Day One hundred and twenty-seven: "Bob" from Poodle Hat
I am a bit of a sucker for movies like Limitless and Lucy where a seemingly ordinary character (beyond looking like Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson, of course) encounters something that makes them instantly smarter and more powerful, that turbo-charges their brain and transforms them into a super-powered force.
In Limitless, Cooper’s character attains mastery by taking an incredibly powerful pill, not unlike Adderall. Al, however, does need some manner of fictional smart drug to be intimidatingly intelligent. Al comes about his multi-faceted brilliance naturally. To some extent, he was born with it, but he’s also honed his formidable gifts as a recording artist and entertainer over a period of four decades.
Al is always learning, always growing, always evolving as an artist. He doesn’t just possess a formidable creative mind. He also possesses the mind of the architectural student he once was. There’s an almost mathematical precision to some of Al’s most intricate compositions. That’s particularly true of “Bob”, a rollicking tribute both to a strange old man named Dylan with a voice like sand and glue and to palindromes, those geekiest and most mathematical of linguistic conceits.
When I first discovered palindromes as a small child, probably from my dad, it struck me as a form of word magic. It blew my young, easily blown mind that there were words and phrases that are spelled the same backwards as forwards, that serve as mirror images of each other. I was going to write funhouse mirror images, but the beauty of palindromes lie in their precision. If they aren’t spelled exactly the same way backwards as forward, then they are not, by definition, palindromes.
“Bob” is a commentary both on Dylan himself and the way he is perceived both by fans and by detractors. To people not on Dylan’s stoned, exquisitely scrambled wave-length, the Nobel Prize winner’s cryptic, enigmatic wordplay must seem an awful lot like stream-of-consciousness nonsense.
“Bob” unsurprisingly nails the sonic trademarks of 1960s era Dylan: the rambunctious, giddy-up rhythm, the insistent, mad-prophet nasal whine as well as the intermittent blasts of wheezing harmonica for emphasis. But more than anything, Al and his collaborators reproduce the runaway momentum and kinetic energy of Dylan at his most freewheeling.
Al is similarly true to not just the spirit but the sound of Dylan in that it can be difficult to make out what he’s saying at any given moment. In that respect, “Bob” sometimes suggests a spiritual cousin to Al’s career-reviving “Smells Like Nirvana”, another loving tribute to an artist who came to be known as the voice of their generation despite being incomprehensible to much of the public, particularly those dreary adults/parents.
When detractors whine that they can’t even understand what people like Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain are saying it has several connotations. On the most literal level, they’re complaining about a singer's incomprehensibility. But there are larger ramifications as well. When dreary grown-ups complain that they can’t understand an artist, they’re also saying that they don’t understand the singer’s cultural context or value as an artist. But it goes beyond that. It almost invariably speaks to a generational divide, with cryptic geniuses like Cobain and Dylan standing in for youth culture as whole.
So it seems appropriate that on “Bob”, Al sings nonsense with the impassioned urgency of a protest singer. If you did not know that every single line in the song is a palindrome, it would be would be easy to mistake the lyrics for Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness poetry.
A verse like “Ah, Satan sees Natasha/ No devil lived on/Lonely Tylenol/Not a banana baton/No "x" in “Nixon"/O, stone, be not so/O Geronimo, no minor ego/"Naomi," I moan /“A Toyota's a Toyota”/A dog, a panic in a pagoda” sounds like something Dylan would have written but it works on multiple other levels as well. “Bob” only seems like a one-joke conceit. There’s a surprising amount going on underneath.
Al’s Lewis Carrolesque excursion into word games and surrealistic silliness ends with “Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog”, which can only be interpreted as an homage to a certain lasagna-loving, Monday-hating fat cat with a whole lot of catittude. Alternately, it might be a reference to Al’s own “Lasagna” but I prefer to think that it’s one American treasure paying tribute to another and that Al’s big, brilliant, endlessly versatile brain is more than capable of paying reverent homage to both one of our greatest, most important and enduring artists, in Jim Davis, and to Bob Dylan as well.
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