An Irishman's Diary
WRITING ABOUT Bob Dylan’s latest album, and about the way he embodies America, the Observer’s music critic commented: “When he sings here: ‘I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice’, it’s not open to question.” Well, actually, it is. Because already a debate has arisen among Dylanologists about whether it’s “blood of the land” he sings in that verse or “blood of the lamb”, which would be a different thing entirely.
As Eamon Delaney noted in this paper (Book of the Day, May 5th), there’s a thin line between pointless pedantry about Dylan’s lyrics and “absorbing speculation”. And as a general rule, I believe that people who worry about what Bob really means should get out more.
But having said that, I think it’s “lamb”.
In either case, it is clear from a close examination of the album that Dylan has being reading James Joyce of late. I also sense that among the records he has been listening to are those of veteran Texan songwriter, Billie Joe Shaver, whose status as a country music legend was permanently secured last year by his indictment in relation to the shooting of a man outside a bar in Waco.
You can sense both influences in the general feel of Dylan’s album. But they are probably most obvious in the song I Feel a Change Comin’ On,which includes the lines: “I’ve been listenin’ to Billy Joe Shaver/I’ve been reading James Joyce/Some people tell me/I’ve got the blood of the land/lamb [delete as appropriate] in my voice.”
Whatever he learned from Joyce, one lesson Dylan knew already was how to fill his work with mysteries that, as the author of Ulysses said, would “keep the professors busy” for years, thereby helping to ensure his fame.
The early Dylan did it with such lyrics as: “Mona tried to tell me/ To stay away from the train line/ She said that all the railroad men/ Just drink up your blood like wine/ An’ I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that/ But then again, there’s only one I’ve met/ An’ he just smoked my eyelids/ An’ punched my cigarette.‘”
And while his latter-day writings are marginally less opaque, the later Dylan can rely on other things to confuse. His voice, for instance. I’m not saying it’s rough, exactly. But it makes the late Ronnie Drew sound like the Vienna Boys’ Choir. To this extent, those Dylan anoraks who rely on superior hi-fi to judge whether he’s singing “land” or “lamb” are missing the point.
No, I think we have to settle this argument the traditional way: by forensic examination of the things Bob was listening to and reading at the time. An important fact, therefore, is that notwithstanding the Waco shooting (the other guy lived, in fairness, and there seems to have been some element of self-defence), Billy Joe Shaver is strongly religious, his songs including: Get Thee Behind Me, Satanand J esus is the Only One that Loves Us.
As Witness B, I would call Leopold Bloom. Bloom’s movements on the date of June 16th, 1904 must surely have featured in Dylan’s recent reading. And I submit that the relevant passage of Ulysses is Episode 8.
This is the one, you’ll remember, in which our hero passes the offices of The Irish Times: noting that it is the “best paper by long chalks for a small ad” and that it now delivers “the provinces”: messages that remain relevant to advertisers even today.
But at the start of the chapter, emerging from Lemon’s sweet shop on O’Connell Street, Bloom is confronted by a YMCA evangelist, who hands him a leaflet. He takes this and continues en route to Davy Byrnes pub: “His slow feet walked him riverward, reading. Are you saved? All are washed in the blood of the lamb.”
Shortly afterwards, Bloom crumples the paper and throws it off O’Connell Bridge, whence it floats down river, towards the docklands. And who played in the dockland last night? That’s right: Bob Dylan. I hope I’ve cleared that up.
DYLAN’S PERFORMANCES in Dublin this week are not officially part of the Bealtaine Festival (slogan: “Celebrating creativity in older age”). But they should be. After a ropey period that ran from about the time of the moon landings to the end of the first Clinton administration, he has flowered again of late, like a desert cactus. The new record has just topped the charts in Britain: his first Number 1 there for almost 40 years.
It’s not like he was pacing himself early on. His debut album included the songs In My Time of Dyin’, Fixin’ to Die, and See that My Grave is Kept Clean, which must have set some sort of record for a healthy 21-year-old. It’s possible that, performing in a musical medium (the blues) where some form of decrepitude is essential to credibility, he may just have been overcompensating for the stigma of having a face that hardly needed shaving.
But he did manage to sound fairly ancient then. And despite his claim in a 1964 song – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – his voice has been, well, maturing ever since. Despite this, he performs these days to three different generations of fans and his records are again top of the hit parade. No wonder his concerts are all just billed now the “Never Ending Tour”. He must feel like he died years ago, and this is immortality.