Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jokerman: The Humor of Bob Dylan

With the probable exception of John Lennon, Bob Dylan has been the subject of more solemn reverence than any other Rock & Roller. From the mid-‘60s when daft journalists branded him the “voice of his generation” to this very month when a bunch of celebrities supplied their two cents in an overly respectful homage in Rolling Stone, Dylan’s work has sure inspired a lot of boring accolades. Well, fuck the boring accolades and fuck solemn reverence. No one would be more offended by it all than the man, himself. Dylan’s greatest work is not solemn. It is not the expression of a generation’s angst or whatever. It’s hilarious. Not witty. Not clever. Not “My, doesn’t he have a delightful sense of humor.” Hilarious. Choke on your toke, spew a tuna sandwich out your nose hilarious. For me, the key Dylan line is not “How many roads must a man blah, blah, blah” or “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand” (which boring old Bono boringly compares to “one of the great Psalms of David” in that boring Rolling Stone article). Dylan’s key line is this probing profundity from “Tombstone Blues”:

The sun’s not yellow
It’s chicken.

There’s your voice of a generation right there, beatniks. There’s your “modern Shakespeare” (another writer who inspires much boring solemnity but was never above cracking a good fart joke). Dylan pulled off his most brilliant prank when he ditched the overt preachiness of his early acoustic work in favor of surrealism and a good beat. The punch line wasn’t just all of the former fans outraged by his embracing of Rock & Roll electricity but those who continued to search for the meaning of existence in his outrageous comedy. Of course, there was still profundity in a lot of this stuff: the socialist tirade of “Maggie’s Farm”, the sneering swipe at gaudy materialism in “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, and even the slanted perspective of poverty in “Tombstone Blues”. But the righteousness of these tracks is inebriated with sheer nonsense. If The Times They Are A-Changin’ was Fail Safe, then Highway 61 Revisited was Dr. Strangelove, and we all know what the greater film is.

So, what does the above pun on “yellow” and “chicken” have to do with the overall message of “Tombstone Blues”? Not a goddamn thing. Does this lowest form of humor detract from the song’s message? Your call. Does it make Dylan analysts look goofy when they try to decode its meaning? It sure does (observe how goofy I come off in the proceeding paragraphs). That may be the line’s purpose after all: it exposes the fatuousness of those who missed Dylan's point that sometimes there is no point. It’s also keen proof that in reaction to those who demanded he be their generation’s social conscience (such pressure!), he was not going to alter his path for anyone. If he had something to say about society, he’d say it. And if he wanted to interrupt that message with a really dumb joke, he was gonna do that too. Dylan was not about to allow his decisions be dictated by his critics or his followers. His own abundant and gloriously absurd imagination would forever call the shots.

That really dumb joke in “Tombstone Blues” would probably come off as nothing more than a really dumb joke had it been sung by a singer with a less funny voice—not funny sounding (although it could be that too), but deliberately funny. Dylan delivers the punch line (“It’s chicken!”) with such assuredness it’s like he’s finally summing up his entire philosophy in a short, sharp sound bite for a desperate public. “Here’s your revelation, kids: The sun’s not yellow…it’s chicken! Amen.” No one but Dylan could do that kind of self-parody without making him or herself look a fool. Witness once again, Bono, who adopted a crass capitalist persona as a joke in the ‘90s. With Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan made his critics and lauders look like clowns. With “Zoo TV” and MacPhisto and his press conferences at K-Mart, Bono made himself look dopey (we’d have to wait until the hillbilly minstrelsy of Nashville Skyline for Bob to finally become the brunt of his own joke).

The amazing thing is that no one seemed to get the joke at the time. They didn’t understand that this really, really, really funny guy was even trying to be funny. Dylan went through a period in which he was inseparable from a giant light bulb, for Christ’s sake! Naturally, the press wanted to know what this meant. “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb” the singer explained in Don’t Look Back.

Decades down the road, the guy is still discharging priceless burlesque. Dylan clowned us again in 2004 with his autobiography. Chronicles Volume One is a rambling shaggy dog story in which the living legend rhapsodizes over a bunch of people you’ve never heard of while offering scant insights on his own life and career. The myth deflates yet again. That same year, he made good on an offhand joke cracked 39 years earlier that the only product he’d shill for is “ladies undergarments.” Imagine the shock of those who still wallow in solemn reverence while spinning “Masters of War” when first seeing Dylan in a Victoria’s Secret ad. Imagine 63-year old Bob rolling on the floor with fits of laughter after crooning alongside underwear models. In 2009 he gave us the funniest Rock & Roll news item in recent years when he was arrested for vagrancy by a clueless young cop.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Master of War” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” get my self-righteous juices flowing just like everyone else’s. Yeah, I agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is a brilliant, poetic portrait of disillusion and generational waywardness or whatever insufferable label we might slap on that great Rock & Roll song. But nothing moves me like the above quote from “Tombstone Blues”, or when Bob imagines making love to Elizabeth Taylor and catching hell from Richard Burton in “I Shall Be Free”, or when he completely cracks up at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” before launching into a six and half-minute tall tale about how he discovered America. Dylan moves me the most when he’s making me laugh. Even Weird Al can’t do that.

Bob Dylan turns 70 today.
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