A quotation from my 1999 Bob Dylan article is emblazoned on the cover of Christopher Ricks' new book Dylan's Visions of Sin: "The best there is. Unlike most rock critics—'forty-year-olds talking to ten-year-olds,' Dylan has called them—he writes for adults." This makes me wince now, because the sentiment is cheap and dumb. If only more ten-year-olds read Lester Bangs. Nothing is more toweringly dull than critics criticizing critics.
That said, I still think Ricks' Dylanology is about the best there is. The book is counterintuitive to the max, a New Critical, ahistorical, aperiodic, antimusical approach to a bunch of songs. I don't believe that the scholar Ricks would even have glanced at Dylan's "poems" if he hadn't heard them sung by that animating voice. But he knows this and plunges ahead regardless. The professor is, for all his high reputation, a happy zany, and on every other page he says something unverifiably right. Among other things, he seems to have halfway deciphered the "warehouse eyes," the Holy Grail of Dylanology, the supremely mysterious refrain of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands": "My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums / Should I leave them by your gate? / Sad-eyed lady, should I wait?" Ricks thinks they are "whorehouse eyes," citing the Book of Ezekiel. I can't really recapitulate the argument, but it finally gives me a rough mental picture for the gate transaction.
Ricks does me the honor of contesting my Dylan tract, specifically my discussion of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." He quotes a paragraph in which I describe Dylan's modern arrangement of the song as a slow, sad waltz: "You were reminded that the 'hotel society gathering' was a Spinsters' Ball, which went on before, during, and after the fatal attack on Hattie Carroll." The word "reminded" is specious, Ricks says, because no such Ball was mentioned in the song. I would respond that only in the rigorously controlled listening room operated by Ricks can one not be reminded of something that is not mentioned in the song. In my room, the book lying open on the table sings along.