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Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest is kind of hard to get your head around.
Imagine William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain drunk out of their minds in a bar late at night.
Twain says, “Let’s the three of us get together and write some lyrics for a rock and roll album! We’ll set the lyrics to whatever snatches of old tunes are running though our heads at the moment, then hire some musicians to record the songs!” They all laugh hysterically at the idea and agree to it immediately.
They stay up all night working on it — the result is Tempest by “Bob Dylan”, the pseudonym they’ve agreed to use for their joint effort, the pseudonym they really wanted to use, The Traveling Wilburys, having already been taken. Later, all three deny participation in the stunt.
Or . . .
Imagine walking into the Globe Theater in 1611 and seeing the first performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. You might have thought it a bit wordy, a bit fey. You might have found it entertaining. There were probably only a few people in that first-night audience, and maybe none, who realized they were witnessing the premiere of one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature.
You can hardly blame those who may have undervalued it. It was a work of popular art, and popular art laid no claims to cultural immortality, then as now. But still . . . The Tempest was The Tempest. There must have been at least an unconscious sense in the audience that something extraordinary was going down, something that transcended the three-hours traffic upon the stage of an entertainment venue set up across the way from a bear-baiting attraction.
Bob Dylan’s album Tempest is also a work of popular art, reason enough not to take it too seriously. But four hundred years from now people will still be listening to it, as they still read Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Four hundred years from now, people will wonder what it would have been like to be alive when that album was first released and hear it for the first time.
How was it for you?