There was a clever parody of Bob Dylan circulating on the web a few years ago. Hard to find in its entirety now, it was a meticulous simulation of a lost album from Dylan’s ’60s prime, on which he sang the words of Dr. Seuss: Dylan Hears a Who. Whoever is singing does nearly as good a Dylan impersonation as Dylan himself, and the songs crystallize how Dylan’s weakness for nonsense language has been taken as evidence of genius by his admirers. (I am certainly among them.) Dylan has a passion for playground rhymes matched only by the master, Dr. Seuss, as we are reminded by the interview he did with Rolling Stone to hype his new album, Tempest, which was released on September 11. (Rolling Stone issued excerpts from the interview online this Thursday, in advance of publication, to hype the magazine that’s hyping the interview that’s hyping the album.) The interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, prompted Dylan to respond to the charge that he has not volunteered attribution for the sources of some of his lyrics—a nice way of asking Dylan if he thinks he’s a plagiarist.
“In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition,” Dylan answered. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.” Equating critics of his lifelong use of allusion with the early critics of his fusion of folk and rock, Dylan told Gilmore, “All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
Wussies and pussies! The most shocking thing about the phrase is that Dylan wasted it in an interview and didn’t build a whole song around it. By the petty fury of his response, Dylan seems to be betraying his sensitivity to the charge. Also, he is inaccurate. I have no problem with Dylan’s artful mining of literary and musical resources. Yet I am a wussy— scrawny and cowardly, by nature—and I have been called a pussy a great, great many times. This could be verified by anyone who attended Brensinger Elementary School in the 1960s. To Dylan’s point, moreover, it’s childish to the level of sub-Seussian to equate criticism of Dylan’s creative method with weakness of character. After all, some of the most pointed criticism of Dylan’s use of appropriation has come from Joni Mitchell, a force of ferocious tenacity. As she said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2010, “He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Unfortunately, Dylan’s new album has nothing so fiery as his interview comments about wussies and pussies and motherfuckers rotting in hell. It’s a predictable, if listenable, album in the mode of all his work since Time Out of Mind in 1997. The music is simple and ambling, an undistracting backdrop for Dylan’s archly fun and coyly rhyming lyrics. He sounds like Burgess Meredith in the Grumpy Old Men movies, teasing and ranting with randy, rakish, codgerly charm. Because the theme of death recurs in the songs, some listeners have taken the album to be a personal statement on mortality by an artist who is now 71. But autobiographical interpretation is always a dicey proposition with Dylan, who has, in most of his work, been more concerned with the realm of myth than that of experience. Besides, his first album, titled eponymously, was almost entirely about death, and it was released 50 years ago, when Dylan was 21.
The centerpiece of Tempest, the title song, is an epic ballad about the Titanic. It owes a considerable debt to a very old tune: a ballad about the disaster that was recorded by the seminal hillbilly singer Ernest Stoneman in 1924. Sometimes called “When That Great Ship Went Down” or “It Was a Sad Day When That Great Ship Went Down,” the piece was performed over the decades by every folk great, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly. As Seeger explained once, the song became a standard at summer camps, where song leaders would embellish it by adding verses until the song would take half-an-hour to sing. Dylan’s rendition, at 13 minutes, 54 seconds, is a condensed version.
Knowing the folly of autobiographical interpretation of Dylan’s music, I will resist the urge to interpret his interest in the Titanic as personally revealing. Could Dylan, the titan of popular music in our time, be sinking? I won’t go that far. After all, as I said, I’m a wussy.