BOB DYLAN'S BLACK COMEDY

~ Posted by James Manning, August 31st 2012

An American city: a young man follows a young woman down the street. He starts showing off, playing the romantic, trying to get her attention—dancing, grinning, plucking a rose from a flower stall as he passes. He’s rejected, and gets a face full of pepper spray for his trouble. The next day he tries again, but this time he’s chased by the police and spends a night in the cells. He makes one final attempt on the third day, but he has hardly made it ten feet before he’s dragged off the street, tied up in a warehouse and beaten bloody. In his head he’s dancing with the girl, but his body lies across the streetlit pavement. A pair of patent leather shoes steps casually over him—and Bob Dylan, suited and stetsonned, strolls on.

This week, various websites posted Nash Edgerton’s video for "Duquesne Whistle"—the first single from Dylan’s next album, "Tempest", which is released on September 11th. The song itself is another take on the electric blues which has been Dylan's genre of choice since "Time Out of Mind" in 1997. "Duquesne Whistle" introduces itself with a jaunty pedal steel guitar, then kicks in with walking bass and skipping drums before Dylan finally arrives, his voice grown scratchier than ever. But it’s the video that’s drawn the most attention. Rolling Stone called it "shockingly violent". It’s certainly brutal, and cynical about the place of romantic fantasy in the real world—but is it really that shocking?

What’s actually striking isn’t the brutality itself, but how funny it is. Dylan’s laughter has never been gentle. One of his funniest songs, "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat", is equally vicious about the fashion-victim subject, her new lover and Dylan’s frustrated narrator. Conversely, “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is a grimly sidesplitting portrait of post-nuclear New York. The lyrics to “Duquesne Whistle” play it fairly straight—a train, a woman, "another no good town"—but its sting lies in the video’s rapid transitions, the way the song’s infectious Nashville up-beats chug straight through joy and pain, romance and violence. It’s the unexpectedness (as Tim de Lisle wrote last year) that we’ve come to expect. Edgerton seems to have learned from Quentin Tarantino the lethal combination of rock 'n’ roll with video nasties, especially at the song’s half-way point when the rhythm falters just long enough for the hero to be knocked about before the beat and the world move on. Meanwhile Dylan paces the streets, trailed by a gang of misfits to rival the lurid cast of “Desolation Row”, with a sardonic and impenetrable smile.

James Manning is an intern at Intelligent Life