In an interview soon before his death in 1997 (and eventually aired in the 2005 documentary “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” by Martin Scorsese), Beat-era poet Allen Ginsberg stated, “Poetry is words that are empowered that make your hair stand on end.”
Ginsberg uttered that phrase in reference to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan’s 1962 song that helped frame the songwriter as a de facto leader of the burgeoning protest movement amid fears of atomic war spurned by the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But Dylan didn’t write the song in response to any specific issue, and he made a point to clarify that the “hard rain” and “pellets of poison” weren’t nuclear fallout, but “the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
The media’s, and listeners’, tendency to reinterpret a song’s meaning and apply it to society followed Dylan throughout his career; as a poet, he found thematic connections between words and phrases that could be construed to whatever issue might be at the forefront of national news at the moment.
“Words have their own meaning, or they have different meanings, and words change their meaning,” Dylan said in Scorsese’s film. “Words that meant something 10 years ago don’t mean that now. They mean something else.”
After 52 years of performing, Dylan’s words have had countless chances to change their meaning. There is arguably no songwriter more prolific or influential in modern music. He’s a man so complex that when another filmmaker, Todd Haynes, decided to base a fictional film around his life (2007’s “I’m Not There”), he used six actors (one actually an actress) to portray different aspects of the singer’s personality.
Dylan brought poetic lyrics to rock music, and he brought electric guitars and drums to folk music.
He polarized his audiences when he plugged in his guitar and again when he morphed into a born-again Christian gospel singer in the late ’70s. But the audience never went away.
In 2012, Dylan released “Tempest,” his 35th studio album, featuring the title track about the sinking of the Titanic that clocks in just shy of 14 minutes. “Rolling Stone” gave the album five stars.
This spring, Dylan, now 71, set out on the latest leg of his “Never Ending Tour” with a band that includes legendary blues guitarist Duke Robillard. Fans who have seen Dylan perform in the past decade may be pleased to hear that many of his classics have re-emerged throughout the 25th anniversary tour, including “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Visions of Johanna” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
This Saturday, he’ll perform at Family Circle Magazine Stadium on Daniel Island with special guest Dawes.
Bob Dylan secured his reputation as a great folk singer with his second album, 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and began to reinvent what folk could be two years later with the release of the electrified song “Like a Rolling Stone” and the album “Bringing It All Back Home.”
Never one to pander to reporters asking simplistic questions, Dylan often stated that what mattered to him was only what he was doing in the present time. When an English fan screamed “Judas!” at Dylan in 1966, he balked, called the fan a liar from stage, and told his band to “Play it (expletive) loud.”
Identifying with “folk music,” as a definition, still can be a struggle for musicians today. Dawes, the Los Angeles-based quartet that is touring with Dylan, fit the “folk” bill on a lyrical level, but its cohesive energy puts as much focus on musical song structure as on the poignant words of frontman Taylor Goldsmith.
“This band’s show is a very rock ’n’ roll experience, and that’s important to us,” said Goldsmith, citing influences such as Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Dylan, who have taken strong lyrics and created rock around them.
Among Dylan’s broad catalog, Goldsmith recites as a favorite a verse, from memory, from the song “Visions of Johanna” on 1966’s “Blonde on Blonde”:
“If I’m talking to someone who says, ‘I don’t know if I get Bob Dylan,’ the verse I would play them is, ‘Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial/Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while/But Mona Lisa must-a had the highway blues/you can tell by the way she smiles.’ ”
More recently, on “Tempest,” Goldsmith found inspiration in the song “Soon After Midnight.”
“There’s a line that says, ‘It’s now or never/More than ever,’ that just really flies by you, but once I caught it, I thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s such a cool line.’ ”
Goldsmith hesitates when taking credit for his own songwriting accomplishments. The 2011 album “Nothing is Wrong” closes with the song “A Little Bit of Everything,” which flows from suicide to old age and reflective regret to the underlying love behind the difficult relationship balance of planning a wedding. It’s a song that qualifies as poetry and certainly makes your hair stand on end.
“I was nervous about that song,” Goldsmith said of the writing process. “I wasn’t sure if it was too direct, and I worried, ‘Is this going to be too obvious or too earnest, or just too much?’ I’ve never had that feeling of, ‘Yeah, I really nailed it,’ with a song.”
Perils of fame
On tour with Dylan, it’s Dawes’ “A Little Bit of Everything” that seems to attract the most familiar response from the audience. Although that may quickly change since the April release of its third album, “Stories Don’t End,” featuring songs like the rolling “From a Window Seat” and the building “Most People,” with its instantly grasping intro-hook. But even with catchy songs, Goldsmith emphasizes that Dawes’ goal isn’t to explode into popular consciousness overnight.
“If we just wanted to be entertaining, we would make it more about the energy level and make our songs ‘dance-y’ and ‘hooky’ and easier to sing to, which a lot of our songs aren’t,” Goldsmith said. “When I see pictures of singers standing on a drum and pointing a drum stick out to the audience, and the crowd is reaching back out to them and they’re shouting something at each other, that’s really exciting, but I know within myself that it’s not who I am, so if I’m going to be honest with the audience and myself, then I’m not going to be doing that stuff.”
At the peak of Dylan’s trajectory to fame, in the summer of 1966, he crashed his motorcycle and immediately disappeared from the limelight. He didn’t tour again for eight years. Because no ambulance was called and Dylan was not hospitalized, some have speculated that Dylan faked the injury to escape the hectic reality his life had become.
Contemporaries of Dawes, such as Mumford & Sons, have experienced similar meteoric rises in recent years, and Goldsmith hopes to avoid the pitfalls and pressure that can come with it.
“We’re always open and prepared for the best, but expecting the worst,” he said. “I don’t really know if our songs are the kind of music that are going to catapult any band. Obviously, we want to have a fun and stable career, and play in front of as many people as we can, but what matters most is just playing the music that we want to make. When the dust settles on this third record, hopefully Dawes will be a couple of notches higher, but still building things.”
The power of a song
When Bob Dylan wrote songs like “Masters of War,” a direct response to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s acknowledgement of the growing “military-industrial complex” in 1961, or “The Times They Are a-Changin,” the songs were met by an audience that was increasingly receptive to the message. Global society had never before faced such grave possibilities (nuclear war), and popular music had not overlapped with politics so directly.
After a half-century of stalemate wars and cyclical history, music may have lost the power that Dylan first gave it.
“I feel like there’s a deeply set cynicism that goes with your everyday younger person living in the here and now,” said Goldsmith. “If you were to sing them ‘Masters of War’ and it was a brand-new song, I don’t know if in today’s climate it would be received in the way it should be, or in the way it was when Bob Dylan first wrote it. People then were more open and a little more willing to believe in the power of something.”
That doesn’t mean that Goldsmith avoids addressing the world situation, but he does so with care.
The song “When My Time Comes” from Dawes’ 2009 debut, “North Hills,” found receptive ears when the band performed it with Jackson Browne for the Occupy movement gathered in New York in 2011, but like “A Hard Rain,” it was written before the issue it came to symbolize even existed.
“The song was able to resonate in a way that people could find pride in,” said Goldsmith. “If we had written a song where we started to talk about Occupy within the lyrics, I think that people would have said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ People today are hyper-aware of what’s realistic, so you don’t want to write an irresponsibly hopeful song, in terms of, ‘Here’s how we can ... change things.’ ”
When you’re Dylan, however, the rules may be different, even in 2013. Fans who remember identifying with the singer’s statements half a century ago now mingle with those who first heard “A Hard Rain” decades after it was released.
“His songs still resonate,” Goldsmith said. “I think people are still willing to look back on his older material with their eyes open, like they were back then.”
Griffin Goldsmith (from left), Tay Strathairn, Taylor Goldsmith and Wylie Gelber of Dawes.×
Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles in 2012.×
An early but undated publicity photo of Bob Dylan in New York City from his autobiography, ”Chronicles Volume One.”×
Folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan plays the harmonica and acoustic guitar in this March 1963 file photo made at an unknown location.×