Surviving the Tempest

How did he know? It still bugs me now, days after the deluge started. How the hell did Bob Dylan know what was in store for America when he released an album aptly called Tempest, just a few weeks before Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast?

In a wonderfully emphatically written review, Chris Roper recently damned Tempest with faint praise.

Though it is "no longer possible to believe in Dylan as prophet and holy artist", Roper adds that Dylan never intended for us to see him as a "prophet", and often said so in so many words.

"Is it a great Dylan album?" he asks, and answers his own question by admitting: "No, because it doesn't have to be."

Being an ardent Dylan fan, I went out and bought it. In fact, I have bought almost every single album (with the exception of Christmas is in the Heart – the title was simply to crappy to arouse my curiosity) as soon as it came out.

Over the years I have seen Dylan drifting into a kind of habitual self-repetition. As his voice grew hoarser, his chord structures grew more predictable. Yet, criticising Dylan is almost unimaginable.

All credit to Chris Roper for having the courage of his conviction to question the Bard! Attempting to remove Bob Dylan from his pedestal, even though such an act would not bother Dylan himself, even in this day and age, is an act close to blasphemy.

Anyway, I took the album home. I was impressed with the title. "Tempest"... So Shakespearian, so ominous.

The songs bored me at first, though. They sounded meek, almost provincial, like an old man with a rasping voice sitting in a corner of a small-town pub belting out old rhythm-and-blues rhymes.

Taking Dylan seriously

After the third and fourth re-listen, certain phrases jumped out at me, and I even started liking some of the tunes. I never felt in love with it, though, except for the title track: an incredibly long poem-like rambling epic piece of meandering story about the sinking of the Titanic.

It had shades of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. I listened to it over and over. The song didn’t rock, but it was full of dark and gloomy imagery that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

I wondered it if it was a lament on the state of America, particularly the American economy. Then I reprimanded myself for reading too much in it. After all, we all know that Dylan was no longer to be taken that seriously, don't we?

Then, before I had fully made up my mind about Dylan, my reverie was disturbed when, out of the blue, Superstorm Sandy struck, devastating not only Ground Zero, but the whole of New York and the entire East Coast.

I could not ignore the fact (or coincidence?) that here, at last, was the "tempest" Dylan might have been warning us about.

Why had he released the album on 9/11 if he did not consider it to pertain to America? Or had that been just a lame and tasteless marketing trick?

I spent three days watching Sandy on CNN, with the sound muted, while listening to Tempest. In the end, I was filled with sadness, as if I was mourning for the destruction of civilisation itself.

The predictable, raspy tunes formed the perfect backdrop to the chaos and mayhem of the endless TV footage. Deliberately or not, Dylan was spot-on yet again. The prophet may deny being a prophet, Chris Roper might deny it, I may have denied it, yet…     

In spite of all its shortcomings, in spite of the repetitions, there is something strangely different about this Dylan album. He sings in a detached way, almost as if he knows it might be his last. If the icon is trying to warn us of impending disaster, he does so more out of boredom than a heartfelt sense of urgency.

Perhaps he is still a prophet, after all, even though he hates the job?

Or perhaps he was just singing about the Titanic, and I'm reading far too much in this…

Either way, I will never think back of Superstorm Sandy without hearing Bob Dylan croaking his doom-filled lyrics in the back of my mind:

"He saw the water getting deeper. He saw the changing of his world."

Roll on, Bob... 

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