Back in the old days, when ambition was in the air on MacDougal Street, a song began “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less.” Nothing prepared us for that opening line, the deeply ironic claim to anonymity by a voice instantly recognizable – a voice unmasking the singer and contradicting his words. Nor were we prepared for the searing skepticism of the song, the lyrics also weighted with ironies. Of the nine verses, seven offered cherry-picked examples from unspeakable predations, ruinous wars, and the most grotesque horrors of the 20th century. The singer might be young, or he might be ageless, and his posture might be callow, but there was no resisting the gradual crescendo leading toward the inevitable challenge: “The words fill my head / And fall to the floor / If God’s on our side / He’ll stop the next war.”
But that was then and this is now. We beat on with rumors of wars and wars that have been. But when it comes to the erstwhile singer from MacDougal Street, does his name still mean nothing and his age even less? Long after the celebrated MacDougal Street dénouements, is Dylan still the erstwhile Outis of MacDougal Street?
In a word: No. Name and age mean increasingly more when we listen to – or read – Dylan. But that is not only because he’s become part of our cultural repertoire, because his life has been uncrumpled in multiple biographies, to the extent that we know where he was on what day in a given year twenty or more years before. My contention is that Dylan himself has gradually let his personal identity seep into his songs, that, like the “Frog” in Dickinson’s poem (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”), he has increasingly found pleasure in “telling [his] name” to “an admiring Bog.” His new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, released in November 2022, is a case in point. Too many of the reviewers, unfortunately, have used their reviews as a platform to take potshots at Dylan rather than trying to understand the text. One critic complained that the book was “saturated with misogyny,” as if misogyny were a noxious fluvial excretion. A weird metaphor, and too close to ad hominem critique. But we can dismiss that sort of review. More interesting by far are the serious reviewers who read the book, as Dylan seems to encourage with the songs he analyzes, as a portrait of the artist in statu nascendi. The sense of identity informs and suffuses the book, providing a stepping-stone for readers intent on following the yellow brick road to Dylan’s musical, or magical, origins. The new book turns out to be a kind of prismatic version of Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One (2004), intertwining the young Zimmerman’s playlist with a series of later songs peppered with epigrammatic reflections from a marvelously informed and cryptically associative cicerone. In The Philosophy of Modern Song at least, Dylan’s name it is something and his age it means more.
This semi-autobiographical voice, however much it impinges, doesn’t seem out of place in the book, even if it undermines the intellectual disinterest flaunted by the book’s title. But the infusion of identity into Dylan’s “philosophy” should come as no surprise. It’s my impression that, for better or worse, about twenty-five years ago the songs too began to change in this direction. This change – again, to my mind – manifests itself most clearly in Time Out of Mind. The anonymity of the singer/speaker gives way to less blurred identification of the author as the singer: to wit, “Not Dark Yet” and especially “Highlands.” After decades of rejecting personal identification with the speakers in his songs, Dylan seems deliberately to experiment with a new form of expression – identity-driven, intimate, a new Whitmanian “I.” This break with the anonymous past, if I can call it that, has made little impression on us as critics, or even as listeners, except, predictably, in interpretations of “I Contain Multitudes” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.
On one hand, Dylan’s lyrical experimentation as “Bob Dylan” might not seem new, given the array of early songs with “Bob Dylan” in their titles – not to mention the continuing fascination with Dylan’s “mercurial” identity, starting with his own Carnegie Hall Halloween concert joke “I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask” in the 60s through Renaldo and Clara, which features Dylan as Renaldo watching a Bob Dylan show, and finally such identity-bending escapades as Masked and Anonymous.
On the other hand, the identity that begins to emerge on Time Out of Mind is a far cry from the wacky, unreal “Bob Dylan” of “Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream” or of spoofs like “Motorpsycho Nightmare.” Not even the eponymous westward-bound hero of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” provides a believable identity. Still, most listeners probably can name a song in which they hear Bob Dylan identify himself and speak without anonymity – “Ballad in Plain D,” for example, or “Sara,” a song whose historical reality confutes its status as one of Dylan’s most nostalgic lyrics. But the voice of that song, despite the title’s naming of a real-life wife, repels intimacy and instinctively guards its lyrical anonymity. It’s almost as if Dylan were taking a page from the Ars amatoria where Ovid advises:
Si latet, ars prodest: adfert deprensa pudorem,
Atque adimit merito tempus in omne fidem.
[Art, if hidden, avails: if detected, it brings shame, and deservedly discredits you
In “Sara” the impression of hidden art “availing” or, less archaically, being useful (“prodest” is most commonly translated as “is useful”) pervades the song’s intimate memories, as if the mask of poetic manipulation will spare the artist shame – not only as an artist, but precisely because as an artist he has revealed his identity as the estranged husband of Sara. In fact, thanks to his hidden art, Bob Dylan’s name it means nothin’, and his age it means less even when the singer discloses an irrefutable identity-marker:
I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you
The unexpectedly revealing mention of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” leads to a quandary. As intimate as “Sara” purports to be, and as perfect an I.D. as “Sad-Eyed Lady” offers, the lyric distorts historical reality, or hides it in images like “I can hear the sounds of those Methodist bells.” The Methodist bells could have been real, ringing out from the United Methodist Church on West 13th Street. But the material reality of the bells, if it existed at all, merges with all those other highly significant bells in Dylan’s songs, from “Chimes of Freedom” to “Farewell Angelina / The bells of the crown” to, unforgettably, from the same album as “Sad-Eyed Lady,” “Shakespeare, he’s in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells.” The “Methodist bells” straddle a threshold between reality and abstraction, between Bob Dylan in a room at the Chelsea Hotel and an array of images associated with bells. This array of possible references, like slight abstractions from “the facts,” relieves the pressure on the singer to identify fully with the speaker.
The same cannot be said for “Highlands,” Dylan’s most ambitious narrative lyric after “Tangled Up in Blue.” The “I” in that song, carved out of the verses with such photographic clarity, merges into the singer’s “off-album” identity. This comes as quite a surprise. But part of the song’s power, its unparalleled sustaining voice – including the subtle vocal, which is sometimes querulous, sometimes decisive – depend on undoing anonymity in what seems an offhand, observational poetics. In American poetry, there is Whitman wandering through Manhattan and, almost a century later, Frank O’Hara. Dylan would probably have known Whitman, who, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856):
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses.
Dylan claims to have known O’Hara’s work. And the tenor of O’Hara’s observational itinerant poetry, like Whitman’s, seems to anticipate Dylan’s experiments with the form:
The gulls wheeled
several miles away
and the bridge, which
stood on wet-barked
trees, was broad and
cold. Rio de Janeiro
is just another fishing
village, said George.
The sun boomed calmly
in the wind around
the monument. Texans
and Australians climbed
to the top to look
at Beacon Hill and
the Common. Later we
walked round the base
of the hill to the Navy
Yard, and the black
and white twigs stuck
in the sky above the old
hull. Outside the gate
some children jumped
higher and higher off
the highway embankment.
Cars honked. Leaves
On trees shook. And
above us the elevated
trolley trundled along.
The wind waved steadily
from the sea. Today we
have seen Bunker Hill
and the Constitution,
said George. Tomorrow,
probably, our country
will declare war.
“A Walk on a Sunday Afternoon”
O’Hara’s descriptive associations lull the reader like a pleasant itinerary, until he makes a lightning leap from the certainty of quotidian space (“Today we / have seen Bunker Hill”) to the quantum uncertainty of what’s to come (“Tomorrow, / probably, our country / will declare war”). Compare O’Hara’s dictional maneuvers to Dylan’s in “Highlands”:
Every day is the same thing out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
Well, I’m lost somewhere
I must have made a few bad turns
I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright-colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I’d trade places with any of them
In a minute, if I could
I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talking to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat
Somebody just asked me
If I registered to vote
In one light, “Highlands” can be seen as Dylan’s attempt to establish himself as a poet of the quotidian itinerary, a Whitmanian persona inserting himself between the trapper and his squaw (“I trade places with any of them / In a minute if I could”). This posture is a benchmark departure. Dylan long ago confirmed his credentials as a Whitmanian vatic poet, and his embrace of what might be called the “other Whitman” deserves attention. In contrast, O’Hara felt he lacked the vatic talent, and he accepted his inability to write with that kind of authority. In “For Bob Rauschenberg” he asks,
what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coined?
O’Hara might have added Dylan’s name after Ginsberg’s. But “Highlands” seems to herald a new Dylan – not the anonymous prophetic voice of the anthems, nor the cunningly slippery persona of such songs as “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Jokerman.” Instead, “Highlands” introduces listeners to a voice whose name and age matter, both inside the song’s narrative, and outside, in the interpretation of that narrative. When faced with the universal, suddenly the “I” seems to have a real-world presence in “Highlands,” framed by a new quotidian diction and a very tricky narrative frankness, reminiscent, perhaps, of Whitman’s “of Manhattan the son.”
This narrative frankness often compels us now to listen to Dylan’s songs without critical detachment, identifying the speaker of the lyrics as a celebrated 80-year-old Nobel laureate named Bob Dylan whose life history we know well. The meaning of the newer songs sometimes relies on this identification in a way that “Hard Rain,” “Baby Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Highway 61,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and so on did not. “Tangled Up in Blue,” of course, received the full biographical treatment from critics, but ultimately the sheer brilliance of the lyrics superseded reductive interpretations.
To my ear, however, many songs since “Highlands” have shed the chrysalis of anonymity and agelessness. Take “Murder Most Foul,” a song from the latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, in which the identity of the singer seems to me to be crucial. It’s as if Dylan’s signature inhabits certain verses, as if he were mounting an exhibition of his own art – not visual art this time, but aural and oral. The song exudes an 80-year-old’s pained memories and a laureate’s dab hand with metrical and allusive pyrotechnics. At first, the speaker is nameless, an embodiment of an epoch (or the Voice of a Generation):
Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage
Dylan – famously, and despite a tsunami of rumors – did not perform at Woodstock (although he lived there and, in Big Pink, produced the colossally influential Basement Tapes). The nameless speaker charts a familiar cultural journey through the 60s, lacing the lines with quotations and suggestive rhymes like “rags/flags” and “Aquarian Age/stage” (the latter a reference to the song “The Age of Aquarius” performed in the Broadway play Hair). The verse tumbles from the innocence of “lil’ children” who are led by the Pied-Piper Mop Tops out of Liverpool to an uglier, menacing place where “three bums [are] comin’ all dressed in rags.” It’s difficult to identify the three bums with confidence – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? – but the quick transition to the promise of peace and love and Aquarius at Woodstock followed by the horrible murder “near the stage” at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont closes the circle, blasting the innocence of the first lines with a mirror of JFK’s assassination in the final line.
This is Dylan, if not precisely as the Voice of His Generation, then as the generation’s telegraphic chronicler. His identity is missing, except in the movement of the verse, which contains a subtle identifying marker: the narrative travels from the River Mersey to Woodstock and finally to Altamont, California. The narrator is bringing it all back home.
Later in the song, though, the first-person speaker seems to reveal, and even underscore, his identity:
Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before
Seen it thirty three times, maybe more
It’s vile and deceitful – It’s cruel and it’s mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen
They killed him once, they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me,
“Son, The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”
Air Force One coming in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at two thirty-eight
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is and it’s murder most foul
The number thirty-three has mystical Christological overtones, in this instance linking Jesus’s age when he was crucified to “human sacrifice” and “the age of the anti-Christ,” which is presumably a reversal of the Age of Aquarius. But to complement (and complicate) the magical, numerological thinking, the speaker quickly brings the song down to earth: he recalls watching the Zapruder film “maybe more” than thirty-three times, as if forced like Alex in A Clockwork Orange to sit through the “Ugliest thing that you ever have seen.” This detail provides a moment of recognition, another identity marker, because watching the Zapruder film irresistibly calls to mind a particular moment in America and captures a long-forgotten Zeitgeist. As a result, the “I’ve seen” of the verse’s opening line seems to embody both the song’s speaker and the singer/songwriter himself, who, like the film, is a relic of the early 60s and a witness to murder most foul.
At times “Murder Most Foul” can sound like a carefully packed portmanteau, while at other times it’s more of a potpourri. It seems fair to ask whether Dylan is vamping erudition in his array of allusions, or whether he genuinely wants the Kennedy assassination to symbolize the whole of American cultural experience as a series of post hoc ergo propter hoc portents by the Weird (or Wired) Sisters of Macbeth. It’s probably impossible to answer that question. But maybe Dylan anticipated just such an impossibility. Maybe the song’s achievement lies in its highlighting of a particularly American indeterminacy, a liminal space where coherence and symbolic aporia meet.
In terms of my original conjecture – that is, how far Dylan has come from “Oh my name it is nothin’ / My age it means less” – both “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” are the most obvious recent examples of his anonymity-shedding. These songs seem, at this stage, to bookend “Highlands” and “Not Dark Yet.” But I don’t want to overdetermine my readings or lose all claim to critical tact. Let me conclude instead with a tempting, but hardly definitive, suggestion of an identity marker from “Crossing the Rubicon.” In the first verse Dylan sings, “I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn.” In the Greek pantheon, the Goddess of Dawn was Eos (Aurora in the Roman pantheon). Her lover was Tithonus. The legend goes that Eos pleaded with Zeus to give Tithonus eternal life, which he granted. But Zeus did not give him eternal youth. So, while Eos was born anew every morning with the dawn, Tithonus grew older and older for all eternity. Tennyson voices this excruciating paradox perfectly:
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East.
Does “Crossing the Rubicon” purposely begin with an image suggestive enough to make us think of the 80-year-old Dylan in the arms of an eternally young goddess? The paradox might amuse a singer/songwriter on a never-ending tour, aging from year to year as the performances are newly born at every gig from east to west. So what then are we to conclude from that? That Dylan’s career went from withdrawal to transparency, from hidden identity to a form of confessionalism, from Keats to the New York School? Or maybe something subtly different – that even the most self-revelatory Dylan lyrics keep a layer of obfuscation between the singer and his audience, that self-disclosure and self-mythologizing go hand in hand, to the extent that even the 80-year-old singer-poet views himself through the lens of Greek myth. As Whitman says, also in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with
voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest
name as I approach?
What is Dylan’s “nighest name” today? He might have transitioned from nothing to something or multiple somethings – but that something still isn’t Dylan up close (and not, may the gods preserve us, Bobby Zimmerman).
 Ovid, Ars amatoria, Book II, lines 313-14, in Ovid in Six Volumes, vol. 2, The Art of Love and Other Poems, translated by J.H. Mozley, revised by G.P. Goold (Loeb Classical Library; Harvard UP, 1929; 2nd ed., 1979), pages 86-87.