A couple years ago, Bob Dylan was playing a concert at Boston University. Backstage, the one man who could truly claim, if he so chose, to be Bob Dylan’s biggest fan was waiting: the British literary critic and Boston University professor Christopher Ricks. Mr. Ricks, the acclaimed author of a shelfful of books on Milton, Tennyson, Keats, Eliot, was infamous for lectures in which he asserted that Dylan’s songs could stand up to the work of the great poets. Though he’d been lecturing about Dylan for years, he had never met the man.
Dylan approached the scholar and said, “Mr. Ricks, we meet at last.”
“Isn’t that good ?” Mr. Ricks said to me years later, recounting the meeting as we sit in his office overlooking the Charles River. By “Isn’t that good ?”, he meant that Dylan was up to something in his word choice. In Christopher Ricks’ mind, you see, Dylan is always up to something . Which is one reason he’s just published, at age 70, Dylan’s Visions of Sin , his long-awaited, 500-page critical homage-delightfully obsessive love letter, really-to Hibbing, Minn.’s most famous son. The release of Mr. Ricks’ book coincided nicely with the news that he had just been made the new Oxford Professor of Poetry-a balm against the somewhat lukewarm reception his Dylan book has received in the British press.
I’d studied with Mr. Ricks a few years back, and now I wanted to ask him many things, including why he thought Dylan chose to appear in the current television advertising campaign for Victoria’s Secret. I hadn’t actually seen the ads myself, so I asked Mr. Ricks if Dylan himself, and not just his music, appears in the ad.
“He is in it. A famous model, although she wasn’t famous to me, is in it. I don’t know her name; I’m not interested in that …. I find him more beautiful,” said Mr. Ricks, sinking down into his shoulders and bringing his hand up to his mouth with a little self-conscious giggle. “It’s 30 seconds of seeing him prowling slightly and, I think, looking fine and good.
“Then there’s the comedy of Dylan’s having taken probably his most anaphrodesiac song, ‘Love Sick,’” he continued. “That is, if the song that he was singing were ‘I Want You,’ it would be a completely different ad. ‘Love Sick’ is this sort of deeply saddened and chastened song about being sick of love-while still loving the person. It has this lovely turn at the end into wishing, of course, that the love was still able to be there and consummatable.
“And then they gave away a free CD with every [Victoria's Secret] purchase,” Mr. Ricks added. “I didn’t go, but I thought of putting on my Wayne’s World wig and going down there. You got eight or 10 Dylan tracks if you bought something or other.”
A mischievous gleam appeared in his eye. “I, of course, know what Victoria’s Secret is,” he said. “Do you know what Victoria’s secret is? Victoria’s secret is John Brown-that is, the gillie with whom Queen Victoria was supposedly really in love …. So is it just a coincidence that Dylan’s lately been performing-as he did not for decades-his song ‘John Brown’?”
He paused. “Of course not!”
Christopher Ricks first heard of, and heard, Bob Dylan at Berkeley in 1965, though he is quick to distinguish that “hearing” from properly listening to Mr. Dylan a few years later at Smith College, when a friend shut out the lights and played “Desolation Row.”
I asked him about Mr. Dylan’s seeming comfort with letting his songs be used to sell products.
“I think that there are always lots and lots of establishments, not simply one,” said Mr. Ricks. “So that it would be characteristic of somebody who is more of an anti-chameleon than a chameleon. Dylan has always taken the opposite color of the thing he was sitting on, basically. And the uninteresting form of that is the gadfly who is just provocative on purpose.
“Christopher Hitchens has a lot of this,” he went on. “Where it was brave of him to expose Clinton and incur the hatred of those who thought you had to close ranks in defense of Clinton, it seemed to me his attack on Mother Teresa was just knee-jerk kicking-Christopher Hitchens in his role as ‘doer of the unexpected.’ There’s some rather glum predictability and conformity about it.
“So I think it wise of Dylan to think that one is always up against a whole series of commonplaces, orthodoxies, complacencies; the corporate one is one, the anti-corporate is another.”
With war in the air, I wondered, where is Dylan now?
“He does come with a sort of kit, doesn’t he?” said Mr. Ricks. “One associates him with that world. But he did early on dissociate himself from protest …. And he didn’t write songs against the Vietnam War, and he wasn’t at Woodstock, and he disclaimed atomic rain for hard rain, and, and , and …. Social conscience and human rights, yes, but not foreign policy, and not lots of things. And, on the other hand, you shouldn’t forget more recent or not too distant songs, like ‘Clean-Cut Kid’ and ‘Union Sundown,’ or ‘License to Kill’ or ‘Man of Peace.’”
He continued: “A key line of his for me is, ‘Rip down all hate, I screamed.’ That is, if you scream that you’re not in the ripping-down-hate business, and so you put that with ‘everybody’s shouting which side are you on’-the former being from ‘My Back Pages’ and the latter from ‘Desolation Row’-both are early, and they’re already not necessarily disillusioned, but unillusioned, about the protest world.”
Dylan has often said that he never set out to change the world; but it’s clear he has a higher purpose than to entertain us with pop music. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times , he said: “Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings.” He speaks candidly about reading the “hard-core” poets,” as he calls them-Byron, Keats, Donne. Someone gave him a book of François Villon’s poems, and he was impressed that such “hard-core street stuff” was written in rhyme; he wondered “why you couldn’t do the same thing in a song?”
Mr. Ricks said he found the L.A. Times interview to be a welcome foil against those who might suggest that his book over-intellectualizes Dylan. “He talks about what the poets meant to him when he was young,” Mr. Ricks said. “And how he read the poets as people now read Stephen King. So people who want to say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t think he’s ever heard of John Donne,’ they have some explaining to do.”
I asked what’s next on the presses for Professor Ricks.
“I don’t have a large-scale critical enterprise that I know I want to do,” he said. “The edition that I’d like to undertake is a proper edition of the lyrics of Dylan, but it is unlikely that the artist would want any such thing, given the tension between the printing of the words, the setting them down, and the delicious rethinking and refeeling of just what the words should be in performance.”
As the day bled away over the Charles, Mr. Ricks got down to why he wrote his Dylan book.
“The advantage of this for me is that I wanted a way of distinguishing Dylan’s success-and that has to do with his being able to write so passionately about anger and not yield to it,” he said. “To write so passionately about pride, and to know the difference between the good and the bad forms of pride. To write so passionately about envy and not to envy either Woody Guthrie or Blind Willie McTell-when you say, quite rightly, that they have done things that you will never be able to do. And to say this with that lovely D.H. Lawrence remark in mind, ‘It is so, let it be so, with a generous heart.’ The world is so bloody ungrateful all the time.”
Earlier, I’d asked Mr. Ricks what he’d said to Dylan when they met, after the poet said, “Mr. Ricks, we meet at last.”
He said he couldn’t remember. “I think I asked him if he’d read any good books lately.”
Meet the Ridesmaids!
These days, a lot of Manhattan women getting married make big shows of not having “official” bridesmaids-as if they are way too sophisticated and thoughtful to make their dearest pals wear those traditional, hideous matching taffeta get-ups. But have you noticed how many of these ladies then go on to have “simulacrum” bridesmaids with sartorial specs that are even more taxing and annoying? Like they all wear cheongsams, or carry matching parasols, or are men?
Meet the Taken-For-a-Ridesmaids! Among their angry rank is Carol Raskind, an Upper East Sider and advertising copywriter.
“I’m still fuming,” said Ms. Raskind, who preferred not to disclose her age. A few years ago, a co-worker invited her to join her wedding party, which included male “attendants” (as with airline stewardesses, bridesmaids have now become “attendants”-and indeed, there is much about the modern wedding that is like a tedious six-hour plane ride-”chicken or beef?”-but that’s another story). The one thing this crew had in common was that they wore eyeglasses-so although the dress code was “wear what you want,” the bride thought it would be fun if everyone ordered a pair of prescription glasses in matching wire-rimmed frames with purple-tinted lenses. “Ever the dutiful pals, we all complied,” Ms. Raskind said. “Then she eloped in India. We ‘bridesmaids’ were left at the altar with hideous glasses that had cost, depending on the individual’s prescription, between $300 and $500 a pair. It left this lingering sort of uccch .”
Meanwhile, Kate Sandberg, a 27-year-old actress who lives in Park Slope, has a friend who wants her future bridesmaids to wear saris, in the color of their choice. “And my friend isn’t even remotely Middle Eastern,” she said. “Also, she doesn’t want to do engagement rings, she wants to do engagement bracelets, because she thought the ring was too traditional. I’m like, ‘Yeah, but then your husband would be wearing a bracelet all the time.’”
A Lower East Side bride weighed in: Stephanie Dolgoff, the 37-year-old health and nutrition director of Self magazine, figured herself “too damn old” for bridesmaids when she wed in the Catskills three years ago. “When you’re older, you don’t need to surround yourself with your ‘posse’ to feel secure,” she said. “It’s not like we’re all eager young chicks right out of college who see this as a culmination of what you do when you graduate. There’s less of a line-up, like little Barbie dolls in a row, and more ‘It’s a big party, how can I help?’”
So she anointed three friends to be her unofficial little elves … with mixed results. “One friend, because she was organizing my shower, designated herself maid of honor and was threatened by the two other friends who were happy to do grunt work,” Ms. Dolgoff said. Unpoliced by bridal diktats , the putative M.O.H. proceeded to choose an Alexandra Kerry–like black sheath for the celebration. “I don’t know the exact fabric, but it was sort of stretchy, sparkly and see-through,” Ms. Dolgoff said. “I’m far from prudish, but she was clearly going for ‘Babe of the Wedding.’”
Seen in this light, the cheesy color-coordination of yore begins to take on a certain Busby Berkeley charm.
“I’m a big fan of things like synchronized swimming, tap dancing and cheerleading-no creativity,” said Ms. Sandberg, the actress. “My friends got married and they had a bridal party of 16, 18 maybe-it was huge -and they all had the same champagne top and champagne skirt. I loved it.”