Bob Dylan Together Through Life

[Columbia; 2009]

Styles: Chess Records retrospective, pre-war blues, transformational age America, post-modernism
Others: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush, John Barth

Bob Dylan’s 33rd studio album is entitled Together Through Life.1 2 3 4 5 6 On the song “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” Dylan sings:7

I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver,

And I’m reading James Joyce,

Some people they tell me

I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.8 9

With these lines, Dylan directs us to the nebulous territory he’s occupied for decades, but especially in his current period of greatness: a territory that is enriched, referential, and allusive. In one of six exclusive interviews with Bill Flanagan leading to the release of this album, Dylan (in keeping with his post-2000 charade of transparency) states: “I see that my audience now doesn’t particularly care what period the songs are from.” Dylan shirks responsibility; he puts the onus on us. Fortunately, the impetus the album provides is all we need in order to define its brilliance.10

***

1 The release of a Dylan album no longer spurs the kind of idol worship where pilgrimages are made to his Woodstock compound or his Malibu residence (see: “Bob Dylan’s Neighbors Sing Outhouse Blues” [Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar. 2009] and “Bob Dylan’s Neighbors Raise Stink Over His Porta Potty” [Boston Herald, 18 Mar. 2009] for recent Malibu incidents). [erratum: Idol worship spurs Dylan fans of today to internet search engines, furiously researching each snippet of song that is slow-leaked to the public.]

2 An addition to this album is David Hidalgo, accordionist (squeeze-boxer) from Los Lobos. Critics have exhibited their unity in the media coverage of this fact: “a Tex-Mex feel” (Associated Press), “Tejano flavor” (New York Post), “Creole-Latino accordion” (Los Angeles Times), “a Tex-Mex roadhouse” (USA Today), “embroidered with Tex-Mex accordion” (Chicago Tribune), “a Tex-Mex atmosphere” (The Observer), “Tex Mex ballads” (The New York Times), etc., ad nauseam. The same flurry of reports speaks of a “border-town feel” and a “Parisian” style (Édith Piaf mentions abound) — they affix “café” to both of those characterizations as well.

3 Of the musical pastiche, which historian Sean Wilentz accurately points out is utilized by Dylan to make “strange revenants appear” as he explores the “matrices of American myth,” we plod through the effluvium of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” (on “It’s All Good”), Otis Rush’s “All Your Love (I Miss Loving” (on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”), and Willie Dixon’s/Muddy Water’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Likewise, it’s impossible for Dylan’s “Jolene” not to conjure thoughts of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Researchers are working intensely, only scratching the surface, ripping the lake, at this point, surely.

4 “Life Is Hard” ignited Dylan’s inspiration for the album. He was asked to write a song for Olivier Dahan’s new film, My Own Love Song. After doing so, Dylan’s wheels kept on spinning and the tape in the studio kept on rolling. It makes for a whimsical affair.

5 Cognizant of every detail, the album’s front cover is a photograph by Bruce Davidson depicting young delinquent lovers in the backseat of an automobile. The photo was culled from his 1959 collection Brooklyn Gang. The same photograph graced the cover of Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love short story collection. The photograph on the back cover is one of Romanian gypsy musicians, taken by Josef Koudelka. Literary critic Wyatt Mason (and Arthur Rimbaud translator [another Dylan influence: Rimbaud had his “drunken boat,” Dylan, in “Dignity” had his “jerking boat”] pointed out the design of the album cover is similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 New Deal Works Progress Administration poster, with its red, white, and blue color scheme and clear, defined typeset. Very appropriate for these recession/depression days.

6 The songs on the album, save “Life Is Hard,” were co-written by Robert Hunter, former Grateful Dead songwriter. This collaboration is reminiscent of Jacques Levy’s helping hand on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire. Now known only as “The Dead,” the name of Hunter’s former band reminds us of the closing story in Joyce’s Dubliners: “The Dead”.

7 Those stunned with anticipation upon first hearing of a new Dylan album immediately drew a connection between Dylan and President Barack Obama, claiming the album and the milestone in American history were somehow intertwined. The clues added credence to this suspicion: 1. On November 4, 2008 (election night), Dylan performed at the University of Minnesota, shocking the Northrop Auditorium crowd by saying: “Tony [Recile, Dylan’s drummer] likes to think it’s a very good time right now — an Age of Light. Me, I was born in 1941. That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are goin’ to change now.” Dylan then began his Civil Rights Movement anthem, “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Greil Marcus, quoting his friend Barry Franklin, speaking of this incident, wrote: “I feel like I’ve died and gone to America.” 2. “Blowin’ In The Wind” inspired Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” featured in the climactic scene of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. Spike Lee’s masterpiece on race in America, Do The Right Thing, was the film Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date. 3. Barack Obama told Rolling Stone magazine that his favorite Dylan song was “Maggie’s Farm,” a song also quoted in Jimmy Carter’s landmark 1974 Law Day speech. 4. The Guardian recently wrote: “Following Obama’s triumph […] a new generation could well be making a pilgrimage to sweet home Chicago — finally realising Chess’s [Chess Records’] checkerboard impact on both black and white music.” 5. Dylan told Bill Flanagan that he read Dreams of My Father, that it “intrigued” him, and that Obama was “like a fictional character.” Despite these clues, the connection is tenuous.

8 Dylan’s literary influences continue to be revealed, affirming his cognizance of things such as Allen Ginsberg’s persistent (even postmortem) Nobel Prize in Literature nominations for Dylan. References include, but are not limited to (with respect to the varied researchers): David Wright’s translation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Nehemiah 9:3 in the Bible (“the fourth part of the day” — as cited in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”), John Bunyan’s “A Treatise of the Fear of God” from 1679 (alluded to in “Forgetful Heart”), Walt Whitman’s “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame” (where Dylan’s album title is suspected of being sourced from; “How through life, through dangers, odium, unchang- / ing, long and long, / Through youth, and through middle and old age”), and Book II of Ovid’s Tristia:

Although

other men have been exiled by you for graver offences

none was packed further off:

beyond here lies nothing [italics mine] but chillness, hostility, froze

waves of an ice-hard sea.

9 Dylan’s recent work, similar to his early work, lends itself to footnotes, annotations, marginalia, and in-text exegeses. The reference to Joyce is obvious, due to the references Joyce makes in his work (see: Allusions in Ulysses: An Annotated List, Weldon Thornton [1968] and A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork, Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson [1944]). Dylan has been toying with these word games for decades: “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys” (“Visions of Johanna,” 1966) [italics mine]. Also, for the second time in his career (see: “Desolation Row” [“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower”]), Dylan gives a nod to T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s The Wasteland is notable in literary history for its extensive use of footnotes. In the poem, Eliot gathers the refuse of a decaying, declining, and disintegrating world. It could be argued Dylan is doing the same.

10 There are no footnotes in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1.

1. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
2. Life Is Hard
3. My Wife’s Home Town
4. If You Ever Go To Houston
5. Forgetful Heart
6. Jolene
7. This Dream of You
8. Shake Shake Mama
9. I Feel A Change Comin’ On
10. It’s All Good

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