Old, Young. . .

imagesOne Fine Day at Sony HQ

–We are to be making one hundred copies.

–A hundred?? I could go out on the street right now with a cardboard box of 200 of these, wave one over my head, ask 25 dollars cash– whatever, 30 euros, and the box’d be empty by noon.

–Your enthusiasm is engaging, but business is what is being run here.

–Stencil his name on the cardboard box and someone’ll give you 20 bucks for it!  These’ll be hawked on line in minutes for stupid amounts of money! A hundred! We might as well have put out ten…

—We..? Excuse me–that is the badge of an intern around your neck, no? Are there not two pieces of paper somewhere in this building that require your stapling them one to the other? How is it that you are in this room? Randolph! Randolph! Where is the special room of these interns? And Randolph–were you able to procure that particular tie I wish to wear to the Grammy television ceremonies? That’s it! Splendid–the same fabric as  Miss Taylor Swift’s new video pajamas.

No, of course I don’t have the copyright extension CD and I don’t want to be patronized by having explained to me the technical commercial legality justifying the quantity of one mere hundred.  And although I already have nearly all the songs in question scattered about bootlegs, I still feel left out and petulant. Not only left out and petulant about being empty-handed at a fairly exciting CD event, and being curmudgeonly in my ignorance of intellectual property law. I’m also feeling the weight of years embedded in this copyright extension stuff. Bob Dylan and I will never be so young again. I never did hear these songs with young ears.  And  somehow all this petulance seems of a piece with the petulance I’m still feeling from Tempest‘s being dissed at the Grammy nominations. A dark and bygone album that rides deeper rails of greatness every time I hear it is passed over in the here and now, and Bob Dylan and I will never be so young again.

I know the antidote to all this feeling left out and sour is in that Duquesne whistle. Let the train go by, whatever’s on it, everyone’s on it. Let it go, toot toot, even if it kills me dead. If no one remembers next time round. Let the train go. . .There’s a lot I’m not learning from this song at the moment.


Soundin’ like it’s on a final run.  Maybe it takes decades to hear that whistle. Between Stealin’ and Tempest could be an entire story of young and not young, and that seems to be the story that interests me right now. So I’m turning to the Witmark demos with my old ears and asking them what they can teach me about young and not young, me and Bob Dylan.

images3Re: Not having young ears or eyes.I’ve never been taken in by this painting. The vulnerable stripling with his budding honest body. I think the painting is the moment right before his consciousness comes of age and he realizes that  he controls the horse he believed until this moment was his friend. Perhaps this is the last moment the boy will know the world as his own, where pants and shoes and saddles are unnecessary and the sky and earth are as bare and free as he is. This is to me the last dream of Youth. Right before Innocence wakes up to knowledge, power and desires that can’t be fulfilled by just breathing alongside the beloved creature you’re going to discover in a minute isn’t really talking with you.

I just don’t cherish this dream, this moment–the last pulses of youth whose beauty and potency are unconscious.   And I bring this not-being-available-to-the-enchanting-poignant-dream-of-youth to all the flourishings of Dylan’s early songs. I can hear in some of them the honest ugliness of growing pains, and the leaps into maturity that can cover so much ground so quickly you get a chill from the passing breeze.

imagesMr. Bartender, I ain’t too young…He played it so well–the scrawny critter lost in old jeans, with his laughing grin and sharp cagey eyes, the voice singing more than this person could possibly know of death and pain and poverty, and using all his boychick righteousness to make his audience see their own stained souls and love him for it. The moment of this real life seduction is gone.  I can’t pretend that anything compensates for real seduction in real time.

We don’t do nostalgia for an unlived past here in the garden and we sure don’t do the *Golden Age envy* thing either.  That Blowin’ in the Wind may be now and in 3129 an occasion for reflection, for pleasure, for wonder, isn’t the point. That song masters and deepens a form and defends the truism of timelessness. And even if timelessness can be right here and now 50 years after the song was born, in living sweat when we get Blowin’ in the Wind as an encore, that’s still not what I’m after here. I’m after the force that through the green fuse…. And I hear it and feel it in stumbles and growth spurts, not in the anthems.

Emmett Till stumbles all over itself with  mismatched voices. There’s the childlike language of a naif shocked at atrocity and the justice not served: a dreadful tragedy…too evil to repeat….I’m sure it ain’t no lie. . .if you can’t speak out against this kind of thing...so godawful low. And there are the sudden spikes of elegance and maturity in the imagery, the rhyme, the meter: rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood red rain/And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.. .floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea. . .eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, mind is filled with dust. . .ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan. The fineness of these phrases turns the ingenuous moral appeals into forced naivete. Into the righteous outcry erupts a newfound joy in the sound and playfulness of language. There’s real sensual and immodest pleasure in inventing and performing these phrases that’s at odds with the song’s framing persona– if all of us folks that thinks alike about violence and injustice. . .well, some of us decent folk are guiltily relishing and repeating to ourselves the sheer prettiness of float the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.  Art can be beautiful and moral, and by Hattie Carroll, Dylan will have figured out how to make that work without hiccups. But I hear the hiccups in Emmett Till. The song is badly controlled, awkward, and always fresh. Growth spurts.

Long Ago, Far Away is one of those leaps, where you can feel the leaping. Here he’s got it all–youthful moral outrage, tightwoven phrasing, spiky smart and agile imagery, and the language simple and deft and never clashing with its voice: chains of slaves they dragged the ground/With heads and hearts hung low. . .the whole world bled its blood. . .people cheered with bloodshot grins. . . The song has the infectious energy and purpose of great gospel. It’s also got its own delectation of language and you can feel the singer discovering the joy of making all this happen each time you listen. He’s reined in that growling shrieking timbre that’s rather out of hand in Gospel Plow.  He seems surprised by his own wild ride, we’re surprised too. One big growth spurt, I think–a leap.

Blowin’ like she’s blowin’ right on time and Blowin’ like she ain’t gonna blow no more.  Not far from the Dusquesne whistle he sings, It’s now or never. Tempest is my real-time seduction, my green fuse–gnarled and murky and juicy for all that. I’ll try to listen for the whistle and Sony can go to hell.

images 2

Big Fat Pineapples Are Quite Alright+You Bastard, I’m Supposed To Respect You?=The Birth Of The Reader

imagesThe explanation of a work is is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.

I visited the Gagosian before I read the recent post by greg.org   in which he outs more of the negative space we insist on calling BOB DYLAN. I was lured up Madison Avenue to 77th St, no more conscious than a salmon, by the two words BOB DYLAN.  I got a little more than exactly what I deserved.

The exhibit is a bit larger than I was led to believe: although it sits between two other exhibits on the 5th floor of the Gagosian, the 30 identically-sized unframed images occupy spacious digs including a central dividing wall. It  will take you longer than you probably expected to view the entire assortment.  Which you ought to do, once you are there, not withstanding that each one is more visually wretched than comes across on web or print reproductions.  A 4th grader with dull scissors and a glue stick could have assembled each of them. The photos are lurid, text and images are often blurred round the edges, and enlarged on the walls the general impression is as crude and careless as Richard Prince’s  studio assistants any self-respecting anti-aesthete could wish.

Except for a few such as Baby Talk, Modern Bondage, and Philosophy Today, the covers are pastiches (although that term sounds a little high-falutin’  in this context) of magazines that are of course cultural dinosaurs. One of the first I parked myself in front of was an Architectural Digest bearing the headlines “Bargain-Hunting in New England” and “Houses of the East Coast” and showing a full-length photo of a young Kennedy-era socialite in pearls and a cocktail dress who  raises the hem of her dress to show us, unsurprisingly, that she’s naked underneath. Next to this is the now-familiar Baby Talk cover, showing what I believe is a dwarf and the headlines you’ve probably already read: “How to Strengthen Your Baby”; “New Baby Deodorants.”

Some of the covers on display are not as labored and banal. Some headlines are haha enough to test the high-handed resolve of even the highest-handed among us: “Sword fishing is Dangerous” from Life; “Boy George Mesmerizes Male Audience at Daytona Beach” from Rolling Stone; “Ultimate Buffalo Shrimp” from Gourmet; “Stoicism and Divorce” from Philosophy Today; “The Pointlessness of David Byrne” from Rolling Stone. I thought “How to Build Your Own Geodesic Dome” from Modern Bondage was a knee-slapper. Personally, I yearn for “The Scandal Taylor Swift Can’t Lick” to come true right now, today. The first six words in the title of this post are a gem and already rather a mantra for me.  And this line is from a Playboy cover.  (Oh, go ahead and laugh–you can still belong to the Bob Dylan Is An Obsolete Fraud Fan Club and have a chuckle at his expense.)

Some are clever enough to merit mild double takes. A legitimately wonderful photo of Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, and Harry Belafonte for a Life cover  is captioned “Davis, Belafonte, Poitier in a TV salute to Fidel Castro”. A Life cover featuring “Oliver Stone’s New Movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ Breaks New Ground” has this headline below it: “Charlie Sheen Hides from Helicopters in Starring Role.”  From another Life cover: “Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop Have a Laugh at Fundraiser for Presidential Hopeful Rudy Giuliani.”  And before you write the whole thing off, take a look at the Life cover devoted to Jack Ruby–it’s a piece of real mischief.

images 2I guess this is the part where I should say that of course these things are, in the last account, fatuous. The “revisionism” isn’t much of anything. This is the kind of conceptual juvenilia that litters the Whitney Biennial every two years–mass media makes dupes and voyeurs of us all; the critical stance we take up in a museum is an elitist affectation; we’re all dupes and voyeurs anyway;  we automatically flatten out all the information that bombards us relentlessly such that Rolling Stone can profit from selling us “Corruption in Prisons” and “Bon Jovi Rides All Night” for the same outlay of cash and also of attention. Etceteraetcetera.  And the notion that Bob Dylan, the blue-eyed bristly-headed person in dark clothing I watched singing and playing instruments onstage in the Barclays Center a  couple of weeks ago himself cut and pasted these things, or directly supervised the cutting and pasting, did not occur to me for one moment. It did not occur to me for one moment that any of the rib-tickling or the cleverness rescued  anything called “Bob Dylan The Great Artist” from all this fatuousness. The business on the walls at the Gagosian is what it is, and Bob Dylan’s name is on the door. Now what.

The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book…

Greg.org briefly mentions Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, and he offers lavish speculative and speculative-plus evidence of the habeas corpus kind that Dylan (and Richard Prince) exemplify Barthes’ argument. But Barthes isn’t laying out corpses. He’s  reminding us that we invented the creatures called authors in the first place and he’s shifting our attention to what we do–and what we are– as accountable readers.

“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but its destination.”

Now what. With the big fat words BOB DYLAN on the gallery entrance, I very easily became a space that chose to inscribe some quality called BOB DYLAN onto these things –a superficial and inconsequential space I was, to be sure, given the material I was working with. And I idly and pleasurably performed the following inscriptions:

There’s plenty of BOB DYLANish time-out-of-mind mucking about with past and present throughout the exhibit. The Life cover I mentioned featuring Apocalypse Now is dated 1997. The Life cover featuring Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Giuliani’s presidential candidacy is dated 1996. A Playboy dated 1997 offers the headline “The Beatnik Craze.”  A Time cover dated 1961 declares “Syria and Egypt Attack Israel on Yom Kippur.”  Repeat the past, repeat the future, throw the present overboard.

Lots of babes and loads of breasts on these walls, and all of it the retro pin-up plumpiness we may be excused for associating with BOB DYLAN.

I recalled this anecdote: Bob Dylan the person is in an airport and sees the Time magazine cover “Is God Dead?” Bob Dylan quips–or laments–“Now, how do you think God would feel if he saw that?” Now, how often do you think the Bob Dylan person has seen headlines foolish, ignorant, incisive, pompous, or articulate, and images flattering, unflattering, intrusive, irrelevant, outdated, or fawning that gush, critique, advertise, probe, announce, or mock something called BOB DYLAN?  Come to the Gagosian and see cheap mockups of all kinds of big ideas, images, and distorted facts.

I took two items to be winking Bob DYLANishly at me. One is a Sports Illustrated cover (showing, yes, a naked woman holding a tennis racket) that carries the headline “First Time in History Someone Came Back from Being Ranked 600.”  A Life headline reads “The Rocky Road to Fame.”  You’ll find out when you reach the top…

And this very work itself of inscribing BOB DYLAN for no reason other than the presence of a sign proclaiming  Bob Dylan. Manifesting dots to suit myself, then connecting them to suit myself. Sifting through text and image, reading address labels upside down, for the satisfaction of being able to call something a dot: a clue, a hint, a sign, a wink.  Just doing this whenever I’m encountering something named BOB DYLAN is already a conditioned response for collectors like myself. Perhaps what we are collecting in this game needs a name.

Meanwhile, keep on playing in the negative spaces.


Don’t Get Up Gentlemen, I’m Only Passing Through


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Welcome to Gardener is Gone, a blog devoted to Bob Dylan. All the thousands of words on these posts here, and the ones I haven’t written yet, are by someone who came late to Dylan’s work. As recently as early spring of 2005, I couldn’t name three songs Bob Dylan had written. You can read my conversion story here.

Now, in addition to this blog, I have the pleasure and privilege to edit other writers’  lucubrations on the topic in the print journal Montague Street, whose latest edition is displayed to your left, with a link to our Web site. I’ve also had the pleasure and privilege to co-edit and contribute to a book of essays on Dylan’s work, called Dylan at Play.  Other pleasures and privileges include being present at the premier performances of Ain’t Talkin’ and Forgetful Heart. I have discovered that the most fervid and staunch Dylan fans occupy a range of humankind that seems to exceed the statistical possibilities of our species’ genome. I’ve met people gracious, illuminating, warm, and sane, and people tiresome, foolish, unkind, and unhinged. All of us occupying the same ground of belief, that Bob Dylan’s songs have provided this sorry world with unprecedented beauty and feeling and invitations to think more deeply and richly than we might have without these songs.

If you find yourself here, leave a comment or question if you’re inclined. You’re welcome also to email me at gardenerisgone@gmail.com.

Thank you,

Nina Goss


What Good Am I. Strengthen The Things That Remain. Lay There Dreaming.

Maybe Bob Dylan dedicated his longlong-awaited Early Roman Kings performance to Obama’s reelection. Maybe playing the song, with its singer troublingly identifying with those rakish, bullying, hip, frightening, glittering, indestructible tyrants, was a combination of triumph and warning. We helped put the crown back on your head, please wear it as well as possible. In 2008, Obama looked like the hero being outfitted with his special cape and special sword and the solemn rules of his magnificent quest. Now he looks like a man singed by a wildfire he’s got to walk back into while his townspeople huddle behind him in fear, hope, doubt, anger, derision, trust. I wish I’d been in Wisconsin when Bob let it be known that he expected it to happen. It did not at the time seem a sure thing to me. I would enjoy having the memory of that camaraderie to sweeten the relief I feel now.

A hurricane tore through the town right outside these garden walls.  I didn’t take this photo at left, but below you can see the photo I did take of the aftermath of this business, which took place a short walk from these garden walls. However, being stranded and fearful in well-lit rooms in a watertight apartment in Brooklyn is not the same as being stranded and fearful in a dark cold housing project a mile from my watertight apartment, and not the same as being stranded and fearful in three feet of water alongside the pile of lumber and upholstery that was your living room. This is my worst experience of the destructibility of the world around me. And my most sobering experience of how Job-like people are in their anger and grievance–something must account for this! I saw good people’s honest and urgent belief that the machine of civilization is responsible for their safety and comfort. The photo here shows a drastic misfiring, a calamitous interruption rather than the way things are.

Strengthen the things that remain are always to me five beautiful words. Learning how very little remains of me after a calamitous interruption was something I wasn’t ready for. Job is Job because alone on his rock he’s surrounded by the ghosts of everything he’s lost, and not just what he’s lost, but the ghosts of all the threads that tied him to Purpose and Necessity.  Me, I own nothing, and no one depends on me for food or shelter or safety. My work doesn’t serve any necessary mechanism that would break down in my absence. Even if love isn’t friable, I’ve already found out that life is. When I felt last week how thin the threads are that bind me to the destructible world, I felt a cold ozone-y lightness. Alarming and a little too wonderful.   Exactly like being suddenly weightless. I know a person in this position should right away ballast themselves with the reminder that our bonds to all other people are always and already the threads binding us to the destructible world. I know that, and I still felt and feel the cold ozone-y weightlessness. If you’re fed up with impractical introspection, and I really don’t blame you, you may click right here.

Here is my After photo.  That water and wind tore through the metal, concrete and asphalt and tossed the bits with a jaunty flourish along the Belt Parkway.  Saw the changing of his world. Yes, I’m here to tell you that Tempest becomes  a different, uncannier, more luminous song when you’re standing on the salty wreckage of your own neighborhood, than it was when you were wondering who Clio or Cleo is.   Tempest has its singular moments, and yet does what all the best art of disaster does. It is a terrific allegory for our dogged embrace of everything that does not ultimately matter in the very moment of its not-mattering. Every snapshot of sacrifice, affection, betrayal, heroism, faith, doubt, even the reckless gamblers,  is set ruthlessly against the glimpses of implacable destruction. The song’s melody has a patient, rocking feel, and Dylan begins most verses with a merciless delivery of each syllable like a fist pounding a podium, and ends with softer, milder tones. So the sound of the song is a pendulum:  sacrifice and doom; affection and doom; valor and doom; faith and doom.  The vignettes range from the stock moment of the Astors unaware that their days of luxury sight-seeing are over, to the clever and sort of ballsy choice of having Jim Dandy *come to the rescue* of a crippled boy, to the subtle irony of Davey’s whores getting their final command from a man in the form of being released to their deaths. The web of religion that runs through the song is viciously tangled against itself: Jim Dandy dies in peace amid a vision of the rising Eastern star; the bishop admits at the last that human can’t save human; disembodied love and pity send useless prayers; there are angels, and they turn aside; the captain reads of apocalypse and weeps–this here-and-now apocalypse occurring under and over him was his to prevent. At one point Dylan undoes whatever transcendence you may want to glean from his tale by blaming “the wizard’s curse.”

The artist gets it right: in a single moment Leo grasps the disaster, acts with altruistic reflex, and loses his mind.  It’s the truest moment in the song for me, he’s the central character for me. His doomed sketches would have given the glorious ship art’s eternal life.  He’s struck and undone by love just as his muse the ship is struck and undone.  And he is the opposite of the watchman for whom the calamity is the phantom of his sleep: Leo the artist sees the calamity for what it is, acts because the impulse to preserve life is irrepressible, and in that moment knows the full weight of an absurd universe and goes mad.

Rising and falling with the swells of Tempest, hapless meaning after hapless meaning, is just the right equilibrium for me in an intrinsically destructible world that hasn’t destroyed me so far, and but hasn’t bound itself to me–or me to it–with enough strong threads to make a Job out of me. Thanks to Bob Dylan for being able to show us how preposterous it is that we don’t regularly lose our minds, without losing his.  And like I said before, if you can’t stand any of this, click right here.


Doctor, Doctor, Tell Me The Time Of Day

Yesterday I spent an hour on line at The Tempest Store New York, to purchase a CD that was released today, and whose contents I already had been plugging into any time I liked, thanks to technologies that make dates and times more like water than stone. And the long waits at The Tempest Store New York were the result of the newfangled technology, a virtual cash register–a cell phone connected to a Mac–operated by an astonishingly patient gentleman. The Tempest Store New York will trend in place for six days, vacuuming money from people like me who lose all math skills when confronted with a brightly colored shiny useless coin-like disc that has Bob Dylan’s name on it, are you kidding how can I live with only one of these?

The boxes holding the CDs we were all handed yesterday had labels reading September 11, today. In Tempest, you’re never far from old, not so old, real, and not so real deaths and murders, in so many different quantities. Two-Timing Slim, wife/lover/husband, Leo, Mr. Astor, fifteen hundred and ninety-eight others, John Lennon, Sweet William–these deaths happen and are memorialized, they’re past and present, at the same time in their songs, over and over with each listen. I thought about this while I watched  a little of the naming ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial this morning. People who had lost loved ones stepped forward in pairs, read names, then were given a moment to recall their own person. It occurred to me that all these men and women in the ceremony have aged eleven years since their loss, and in the case of the teenagers and children, these eleven years mean growing up. It’s another beautiful day here in New York, our skies are shiny and flawless. And that made me think of the line in the old Roll on John, Don’t the sun look lonesome, oh lord lord lord, on the graveyard fence? That is an appealing thought-dream. Our life keeps the sun company. Watching the grieving, living pairs of people reciting name after name and squinting in the bright sun, I think it could almost be half-true.

This Is All Your Fault, or, And He Tried To Tell Someone

These two faces seem right now to be faces of Tempest. The watchman dreaming of all things that can be, dreaming the Titanic may sink into the sea. And the villagers bearing the three corpses after the farce/tragedy of their deaths. And there are flat-chested junkie whores and bitches and hags and the White House burning down, and I’m sitting about a ten-minute walk from where John Lennon crawled to his death and I’ll never get that melody out of my head. The Duquesne whistle will sweep the whole world away and maybe that’s something to look forward to.

I’ve listened to Tempest just twice all through, and I’m afraid I’m in the camp with anyone saying this makes “Love and Theft” seem dandified, and Together Through Life an amuse bouche (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The record really is like swimming in dark waters and having enough breath to laugh out loud. One sign for me that this is a pulled together living body and not songs that happened to be ready for recording, is the way I forgot I already knew every word to Duquesne Whistle and Early Roman Kings–the sounds and images of these songs were suddenly highlighted differently as they became part of a story, or a portrait, or a landscape, or all three.

  • Duquesne Whistle is just right to launch us into all these dark waters where it feels just on first listens that life and death are working their way up and down all around us. Everything is on that train as it goes by again and again, to that natty tune. The past, the future, the present, salvation, desire, destruction–they’re all there, and they could all be right on time. Whistle along–we’re all already on board.
  • Scarlet Town feels like a close-up of Ain’t Talkin’. Here is the last outback at the world’s end,  eternal and inescapable, you can smell this place. Dylan hallucinates it, then haunts it with Sweet William and Mistress Mary, which is not at all the same as merely referring to folklore–he’s making ghosts of that old undead world.
  • Tin Angel flabbergasts me. Black Jack Davey meets Harold Pinter meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or something. The old familiar ballad of the cuckold breaks into a dream quest then breaks into those dialogues that stop time while the husband and wife then wife and lover exchange absurd, fatal, hopeless lines. I felt left with the nightmare meaninglessness of these three deaths, and wonder at the strange unpinnable world created through registers and imagery that slide from one palette to another. The greasy hair, the knife pulled out of the robe, the golden chain. This one, like Scarlet Town, seems to radicalize the folk ballad worlds of their origins–they are their own wraith worlds, not appropriated and not even ironized from their histories
  • Tempest is a fine composition, masterfully recited, it does justice to the melodrama and allegory that already characterize the culture of the Titanic. The whole disaster-as-microcosm-of-human-grace-and-foible appeals to me personally. Someone else can do the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald comparison and let me know what comes out of that.
  • I like the way the Liverpool docks in Roll On John, immediately following Tempest, remind us that the White Star Line began in Liverpool, their offices are still there. Thus we have an odd segue from a song about many many deaths to a song about one death. Roll On John is deeply strange to me. Uncharacteristic.  It’s so, well, specific. And the quotations from Lennon’s songs are so…smooth.  Right now it does not disturb me as an elegy to a musician I love, but it disturbs me as a meditation on how the dead are recalled and memorialized, and remain entirely dead and gone. For me, the phrase roll on, John is much more chilling than it is eulogizing. Soul to soul our shadows roll. I know that people are having weepfests over this song, and right now it is an unnerving oddity for me.

Now I’ve gotten all thoughtful and I was hoping to avoid that.  I wanted to get across that these songs are lit by a candle waxed in black.  The one word “humble” in Scarlet Town shows something of what his voice is up to now–completely undoing humility as well as stopping time for as long as he needs. And the way he sneers and laughs his way differently through each refrain of “I pay in blood but not my own.” And calling that woman in from the sun so she doesn’t burn her brains. Come back and chain yourself to the shadows with me, you only think it’s real out there. A brand new shadow world is part of the seduction of Tempest. It does something else–it  makes youth pale and undernourishing.

This somehow brings me to the Port Chester show, and all its vitalities, which were as vitalicious as you may have heard they were. I  want to highlight his guitar in Tangled Up In Blue, which held the song together and gave it an implacable feel. And I want to highlight Can’t Wait, where the talents of Tony+Charlie+Stu+George+Donnie were suddenly transparent to me. The arrangement has been slowed down to a requiem, and I can’t imagine the restraint and timing needed to pull this off with expression and not dullness, after a Highway 61 that did that atomic explosion thing some of us never ever get tired of–to be able to change tempos so drastically with no falling-off of energy and feeling, that was breathtaking for me. Please look at Frank Beacham‘s photos and review, which capture the vitaliciousness of the show.

OK, please offer a moment’s thanks for our current embarrassment of riches.

I Entered Without My Hat + Rocks and Gravel = Rapid City

We have limited vacation time here in the Garden and we use it for In Show And Concert opportunities.  Among the largesse of being a Bob Dylan fan in the new millenium is doing and seeing extraordinary things  to occupy the hours before he takes the stage, or after he’s left the stage and before it’s time to head to the airport, in places I never thought I would set foot in. Above is a photo of something that held no interest for me until I visited it, and then I found myself instantly hostage to its story and itself.  The Crazy Horse Memorial on a sunny day is an hour outside of clock time, let me tell you.

Every street corner in Rapid City, South Dakota, is home to a life-size and very skillful bronze sculpture of a president, with relevant gestures, and accessories that range from puzzling (why does John Tyler have a violin?), to preposterous (  a grinning John F Kennedy holds the hand of his little John-John and with his other hand offers the child a toy airplane…), to moving (FDR’s leg braces are visible under his bronze pants). On each street corner you can play the “who is that?” game and try to guess the president based on what he is holding, doing, wearing.

The theme of holding, doing, and wearing carried over to the show on the 17th at the Barnett Arena. This show was my 50th, and since Show The First was in 2005, the changes in personnel and production that are minor for an awful lot of people have been dramatic for me.  The first time I saw him play the guitar onstage, Denny Freeman gone, Charlie Sexton all-too-present, Stu moving right to left, the keyboard facing one way then another–all of this feels like something more than ordinary housekeeping and personnel developments.   And so, there was an awful lot of simple personal rearrangement of impressions last Friday for me.

This was my first show without the introductory rituals–no Nag Champa, no putting folk into bed with rock.  Just lights out, picking out the familiar silhouettes, the rise in crowd noise when Dylan’s silhouette is recognized, a few guitar notes, lights up, Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat, and riding straight on through, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower now part of the set, the only encore Blowin’ in the Wind. So the pace of the set had a locomotive momentum, despite the familiar shifts in tone and mood.

The stage is so cluttered now.  Lots of stuff plus six different-sized men, all governed by our Workingman’s functional aesthetic. The baby grand piano is tucked behind the keyboard and changes the topography of the entire stage. The front space reserved for Dylan’s up-close-and-personal appearances  is compressed by musicians and instruments and monitors and now feels rather spot-lit and cabaret-ish, or squeezed and narrow, depending on how your own impressions are being rearranged.

And despite the five other different-sized men, Bob Dylan has become a one-man band who capers diffidently, if such a thing is possible, from keyboard (really only for the opener) to piano, to front of stage with and without harmonica, to guitar for Simple Twist of Fate, on and off that piano bench throughout the show.  On Tangled Up In Blue he went from front of stage to piano mid-song.  On the piano, he is never still.  He twists and dips and raises a leg and mugs and points. This came to feel more showmanlike to me, not in the sense of artificial, rather in the sense of keeping plates spinning, a kind of vaudevillian energy. At the piano Dylan is a combination of Glenn Gould, Harpo Marx, and Bob Dylan that has to be seen to be appreciated.

And without a wide-brimmed hat obscuring his face, the restlessness multiplies in scowls, smirks, and the peculiar sightless glares in the direction of the audience that seem reprimanding and curious at the same time–what was it all of you wanted indeed.

From the center of the second row, I had an ideal sightline to all the glares and the prancing, and that had a slightly deafening effect. Oh, I heard him play faster and looser with Tangled Up In Blue, and I heard a luscious Make You Feel My Love, and I was treated to that terrific new arrangement of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whose particular new flavor I can’t describe–more bass, more drum, more ominous? I heard all the repetitions of the little riff he plays on Simple Twist Of Fate that I’ve come to recognize as the sound of futility. I know what I heard, but I know a lot went by me this fiftieth time around, because I saw so much. I’m looking forward to Portchester on Sept 4, when I’ll be in the balcony, seeing less and and hearing more.

I like to compare Dylan’s recent voices to kinds of rock because that feels right to me. Physically feels right, not figuratively. The timbre now is a quarry. He mines words and syllables like boulders from beneath his feet and sets them pendant in the air. Words shear into serrated flinty edges. There’s gravel everywhere. So it was a wonderful gift to find that South Dakota could teach me more about rocks in 3 days than I’d learned in my entire life. Rocks that glittered and rocks that sharded into perfect cubes down a hillside and rocks red and gold and white and rocks that poured upwards and rocks that needled upwards and rocks as broad as the sky and veined dark and light so clearly that you somehow intuit the language of time there–that the science of geology is the code of the earth’s lifespan makes sense when you see these rocks. There’s more to sounding like a rock than having an old throat.

Lecherous and Treacherous

Listening to  Early Roman Kings against the trailer for Strike Back, the Cinemax show, is an odd disconnect, not because the action and muted soundtrack of the video is distracting, but because the show seems to be all about strategic, choreographed high tech violence between good guys and bad guys, and the song is all about guys already so powerful-bad they terrorize and lay waste by swarming in top hats and tails and gold rings. They’ll take your city and your women, they don’t need to plan a course of action and wear camouflage. So I like a lot the funny choice of pairing this song with that footage. Bob Dylan’s cartoony outlaw-kings are nastier than soldiers, spies, and operatives saving the free world in the desert sand. Which sounds about right.

The irresistible Mannish Boy tune makes the song impossible to get out of your head, even before you’re done listening.  On paper the rhymes are cheap, sung they’re tasty and vicious. Isis tells us this is only half the song, and I look forward to hearing where this collage will go from here.  I think David’s Horatii  suit at least this portion of the song pretty much as well as the Gangs of New York. You’re never in one epoch at a time with Bob Dylan.

I hope everyone who cares is following developments on Harold Lepidus’s excellent Examiner blog. Subscribe right now if you haven’t already. I’m copying here the lyrics which Lepidus posted today, via Caroline Schwartz Schwarz of Facebook, thanks to both [NB: Correspondence with Mr Lepidus revealed that the correct spelling is Caroline Schwarz.]

All the early Roman kings
In their shark skin suits
Bow ties and buttons

High top boots
Drivin’ the spikes in *
Blazin’ the rails
Nailed in their coffins
Top hats and tails
Fly away over
Fly away flap your wings
Fly by night
Like the early Roman kings
They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
They’re lecherous and treacherous
A-Hell bent for leather *
Each of ‘em bigger

Than all men put together
Sluggers and muggers
Wearin fancy gold rings
All the women going crazy
For the early Roman kings

You Say, “Who Is That Man?”

And so, as of this typing I’ve only had access to this image for a few hours and [and I typed that a few days ago, this is not one of those up-to-the-minute blogs obviously, and of course, we are well into the expedition to chart the Land of Tempest having only sighted the shoreline--well, except the lucky and estimable Allan Jones] the picture has already settled itself as a cel in my attention–I already see scarlet voluptuous classicism, a touch of kitsch and mystery,  as I traipse through my day.  Pay in Blood, Long and Wasted Years–I’m already loving the itch of knowing the day’s not far now that these titles will no longer be just phrases, they will be 4 or 8 or 14 minutes of sound and sense and feeling, and will take their place in  the enormous noisy family of songs that live in our minds.   And all the Midrash fun and games already well under way: “9/11! 9/11 again!!” “Tempest! Oh no! Shakespeare’s last play! Does this mean…?? Can this mean…?? Ha! I knew Chronicles Volume One meant there would be no Volume Two, so by the same logic, naming this record Tempest means it won’t be the… you know what I mean….” 

Now, I know that a mile from where I sit, 50 miles, 2500 miles, other people are activated the way I am, by the singular eagerness and speculation and rumor-mongering and lunacy accompanying one more Bob Dylan record. It’s 2012, and we’re getting one more and we can’t merely be expectant and grateful. We just can’t.

David Dalton is a writer who appreciates this ritual, or syndrome, more than some others; he gets both the personal and the collective symptoms. His recent book, Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan unfortunately mutates the eagerness/speculation/rumor-mongering/generally harmless lunacy into a gauntlet: Bob Dylan, your inscrutability sentences you to be a fugitive from your fans’ right to your real, true self. The raison d’etre of the book can be summed up here below in Dalton’s own words :

Dylan is the most prolific writer of musical autobiographies of all time. But these are essentially works of fiction, and behind them there is a man who writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over. That’s who we want to know about. (311)

. First, the sorry old  illusion that behind any art is an essential, solid, authentic entity in the form of what-the-artist-really-means, and we yearn to get hold of that Thing. Ad hominem hermeneutics isn’t the richest way to explore art. It’s usually a dead-end, and a detour from what I think is the richer exploration–what am I in the encounter with this stuff made by another human being? Asking that is as personal and revelatory as art gets. Is what I think. Second, the presumption that fans have a proprietary claim to what-the-artist-really-means. Third, the presumption that Dylan’s entire audience is with Dalton in this urge to tear through “Tombstone Blues” and “Idiot Wind” and Chronicles to the man behind the fictions. The book is one “we” after another. Fourth, the strange fact–stranger than it is ironic–that Bob Dylan is indeed a sentient creature of flesh and blood, just like David Dalton.  Contemplate even for a moment what it may be like to be a sentient creature of flesh and blood  reading this:

So who is he? Which one is he? His ambivalence, his maddening evasiveness is essential to maintaining the quicksilver life of his creature. (326)

…and to know that you are the object of the writer’s maddened frustrations to obtain access to the secret coherence of yourself that you are maddeningly hiding from people you have–in this case–apparently met only once.  And, you are a creature.

Now contemplate that your appearance, your actions, your relations with other people, have been distributed, examined, and judged publicly for over forty years, in nearly every language in nearly every country, state, and province of the world.  How is it not transparent that the scrutiny can’t be separated from your wily genius? That a saga of investigation, speculation and frustration such as Who Is That Man? is its own answer  to its own title. That the Bob Dylan who maddens one is *really* *actually*  the man whose entire adult life has been publicly on trial for what-it-really-is. Cause and effect are confused here, is a way to look at this. I give Dalton credit that he is not disingenuous about this–he’s ardent, and convinced that Dylan’s evasiveness invites–demands–vivisecting. There’s really plenty of ardor, and also wit, and insight lacing the vivisection (now there’s a vile phrase, as Polonius would say), and some troubling errors and carelessness.

Dalton wishes to do justice to Dylan’s entire career, but the 60s dominate the book in the familiar default  way. It’s the story of the wild ones against the Little Boxes, presided over by their wild tiny dark prophet who went from being young David to being Dionysus, and there’s nowhere for the godling really to go after that but either down or mortal.  There are some engaging or eccentric pleasures in this familiar story, though: I like very much  Dalton’s skepticism on some of the disingenuousness or just plain naivete of the folk scene and its appetite for authenticity.  He gives us an entire chapter on Andy Warhol and Dylan, and an entire chapter on Tarantula. Dalton’s 13 reasons to read Tarantula are charming and smart, and when he skewers “the whole well-behaved Jonathan Franzenian fictional appliance…(243-4),”  I couldn’t have been happier. His riffs on individual songs can be terrific: I loved his description of Charlie McCoy’s guitar on Desolation Row. I enjoyed his take on New Morning, which he calls “his most disturbing record yet.”  I like that he refers to Things Have Changed as “mock misanthropic” (319), and I wish he’d devoted more attention to recent songs. In a book of 337 pages, by 279 we are only at 1976.

There are terrific observations: “It’s as if he’d given birth to a medium-size city and its inhabitants pursue him relentlessly” (304).  “”Nobody can talk to themselves as if talking to another person better than Dylan” (301). His skeptical take on the *authenticity* of the folk scene got a big hooray from me.  Ingenuity and insight collide frantically, like subatomic particles, in Dalton’s jazzy prose, with the weak moments. I don’t want to think that Dalton wrote this book in 72 hours without looking back, so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and find a scapegoat for the careless errors that litter the book:

  • “Dylan as the miner’s son, for instance, in North Country Blues” (9). Son? What son would that be? We don’t even know the genders of Mrs. John Thomas’s children.
  • Every time Dont Look Back is transcribed, it’s got an apostrophe.
  • He is very careless about Hibbing and Dylan’s life there. The city and his childhood can’t be dismissed as a “grim reality” (11), and although Dalton says “Bob won’t play sports or join extracurricular clubs” (12), his yearbook entry tells us something else. I don’t care if the boy never attended a meeting of the Latin Club, it’s false mythologizing to describe the teenager as more of an outsider than he was.
  • A photo on p 116 of the menu screen to the Dont Look Back DVD is identified as “the opening credits.”
  • “Arthur Brown,” whoever that is, did not mix Empire Burlesque ( 293).
  • Page 279 refers to “Rolling Thunder Review.”
  • Street-Legal is repeatedly transcribed without the hyphen.
  • He describes the hat and wig get-up at Newport 2002 as another mystifying unpredictable shenanigan, but the rest of us recognize the outfit as Dylan’s costume from the ‘Cross The Green Mountain video. If why he chose to wear this is burningly fascinating to anyone, enjoy the quest to find the answer.

To conclude his story,  Dalton describes the world of The Never Ending Tour. He gets what matters about the shows, the weird vitality, the obscure and addictive spontaneities. And then he transfers his nostalgia for the 60s onto those of us a little younger than himself,  who are addicted and who are currently examining the fonts used on the Tempest cover to find correlations to a letter Walt Whitman wrote to Sarah Bernhardt ( I may have made that up). Dalton writes:

Sure there are all the old fogies, but they’re in the minority. In their place are the too late born Bobcats, who missed the 60s but for whom that decade was the golden age, and Bob its avatar and masterpiece. Then there are the youngest fans, who know some of the songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Forever Young” from the iMAC commercial. (332)

This is the ground from which I can’t be moved. It is not Golden Age fantasies that bring so many people who missed the Golden Age to Dylan’s concerts, and to preoccupations with his music. Many of us don’t envy you, nor feel we missed anything. Not to mention, Dylan’s thousands of post-60s fans outside the US, who have small reason to consider our 1960s their golden age. And those young ‘uns who attend the shows, many of them are serious and informed listeners whose opinions of Dylan’s music, and of the musicianship of the current concerts, are worth hearing. Try talking to some of us, young and not quite as young. Also, wasn’t “Forever Young”  the Pepsi commercial with Will I. Am?

The journal I painstakingly and slowly edit, Montague Street, is a testimony to the lively and passionate and serious thought people around the globe are applying to the inspiration and curiosity Dylan’s work provokes in them right here right now, not nostalgically. It’s peculiarly beautiful to be part of the generation that discovered him later than his contemporaries believed he could be inspiringly discovered.  So come on board, and make a space for David Dalton and anyone else who wants to join us, and let’s all steer our happy ships into this tempest of tours and records and what all else.

Givin’ ‘em Lots Of Room

I did have more to say  about the women in Dylan’s songs who come from worlds worth being dreamt, but I think I’ve mentioned this already somewhere. The sleeping women are watched, and they’re also protected and private.  So many of the women in the songs move, travel, change–they leave the club in the middle of a song, they go to Tangier, they frolic in parks, they become big girls (a phrase which is deceptively offensive, it’s the singer’s unhappiness that infantilizes the woman, she is indeed on dry land and in somebody’s room, he can paint her in any colors he wants), they are satellites, they travel incognito….so many women are free while the singer is stationed forever in the song,  imagining and mourning and lusting and fuming and surrendering. I like the songs that are compasses of love: the singer is the “fixed foot” and the woman “far doth roam,” and neither soul “comes home” to the other. I like those because I feel the women untethered and belonging to themselves. Maybe Prof Ricks will read some Donne to his Misogyny class–that I would be sorry to miss, it sounds much better with an English accent than a Brooklyn accent. Nothing really sounds good with a Brooklyn accent except the recitation of a pizza recipe. I digress.

This diagram is a good segue for what I wanted to think about today–at first glance it can appear to be a clinical bawdiness. But it is not. These are vocal cords.

My father was a great enthusiast of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died 6 days before Bob Dylan’s 71st birthday. I grew up hearing enough recordings of his voice that by age 12, I could recognize him immediately. My father died 154 days before Bob Dylan’s 59th birthday, and learning of Fischer-Dieskau’s death made me sad and sentimental, so I dug up Roland Barthes’ essay The Grain of the Voice, in which he disparages Fischer-Dieskau, to distract myself.

Barthes gets to F-D through his anxiety over the apparent conundrum of translating the experience of music into language. His bête noire is the adjective and his other bête noire is the language of transcendence. “Are we condemned to the adjective?” Barthes laments. “Are we reduced to the dilemma of either the predicable or the ineffable?” He tries to find a way out of this bind, to give us a chance to marry language to music without producing the stillborn adjective-ridden description, or the chimera-monster of transcendence. He hits upon the idea of embodied language,  what he will call the grain of the voice, “the very precise space (genre) of the encounter between a language and a voice.” (His emphasis.)

To illustrate this idea, he pits F-D against  Charles Panzera, whom I confess I hadn’t heard of before reading Barthes’ essay. F-D loses, because although he is “an artist beyond reproach…nothing seduces, nothing sways us to jouissance.”  “With FD [NB: Barthes didn't have the patience to type out his entire name either], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth. All of Panzera’s art, on the contrary, was in the letters, not in the bellows (simple technical feature: you never heard him breathe, but only divide up the phrase).”

The encounter between a language and a voice is pretty much where you live when you listen to Bob Dylan, and Roland Barthes lived long enough to hear When He Returns, for crying out loud, although we don’t have time to worry about that. My version of the Fischer-Dieskau–Panzera showdown would be Rufus Wainwright’s and Bob Dylan’s versions of Hallelujah, and I mean Dylan’s 1988 live performance of Leonard’s song which if you haven’t heard it, you must kill anyone who stands in your way of hearing it.

We like Rufus very much here in the garden, his voice is like nicely salted caramel, and I doubt anyone could top his sly and silky cover of Leonard’s Everybody Knows. His Hallelujah is silky too, and pure, and very nearly liturgical. His hallelujahs and indeed his treatment of the whole song favors the cultured liberal’s illusion that religious art proves that religion is really all about feelings, and beauty, and religious art proves we can all share feeling and beauty, because that is what art is for. Rufus turns the song into a lovely piece of humanism.

Bob Dylan’s Hallelujah is all human and never humanistic. There’s an urgent low quaver in the opening lines, David playing his secret chord, and then, ” But you don’t really care for music, DO YA?” That is a man sounding harsh and shameless,  taunting his own god,  not a man singing a story about problems between a fictional character and his god. Then a different kind of boldness when he soars on one breath through “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing hallelujah.”  He bites off “You saw her bathing on the roof,” and manages to get so much teeth into the one word proof, that I learn what the word means–it means faithlessness. Then he lets go the r’s at the end of chair and hair, to let the words rise. And the hallelujahs themselves are almost everything you need to know about that space where a voice meets a language: Dylan’s hallelujahs are nearly everything he can do with his voice, from loam to honey,  and more kinds of feeling in 4 syllables than most of us will experience in a week. If hallelujah is gratitude and praise, how better to make that happen than to body the word. How puerile to think praise is just a tone. By the time Dylan announces “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll, stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah,”  to say he’s manifested the lord of song right there is a trite and evasive response. Instead I hear how to be bold and rooted enough to dare a lord of song to doubt his existence.  He does what Barthes argues: “The song must speak, must write– for what is produced at the level of geno-song is finally writing.”  And this writing occurs in the uncanny space when the signs and symbols of language are of a piece with those mortal bits of vocal cords. It matters absolutely that this space where matter meets sign and composes tangible writing is not mystical nor ineffable, nor is it humanistic. I think Bob Dylan owns this space.

I wanted an image for this space, and I think this painting, The Sounds in the Rock, by Theodoros  Stamos is just right. Unfortunately it doesn’t reproduce well, and unfortunately, MoMA has taken it down for the time being. If you’ve seen it, you may agree with me: the painting pulls you into a strange dark beautiful place with echoes you can just barely hear until you start to freak out a little and feel you better move on because those French tourists are starting to look at you staring a little too slack-jawed at a painting by an artist they never heard of.