Bob Dylan, Master of Change

The hero of Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel, “Great Jones Street,” Bucky Wunderlick, is a wildly famous musician so transparently inspired by Bob Dylan that it is a wonder the author was able to make the figure into his own character. Bucky — part prophet, part fraud — is hounded into seclusion by fans, hustlers, gangsters and the world at large. I had a hunch Mr. DeLillo would win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year; he can’t be surprised Bob Dylan did.

“I’m a poet, I know it, hope I don’t blow it,” Mr. Dylan sang 52 years ago in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” a hilarious bit of doggerel from his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” He hasn’t blown it; the words on “Tempest,” his most recent album of original songs, from 2012, are as expansive and blazingly ambitious — especially on “Early Roman Kings” and “Long and Wasted Years” — as anything you could hear anywhere.

Bob Dylan in 1963. William C. Eckenberg/The New York Times
Bob Dylan in 1963. William C. Eckenberg/The New York Times

Hear. What gave each of his words in those tunes their full body was his performance of the songs. When he took the new songs onstage, putting his own body behind theirs, the songs got bigger, until they almost seemed to burst the buildings that enclosed them. But whether Mr. Dylan is a poet — yes, he is being compared right now to Sappho, Homer, the great bards who sang — has never been an interesting question.

Mr. Dylan has put his words out into the world in vessels with too many dimensions to be broken down into elements: as songs. Think of a song as thrillingly alive with the furies of creation, discovery and experiment, with the resolution of each verse reaching a pitch of such insistence, humor and force that the next has to push further or die.

Think of “Highway 61 Revisited,” from 1965 — a song that Mr. Dylan performed last week at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif. There is no way to tell if the words incited the music; if the music, playing in the songwriter’s head or in the studio as the song came together, incited the words; if a certain run on Michael Bloomfield’s guitar or Al Kooper’s electric piano put the feeling of a rubber band snapping back in your face as Dylan sang the line “Now the fifth daughter on the 12th night”; or if the words incited the musical phrases that made the words seem less written than preordained, facts outside time or intention.

Or was it the way the words came out of Mr. Dylan’s mouth? Or the way the engineer on the recording session made it seem as if he’d put Mr. Dylan inside his own microphone, so when the musicians listened to a playback of an early take of the song they could hear where the song itself wanted to go? The song may have reached its most intense pitch in a performance with the Band in Oakland, Calif., in 1974, when a broken riff from the guitarist Robbie Robertson between verses shot Mr. Dylan’s attack for the final stanza — about staging the next world war between bleachers set up on Highway 61, the road that now runs from Minnesota to New Orleans — into a realm of vehemence, of Watch out! that the song had never known before.

I once asked Mr. Robertson where that brilliant riff came from. It was the heat of the moment, he said, when he thought he’d lost the song: “a moment of panic.”

Songs move through time, seeking their final form. What happens on that path is only partly up to the writer, the singer, the musicians. It may be partly up to the audience hearing the songs, watching them as they are performed, with the response of the audience, even of a single member of the audience, coming back to the performers and, in ways that can be felt but never determined, reshaping the song. That is why, perhaps, it is the fact of Bob Dylan’s songs moving through time, and the way they have taken on elements of those times as they moved through them, that matters most on this interesting occasion.

In 1954, Vernon Green, the singer and songwriter of a Los Angeles doo-wop group called the Medallions, wrote a song called “Buick 59.” The idea, he explained much later, was to postdate the song so it would stay on the radio, and make more money, and give the group something it could perform for years to come. It worked: The record was a hit in 1954 and a local hit again in 1959.

Greil Marcus is the author of several books, and a co-editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America.

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