The songs on Dylan’s two mid-sixties masterpieces, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, were exotic birds, the likes of which no one had ever seen. The Mr. Joneses of the world chased them with cages looking for “the message,” but the appropriate response is to watch–and feel–them soar. Their only message is the freedom of the creative mind. They evoke the never-ending tumult of imagination and dreams. One senses a subterranean effusion, fundamental to existence, cresting into awareness, while Dylan surfs the wave like a mad-man, capturing the half-inarticulate thought-feelings at the moment they become available to language. (The studio musicians report that Dylan furiously reworked lyrics during the recording sessions for Blonde on Blonde, which is something you’d do if you were staying right on the edge of something; and that he crashed his motorcycle after the album’s completion feels metaphorically appropriate, as all waves must crash.)
Looking at the songs floating around the pop charts in 1965, it’s clear how qualitatively different Dylan’s music was. The Beatles were doing essentially the same thing other pop artists were, only with some secret ingredient that illuminated their music and put them in a league of their own. Dylan, though, was playing a different sport. Every contemporary song on the airwaves sounds like bubblegum alongside “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61,” “One of Us Must Know,” or most of the other material on his two monumental albums. Almost every pop song since similarly pales by comparison. Only a handful have achieved the existential potency that Dylan channeled from ’65 to ’66. (The Beatles’ own “A Day in the Life, Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” or the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” come to mind.)
If Dylan’s songs weren’t exactly pop, they aren’t exactly poetry either. You can’t measure them against either standard, for they are an indeterminate brew of everything he’d absorbed, the high and the low. Dylan accepted everything into his psyche–religion, popular culture, the blues, old folks songs, poetry and fairy tales–and ultimately paid homage to one guiding arbiter, his own creative soul. Dylan’s alchemy consisted of simultaneously absorbing and rejecting everything. The result was a seamless blend of the yin of receptivity to the world and its existing art forms and the yang of Dylan’s radical personal voice. The songs contain everything and yet they are unmistakably one thing: Bob Dylan–a priori, monumental, unprecedented.
Just as Socrates, Christ, and Buddha left no written works to express their philosophies, there is no message in Dylan’s work—at least not one that words can handle. The message is the divinity of the individual personality that seeks to ride the wave of the life force they recognized within. The truth cannot be told, only lived.