So 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.
Imagine one rootless gypsy per year, each of them carrying a sign reading “Now This Way.”
As my birthday wish, I have a true story. When I worked as a cashier at Barnes and Noble #1979, one of our regular customers was a fellow with a soft moonface who wore every day a neat drab shirt with a nearby address embroidered over the pocket, and neat drab slacks that jangled with a large key ring. He was the maintenance man for a large apartment building in the neighborhood and liked to visit the bookstore on his breaks. Whichever of us was not occupied with a customer he’d approach with the little smile of a guileless child about to demonstrate a card trick: “Do you want to hear a joke?” he would ask every time. The first time unnerved each new cashier because of the possibility the joke would be obscene, but it never was. “Why are fish so smart?” was one I remember hearing four or five times myself. “Because they live in schools!” And I would make the “You got me!” face and laugh just enough and then ring up his purchase which was either another inexpensive little wordplay book or an inexpensive blank book. There were days when I couldn’t bear my own pity imagining this lonely simple life; there were days when I suspected that a moonfaced simple man might be more aware than he let on of his ability to command indulgence from someone like me; there were days I was glad for a simple cheerful encounter especially when I couldn’t figure out the punch line.
My supervisor at the store was a mensch who allowed me to decorate the cord of my name tag with little buttons: one with Bob Dylan’s high school yearbook photo, one with the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’, one simply stating Bob Dylan… One day I was the cashier available for a joke, and when the janitor approached, I looked up with the ritual grownup encouraging smile. But this time he said to me, “Do you know what my favorite Bob Dylan song is?” I froze—half disoriented and half expecting to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” and preparing a politely impressed response to that. The janitor smiled his mischievous child smile and said. . . “Everything is Broken.” The moment split open wide and I burst out– “Because you fix things every day!”
Martin Buber wrote, “…everything broken points to the unbroken…”
Happy birthday, dear Mr Dylan. Keep your distance. Try not to underestimate us, and we’ll try not to underestimate each other.
Feeling low and bleak in this winter that’s been keeping cold and dark into March, I went to an Allman Brothers concert. Gregg Allman (only his friends call him Gregory), a man not at all young, close to frail, powered by the liver of a stranger who is certain to be still mourned, rang out a fine Tears of Rage on March 5. He matched word after word of this long and unsimple song with more heart and breath than robuster bodies could have summoned–he filled the old Beacon with the very sound of keepin’ on keepin’ on.
Tears of rage is already a state of being that demands heart and breath that have little to do with a body’s strength. Tears of rage demand a set-to with something in the world worth the rage to shake tears out of you. Withdrawal, bleakness, retreat–you can’t know tears of rage from down in those ditches. And remember that Tears of Rage is simply about saying I know, and meaning it, to the suffering caused by falseness and cruelties and errors.
Bleakness and falseness. Have you come across this book helpfully diagnosing Bob Dylan as a depressive? Have you ever seen what happens when you Google *Bob Dylan Autism*? The result is the search engine equivalent of overturning a log in the forest and disturbing a nest of centipedes.
Pros or amateurs diagnosing in public any man who hasn’t called their receptionist for an appointment are just etiquette problems. But if Dr X or just-plain-Joe try to take their blunt tweezers to the old chestnut *Mental Illness and Art* then we have philistinism, which for me outplays rudeness.
Above is Van Gogh’s first portrait of a Dr Gachet. The white-scored blue world that can only carelessly be called a background because it is actually above, behind, and within Dr Gachet, is why I like this version best: it is one of Van Gogh’s places where gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through. You stop for this painting because you see not that the quiet and dignified pain in this man’s eyes exceeds his body’s strength but that this body has very long been unable to scaffold this sadness, as strong as his hands seem to be, this is what they do–they hold on. And you see that the flower seems to lean along with the man in some kind of organic sympathy, it may actually, while its own vigor has to be ebbing away in that glass, be desperately reaching towards those golden books mistaking them for the sun. And you see that the blue around Dr Gachet is waves or skies or planks, the blue can be inside or outdoors, it can be layers of heaven growing lighter as they rise or just an old wall behind the cafe table; and you see that the scoring on the blue seeps from the scoring on Dr Gachet’s jacket–the world above and behind and of him is the same sorry stuff all atomic and restless. And you see also a world that’s concrete, jubilant, and promising in the cheery green and red tablecloth and those glowing buttery books whose facts or philosophies or verses seem not just inviting but edible. They are what this cafe is serving up! And there’s really nothing here but Dr Gachet’s eyes whose sadness beats out of the canvas like a color of its own; and the sadness is Dr Gachet’s blindness to this entire world he’s holding on to without seeing. Van Gogh gives equal weight to the yellow and blue and red and purple real outer world of upright tables and walls, and to the power of the inner world to obliterate and derange the concrete and the upright stuff and the whole spectrum as well.
Van Gogh’s vision can do both, without canceling itself, and without redeeming. He finds the way to give equal weight to the real out here and the disordered in here, without insisting that you choose. And the punch line, if you don’t know it, is even better than you could have expected: this Dr Gachet was Van Gogh’s own physician who gave the painter digitalis for his epilepsy, which proved not a remedy. The artist examines and tends to the doctor who could not cure him. We carried you in our arms on Independence Day.
Insanity smashing against my soul, Bob Dylan the Singer sings in a song that’s such a requiem for the spirit that I wasn’t surprised to learn I was not the only person to go cold all over when hearing that Bob Dylan the Person had bought a tract of land in the Scottish Highlands: the Romantic Gloommeister, the fearful fatalist in me imagined this real estate investment was A Sign of the Final Retirement.
What’s not a clinical symptom in Highlands? Pessimism. Self-loathing. Inertia. Isolation. Loss of libido and appetite. Moral indifference. Purposeleness. Humorlessness. Vain fantasies of escaping an unendurable present. Inability to experience pleasure. Highlands the song is an ordered and vivid and vital and droll thing that describes a bitter and dark and life-denying vision. Bob Dylan’s care in singing it should not be able to exist in the heart of the narrator he created.
So be very careful when talking about depression–anyone’s–and art. Dr Gachet and Highlands are precious and abiding things in the world that deliver pretty indelible experiences of the uniquely human ability to feel the world darkly and worthlessly. To take these things as either symptoms, or as redemption is both all wrong. All they can do is give you a place to stand and for a moment feel that the disordered, dark, and worthless in here is somehow made of the same stuff as the precious and abiding out here. Hold that mystery. . .just one more moment…then as you were.
This is Virupaksha, the Buddhist protector-deity who is the Guardian King of the West. He and his three brothers of the compass stand at the four corners of temples as sentinels and defenders. This Virupaksha no longer serves his temple and instead is himself safeguarded at the Rubin Museum on 17th street in Manhattan, where I encountered him during a class I took on Buddhism and Buddhist art. I learned in this class about the ritual that sacralizes a sculpture and transforms it from an object into a Being. It’s the moment the artist places the glass or stone eyes into the face of a piece of wood or metal or stone in the shape of a person-like creature. Eyes make Being. It’s an elaborate and charged ritual; you can read about it.
I was attracted to the wooden Virupaksha in his glass house in the Rubin because he is larger than most of the sculptures in the museum, and uncharacteristically made of wood and also painted. From the side, with his head turned away from me, he looked a lot like Tenniel’s grotesque Duchess, fierce and big-bellied and big-headed. His crown resembled her headdress. When I got close enough to angle round and see his face, I stopped being amused and curious and felt something else. You can’t see it in this reproduction, but the glass eyes in the sculpture are almost taxidermy-grade realistic with milky whites and irises that are not blank brown discs but shaded like yours or mine, and the pupils are the right size. The naturalistic eyes would make an eerie enough impression on a realistic sculpture, and they suddenly do awaken this fantastic antique foreigner. You have to make one of those visual-cognitive efforts that feels muscular–like switching figure and ground in those profile and vase figure-ground tricks–to remember that this glass can’t see you too, that this wooden sculpture is not looking and thinking.
One moment of seeing glass eyes seeing me, and I got a whiff of the effable threshold of the ineffable. The point for me was that denying sentience to the realism of those glass eyes was the act of will, albeit fleeting and conscious. Now, to continue manufacturing the illusion of sentience after that moment is revealed and it’s passed–that’s depleting and futile. The toil of manufacturing the ineffable and hammering it into the real is where I see the internal business of religious belief and the external business of religious ritual.
In life, for me, depleting and futile. But in art, I’m captivated feeling this work in action in the hands of strong artists. The most powerful religious art teaches us the concentration and ingenuity and ardor required to light on fire that effable threshold of the ineffable. I think this is the thrillingest extremity of imagination. So this brings us back to eyes. Above is a pair of downturned mortal eyes whose clabber is sentient and sightless, and the living center of the painting just as Virupaksha’s glass eyes were the living center of his wooden body. It’s John Milton and those awful rolling orbs. I like to think he got dressed up nicely as he is here in order to dictate to his indentured daughters and didn’t just throw on some grimy stained dressing gown before he cleared his throat phlegmily and said “Where was I?” There’s a lot of Paradise Lost in Tempest, but somehow I aim to get from Paradise Lost’s effable thresholds to the one in Man Gave Names to All the Animals.
Milton has an extraordinarily difficult task in his poem besides the grand moral quest he set himself to justify the ways of God to man. Which famous quest, by the way, I think ends up a little disingenuous. The poem is one long lesson reminding me that reflection is not reality, and image is not truth–reminding me of the imperative difference between what I see before me, and what I discern with the God-implanted reason that needs no lamps…no eyes. Paradise Lost very well may justify the ways of a God to his creation named John Milton who, at 43, lost the ability to see anything at all of God’s other creations until his death 23 years later.
Milton’s other extraordinarily difficult task is artistic and really more interesting to me. He has to show an unfallen world with the language we have to make do with on the other side of the fall. I have to take in a plausible Adam and Eve, I have to believe in them and visualize Eden, before their corruption and I have to do this without the hideous pride of casting off my own inheritance of their corruption. I have to believe in Milton’s Adam and Eve and without making a terrible error:i.e., I can know them as they knew themselves before the fall. For the religious reader this conundrum is a moral challenge, for me this problem is a most fascinating intellectual challenge. How can Milton help me see that something I already consider a chimera is indeed a conundrum? He will do it with English syntax and semantics as his little glass eyes. Here is a tiny sample of the parsing we do hundreds of times throughout the poem:
The key of this infernal pit by due,/And by command of heaven’s all-powerful King,/I keep; by him forbidden to unlock/These adamantine gates (Book II, 850-854; Sin)
. . .some great behest from heaven/To us perhaps he brings. . .But go with speed,/And what they stores contain bring forth (Book IV, 311-314; Adam)
And with retorted scorn his back he turned/On those proud towers to swift destruction doom’d. (Book V, 906-7; Narrator referring to Abdiel)
Milton’s syntax is famously constructed of reversal and inversion, but something happens to me when I repeatedly must make order of subjects and predicates reversed, of prepositional phrases preceding the elements they’re modifying. Repeatedly, I wait to learn what I need to learn to trace meaning. Through these continual deferrals and suspensions of finding out what something is, or what something is doing, Milton disciplines me to a patience and and alertness unlike any other reading identity I can think of. But that’s not the point. This is a book about the problems of consciousness, it’s not a book that’s going to stop at cultivating my consciousness. Milton’s grammar gets at the quick of the difference between transparent immediate knowledge and the haze and labor of mediated constructed knowledge. The difference between Adam and Eve’s sweet untaxing husbandry of Eden’s fruits, and digging an irrigation ditch in the rain. It’s the difference between unfallen life and fallen life. Unmediated, Edenic apprehension of the way things are, and the tortuous straining to find out how things are here outside Eden. And so, without demanding that I accept a chimera as a real thing, without demanding that I *believe* in Adam or Eden, Milton makes me into a piece of his fiction and thus I feel for myself the world he’s created by living it through reading it. The effable threshold of the ineffable, via 9th grade grammar.
How nice to find that the man who did name all the animals, Linnaeus, had such a cheerful friendly face! As well he should–even in Bob Dylan’s song, before everything goes to hell (har har), naming the animals is a fun activity. This is one of the songs whose lyrics, no matter how often I hear them, I never can remember–this is the bear? the bull? On an album with phrases like “masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition,” or “surrender your crown on this bloodstained ground,” suddenly this writer can’t do better than descriptions of cows and pigs that would be laughed out of kindergarten. And that’s the point. For Adam, naming his companions in Eden is the same kind of wonderful play-work as gently untangling the vines. Adam delights in their growling and their not-too-short horns and the milk and wool–he doesn’t need to understand the animals any better than he does in the harmonious peaceable world he shares with them. And he gets to name each one! After his artless little observation of an animal, we hear the word coming up through the Adam’s own growling I, and emerges as something that simply rhymes with the last word of his description. Here’s another animal….it’s not too big. . .big. . . it’ll be a . . .pig! How easy and fun is that! In this game, we hear exactly what matters about original unfallen speech: it’s embodied, immediate, and unambiguous. In Eden, the arbitrariness of language does not mask or confuse reality, instead what looks like the arbitrariness of “bull” or “sheep” is a creative, loving, ordering action, like naming a child.
In the last verse, the language changes and a new namer does the work, which is no longer immediate and playful. Now the language is not childish and vague, it’s focused and artful. The sibilance in smooth/glass/grass/disappear represents the animal it describes. Slithering is quite many grade levels above the vocabulary in the previous verses and also participates in the sound portrait. Even before I’m tricked at the very end, I know I’m in a world where language manipulates for effect, and traps me in its effects: as soon as I hear smooth as glass, I know what’s going on. This is not another barnyard pal, it’s not even an animal as the cow and bear are. I know who it is. And when he disappears, Adam does not name him–I do. If you listen to the last verse of Man Gave Names to All the Animals and do not speak in your mind or even out loud–I think I’ll call it a snake–then congratulations, you are uncorrupted and miraculously unfallen. But the rest of us finish the song because we occupy the world on the other side of that tree, we see the animal that’s disappeared, we already know its name, there’s no hope of an unbidden act of innocent creation from our throats. We hear this verse, and we feel immediately the trap of snake, we feel the word taking shape in our bodies. It is and always has to be snake, just as we feel the free fanciful play of rhyme burbling up Adam’s throat into bull and sheep. We’re stained with the knowledge Adam doesn’t have yet, and we can’t protect him from knowledge or fall, and every time we hear the song, we witness our own fall.
And now Bob Dylan has made me part of the myth of the fall, which is no more nor less real to me than the Sirens and Horatio, through manipulating the ordinary work I do paying attention to words and sentences, as Milton manipulates me to the same end. Look for these thresholds–they may be places where people who feel they have abysmally different visions of life and the world can meet each other, even if for only a moment.
[PS: The essay collection Bob Dylan and Philosophy has a valuable article on linguistics and theology in Man Gave Names. . by Ruvik Danieli and Anat Biletzki; this book has a good deal of worthwhile reading in it and a sorry fact it is that it belongs to a series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. ]
We’re late but we’re here.
The old-fashioned use of the term *Dylanesque* refers to jazzy/hallucinatory/obscure/dense/kookily allusive figurative language–finger-snapping and mind-blowing turns of phrase. But that’s not my Dylanesque. My Dylanesque is terrifically illustrated by the true-enough account of the real origin of Valentine’s Day. You are the 3rd century emperor of Rome, Claudius the Second and you are faced with a challenge. An imperial empire is neither created nor maintained by compassion, compromise, and mercy. What you need are many many armed men to serve as your imperial prosthetics. What’s happened is that you don’t have enough of these to really get the hard work of being emperor done, The nuisance is that it’s not for lack of men who can wave a sword around just the way you like it. But some of your soldiers find that getting married and having families takes the edge off their amor patriae and conquistador spirit. You are Claudius the Second: There are no problems, only solutions, and this solution is embarrassingly easy, the matter of five minutes and not even a whole piece of parchment. You decree that marriage is out, so dust off those swords. A priest named Valentine decides this law is unjust. Injustice is a concept which, when misinterpreted, is a festering nuisance to imperial empires. You briskly solve another problem, what a week this is turning out to be…..Valentine is clapped in a dungeon where he awaits his own beheading as soon as someone can get around to it. His body imprisoned and imperiled by tyranny, his soul remains unfettered, and in this state of tragic purity, he falls in love with the dungeon master’s daughter whom we imagine toting dirty buckets of water to the prisoners. Before he is executed, Valentine gets a note to the girl. He signs it …”your Valentine.” Now who among you spared a thought for the courage of righteous martyrs or for Roman tyranny when you stood frowning in Hallmark, wondering whether things with the person you have the most sex with have reached the emotional level of the $3.99 card in your hand? You see? That is how history works.
Innocence, tyranny, law, justice, love, battlefield, hearth, sacrifice, and then eternal fame that gets it all wrong. The circle dance of power and grace and pointless/destructive/common/redemptive love is unbreakable and relentless. That’s my idea of Dylanesque.
Tin Angel is right for a Dylanesque Valentine. It’s a black rose of a song, gruesome and lovely, and more important, it’s all liminally natural and unnatural in prickly ways…
- “Hangs me a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together—tug as you will, you will not drag Jove the supreme counsellor from heaven to earth; but were I to pull at it myself I should draw you up with earth and sea into the bargain, then would I bind the chain about some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all dangling in the mid firmament. So far am I above all others either of gods or men.”
- …another World/Hung ore my Realm, link’d in a golden Chain
Homer gives Zeus a golden chain to link the heavens and earth. This chain is a toy in Zeus’s terrible reminder that his dominion is entire and final and his will is entire and final. Milton takes that chain between heaven and earth and makes it a figurative link between the creator and the created, between the numinous and the material. In Milton’s theology, to mistake this golden chain for a rope ladder is to think like Satan: it is the severest mistake of believing that a connection between nature and its creator can be traveled via the physical world. As reader, I have to be very careful not to mirror Satan’s mistakes.
It’s this deceptive golden chain the Boss climbs down to see in inseparably linked flesh what he knew he would find, and thus begin the song’s strange destruction. It’s fantastic inseparables that compose this song’s world. A boss with a king’s throne who still has to buy men to serve him on his vengeful quest and they break the contract anyway. He starts out in a gentleman’s coat and tie and somewhere on that broad highway he becomes an antique warrior–a Crusader no less–with a sword and a helmet and at that moment renounces faith and God. Remember Milton’s description of the path laid out between Hell and Earth: from Hell to this World to and fro, they pave a broad Highway or Bridge over Chaos, according to the Track that Satan first made. In a world of buckskin mares and helmets, there is still an electric wire. Our man shifts from a peculiar boss/king/gentleman to a crusader /heretic and immediately is described as having all the nobility of an ancient race that we are invited to name. Circles of power and status and history collide, and then the talking starts.
The drama itself draws its intricacy and its beauty too from Milton’s Satan and Eve. The Boss is now Husband, although with the power to bring the stars and planets down for his wife’s pleasure, if she only knew their worth. “Bow the heart, if not the knee,” could be among the most beautiful lines Dylan’s written: if you can’t submit to a power greater than yourself, submit to the truth you already bear in your heart. The wife glows and snaps with adulterous pride, her lover steps up to the plate and does what lovers ought to do–eliminate their rivals. And in that moment, the wife hands the apple back. She bows to the ancient law of wedding oaths, completes her husband’s revenge, and understands that other ancient laws of justice and passion demand her to pay for her lover’s life with her own. Betrayal and honor and lust and law all end up in a pile of stinking bloody corpses. And what do we, the bit players, the audience to this farce/tragedy/bloody mess do? We offer obeisance and torches and processions.. We bow our heads. We make songs, ballads, stories. We get it all wrong and don’t know any other way to do it and we call it history.
Remember what Eve does when she listens to that sibilant tin angel and reaches her arm out to that tree: she starts all of human history. Keep listening. Do justice to this record, it’s got all that stuff and more. Happy Valentine’s day. I couldn’t find where the dungeonkeeper’s daughter loved Valentine back or not.
–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.
Re: 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.
Mr. 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.