Styles: Bob Dylan
Others: William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Charley Patton, Merle Travis
I’ve been conflicted about how to approach this review, and with a couple of failed attempts under my belt, I have decided to turn to the bullet-pointing antics of two of our own writers (Gumshoe’s Dylan Shearer piece, and Nathan Shaffer’s Passion Pit piece). These little dots, book-ended by some quotes I find relevant, will present a fragmented look at Bob Dylan’s Tempest, which has already garnered many incorrect parallels to Shakespeare’s work of a similar title. Even in the wake of Dylan’s highly revered late career, Tempest seems to stand out from its precursors in ability and scope, including the much lauded Time Out Of Mind. Tempest’s epic scale and grandeur makes his few previous albums look like short stories leading up to a great novel. This being so, it deserves more than the cursory, easy Shakespeare parallels, and I’d like to present relevant parallels over the easy ones you’ll find out there.
“The Tempest is a specimen of the purely romantic drama, in which the interest is not historical, or dependent upon fidelity of portraiture, or the natural connexion of events, —but is a birth of the imagination, and rests only on the coaptation and the union of the elements granted to, or assumed by, the poet.”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notes on “The Tempest”
“People are going to say, ‘Well, it’s not very truthful.’ But a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth. It’s like people who read Shakespeare plays, but they never see a Shakespeare play. I think they just use his name.”
–Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone interview, August 1, 2012.
“Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.”
–Bob Dylan, same interview
• Contrary to popular belief, The Tempest was not William Shakespeare’s last play. A better phrase would be to say that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last “good” play, which I find to be a much more detrimental relation to draw to Dylan’s Tempest. Enough writing has been wasted pointing out the wrong notions of “finality,” focusing singularly on Dylan. Maybe there will be another album, maybe there won’t. Maybe it will be a strong work, maybe it won’t. It’s not “career finality” that Dylan’s work presents, but finality of life cycles, the ending of long and heavy breaths.
• Here’s a more accurate Shakespeare/Dylan parallel: Shakespeare wrote about 38 or more plays, and not a single one of them contains what could be deemed an “original” plot. You can trace back every single one of the plays that he wrote either himself or with a collaborator to another existing plot from the history of storytelling up to Shakespeare’s time. This was hardly because Shakespeare himself was not a creative fellow, but on a variety of conditions, a large one being that artists of that time frame of all disciplines were encouraged to take from their masters, a sentiment expressed in Don Quixote as, “[…] that when a painter wishes to win fame in his art, he attempts to copy the original works of the most talented painters he knows.” For the time, the idea of Romantic Originality had not come into dominance, and stories were created as embellishments to other existing stories with the encouragement placed on the opposite of “originality.” Through a series of conditions, be that inability, misinterpretation, or creative liberties, we have what became Shakespeare’s collective body of work: unshakably troubling characters like Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth. Stories, moods, and whole speeches were appropriated to reflect sentiments of both the artist and the times. Dylan is of the same cloth, even if his early work seemed new to everyone; he has always worked in the ways of a traditionalist. Dylan shares this traditionalist vein with Shakespeare, and as iconic a figure as he is (they are), Dylan draws on a history and mythology that extends beyond his own. “Early Roman Kings” may refer to the South Bronx gang Roman Kings, but like Shakespeare, Dylan does not “refer.” He constructs his own mythology separate of the source apropos and relies on the moods and qualities of gang attitudes to make a song of over confidence, violence, and swagger that relies on the mythology of the Roman Kings just as much as it does Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”
• Were I to jump from 2006’s Modern Times to this album, I’d be surprised by Tempest’s vulgarity. However, I believe that by 2009’s Together Through Life you could see this kind of darkness coming. Where TTL ended with “It’s All Good’s” sardonic face in an environment of destruction, this album picks up that mentality and runs with it, especially the darkest of “Scarlet Town,” “Tin Angel” (and extended play on the “Henry Lee/Young Hunting” traditional), “Tempest,” and “Pay In Blood.” I feel like I should be surprised when I hear Dylan sing, “Play it for my flat chested junkie whore” on “Scarlet Town.” I’m not, at all. The gesture isn’t offensive just to be so; Dylan doesn’t write songs to deliberately instill shock. These are sentiments as old as song itself (though it makes me glad that Tempest could raise some tantrums if it were played in a Whole Foods). The line perfectly fits a David Lynch Twin Peaks- or Blue Velvet-style small town, a place where wholesomeness disguises darkness. This is humanity at both its worst and most harrowingly believable.
• Like all good novels, stories, and albums, prevalent moods are what one tends to focus on in large works. Tempest is heavy with loss: lost love, lost trust, lost life (lives), lost memories, lost friends, and lost mythologies are just a few examples of the kind of loss expressed here. Were it not for “Duquesne Whistle’s” uneasy jovialness, the strange love of “Soon After Midnight,” or “Early Roman Kings’” man-swagger, this album would be straight tragedy (though these three songs contain very gray areas). But it would be a weak work for Dylan to narrow his moods entirely. Dylan, much like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, appropriates moods from the entire range of human emotion. Even if the overall effect is a picture of certain doom, the emotions and reflections are clearly uncertain.
• Things the song “Tempest” shares with The Tempest: a sinking boat, brothers fighting brothers, the appearance of a wizard — that’s it. What’s brilliant about “Tempest” is (again, somewhat restating the points above) how Dylan incorporates all related stories in our cultural memory. That Dylan places Leonardo DiCaprio next to Shakespeare’s own work, next to the real tale of the Titanic, as well as a number of other works, shows how capable Dylan is of extending relevance to both history and pop culture. But once again, this is not just a compiling of tales, but one only Dylan could tell. It’s a hell of a song, at 13:55 and about 45 verses; I could have easily spent this entire review dissecting just this song.
• Even with the length and intensity of “Tempest,” it’s the album’s final track “Roll On John” that strikes me as both the album’s thesis and tour de force. There’s something beyond the notion of being a “prayer” from one icon to another. The nature of prayer is tricky: although prayer is directed towards the Deity (the Other), prayer is meant more for the one doing the praying rather than the receiver, best expressed in Hamlet by the usurping king Claudius, ”My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Dylan sings to Lennon, but he truly sings for his own. Like “Tempest,” its lyrical quality bears faint resemblance to “real world event” truth, bent for the sake of story.
• Against my own notions of history as a distraction, I took a fair amount of research into where I believed “Roll On John” came from outside of the obvious reverence towards Lennon. In 1962, Dylan once played a song for Cynthia Gooding’s Folk Singers Choice called “Roll On, John,” which contains the chorus, “Roll on John/ Don’t you roll so slow/ How can I roll when the wheels won’t roll?” The song takes its “roll on” from a traditional song “Nine Pound Hammer” (commonly attributed to Merle Travis, lyrically, “Roll on buddy”). What strikes me when I listen to the early version is what Cynthia Gooding says at the end of the song: “That’s a lonesome accompaniment too[…] makes you feel even lonelier.” This thread of loneliness is what Dylan extended to his Tempest version of “Roll On John;” with its many lines taken from Lennon’s catalog, it feels like someone looking to an artist for consolation and finding nothing but their isolated self. It bears resemblance to the song “Lone Pilgrim” (which Dylan covered on his 1993 album “World Gone Wrong), a song/idea/sentiment beyond Dylan, Lennon, Merle Travis, or any artist, but from what we experience in the inconsolable loneliness of our last days. It’s this song that bears strongest resemblance to The Tempest, as both are long, heavy reflections on the cycles of death.
“Is it not thus, then, that we should imagine him in the last years of his life? Half enchanted by visions of beauty and loveliness, and half bored to death; on the one side inspired by a soaring fantasy to the singing of ethereal songs, and on the other urged by a general disgust to burst occasionally through his torpor into bitter and violent speech?”
–Lytton Strachey, Shakespeare’s Final Period
01. Duquesne Whistle
02. Soon After Midnight
03. Narrow Way
04. Long and Wasted Years
05. Pay in Blood
06. Scarlet Town
07. Early Roman Kings
08. Tin Angel
10. Roll On John