On Bob Dylan and Creating an American Voice

Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” — Bob Dylan

Some artists are special.

They open their mouths to speak and you can feel the universe resonating within their bones. You can hear the longing of thousands riding on their voices. You listen to their words and you see a mirror image of your deepest self.

They are conduits, through which the pulse of the world rises up and is articulated.

These greatest of artists have a voice that is distinctively their own but also distinctively in tune with the greater ether of consciousness, reality, presence that is the place you come from. It resonates deeper than the average chatter that is the noise of the world. There is the chaos that is mediocre artists, people in love with their own voices, people just making chatter, and then there is truth.

A short man with curly brown hair and a distinctive nose and a husky, throaty voice; guitar slung over his shoulder and a harmonica around his neck: an image in many incarnations that will hang with us long after the face itself is gone. He moved from the ranks of the longing, driven physical human — the human with a dream — to the ranks of the transcended; the idols of culture, the heroes of our greater cultural story. Their voices help us hear our own. They identify and articulate what we are.

—What is a muse? Is it an actual creature, or is it a personification of some greater force that feeds the souls of artists? Is it something innate, or is it something you have to go out and find? Is it something you have to battle, or is it something you can coerce, game, win? Does it exist at all? “Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there/With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair/She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns/Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” (Shelter from the Storm)—

I’ve read Dylan’s autobiography twice. It reads like his songs do — vernacular, a little discombobulated sometimes, husky, touching a nerve of deep ideas.

The first section is my favorite. It’s a memoir of Dylan’s first years in New York City, when he was obsessed with becoming a songwriter. He was filled up with the music and wanted nothing more than to figure out how to express all of the things he wanted to say. He was constantly experimenting, constantly reading, constantly trying to absorb all the information he could, because he wanted to understand everything. He knew that what he was looking for existed; he just didn’t know what it was, and he was hungry to find it.

He studied his art with everything he had. It filled him up.

“If I was building any new kind of life to live, it really didn’t seem that way. It’s not as if I had turned in any old one to live it. If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library – everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” — Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Compulsively creative, maybe.

—There are the lines that speak deep and personal, that hang low long after the song’s over, wrap themselves around you; that hold some deep significance, somehow, and that you carry with you as you move through life, still moving to the melody: “Purple clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, crimson hair across your face/You’re gonna make me cry if you don’t know . . .” (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)—

He loved the folk songs that were the American pantheon. He loved everything they encompassed — the strong sense of place, the cultural voice, the haunting sounds, the stories. He absorbed them until they were inseparable from what he was.

Then he took what he had become — an identity wrapped up in the culture and the music, mixed with the essence of his own self — and wrote his own songs.

Is this perhaps how the best artists create?

All he was really doing was building off of the pantheon, refining it maybe, adding his — albeit distinctive and visionary — voice to the mix.

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” — Bob Dylan

From Dylan I get an odd mix of ego and humility to the point of disgust, fluctuating back and forth — he loves the spotlight, and then suddenly it becomes too much for him to stomach and he loathes it.

The hunger that comes through so distinctively in the first section of his book remained, though, I think. You could feel it always. It’s a distinctive part of who Dylan is, at the essence of his character. He’s hungry to experience, to feel, to explore and to give voice to all of these things that move him.

He does it brilliantly.

“And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking.” — Bob Dylan

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