PRINT October 2012


Bob Dylan’s Tempest

Bob Dylan, Coney Island, New York, ca. 2006. Photo: David Gahr.

IN 1962, the year this magazine was first published, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan, the debut album of an all-but-unknown twenty-year-old. Now, fifty years later, Dylan gives us Tempest, his thirty-fifth studio release, unlike anything he has done before. By 1964, the artist was self-aware enough of his shifts of identity to title his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan; every subsequent release could have been named the same. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, he wrote that he had wanted to be like Picasso, the greatest changer of persona of all—an ambition that would seem preposterous if it did not, in fact, continue to be fulfilled. Certainly, Tempest takes his art into strange new places, to locations more mysterious even than the Old, Weird America of which Greil Marcus famously wrote in 1997. Of the new album, Dylan recently told Rolling Stone, “Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.” For Tempest does, indeed, court disorder to an extent unusual even for him. At the same time, this may be the first of his albums since the great, very unlike, Blood on the Tracks of 1975 that may almost be read as a single, albeit discontinuous, narrative.

Its title notwithstanding, Tempest opens in calm, with two genre songs: “Duquesne Whistle,” a jaunty travel ballad (“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowin’?”), and “Soon After Midnight,” a doo-wop-flavored love song (“It’s soon after midnight / And I don’t want nobody but you”). Still, the temptation should be resisted to think that this necessarily is the calm before the storm. Duquesne, a former steel town in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, already had its own heavy weather and is now 75 percent deserted, its abandoned houses full of wreckage. The song is silent on their silence, but the haunting Duquesne whistle could well be that of a ghost train going to a ghost town. And isn’t the next track the kind of high school romance that would have played on Duquesne’s radios and turntables? Dylan doesn’t answer this question. As he does so often, here he offers us not a direction but an axis, leaving us to wonder whether this beginning may also be the end.

Then the calm is broken. In the fast-driving “Narrow Way,” the singer finds himself walking down the road with an unfaithful woman: “Your father left you / Your mother too / Even death has washed its hands of you.” She has too many lovers, and the sickness of love taints the landscape: “This is hard country to stay alive in.” And it gets even harder with the album’s fourth track, the exquisite dirge “Long and Wasted Years”:

It’s been such a long, long time
Since we loved each other when our hearts were true
One time for a brief day I was the man for you
Last night I heard you talking in your sleep
Saying things you shouldn’t say
Oh, baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.

Murder has been done—murder that, as the fifth track, “Pay in Blood,” makes clear, implicates the singer, too: “I pay in blood / But it’s not my fault.” He is now in a harsh, frightening landscape where he goes through hell and dogs are ready to tear him limb from limb. Its name, we learn next, is “Scarlet Town,” where everything is atrophied. Throughout the album, a distressed landscape is not only an analogy for but in a mutual, reciprocal relationship with the collapse of love, and criminality is associated with both. Here, Dylan pulls out of his mind an anonymous piece of doggerel on the subject of love and sin: “If love is a sin, punishable by kisses / And if love is a crime, I want to be your victim.” And he twists it into “If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime / All things are beautiful in their time.” As literary critic Christopher Ricks so eloquently demonstrated in his 2003 study of the singer-songwriter’s lyrics, the word sin haunts Dylan’s songs because there is sin everywhere, Dylan says, except inside the Gates of Eden. Outside those gates, beauty may be an invitation to criminality.

But not necessarily. Taken aback by the reception of his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, as bitter and gloomy, Dylan responded, “Would you expect me to make an album of felicitous content? Why on earth would you expect that? The space between despondency and hope can be as large or as small as we make it, depending on who we are. . . . I try to put my songs right exactly in there, and hope for the best”—words well worth pondering as we move to the climactic last four tracks of Tempest.

“Early Roman Kings” begins in a mode of macabre grotesquerie:

All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High-top boots
Driving the spikes in
Blazing the rails
Nailed in their coffins
In top hats and tails.

And then mayhem breaks out. Treachery, lechery, severed heads, the house of death—from which “you try to get away / They drag you back.” This is closer to Coriolanus than to Julius Caesar, and even closer to Goya’s Disasters of War with its matter-of-fact captions such as “Y no hay remedio” (“And it cannot be helped”); Goya’s most famous one, “Yo lo vi” (“I saw this”), is implied in the catalogue of suffering that Dylan is now laying out.

He reinforces this implication by immediately leading into a straightforward narrative typical of traditional murder ballads. “Tin Angel” opens with an appearance by Henry Lee, the eponymous victim of a one-murder song Dylan had picked up even before his Greenwich Village days. But after nine minutes, “Tin Angel” ends with two murders and a suicide: Lover shoots husband, wife knifes lover, wife knifes herself. All this is delivered in music and words of renewed simplicity, the former stripped down and carried by the forceful, hard voice, the latter documentary in their description of suffering, cruelty, longing, hope, and regret.

Then comes Dylan’s magisterial, penultimate song, the thirteen-and-a-half-minute “Tempest,” which tells of the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, with the loss of sixteen hundred lives, the date and the number being mentioned in the song. The passenger liner had famously sailed at dawn in Dylan’s carnivalesque 1965 compendium of human futility, “Desolation Row,” on Highway 61 Revisited. Returning to it on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking suggests an intended contemporary message—especially in the context of an album that begins with a reference to a blighted town and that was issued on September 11. An earlier Dylan album, Love and Theft, had been issued on the calamitous September 11, 2001, and the drowning bodies in “Tempest” recall Dylan’s “High Water” (the seventh song on that album), a tribute to the Delta blues musician Charley Patton’s account of the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

For Dylan, all times are troubled times. Nonetheless, Tempest—its title song in particular—may well be compared with Bruce Springsteen’s recent Wrecking Ball as another specific response to our present troubles. But there is a big difference between the two visions of our times. Admirers of Springsteen’s have described his album as sincerely, righteously angry. Dylan’s is more removed, suspicious of the rhetoric of outrage. The narrator of “Tempest” “closed his eyes and painted the scenery on his mind.” Yo lo vi. And he itemized “every kind of sorrow,” reciting it in a speak-sing chant, with a mournful Celtic accompaniment: beds sliding, people tumbling and flying into the frigid water, the dead bodies floating, as “the rich man Mr. Astor kissed his darling wife / He had no way of knowing / It would be the last kiss of his life.”

Listening, it is worth remembering Carl Jung’s thoughts on James Joyce: “What is so staggering about Ulysses is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the drama of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.” The inner lives and responses of those who suffer are not Dylan’s subject, as they are Springsteen’s. “Understand that there is no understanding,” Dylan sings. His are people caught in the turn of the world and its history, and that’s all there is.

In the dark illumination
He remembered all his years
He read the book of Revelations
And he filled his cup with tears.

The dark is illuminated by Revelations and all his years have filled the heavenly cup of tears, which, when it once comes to be filled with the tears of the world, will overflow, the Midrash teaches, and the Messiah will come.

While this album is beautifully constructed—in an age when albums are all too rarely created, let alone experienced, as a whole—many songs stand out and could stand alone; its concluding lament, “Roll On, John,” may be the greatest. Its subject is the killing of John Lennon, and it belongs up there with the two most vivid and heartfelt of Dylan’s previous homages to fellow musicians, “Blind Willie McTell” and “High Water (for Charley Patton),” mentioned earlier.

It is the extraordinary achievement of this final song, “Roll On, John,” that it is at once a moving elegy for a loved friend and colleague and as impersonal a work of art as the great passages from Isaiah and Job that are recommended parts of the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer.

Dylan’s song begins:

Doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day
Another bottle empty, another penny spent
He turned around and he slowly walked away
They shot him in the back and down he went

Shine your light, moving on
You burned so bright
Roll on, John.

While all of the songs in this album, as is customary with Dylan, aggregate quotations and paraphrases of others’ texts, here three borrowings stand out more boldly. First is “I heard the news today, oh boy,” a close approximation of Lennon’s opening line to the 1967 Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” itself inspired by the death of a close friend. Second is William Blake’s “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” which provides the central motif of Dylan’s chorus. And third, abutted to the second, is “I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” from the seventeenth-century children’s prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The prayer is meant to afford the comfort of protection; but for those who had to recite it as children (I was one), urgent questions arose, such as, If you die before you wake, how do you know you are dead? If you are in hard country to stay alive in, the country of Dylan’s Tempest, you don’t need to ask. You understand that there is no understanding.

John Elderfield is Chief Curator Emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a consultant to the Gagosian Gallery, and senior adviser to