The impact of Bob Dylan as lyricist isn’t so much in the idea that pop could be ‘poetry’ but in the idea that it could be a riddle-game. (Of course the difference between these two ideas is mostly one of emphasis: that’s why we do comprehension exercises at school.) Coded meanings and lyrical references didn’t begin in 1960 but the formula was generally to take a subject that one couldn’t sing about and modify things so that one could. Once a listener to, say, “Sugar In My Bowl” understood the single metaphor, that was that: they were in the club.
Dylan did this too, as singer and as audience – his ears notoriously pricked up when he misheard dope references in the Beatles. But a lot of his mid-60s lyrics took the technique and exploded it, packing fabulous, ridiculous worlds of detail and allusion into rambling verses. You could have a lot of fun codexing them – which itself might let you into a particular club – but there’s not often a key central image that turns the song into something you can make literal sense out of. Your understanding is something personal, secret, hard to articulate.
But of course understanding of pop usually is like that. It turns on the private stuff you can draw out of a chord, or a phrase, or a snarl or twitch. The point at which pop criticism starts is that ginger moment when you play a song you love to someone else and hope that the world it opens up for them is the same as the one it opens for you (or maybe you hope that it’s not the same). What Dylan’s kind of cryptic pop is doing – and make no mistake, it does it well – is making the potential for private worlds more obvious, making them part of pop’s text.
We’re at a slight tangent, though, to “Mr Tambourine Man” by The Byrds. For one thing “Mr. Tambourine Man”, at least the wide-eyed way the Byrds sing it, is one of those Dylan songs that has a metaphor-key, and they’ve left the key squarely on the doormat with the label “Take me for a trip” tied on. I think it’s a very pretty lyric, but it’s approached here with a convert’s optimism and Dylan’s folksy tics (“I’m ready for to fade”) are treated with a bit too much reverence. The Byrds sing the song like Dylanologists-in-waiting.
But that’s fine, because while you’re helping them puzzle out the words, the music gets the chance to sneak up and charm you. I like the Byrds because of the way they hit on a lovely sound and then applied it for a couple of years to everything – stern old hymns, laments on Presidential death, wry musings on the rock biz, love songs, drug songs, anything. Any subject, any song could be polished and Rickenbackered into a blissful smoothness. Here their obvious faith in Dylan’s song and their musical committment to beauty link, and the result is three minutes that seem to bring a better world within touching distance.