Funny, Artistic, Analog v. Digital–Many-splendored Bob D. At 92Y

imagesWe’ve just finished week 4 of the class I-can’t-help-it-if-I’m-lucky to be teaching at the 92nd St Y.  When I was a passive but opinionated student in this course, I felt more comfortable writing little narratives of the experience. The remedy is to act as though I’m still a passive and opinionated student.

images-1 It’s already been a parade of different voices and visions describing Bob Dylan. It’s one thing to know abstractly that Dylan is an artist who looks one way from one angle, another way from another angle, and the quantity of angles is too many to be arithmetically possible. But it’s another thing to have people smarter and more interesting than oneself demonstrate this fact.

What I hope to do here is not to provide distance learning, but to offer introductions to people and ideas that anyone may pursue on their own, with their own questions and detours and examples. Even better, perhaps someone else will want the pleasure of a similar class in their own wife’s hometown, and look into what it would take to organize one. We know that good people in good institutions are teaching the lyrics to Desolation Row in their 20th Century Lit courses, and I can’t be disingenuous and anti-intellectual about supporting that work. But the kind of informal potpourri of intelligent palaver about Dylan that a course like this provides, encourages such chances for creative and shared and unexpected relations to his art, unbound by the laws of academic discourse, valid as many of those laws. I always want to encourage my imaginary friends in their distant Future World to create singular  and self-made connections to this singular art.

images-7Our first guests were Norma and David Gaines, of Southwestern University in Texas.  Norma’s background is in art history, and she spoke to us about Dylan the Visual Artist. This was a nonpareil treat for me, personally, since informed and engaging discussions of his painting and draughtsmanship are few and far between.  Norma showed strongly-colored  images from Drawn Blank, and described the drawing technique in terms of impressionistic and expressionistic  traditions of Big M Modern art–the oblique or compressed viewpoint of a Kirchner street scene, the brisk strong outlines, singing colors,  and vigorous use of empty space of a Matisse. images-8images-3images-2 Dylan’s willingness to return to drawings again and again with different color schemes can remind us of Monet’s variations on a theme.  Norma was taken by the fiery sky Dylan applied to one of the variations of the receding train tracks, and it turned out to be a popular image with us also–so many bright and fevered  and strange skies in the songs, from diamond skies, to pain pouring down, to the Fourth Part of the Day.  Norma found a connection between Dylan’s self-portrait and Matisse’s portrait of his wife: the black outlined ear, the long-ish head, the bold eyebrows. What Norma did was let us see what Dylan may have seen that lingered in his mind visually as we know so much music and language lingers in his mind.  The argument that Bob Dylan is a great painter is not a road I would travel on. But that his paintings have a strong visual life to them, that their palettes and compositions hold the eye and invite us into one moment of seeing the world as this artist sees  and seizes it, that’s a road I can walk down, and Norma gave us an excellent clear-sighted and informative map.

images-10 David Gaines took his place at the desk to talk to us about humor and Bob Dylan. He confessed right up front that it’s nearly impossible to talk about humor without simply saying “That’s funny, isn’t it? And then that other thing, that’s funny too, isn’t it?” There are of course not just theories about humor but theories about why it is so hard to theorize about humor and now you are drifting off to sleep, as well you should be. David did great justice to his subject: he insisted that Dylan’s humor is underrated, insisted that taking humor seriously in Dylan’s songs does not extract the humor from the songs, played 115th Dream and Brownsville Girl. I laugh out loud just from the way Bob sings  “I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off,” and makes that sentiment sound lyrical and poignant, plus he croons about 6 syllables more than the musical line should be able to hold. So there is humor in the performances as well as in the lyrics. Bob the maskedandanonymous ubertrickster is already a cliche, but making Trickster Bob a cliche will not protect us from by being tricked. David mentioned a book that seems worth looking up, Trickster Makes the World, by Lewis Hyde.

Since humor is everywhere in Dylan–and humor is a way of being, while wit is verbal skills that do not originate in a laughing spirit–why is David right about this being underrated? I have a theory of two parts. First part:  So much of the canonical writing on Dylan, the inner circle of Dylan criticism and scholarship, does not manifest much wit or humor or lightheartedness. The writers who’ve set their teeth on Dylan and won’t let go, are going at him with a variety of  tones that may on first glance   substitute for humor, such as sarcasm, vitriol, puns, and flippancy, but there’s really not so much levity. Second part: A group of Dylan *fans* who are *discussing* their favorite artist’s work are more likely to resemble a dogfight, or more charitably, warring tribes enjoying a brief and suspicious truce,  than a party of happy laughing friends. He’s quite clear on not taking himself seriously, a lesson we have not clearly learned. Everyone listen to Gotta Serve Somebody and laugh out loud at the fact that we can’t be morally autonomous. Bob does it.

More matter with less art: Our guest on Oct 20 was Peter  Stone Brown, who raconteured us most unsummarizably, and too-briefly played his guitar for us. At the URLs above, you can first read a succinct and accurate description of  Peter’s talk on the succinct, accurate, and always-engaging blog of Mr Frank Beacham, and right below that you can access Peter’s own blog. Peter’s writings on Dylan can be found on, and other places you can travel to via his own site. Peter has himself traveled with Dylan from the beginning, from a concert in Newark, New Jersey in November 1963, right on up to this Fall tour. He’s a great presence, because he’s been open and available to Dylan’s refashionings and self-discoveries over the decades, contradictory and enigmatic and uningratiating as they’ve been. Open and available, and skeptical and clearsighted and unslavish.  His relation to Dylan’s work is transparent in his manner of talking about the music and the performances, and can’t be reproduced or summarized easily. His comments about Dylan’s being “Internet-ready” (see Frank’s blog above) have been percolating in me for lo these two weeks and I look forward to brewing them up.  A natural and idiosyncratic storyteller doesn’t fit the distance learning mode, does he.

images-14 Last night, we entered the scary world of science and math, but luckily our guide was Tim Anderson, a professional audio engineer who made it possible for us to understand some of the technical concerns of recording that many of us fans take for granted or condescend to. I’m often smug about Bob Dylan’s preference for old-fashioned recording methods, with really no idea of what I’m talking about.  Tim explained not merely that but how digital recording makes it possible to eliminate from the recording the ambient sound of the room in which the music is being performed. He helped me see the way analog recording is a series of physical processes that preserve the continuity of a sound wave’s fluctuations , and digital recording reconstructs sound waves from ever-smaller sections of the wave–digital interrupts the continuity of a sound wave, although the fragmented bits are smaller than small, and the smaller they get, the more *fully* the sound wave can be rebuilt. I hope I have this right.

images-13 Bob Dylan has been outspoken about his distaste for digital sound. He apparently  does not want to lose the sound of the room in which he records his songs. I like to imagine that he wishes to capture the moment in time, the place-in-time, of the performance of the song. He wishes perhaps a thumbprint, a shadow, of the irrecoverable time and place to be present on the recording. All very Romantic-talk, but whether or not I am hearing the physical traces of time-and-place in this presence, perhaps the presentness of Dylan’s voice happens because he is comfortable believing the moment is being captured more comprehensively….  Oh well, throw on the dirt, pile on the dust.

images-15images-17 I then asked Tim to listen to One of Us Must Know, and then Most of the Time, and talk about two of Bob Dylan’s most well-known  “sound albums.”  He helped me hear that some of that mythic thin wild mercury is  a matter of sibilance. The recording levels can be manipulated to emphasize the silvery  sibilance of Dylan’s vocals, as well as the percussion, especially cymbals. A discussion ensued in which the comment was made that this sibilance is less noticeable in other songs, such as Visions of Johanna. True enough, but there seems to be enough high brightness in the tones of the instruments throughout the album–the tinkly (in a good way) piano, e.g. Even Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands has its own brightness and does not have the vast open aural spaces of Oh Mercy. Tim explained how that distance between the vocals and the instruments is achieved, and how reverb contributes to the effect on this album that some of us adore (me), and many of us can’t stand (many others). An interesting comment was made that Most of the Time sounded like “a science fiction movie,” and for the first time I could hear the impersonal quality of the the album’s music–it sounds synthetic, I can hear that, but I still find it intoxicating.

images-18Last night’s class began and ended with the delightful experience of live music, as our own Toby performed The Times They Are A-Changin’, and then played both Lady Franklin’s Lament and Bob Dylan’s Dream, thus treating us to a wonderful lesson in Bob’s sources and borrowings. We ended the class with Toby’s performance of his own original talkin’ blues,  the cleverness and pleasure of which can’t be reproduced here.


5 thoughts on “Funny, Artistic, Analog v. Digital–Many-splendored Bob D. At 92Y

  1. Thanks for the report. Lewis Hyde’s Trickster book is a genuinely great book, and I’ve always thought that trickster mythology shed a lot of light on Dylan. Hyde has another book, The Gift, that is almost as good.

    It had never occurred to me that the “thin wild mercury sound” might emanate from the recording rather than (or even in addition to) the music being recorded. It makes me wonder what exactly–acoustically speaking–is being “manipulated” to enhance the sibilance. It seems like it would have to be something in the sound wave being made sharper–i.e. literally thinned. It would be fascinating to know.

    As for Dylan’s wanting the (sense of the) sound of the room to be captured in his recording: I don’t think he’s just being a traditionalist here. I think at some level his motive for singing is for his voice to become the weather of the room he’s singing in, so that without that sense (or illusion) of the room–even an open-air room–it makes no sense for him to sing & he loses his way. That’s my take, anyway.

  2. I agree that learning about the science of acoustics offers astounding chances to get into the records. There’s nothing reductive or mechanizing about finding out what choices could have been made to make Paul Griffin’s piano sound just that jewel-like on One of Us Must Know. Alas for myself, math is involved here. I think that for Dylan, sound waves have always been obviously physical, whether this means breath or something you and I aren’t physically calibrated ourselves to register. And he just *gets* that analog recording is a physical process he can follow at some subliminal level, that transports sound waves into different kinds of packages. And he can’t physically follow digital recording. This sounds nuts, but someday someone will de-nuttify this. Someone who’s good at math.

    And thank you for prodding me to get that Lewis Hyde book. Absent Mr Dylan, we live in times when it seems especially appealing to be able to describe the difference between a trickster and a liar.

  3. Well, I’ll share a funny story with you. I watched Dylan’s 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance (the one where he sang 3 songs from Slow Train Coming) with my 2 daughters and Peter Blue Cloud, a Native American poet who specialized in semi-original Coyote tales (semi-original in the same way Dylan’s tradition-steeped songs are only semi-original). Anyway, I had been trying to persuade Peter that Dylan’s Jesus (on the album) was a trickster–and thus a version of Coyote. After hearing the songs–on the album; none of the SNL songs were Jesus-oriented–Peter allowed that I was not crazy but he remained unconvinced. I felt somewhat vindicated, however, a couple years later, by “Jokerman,” a song about a trickster manque that was widely perceived–correctly I think–both as a self-portrait and an expression of wariness about the Jesus myth. (Interestingly, Dylan had been here before, in “All Along the Watchtower, where the joker & the thief are a trickster manque and a genuine trickster, respectively.)
    I also played Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” for Peter. He was unimpressed–until she came to the line about Coyote picking up her scent on his finger, while watching the waitresses legs–Peter shot a broad grin, pointed at the stereo and said, “THAT’s Coyote!”
    One last thing: the trickster doesn’t lie. He (or she) just redefines the boundaries of the truth. He literally does make stuff up.

  4. A. On frequencies.
    According to an article on The Bridge website (, Blonde on Blonde was recorded on 4-track. I’m no expert on vintage recording equipment, or what Columbia’s Nashville studios had, but this article – – describes the set-up the Beatles were using at Abbey Road in the mid-60s, and I’d guess Bob Johnston was using something roughly analogous in producing BoB.
    The Abbey Road set-up has ten separate channels, which means ten different sound sources, although they all have to be routed ultimately to only four tracks on the tape. Each of the ten channels has its own EQ (equalisation) in three bands, just like your old home stereo back in the pre-iPod age: Bass, Middle, Treble. So the engineer or producer can make an incoming sound more trebly or more bassy as it passes through the mixing desk to the tape recorder.
    As the number of tracks available in recording studios multiplied – by the mid-70s, 24-track was industry standard – the general rule would be not to apply EQ to the sound as you were recording it. Since there were enough tracks on the tape to record every sound source separately – for example, three different microphones on the drums, recording onto three different tracks – you could do all the tweaking of frequencies afterwards, in the mixing.
    But with four-track you would probably have to be recording several separate sound sources together onto each track. For example, the Bridge article suggests that for “Fourth Time Around”, an acoustic guitar and bass were recorded onto one track, the drums and an organ onto another. The drums would probably have been miked with several microphones, and each of those – one in front of the bass drum, say; one overhead recording more of the “top” sounds of the kit, the splash of cymbals, the hiss and crack of snare – could have its signal adjusted for more treble, more middle, more bass as it passed through the mixing desk. But any adjustments you made in your sound couldn’t be undone afterwards – they were on the tape. So you had to know what you were doing – know your microphones, know your room, know your musicians and their instruments.
    You had another pass of EQ-ing when you came to mix your four-track recording, to make the master for the record – or in the case of Blonde on Blonde, two masters, one for the stereo and one for the mono LP. But if you have several instruments or sounds together on one track, there are limits to how much EQ-ing you’ll want to do. If the bass is with an acoustic guitar, you may want to boost the lower frequencies of the bass sound, but that will also give you more bottom end in the acoustic. (For this reason, vocals were almost always kept, as far as possible, to a track on their own, so that they could be tweaked in isolation.)
    Another important factor in the recorded sound in the Sixties would be compression, which is an electronic treatment of sound that is fairly simple in principle (though this isn’t perhaps the place to try explaining it), but can have a wide range of effects, from subtle to extreme, on what we end up hearing.
    I’d say that the lovely results that we hear in Blonde on Blonde have a lot to do with familiarity. Bob Johnston knew the Nashville studio, the engineers, the musicians. That gave good chances of making good choices. And however radical Dylan’s songwriting, his sounds were not particularly radical: it’s not as though he was trying to record Hendrix or the Mothers of Invention.
    B. On the Trickster…
    … follows shortly

  5. Thank you very much–this is greatly helpful and I hope you won’t mind if I share this with the people in the class. I begin to have sense of what can happen to the sounds of different instruments when they are recorded on one track, in terms of the *live* recording experience that Dylan prefers. When I finally got hold of a CD of the mono Blonde on Blonde, my experience of the album utterly changed. Gone was the shrillness and separation that I had grown used to with my standard remastered stereo CD. The songs sounded denser, warmer, richer in mono. Did I lose the thin wild mercury sound? Or do I finally really hear it? Was I confusing the shrillness of the digitalized, stereo separation with “thin” and “wild’? I pretty much only listen to the mono now.
    I had the pleasure of hearing Sean Wilentz deliver a talk on the recording of Blonde on Blonde, which he then published. Here is a link to that paper, and it is a wonderful portrait of Bob At Work, as well an excellent and valuable appreciation of the musicians who were equal to his vision and made it real for the rest of us.
    Thank you again.

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