Forget the Dylai Lama

Thomas Jones

  • Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks
    Viking, 517 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 670 80133 X

A scene from a concert: on stage, a young Jewish-American folk singer/ songwriter, accompanied only by his own guitar and the harmonica around his neck, with a forceful, nasal voice and impeccable comic timing, is singing – or half-reciting, half-improvising – a talking blues. The object of his satire is the paranoid and xenophobic response of some of his fellow Americans to the threat posed by a sinister and nebulous enemy from the other side of the world. It could be Bob Dylan performing his ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ (‘I discovered there was red stripes on the American flag’); but the year is 2002, and the song is ‘Talkin’ Al Kida Blues’ (‘Cuba’s our enemy, unless we need a prison camp’). Al Kida is the name of a man who lives ‘somewhere in Cleveland’: ‘He’s freaking out.’ The singer’s name is Dan Bern. His parents moved to Mount Vernon, Iowa, where Bern was born, round about the time that Robert Zimmerman started calling himself Bob Dylan and left Hibbing, Minnesota, to head circuitously east for New York City.

Where Bern stands in relation to Dylan isn’t straightforward. He isn’t anything so crude as a tribute act: he performs his own songs, not Dylan’s. He’s too original to be a mere imitator, too irreverent for a disciple. He is a kind of interpreter, if not of Dylan’s songs then of his style, or of some of his styles. Dylan has had many interpreters over the years, musical and otherwise: that his songs have shown themselves to be at once so resilient and so open to meaningful reinterpretation is perhaps the surest sign of their greatness. They have been performed magnificently by, for example, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix and the White Stripes. Then there was Donovan, a bit like Dan Bern without the sense of humour, or the critical distance. A.J. Weberman, self-styled Dylanologist, burrowed into the singer’s rubbish bins to try to make sense of him. And countless others have applied themselves to more conventional forms of criticism.

Among the most deep and distinguished of this last kind of interpreter is Christopher Ricks, whose previous books include Milton’s Grand Style, Keats and Embarrassment, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice and Beckett’s Dying Words. Dylan’s Visions of Sin is the culmination of at least three decades’ critical engagement with the songs of Bob Dylan (he first wrote about them in the Listener in June 1972, a decade after Dylan released his first album). Sin is a grand theme, but Ricks doesn’t have a grand argument, or draw any grand conclusions. ‘The claim in this book isn’t that most of Dylan’s songs, or even most of the best ones, are bent on sin. Simply that (for the present venture in criticism) handling sin may be the right way to take hold of the bundle.’ The seven deadly sins and their antitheses, the four cardinal virtues and three heavenly graces, provide the book’s organising principle. A pair of introductions, ‘Sins, Virtues, Heavenly Graces’ and ‘Songs, Poems, Rhymes’, precede 14 chapters, devoted to each of the sins, virtues and graces in turn. It was prudent of Ricks to set himself constraints: the book isn’t short as it is; the combination of Dylan’s creative and Ricks’s critical fecundity could, untempered and unchecked, proliferate indefinitely.

Each chapter consists of close readings of a number of songs. ‘Sloth’, for example, looks at ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’, ‘Clothes Line Saga’, ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’; ‘Lust’ at ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ and ‘On a Night like This’; ‘Justice’ at ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Oxford Town’. Ricks aims to demonstrate how the songs under consideration in the first half of his book engage with but avoid the sin in question, and how those in the second half embody the pertinent virtue or grace. According to Ricks, Dylan’s songs are not guilty of lust, for example, but rather express desire (I wonder if the Church Fathers would have recognised the distinction). The anger in ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, a song about the murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s first African-American field secretary of the NAACP, in 1963, is ‘forcefully contained’. ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ is the only song Ricks writes about in his consideration of ‘Anger’; the chapter is a mere seven and a half pages long – a restrained analysis of restraint. (The longest chapter in the book, not by coincidence, is the one on ‘Fortitude’.)

‘Dylan has always had a way with words,’ Ricks writes, and it is on Dylan’s words that he focuses. He acknowledges the importance of ‘comprehending the way in which the multimedia art of song differs from the page’s poetry’, but the uncharacteristic awkwardness of that phrase hints at Ricks’s discomfort writing about the music. Which isn’t to say he treats the songs as if they were words on a page: he is acutely alert to the differences between reading and listening, and to the ways words sound in Dylan’s mouth; but he doesn’t treat the songs as songs so much as poems spoken aloud. If you don’t know what a song sounds like, you’ll get no sense of it from Ricks. He’s unapologetic about this: ‘It ought to be possible,’ he writes, ‘to attend to Dylan’s words without forgetting that they are one element only, one medium, of his art.’ Some of the effects he attributes to the words, however, owe as much to the music.

The song about which Ricks writes best is probably ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, the penultimate track on The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), partly because he does so with such enthusiasm, such conviction of its greatness: ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’ His discussion of it, in the chapter on ‘Justice’, is the centrepiece of his book. ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,’ the song begins, ‘with a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger.’ ‘William Zanzinger had 24 years/Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres’; Hattie Carroll ‘was a maid in the kitchen/She was 51 years old and gave birth to ten children.’ Ricks writes brilliantly about every word in the song, and about the words that are missing from it:

The song never says that she’s black, and it’s his best Civil Rights song because it never says she’s black. Everybody knows she’s black and it has nothing to do with knowing the newspaper story. You just know that she must have been black. But then you know that Zanzinger is white, though it never says this either. It’s a terrible thing that you know this from the story, and from the perfunctory prison sentence, even while the song never says so.

Ricks talks about the ‘feminine endings’ (unstressed final syllables) of the names in the song and of many of the lines: ‘In this cadence, Dylan fashioned his song, which is steeled and steely in support of “the gentle”.’ Now would have been the moment for him to mention that the song is in 3/4 time, like a waltz or a minuet, not the 4/4 of a march and of most pop music, in which every other beat is stressed; in ‘Hattie Carroll’, the accent falls, more gently, on only one of three. The chord progression in the verse can be repeated an indefinite number of times, which allows for the different number of lines in each verse, to which Ricks draws our attention. But an imperfect cadence leaves the listener expecting resolution, which duly comes. The refrain is introduced by a B major chord (following G sharp minor),[1] and it ends with a perfect cadence. But Dylan sings: ‘But you who philosophise disgrace,/And criticise all fears,/Take the rag away from your face./Now ain’t the time for your tears.’ It’s a kind of double bluff; the music reaches a resolution, but the words say: wait. Three times this happens. And then, at the end of the fourth and final verse, after the judge has ‘handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,/William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence’, the double bluff becomes triple. The music is as before, the words are different: ‘Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace/And criticise all fears,/Bury the rag deep in your face/For now’s the time for your tears’ – just when you’d got used to the repeated deferral of resolution. Ricks’s analysis would have been enriched by some consideration of the music.

There is no discussion in the book of instrumentation, variation in which makes such a huge contribution to the distinctive sound of each album: Desire (1976) may have an ‘inspired title’, but there’s no mention of Scarlet Rivera’s violin playing, her inspired use of the antiphonal fiddle, its jagged sound the perfect partner for a duet with Dylan’s ‘barbed-wire tonsils’ (Ian Hamilton’s words), his ‘voice like sand and glue’ (David Bowie’s). ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Ricks says in his chapter on ‘Pride’, is saved ‘from being – in all its vituperative exhilaration – even more damnably proud than the person whom it damns and blasts . . . There can be felt in the refrain an exhilaration and a further exultation . . . some exultation that she herself may have come belatedly into possession of and be feeling even now.’ (‘She’ is the woman to whom the song is addressed: ‘Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?’) A major part of this exultation is the new sound – the song is the first on Highway 61 Revisited – of Dylan’s expanded band: Michael Bloomfield’s taut guitar-playing, the easy-going piano, the optimistic warble of the Hammond organ. But Ricks doesn’t write about any of that: instead, he writes about Larkin (‘Home is so sad’).

This comes as less of a shock than perhaps it should: the first piece of work here to which Ricks applies his critical microscope at full magnification is not a Dylan song but a poem of Larkin’s, ‘Love Songs in Age’, about an elderly widow looking at the music she played on the piano when she was young. It’s an exemplary piece of practical criticism: Ricks teases out Larkin’s dense and careful diction, plots the play of syntax against metre, unweaves the rhymes. He points out that ‘only one rhyme in the poem is inexact, and with good reason: chord/word. That the words of life do not quite fit its music is one of the things that the poem knows.’ The off-rhyme also illustrates one of the differences between poems on the page and poems spoken aloud: looking the same isn’t the same as sounding the same. Ricks makes a lot of fuss about puns, and frequently indulges his own, not always happy, compulsion for them: ‘the Dylai Lama’, he quips, in Tourettic response to the word ‘Tibet’.

Ricks attends to Dylan’s rhymes with great care. Of the refrain of ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ – ‘Oh, Mama, can this really be the end/To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again’ – he says: ‘“End” and “again” are metaphorically a rhyme because every rhyme is both an endness and an againness. That’s what a rhyme is, intrinsically, a form of again (a gain, too), and a form of an ending.’ Ricks sees endings as problematic, for two principal reasons: first, there’s no way of knowing, when listening to a song, unlike when reading a poem, how far you are from the end; second, how can Dylan bring a song to an end and yet indicate that the sentiment expressed in the song continues? These problems are solved in rhyme. The end of ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ – ‘I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough’ – ‘feels like a due ending for the perfectly simple reason that, in this final verse (one that, in closing, starts out “I started out”), all the lines (odd and even) rhyme – something that is not true of any previous verses’ (it’s preceded by a harmonica solo, which also helps). And in ‘Song to Woody’, ‘the first time, the only time, then, that a rhyme has returned’ is in the last verse: ‘This is an arc completed, not a feeling vacated.’

‘Rhymes and rhythms and cadences,’ Ricks writes, alluding to the album title Bringing It All Back Home, ‘will be what brings a poem home to us.’ Rhymes and rhythms and cadences, and allusions, too: Ricks is very well read, it’s well known. Dylan is among the (male) English (language) poets here: the translators of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Donne, Marlowe, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Hardy, Kipling, Yeats, Eliot, Larkin, Berryman, Stevens, Frost – all figure prominently. Much of what Ricks has to say on this score, especially in relation to what Dylan owes to the Bible (what ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ owes to Ezekiel, for example), is revelatory, or at least elucidatory, though some of his connections are not entirely persuasive. Perhaps because he realises this, he doesn’t always claim that the coincidences of expression to which he draws our attention are deliberate: ‘not a source but an analogue’ is a phrase that crops up more than once. ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, Ricks says, resembles ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’: ‘Donne’s poem might be a source but what matters is that it is an analogue. Great minds feel and think alike.’ Making these comparisons is a way of asserting Dylan’s greatness, his place in the canon. In ‘My Life in a Stolen Moment’, Dylan wrote:

I can’t tell you the influences ‘cause there’s
too many to mention an’ I might leave one out
An’ that wouldn’t be fair
Woody Guthrie, sure
Big Joe Williams, yeah
It’s easy to remember those names
But what about the faces you can’t find again
What about the curbs an’ corners an’ cut-offs that drop out a sight an’ fall behind
What about the records you hear but one time
What about the coyote’s call an’ the bulldog’s bark
What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo
An’ the train whistle’s moan
Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it

Before a lengthy comparison of ‘Not Dark Yet’ with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Ricks quotes the sleevenotes to Biograph (1985): ‘To the aspiring songwriter and singer I say disregard all the current stuff, forget it, you’re better off, read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie.’ Ricks has read Keats all right, but he doesn’t show any evidence of having listened to Robert Johnson. He is less good generally when it comes to extrabibliothecal references. Glossing the second verse of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ –

In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall

– Ricks’s mind turns immediately to the Book of Daniel and Belshazzar’s feast; the thought of graffiti doesn’t occur to him. ‘Love Minus Zero’ (‘My love she speaks like silence,’ it begins) was released in 1965, on Bringing It All Back Home, the same year as Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’, which includes the line: ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.’ I don’t know which was written first, or if they were written quite independently, and it doesn’t matter – after all, it’s not a source but an analogue. Besides which, the songs are making opposing claims for the value of the graffiti. Dylan, pre-emptively or otherwise, undercuts Simon’s sonorous assertion: ‘Some speak of the future,’ Dylan sings, ‘My love she speaks softly’ – these so-called prophets, what do they know? Ricks also misses a trick I wouldn’t have expected him to in the last verse of ‘Love Minus Zero’. The song ends:

The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows rainy,
My love she’s like a raven
At my window with a broken wing.

Perhaps Poe is too well known to be in Ricks’s arsenal.

‘The song seems to me to turn out to be saying something along these lines,’ he writes:

‘What I like about her is that she is so wonderfully independent of me, she doesn’t really need me, other people do this, that, and the other, and she deliciously doesn’t, she, she, she – actually, come to think of it, far from being what I like about her, it’s why . . .’ – exit, muttering darkly something about going to get a hammer.

The song certainly charts a change in feeling, but the causal link that Ricks infers isn’t proven. Earlier on Bringing It All Back Home is the ironically titled ‘She Belongs to Me’: ‘You will start out standing/Proud to steal her anything she sees./But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole/ Down upon your knees.’ Ricks doesn’t always pay attention to the allusions that Dylan makes to his own songs, never mind the songs of others.

Events don’t interest Ricks much: in fact, he seems to think they’re rather vulgar. At the end of a fascinating discussion of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, in which the song is put in the context of Twelfth Night, The Dunciad, the Scots ballad ‘Lord Randal’, Sidney’s Arcadia, Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, Paradise Lost, A Shropshire Lad and, to give Ricks his due, several other Dylan songs, he at last gets round to mentioning the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a high-minded justification of why he hasn’t mentioned it before: ‘It might be wondered why my commentary says nothing about the Cuban Crisis of 1962 . . . What precipitated the song was the Cuban Crisis. Agreed. But the song, being a work of art, is always going to be larger and other than what precipitated it.’ ‘Other’, certainly; but ‘larger’ is a comparative too far. It’s also worth remarking that the Cuban Crisis didn’t in fact ‘precipitate’ (a nicely chosen word) the song, which, as Mike Marqusee points out,[2] Dylan performed at Carnegie Hall a month before the Soviet missiles were spotted on Cuba. It was, however, precipitated by the tensions of the Cold War, and it’s no surprise that it should have been hitched so quickly to a dramatic Cold War episode (according to the sleevenotes of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963, the song ‘was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis’). And people hearing it at different times and in different performances since then will be put in mind of different crises. I most recently heard Dylan play it in May 2002: he slurred his way almost incomprehensibly through the song he’d first sung forty years earlier with such urgency and clarity; but why should he have bothered to do otherwise, since pretty much everyone in the audience knew the words anyway? The hard rain’s been falling for at least forty years, Dylan seemed to be saying, and it doesn’t show any sign of stopping: what’s coming isn’t ‘a wave that could drown the whole world’, but yet another minor apocalypse.

‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ is discussed in the chapter on ‘Fortitude’. Next up is ‘I Believe in You’, from Slow Train Coming (1979), the first of Dylan’s Christian albums. As is perhaps inevitable in a book organised around sins, virtues and graces, Ricks devotes a lot of space to the Christian songs, more space than many people would think they warrant. He quotes Michael Goldberg’s NME review of Slow Train Coming: ‘Bob Dylan has left the side of free-thinking, socially aware, sometimes cynical humans trying to make ethical choices in a world ripped apart by war and hate and prejudice. For him, all is solved in one simple act: accepting God.’ Ricks sternly replies: ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that – who is it who’s doing the oversimplification? And who is it who’s colluding with hate and prejudice exactly?’ He makes a forceful case for the Christian songs, which is half persuasive: he effectively demonstrates that the same talent is at work, that Dylan didn’t lose his way with words when he found God; but Ricks’s claim that these songs give us ‘sympathetic access to systems of belief that are not our own’ doesn’t stand up – they are fundamentally and deliberately rebarbative to people who don’t share the belief. In ‘I Believe in You’ Dylan sings:

They show me to the door,
They say don’t come back no more
‘Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to,
And I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
‘Cause I believe in you.

It’s just him and his God, and there’s no way into that relationship for anyone else; you could almost say it’s presumptuous of Ricks, who insists on his own atheism, to think that there is.

Taking hold of Dylan’s songs by the sin handle has another unfortunate consequence, more pervasive and therefore more damaging than the bias the book shows towards the Christian songs. Viewing them through the prism of sin, Ricks co-opts all Dylan’s songs, or at least all those that he writes about, for Christianity. Trying to show that Dylan does not fall into sin, Ricks steers his critical patrol car up a number of dead ends, and has to perform some tricky manoeuvres to extricate it; his quarry, meanwhile, has ducked down an alleyway or jumped down a manhole and is nowhere to be seen. Many of Dylan’s songs are, pace Ricks, guilty of one or other or several of the sins: they are angry, proud, lustful, covetous. This isn’t a problem, however, unless you decide, as Ricks does, to make it one. Take anger. ‘Masters of War’, on Freewheelin’, ends like this:

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
Till I’m sure that you’re dead.

The singer is, unambiguously, implacable: he doesn’t just hope that the masters of war – viz arms manufacturers – will die, he hopes they’ll die soon. And he won’t be satisfied with their apparent death: who’s to say they won’t fake it? Or that they’re even human: ‘I’ll stand over your grave/Till I’m sure that you’re dead’ is a curious formulation. Does he think they might dig their way out? Forget the Dylai Lama, this is Bobby the Vampire Slayer – and he’s furious. It’s not very surprising that Ricks mentions the song only once, in passing. Or what about ‘Idiot Wind’ (on Blood on the Tracks, 1975)?

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You’re an idiot, babe.
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Dylan blasts those vowels through his nose, giving the first syllable of ‘idiot’ and the ‘i’ in ‘wind’ almost the same length and value as the ‘ee’ in ‘teeth’ and ‘breathe’. The storm has blown itself out by the end of the song, as the singer comes to recognise that he’s an idiot, too – ‘We’re idiots, babe./It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves’ – but you couldn’t say the song doesn’t give in to rage, and Ricks doesn’t try to say so (‘Idiot Wind’ gets three mentions, in passing). This fury of Dylan’s isn’t a problem for the songs, quite the contrary; but it is a problem for Ricks’s thesis.

Ricks has nothing to say about the mortal sin of despair, of which Dylan, in ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (on The Times They Are A-Changin’), gives a searing, stunning portrait:

Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin broken down

In the second verse, the perspective shifts, moving from third person to second, into Hollis Brown’s head: ‘He looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile.’ The song doesn’t overreach itself by presuming to speak in the first person. Hollis Brown’s misfortunes are ruthlessly enumerated. In every verse, the second line repeats the first: a convention of the blues, certainly, but also a confirmation of the situation’s hopelessness. ‘You prayed to the Lord above oh please send you a friend’; again, ‘You prayed to the Lord above oh please send you a friend,’ but ‘Your empty pockets tell you that you ain’t a-got no friend.’ The guitar is equally remorseless: there are no chord changes; it’s E flat minor throughout. There is some variation in the bass, but it never gets very far in either direction, up or down the scale, before returning to the tonic: no escape for Hollis Brown. ‘You spent your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells.’

Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that’s hangin’ on the wall
Your brain is a-bleedin’ and your legs can’t seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin’ and your legs can’t seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that you’re holdin’ in your hand

At which point, just as the perspective is at its most compressed, it zooms out to an indifferent God’s-eye view.

There’s seven breezes blowin’ all around the cabin door
There’s seven breezes blowin’ all around the cabin door
Seven shots ring out like the ocean’s pounding roar
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born

From up here, Hollis Brown doesn’t even have a name. Dylan isn’t indifferent, however: Hollis Brown may be a sinner, but he is also a victim of injustice, and the singer is on his side. Dylan forgives him, even if God wouldn’t. Though I wonder whether his wife would have, or should have.

Ricks takes a monolithic view of Dylan’s work. But one of the most remarkable things about Dylan is the way he reinvents himself. Ricks tries to see his changing art in terms of Christianity (sin, virtue, grace), when he might have done better to look at Dylan’s Christianity in terms of his changing art. In his discussion of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, Ricks writes: ‘Temporariness is itself a permanent condition.’ Or as Shelley has it (not a source but an analogue): ‘Naught may endure but mutability.’ Songs can acquire new meanings as time passes.

In ‘Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans’, an essay written ‘for Dylan’s 60th birthday’, the late Ian MacDonald traces the course of Dylan’s contrarian self-fashioning and refashioning, from the high-school rock’n’roller who called himself Elston Gunn, to the ‘fusion of folk singer, hillbilly wit . . . and Chaplinesque clown’ of his early New York performances and first album, Bob Dylan (1962), on through Freewheelin’ to the deeply serious and deeply political Times They Are A-Changin’, then the more personal and ‘miserable’ Another Side of Bob Dylan.[3] Next came the ‘1965-66 trilogy’, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, the creator of which ‘resembled a souped-up version of the wise-ass Jewish beatnik who’d roomed at Sigma Alpha Mu on the Minneapolis campus in 1959’. MacDonald, like many people, regards those three albums as the apex of Dylan’s career, but the man who made them ‘was no more the real Bob Dylan than any of the other selves he’d rebounded to, or would continue to rebound to for the rest of his life’, including the born-again Christian of the 1980s. These shifts, experimenting with unfamiliar styles and risking alienating fans, have never been especially temperate or prudent. One of the virtues of pop music is that it doesn’t have to be virtuous.

Dylan’s Visions of Sin has been dismissed out of hand by some reviewers, almost as a matter of principle: this is no way to write about Dylan. But partly because there are so many Dylans, or so many sides to Dylan, there isn’t one right way to look at his work; rather, there are many right ways (and many wrong ways, too, foremost among which is the one founded on the idea that the songs are riddles with fixed answers, which will be revealed if only you can find the proper exegetical key). Ricks’s book is far from being the last word on Dylan, but then the last word on Dylan is neither possible nor desirable (perhaps the closest that anyone has come, if you don’t count Dan Bern, is Michael Gray in his awesome and encyclopedic Song and Dance Man, currently in its third, extensively revised edition).

Dylan is always several steps ahead of his interpreters: just when they seem to have him surrounded, he reveals a new side. MacDonald says that with John Wesley Harding, he threw ‘his pursuers off his trail’. ‘The Drifter’s Escape’, a song on that spare, troubling, marvellous album, which, like ‘All Along the Watchtower’, was muscularly reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix, tells of a drifter who has been put on trial, found guilty (of what isn’t quite clear) and sentenced. ‘Inside the judge was stepping down/ While the jury cried for more.’ Juries don’t, on the whole, cry for more, unless they’re the kind who’ve bought tickets for the trial, and turn up in their thousands.

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape.

[1] This is how it is on the album, though that’s no guarantee he’ll play it in the same key in concert.

[2] Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art by Mike Marqusee (New Press, 327 pp., £14.95, September, 1 56584 825 x).

[3] ‘Wild Mercury’ is the first piece in MacDonald’s recent collection, The People’s Music (Pimlico, 262 pp., £10, July, 1 8441 3093 2).