Bob Dylan Revisited: Receiving the Letter of Seventy Faces, Each Of the Same Name

February 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm, by

Warning: I may have already blogged twice about Ben Folds, but Bob Dylan is another guy who will be mentioned many, many times on Oholiav. I could go on and tell you all the reasons why, but then I’d never get to the blog post. Anyway…

It actually surprises me that I’ve restrained myself from writing a review of a Dylan CD so far. In fact, this also isn’t a review of a Dylan CD. Bob Dylan Revisited: 13 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan’s Songs is exactly what the title says it is, and I’m not even sure whose idea it was to make this book. There is nothing written in the book itself about who compiled it (and how), and the book has no bios or information about the 16 different artists listed—many of whom either evidently created their art for this book under pseudonyms that either are hard to Google (like “Christopher” or “Alfred”) or, in the case of “Henri Meunier,” have the name of someone who might have died before Dylan was born. So, most of the story behind Bob Dylan Revisited remains unclear.

All this, of course, parallels the lack of clarity that typifies Dylan’s work, and maybe that’s what makes the mystery behind and within Bob Dylan Revisited so compelling to me. So, I gotta give a hand to whoever it was who decided that Dylan, the ever-allusive song-and-dance man, should be interpreted through visual arts, a medium that tends to complicate matters even more.

In one classic Medieval work on the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar Rabbah (13:16), it is said that the Torah—though this book of Guidance all comes from the same Divine Shepherd—has 70 faces. Though the Torah is on the surface all the same piece of literature, the Torah can be read, interpreted, and understood in 70 (or more—these Rabbis chose big numbers when they meant “a lot of”) ways. If you’ve ever tried reading the Bible, you’ll know it’s a pretty complicated book, and there are a lot of possible ways to understand what’s being written. And that’s how it is with anything that’s ambiguous: lots of ways to interpret it, and—perhaps more importantly—everyone who tries to interpret it will have a unique way of putting it.

So, it’s probably no surprise that just as there are shiv’im panim battorah (“70 faces to the Torah”), there are a lot of ways in which most Dylan songs can be interpreted, and different interpreters will choose to answer different questions they can ask about each song: Who’s talking? Whom is the singer addressing? Why are certain words or phrases or choruses repeated? How do you obtain an answer when it “is blowin’ in the wind?” Where is the factory in which “Mama… ain’t got no shoes?”  What does it look like when a man says, “It looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still?” Quite frankly, how much can an interpreter even answer, and does the interpreter need to give us these answers?

This is where we, the audience, must meet our darshanim (interpreters).

Perhaps my favorite darshan (interpreter) of Bob Dylan Revisited is Lorenzo Mattotti, whose “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” paints a beautiful dialogue. A gray old man, whose panic increases through the song, begins each verse by addressing his “blue-eyed son,” a blue-skinned, blue-eyed young man wearing a modest but hip, flannel coat of many colors, reminiscent of Joseph’s ketonet happassim (literally “the striped tunic,” which Andrew Lloyd Weber called “the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”). Paralleling the semi-prophetic Joseph (of Genesis 37), the “darling young one” with the multi-colored coat has clearly become something like a prophet too

This youth quietly shares with the old man each strange vision he encounters (“a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,” “a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,” “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,” and more). For each vision, Mattotti illustrates a beautifully literal yet creative interpretation of each line (my favorite: the fiery hands of “one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’”); in doing so, we see each mythic image come to life.

Nearing the exhausting end of the song, Mattotti draws a headshot of the pseudo-prophet who promises, “I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.” In the next panel, Mattotti depicts the young man with a guitar in his hands as he stands on what appears to be a bloody red mountaintop above a purple horizon beneath a midnight blue sky. He utters in complete faith, with his eyes closed, “I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ / But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,” and only one panel later we see the mushroom of an exploding atomic bomb along the horizon, beneath which the mountaintop now has sunk as the singer indeed lowers into the ocean.

It is clear at this point that the greatest prophecy he has to offer is like, Jeremiah’s, a prophecy of doom. With his back to the viewer and his eyes on the impending mushroom cloud, the singer repeats “it’s a hard,” nearly stuttering the phrase out of fear, before resolving, all within one line: “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

Another darshan who makes Bob Dylan Revisited a particularly poignant work, in my eyes, is Dave McKean, even though his interpretation of “Desolation Row” is somewhat an anomaly in the book.

Most songs in the book are illustrated, on average, maybe around 6 panels a page over the course of 7 pages, accompanied by the words of at least one verse of the song being interpreted; however, “Desolation Row” spans around 14 pages (with around a dozen panels on each page) and has few of the words of the actual song written into the graphic interpretation. Here and there, the words of certain characters appear: for example, Cinderella’s words “It takes one to know one” are attributed to a girl with a closed mouth, and a “postcard of the hanging” containing Romeo’s “You Belong to Me I Believe” floats around Desolation Row.

While I cannot find everything from Dylan’s text interpolated into the graphic interpretation—and it probably is all there, hidden somewhere in the crowds of “faces” and wild montages that appear towards the end of the song—I can forgive McKean if he did in fact leave something out.

The astonishing creativity he exhibits in developing the details of “the hanging” in the first 15 panels of the song proves just how complicated “Desolation Row” is. McKean develops an entire plot out of 2 words in a song that comprises 657 words. (Thanks Microsoft Word Count!) If McKean went into this much detail for the entirety of the song, I’d be looking at a graphic interpretation somewhere over 1250 pages. For me, McKean epitomizes an overwhelming yet inspiring example of interpretive genius.

And lastly, I have immense respect for Zep’s simple but fun and smart take on “Not Dark Yet.” Quite frankly, the words and the images have very little to do with each other, but the themes match up. Zep interprets the song as a song about the singer’s aging and mortality, which was a frequent interpretation of the song as, shortly before it was released on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan fell ill to a nearly fatal bout of histoplasmosis (but made it out alive).

Zep draws four panels over four pages (one panel per page, one full verse—of four verses—written per page). On each page, Dylan sits with a guitar at a different stage in his career: first, the era of his 1962 imitations of Woody Guthrie; next, his controversial electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965; then, the white-faced Dylan of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1976; and finally, the white-tux-wearing, wrinkly Dylan of 2001’s Love & Theft.

The stillness of Dylan in these images is reflected best perhaps in some of the first words, “I’ve been here all day,” and, from the final verse: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will / I know it looks like I’m moving but I’m standing still.” Each page gets progressively darker; in fact, the final page is almost too dark to read, but it is still legible somehow.

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Dylan has gone from “here” to “there” by “standing still” as the “shadows are falling” and bringing on the darkness. A song about gradual, minimal change calls for the subtlety that Zep demonstrates in his illustration here.

In viewing the midrashim (interpretations) of Bob Dylan Revisited, I was reminded of Yehoshua Ben Perachya’s command of “aseh lekha rav” (“get yourself a teacher”) from Pirkey Avot (1:6). There are certain midrashim we favor over others and certain darshanim we prefer over others. Artists immersed in communities of artists are given the opportunity to interpret art with other artists and other darshanim. Selecting darshanim to teach us new midrashim is a great liberty, and it is a freedom we should not take lightly.

In “Desolation Row,” Dylan claims that he was presented with a confusing mass of persons. He said he “had to rearrange their faces / and give them all another name.” Whether the name is Mattotti, McKean, Zep, or another, we are presented with darshanim who can make sense of the chaos before us. Yehoshua Ben Perachya suggests that an artist is obligated to interpret in the face of chaos.

But chaos is not really just one face; it is a sea of faces. Chaos is shiv’im panim battorah. When confronting those shiv’im panim battorah, we must remind ourselves, “aseh lekha rav.” If we choose a darshan, we no longer need to see shiv’im panim battorah as chaos.

Shiv’im panim battorah become the many intricate roads of a piece of art, and somewhere within it lies the path of midrash that speaks to us best.

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