Bob Dylan is 70

Happy birthday, Bob!

I mention this here not just because I like his work, but because he is an artist who is not scared of mathematics. He described Robbie Robertson as “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound”; I think that, in late-1960s Dylan-speak, this counts as praise.

Dylan has used mathematics or mathematicians as a source of imagery in his work several times. Here are the ones I know about; please let me know if there are others.

From “Tombstone Blues” (1965):

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.

From “Visions of Johanna” (1966), one of my favourites:

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.
Voices echo, This is what salvation must be like, after a while.
But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles.

From “Tangled up in Blue” (1975):

All these people that I used to know, they’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives.

There is also a telling comment on academic life from “Nettie Moore” (2006), which I have referred to before:

The world of research has gone berserk,
Too much paperwork.

As far as I know, he has never referred to a specific mathematician. Perhaps Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, from “Desolation Row” (1965), comes closest.

The stanza in “Tombstone Blues” which rhymes “college” with “knowledge”, where the knowledge is described as “useless and pointless”, is an oblique comment on education, perhaps. [Steely Dan, in “Reelin’ in the years”, used the same rhyme for a similar purpose: “The weekend in the college didn’t turn out like you planned; the things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.”]

One of Dylan’s best-known songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), consists of nine questions, each beginning “How many …”. No answers to the quiz are given; they are blowin’ in the wind. By contrast, in “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (1963), the numbers come rainin’ down. The most popular is 10000:

I’ve been 10000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard …
I saw 10000 talkers whose tongues were all broken …
I heard 10000 whispering and nobody listening …

But at the climax of the song comes the chilling line

… black is the colour and none is the number …

Is that the number that’s blowin’ in the wind, like the radioactive dust thought to have inspired “Hard rain”?


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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One Response to Bob Dylan is 70

  1. Carl Weisman says:

    And the title of his wonderful early “love minus zero/no limit.” He said it’s a formula, with the slash a division sign.

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