Someone asked if I knew the significance of Dylan’s eye logo/banner that drops down in concert and has for sometime now and that is likewise widely branded on a lot of Dylan merchandise at shows and the like.
Like most things Dylan, I’ll leave it to Dylan to address that one in a more direct way. I can only think it over (or over-think) it over, but then, it seems that eyes have been on Dylan’s mind for a good part, if not most, of his career. The word eye or eyes feature in approximately 124 songs, give or take a couple.
There are “steel eyes” and twinkling eyes and men with their eyes tied shut and icy wind’s howling in eyes and eyes that are on fire. There are eyes glazed, eyes wiped, heat rising in eyes, watery eyes, eyes that feel that they’re falling off a face, eyes with a long night’s journey. There are the “cold eyes of Judas”, there is the self in the others eyes, assassin’s eyes, wide-eyes, neon-lit eyes, smoked eye-lids, rolling eyes, teasing eyes, sad-eyed prophets, ware-house eyes, sad-eyes (amen), big bright eyes, serpent’s obsidian eyes, jewel eyes, serpents eyes. There are somebody’s eyes and somebody’s unknowin’ eyes.
And that’s just the shortlist. So the eye features repeatedly as the central image and the vehicle through which lovers, friends, enemies, all communicate in his music. Eyes dream, they shoot looks both loving and glaring. They are cold, they are warm. They weep, they are glazed and glued. They fall. They are like smoke and prayers like rhymes (“Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”).
Depending on the culture and history of specific nation, the eye has come to symbolize many different aspects of the self and the. In many cultures, of course, the biggest and now almost clichéd is the notion of the eyes as the “window to the soul”, which would be really a bad line in a bar if it didn’t ring so damn true and we had not all experienced a “moment” with That One and just knew because it was in his or her eyes. This happens. It happens in Dylan’s songs and it happens in our lives, and then we play Dylan’s songs and relive those moments.
As a friend said to me, and I agree, we live with Dylan and he with us and he takes on our culture, then Dylan becomes part of the culture. It’s a loop that keeps repeating (more on this in my forthcoming interview with Phil Gounis). Hence, Dylan as cultural icon, right? Interesting that our icon has perhaps “incidentally” selected the eye icon to make his own stamp. Anyone who’s seen Dylan knows the moment when the banner unfurls and the voice-over begins (this after the introductory incense) that The Man himself is about to make an entrance.
It’s at that point that everybody stands up. We look up only to meet a giant eyeball giving us a look back. So just in case you thought of the Evil Eye and were thinking for one moment of sending it BD’s way, hey baby, forget it – Our man has the ultimate evil eye charm to ward off the hex. Not bad thinking to travel with a giant unfurling eye to ward off evil. Some talisman of sorts. The whole introduction is highly ritualized and within ritual, therein lays some echo of religion or of faith. Ritual is almost a religion unto itself because it is such a great part of so many faiths. It is the ritual that keeps us grounded, that we use as our staff (if we turn to religion, that is). It is the What We Can Count On. It is the Expected. In a world of unpredictability, ritual can be a very soothing and good thing for many.
Hieronymus Bosch’s painting the “Seven Deadly Sins” features an eye and a rectangle in which all of the sins are housed separately in seven mansions, representing the all seeing eye of God. It is God’s eye telling us that no sin goes unnoticed, unseen. In other areas of the painting are the Deathbed, the Last Judgment followed by Heaven, and finally Hell. Stand back from the Bosch painting and you see a giant eye and pupil against a thick, black background. Like Dylan’s stylized eye, Bosch’s painting looks back at us, taking everything in as if to say to us, You will be judged. Certainly that’s what Bosch had in mind when he painted his “Seven Deadly Sins”. Dylan may not have had that in mind – I can’t say. I do know however that “I Gotta Serve Somebody” and Dylan knew, or knows, it too.
And again, I do know that eyes, the eyes of a poet, and I write this as a poet myself, see things in different ways. The refrain, “the poet’s eye” or the “photographer’s eye”. It’s all the same in the end, the “artist’s eye”. In the final account, I think it’s just a fact of life that we all see the world in vastly different ways and I mean that quite literally. What I see, you do not see and likewise. You see something else. We can be looking at the same street scene and I’ll remember the oxford shoes on the Chaplinesque-man and you’ll remember the woman in the pink blouse or the way the sky looked at that moment or the sound of a car horn, etc. It’s all subjective perception and we perceive through our senses, but a lot of the brain is stimulated by our visual intake. So what hits my neurons, doesn’t quite register with yours or in the very same way. It’s all quite literally different strokes, different folks. Blink, and you just might miss.
In “No Direction Home” Dylan mentions that he noted the look in people’s eyes back when he was still unheard of and had just arrived on the scene in Greenwich Village, New York. He knew what and who he wanted to be and who was the real deal by the look in their eye (see article on this for reference), so even in those early days, the eye was important. The eyes “had it” so to speak. (If you don’t remember this quote, revisit “No Direction Home” for original source quote).
So for all of the songs that reference eyes in some serious way, for Dylan’s own words in the relatively recent “No Direction Home” about how he sought out a certain look in the eyes of those he believed to be the real deal, sure, the eye logo could still be incidental and happenstance, but wow! What a coincidence I will say though that if Dylan is like the rest of us, we often do things or are drawn to certain imagery that repeats in our work without really knowing why it resonates with us.
I know I have certain words, situations, etc. that recur frequently (too much) in my poetry. I don’t even know why. It’s strange to read other people’s theories or interpretations of one’s work and their thoughts when you were not even perhaps aware that you were doing this. Some of the ideas may be total claptrap and all can only be speculation (because until I myself have that Eureka moment, what someone else says is pure analysis and again, only speculation unless I confirm it). Same is true for Dylan and his symbolism and this whole issue of the eye. So, in the final account, we can talk about it and note how frequently it recurs and that Dylan himself noted the importance of the eyes, but unless or until he gives us his own thought, who can say with any absolute certainty.
That said, incidental though it may be, we remain no more than older children still playing the staring game