Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize With Your (fill in the blank)

People I know will come across the fact that Bob Dylan has produced paintings that can be seen in Art Galleries and that are published in large coffee table books, and they will ask me, “Are his paintings any good?”   In some cases, they have themselves seen reproductions of the paintings, and they ask me this anyway: “Are they any good?”  At one end of the spectrum, I am expected to be flattered that this person is making informed conversation on a topic of great interest to me. On the other end of the spectrum, I am expected to be flattered that this person is looking to me as the person in their circle of acquaintance who can provide  conclusive judgment on the merit and meaning of what Mr. Bob Dylan does from one day to the next. All along the spectrum is the same depressing subtext, though, which has nothing to do with Mr. Bob Dylan. Is it any good? we ask of things called art, conditioned as we of a certain class are in the First World to not know what we are looking at until it has passed the infinity trial.

Sean Wilentz’s new book, Dylan in America, was reviewed today in the NY Times Book Review, by Bruce Handy, who is an editor at Vanity Fair and formerly was editor of Spy, a funny magazine that no longer is in print. In his review, he offers  plausible evidence that he is familiar with the songs Desolation Row and Delia, and he compares Bob Dylan to Madonna, as two people who *reinvent* themselves. I  confess I find myself all too rarely contemplating the fact that the same person gave us both La Isla Bonita and Jump, and how analogous this is to  the fact that the same person gave us As I Went Out One Morning and Visions of Johanna. Bruce Handy very much liked Sean Wilentz’s book, largely because it was not “humid,” Handy’s vivid descriptor of so much writing on the topic of Bob Dylan–the example he gives being Greil Marcus’s suggestion that Bob Dylan was a “turning point in cultural space.” Greil Marcus is really not very often humid, and this comment seems almost arid: why should not any very  influential individual be considered a turning point in cultural space? Handy’s only real criticism of Wilentz’s book is that it’s too scholarly–specifically, Sean Wilentz offers several claims for the first encounter between Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, and then weighs the merits of these claims.  I suppose that a historian displaying the work of historical research is a tiresome detour in a book devoted to cultural history.  This week, the cover of Vanity Fair shows a photo of Lady Gaga. A month or so ago, the cover showed a photo of Angelina Jolie, and we can hope that Bruce Handy himself was responsible for the caption, Farewell Angelina, given his professional interest in Bob Dylan’s work.

We are all about humidity here at Gardener is Gone. We simply have to be–if the gardener is gone, the plants will not get watered, and although we fold our hands and pray that somehow  moisture will manifest itself and  keep those poor plants in our garden from drying out, often enough we must get out there and do the watering ourselves.

Here is a painting from Bob Dylan’s Brazil Series, as his new group of paintings is called.  I like to call this one, Every Distance Is Not Near. Looking at this scene, I can see something of how life works here, although I can’t see any people. It is hard work washing clothing by hand and then hanging it on a line which is attached to a tree. The houses seem to have been built as needed, rather than commissioned by people living comfortably elsewhere while a team of builders assembled their new homes. It’s hard to see the entrances to the homes, and they are very close together and the streets would need to be steep to reach those red box-houses perched below the sky. The one path we can see runs along the blue house to the left; the path seems to be packed red clay, not paved, and maybe the streets connecting the boxy houses are not only steep but also red and clay-ey and maybe your feet are covered with reddish dust when you get home. The windows face every which way and just about all of them are dark, black holes. No one stands at them to look out, and the combination of jumbled life and the emptiness of the black windows is a little discomforting. But not discomforting enough to stop me exploring. The water in the small stream below the drying laundry is busy and blue, and the sky looks clear and kind of marine, with light streaks that aren’t quite clouds but that match the crowded world below; a flat blue sky would not match this world that seems tremblingly held together.  Grass is green, the tree is full-leafed, there seem to be little red flowers tumbling in the long foliage on the right. It’s a good clean healthy day, where is everybody? The colors are clear and brisk. Dark and light reds and ochres and browns and purples and mauves and greens and blues are placed alongside each other in little house-swatches that create patterns, and keep my eye hunting for more of that nice brick red I like best here. The colors here never turn the scene into a cute Third World colorful checkerboard of a town, if you know what I mean. Around the windows in the blue house on the left I can just make out a pattern of different colored tiles. Perhaps if you are in the house and you stand right in front of the window, you can take in  the colorful tiles and the leafy green tree and the blue stream and the little red flowers across the stream all at once.

The painting teems with shapes and color and signs of life. There’s depth and perspective and paint is applied with care, but enough visible brushstrokes in the layers of color  to keep reminding us this is a surface. I visit the painting often and never think I am visiting this town, if indeed there is….

Bob Dylan once told an interviewer that when he’s with other people, they believe he is listening to them, but he is actually hearing songs. I guess songs themselves, and then roots and seeds of songs, chromosomes of songs, amino acids of songs. When I visit his paintings, I wonder  if at this point in time, the song-life of Bob Dylan’s mind  has grown so abundant and tireless that he finds the kind of  attention of the act of painting, which seems to start out free and then create its own order–a line a square light blue dark red another line a curve yellow green dark blue a house a tree–somehow tempers the wild growth of sounds inside his mind.  I just wonder what he hears as he paints.

Well, everyone, out of the garden. Back to the real world and the real work of telling right from wrong and good from bad.


4 thoughts on “Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize With Your (fill in the blank)

  1. I’ve only seen Dylan’s paintings in online reproductions–though of course I’ve seen the drawings in Writings & Drawings, etc.–and while I have no opinion about their objective merit (I’m not really a visual guy; aesthetically, I’ve always thought of myself as functionally blind)–I find them very, very pleasing–they have an unprepossessing vigor and a satisfaction with their subject that is a great cure for the blues. They are, oddly, comforting, solacing–something Dylan’s songs, which always (?) find a way to be unsettling, aren’t. So your speculations about what they do for him ring true for me.

  2. Yes, I was trying to find a way to get across how “pleasing” I also find his paintings, without the airless prison where we talk about how good they are or are not. I enjoy very much paging through my copy of Drawn Blanks for just that reason–the simple and reliable pleasure of them, and I like these Brazil Series even more, which I have also only seen on-line. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. The proof copy of Prof Wilentz’s book that I read has a printed label stuck on the front with an endorsement from Al Kooper that begins: “Unlike so many Dylan-writer-wannabes and phony ‘encyclopedia’ compilers, Sean Wilentz…” etc, etc. I faintly hope but seriously doubt that someone at the publishing house might have thought better of this before the book went to press. Generally speaking, I don’t think an author is made to look better by insults flung at other authors (Clinton Heylin please take note). Unless of course they are the very SUBTLE ONES that are the standard currency of literary exchange.
    The egregious point of this puff, though, is the “‘encyclopedia’ compilers”, whom we know are not plural but singular. There is one only compiler of a Bob Dylan encyclopedia, namely Michael Gray. And while his book may be odd, and is not really an encyclopedia, I cannot see that it or he is “phony”. No more phony, at least, than Chronicles is as a “memoir” (a remembering of what happened).
    The choice of “phony” seems pointed, by the by, since it’s the word Michael Gray has lighted on to describe “Modern Times”. (I don’t subscribe to this view myself. I can’t see what illegitimate artifice distinguishes this piece of art from the artist’s other artifices. But no matter.)
    The unjoined-upness here is that “Bob Dylan in America” not only cites The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia as the first item in its selected reading, but also, in its chapter on “Blind Wille McTell” and Blind Willie McTell, depends heavily (as Prof Wilentz acknowledges) on Michael Gray’s “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes”. (Which, in my opinion, is his best book to date.)
    Apart from that, the book is very likeable. I read it backwards, for some reason, not thinking I was interested in Aaron Copland. But the first chapter, on the Left and music from the 30s to the 50s, turned out to be among the most interesting.
    There’s a haze descends over the interpretive passages, compared to the historical ones, which is disconcerting in places. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is referred to as an “epic”, which is hard to reconcile with an actual reading of its 50 lines. Of Desolation Row, Prof Wilentz writes: “the song almost certainly echoes The Waste Land’s repeated invocations of death by water. But no matter.”
    But no matter? What does that mean exactly? That critical perceptions (unlike those of historians) are all just as true as each other, which is to say not true at all?
    And in the same passage: “The least mysterious verse (although it is mysterious enough) comes next to last.”

    Praise be to Nero’s Neptune.
    The Titanic sails at dawn.
    Everybody’s shouting
    Which Side Are You On?
    And Ezra Pound and Tee Esss Eliot
    Fighting in the captain’s tower
    While calypso singers laugh at them
    And fishermen hold flowers…

    The LEAST mysterious?

  4. PS A fascinating piece on the Guardian’s website suggests that the loss of the Titanic was actually what folk wisdom deemed it, a kind of Judgment on Progress – in that it seems to have arisen from a misunderstanding between two eras of seamanship, resulting in a deadly error of data transmission.
    According to this story, if the Traditionalist fishermen had been in command, all would have been well. And if the shipbuilders had singlemindedly adopted Modernism, as Pound and Eliot wanted, all would have been well. But the ship sank between two stools.
    The Guardian story also lends – as happens from time to time with Dylan’s lyrics – a rather uncanny propheticalness to his choice of Which Side Are You On?, which could be exactly the question that holed the Titanic.

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