Graham Reid on the life, music, poetry and art of the man who ‘contains multitudes’

In the many decades before he appropriated the line from Walt Whitman for his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan lived out the idea and possibilities of “I contain multitudes”. In 2004, reflectively, he told LA Times music critic and editor Robert Hilburn: “There are many sides to us. And I wanted to follow them all.”

Bob Dylan – who contains multitudes – is now 80 but even at the start of his career he was much more than a folk singer. When he went in to record his self-titled debut album in 1961 this mystery kid who had washed up from somewhere unknown into the folk clubs of New York was apart from the constraints of the folk scene. His album contained as much material by black blues artists as it did folk.

Dylan – who in his high school year book said his aspiration was to join Little Richard’s band – had steeped himself in folk blues, old and strange country songs and brought that to the studio with a couple of minor league originals (Talkin’ New York where he posited himself as country yokel in awe of the big city, Song to Woody for his idol Woody Guthrie).

Here was Dylan – who’d also grown up with mainstream country music on the radio before the watershed of Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Then Guthrie came his way and he modelled himself on that folk hero.

But there was more in his schooling for this teenager who was also in the Latin club: “I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote those early songs,” he told Hilburn. “I was into hard-core poets. Poe’s stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne.

“Byron’s stuff goes on and on and you don’t know half the things he’s talking about or half the people he’s addressing. But you could appreciate the language.”

Some would later say that about his songs on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, the overall effect more important than the details of the lyrics.

When he was hailed at the “spokesman of his generation” for songs such as Blowing in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Masters of War and The Times They Are A-Changin‘, he recoiled.

“I never set out to write politics. I didn’t want to be a political moralist”.

His work became more coded and opaque, the imagery drawn from increasingly diverse and sometimes obscure sources as much as observation. And he frequently announced his unwillingness to take the mantle – and accepted that certainty about life was wrong: “Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull” in My Back Pages.

When other folk singers were in a circle, Dylan was on the outside hanging out with the poets Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Gregory Corso, writing surrealism into song (Desolation Row, Memphis Blues Again) and briefly toying with a writing career: “Like a Rolling Stone changed it all. After that I didn’t care about writing books or poems or whatever.”

Dylan was a man apart and his emotional retreat behind the shades and oblique lyrics, then his literal departure from the scene to live quietly in upstate New York allowed him even more latitude to embrace and explore those multitudes.

Dylan paintings at an exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery in London in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

He began painting and his early and pretty awful daubs adorned the covers of the career-sabotaging Self Portrait and Planet Waves albums.

The boy from the Jewish family whose songs were replete with images and ideas from the New Testament would later journey to Israel before embracing an apocalyptic Christianity. He would make films with no fixed focus other than confusion and mystique (Renaldo and Clara, the oddly appealing Masked and Anonymous).

His music went in all directions: he reinvented historic characters (the murderous outlaw John Wesley Harding, Mafia thug Joey Gallo) as mythical heroes; like a painter he created parallel narratives, time shifts and characters in his songs (the songs on Blood on the Tracks, Brownsville Girl) and rarely explained anything.

“Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

He seemed to avoid the limelight but turned up to Princeton in ’70 to collect an honorary degree (an uncomfortable experience as he sang in Day of the Locusts)

His life has been full of such contractions and unexpected behaviours: in ’94 he allowed the accountancy firm Coopers Lybrand to use a version of The Times They Are A-Changin’ in an ad, a decade later he appeared in a Victoria’s Secret lingerie commercial which used his song Love Sick.

He toured constantly, sometimes playing huge venues and at other times small halls when he lost his mandate; became a serious painter (much better than those early album covers), had wives we didn’t know about; did the remarkable and unexpected Theme Time Radio Show where he played music of all genres and linked them with chat, observations and stories; wrote the first volume of an autobiography (Chronicles Vol 1) and 16 years on we await any further instalment . . ..

That he rarely speaks to his audience, he has explained, is that he doesn’t want to condescend into cliché and “to me the performer is here and gone. The songs are the star of the show, not me.”

At 80 we’re perhaps no closer to understanding Bob Dylan than we were in 1966.

In recent times his work has been layered with lines, images and references from classical Greek literature and popular culture. He is the enigmatic man who wrote songs as simple as Lay Lady Lay, as sentimental as Forever Young and as deep as Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.

Bob Dylan has been many things in a mercurial career which took him from the folk clubs of New York to being the first songwriter awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At 80 he remains, possibly even more so now, a man who contains multitudes.

An extended version of this piece appears on the author’s website

Graham Reid is a professional teaching fellow in the School of Music, University of Auckland, and a freelance travel, arts and music writer.

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