Saturday, July 14, 2018

Dylan and Shakespeare: Birds of a Feather

Photo credit: William Pagel
Warfield Theater, San Francisco
When did Dylan first start being compared to Shakespeare? I believe that at some point in the 90's such a comparison was being made, though at the moment I'm not finding it. This reviewer from the Guardian made the comparison explicit when Love and Theft was released. His review was written the day before the Twin Towers were slammed into, published that morning and lost in the rubble. It's an explicit comparison by a longtime fan named Matthew Tempest. Interesting name, inasmuch as that was Shakespeare's last play and now the title of Dylan's last studio album of original songs. The article title is right on target, so direct: Dylan's a modern Shakespeare.

While unearthing that I came across this insightful story in a 2010 blog post by David Charles titled Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I. Mr. Charles has assembled numerous references to the Bard in Dylan's lyrics, many of them obvious, such as the famous line, "Shakespeare's in the alley" which the artist Skye borrowed to title her massive installation that was on display here during Duluth Dylan Fest in May.

The date was removed from this Big Think blog post but it's a more recent comparison, titled Was Dylan the 20th Century's Shakespeare?

My own earliest reference comparing the two great literary figures was in 2012 in a blog post titled Shakespeare and Dylan: Birds of a Feather. One common denominator between the two might be to see the extent to which both artist's sayings have been incorporated into our common culture. Here's just one hilarious example of the extent which Dylan permeates our culture. It's a story about five Swedish scientists who made a bet to see who could sneak the most Dylan references into their research papers. I am absolutely certain that this is not an isolated incident.

Painting by Ed Newman
A number of years ago I wrote a blog post about all the pithy sayings that originated with Shakespeare that have become part of our common day-to-day speech. On the anniversary of Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616) Dan Rather did a radio monologue that consisted of Shakespeare sayings that have become part of our lingo today. It was much longer than you can imagine and included familiar sayings like, "All the world's a stage" and "There's a method in his madness" (paraphrased) and "Brevity is the soul of wit."

In a similar fashion I believe there will be more Bob Dylan lines quoted as part of daily life than any other writer from our generation. Here are some lines and images that will be remembered a long time.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

The Times They Are A-Changing.

"Come mothers and fathers,
Throughout the land,
And don’t criticize,
What you can’t understand."

Positively 4th Street:
"Yes, I wish that for just one time,
You could stand inside my shoes,
You’d know what a drag it is,
To see you."

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

All Along the Watchtower
“There must be some way out of here,”
said the Joker to the Thief.
“There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief…”

“Tangled Up In Blue”

“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me
... in the jingle jangle morning I will follow you.”

Like a Rolling Stone
“How does it feel to be on your own,
No direction home, like a complete unknown,
Like a Rolling Stone.”

“God said to Abraham kill me a son…”

“Sometimes even the president of the United States is gonna have to stand naked...” (People will be quoting that for as long as there is a United States.)

“May you stay forever young.”

"You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way."

The Man In Me
"The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen,
But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine."

Like a Rolling Stone
"When you've got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Not Dark Yet 
"Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain."

To Ramona 
"The flowers of the city,
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times.
And there's no use in tryin',
To deal with the dyin',
Though I cannot explain that in lines."

You’re a Big Girl Now
I’m going out of my mind
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart

"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" 
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Actually, it's impossible to eliminate any line from It's Alright, Ma because on any given day a different verse can speak to you. Alas....

* * * *

After Dylan released his last studio album of original songs, Tempest, there were an ever increasing number of comments and references to how much Dylan and Shakespeare have in common. How apropos it was that when the Nobel Prize was awarded to our contemporary Bard, the Nobel Prize people even made comparisons between the two men.

For those who missed it when Dylan's acceptance speech was first given, I have included it here. I'd intended to quote the portion where he discusses Shaekspeare's relationship to his art. Because ll rights are reserved as regards reproduction of the lecture other than to use the embed code permitting this audio reproduction, I have included it here in its entirety.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.

1 comment:

Bill Routhier said...

Well, phrases Dylan wrote will certainly last into the future, and some may become part of the language. In "All Along the Watchtower," I would think that the lines that lasts will be "There are many here among us who think that life is but a joke, but you and I we've been through that and this is not our fate." In any case, the phrase, The Time's They are 'a Changin' " is already quoted endlessly in the media.

As far as Dylan being our Shakespeare, though, there really isn't a comparison. Cervantes said 'comparisons are odious.' Why must one be diminished in relation to the other. But suffice it to say, there is and will always be just one Shakespeare. There is and there always will be just one Bob Dylan. But what each did is so different, that there's no logical reason to put the two together in any judgement of the other.

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