Distilling Dylan into 17 syllables11 min read . Updated: 07 Jun 2015, 07:42 PM IST
A fanboy writes on his labour of lovea book distilling the essence of each Dylan song into a haiku
Here’s a passage from the liner notes of the 1979 album Bob Dylan at Budokan, which chronicled two shows that the legendary singer-songwriter played at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo a year earlier:
“The more I think about it, the more I realize what I left behind in Japan—my soul, my music and that sweet girl in the geisha house—I wonder does she remember me? If the people of Japan wish to know about me, they can hear this record—also they can hear my heart still beating in Kyoto at the Zen Rock Garden. Someday I will be back to reclaim it."
I don’t know what happened to the girl in the geisha house. Only Dylan knows his heart and soul. That leaves the music, more than 600 songs, which are available to the world. I’m a big fan of the music and an admirer of the composer. I also like to mess around with other people’s art. That’s why I pickled his work in a most Japanese way: I recast each song that he has released since 1962 as haiku.
Haiku are three-line poems that aim for beauty in brevity. The form comes from Japan, where they gained prominence in the middle of the 17th century. The traditional haiku contains a reference to the seasons, a “cutting word" in the middle that separates two images or ideas elsewhere in the poem, and 17 syllables or sounds (they aren’t always the same thing). I threw out every rule but form, adhering only to the three-line structure—five syllables in the first, seven in the second, five in the third.
Why did I do it? I wanted to have fun. I wanted to make new art. I wanted to play with the art of the master and see what would happen. It felt like a book that I could publish and be proud of. I could stand on the shoulders of a giant. Mostly, I was attracted to the idea of taking something big and making it small while preserving its essence.
If haiku are the bonsai of poetry, Bob Dylan songs are the giant sequoias. They are epics. They sprawl. Whether four minutes long or 14, they’re often stuffed with surreal characters, allusions and metaphors, and historical and Biblical references. They are fever dreams forged in the space where John Ford’s westerns, Robert Johnson’s blues laments and Federico Fellini’s circuses meet on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Some are among the world’s most bewildering songs. They sport references to literature, art, movies and poetry, some of them exceptionally obscure. Some are galaxies to themselves. A few, arguably, have changed the world. What could be better than making a bonsai sequoia?
This is how Bob Dylan: Haiku 61 Revisited was born. Dylan’s music has echoed in my ears all my life. He was there when I was a child driving across the plains and mountains of the US, and in my university years when we smoked grass and pondered the music’s “deep meaning". Now, a Central Park walk is incomplete without Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight or New Morning, and I’ve learned what a good Bengaluru auto-rickshaw soundtrack Maybe Someday is, and why Got My Mind Made Up makes rush hour on the Delhi Metro easier to bear.
Turning these songs over in my mind for so many years has allowed me to examine them from many angles. Dylan the protest singer, the folk singer and the rock ’n’ roll anarchist are the images most people have of him, sealed in amber since 1966. There is nearly a half century of his music that people don’t know as well, and I have wanted to write about the whole collection many times, but never felt that I had useful or incisive things to say. I didn’t realize that a poetic form suited to frogs jumping in ponds and crows on withered branches in autumn would give me the key that I was seeking.
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Writing Bob Dylan haiku was not my idea. Neither was writing a book full of them. The inspiration came in 2009. At the time, I was a Reuters reporter, covering US media and the future of journalism. We used an antiquated text message system with a limited character count—a proto-Twitter—to communicate with colleagues and groups of colleagues around the world. Sometimes we got bored. One day, we wrote messages in haiku form:
Microsoft stock up
For no apparent reason.
Can someone check why?
New York Times buyouts.
Now is the winter of their
Over the next hour or so, my colleague Derek and I applied haiku wherever they would stick. It wasn’t long before we started fiddling with songs. Derek asked me if it were possible to “boil down" Dylan.
“Blowin’ in the Wind," I replied. How many this, how many that, how many times before you can do or say or be or know or whatever. And somehow, it’s always the damned wind that carries the answer:
Bob knows so little.
He asks where the answers are.
He has a strong hunch.
How about another? Maybe Lay Lady Lay from the Nashville Skyline album. Sure, I said. Bob sang, “Lay lady lay, Lay across my big brass bed." Great song. Ballsy of him to make such a bold advance on a lady. How about this?
Bob wants you in bed.
He has balls and beds of brass.
You’re lying on them.
I sat at home that weekend, tickled by the idea. I wrote 20 or 30 Bob Dylan haiku. Then I couldn’t stop. Dylan at that time had 34 studio albums to his credit, along with various singles containing non-album tracks. I figured there must be 500 songs or so waiting to be rendered.
I blazed through them. I was having too good a time to stop. As I wrote, I discovered that there were scores of songs that Dylan performed in his myriad concerts that never appeared on albums. Then there were the songs that he wrote but never released (at that time the huge Basement Tapes collection from 1967 was still a bootleg, and that was good for at least 100, it seemed.). He wrote songs that he never performed, but that other people did. (He wrote one for Bonnie Raitt? And the Searchers? He co-wrote a song with Gene Simmons from Kiss? With Michael Bolton? Did he write anything with those two Baul singers on the cover of the John Wesley Harding album? No. An exception, it seems.) There seemed to be no song in the great American pop songbook that he didn’t try at some point. Return to Me by Dean Martin. The End of the Innocence by Don Henley. Cocaine Blues by the Reverend Gary Davis. Ring of Fire by June Carter and Merle Kilgore.
I wrote them all, more than 1,200. Obscure Dylan performances showed up in TV show soundtracks, movie soundtracks, commercials, tribute albums, everywhere. I still don’t know if I got them all. I knew I had a book on my hands. I named the project Haiku 61 Revisited after Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. (So named for the highway than ran through the heart of America’s blues country, and itself Dylan’s radical reworking of pop and the blues. Listen to Like a Rolling Stone, From a Buick 6 or It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry to hear what I mean.)
A colleague suggested that I find a literary agent and shop the book to publishers. I did. It flopped. I received at least 25 rejections. The agent disappeared and my contract expired. Why did people hate Haiku 61? The haiku were too sarcastic, and wouldn’t appeal to fans who would be the primary book buyers. I knew the real problem: I wrote them too quickly, too casually, forsaking understanding for cheap laughs.
I set the project aside for two years. I became an editor, started a news website desk in Bengaluru for Reuters, took control of one in Delhi, wrote the rough drafts of two novels and several dozen essays. I sold my house in New Jersey, rented an apartment in Manhattan. But, as Bob sang, “But all the while I was alone, the past was close behind." Late last year, I rewrote nearly every haiku. I’m still unhappy with some. But they are better now.
I began to release each haiku online starting in January. I’ve added small essays about each song, along with deconstructions of the songs to show readers the source of each haiku.
Take All Along the Watchtower. The song contains a universe in less than three minutes. The meaning is tough to ascertain. It feels like it’s wrapped in the shadows of shadows:
The joker can’t cope.
Chill, says the thief, life’s a joke.
Princess waits, wind howls.
And here is my explanation, lightly edited from what I posted:
Two stories in one, making this a two-and-a-half minute epic of inscrutability:
1. The joker’s sick of being exploited by businessmen and farmers, while the thief adjusts the joker’s vantage point to the longest-term view that there is: when you’re dead, you won’t care. There’s some cold comfort for your one more cup of coffee.
2. The princess walks along a watchtower, attended by women and barefoot servants. It’s nasty outside: howling wind, cold weather, a growling wildcat and two unidentified people approaching, presumably on horseback. Enjoy the rest of your day.
As usual, the atmosphere is key. Like many of the other minimalist songs on 1967’s John Wesley Harding album, it’s Nashville country-and-western music, but full of doom and foreboding. I’ve read the word “apocalypse" many times as a key association with this song, and it’s not hard to see why. Chapter 1 opens with despair and fatalism, chapter 2 provides a peripatetic princess on a parapet, presumably in peril. Whatever the song might be “about", the tone is all too apparent, and the compact size of the song gives it an extra chill… As for the haiku, I couldn’t ignore one half of the story for the other, so I went for the Cliff’s Notes version of the joker and the thief, then I sacrificed the riders, the wildcat, the women and the servants.
I don’t offer a literature professor’s analysis. I’m not trying to write a doctoral thesis. I simply compress.
Thunder on the Mountain, Spirit on the Water
Many people have asked me about my obsession with Bob Dylan. Who is Dylan to you, they want to know. Obsession is the right word, but only for a time. I am a fan. Obsession is what I need to complete a large project. And who is Bob Dylan to me? I don’t know. This is about his music. I don’t know if “Bob Dylan" exists. The whole question of identity is one that Dylan has exploited over the years as he tries to elude journalists or fans who would pin him down as one person. I often think of the scene in which Dylan appears as “Alias", a knife-throwing outlaw in the Sam Peckinpah western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Denver: What’s your name, boy?
Denver: Alias what?
Alias: Alias anything you please.
Denver: What do we call you?
Beaver: Hell, let’s call him Alias!
Alias: That’s what I’d do.
Denver: Alias it is.
Let’s forget Dylan and think about the songs. There are too many to classify easily, but themes emerge in many of his songs over the years:
- The restless stranger, burdened by heartbreak. Maybe wandering will cure sadness.
- Surviving love, love’s death and disappointment might make you stronger, but you’ll be battered, and end up a tenacious, weathered wreck on a reef.
- People disappoint you. Trust is fleeting and often unfounded. But… being alone is worse.
- Live right and walk right. There might or might not be a God, but there surely is a judge.
- In love, there is always the one who got away, just like the big fish that you never hooked.
This is desert-of-the-heart material, wide as the Gobi. At the centre of Dylan’s music, whether solo acoustic or backed by a rock band, there is a hole of loneliness and melancholy. There are long stretches of bitterness, sourness, resentment, mistrust and defiance. Through it all, there’s the backdrop of an America that I know well. It’s the land of open vistas: the Badlands, Big Sky, the Great Plains and the high Rocky Mountains, the sprawl of the Mississippi Valley, the loneliest open ocean. Prairies, big cities, endless train tracks, dirt roads and empty spaces. Dylan’s music is about spaces between people and spaces between hearts.
I didn’t know that my key to Dylan’s music would be sitting in the Zen Rock Garden of Kyoto. “Japan" isn’t the first thing you think when you think “Dylan". There are few overt connections between Bob Dylan and Japanese art if you discount the accusation that Dylan plagiarized lines from Junichi Saga’s book Confessions of a Yakuza, and a delightfully daffy music video for the 1985 song Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?). But once I stumbled upon the connection, I couldn’t let it go.
As of this writing, I have published everything from A to G in the alphabetical list of haiku, and am beginning on the H songs. I have several hundred more to go—and about 650 to publish in all. And that’s not counting a deluxe edition that I plan to publish, which includes bootlegged material and other songs that Dylan has not released commercially. That contains another 500 to 550 songs, making the total number of haiku I’ll write as high as 1,200. There are presumably many miles to go before I collapse into some new agent’s arms, muttering about how I finally know how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him published.
Robert MacMillan is Reuters.com’s editor of global editions. He has worked at the news agency for more than nine years as a reporter and editor. He previously worked at The Washington Post as a website reporter and editor. He lives in New York City.