One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him.
— Thomas Merton
There is a photograph that I love, a picture of four men posed together outside what appears to be the back of a large auditorium. One of the men is dressed as Abraham Lincoln, complete with stovepipe hat. Another is dressed in the vestments of a Pope (he bears just enough resemblance to both John Paul II and Benedict that it’s hard to say whether he’s supposed to be one of those two or just a generic Pontiff). A third is dressed as an old-time minstrel, a white man in blackface, wearing a tuxedo suit with a floppy bowtie, sporting a boutonniere and strumming a banjo strapped over his shoulder.
The fourth man is Bob Dylan — not a man dressed as Bob Dylan, but Dylan himself, standing stoically between the ersatz Bishop of Rome and the facsimile of the Great Emancipator. He is turned out in the manner in which he generally has appeared onstage for the past decade or so. Which is to say that he looks as far from the 21st century as Tupelo is from Timbuktu, in a baby blue Western suit with fancy black piping and details, white eighth notes sewn onto the jacket cuffs, lapels adorned with treble clefs amid a garland pattern, all topped off by a neatly blocked cowboy hat with the brim turned up sharply on the sides.
This picture appears on the back cover of Bob Dylan in America, the historian Sean Wilentz’s appealingly idiosyncratic assessment of Dylan’s unique and enduring place in our nation’s music, culture and history. The photo speaks volumes to me as both a Dylan fan and an American, encapsulating as it does his bedrock connection to and methodical transcendence of the both the actualities of our nationhood and the myths and legends that once defined and unified and sustained us but now are fading away.
The presence of the blackface minstrel might be objectionable to some, certainly to those who are unaware of the status of minstrelsy as the first genuinely American theatrical form, practiced by both white and black performers. Musically and philosophically, Dylan is tapped into these roots. Indeed, he has long viewed himself much less as an artist than as a troubadour in the minstrel tradition, plying the wares of his trade. As Wilentz puts it, Dylan has an uncanny ability, as songwriter and performer, to “reinhabit worlds that had completely disappeared…reclaim[ing] the present by reclaiming the past.”
Throughout his career, and particularly during the current run of his recorded work that dates back to 2001’s Love and Theft, Dylan has spun gold from the threads of American history and culture — employing song forms from the rock era all the way back to centuries-old Scots-Irish ballads — and his personal memories, perceptions and vision. The resulting music seems intimately familiar and, at the same time, new and utterly different than anything else ever heard.
This certainly goes for Tempest, Dylan’s latest, released a couple of weeks ago. Rocking, grooving, swinging, crooning — backed by his touring band, plus David Hidalgo of Los Lobos — he works his way through 10 songs that evoke artists from Louis Armstrong to Lightnin’ Hopkins to John Lennon — the last of whom is the subject of “Roll On John,” the impressionistic tribute that closes the album. Swirling guitars and a brooding bass mix and alternate with fiddle, banjo, accordion and pedal steel in works that, whether the arrangement is dense, spare or in between, sound like America.
Lyrically, you’d be hard pressed to find a darker Dylan record. The album is populated by graves and corpses, blood and doom, death and dying and disaster. It’s as if he’s taking the measure of all of the faults and shortcomings and missteps that brought us to the fractious times in which we live. Delivering the words in that gloriously ravaged voice, he could be an Old Testament prophet singing his tidings of demise.
Nowhere are his powers on greater display than the 14-minute title track. Ostensibly a retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, it plays more like a history of America set to music that is simultaneously a sea chantey, a vaudeville ballad and a funereal hymn. In it, Dylan does what he’s always done, weaving a tapestry of fact, myth, speculation and free association — there’s even an oblique shout-out to Leonardo DiCaprio — of words and images freighted with meanings both literal and symbolic. It’s an amazing song.
Now 71, Dylan shows little interest in slowing down. He continues to tour the world relentlessly, averaging well over 100 dates per year for roughly the past quarter-century. Between this and the quality of his recordings, he seems to have achieved something like a state of grace, reconciled at last to his status as a musical and cultural icon and an historic figure.
Which brings us back to that photograph. Standing there with the other icons, looking squarely at the camera, there is something in Dylan’s face that illuminates his self-awareness.
“Look while you can,” his expression seems to say. “When I’m gone, you’ll never see the likes of me again. When I’m gone, America is going to miss me.”
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org