We’re So Alone. And Life Is Brief

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

If I Can’t Work Up To You

Virupaksha

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.

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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. 

diagrammedMilton 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.

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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)

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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.

linnaeusHow 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.

pipeIn 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.

P1000056And 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. ]

Love Not An Evil Thing

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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.

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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.

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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…

chainInseparably linked is to me the awful fundament of Tin Angel and that golden chain is exactly right:

  • “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.

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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.

paradise_lost_20Remember 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.

indexYou know, of course, there is no such thing.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.