Asked to open Don’t Think Twice, a selection of drawings inspired by the lyrics of Bob Dylan, by UK-based artist Paul Thomas and South Coast NSW artist Andrew Antoniou (childhood friends and lifelong Dylan devotees of Dylan) I could hardly say no.
It is a rule that as a middle-aged male music critic I must be a Dylan fan, and one ready to bore for Australia on the topic at the drop of a hat. And lo, I am, and I can. Though in this speech I did try to keep it within reason.
The exhibition is not just rewarding and satisfying, it also serves as a guessing game for fans of any level, trying to work out from the titles where a particular line has been lifted.
The exhibition details are at the end. Go with Bobness. Just go.
“Newspapermen eating candy, had to be held down by big police/Someday everything is gonna be different, when I paint my masterpiece.”
Bob Dylan can be a very funny man. He sounds deadly serious, he looks deadly serious, but whether deadpan or deadly or inadvertent, he can nail his own sophistry, our imaginations and the tendentious profundity of critics … like me.
Some of his funniest moments were in the early part of the 1960s as journalists and TV hosts sought to patronise or sometimes just understand what he was singing about, what this youth movement was trying to say, or what the hell was he doing down on Maggie’s Farm anyway.
But one that cracks me up anytime I see it is what Dylan said on the opening of an exhibition of his own paintings this century - landscapes of the modern but maybe forgotten America, avoiding modern consumer culture. Paintings which he said were attempts to “represent reality and images as they are without idealising them”.
And the key? He said “The ideas was to create pictures that would not be misinterpreted or misunderstood by me or anybody else.”
Yeah, right Bob, that is just hilarious.
I mean, really, even if that were possible, even if academic papers, newspaper reviews and exhibition programs, would never be written – and sure, that doesn’t sound like the worst world - interpretation and understanding, and their identical twins, misinterpretation and misunderstanding would be right there in our every glance, in all our resolutions.
And, if you were to read Dylan’s thoughts on his works in that exhibition, in a good many of his own explanations.
That is their point! That has always been the point of Dylan’s musical work: not the answer but the search; not the method but the questioning.
The Joker and The Thief, the protagonist of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream who recounted how he “was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some land/I yelled for Captain Ahab, I have you understand”, or Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, the Early Roman Kings, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum or exactly who was on that Idiot Wind. Who are they? What are they really saying? What does it all mean?
(As an aside I am sure you know how much artists love, absolutely love, being asked that question: what does it all mean? I would encourage you to ask Paul and Andrew just that question – though preferably not while I am within range of any glass of wine which might be hurled at you. And me.)
I have here just one of the many Dylan-related books on my shelves, which is but a tiny fraction of the Dylan books available, an Encyclopedia Of Bob Dylan. And you can open it at any page and find the minutiae of his day to day life, the real life references from various songs, the assumptions about who is talked about in various songs and so much more.
Everyone from Memphis Minnie to Coopers & Lybrand, from Better Midler to 12 pages – I kid you not, 12 pages – on the use of nursery rhymes in his songs.
Want the truth? I don’t know if you can handle the truth, but I do know you can’t find the truth. Because there is more than one. Because there isn’t one.
It may well be true, as claimed by Joni Mitchell – the greatest songwriter, not a half bad painter, and certainly not a woman to be taken lightly on anything – that Dylan is a fake, a plagiarist, a constructed character.
It seems to me that whether she’s right or not, his is a character, and his is a body of work, on which other art and other artists can build, from where other artists can sally forth and explore.
For Paul and Andrew, Dylan is a starting point or maybe a staging post.
While he barely talks, certainly not on stage and definitely not to smartarse journalists with a million questions … like, me, I think Mr Dylan – who after all these years of familiarity I can actually call him … Mr Dylan – would be tickled pink to find fellow artists interacting with, responding to, fighting and shouting back to his work.
That’s how he’s always worked: responding and debating with Little Richard or Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell or Taylor Swift. That’s how good art grows. That’s how great art comes.
To quote the man himself, to open this exhibition aptly, I would say “Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece.”
Don’t Think Twice is showing at Art Est, 4/67-69 Lords Road, Leichhardt until February 24.