CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.
“He not busy being born is busy dying,” Dylan sang, in “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Reinventer of folk music, voice of the 1960s, blues singer, rock star, born-again Christian, champion of gospel, country singer, old-style crooner, and now winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan has found a million different ways to say the same thing. (He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, and he sang, “You may call me Zimmy.”)
I have been to just one Bob Dylan concert, about a decade ago. He concluded with his 1965 masterpiece, “Like A Rolling Stone,” whose brutal lyrics seem to exult in the suffering of someone brought low. The song starts with a sneer: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime/didn’t you?” The first stanza ends: “Now you don’t talk so loud/Now you don’t seem so proud/About having to be scrounging for your next meal.”
Dylan said in an interview that the song originated in a “long piece of vomit,” beginning with “steady hatred directed at some place that was honest” and ending with a kind of revenge, captured in the famous chorus: “How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”
In concert, however, the song was turned upside down. As people sang the chorus along with Dylan, they were exhilarated, jubilant, exultant. Far from laid low, they were unchained. As Dylan sang it, “Like A Rolling Stone” had become a declaration of independence.
But of course, that declaration was there all along. Even in 1965, the chorus was a cry of defiance. “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose” — and that’s not all bad.
If “Like A Rolling Stone” is Dylan’s “Hamlet,” “Desolation Row” is his “King Lear.” It’s a fever dream, or a love letter, about an unruly procession of humanity — Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein, the good Samaritan, the tightrope walker, a jealous monk, the blind commissioner, insurance men, Dr. Filth and his nurse (who “keeps the cards that read ‘Have Mercy on His Soul'”).
But in the last stanza, there’s a radical change; the dream is over. Dylan shifts from the procession to the mundane: “Yes, I received your letter yesterday/About the time the door knob broke/When you asked me how I was doing/Or was that some kind of joke?”
He seems to be describing a note from a family member, perhaps his mother — mundane, chatty. He concludes:
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.
That’s not exactly nice. But it captures what Dylan cherishes in Jack Kerouac, who understood freedom in much the same way, and who wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing.”
Though sometimes cruel, Dylan is also capable of great tenderness. “Lay Lady Lay,” his most celebrated romantic song, is uncharacteristically mawkish. Much better and more real, and in its own way a celebration of freedom, is “Buckets of Rain”: “I like your smile/And your fingertips/I like the way that you move your hips/I like the cool way you look at me/Everything about you is bringing me/Misery.”
Or consider the surpassing sweetness of “Forever Young,” written for his son: “May your hands always be busy/May your feet always be swift/May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift/May your heart always be joyful/And may your song always be sung/May you stay forever young.”
Dylan is often categorized as a folk singer, but he doesn’t like that: “Folk music is a bunch of fat people,” he said in an interview in 1966. He hates being described as the “voice of his generation.” Asked by an interviewer in 1965 how he thinks of himself, he said “as a song and dance man.” Booed in the 1960s for turning away from protest songs, he said, with sarcasm and contempt (and a kind of truth too), “All my songs are protest songs. That’s all I do is protest.”
In his sort-of autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume 1,” Dylan wrote that “songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment”; they were a “different republic, some liberated republic.” He didn’t plan to stir things up, but “thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward footgear to walk with.”
America’s poet of rootlessness lit a flame, and it burns right through that frost.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist and the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard.