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Bob Dylan at the Borderline of Sleaze


Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World,

Minneapolis, MN, March 26, 2007




In November of 1972, Bob Dylan went to Durango, Mexico, to play a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The production was cursed by all the expected crises, but there was one element on the set that no one saw coming. Peckinpah’s biographer, David Weddle, writes: “The topsoil of Durango was permeated with animal manure that dried up, blew around with the fine silicone dust, and lodged in people’s lungs, causing chronic pulmonary infections.” One of the film’s stars, James Coburn, said that in Durango, “It was really cold and damp, there was wind, and a thousand years of horseshit floating around in the air.”


You can believe it. Pat Garrett is a Western that has difficulty breathing. But it does breathe; and much of its beauty is in the labor of that life-sustaining repetition, the desire to breathe deeply and exhale soberly, to absorb sleaze and return humor, feeling, and judgment.  It’s as if the movie has decided that to embrace sleaze is one way of not just staying alive, but being alive, in a world of shit.

“VD Waltz”


Almost from the beginning, Bob Dylan had his own line on sleaze. It’s found in that border region of overlap between body and history, sex and disease, erotic and diabolical. At irregular intervals along that border may be found the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel and the middle albums of The Rolling Stones; Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant and the demo version of Liz Phair’s “Flower”; the novels of Jim Thompson and the psychology of Melanie Klein; PJ Harvey's first album and Hans Bellmer’s dolls; the Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf and the Naked City photos of Weegee. Or the song that gives this essay its title—“Tough Mama,” from the Planet Waves album, recorded just months after Dylan returned from Durango, with horseshit still in his lungs.

“Tough Mama


Call me one-dimensional, but I can’t think of anything but intercourse, hearing this song—primarily in the lyrics, of course, but also in the music, the varieties of energy at work within a single verse. It’s quite phallic how the first chords make a lunging action, then acquiesce to a frictional rhythm, a bump and grind, which is worked over in another line towards its release in a head-back, arms-out, orgasmic declaration of romantic release, vagina worship—“dark beauty,” “sweet goddess,” “silver angel”—then left hanging by an organ solo like a sweet post-coital whistling in the dark, as the sheets dry and transcendence becomes memory.


The Planet Waves album, when released, had a set of handwritten sleeve notes that were removed from later pressings. In them, Dylan encourages any connection one cares to make between the situational sleaze of a song like “Tough Mama” and the proximate sleaze of the world outside. These notes—which read like a dirtier version of those vignettes that open each episode of Theme Time Radio Hour—describe “furious gals with garters and smeared lips on barstools that stank from sweating pussy . . . space guys off duty with big dicks and duck tails, all wired up and voting for Eisenhower.”


I've always resisted the judgment that Dylan's primary importance was as a poet. That implies something way too housebroken. As Monty Python had it: “Poets are both clean and warm / and most are far above the norm / Whether here or on the roam / have a poet in every home.” Dylan’s true poetics was a convergence of verbiage and voice which, at least as much as any grimy Kerouacian attitude, preferred to make itself unwelcome in the home. And as a public artist, Dylan would make himself most unwelcome not by his versifying—which from an early point drew the acclaim as well as the disdain of the most respectable poets —but largely by means of his voice.


“A dog with its leg caught on barbed wire,” said Mitch Jayne of The Dillards, and no one has ever quite gotten it better, for both those who hate the voice and those who love it. One proof of the intractability of that voice is that, despite its infinite subtleties and sorrows, despite the fact that it forced new ears upon even those unwilling to listen, there is nothing like a popular acceptance that Dylan is a greater singer than, say, Christina Aguilera, the guy from Coldplay, or whatever unborn fetus is destined to win American Idol in the year 2027. To this day, that skanky, scrofulous Dylan voice, his basic unit of sound, has never become acceptable, never ceased being the butt of easy jokes and the one impression that even non-impressionists can adequately fake.


So it’s worth remembering that Dylan’s “real” voice, his “original” voice, delivered in whispers back in Hibbing, was not the rusty, witty, punky, pointy voice of Highway 61 Revisited but a mellow voice, a ballad voice, as round and consistent as a bowl of pudding. When people who still remembered that voice heard Nashville Skyline, they invariably said, “That’s him.”


Except it really wasn’t. What we are at first is not necessarily what we are. Obviously Dylan sang that way at first because that was his Fifties model. Just as obviously, he then harshened his voice because that was the quickest way of imitating the blues and folk singers he discovered later on. Less obvious, maybe, is why he then pushed harshness beyond imitation into innovation, the voice into realms of raspiness undared by any white singing idol in living memory, and by  precious few of the blues and folk masters he’d taken off from. Could it be that Dylan scoured his voice to such a frictive texture because he knew that was the only sound appropriate to his apprehension of things, his harsh and excited, raunchy and humorous take on America? His suspicion that the country was rank with mendacity and rife with pockets of possibility waiting to be picked? That to thrive in America was to navigate rivers of sleaze and valleys of darkness, seeking not the centers but the borders, always the borders?

Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues


Aside from an aberrational domesticated phase or two, Dylan is an artist of the border. That’s what he sings about, that’s where he sings from. Within that, I’d like to posit, for my own sleazy purposes, a binary metaphor: Tijuana Bob, and Las Vegas Bob.


There are plenty of Tijuanas in Bob Dylan’s past, rough, elemental places where extremes are experienced, glimpses gotten, fantasies and satires hatched—and they all go by different names. Places like Hibbing—“way up by the Canadian border,” as Dylan said on the back of his first album. There’s Highway 61, which runs along the Mississippi, symbolic dividing line in American music and American life. There’s Brownsville, which as a Dylan border town stands, Stephen Scobie says, “between the various realms of history, fiction and myth.” There are the “border towns of despair”mentioned in “Dignity,” and the Juarez that witnesses the bacchanal of “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.” There’s “Santa Fe,” a minor Basement Tape and one of my favorite Dylan songs, a dream of a border rendezvous as full of mumbled, made-up lyrics as “I’m Not There,” and as jaunty with the freedom of escape as “I’m Not There” is heavy with the guilt of escape. There’s also Highway 61 Revisited the album, which—in its obsession with homelessness, roads, junkyards, jailhouses, God, prostitutes, romantic salvation, Mexican debauch, and flamenco guitar—is Dylan’s own Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, his gringo-south-of-the-border story.

New Pony / “Is Your Love in Vain?


Later on Dylan left this Tijuana of the mind, or lost sight of it, and found himself, for a time, in Las Vegas—a very different kind of border town, with its own very different style. Among those places that exist both on the map and between the various realms of history, fiction and myth, Tijuana is where hunger goes to get fed—while Las Vegas is where prosperity goes to get fat. The Street-Legal album is Bob Dylan in his first full flush of Las Vegas style. Lots of sex and glitz and wrenching climax, it’s a sausage grinder of entertainment. For better or worse, Dylan comes across on this album as one sleazy son of a bitch. “New Pony” is good sleaze: good riff, good arrangement, it’s got a pulse and doesn't forget the listener has one too. “Is Your Love in Vain?” is the worst kind of sleaze, not body but ego-oriented, not dynamic interaction but static spectacle, the phoniness of which makes every revelation suspect, every offering a taking in disguise. Don’t be fooled: when Dylan sings about his pain, he’s really singing about his penis.


Michael Gray figures, and I agree, that Street-Legal is a proto-Christian album. He also says that “Every song deals with love’s betrayal, with Dylan’s being betrayed like Christ, and, head on, with the need to abandon woman’s love.” So this sleaze factor is, for Dylan, something new: a convergence, somewhere past the borderline of absurdity, of showbiz, messianic religion, and the self-pity of the noble cocksman—Bob Dylan as Elvis Presley playing Dean Martin in a porno-musical version of The Last Temptation of Christ. In the Elvis tradition, the album has much sex; in the Dino tradition, it has much sexism. Like Elvis, Dylan, whatever his avowed submission to an Almighty, is, on this stage, truly Lord of all he surveys. And like Dino, he is also a drunk in love with his own drunkenness.


What’s missing from the sleaze of Street-Legal? What ingredient does sleaze need to stay alive, to keep flowing, feeling something, meaning something? Innocence, I would say—a sense of innocence. Of delight, of laughter, of thrills—thrills that are not cheap, but precious indeed. Often, what we regard as sleaze is only an image of innocence corrupted. The corruption contains the innocence, and vice versa. When one echoes against the other in a certain way, the walls of memory may shake, and sleaze may attain the grace of art.


If you’ve seen Atom Egoyan’s movie Exotica, you’ve seen this idea in action. A dancer at an upscale strip club wears a schoolgirl’s uniform. A well-dressed man returns night after night to stare at her performance. It turns out that the stripper, as a teenager, used to sit the man’s daughter, who is now dead. Each night the dancer and her watcher are living out a lurid burlesque of innocence, a masochistic playlet wherein sleaze determines costume and setting, and pain preys on memory.


Sleaze as a fact of life and harbinger of death runs throughout post-World War II American art, like a polluted river through a factory town, tainting and transforming film, fiction, canvas, musical noise. Sleaze is kept alive and flowing sometimes by pain, sometimes by pleasure, but always by the memory of purity and wholeness which it presumes, violates, reacts to in some way; the excitement and beauteous simplicity of what was, somewhere back there, in a time none of us actually remember but imagine we do. In this way, the bombastic sleaze of the old, fat Elvis is redeemed by the breakneck sleaze of the young, sexy Elvis—and all the lecherous lumbering of Street-Legal by the innocent lewdness of a minor Basement Tapes song like “I’m Your Teenage Prayer.”

“I’m Your Teenage Prayer”


There’s something ineffable about the little exhalation at the end of the song—the little ahhh—and about Richard Manuel’s repeated ad-lib, “I’m your teenage hair.” Dylan laughs every time he says it: what could be sillier, more senseless, more innocent than that? Yet that’s the whole of adolescent sex, and it could fit on a high school ring: I am your teenage hair. The secret hidden in that perfect absurdity is that what turns into sleaze as we age remains the stuff of discovery for kids: the first thrill, the breathless grope, the life-changing experience. Meet me at the border late tonight, Dylan will say six years later to complete that circuit, to consummate that come-on—but he’s older then. He’s been to Durango, he’s crossed the borderline of sleaze more than once, and the enticements are altogether darker, richer, more complicated than they were back in the basement.


It can be said that sleaze, like cholesterol, comes in “good” and “bad” forms. The difference is that the bad, like “Is Your Love in Vain?", is essentially inert. It doesn’t happen, it congeals. The good kind always flows, and always takes you with it. It can take you out, like “Tough Mama”; down, like '“Tom Thumb’s Blues”; or inside, like “I’m Your Teenage Prayer.” If used in a certain way, invested with a certain gravity, it can even take you back: far back.


In 1949, Bob Dylan’s future hero, Woody Guthrie, writes a collection of songs for the U.S. Public Health Service, which is on the move against the post-war spread of venereal disease. Among Guthrie’s titles are “VD City”; “VD Avenue”; “VD Day”; “VD Gunner”; “VD Blues”; “VD Seaman’s Letter”; “VD Waltz”; and “A Child of VD.” 11 years later, Bob Dylan leaves Minnesota and lands in Greenwich Village, then returns with a bushel of songs—among them Guthrie’s clap cycle, bestowed on him by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who describes them as “those old VD songs by Woody that nobody wanted the young kids to know.”


On December 22, 1961, in the apartment of Bonnie Beecher in Minneapolis, Dylan records some of those songs. By far the most vivid, in text and performance, is “VD City.” It could be seen as a moralistic trace of the original syphilitic’s lament, “The Unfortunate Rake,” and its descendant songs of madness and physical waste: “Streets of Laredo,”  “St. James Infirmary,” “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” “Insane Asylum.” But “VD City,” though it begins as pious public-service verse, ends as pure apocalyptic poetry, Guthrie’s imaginative embrace of holocaust and damnation; and while extending an ancient tradition of hellish visions from Revelations to Milton to Goya, it’s also very much post-world war, its rhetoric of atrocity containing the burning bodies of Hiroshima, the human piles of Dachau.


“VD City” was another name—maybe the first—for what Bob Dylan would later call “Desolation Row,” or “the border towns of despair”; and “venereal disease” a less metaphorical term for “hard rain,” “idiot wind,” “highway blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “subterranean homesick blues,” “Tom Thumb's blues,” the barren East Texas blues no one sang like Blind Willie McTell. The blues of collapse, corruption, perfidy; visionary blues that discern the fate of nations in the ruin of bodies, or the smell of pussy in a vote for Eisenhower. From Guthrie to Dylan we go from the specific to the symbolic, the clinical to the impressionistic. But in each the scale is panoramic, the complaint a truly social disease, each man or woman a victim or witness, the conspiracy of history no longer hidden, or even a conspiracy, because everyone is implicated.

“VD City


In cultivating his own sense of sleaze—along with his feel for loveliness, yearning, redemption, what are thought of as the finer emotions, the higher desires—Dylan was turning over the topsoil that covered such connections. He was feeling for the seedy truth beneath ordinary encounters—between individual and community, President and polity, Time magazine and time itself. His lyrics caught symbols in the sediment, and his dog-on-barbed-wire voice was likewise a filter of that filth, the sleazy sound of the underneath.


Every great artist is that filter, that distiller of other worlds. Every great artist comes, in some way, to know the presence and to breathe the fumes of a thousand years of horseshit. That happens when the elements of sleaze are not despised but remade as expressive shades to evoke a congeries of sensations, experiences, nightmares traveling back and forth in time. That’s when sleaze flows, becomes a river carrying the artist and his listener across borders of emotion, metaphor, and flesh. Bob Dylan got to this knowledge faster and straighter than most, by luring and crafting an innovative ugliness, a transformative impurity out of whatever truths he’d suspected back in the borderland of Hibbing, whatever escapes and fatalities he’d witnessed along Highway 61, standing alone upon the ridge, watching the river flow—river of sleaze, of death, of life. 

Copyright (c) 2007 by Devin McKinney

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