The Perfect Voice - A Poetic Tribute to Bob Dylan
I What can I say about Bob Dylan?
That some strange, authentic light passed into him from blind bluesmen on corners, singing their stories of trains and chains and hope; blind bluesmen, miles from any college or guitar academy, with the wind at their backs, or their backs against some wall in East Texas, playing sublime bottleneck guitar with the necks of broken bottles.
That he was light-hearted and free and only twenty, when he first took to the road, with ten dollars, a harmonica, and his guitar; that he saw Woody Guthrie signposting the way to go … and went, with little inclination to look back on old Duluth, dying in the moonlight.
That he enrolled early in that authentic, beaming and screaming college of real life, and never left it, because all he needed – all the diverse, sounds and colours of that authenticity – met him there and filled his spirit; that his America was always a place in which unwanted migrants moved across railway tracks and truck yards, seeking somewhere to remain.
That he was young when he left home – young and ready to change the world forever, if only he could elude the Rising Sun’s beckoning sirens; that he could look north to where the wind was blasting against the borderline, yet pluck from his heart the gentlest of chords … or walk, arm in arm, with his girl down the boulevard of broken dreams.
That he understood the essential difference between someone who sings and a real singer … how a song must possess him and keep him close to the trembling, naked world which summons songs into being; that the unfiltered sounds of all things flowed through him – all the discordant, muddy voices of the river that bore the slaves.
That he recounted in fearless detail the sad tale of Emmett Till: how he was butchered by a ghostly cohort of the white-robed Ku Klux Klan; that he thought long and hard about them, and about the senseless slaying of Hattie Carroll: how justice favours those who rule, rather than those whose small, arduous lives are shackled to their masters’ tables, until they die there – violently or otherwise.
That he saw death up close and chose to be the lonesome traveller whose life task was to unmask the truth, in a world where the truth kept dancing ahead, like some elusive tambourine player; that he sang in his own way, with a force that moved the world and asked big questions about being a man … what it means … and how to make each choice, and did it all so earnestly in that perfect voice.
II What can I say about Bob Dylan?
That he was one of the few who protested vociferously against the masters of war and fame and greed who reign on earth, yet never allowed protest to be his only idiom … never seized the easy option of allowing his life to become a single monotonous diatribe in which every answer to every dilemma is either black or white, for he had seen and known so much behind the shades.
That he blew great smoke rings for the mind, and journeyed deep into the heat of Harlem to ponder the ephemeral perceptions of a Spanish gipsy girl, swaying hypnotically to sounds from worlds beyond hers; that students in bedsits sat and listened to his records, and felt the first stirrings of their true selves, because he was the echo of a vast universe in which the times were changing, and the voiceless were beginning to be heard.
That he wore many caps and pillbox hats, but none he couldn’t easily balance on his head, or on a bottle of wine belonging to some Bradford millionaire; that he was the standard bearer – the high, lone-flier others had to aim at – the one who continually watched and listened as hooded hordes trudged mechanically back and forth over bridges leading to factories and groceries and little else.
That he was the song and dance man – the poet laureate of the people – who arrived when poetry had been highjacked by gold-star universities breaking faith with the innate music of the human heart; that he honed his craft in East Orange’s green pastures, where Rita-May and a few autodidactic free spirits were his most essential book of knowledge, in a universe going rapidly nowhere.
That he saw from the beginning how one who endeavours to be right for everybody, is wrong for the world, because the world needs to be challenged or it won’t wake up … it won’t be shaken from the siren comforts of its own sedation; that his voice was forever full of sounds never heard before him … those long and rolling songs of thunder … those long and bittersweet parables of a rolling stone.
That he was a chameleon, a shape-shifter and did it often to elude his trackers, who wanted him to remain static, or be more perfectly like them … with eyes to make a snake proud; that he changed his style from simple ballads to surreal visions, and was booed and jeered and called ‘Judas’, but played electrically on, watched by a laughing raven.
That he built word-pictures, layer by layer, and was the master of vagueness … the restless, elusive one, who never wished to be tied to one place, or one time, or just one woman – and yet, he offered sound directions about the best path home; he offered a clear road map for the wastelands of Desolation Row, where survival is a perpetual game of dice, and did it so pragmatically in that perfect voice.
III What can I say about Bob Dylan?
That he had his own apocalyptic motorcycle nightmare, on a slippery dawn stretch of Suicide Road, and afterwards shunned drink and drugs and stardom and became eternity’s simple pilgrim; that he worked obsessively for days paying sober tributes to his ‘sad-eyed Lady’, who seemed elusive and difficult to define, as Quinn the Eskimo kept his distance, and Louise put the ‘rain’ back in her pocket.
That he felt the rush of the streets and the solitude of the hills and forests, and no experience went unwanted, because everything he did enabled him to see distinctly the difference between paradise and the shimmering pleasure house across the road; that he thought twice about accepting accolades from pale-egg producing professors in the henhouse academies of poetry, where no product outlasts its ‘sell-by’ date.
That he wrote songs with music in them, songs with meter and rhythm and sharp-eyed images that would linger in your head, like some finely condensed film, or an old well-crafted poem you could actually call a poem; that highly trained singers sang notes from sheet music, and strove for perfect diction, but he was different: he preferred to weave his voice into the dramatic tapestries he created … he preferred to be believably tangled up in blue.
That he understood the call of the road and how the universe itself is a long pathway back to Eden … back to that first world which can’t be apprehended until the journey uncovers it for us; that his craft was shaped by an intuitive understanding of how the power of simplicity can bring timeless scenes to life: a few chords, a few suggestive phrases, and suddenly there’s a moon, a girl … and you can almost feel her!
That he was enlightened early about the way every small success makes a new and greater effort necessary in order for inspiration’s gods to smile one’s way again … to invoke some new vision of Johanna, or the Faerie Queen; that he was beset often by the urge to give up – to go home and live a quiet life in the arms of the girl from the Red River Shore, who, of course, had long ago departed.
That he was the jingle-jangle man, the master-puppeteer behind the white face and the tambourine and the many screens of himself … all so vividly alive and breathing; that he was the wonder boy, the burlesque Chaplin of Modern Times, who shuffled and danced and didn’t care too much for being modern, if there was nothing eternal in it.
That he lived and loved and moulded each experience into the sweetest or bitterest of sounds, and often placed them side by side on the same record; that his art encompassed not only the human heart’s bright visions of love and paradise, but visions also of deep, dark places where he never feared to go … places where vultures feed on death and desolation, and Noah is always the first to leave.
That he chronicled the whole flow of hope and horror from Kennedy to Covid, from Gandhi to Gallo – and then, for an encore, conjured a haunting tour-de-force about a strange wedding between a child and a prostitute in beautiful Key West; that he was always going back, always revisiting the sounds of things imbued with the magic to outlive their birthplace and their brief hour upon Time’s loom.
That he was with us from the day black people had no rights, to the day a white policeman was arraigned for applying the full weight of the law to the neck of a man helplessly gasping for air; that he was with us, and had his say, and brought equality and freedom a few steps closer, even though it isn’t time yet to rejoice, and he did it all so knowingly in that perfect voice.
Martin Mc Carthy is a contributing editor to the American poetry website, The HyperTexts. He lives in Cork City, Ireland, where he studied English at UCC and was awarded the H. Dip. in Education. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications. He has published three poetry collections: Lockdown Diary (2020), Lockdown (2021), and The Perfect Voice (2023). A fourth collection,
The Book of Desire, is currently awaiting publication. He was shortlisted for the Red Line Poetry Prize, and is a nominee for the 2023 Pushcart Prize. The Perfect Voice, his epic fourteen-page YouTube tribute to Bob Dylan can be heard here. A limited signed and numbered print edition can be purchased in the store at mccarthypoet.com