Opinion

Culture and Education

Dylan shall be released from the 60's.
—On the occasion of Bob Dylan visiting Japan

Masaki Horiuchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Bob Dylan is coming to Japan. This will be the fourth time I have seen him perform in Japan, following his performances in 1994, 1997, and 2001. All of these shows were fantastic, but the performance that opened the Tokyo International Forum in February of ’97—over three consecutive nights—was particularly impressive. In a slightly small hall, the crowd on the first night gathered timidly below the stage during the encore. On the second night, however, they rushed the stage, and some young fans climbed up onto it, prompting Dylan to say “Yeah!” in a rare display of excitement from him. As the stage was fenced off so that fans could not rush the stage on the final night, the second night turned out to be the most lively and exciting of all. I actually want to see every single performance, because the arrangements of Dylan shows are entirely different for each tour, and they also change the set list that they play considerably depending on the day. I am not able to, however, and of the seven Tokyo shows this time, I can only see four.

When you hear the versions of songs at live Dylan shows—which are quite different from the original recordings—it is important to forget about the original melodies for the moment. The key is to enjoy what is happening in the moment, on the spot, every day. Above all the experience of these performances is freedom itself—where you can’t tell what the next song is just by hearing the intro, but instead you know it only when you hear the lyrics beginning to be sung. For Dylan shows, you need to listen with an attitude suited to improvisational performances like those of the jazz artists that Dylan listened to in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, such as Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. His vocals—at times whispered and at times howled like a beast—his voice, and his breathing are a given, and as Dylan goes off with his guitar during his shows, the sound is inimitable. This is the realization of the ideal of the beat poets—the ephemeral here and now expressed through jazz, and at the same time, the bracing expressions that take people aback. The performative self appears in these cases—that is, the ever evolving self on the road—the self that is always becoming something else.

Recommended albums since the seventies

From the time of his debut—when he concealed his Jewish real name and origins, adopting a curious name and creating his own identity—Dylan proceeded to change and adopt different personas depending on the times. He proceeded on a journey through life with his own form of defiant X—the alias Bob Dylan—without concern for the so called real self; that is, he became another person within himself, a “beautiful stranger". The Snufkin (a nomadic character in a popular series of Finnish books and comics by Tove Jansson) of the rock world, Dylan eschews social norms and expectations, regarded as weird as he hides and conceals himself, flouting convention as the consummate free spirit refusing to be pinned down by anyone. This is why the title of the movie about Dylan made by Larry Charles in 2003 was: Masked and Anonymous. In his 2007 movie I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes does not search for a real Dylan, but rather regards the multiple latent Dylans that coexist as composing Dylan—a view that has finally come to be the new standard throughout the world. Even Dylan’s immersion into Christianity at the end of the seventies can be regarded as an act vehemently rejecting the views of those in the periphery who would categorize him. This is why even in an album of cover songs—Christmas in the Heart, released at the end of last year—for example, the truly weird and mysterious singing that Dylan brings to these pop arrangements is so quirky that it would fit perfectly in a David Lynch movie—quintessential Dylan.

And this inscrutability is at the same time Bob Dylan’s true feeling—he is singing from the heart to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is where the duality lies: between the outwardly visible Dylan and the inner Dylan. In his recent autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan expresses his wish that others regard him with respect as a personality with individual dignity. You can get a glimpse of how Dylan would like to be regarded by listening to his 1994 release, Greatest Hits, Volume 3, which consists of songs that he selected. Dylan himself admires Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams and would like to be admired in the same way. The burden of luggage, confusion, and sadness come with being on the road, and are a matter of course. Dylan painstakingly conveys the tribulations of travel above all in his 1974 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. Driven by these feelings of confusion and restlessness to find an unshakable perspective that transcends history, such as Christianity, Oh Mercy (1989) is an album that crystallizes the Dylan persona over the previous decade.

As evidenced in recent years through his album Love and Theft (2001), Dylan is adopting the persona as heir and storyteller of American popular music. What I would like to say before he comes to perform in Japan is: Let’s release Dylan from the sixties. Lastly, I would like to recommend my top five picks for the best Dylan albums since the seventies: Blood on the Tracks; Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue—The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5; Oh Mercy; MTV Unplugged; and Time Out of Mind.

Masaki Horiuchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Biography
Professor Horiuchi graduated with an undergraduate degree from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and a graduate degree from the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. His specialization is American Literature, and his main research themes include authors such as Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson.