I was driving up the M1 last week, and, for old times' sake, I put on a CD of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited. It's hard not to feel a surge of adrenalin at the crescendos of 'Like a Rolling Stone', especially as I was a fervent Dylan fan in my younger days. The song features a contextless narrator / singer addressing a female subject who seems to have been socially privileged, but who has been brought low and forced into homelessness. The music and lyrics invite the listener to join in the triumphalism of the singer, who revels in the subject's downfall. But as soon as this invitation is mentally declined, you realise how extraordinarily vindictive this song is. It's a sustained attack: 'How does it feel?' .i.e. 'I feel bad; I want to know that you feel bad too, and I think you deserve to'. And the song goes on long enough to make it seem obssessive in its malice.
This judgemental streak seemed to increase in Dylan's work from that period on, and can be found in other songs like 'Positively 4th Street' ('you've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend'); it also looks forward to the ultimate judgements during his conversion to fire and brimstone Christianity. What's lacking in these songs, and, one could argue, in Dylan's work generally, is self-awareness on the part of the singing persona: the singer is infallible, but the subject is judged and condemned. Nowhere in Dylan's work will you find the painful self-criticism of John Lennon's first two solo albums.
It may be due to this lack of self-knowledge on Dylan's part that I found his autobiography - the loftily-titled 'Chronicles' - impossible to read. Or rather, I read it compulsively, but when I put the book down, I didn't feel like picking it up again (and didn't even finish volume one). 'Chronicles' presents a man who believes in his 'destiny' - a concept I find hard to accept. Dylan even uses at one point the phrase 'my destiny had become manifest'. As an echo of the notorious doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny', which justified the US colonisation of the American West and its brutal campaigns against the Native Americans, this phrase shows remarkable insensitivity and ignorance on the writer's part.