Even if the thought-train-coming who calls himself Bob Dylan were not the greatest songwriter in the history of rock n roll, the man born Robert Zimmerman in icy Hibbing, Minnesota sixty years ago has gifts galore for us in Love and Theft, his forty-third album.
Dylan transcends matters of taste. He is beyond the simple irrelevancies of style, trend, and marketeering, in spite of the fact that, yes, at one point or another in his forty-odd-year career he has—gasp—tried to SELL records. He's written crap. Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 might be the worst piece of it ever recorded by a major artist, and to be fair, he did intend it as a throwaway. But the truth is, that's the one Bob Dylan song everybody knows, even if the title escapes them:
"Well, they'll stone ya when you're trying to be so good,
They'll stone ya just a-like they said they would.
They'll stone ya when you're tryin' to go home.
Then they'll stone ya when you're there all alone.
But I would not feel so all alone,
Everybody must get stoned."
yeah yeah yeah
Dylan IS. Like a force of nature. Like the rain and the wind (both metaphors that he OWNS by the way, and should have been able to copyright by now; see A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Blowin' in the Wind, and Idiot Wind), you can count on the fact that, sooner or later, he'll drop by and rock your world.
And we should thank God for that.
Dylan has frustrated me since he walked onstage drunk at my first Joan Baez concert in 1963 and sang Masters of War, a song I'd never heard before. He's way smarter than me and his radar is off the scale. Like I said, he is past cool and beyond hip; he's just coming from another dimension. No other artist I can think of has so consistently brought me up short and forced me to consider my own inadequacies as an artist and observer of human nature. How many times have I loathed whatever he's served up to me upon first listen? He IS a chameleon. You can COUNT on him to not stand still. He WILL mess with your expectations. He's ALWAYS been like this. I mean it's become a joke! Jokerman.
I was minding my own business, pursuing my little computer-bound writing effort, and I'd finally bought the damned new Dylan record and it was playing in the background and vaguely in the back of my mind I was really hoping it wasn't as bad as his live recording with The Grateful Dead (The nadir of Dylan's efforts. Avoid at all costs.) Because, generally, this week, like everybody else, I've been in a pretty bad mood, and just like I don't like my Labrador Retriever nuzzling at me, putting his head in my lap cause he's too stupid to walk out the open door to take a pee, I'm not really in the mood to listen to my college idol go down in flames on his new record. So I'm checking it out casually, just to get a taste, just in case.
Mistake. Mistake. Mistake. Bob Dylan is not background music.
Like the problem-child newborn from hell, Dylan demands serious attention every time out. He's been doing this for LIFE, guys. He IS a serious artist. He has tossed away more poon than Eminem, System of a Down, and Radiohead and U2 can even imagine. It's not about sex, drugs, and rock n roll anymore. Really. And, for Dylan, it probably never was.
He released Love and Theft on September 11, 2001. It is conceivable that men and women who worked at the World Trade Center were thinking about popping out to pick up a copy during lunch. Maybe even ripping a song or two on their little iMacs that afternoon for some friends who didn't "get" Dylan. Love and Theft is forever frozen in an unimaginable cultural zeitgeist. We cannot ever consider this record—or any work of art hereafter, for that matter—except through the painful filter of that day. Where is the worst in man? What is the best? What's the sense of doing anything when everything can change in the middle of the hardest rain to ever fall?
Love and Theft is a blues record from beginning to end, conceived in that familiar musical style that encompasses some of the most banal music ever recorded and—indubitably, in the hands of a master—some of the greatest. Bob Dylan's newest belongs on the shelf right next to his greatest, of that I am sure. Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Love and Theft. And certainly not necessarily in that order. I am his harshest critic, believe me, because, like the rolling stone he has always been, sometimes he just moves too fast, like a jet plane. Or a handful of jet planes.
They say Dylan is a prophet. Some call him a poet. I'd call him a comfort, ladies and gentlemen. We believe in words here on Everything2. We value them, above all else, insofar as they symbolize ideas.
Consider, if you will, in light of all you know, some of the newest words from our American Poet-Prophet:
________________ Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee
They're throwin' knives into the tree
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grind stone
Livin' in the Land of Nod
Trustin' their fate to the hands of God
They pass by so silently
Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee
They got a parade permit and a police escort
They're lyin' low and they're makin' hay
They seem determined to go all the way
They run a brick 'n' tile company
Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee
Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape
City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down
Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around
Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me
________________ Summer Days
She's looking in to my eyes, and she's a-holding my hand
She looks in to my eyes, she's holding my hand
She say, "you can't repeat the past,"
I say "You can't? What do you mean you can't?
Of course you can."
________________ Bye and Bye
Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past
You were my first love and you will be my last
Papa gone mad, Mama she's feelin' sad
Well, I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I wanna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be
________________ Lonesome Day Blues
Well, today has been a sad and lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad and lonesome day
I'm just sitting here thinking with my mind a million miles away
I'm going to spare the defeated, I'm going to speak to the crowd
I'm going to spare the defeated, 'cause I'm going to speak to the crowd
I'm going to teach peace to the conquered, I'm going to tame the proud
________________ Floater (Too Much to Ask)
They say times are hard
If you don't believe it you can follow your nose
It don't bother me, times are hard anywhere
We'll just have to see how it goes
If you ever try to interfere with me
Or cross my path again,
You do so at the peril of your life
I'm not quite as cool, or forgiving as I sound
I've seen enough heartache and strife
________________ Highwater (For Charlie Patton)
Well, George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
You can't open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5
Judge says to the High Sheriff, I want them dead or alive
Either one, I don't care
Well, I'm preaching peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I take you 'cross the river, dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like
The trailing moss in mystic glow, the purple blossom soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, indian chief, it takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for, love?
It tolls for you and me
________________ Honest With Me
I'm not sorry for nothing I've done
I'm glad I fought, I only wish we'd won
The Siamese twins are comin' to town
People can't wait, they've gathered around
When I left my home the sky split open wide
I never wanted to go back there, I'd rather have died
________________ Po' Boy
Workin' like in a main line, workin' like the devil
The game is the same it's just upon another level
Po' boy, dressed in black
Police at your back
________________ Cry A While
I'm on the fringes of the night fighting back my tears I can't control
Some people they ain't human, they ain't got no heart or soul
But I'm a-cryin' to the Lord, tryin' to be meek and mild
Yes, I cried for you, now it's your turn, you can cry awhile
________________ Sugar Baby
Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick
Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick
Any minute of the day, the bubble can burst
Try to make things better for someone sometimes
You just end up makin' it a thousand times worse
Twelve excerpts from twelve new songs. Times have changed. The hard rain's fallen. And the answer, still, is blowin' in the wind. Another masterpiece from Bob Dylan.
Listen. Smile. Cry. That's why they call it the blues.
Love and Theft, Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2001