A hard rain will fall

Dhe beginning was not original, but compelling, basically without alternative: “Come you masters of war / You that build the big guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs / You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks / I just want you to know / I can see through your masks”. Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” came over the ether before Udo Dahmen, founder and director of the Mannheim Pop Academy, and Heinrich Detering, Göttingen German Studies professor and the most important Dylan philologist of the German language, in the Heidelberg German-American Institute in the hereby started Series “Rock Poetry” one and a half hours of intensive, informed and unpretentious talk about the musician – a program supplement for a given occasion.

The times they ain’t a-changin’, some things don’t change after all. Dylan wrote “Masters of War” in the winter of 1962/63 under the impression of the Cuban Missile Crisis and sang it on his second record with a piercing, deathly pale voice. It thus falls into his folkpuristic phase, in which he was still believed to be in harmony with the civil rights movement and seemed to be politically reliable. Whatever one may think of it – whether one takes it as proof that at least the very early Dylan had sane messages ready and was something like the mouthpiece of a generation; or whether one only accepts it as a preliminary stage of a genius that became unattainably complex and ambiguous in 1965, both textually and musically, as if in a quantum leap -; In any case, he always has this one song with him and can pull it out when needed.

Is pacifism artistically interesting?

In February 1991, when America was at war with Iraq, he smacked his celebratory audience in a breathlessly rushed version after Jack Nicholson gave him a brief and dignified eulogy without any pandering and handed him the Grammy for lifetime achievement would have. This performance was significant because it showed Dylan that there are times when simplification of sentiment is needed and the question of whether pacifism can be artistically interesting does not arise. The song – which he explained at the time was not normally his way of wishing other people dead; but in this one case, where it was about the bosses of the armaments industry, he didn’t know what else to do – his most effective accusation and the authority with which he sang it at the time and has sung it again and again since then is unbroken.

You could feel that in Heidelberg on this February evening. Detering referred to the “Brechtian gesture” that allows Dylan to rein in his anger and to take a decisive step further out of his own dismay. Dahmen reported how important Dylan was for his generation (born in 1951) as a vehicle for articulating the anger of adolescents; with that one song, Dylan set the “standard for the decade” – it’s now six decades.

Don’t think twice

Heinrich Detering is one of the few who, even before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, was able to explain why Dylan deserved it. That seemed (too) academic to some, including the rapporteur. Apologies must be made here: Detering’s Dylan interpretations are not only to be judged by their paper form, they gain complete evidence in the lecture. This was shown in the analyzes of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963), which, played in four different versions, conveys different moods depending on the intonation and arrangement with the text remaining the same, and – “Here we enter sanctify Soil, a Kind of ‘Waste Land’ for the Rock’n’Roll Generation” – from Like a Rolling Stone (1965).

Finally, Detering demonstrated that philology is not an end in itself with his own, as yet unpublished, verse renderings of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963), “All Along the Watchtower” (1967) and “Workingman’s Blues #2” (2006), which are themselves a creative achievement, soulful and accurate. With this in mind and ear, one should also read his Dylan books (again); Detering can’t appear in person at any Dylanian’s and read them to him. What was the difference between a poem and lyrics again? “Poems are lyrics that unfortunately have to do without a performance.” Soon Dylan will be touring again.

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