"Transfiguration" of Art: Some more thoughts about Bob Dylan and his new album

by on Oct.09, 2012

So I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest, and that makes me want to add a few comments to my post from yesterday.

First of all, am I the only person who feels like they’ve heard these songs before? Not just because they evoke old-time music but because it might be the actual music he’s used to play his old 1960s hits. Dylan is famous for re-working his old songs in almost unrecognizeable arrangements. (Often people don’t know what song it is until he starts singing, and even then it might be hard to hear.)

He talks about this as well in his autobiography, Chronicles, remembering the moment when he came up with a kind of mathematical (occultly rewriting) formula for generating new song structures for his old songs. So if you haven’t been to a Dylan show, you might get a slow waltz version of “Maggie’s Farm” and a carnival version of “Love Minus Zero” or a swampy blues version of “Positively Fourth Street.”

In the interview I quoted yesterday, he talks about how the last few albums have been made for live performance, how they were for the people going to his shows. But – greater Dylan experts correct me if I’m wrong here – he rarely plays the songs from his new records live, preferring to do new “versions” of old songs.

To me the new record (as well as Modern Times and Love and Theft) come off almost as studio versions of the live shows, but instead of using his mathematical formula to re-version his old songs, he’s using them to create “new” songs.

Dylan has of course been famous for appropriating wildly (from Japanese gangster memoirs to Robert Johnson blues songs). The same was of course true of the old-time music he’s been most noticeably appropriating, or more correctly, participating in. The problem for these folks was originally, how to bring a live act onto a record – how to turn a long song that went on and on (for people dancing) and that used and re-used stock phrases and turns into a short-playing record that could be printed and sold. And this is the same “problem” that Dylan seems to be handling quite interestingly right now, in the long twilight of his career.

If this sounds like a postmodernist take on Dylan, let me remind you that when accused of having abandoned the folk idiom and gone surrealist back in the 1960s, Dylan famously -and correctly – pointed out that folks songs are fully of the weirdest images (I googled but couldn’t find this quote).

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If we take Dylan’s word for it about his motorcycle “transfiguration,” we might go to The Basement Tapes, what he recorded immediately following the accident, to see what kind of music a “dead” person makes. Well, according to Greil Marcus’s brilliant book “Invisible Republic,” a dead person makes music from “old, weird America,” the music of murder ballads and blues laments.

The thing about Basement Tapes is that it feels very makeshift (it wasn’t meant to be released initially) – just hints of songs that could be turned into “proper songs” if desired. So I guess what I’m saying here is that Dylan’s last few albums might be the opposite of The Basement Tapes: actual songs made from the melee of Death/The Basement… But they still have that feeling of being instances, relics, souvenirs from a larger thing, that space where things can get reworked a million times.

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The best song on the album must certainly be “Scarlet Town,” a song that invokes “Barbra Allen” and a host of other things, but still manages to totally interest me:

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About the “Transfiguration”… According to the Catholic Online Dictionary:

The glorification of the appearance of Jesus before his Resurrection. It took place in the presence of Peter, James, and John. While he was praying on a mountain, suddenly “his face did shine as the sun,” while “his garments became glistening, exceeding white.” The frightened witnesses saw Moses and Eligah appear before them and converse with Jesus and heard the voice of God. the extraordinary vision vanished as suddenly as it appeared (Luke 9:28-36; Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8). the Church’s celebration of this event occurs as a feast day on August 6. (Etym. Latin transfigurare: trans-, change + figura, figure.)

I love of course the garments glistening white, which echoes the obsession with Dylan’s appearance throughout the ages (for example his “Sellout Jacket,” the leather jacket he wore during the 1965 tour, an item that became saturated with almost religious meaning – he was also famously called “Judas” during this tour) as well as the way Patti Smith describes finding a Baudelaire coat in a used clothing store in NJ and suddenly becoming a poet.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan denies the interviewer’s suggestion that he means “transmigration” – as in the switcharoo of souls a la David Lynch’s (another participant in the gothic neo-weird-old-america aesthetics) Lost Highway (the name of course of a famous Hank Williams song) – but that does seem to figure into his idea of “transfiguration.” He does seem to suggest that the Hells Angels guy somehow by dying entered into/transfigured him. What is important is probably the word “TRANS” – a going across. One might call the “space” where all these songs are constantly getting reworked a “trans”-space, a space that is constantly breaking down, being pierced and reshaped.

(Importantly: I think in the memoir (it was a long time since i read it), Dylan has his a-ha moment about the reworking method when he’s out riding his motorcycle.)

I also think that he means “disfigure.” That this transfiguration has to do with the physical body as well – whether a motorcycle accident or glistening outfits.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. maria

    following this thread with great interest.

  2. James Pate

    This make me think of Harry Smith too and his interest in the occult. For him and Dylan, folk music wasn’t/isn’t about being “real” or getting in touch with kitchen-sink reality or a person’s authenticity or truest emotions, etc. Folk music is a border crossing between life and death, light and dark, the corporeal and incorporeal. So many of those old blues and folk songs traded lyrics and themes and notes because it wasn’t about self-expression, but possession.

  3. Johannes

    Yes James, that’s probably the key: from possession to self expression and back again. Dylan of 1960s was of course a symbol precisely of self-expression and authenticity…

    Johannes