Right now I’m de-ranged. Off the vertical-horizontal order of things. Bob Dylan will be sitting, standing, singing, not 2 blocks from the 72nd St IRT station five times in a row, on the cusp of November and December. The Beacon Theater was the spot of my first Bob Dylan concert in April 2005. I’ll have to share this special reunion with about 11,570 people, and compete for tickets with most of these. There is no privileged access as one may imagine for third-tier Dylanologists like myself. I’m up against formidable odds. Jeff Rosen’s dry cleaner, endodontist, cousin, sommelier? They must already have their seats lined up. And the VIP tickets are expensive–think Jeff Rosen’s lunch tab at the Olive Garden. I am brainsick with every color of apprehension. The east side of 74th Street and Broadway is a comfortably wide stretch of sidewalk that’s usually clean, with a nice coffee shop on the north corner. And now it’s a roiling flaming and dissolving Überplace. Having tickets in hand for Show and Concert and not having tickets in hand is a matter of identity; it’s a condition that alters the palette of reality. If you know what I’m talking about, then you’ll appreciate my reckless philosophical vocabulary.
For this distraught minor Dylanologist the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, a straight shot across the park from the Beacon– is good cool relief. In these rooms, thoughts and appetites arise and then pop like bubbles. Pop pop. Colored plastic, and candy, and priapism, and apes, and Play-Doh, and breasts, and Venetian glass, and the Venus de Milo, and food, and semen, and balloons, and Neolithic art forms, and famous people, and colored mirrors, and baby animals, and classical statuary. Here is (to quote a namecheck in a Bob Dylan song) the Zipless Fuck of Meaning and Beauty in Art.
Here I am taking this photo of myself reflected in the belly of Koons’ mylar balloon-animal version of the Willendorf Venus. What if you never heard of the Willendorf Venus? You’d still have a good time. Koons’ toy/monument/rinse/repeat starts out with an uncanny and gorgeous color–it’s salmon, it’s rose, it’s a dying star. Even without guidance I can recognize a female form in these inflations. I think I can see a pregnant belly. She towers and gleams. She’s ethereal and tumescent and symmetrical. Everyone in this room with me is reflected on the skin of her. And I can see myself nine times on the surface. The thing is lavish, beautiful, odd, figurative, kitschy, anthropomorphic, sexual. A precious text of so very much. What’s not to worship? What’s not to critique? What’s not to relish? And best of all, she’s deliciously easy to forget entirely as soon as you’ve turned your back. Look, there’s another toy/monument.
Look, want, ignore, parse, relish, disparage, selfie, mock, envy. The people strolling in the galleries laugh and smile and take tourist photos of each other posing in front of a big gorilla or a gigantic photograph of Mr and the erstwhile Mrs Koons in flagranty delickto. Everyone around me is happy to be there and leaves just as happy on their way in the sunshine. A building full of Jeff Koons is a playground of surfeit with no real desire anywhere. We should bring our doomed and reprobate here. You can have any one of these things you want…. What would the rottenest and forlornest pick?
I don’t feel better. I knew there was nothing in the Whitney to help me but I was hoping to enter an inner space of non-attachment and non-desire. I guess I didn’t want the space to be quite so vacant. And the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire are on my shoulders still when I look at the Beacon seating chart. Those devils were coined by Joseph Conrad whose portrait is on the back cover of….Desire. So there I go.
Listening to the record this time, I heard that Mozambique and One More Cup of Coffee are the same song. Both are about desire fulfilled albeit temporarily in an exotic locale with tawny available bodies. Mozambique is a postcard. It’s a vacation hookup in a place of bought and paid-for magic. Beautiful beach sun skin. Sweet sandy love yumyum three nights and four days checkout one last kiss back to work. Whoever lived on Mozambique served us good and we tipped them good.
In Cup of Coffee the singerman awakes in another sultry land of cocoa skin and temptation. But now it’s Art. The song is Meaningful and Beautiful and it’s about those capital letter things. The land is unnamed; the singer is the only one of Our Kind there; there was no brochure for this excursion. The natives are enticing and threatening and rule their lives with their bodies, not their minds. The sunshot thin mountain air sweetens their breath and sharpens their appetite but our singer has to return to the valley of order and reason and fair skin to do his work. Which is, of course, writing the song we’re hearing about the unlettered luscious vicious women and men. And coffee is the endless river flowing from the wild worlds of mountains and into the paper cups in the lawful worlds of valleys. There’s a lot of work to be done on Bob D and postcolonialism, so someone get to it. Doesn’t really interest me.
And the chain kept going to the next song. Her heart is like an ocean….time is an ocean. This time the singer has to do the beseeching, not the leaving, and in a no-place. Mozambique and Cup of Coffee are farewell songs set in real or visualizable locations, and Oh Sister is a seduction song in a world that has but one door and an ocean although both are, alas, metaphors. A vague Great Father wishes His Beloved Children to Be As One Body In Love. We’ve got Hindu, Egyptian accents in the imagery and vocals that are somehow sleazy and plangorous at once. Oh Sister is To His Coy Mistress via Joseph Campbell. I’m with you if you’re not entirely sure that’s a good thing.
Next stop–the hot desire of vengeance and bloodthirst and honor played out in violent and familiar arenas that both happen to be of Latin origin. This devil is well-served by tragic balladry. Joey and Romance in Durango tell of blood and guns and death, where family and retribution, not laws or prisons, determine Right and Wrong. The boy cannot flee the bloody face of his murdered rival. Joey can’t escape the vendetta that’s his to carry out after his brother’s murder. In both Joey and Romance in Durango moral codes are quite real and enduring despite/because of being written with bullets.
Two coastal retreats where domestic calm tries to beat down natural frenzy of one kind or another and women try to save men. Black Diamond Bay and Sara. In Black Diamond Bay, a woman requires seclusion and disguise and has found both in a discreet hotel with locks on the doors and a lovely verandah. But she is roused by calamity–the kind of storm approaches against which eaves and even a roof are no protection . She would help, she would rescue her transient companions who also want to be left alone, but there’s no chance when nature is in an irritable mood. In Sara, a man looks the very picture of everything civilization has worked towards: in leisure he surely has earned, he contentedly watches his healthy and happy children frolic safely on a pleasant beach along a harmless ocean. His wife walks by. A family at rest and in harmony. And the man’s thoughts turn to his wife whom he describes as a mystic and charged creature, here but not quite here. She has inspired him to greatness and saved him from afflictions and freed him to belong really only to himself. She ebbs and flows through the song as something beautiful and stinging and uncatchable and already caught and let go. Meanwhile she does nothing more charged or goddess-like than walk among her own children on a quiet beach.
Gods and liars and lovers and husbands and bandits and corpses and warriors take their turns in these songs. Hurricane is the warning shot–a world where moral order and gravitas are dreams – justice is a game, innocence is punished, murder is free. In Isis, a fellow who isn’t getting the footwork in the pas de deux of marriage is tricked once into a life and death quest for treasure. The tomb is empty! He turns around and goes home with the sun in his eyes, perhaps a risen god and perhaps not, which seems just the right way to get back to one more round of this earth and plain mortal love.
And now in the autumn of the year 2014 someone googling the word Isis for some other reason might find this chatter about Meaning and Mumbo Jumbo and Right and Wrong and Gods and Lust and None of the Above Together In A Heap– and perhaps just keep on going.