In the famous 1965 Press Conference with Bob Dylan - you know the one, famously featured in the film I’m Not Here where Cate Blanchett plays Bob Dylan - a question is roughly asked about Dylan’s musical aspirations. During his response he says, “Maybe I’ll write a song that’s a whole record.” He’s joking, but he may still be working his way there. On Dylan’s new album Tempest, five songs are over seven minutes long. The title track, about the sinking of The Titanic, is five seconds short of fourteen minutes. There is little musical interlude here, Dylan makes use of the whole song: “The Tempest” has about 45 verses to it... and no chorus to speak of.
Bob Dylan has become America’s storyteller. In an age where kids can’t sit still for five minutes, our attentions drawn to 140 character snippets, and the television and the internet relentlessly control our lives, Bob Dylan can make a fourteen minute song that’s enjoyable to listen to, in fact, that’s enjoyable to listen to multiple times. How has Dylan done it? For this reviewer, Dylan has mastered the art of saying something without ever actually saying it.
What does that even mean? Well, for one, Dylan’s persona has been this way from the very beginning. Upon his arrival to New York City, the young Robert Zimmerman took the Dylan of Dylan Thomas and became Bob Dylan. His backstory too took some revising, claiming to be from nearly everywhere at some point, most notably a rambler from Colorado. As the phenomenon that is Bob Dylan began to propagate and respectable newspaper reporters and journalists started to untangle the web, we can see with hindsight how many of the specific facts themselves coming from Dylan’s mouth began to matter as much or less as the lines he wasn’t giving us, the thing which is intuited by these stories.
As Dylan’s career has matured, his songs have taken on this kind of guise. Tempest’s rollicking opening track “Duquesne Whistle” is an example. It starts: “Listen to the Duquesne Whistle blowin/ Blowing like it’s gonna sweep my world away/ I’m gonna stop in Carbondale and keep on going/ That Duquesne Train gonna ride me night and day.” The song follows in this fashion, the Duquesne Whistle blowing and sounding throughout, asides and non sequiturs filling the trains cabin like dialogue from the middle of a story. We’re given the outline of the story with no context, or maybe the context to the story with no outline, but we’re left a compartment to fill with our own baggage, without worrying the song will contradict the meaning we've assigned it.
Of course, there are more straightforward songs on Tempest following in the footsteps of more narrative pieces like “Hurricane” or “Hattie Carroll.” “Tin Angel” is a perfect example, a lyrical poem really, that takes us with The Boss as he confronts his Lady who’s run-off with another man. The song becomes cinematic, not because of its atmospherics, but by the way Dylan begins telling the story, “It was late last night when the Boss came home/ to a deserted mansion and a desolate throne/ Servant said: “Boss, the Lady’s gone”/ She left this morning just ‘fore dawn.” It feels like you’re settling down to a good movie, escaping into its world.
And really, that is what delights people so much about Bob Dylan. He’s able to take us away to imagined places that still identify with own lives. Despite the aging of Dylan’s voice - or one might say because of - these songs shimmer with a hardness of the original article. There’s a certain substance the album carries that is normally filtered out by our contemporary culture. The limited range and raspiness of his voice is a real constraint, but raw and expressive. Tempest engages its audience on more levels than your typical pop-record, asking more in return for more.
On one of the record sleeves, Dylan is pompously smoking a cigar, despite the continued deterioration of his voice. Never one to back down, Dylan has actually embraced his diminished range and creaking notes. By taking on a more lyrical prose approach to songs, the direct delivery of the lyrics make them easier understood and its age a kind of power, perhaps like a wiseman speaking over a bonfire.
In a recent and somewhat rare interview published in the September 27, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, Dylan excitedly passes onto the interviewer the idea of Dylan’s own transfiguration - a kind of religious transformation into a higher state of grace - which he came up with after reading about the death of a Robert Zimmerman, president of the San Bernadino Hell’s Angels (who shares Bob’s real name) in a book called Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The book is written by Sonny Barger himself and co-authored by Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman. Dylan has the interviewer read a section of the book that tells of Robert Zimmerman’s death, being struck by a fellow motorcyclist while turning around to fetch a broken muffler. Dylan, of course, had a brush with death in his own 1966 motorcycle accident. In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan explains it became clear that Dylan himself was transfigured. In usual Bob Dylan fashion he doesn’t go much further into detail than that, but he does defensibly add, “I only know what I’ve told you.” He does seem to imply though, that at some point during that time (Sonny Barger’s book claims that Robert Zimmerman’s death occurred in 1964, but additional research has shown that he actually died in 1961, weeks before the New York Times live review of Dylan and his first big-break) the Minnesotan kid Bob Zimmerman did truly die and became Bob Dylan.
Maybe there’s some truth to that, and Bob Dylan is really charged with some kind of holy order to make his music and tell his stories. They are, after all, the story of America, in a round-about way. The story of the Titanic, the story of John Lennon, a story about a Duquesne train line, they are the story of what matters to people and what they get involved with. His songs are the fictional history of America, or maybe more correctly, the subconscious history of America, of what actually happens there through its icons and symbols. Bob Dylan is our connection to America's past and also the bridge from it, a tambourine man leading us foward.