Bob Dylan’s 75 years old. I wasn’t surprised to hear that. In fact, I kinda thought we’d been there for a decade. I don’t go fanboy very often, but shortly after Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers came out, my publicist emailed me to let me know that Dylan’d requested a copy, and I almost swallowed my cigarette. Made my day, of course, though I never heard anything about what he thought of it.
My favorite Dylan album is nobody else’s favorite Dylan: “Love and Theft”. The quotation marks are on the album title itself, because Dylan stole it from a book titled Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Which makes sense, given how the whole album’s always seemed to me like Dylan putting on his best sneer and taking aim at his own musical appropriation and civil rights legacy — by re-imagining Reconstruction through a series of appropriated songs. All of the meanings possible in this line from “Honest with Me,” for instance:
I’m not sorry for nothing I’ve done
I’m glad we fought, I only wish we’d won
Not that I could make my whole theory on that album make any sense to you in a blog post. Not unless I had you over and we were up all night listening to it. Because if nothing else, nobody covers their tracks like Dylan. Which, along with the pastiche and quotation — musical and lyrical riffs that both expand and explode the meaning of the songs, as well as the original sources — may be why this is my favorite album. That usage of quotation and the pastiche to a specific affect is a huge part of what I dig about authors like Melville and McCarthy, too. That kinda conversation is a huge part of what it is to make art, y’know?
Since nobody on YouTube’s bothered to post “Honest with Me,” here’s another of my favorites in the same vein:
Bob Dylan was asked a few years back how he felt about people giving him shit for the pastiche and quotation in his songs. This was his response:
Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
I always thought that was the perfect answer.
So, happy birthday, Bob. And along with everything else, I just wanted to say thank you for this, because every time I think about it, it cheers me up: