bob dylan’s ‘mr. tambourine man’ is not doing his job

You get glimpses of why art is magic once in a while. This week, I was lucky enough for it to happen twice for me. One of those times was for Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Listening to the song, it’s easy to focus on what the singer wants from the titular Tambourine Man: “Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,” the singer asks. With a little imagination, it’s easy to read the song as a simple request for deliverance via the art of song.

By the way, when I talk about songs, I like to refer to the narrative voice of the song as “the singer,” because “narrator” sounds wrong for the medium, but let’s not confuse “singer” in this discussion with Bob Dylan himself. Anyway, the “singer” here makes it sound as the the Tambourine Man can transport him to a place of grace and joy, it’s fair to say, and I don’t know that there’s much to say about this aspect of the lyrics other than than there’s some beautiful phrasing.

But what the singer wants from Monsieur Tambourine is not the only thing to look at. I’m thinking here not just of what singer wants to be delivered to, but what he singer wants to be delivered from — a reality that sounds pretty dire:

My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming

My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step

Where does the singer want to be transported to? “Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

In other words, the singer isn’t just asking TM for a nice time; the singer is on the edge of misery and looking for a little salvation away from “haunted, frightened trees.” These serial bits of downer imagery suggest to me a guy on the verge of breakdown, a guy whose descriptions of the world betray psychic trouble. A couple of other songs I happen to love have a same method: To wit, the singer’s descriptions of what he sees are so obviously colored by emotion that they say much more about him than anything he’s talking about. Compare “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank Williams Sr.’s classic lament:

Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will
He sounds too blue to fly

The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?

No, Hank, I have never seen a robin weep, and I don’t think that’s even possible. The singer in “Lonesome” sees awfully dramatic stuff in ordinary scenes of nature. Never mind the moon; the singer himself is the lachrymose mess. But that’s what I love about the song — it’s sung so sad, you almost believe the moon really is hiding his tears.

Then there’s the Doors’ “People are Strange”:

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

Hank Williams Sr., when he sings “Lonesome,” sees celestial objects and birdies as morose because he’s morose. Jim Morrison, when he sings “People are Strange,” sees passers by as freaks because he feels like a freak. Yet Bob Dylan has no excuse, at least not any given in “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He seems in the midst of a great sadness, but he doesn’t even hint at the source of that sadness.

When people look at what Dylan sings about wanting from Mr. Tambourine Man, sometimes they try to read it as a plea to the Tambourine Man to hook up the singer with some quality acid or other hallucinogen. Actually, I think these people are looking in the wrong place for drug references; it seems clear to me that the guy who thinks that the “ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming” is coming down and suffering the associated emotional crash.

But whatever. That’s only a cute reading of the sparse lines Dylan gives us about what he wants to be rescued from, and you’d think if anybody would have used perceptual distortion as a means to talk about drug use, it would have been Jim Morrison.

What I actually find philosophically and artistically meaty in this song is what Dylan is asking Mr. Tambourine Man for. As a bit of a side note, and to close out the drugs conversation, I don’t think this song is about copping drugs. “Waiting for the Man” sounds like a soundtrack for scoring drugs (or so I imagine it would be if heroin seemed as glamorous as the song, which it doesn’t), and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sounds like what I imagine the acid experience to be. In comparison, I don’t think the sound or delivery that Dylan gives to “Mr. Tambourine Man” suggest anything but the most obvious reading of the song, that the singer wants Mr. Tambourine Man to whisk him away with music.

It’s actually that reading that leads to some relatively mind-bending places. Consider that the song is an extended request for the person addressed (i.e., the Tambourine Man) to produce a song so wonderful that it draws the singer to a place where he can “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” In other words, the singer’s asking someone else to take him on the magic carpet ride of transcendent art. (Let’s put aside for the moment the misguided notion of asking a tambourinist to do this.)

But that means the singer is asking Mr. Tambourine Man for precisely what the person singing the song “Mr. Tambourine Man” should be offering us, the audience. And he’s using the second person to do it – meaning that in practice (if not in theory), he’s asking “you” to help him go on musical journey away from the troubles of today. The singer seems to be giving up on giving us, the audience, what we want, and instead is singing about what he needs.

Or so it would seem. But then, the song is heart-achingly beautiful in so many spots that the plea itself could be the “magic swirlin’ ship” of music that takes us away from all that sad crap. The song sort of raises the question, through its very existence, Can a song about the rapture we look for in songs – if it’s a poetic enough song – induce the very rapture it’s nominally about?

I think so. I mean, it worked on me.

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