I have almost all of Bob Dylan’s’ albums, can recognise and recall most of the lyrics from memory, and never tire of singing them. Without doubt he is the master of the genre and his work has so far never been eclipsed. In my book, he is the Shakespeare, the Beethoven, the Rembrandt of this art form – the English popular song. There are many fine singer/songwriters too, but none really come close. It isn’t surprising then that hundreds of books have been written about his songs and I guess all of it has been said before and better. But it is not only as a songwriter, but as a singer that he surpasses the rest. Many people have been fiercely critical of his singing voice, describing it as “one quaver short of an octave” or simply dismissed it by saying he can’t sing. But for the range (just try and sing some of the songs and you will find that), the expression and the timing, which alone is masterly, there is none like him. It is interesting that in his recent speech at MusiCares he asks why it is that so many singers like, Tom waits, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Dr John, Charley Patton, Robert Johnston and Muddy Waters sing like they are being dragged across gravel, twist and distort their voices, scream and scratch but he is the one who is singled out for the dismissive treatment. I have wondered about this for a long time. Singing styles are, of course, very much a matter of taste, what is not in dispute is the standard of the songs.
The one which, in my opinion represents Bob Dylan’s finest work, is “Tempest”, the penultimate song from the album of the same name. Since hearing it a year or so ago, I wanted to write about it, review it and, hopefully, draw it to the attention of others. I didn’t got round to that until now. It is in the tradition of many of his ballads that tell a story with just enough detail to let you in on what is happening. Like “Hurricane” telling a contemporary story introduced like stage notes for a film or the “Across the green mountain” following an observer through the tragedy of the American Civil War to a funeral drum beat, in “Tempest” he takes a well-known event and without the hint of moralising or preaching lays out the story and lets the hearer decide, with a melody that glides across the waves. The forty four verses, without a chorus or musical break, paint a gigantic picture where every brush stroke counts, its crafted understated descriptions makes the disaster all the more realistic and terrible. Like “Cross the green mountain” the narrator observes what is going on in every level of the ship, the individuals and groups and families caught in that moment when all they have lived for and loved is about to disappear. It is inevitable that reviewers, commentators and critics will see different things in the tale. I have read quite a few but the best comes from “the gardener is gone” weblog
It is a terrific allegory for our dogged embrace of everything that does not ultimately matter in the very moment of its not-mattering. Every snapshot of sacrifice, affection, betrayal, heroism, faith, doubt, even the reckless gamblers, is set ruthlessly against the glimpses of implacable destruction. The song’s melody has a patient, rocking feel, and Dylan begins most verses with a merciless delivery of each syllable like a fist pounding a podium, and ends with softer, milder tones. So the sound of the song is a pendulum: sacrifice and doom; affection and doom; valour and doom; faith and doom. The vignettes range from the stock moment of the Astors unaware that their days of luxury sight-seeing are over, to the clever and sort of ballsy choice of having Jim Dandy “come to the rescue” of a crippled boy, to the subtle irony of Davey’s whores getting their final command from a man in the form of being released to their deaths. The web of religion that runs through the song is viciously tangled against itself: Jim Dandy dies in peace amid a vision of the rising Eastern star; the bishop admits at the last that human can’t save human; disembodied love and pity send useless prayers; there are angels, and they turn aside; the captain reads of apocalypse and weeps–this here-and-now apocalypse occurring under and over him was his to prevent. At one point Dylan undoes whatever transcendence you may want to glean from his tale by blaming “the wizard’s curse.”
The artist gets it right: in a single moment Leo grasps the disaster, acts with altruistic reflex, and loses his mind. It’s the truest moment in the song for me; he’s the central character for me. His doomed sketches would have given the glorious ship art’s eternal life. He’s struck and undone by love just as his muse the ship is struck and undone. And he is the opposite of the watchman for whom the calamity is the phantom of his sleep: Leo the artist sees the calamity for what it is, acts because the impulse to preserve life is irrepressible, and in that moment knows the full weight of an absurd universe and goes mad.
Where I differ from the writer, is over the central character in the drama. For me is not Cleo but the watchman who, appears in regular stanzas through the song and who sleeps through it all. Even at the end he is sleeping in that dreadful line “He dreams the Titanic is sinking and he tries to tell someone”. When you are dreaming you find you can’t run from the bear who is chasing you or from the building that is on fire. No matter how you try you just can’t move your legs. The watchman can’t tell anyone, and this is the biggest tragedy, because he is fast asleep. So in this apocalyptical scene the person who should have called out the warning is out for the count. If what is in the artists mind, and he is certainly not going to tell us, is the collapse of western civilisation, then the real tragedy is that no one foresaw and no alarm was given. If, what he sees is the final apocalypse, the end of time and the final judgement then the tragedy is that the ones who could have given the message, sounded the seven blast on the ships whistle, blown the trumpet, the prophets, the preachers, the churches, were silent and found sleeping at their post. This is a most sobering thought.