FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY John Hughes, University of Gloucestershire
If “nostalgia is death,” as Bob Dylan famously asserted, then how do we commemorate his 80th birthday? Any member of the commentariat, however humble, is aware of the responsibility at moments like this to offer some assessment of Dylan’s impact and lasting significance, mapping the man or his work onto some cultural, artistic, socio-political, historical, musicological, or literary critical context . . . Yet such assessments can also seem partial, or wrong-headed. They might help us remember, but they don’t capture what we need to celebrate. Equally unhelpful, the inner fan might feel embarrassed by a contrary impulse, simply to mumble words of gratitude. The comedy, of course, is that both responses are pure anathema to Dylan himself, who is famously allergic both a) to being lauded as the voice of his generation, and b) to fans’ eager desires for the-moment-they-have-waited-for-all-their-lives, ambushing the Nobel Laureate outside his hotel in Copenhagen, Chicago, or Cardiff.
My guiding thread here is to meditate on these things by emphasizing the kinds of forgetting that have always been internal to Dylan’s art. If Dylan is worthy of celebration it is perhaps because — arguably like all truly historical or creative figures — he changed his times, his art, and his audience by refusing to accept any of them, and by making us forget ourselves in the process. In his famous and evocative January 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen talked of how as a teenager he was both “thrilled and scared” by Dylan’s voice, as he first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on WMCA on his mother’s car radio. And most of Dylan’s admirers will have some similar story, telling of that moment, song, friend, or incident which suddenly put them on the wavelength of this music. For such listeners, like young Bruce, or like Dylan at Newport, or Miss Lonely, one loses oneself to reappear, in ways that mix loss and renewal, even exhilaration and peril. Those who respond like young Bruce did may never be the same person again, with his excitement at that “snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind” (Hedin, ed., 202). However, one needs also to acknowledge the intractable divisiveness that has always been part of the package, and to remember that no amount of commentary is going to convince Bruce’s mother that Dylan can sing, any more than one can argue Irving Welsh into believing the singer deserves the Nobel Prize.
Biographically speaking, it is unnecessary here to reiterate Dylan’s own talent for self-forgetting, which has famously and successively defined his life as a series of wiped slates ever since he left Hibbing. Whether or not nostalgia is death, certainly a very extensive kind of creative forgetting has been life for Dylan himself, in so far as this self-styled “mathematical singer,” has always begun with subtraction and multiplication, deducting the self from its social conditions, in an emancipating embrace of self-uncertainty that finds ever new ways of contesting social fictions of identity, and of gauging the complexities of private experience. In the 1960s, when Dylan first took possession of his artistic empire, his songs appeared time and again to be staking out some utterly new ground zero from which to voice new beginnings. The magic of his compact with the listeners was paradoxically to be totally oblivious of them, but while sweeping them up by an audacious insurgency in which he was equally utterly forgetful of himself. The songs’ air of coming “as if out of nowhere,” in Greil Marcus’s terms, involved their drawing the listener into the slipstream of a voice that sought to sweep past the existing state of things, as it expanded into the vacuum of all that was yet to be invented in the turbulent politics, art, and audience of his time. Such extraordinary alignments of historical and artistic opportunity as took place in the 1960s are no more repeatable than youth itself, but one can still be amazed at the sheer mesmerizing inspiration of Dylan’s art in those times, and at its own capacity for self-difference. Over and again, his voice took down the old world to announce or imply new ones, imperiously coming through the air waves to summon his audience in utterly unforeseen and divergent ways: now voicing apocalyptic vision and reckoning (“A Hard Rain ‘s a-Gonna Fall”), now inaugural proclamation (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”), now emancipating vituperation (“Positively 4th Street”), now the irresistible coursings of desire (“I Want You”). . .
Undoubtedly, in recent years Dylan’s voice and the songs have lost this abandon, this imperious sway and reach, and his art has become narrower. In compensation, one might argue that the songs go deeper. The voice is cured and steeped in a lifetime’s accumulated craft and experience, and albums like Tempest, or Rough and Rowdy Ways sound out our fallen world and mortality with a compelling authority. The pendulum of self-forgetting still swings in these songs, if more locally, in the artful disjunctions at play within phrases, or a line, or pair of lines. Often on these two later albums, for example, this will take the form of a distinctive bait-and-switch technique that dislocates register, perspective, and tone by another small turn of the kaleidoscope. Within this narrower compass, though, the songs weave their effects of humor, beauty, and revelation, mixing up comedy and darkness, tradition and originality, the demotic and the profound. This artfulness of late Dylan is perhaps yet to be fully described, but at this juncture it is enough to express gratitude that it is yet another dimension to his immense and manifold achievement: as his work continues to provoke us to live and progress, by teaching us first to forget.