in the hills, the cowboy laments from out on the plains and the hymns from the church in the woods.

Bob Dylan built his first few records visibly out of the tradition, and since then he has ranged right across American popular music styles. With a couple of solo acoustic records in the early 1990s, however – Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong – he returned firmly to his roots, and the ‘trilogy’ he has made since are each of them like a patchwork quilt of old sounds and phrases and forms reshaped.

I have my own theory about Dylan’s ‘trilogies’. I see his work in a series of cycles, and each cycle can be divided into three phases, like the seasons, spring, summer and autumn (usually followed by a ‘winter’ of silence). The spring sees the energetic, turbulent emergence of new material from its subterranean sources – for example, the first of his ‘electric’ albums, Bringing It All Back Home. In the summer phase, the work reaches a poise and fullness, though it may lose some of its appealing freshness along with its rough edges: thus, the diamond-hard focus of his second electric album, Highway 61 Revisited. In the autumn, the work tends to become more enigmatic, dissipating some of its force in complication – hence the elusive and fascinating Blonde on Blonde, the last of his mid-Sixties masterpieces.

These three records were made in barely 18 months, however. Could a cycle like this – a movement of creative thought and feeling – stretch over nine years, which is the period from Time Out of Mind to Modern Times? Yes, there is something like the same development. Time Out of Mind is slightly woozy, semi-submerged, emotionally drunken – whereas “Love and Theft”, released in the US on 9/11, is a work of sudden force. There are some hard-driving blues on it – ‘Lonesome Day’, ‘Honest with Me’, ‘Cry a While‘ – which are as fierce as anything Dylan’s ever recorded; a pretty astonishing way to mark his sixtieth year. Modern Times is a richer, gentler, more engaging work – riper, in a word. Each song is shapely, and each shape is different. Dylan’s voice now must be the loveliest thing ever built from a groan, a croak, a murmur, a whine and a sigh.

It’s a postmodern record: that seems the only term for its a-historical appropriation of historic styles. To emphasise its distance from modernity, the title itself is borrowed from a work of 70 years ago. It’s a sign of humility, perhaps, that Dylan’s record, marvellous and memorable as it may be, is always going to be the other Modern Times. In Charlie Chaplin’s film of the same title, made in 1936, he played for the last time, after 22 years, his famous role of the Little Tramp. Its theme is the dehumanising effect of modern mechanisation, but it tackles it in a most backward-looking manner. It was Chaplin’s first ‘talkie’, but it’s made like a silent film, with no spoken lines, and plot pointers and dialogue appearing on title cards. In fact, it was the last major American film to use these devices, the last ‘silent’ in effect. For the first and last time, the Little Tramp’s voice is heard – but only singing a song in nonsense words. There are voices in the film, but they are all from speaking machines.

In early days, people sometimes saw a likeness between Bob Dylan and the Little Tramp, and Dylan admitted that he was inspired by Chaplin’s creation – this permanent poor man who can be seen, in the final frames, mouthing the words, “C’mon – smile.” Dylan has not denied that Modern Times might be his swansong (not that he intends it to be so, but that he’s ready for it to be) and his homage to the Little Tramp’s last bow is certainly fitting in that respect. (And it could hardly be coincidental, surely, that the final song is called ‘Ain’t Talkin’’.)

Among the very fleshly concerns – “I got the porkchops, she got the pie / She ain’t no angel and neither am I” – there are also a couple of songs about death here that would befit a swansong. Or rather, they are songs about the survival of love beyond death – ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ and ‘Beyond the Horizon’. The latter comes on like Depression-era escapist fantasy in the mould of ‘Over the Rainbow’; but look more closely and it’s clear that this horizon is the one that surrounds our life, and that Dylan doesn’t believe the world ends at it. “I’ve got more than a lifetime,” he concludes, “to live lovin’ you.” (Or is it, “to live love in you”?) The whole thing is done so lightly, so playfully, passed off like the scarcely-meant lyric doodlings of a crooner – and yet is so pregnant with sense.

Coincidentally, Chaplin’s Modern Times was fingered for plagiarism (by a French film studio), and so has Dylan’s been. Within days of its release, there was a news story that Dylan had taken lines from an obscure American poet of the Civil War period called Henry Timrod. (The cryptically inclined also spotted that you could construct ‘modern time’ from the letters of his name.) Though it was puffed up into one, this was never actually intended as an accusation of plagiarism by Scott Warmuth, the man who first posted it on the internet. He was just pointing out that too many phrases from the new songs found echoes in Timrod’s poetry, especially ‘A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night’, for Dylan not to have been reading it. (Timrod was quite celebrated in his day, known as the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy. I wonder if T.S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ – which has some very Dylanesque touches – might also remember him?)

The intriguing thing about the Timrod echoes, and also the use of a refrain from a song of the same era – “Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er” – is that it fits with an unexpected passage in Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles. He says there that he spent many hours in the library when he first arrived in New York, studying newspapers and documents from the time of the Civil War, feeling that momentous period had something to teach him about his own. The appearance of such texts now, in Modern Times, suggests either an uncannily retentive memory, or that that reading was done, or redone anyway, rather more recently than 1961.

Another twist of the Timrod tale is what it reveals about Modern Times and modern conditions. Scott Warmuth traced the allusion by putting Dylan’s phrase “frailer than the flowers” into Google. The point about Dylan’s plundering of old lyrics is that information technology makes it transparent. If recording began to turn popular music into a kind of literature, the process has been completed by the CD, and now even more compact digital formats, making the music of the past available en masse. The simultaneous presence of that whole tradition in which Dylan started – and which Modern Times brings to vivid life – is very much a feature of modern times.

You might also be interested in:

The Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan
by John Gibbens (Touched Press, 2001, £10)

61 Minutes: A Second (pdf)
A reading of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

We Walk the Line: a rambler’s guide to the Dylans, Bob and Thomas (pdf)
An expansion of a lecture delivered at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea in 2002

Through the Iron Gates (part 1)
Mainly about ‘Brownsville Girl’ and The Gunfighter

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