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The Songwriters | BOB DYLAN

Rock's Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door

He learned from the Kingston Trio and Edgar Allan Poe, he confides. And he wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes.

April 04, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

"When you listened to [Porter's] songs and the Gershwins' and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote some great songs, they were writing for their generation and it just didn't feel like mine," he says. "I realized at some point that the important thing isn't just how you write songs, but your subject matter, your point of view."

The music that did speak to him as a teenager in the '50s was rock 'n' roll -- especially Elvis Presley. "When I got into rock 'n' roll, I didn't even think I had any other option or alternative," he says. "It showed me where my future was, just like some people know they are going to be doctors or lawyers or shortstop for the New York Yankees."

He became a student of what he heard.

"Chuck Berry wrote amazing songs that spun words together in a remarkably complex way," he says. "Buddy Holly's songs were much more simplified, but what I got out of Buddy was that you can take influences from anywhere. Like his 'That'll Be the Day.' I read somewhere that it was a line he heard in a movie, and I started realizing you can take things from everyday life that you hear people say.

"That I still find true. You can go anywhere in daily life and have your ears open and hear something, either something someone says to you or something you hear across the room. If it has resonance, you can use it in a song."

After rock took on a blander tone in the late '50s, Dylan looked for new inspiration. He began listening to the Kingston Trio, who helped popularize folk music with polished versions of "Tom Dooley" and "A Worried Man." Most folk purists felt the group was more "pop" than authentic, but Dylan, new to folk, responded to the messages in the songs.

He worked his way through such other folk heroes as Odetta and Leadbelly before fixating on Guthrie. Trading his electric guitar for an acoustic one, he spent months in Minneapolis, performing in clubs, preparing himself for the trip east.

Going to New York rather than rival music center Los Angeles was a given, he says, "because everything I knew came out of New York. I listened to the Yankees games on the radio, and the Giants and the Dodgers. All the radio programs, like 'The Fat Man,' the NBC chimes -- would be from New York. So were all the record companies. It seemed like New York was the capital of the world."

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Devouring Poetry

Dylan pursued his muse in New York with an appetite for anything he felt would help him improve his craft, whether it was learning old blues and folk songs or soaking up literature.

"I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs," he volunteers. "I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe's stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne.

"Byron's stuff goes on and on and on and you don't know half the things he's talking about or half the people he's addressing. But you could appreciate the language."

He found himself side by side with the Beat poets. "The idea that poetry was spoken in the streets and spoken publicly, you couldn't help but be excited by that," he says. "There would always be a poet in the clubs and you'd hear the rhymes, and [Allen] Ginsberg and [Gregory] Corso -- those guys were highly influential."

Dylan once said he wrote songs so fast in the '60s that he didn't want to go to sleep at night because he was afraid he might miss one. Similarly, he soaked up influences so rapidly that it was hard to turn off the light at night. Why not read more?

"Someone gave me a book of Francois Villon poems and he was writing about hard-core street stuff and making it rhyme," Dylan says, still conveying the excitement of tapping into inspiration from 15th century France. "It was pretty staggering, and it made you wonder why you couldn't do the same thing in a song.

"I'd see Villon talking about visiting a prostitute and I would turn it around. I won't visit a prostitute, I'll talk about rescuing a prostitute. Again, it's turning stuff on its head, like 'vice is salvation and virtue will lead to ruin.' "

When you hear Dylan still marveling at lines such as the one above from Machiavelli or Shakespeare's "fair is foul and foul is fair," you can see why he would pepper his own songs with phrases that forever ask us to question our assumptions -- classic lines such as "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all," from 1965's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit."

As always, he's quick to give credit to the tradition.

"I didn't invent this, you know," he stresses. "Robert Johnson would sing some song and out of nowhere there would be some kind of Confucius saying that would make you go, 'Wow, where did that come from?' It's important to always turn things around in some fashion."

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Exploring His Themes

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