Music History

We Will Never 'Know' Bob Dylan

Stop trying, scholars: You'll never get inside Dylan's mind.
Alberto Cabello/Wikimedia Commons
Stop trying, scholars: You'll never get inside Dylan's mind.
It's impossible to make a list of Bob Dylan’s best songs.

There is so much discussion around Dylan’s seemingly endless body of work, that condensing his 60-year career into a single article of highlights is as reductive as it is pointless. Dylan, who turned 80 Monday, has made an entire career standing at the intersection of subversion and sentiment, making you feel things you didn’t want to. Whether it’s a bone-aching lovesickness or simple disdain for his unconventional voice, it's uncommon for a Bob Dylan song to enter a person’s ear and for them to feel nothing.

Coming in auditory contact with Dylan’s music means to walk away with a different feeling, different opinion and different set of favorites. Countless publications will write articles and analyses of Dylan and his songs, featuring different rankings of his “best” works and most “underrated” songs, stories from those who claim to have known him, yet none will admit that every attempt to understand the musical demigod’s work only results in an ever-deepening mystery and a greater obsession with the mortal human being born in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Allen Zimmerman.

No one truly “gets” Bob Dylan, just like no one truly “gets” David Lynch, Hieronymus Bosch or you. Music critics believe they do. One man’s Empire Burlesque is another man’s New Morning. Dean of American rock critics Robert Christgau once graded Dylan’s oft-maligned 1990 misstep Under The Red Sky an A-, the same grade he gave to Dylan’s widely praised 1997 late-career “masterpiece” Time Out of Mind. Some argue as to whether Dylan’s “classic run” ended at John Wesley Harding — the reserved, decidedly rootsy follow-up to the era-defining“masterpiece Blonde On Blonde — or at Self Portrait, his shitpost of a covers album in which he covers himself alongside The Everly Brothers and “Blue Moon.”

Some argue that Dylan's rocky early '70s output was all part of the plan leading up to his 1975 comeback Blood on the Tracks. Some will go as far as to say that Dylan can’t sing, while others say his voice was integral to the articulation of the indisputably great ideas folded within his songs. No matter what discourse surrounds him, one thing’s for certain: Dylan does not care about what you think about him or anything else.

No musician has cared less about what takes place outside his arms’ reach than Dylan. If anything, that’s the one thing that has kept him within the cultural fold for so long. His rejection of his public image is matched only by his ability to manipulate it. We’re talking about the complicit subject of a brilliant documentary that contained blatant fabrication of history, only to the benefit of Dylan and his mythos. Rolling Thunder Revue is the only documentary that will cause you to know less about a subject after watching it than you did before.

So what’s worse? Thinking that we don’t know the real Bob Dylan or knowing that we don’t know the real Bob Dylan? Furthermore, which is better for Bob Dylan?

As a result of this deliberate haziness, Dylan’s songwriting is completely unaffected by anything other than his own will to conjure songs. There are times in history when not everyone agreed that his songs have been worth listening to, and yet others when everyone seemed to agree that the vital, Picasso-like voice of multiple generations had re-emerged with a vengeance (which has happened at least three times in the last 50 years).

Writing about Dylan is an even more daunting task than coming up with highlights. What can one say about  Dylan that has either not been written before or has not emerged from Dylan’s own brain? Much like watching Mulholland Drive or staring at The Garden of Earthly Delights, it’s all there — sometimes we just need a little help having things pointed out to us.

No matter what discourse surrounds him, one thing’s for certain: Dylan does not care about what you think about him or anything else.

tweet this

If anything, the wide variety of reactions and opinions about Dylan reveal more about the people and culture(s) that consume his music than it does about the man who creates it. Maybe you ought to ask your next Tinder date what their favorite Dylan album is instead of asking for their astrological sign. Maybe you ought to hang out with more Leos and buy yourself a copy of Desire.

Dylan’s music is as universally shapeshifting as David Bowie’s, but it’s seldom regarded as such. He’s worn many hats, yet most observers don’t notice them, instead focusing on the face of the man underneath them, and the deepening of the wrinkles that detail and map out his face, offering clues to the origins of his songs. He’s almost never thought of as an everyman, but if you think about it, his songs have been sung from so many perspectives and worn so many clothes, that’s it’s hard not to consider his body of work anything other than as pure everyman.

Our own lives somehow seem to appear in the labyrinth of Dylan’s lyrics, like a boggart taking on its observer’s worst fear. One may scoff at the scathing, metaphorical diss “Positively 4th Street” yet dissolve when hearing the opening notes of “Buckets of Rain.”

The only tangible truth we know about Dylan is in his words:

He not busy being born is busy dying.

If your time to you is worth savin' then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin.'

Sometimes the silence can be like thunder.

In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm, "Come in," she said, "I’ll give you shelter from the storm."

Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and you do it well.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

That’s the closest anybody will get to “knowing” Dylan. He’s a character from one of his own songs, an invention of his own imagination, and a specter evading capture by any corporeal entities.