Throughout the singer-songwriter’s almost six decade career, Bob Dylan has been compared to Jesus Christ many times. From the moment his “wild mercury sound” broke through to the public, monikers like “prophet,” “savior,” and “voice of a generation” have been attributed to the man with such frequency and rapidity it’s a wonder a religion hasn’t sprung up around the man yet. It’s entirely likely Dylan has even considered himself a sort of Christ figure at one point. The comparisons, however absurd and over-dramatic they may seem, do have some founding in fact and reason. Dylan came out of humble beginnings. Like Jesus’ ascension from his dusty carpenter childhood of Bethlehem (during his time a veritable backwater), Dylan rose from Nowhere, Minnesota, otherwise known as Hibbing, to become one of the greatest and most enigmatic men of his time. Whereas the gospels could be seen as the purest exemplification of the life and messages of Jesus Christ, the 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde, serves as the clearest vision of Dylan’s genius. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. And a puzzling and wonderfully confounding one at that. From his cackling refrain of “Everybody must get stoned!” on “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” to his soulful laments in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Dylan seems to fit every aspect of his messianic jester persona into Blonde on Blonde, which, fifty years later, sounds just as damn good as it did in 1966. One could say the album is almost holy.
The aforementioned opening song of the album seems, in some ways, to hold the secrets of the album and to Dylan himself (as much as such things exist). They are opaque and somewhat convoluted, these secrets, but they’re present all the same. After what sounds like a drunken marching band drumroll, Dylan begins by singing, “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good, ” implying that this vague and foreboding “they” takes you down when you’re trying to be something of a good citizen. This “they” could be interpreted as record companies or condescending journalists, or even just the antagonistic forces of life in general. Dylan references “stoning,” the barbaric (and biblical) form of corporal punishment, in order to show what this “they” does to “you,” and by extension, to him. “They” are the heretics and non-believers, the ones who just don’t take to the message Dylan has to offer. They’re also the rabid fans and blind followers who refuse to look at Dylan as a man and put him on a pedestal he feels gloriously unworthy of (“Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously,” he sings self-deprecatingly in “Absolutely Sweet Marie). With Blonde on Blonde, Dylan seems to be reacting, somewhat comically, to the variegated “theys” who had been bringing him down up to that point in ‘66. However, with his downright pulchritudinous and sometimes insane imagery in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” showcase Dylan the poet, a serious artist who wants to enrapture and engage just as much as he wants to heckle and provoke. It is the mixing of these disparate forces that make the album so great and Dylan such a terrific artist. Christ, as he is portrayed in the Bible, often comes across as a soulless cardboard caricature who is something of a poster boy for morality. Dylan is like Jesus in many ways, but like a cardboard caricature he is not. The biblical Christ is explained too easily, and where Dylan gets so interesting is how he defines explanation.
To try and truly understand and write about Blonde on Blonde in these modern times seems as near impossible a task as trying to understand and write about any great and classic work of art years after its initial release. The artwork has taken on a multitude of contexts, meanings, and personae that enshroud rather than clarify. Time muddles the classics, and this is no different for Blonde on Blonde. However, if one looks closely at the jingle-jangle weirdness of Dylan’s magnum opus, there’s an ineffable sort of truth that reveals itself. Like a religious tome or something of the sort, the album can be discussed and written about to a great extent. Theories exist up the wazoo, but the real answer lingers somewhere in the distance; always in sight, but never at hand. And this is the beauty of Blonde on Blonde, and really all of Bob Dylan’s work. It enchants and engages without ever providing a concrete answer. When listening, one can certainly begin to glean a sort of thesis from the album, but it will soon get lost in the wailing guitars and circus-march drum beats. That chaos, that paranoia. That is where Dylan’s true thesis lies. Dylan, unlike Jesus Christ, is a man of anarchy. He recognizes his fame, but he also recognizes the absurdity and transience of said fame. A song on Blonde on Blonde is entitled “Temporary Like Achilles,” and such a title fits Dylan perfectly. He is an Achilles of rock-and-roll, a giant, but he’s also, for lack of a better word, temporary. Bob will die like everyone else, and in so many years his music will be blowing in the wind, playing for the deaf ears of the dead. Dylan revels in that ephemeral nature partially because it goes against everything human beings feel and believe and Dylan has always been one to go against the grain. During one of his tours in Europe while promoting Blonde on Blonde, a spectator, furious at Dylan’s adoption of an electric band, shouted out “Judas!” While the remark was certainly meant as an insult to the jester poet himself, it actually seems quite fitting. Dylan is the constant traitor–the man who’s nationality has always rested comfortably at without-a-country. Bob Dylan has been compared to Jesus Christ many times, but perhaps he is much more of a Judas figure: villainous, controversial, and always interesting. Blonde on Blonde captures this wild, anti-heroic nature better than anything else Bob has ever done. The ages have certainly only made Blonde on Blonde stranger, and it’s reasonable to think the man in the dark sunglasses himself wouldn’t have it any other way.
Featured Images: Columbia Records