Monday, February 1, 2016

Sometimes Even When You Don't Understand a Dylan Song You Can "Get It"

“I don't like the idea of 'understanding' a film. I don't believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art. Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn't. If you are moved by it, you don't need to have it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.” ~Federico Fellini

There it is. This is what some people mean when they talk about art, whether music, poetry or a painting. It's like a joke; you shouldn't have to explain why the punch line was funny.

To this day I don't "get" Dylan's "Changing of the Guard," but it moves me every time I hear it, and remains one of my favorite Dylan songs. What's it all about, Alfie? The images connect with something inside like a series of dreams, rising up from a subconscious sea teeming with shimmering mysteries.

In his book The Dylanologists David Kinney devotes one chapter to the Lyrics Dissecters. These are the ones Fellini is calling out above. It's like Dylan's lyrics are a secret code to be cracked, if only we had an Enigma Machine.

People have the same problem with abstract art. "I don't get it" has been exclaimed in art museums and galleries all over the world.

"Ballad of a Thin Man" is another song that falls into this category, difficult to apprehend but one that definitely haunts. The opening bars on the piano send a chill through the room and the confounding imagery shocks and frightens. Something's happening, even if you don't know what it is. "You try so hard, but you don't understand," Dylan hisses.

The words and images can confuse, but when ignited there can be light, revealing the outlines of shapes and scenes that darkness conceals.

* * * *

For what it's worth, Duluth Dylan Fest is just around the corner. May will be here faster than you know it. The events are slated for May 22-29 this year. If you want to celebrate with us here in Dylan's home town, mark your calendars. There will be a birthday celebration on his 75th, May 24, in front of the house he grew up in. And there will be plenty of music... some of it you'll "get" with your head and some with your heart.

Meantime life goes on all around you. Be a part of it. 

1 comment:

Pete said...

I do agree with you (and Fellini) but the problem is even worse: Sometimes you can identify the specific source of inspiration (e.g. When the Ship Comes In, according to Baez who was there) but focusing on that actually lessens the impact of the work. That song, to me, is a rousing celebration of coming victory, and I love it. Viewing it as a whine about an innkeeper would, to say the least, diminish it. Of course, it's not a whine, that just happened to be the momentary trigger. Same is true of Thin Man, and pretty much everything else Dylan wrote, including (ahem) Series of Dreams.