The Human Mind Can Only Stand So Much. Better Have It All.

 

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

Cheers.

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If You Want To Learn Anything

downloadIn 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.

 

download (1)   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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

escherI 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.

images“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.”

“Heylin?”

“Whatever. Try it.”

http://www.bobdylan.com/us/home

51IEkfscolL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_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:51dOrsyZa3L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_

 

A Speaking Picture, With This End—To Teach And Delight/Just Like You, I’m Wonderin’ What I’m Doin’ Here

indexpicWhen I learned about the apparently true dramatic rescue of the tapes which led to Another Self Portrait,this reminded me of another apparently true and beautiful story I was told in graduate school that I have never found any corroboration for anywhere. One afternoon, in a small town in England, a woman whose name I can’t recall, a literary scholar and historian, found herself with time to kill before making a train connection. She wandered a little near the train station and couldn’t have been more pleased to find a small shop featuring rare and used books, monographs, letters. Browsing happily, she came upon a box containing old manuscripts labeled Equestrian-Horsemanship. She flipped through the folders of crumbly or yellow or marvelously preserved texts; she could decipher the antique typefaces or handwriting. One of the artifacts began with these words:

When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable…

The browsing stopped and she suddenly felt a good deal more than happy. What she had in her hands was an original manuscript of the first work of literary criticism in English letters. She held  Philip Sidney’s In Defense of Poesy, published in 1595 and written in 1579.  Somehow–not unlike outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning apparently ending up in a public storage annex– Sidney’s essay ended up in this box in this shop near a train station. The shop’s owner glanced at the opening lines and said, “Ah. Horses. I’ve got a box for that.” And in the box it went.

In the Defense,  Sidney famously argues that the work poets do to imagine deserves its own honorable category of knowledge. Poets imagine. They neither “lieth” nor “affirmeth”  and should not be asked to do either. This could be as succinct a definition of fiction as you’ll ever read. It’s also in this essay that Sidney uses his “many Cyruses” illustration of the poet’s imagination working upon reality as opposed to “building castles in the air.”  Do not ask a poet to compose an historically accurate portrait of the real, “natural,”  life and work of the Persian emperor that may inform us. Ask a poet to re-create a Cyrus who may inspire us.

And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he hath imagined them. Which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.

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Poor Bob Dylan–he has been making one Cyrus after another of himself and we amuse or frustrate ourselves wrangling out one Cyrus from another, weighing them against each other, writing stories to connect them, and often enough  deciding which is the greater Cyrus. All the while we’ve not learned enough from Sir Philip Sidney:  we wring our hands and bang our heads on each other’s heads over Bob Dylan’s lieths v. Bob Dylan’s affirmeths, Bob Dylan’s shite and Bob Dylan’s gold.

Luckily, Caesar has issued a thumbs-up reprieve to the new-old-improved Another Self-Portrait. Shite no more! After several listens, I’m starting to have my favorites and my general impressions and my fanciful stories.

picture Those early Elliott Landy photos of the Country Boy in the Woods make a peculiar artificial impression. Dylan’s ability to control his visual identities is a sharp tool in his bag of tricks, and in these photos he seems to me to overwork the trick, to hasten and theatricalize a  new persona that’s already working in John Wesley Harding.   His face is sickly and exhausted and the simple white costume has the look of a redemptive ghost out of time who is nonetheless crisply tailored (NB–the best account of the motorcycle accident I’ve come across is in Sid Griffin’s Basement Tapes book).  Anxious saints, crafty and potent drifters, wicked messengers show us more clearly the redemptive ghost of Bob Dylan than this wan and somewhat affected actor.

This 69-71 material has a welcome sound of Bob Dylan  singing himself back to the health of primy nature rather than obscure nature. We are still in boats against the currents of time as we were in John Wesley Harding, but now he’s rowing with different muscles.  There’s the solace and the refreshment of playing with old-coin language.  Jolly. Saucy. A fine hand. 44 smokeless. Brakeman. Gentleman. You can hear the great release of Dylan’s using  these old coins without  irony or nostalgia. And this is nothing more or less than the great release of his  joy in open-throated singing that makes character and emotion feel like, well….breathing. It seems ludicrous to single out any collection of Dylan’s work as a voice album, but there’s such a special bird-happy pleasure in the voice he brings to this material. I hear it everywhere. Railroad Bill‘s ride, ride, ride; the hurry-up wagon verse in This Evening So Soon; in what happens when he catches his stride in House Carpenter.

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  • The first stripped down Went to See the Gypsy beats the gussied up New Morning version. Here it feels like a story unfolding in real time, not so jaunty. Things seem to hold together and matter: the dark room and solicitous gypsy with his secret knowledge frightens the singer who goes to find a regular means of communication to make a “small call” for some regular companionship, the pretty dancing girl tempts/orders him to return to the gypsy’s prophecies. When he “contemplates every move,” he’s caught in time and self-consciousness in the face of all these mystic or not-so-mystic seductions. After all, the *gypsy* pulled off his tricks in Las Vegas,  and the dancing girl disappears…there’s still the dream of home and the little Minnesota town. Slowed down, the song’s got  dark tones and gravity, which we love here in the garden. And the guitars at the end are rather spellbinding.
  • On the other hand, “If Dogs Run Free scat version–Party of one!”  That would be me. The New Morning take of Dogs Run Free is hilariously misbegotten and serves the New Morning I hear–a man crying what the hell am I doing and how long am I going to keep doing it? I’ll have it any day over a melodious normalized Dogs Run Free.
  • And I feel the same about All the Tired Horses. The overdubbing on Self Portrait gives the *song* a faux drama that emphasizes the part-cheesiness and part-suggestiveness of the pun. The overdubbed version is slippery and winking and works well to throw down Self Portrait‘s gauntlet of apathy.
  • The Gaslight House Carpenter is a perfect nightmare. The boy singing it is so inspired that he sounds blind as he summons the hills of heaven and hellfire. Now, years later, he creates a drama of mounting doom that drops the Gustave Dore horrorshow.  It takes Dylan a verse or two to start piloting the ship–at first it seems he’s pitched too high, his voice breaks on “returned” but he presses on with the help of the musicians (Al Kooper’s piano a little too theatrical? Maybe not?). The vocals gather power and confidence until they swell to fill the room with the announcement that there is no other world for the lovers, just death in the grave of the sea. This could have been the sheer precious novelty of a *footnote* to the Gaslight masterpiece, but it turns out to be wonderfully greater than a precious novelty.
  • What I’ve always/only liked about If Not For You is the elegance of the title/refrain as it knits up the tossed-off charm of the lyrics. What Dylan himself has referred to as the “gallantry” of his own songs is already in this song with a nice light touch. But in this romantic take, with a luscious and sadly unattributed violin, the elegance becomes serenade-below-the-window alluring.

indexI’m paying attention to the  characters Dylan plays on Another Self-Portrait. Partly because the intensity of the vocals brings to life a motley troupe of characters, and the sequencing plays this up.  Pretty Saro, Spanish is the Loving Tongue and Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song are such good foils for each other (I’m going to ignore Alberta because it’s easy for me to ignore). Pretty Saro‘s beauty comes close to  that of Wild Mountain Thyme–eternally youthful and blooming. In Spanish is the Loving Tongue, he comes off as broken and tired and wasting in his exile–on paper this song is a thin story, but you’d never know it from the liquor Dylan’s treatment wrings out of it. (Although he does make “corazon” sound like a type of cold medicine.)  From this we go right to the worn out joyless surrender of Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song. There’s fatigue all through these songs but the singer’s fatigue in following his old drunk script with the slatternly Annie could be the bitterest on the record and is quite a counterpart to the pathos of Spanish is the Loving Tongue and youthful loveliness of Pretty Saro.

Listen closely and you can hear Dylan do some good Lennon and McCartney impersonations on the Beatles’ pastiche Working on a Guru. A moment of silence–or, go listen to Possum Belly Overalls– for George Harrison, one of the greathearted good sports of all rock music.

This is the only version of Thirsty Boots I’ve heard and I am wondering if Dylan’s taking the role of a virtuosic showman here, gliding swiftly and effortlessly through these verses is the usual approach to the song. I am wondering if a virtuosic approach to an earnest song nostalgically honoring the hard work of 60s activism and idealism is another kind of honoring? Or is it a kind of it ain’t me babe farewell? Or is it Bob Dylan reminding us who wrote Chimes of Freedom in the first place?  I’m wondering if even asking these questions is just a sign of my own cynicism.

9399_941aSomeone did have fun with the sequencing of Another Self Portrait.  All that sad lonely world of Only a Hobo pairs nicely with the beggar Minstrel Boy who sounds like a carny kid in this Basement Tapes version. The Lewis Carroll lovely nonsense of Tattle o’Day’s little brown dog leads us to dogs running free.  Working on a Guru and Country Pie link well together through the guitar work and the balmy lyrics.  These are also convivial songs, you can hear good times in the studio, and this mood leads nicely to the Isle of Wight’s hearty I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. I like combining the idle endless whiskey night of Copper Kettle with the dry-mouthed exhaustion of Bring Me a Little Water.

No option but to end with When I Paint My Masterpiece. Dodging lions and wasting time. All he sees is the rubble of the great works of long-dead men, and the rubble of his own dreams and memory. There’s no here and now (which is why I miss Botticelli’s niece–not just because it’s a knee-slapper but because she’s much more of a fantasy than the girl from Greece). Sigh, sigh, too bad he sold his obsolete Victrola. I want the song to go on because I love hearing him amuse and distract himself in the pain of idleness and lack of inspiration.

indexindex2Then I want the song to end, and all those thirsts quenched, and all that fatigue refreshed, and all those men trapped in swamps of time to reset their clocks so we can get to work on some masterpieces.  Amen to Another Self Portrait, and onward and upward.

Down Where The Vultures Feed

indexAround 1:20 in the afternoon on Friday the 26th, I sat with my back against a wall at the edge of Hoboken while I waited for the gates to open and launch the stampede to the Pier A stage. Other people sat alone or in twos or threes to either side of me; I was the 15th or 20th person from the front of the line. A man pushing an empty stroller ambled past us followed by his tiny flaxen daughter. She stopped, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed,  in front of nearly every one of us who sat facing the street and she returned every smile we gave her by ramping up her expression of expectant wonder. I realized that all of us sitting down came to just her height and when had she ever seen one friendly adult after another after another who was her own size? That was the last agreeable encounter and completely relaxed moment  I had for the next 10 hours. This is my fault. For me, the  point of GA shows is that nothing but my will and effort prevent me from getting as close to the stage as possible. If I can’t get in the first rows of a seated concert, I submit to fortune and fate. But there is no fortune in General Admission, there is only the art of war–the back of the field is for the weak, the lazy,  and the contented pacificist. I respect the pacificists and sometimes believe I can go to a GA Bob Dylan concert with just that Zen quality but when the day comes, the fire burns, and I suffer for it.

imagesSee, I want whatever passes for readers in centuries way down the line to understand that AmericanaramA, or any summertime general admission Bob Dylan concert, is not all about whether Charlie Sexton showed up (he did), or whether the new arrangement of She Belongs to Me is more majestic than playful (it is), or whether Duquesne Whistle  is a little disappointingly too fast (it is).  How are these vacuum-sealed comments, all these considered and sensitive responses, plausible when I’ve stood in the sun, then under stars, on lumpy grass for 10 hours?  The stiff limbs and the tension of staking and defending my tiny square foot of ground against barbaric invaders whose banners always read “My friend’s holding that space for me.”  How after a while I begin to feel that the world has always contained nothing at all but a cluttered stage curtained in cheap black fabric, and the My Morning Jacket t-shirt and Celtic tattoos on the man–too old for either–who is only inches from me and has for years and years been only inches from me. The three young people inches behind me are able to keep up their arch banter for so very long, as though in a contest to see who will run out of irony first. A middle-aged couple, discussing where they parked their car, is in front of me at the rail, with their son who’s about 14.  The boy is trying to look not unhappy. He has shaggy hair which likely makes more of an impression in Scarsdale than it does here among ear gauges and body art. He’s in a tough spot–this is technically a rock concert, and he still  has to spend the entire day with his parents in full view of other teenagers smoking pot and talking about Jim James. A woman on her own, about my age, stands her ground right next to me and reads the Times with patience and dignity. She owns her spot. I would love to befriend her but she’s mastered the noli me tangere of the concert pro and although I think of myself as a pro, I’m too high strung to be noli me tangere. A fat girl holding a can of beer over her head shoves past me and I look her right in the eye and say “Kiss my ass.” I am old enough to be her mother, I think. Unrepentantly.

Ryan Bingham was unexpected–I thought I’d just have to hold on through My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Mr Bingham’s got the alt-country hipster thing down and his first song expressed thoughts about heroin and depression in a big hoarse voice. It was a hard 45 minutes for me because the front of the stage was filling up with aggressive young Morning Jacket fans–I had to work hard to hold my inch of land without violence that would work against me. I was very surprised by Jim James. I knew him only from his appearance in I’m Not There.  All this time I’ve considered his magnificent (no other word for it) version of Goin’ to Acapulco to be one of maybe 4 covers of Dylan songs of all time that I consider keepers. And here was this strutting leonine person with all these filters and echoes distorting a fine voice. When he put on that circus smock with the gizmo hanging around his neck he looked like a mental patient under the delusion of being a Con Ed employee. I did like seeing the fans around me in love with this, knowing every word,  taken out of themselves. It’s a *festival* after all, and I high-handedly gave the children their moment.

I don’t know from Wilco, but I liked Jeff Tweedy’s stage self: this was clearly a man who’d been around the block and fallen down on the curb a few times and is still able to work hard and  laugh about what he’s seen and done. My territory, though, deteriorated badly during their set. It takes only one tall pogo-ing man shouting the name of every song, and shouting along with every song, jumping and shouting, to hijack my tiny window of sight and sound.

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Worn and thirsty and aching and tense from my selfish voluntary ordeal, I watched some people I recognized and some I did not setting up Bob Dylan’s stage. Up close, it is something to see how agilely and cooperatively the roadies and technicians work–never getting in each other’s way, and always generous about stopping whatever they’re doing to help a colleague with a glitch.  I blinked and that whole piano was in place.  I miss the portentous ritual of the Nag Champa, the Fanfare for the Common Man, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” but Stu’s entrance nowadays is always startling and makes for a surge of attention in everyone that’s exciting.

And after the collective awakening to the beginning of Dylan’s set, we disintegrated back into our bits of jostling and sniping and texting and photo-ing and jabbering. Everything Bob Dylan does reaches me through fissures. External fissures–when tall jumping people stumble enough for me to regain a sight line to the stage; when people stop shouting the name of each song to their neighbor so I can hear the lyrics. Internal fissures–when I can break away from my tired legs and thirsty head and foul selfish mood occluding the precious spaciousness I like to think I bring to Dylan concerts–when I can break away from my own occluding self and let the performance demand its space. So in these fissures and glimpses here is what got in:

  • The *story* of the setlist is such a tug of war between Yes and No.  He tells us right off not to want anything, he used to care but…. and describes with great care not caring. He tells us that being sick of love is being sick with love. He extols a woman for being free and self-sufficient. . .and who belongs to him. He joins a violent, threatening, anarchic band of kings and gets us to surrender to him waving our handkerchiefs in the air. He leads us into two very different intimate visions back to back, Hard Rain‘s prophesying and Blind Willie McTell‘s historical lament. Finally he pulls back the curtain and reminds us it’s all theater. Something’s happening. Don’t think you can name it and know it. But take it, you can have it, and good night.
  • I feel about Duquesne Whistle the way I feel about Beyond Here Lies Nothin’–rocking beauties that say everything about that tug of war between staying and moving on. I’ve been waiting to hear him make  Duquesne Whistle bite the air like he does with live versions of Beyond Here. But this was too fast and rushed for me, I lost the words themselves and then the delectation of the words that I love on the record. So that thing happened where the recorded version retreated in me into a protected space where the version Bob Dylan is singing right now for me can’t reach. You know when a live performance of a song gets farther in than the recorded version, and you know when it doesn’t.
  • Early Roman Kings live has the what the hell is that? factor that makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan and everyone else everyone else. It’s not a song. It’s a whole show, a whole theater, a whole oratory. Every word hammers out that menacing and burlesque world and only Bob Dylan can control it.
  • Don’t like the Jerry Lee Lewis standing at the piano thing. When he sits at the piano, there’s more concentration to his playing.
  • Hatless, the ferocious mess of his hair is just right for the show’s energy.

The crowd for all its density dispersed so fast  after the show. We couldn’t wait to get away from each other. The field looked like a landfill of crushed beer cans and food containers and newspapers and some trampled sunglasses and even cellphones. Some of us had to get home and prepare for Jones Beach the next night. A few on line reviews of that Jones Beach show guessed that we got no fun encore like Friday’s The Weight singalong because we didn’t deserve any. That we were a dull audience Saturday night and being punished for it. Well, a good few of us were very very tired.

Play on, Bob. On and on. Of course you have more moxie than all of us put together. We just try to keep up from our own tiny patches of this earth you’re roaming. Some of us are flawed creatures and keeping up doesn’t bring out the best in us.  And as always:

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If They Ain’t Already There

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Friday I’ll be spending over 11 hours en plein air in Hoboken, New Jersey, to earn a two-hour general admission Bob Dylan concert. No, I know he won’t play for two full hours. We have been having a summer of brimstone and deluges in the northeast so I am nervously hoping these 11 hours will be merely torrid. Discomfort, impatience, anxiety, then Bob Dylan. I also hate the city of Hoboken.

imagesHoboken was the place where I spent my first Bad Year, at age 24-25. If you’re old enough to know what I mean, then you understand that our first Bad Years don’t entail the calamities and tragedies that become the turning points in our life stories. Not the terrible loss or pain that we continuously narrate to ourselves as reminders of Why We Are The Way We Are, and save up as the Special Thing You Need To Know About Me that we relate to new acquaintances. Your First Bad Year is that mess of disappointments and failures and unpleasantness you simply believed you were never destined for.

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I spent 1986 in Hoboken, in the rented part of the first floor of a shambled house at the far end of Harrison Street, where the twee brownstones decayed into no-name auto-body shops with heaps of indistinguishable twisted rusted metal on the sidewalk. In a black and white photograph, our neighborhood would have had a  post-apocalyptic charm. But then there were the pollerias:  three-sided shacks offering floor to ceiling cages of live chickens for sale. The stench from a polleria lays siege to your entire consciousness. The space my boyfriend and I rented was a large shapeless room with an unfinished buckled and splintery wood floor. Our windows looked out onto a small vacant lot housing a crew of feral dogs who howled at night until bottles were thrown at the noise, and then managed to transfer fleas into the rented room–have you had flea bites? You scratch until you bleed, then scratch more, then make a funny story about the sores on your legs when you go to work the next day in a clean office with clean people. One evening after work I came back to the rented room to find  things gone: the television, my boyfriend’s guitars, much of the clothing in my closet. I went upstairs to the other tenant in the house whom we had not yet met because finding the neighbors felt instinctively right after being robbed. The upstairs door was opened by a big woman in a tank top who placed the sharp of her elbow up on the doorframe and watched me talk while she smoked from the cigarette she dangled comfortably near her face. I saw behind her were 4 cheap small messy cots lined up barracks-like, with at least one small child on each cot staring at the scene in the doorway with big eyes and closed mouths. When I was done sharing my alarm and concern about the burglary, the woman said “No habla Ingles,” and closed the door. At that moment and to this day it has seemed incredibly important to me to believe that all those children were actually her own. My boyfriend and I took badly to keeping house (such as it was), took badly to being adults together, to paying bills, to my deciding I didn’t want to keep defining fun as drugs, and to living away from New York. If you have been born and raised n New York, you know that it is an absolute condition. You are there or you are not.

All the good of that entire year belonged to the Mets. I left Hoboken and my boyfriend with a numb and stained kind of relief: I had grown up nice, with bedspreads and carpets and doormen and several unavoidable cockroaches who lived in fear of my mother, and parents who never raised voices to each other. I was not supposed to know fleas and burglars and frightened children on sloppy cots and romance that turned ugly and shitty and ended. In a real Bad Year, you find out you’re not special and you just want it to end.

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So the hell with Hoboken.  I never wanted to set foot there again.  I don’t even know this new venue where I’ll be uncomfortably on foot shifting my weight for hours, sweating, indifferent to the opening bands, waiting for Bob Dylan to toe-step onto the stage, with his usual peculiar combination of the  irascible, the  humorous, and the efficient, and sing and play to us.

I know what I’m bringing in my attention to Hoboken. Lousy memories, the march of time, en plein air discomfort, and my own usual spacious light of pre-Dylan no-expectations expectancy. To everyone, remember remember that we don’t pay attention, we bring it. Paying attention is the same as any transaction–you dully hand over your cash and expect to be handed something of equal value. No, no, no. You bring your attention to the encounter of a concert: your attention is animate, it is appetent, it is responsive, it is made of this very moment shared with everyone else hearing the same harmonica notes, and entirely your own language of everything past and present you alone are bringing to those harmonica notes. Just as you know when Dylan is and is not entirely right there in that song, that line, that word, you know when you are and are not as well. If the way you bring full-selfed attention to a Bob Dylan concert or anything here-and-now is through the screen of your telephone, then. . . just please hold the phone away from my sight-line.

I will be so grateful if he doesn’t give up on Duquesne Whistle come Friday–it’s everything I’m writing about here.  That whistle blows and blows and a man hears childhood, love, faith, fate, the end, the beginning–the stations of his life going by right on time, like they do for all of us. Be there. I mean–be there.

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Don’t Forget That You Are White

Hector_brought_back_to_Troy-500x344So I wanted to write about what’s happening as I read Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Tempest keeps shining through. The first bolt came in Book 4 of The Odyssey, with “cooped up on an island far too long,” and then flash after flash in both Odyssey and Iliad: pay in blood, ship you down to the house of death, hit the skies. . . More and more than that. You can read Scott Warmuth’s tidy and thorough “Tempest Commonplace” on his Pinterest board. I give him full credit for a tidiness and thoroughness you won’t find here, but I promise I found these bonbons on my own reading. And if you haven’t done it yourself, I recommend it–it’s a headier feeling of tiny time-travel wormholes even than Confessions of a Yakuza.

And what I wanted to think and write about is death and life in The Iliad, and death and life in Tempest. Every death in The Iliad matters. From the puniest chariot driver to the god-infused magnificences of Hector and Achilles, you feel the shock of life speared or sliced or trampled out of a man’s body. You feel and see the moment when each body voids its life, and there’s no attrition to the way your attention cringes with each of these deaths. Often enough Homer manages to insert, right along with the spear blow, the names of the dying soldier’s father or grandfather or the lovely island home whose soft hills he will never see again while his parents weep for his loss–Homer can send your imagination to the soft hills and desolate mother and father in the space of a man’s last breath.

I wanted to write about the way individual death matters in Tempest, in that song and in Roll On John. Then I wanted to write about the Greek hero. The man who is marked by the gods and then has to bear up under more-than-mortal gifts and ordeals until he dies exactly as all men die, once and for all. We tend to love Odysseus because he has genius that we recognize: his wit plays with his fate.  Odysseus seems to create his way through every tribulation.  He has an artist’s spirit as other Homeric heroes do not and as Romantics we love him for that and often pay not enough attention to Odysseus’s own persistent awareness that his gifts are his mortal destiny and not the way around death and the gods’ prerogatives. I hear that in Tempest, in Duquesne Whistle, in Pay in Blood, in Scarlet Town– the vitality whose playfulness and potency are born from no-bullshit mortality. Like noon at the break of darkness.

Well, I had things to say about life and death that now would ring just about as *true* as the Roman frieze at the top here showing the harrowing glories of dead Hector in unbroken stone. Then I heard about George Zimmerman’s acquittals and I didn’t expect the air to get as knocked out of me as it was. Well, I didn’t expect the acquittals themselves and the moment I heard I had one of those immediate thoughts that Homer uses to describe the speed of a god’s passage from here to there.  The only point of this event is that a black man’s life matters less than a white man’s fate.  The intricate instructions given the jury on differentiating between manslaughter, degrees of manslaughter and murder–these seem to me instructions on the value of Trayvon Martin’s corpse to George Zimmerman’s life. The jury decided what mattered.

So, if you are white like me, instead of contemplating life mattering in The Iliad and Tempest, listen for the thousandth time to …Hattie Carroll, and reflect on that rag.

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