The latest installation in Bob Dylan´s series of art exhibitions is called “Mondo Scripto”. It´s a new concept for Dylan, where he shortens the gulf between his overwhelming career of songwriting On the one hand and his other artistic works on the other, even more than before. The result is kind of a combination, where Dylan for this occasion has chosen sixty of his own songs, carefully made new handwritten versions of them, and then, installed as a part of the art, illustrated the songs with his own drawings, mostly very directly linked or associated to the song, as the tank illustrating “Masters of War”, or the drawing of a clown crying in the alley for “A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall”. It´s the world drawn in black and white, very much reminding us of “Drawn Blank” from 1994, the predecessor of Dylan´s major exhibitions of paintings in colors, starting with the “Drawn Blank Series” in 2008. The connection to the song lyrics makes a strong impression, and to know that it is the Dylan of today who sat down to write the songs one more time, makes the project even more intimate and touching than should it have been from his endless collection of notebooks from the times the songs originated.
The catalogue opens with the great speech from Horace Engdahl´s fabulous Nobel Foundation Presentation Speech from 10th of December 2016, followed by an interview with Dylan, where he explains that his inspiration for the literal illustrations for the songs comes from Henrik Drescher´s illustrations to Dante´s Inferno and Reginald Marsh´s drawings for the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. In the interview he reminds us that some of his favorite songwriters are Hank Williams, Johnny Mercer and Merle Haggard. When he gets the questions about what makes a good drawing and a good lyric, his answer is simple: “The right lines in the right places” and “The right words inside of the right melody”. The catalogue also includes a fine introductory essay by Tom Piazza, the same writer that wrote the liner notes for “Triplicate” in 2017.
The song choices span from “Song To Woody” from the debut album (1962) to “Ain´t Talkin´” and “Workingman´s Blues #2” from “Modern Times” (2006). About 2/3 of the songs are from the sixties. Each song gets a short introduction, apparently also by Piazza.
Many of Bob Dylan´s songs are chiseled in stone, one could argue. Bob Dylan doesn´t always agree. As we know, sometimes his songs are agile and smooth pieces of clay, works in progress, not just in performance, but also in lyrics. Of course, he is in his own right/write, to change any song when and if it suits him, but after my first reading of the book it seems like he is handwriting the songs from the sixties mostly as they appear in his own “Lyrics”, while it seems like a dozen of the remaining songs are still in motion, also when it comes to the words.
The Coca Cola is removed from “When I Paint My Masterpiece” – the famous bridge is now: “Lookin´over the world full of crimson and clover/Sometimes I think that my cup´s runnin´over”.
The “Blood on the Tracks”-songs are especially interesting, knowing that the “complete recordings” soon will be released as “More Blood, More Tracks”. Here, it seems, there is no such thing as a definitive version. Lots of changes. Just some examples: In “Tangled Up In Blue” the pronouns still are a-changin´, and “he let the law take it´s course” in stead of “I jused a little too much force”. No more fishing outside Delacroix, no: “Something was happening there – by the time I got to town, everybody´d gone somewhere.” The past was still close behind, but “following me like a shadow that couldn´t get out of my mind – sticking like glue – tangled up in blue.” She wasn´t working in a topless bar, but at the Moonlight Lounge “where men put money in her hand – there´s always been a certain truth about money that I never did understand – you put things to bed and you´ll call it a day – sometimes you go along for the ride – you pick your brains and you bury the hatchet – then you walk on the wild side – towns are ruined and cities burns and images disappear – weep with all of your heart if you would – I too cried a tear – nothing you can do – if you´re tangled up in blue.” These are just some of the changes in this song, which also includes changes done in concert over the last year. In “Simple Twist of Fate” “he almost lost his mind – she said “you stay right here and wait”, and on the footnote she left behind, “what´d it say? It said you should´ve met me back in ´58, we could have avoided this little simple twist of fate”. People still tell him that it´s a sin, “that it´s wrong and wicked – bloody and thin/That it´s way down low and deep within – yet it´s such a queer and wondrous thing…” “You´re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” – well it´s a completely different song. Now the bridge has become: “There used to be a song called “Little Moses”/The Carter Family sang it somewhere over there/When I was young I used to like to smell the roses/There was something ´bout the roses and her long brown hair”, and it continues “I see things inside my mind – things Milton saw after he went blind.” Rimbaud and Verlaine are gone. “I don´t tell and i don´t ask – I wear the magic actor´s mask/I´m all covered up from head to toe.” “If you see her, say hello” is a little less soft and sensitive: “I´ve gotta find someone to take her place – I don´t like to be alone.” “Shelter From The Storm”: “Sometimes you´re reminded of things you should forget – someone gives you a helping hand and you´re forever in their debt – streams of blood run down your chest – you´re tempted and you´re torn…” and “Her hair hung down ringlettes, her body was still warm…” “I´ve drenched my hands in the blood of the bull too many times to count – dead soldier on the road – I´ll take his uniform”. Lots of striking images taking over familiar places in classic songs still in progress. It´s the Walt Whitman of our times in action. “Stones in my passway – dust blowing in my eyes – boulders coming down the mountain, twenty times my size – it´s a pretty risky business and it comes in any form….”
“Gotta Serve Somebody” is completely rewritten. Even the title is. “Got To Serve Somebody”. The lyrics has been changed a lot in this year’s performances, also the arrangement and the rhythm of the song. Some of the lyrics in this handwritten version are also used in concert, f.i.: “You might be in a honky tonk or in a nursing home, searching through the rubble with a fine tooth comb…” and “Maybe you´re a mystic, they may call you Mr Soul.” In the version of “Workingman´s Blues #2” the touching meeting with the I´s father, used in concerts over the recent years, is included: “Woke up this morning, sprang to my feet – went into town on a whim, saw my father in the street – at least I think it was him.”
The handwriting changes a bit through the book, maybe as handwriting will when you writes a lot. The first song in a day might look a little different from the fourth, and so on. Still there’s always something poetic about the writing, like it’s an artist’s handwriting, concentrating on meaning and aesthetic quality, but changing with the time of day, temper and thoughts. Maybe it is like with the songs, he will not handwrite a song the same way two times? Or two songs the same way. “Mondo Scripto” becomes another fascinating window looking through to the process of Bob Dylan´s tireless work. He wants us to read the lyrics again. Maybe he wants us to read the lyrics again, and maybe he wants us to go back the ‘original’, whatever that is, to make a point.
Most impressive and most interesting, besides Dylan´s choice of illustrations to this classic songs, is the project’s underpinning of the fact that he isn´t done yet, his bell still rings, and he is not even finished with his old songs. Are the changes for the better? Maybe not always, but that´s not really the point. Bob Dylan shows us that he´s still an artist, he don´t look back, he makes art, and he is still in charge, restlessly progressing, developing, trying, testing, failing, growing, moving on. Like a young man. Still.
Watch the exhibition. Buy the catalogue. It´s true Dylan.