In this book, The Dylanologists, by David Kinney, I am grateful to be described as “a wisp.” I met Dave Kinney years ago when he’d just begun the unenviable research for this book: conversations on the same topic with an endless stream of people who present widely varying ranges of reason, discretion, humor, intelligence and good nature. It’s a truism that Dylan’s audience is the necessity which mothered his invention of a mighty and wondrous impenetrability. Armored against our attention, Dylan is the purloined letter and there is no Dupin.
So how good it is to be the wisp in this world. Just a momentary condensation, without even the suggestion of a whole anything. As wisp, the transience of everything about me–my own foolishness, wit, banality, charm–is guaranteed. Even though I have my own name in the book and I say things, finally it’s wisp that sticks. As a *Dylanologist*, I’m a fleeting near-nothing and hallelujah for that.
A couple of weeks ago I finished up a course I taught this semester at Fordham Univ’s College at Sixty (CAS) program. We offer non-matriculating humanities and social science courses to adults who by and large have seen more of the world than I can name. I like to use visual art in my writing courses and if I show, say, a panel from the Sistine Chapel, I’ll get a spirited and informed discussion of Michelangelo and also learn where to find the only clean public bathrooms in the Vatican. They translate French for me. I can’t make Einstein jokes because there’s bound to be someone in the room fluent in the most plausible refutations of the theory of relativity. So when my proposal for a course called Know My Song Well: The Art of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan was accepted, I tried to gird my loins. I couldn’t say I expected, but I wasn’t on the other hand surprised, to meet a woman who’d been at Newport 65, and a gentleman who shared his droll memories of standing on line outside Gerde’s not to see Bob Dylan perform–but standing on line with Bob Dylan.
I’d worked hard preparing a syllabus that would serve both Dylan and Cohen as equally as possible; I was anxious not to favor what I expected to be the majority of veteran Dylan enthusiasts on the roster. I have made many deep judgment errors in my 24-year teaching life, but this was one of the deepest.
I understand a little of how a dog reads smells from my years of teaching because I’ve learned how to read attention in the air. Not just the easy differences like boredom, confusion, or focus, but the subtle ones: resistance gives the air a different pulse from apathy; competitiveness has a different charge from interest. I need a new category now–The Air of Leonard. No matter what I played them– the many-edged wit of “Everybody Knows,” or the jaunty and formidable allegory of “The Captain,” or the radical metaphor of “The Traitor,” or the beautiful robust exhaustion of “Going Home”–whatever moral gauntlet Cohen threw down, however deeply he’d saturate the erotic with the sacred and the sacred with the erotic…However Cohen provoked, in that same measure he seduced. Whatever Leonard I played, the air was right away infused with a draught that seemed sort of amber, sort of liquorish to me. When the song ended a dozen dreams held on until I shut them down with my Brooklyn accent and bookish questions.
The students answered the bookish questions eagerly and generally opened my attention to emotional shades in Cohen’s songs I’d often missed because I was so entranced by his figures or by the philosophies of his libido. I’d previously heard and seen “Hallelujah”‘s “victory march” as one man’s swagger but a student helped me see in the image the public display of a parade. I heard with them that the demands of reciting against musical lines forced his rangeless timbre into a rainbow of irony and a whole other rainbow of pain.
After a Dylan song ended, the air stayed air. Someone’s private memories of “Blowin’ in the Wind” isn’t going to smell anything like someone else’s sudden reminder that they know every word of this song which they haven’t listened to all the way through in decades. And then I’d open my mouth and invite them to hear the song as a lovely and truthful thing made by a prodigy learning how to impersonate himself. Well, that’s a hard sell if you had been 17 in 1963 and singing the song right then and there along with the new boy who made it. I told them how much I love the verse about the white dove because it is the tenderest image of mortality. “Oh, I don’t think so,” a woman insisted. “The dove is the symbol of peace. When she rests in the sand it means she doesn’t need to fly anymore, that peace is here.” “Of course,” I answered, “That’s lovely and makes perfect sense.” Which is true, and I’ll never hear that in the song. I heard Dylan sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” a few years ago at the waterside amphitheater in Jones Beach. The sky was blue-black, reflections from powerful stage lights splashed the water, the moon hung in the sky and listened and the old man sang his old song; everything hung fire and he sang my favorite line “…before she sleeps in the sand.” Will there really be that moment when we know we won’t be sailing the next sea up ahead–that this sea today is the last one? I thought about telling the class this story as a Touching Personal Illustration–but my frame of mortality and accidental wholeness would sound effete and precious next to their frames for the song: black/white, peace/war.
Play “The Future” to a dozen intelligent people hearing it for the first time and let them take turns admiring Cohen’s elegant audacity, his flair for righteous critique that’s exactly smart enough to avoid self-righteousness. Everyone relishes Cohen’s fun musical turn with plain old pop rock. Then play “High Water” to a dozen intelligent people hearing it for the first time and invite them to the serrated voice of a selfish bastard, a casanova, a man fearful, a man ruthless, a man who knows about treading water. A man just like you and nothing like anyone at all, particularly the boy who shared “Blowin’ in the Wind” with you. Listeners will get at “High Water” on their own through its sharp edges; there just won’t be the Leonard-charged magnetic field of people united in admiration and pleasure.
I could hear what they heard. I could hear all the false footings in “High Water”‘s normal and constantly drowning world. What the song sounds like, I heard. Instead of automatically dancing on its knobs and ruts which I have of course, as a minor Dylanologist, entirely adjusted to.
“Oh, rats. This is the part where she gives some arch argument for why being strange and awkward is better than being brilliant and splendid. I hate when they do that shit.”
“Well, that’s how they show they’re smarter than their friends, we explained that already. Come on we don’t have all day, it’s definitely not here.”
“One of these goddamned jerks has to have it! They live their puny lives for this and we can’t find one lousy song! What’s the timedate again? May 52nd?”
“You idiot it’s right in front of you. May 25. TWO-FIVE. One Nine Seven Six.”
“It’s called Nineteen Seven Six.”
“Shut up. Shut the hell up. You’re the one who shoved Torf out the airlock and he already had the chip. In his head, you idiot.”
“I just couldn’t take one more croak out of him about Larry Campbell. How many times do I have to say that guy did not add value, he was a lightweight, I keep…”
“Temm, you jackass. You’re the one–we could be done and home already. All this just for what–live “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” One more time– Live Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. You’re going to explain this to Torf’s rhizome?”
“Ok, ok. I just want to hear it once, all right?”
“Yeah, me too. Try that guy again–Heffern. Hellpin.”
“Whatever. Try it.”
And congratulations to David Kinney, who managed to establish mutual regard with each of us and make a book out of it all. A fellow whose patience and good nature we know will serve him well in all the seas he’ll sail: