Dylan a’Changin’

Dylan a’Changin’ September 23, 2016

Few pop stars have been as mercurial as Bob Dylan. Folk singer, rock star, gospel singer, a mimic of James Dean, Christian, Jew. Each change in his musical trajectory has been accompanied by a change of personality.

Even his voice has changed over his decades of fame. As Andrew McCarron puts it in his forthcoming psychobiography (Light Come Shining), “The same voice that was described by Minnesotan friends as “pretty” and “beautiful” in his late teens transformed into the nasally timbre immortalized on classic albums from the mid-1960s, like Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). His voice then evolved into the Bing Crosby croon of Nashville Skyline (1969) and Self-Portrait (1970). The lungful power of his vocal work during the mid-Seventies ascended into the prayerful precision of his gospel period. Gradually, over the decades, the quality of his voice has lowered and narrowed in range into the gravelly lilt that has characterized his singing in recent years.”

Still, McCarron thinks he can discern a unity behind the changes, a quasi-mystical “script” that is repeatedly played out. It revolves around Dylan’s sense of “destiny” and a recurring experience of suffering, death, and rebirth. McCarron pays close attention to the words Dylan uses in interviews: “Dylan has explained his changes using a whole web of related words over the years: as destiny, primarily, but also as a line, a gift, a calling, self-fulfillment, as self-knowledge, as having been chosen for something by a higher power, as doing God’s work, as inevitability, and as a source of direction. All of these words intimate a belief in a supreme power—or, in the words of Dylan, ‘a God of time and space’—that creates people with specific destinies in mind. Given the transience of time and precariousness of life, people must actualize who they are before it’s too late.” In Dylan’s own words, destiny is “a feeling you have that you know something about yourself that nobody else does. The picture you have in your mind of what you’re about will come true.”

Again and again, Dylan points to several songs, rooted in his early exposure to the music on his parents’ radio. Three of them, “I Shall Be Released” (1967), “In the Garden” (1979), and “Where Teardrops Fall” (1989), were written at turning points in Dylan’s career and together tell a “repetitive story of spiritual death and rebirth grounded in a sonic mystery religion that Bob Dylan first heard as kid in the Forties by turning the dial of the family radio.”

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