They Can Talk About Me Plenty When I’m Gone

Traveling on with Rimbaud is tiring work. I have to beat exhaustingly against a current that many people have beat against or turned and and swam with in the past.  The current is the temptation of  making Rimbaud’s factually outrageous life into a fantabulous myth-dream of the Fallen Angel Madman Artist. I swam a little too comfortably with the current in the last post. So, the title of today’s post, this deceptively haha  line from Brownsville Girl, seems a natural. Until I noticed the word plenty.  You hear this song 137 times, and when he rolls this line off like an old comic, you hear “plenty” to mean as much as you want,  your gossip can’t nettle me when I’m gone. But plenty means enough. Abundant. Plenty is munificent and satisfying. Plenty doesn’t need to be big ideas, images, distorted facts. Plentiful talk may be thoughtful and generous. Talk about me plenty when I’m gone, and you can bring some wisdom and vision to my memory.

Since the myth of Mr. Bob Dylan’s life so far (supernova 1964-1966, then the light dimming,  then the occasional brief flare-up) is the current I beat against with my little, albeit tireless, paddle, one can imagine all my uncanny thrill at finding the archetype of this mythologizing business in Rimbaud.  How hard to resist the temptation to take his life away from his living of it, and make a story of colossal genius colossally disillusioned, and the self-poisoning creature who remained after the poet had fled,  alone, embittered, his dying a hell no derangement could have imagined. But as I read  about his life in Africa, a whole other memory started in me.  The details started to seem like candles lighting something else, something I knew well before I even met Rimbaud.   He’s got that image himself in his poetry of a light moving about in another room, and that’s how this felt: Arthur Rimbaud in Harar, the man of surly temper and impressive intelligence.  Arthur Rimbaud in Harar whose European hands write down lists and sums, and turn the work of African hands into streams of money. Arthur Rimbaud who despite this profiteering also earns the respect of Africans whose languages he has a remarkable gift for learning. Arthur Rimbaud  fearlessly and compulsively venturing into the searing land in Harar– and there’s  an occasional whiff of this man’s peculiarly interesting past involving…books he has written? Poems, is it? Arthur Rimbaud, lanky and strange in white pajamas of his own design. I know this man–I mean, I have known him very well for a very long time.

I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.

I always dine on air.

The top line is Conrad, the bottom is Rimbaud. It’s Conrad’s Kurtz, down to the white cloth about his skeletal body and the irreproachable reports to the homeland, that came together as  the shadow behind Rimbaud’s life. To meet Rimbaud after decades of knowing-studying-teaching Kurtz makes a terrible vertigo. The inspired fiction shrank instantly for me to a toy, a caricature. The artful myth which I truly loved was in one moment obliterated by the deeper, and  real, mystery of Rimbaud’s life.

There is no one here and there is someone.

I’m not there.

The top line is Rimbaud, the bottom line is the only artist whose life and art offer equivalent bottomless, and treacherous invitations to us to capture-explain-imagine.  One hundred years from now I expect there will be all kinds of inspired artful business on the topic of the second fellow’s life. From  where I stand right now,  the one artful business that does some justice to the ineffable is Todd Haynes’ movie. By doing violence to fact and then doing violence to his own fictions, he does demonstrate the impossibility of knowing a life, and then invites us to consider some of the Truths of that life. So I will hope that future inspirees may find that to talk plenty about this immeasurably great life, you might want to work with fragments and holes.

I’ve been wishing I was un autre instead

A woman named Joni Mitchell is momentarily fatuous, her comments globally distributed,  and, in response, thousands of words go round and round. Let’s sail away from those tedious arguments in strange boats with more interesting characters. Our first boat is in trouble. In the captain’s tower, a grim, dry tussle goes on and on, and the unhappily self-reliant ship goes around in circles, exhausted by the tinny clamor and wondering if she’ll ever  reach a horizon, any horizon. No, scrap that one, it’s too much like the  noisy dreary land we want to get away from. I like another ungoverned boat. This one has lost its entire crew to the arrows of sporting and spirited Indians. Now, like the toy of a boy’s daydream, this boat reels all alone about the seas. It  snares us with amazing Floridas, and milk-white suspensions of stars,  and soon enough we believe it when it tells us, “What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen.” What a short journey it is from that dream to the one where a boy sees a dozen dead oceans and then, abandoning all boats,  stands on the water till he starts sinking.

I hope you’ve been in that daydream boat, that drunken poem of the sea. I just took that trip myself for the first time very recently. The air there is so liquorish, you’ll want to stay a good long while, and if you’re steeped to the gills in Bob Dylan before you reach Rimbaud, you will find yourself living a very very peculiar dream.

These are the writings of a young man, a very young man, whose life has unfolded in no fixed place; no mother, no country no home.

“I was with the carnival off and on for about six years.”

Next stop, baptism, shirts and trousers, work.

Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.

I accustomed myself to simple hallucination.

With no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means.

To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie                                          must I keep? In what blood shall I walk?

What will you do, my blue eyed son? I’ll know my song well before I start singing.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. When Rimbaud reached the age at which Bob Dylan coined these  last words on the topic of maturity,  the French boy wonder had stopped writing poetry for all the rest of his fantastic and sorry life. There may be something about each young man’s awareness of his world that decided which would grow up with his art and which would not. Rimbaud started by making of himself a wild and foul creature in a world he saw ruled by lifeless custom  and hypocrisy.  His  principle was Violation (“I’m now making myself as scummy as I can), He turned himself into a walking id, and the language to translate himself appeared to him (“I want to be a poet and I’m working at turning myself into a seer”). We know his experiment was a success, but not enough of us made it back to 1874 in time to tell him. He stopped.  Perhaps the energies that he summoned  to make himself a crucible in that world would have made him a hypertrophic freak in adulthood. But Bob Dylan may have had the opposite problem. Perhaps he had to outpace a world that applauded, from comfy chairs, the energies he summoned for his rebellions and fine madnesses. He has had to invent a repertoire of strange new energies to grow up and outpace a world that  parrots and venerates Violations and fetishizes youth. Rimbaud maybe could not imagine a world where Seer may become wisdom–not the same as convention– and burn differently, but still burn.

Let’s take off in an old boat now.  Drift a little with an old man who’s thinking  thoughts in an old boat. I’m too far gone, too feeble. It’s just plain stupid to go out in any kind of wind. An old boy dredging from a moored barge. I’ve seen enough heartache and strife.  I belong to a distant race. They got out of here any way they could. I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes. The man in this old boat, he most certainly has recorded the inexpressible. And often enough, with words most marvelously purloined.

Je suis un autre

I cannot say the word eye anymore.

(PS–I can’t read any more French than it takes to order a cheese omelette and a cup of coffee from a very patient waiter. Rimbaud here is taken from either the Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock translation in the Penguin Selected Poems and Letters, or from Graham Robb’s translations in his captivating biography. )

“Are all those songs yours?” “Some of ‘em. Not all of ‘em.”

images-2 The photo at left shows  the B. Altman department store as it looked in 1924, occupying the block between 34th and 35th streets, 5th Avenue to Madison Avenue. Some New Yorkers of my chronology may remember being dragged around Altman’s in an eternity of torpor while their mother looked for a blouse to match her blue slacks.

images-3 Here’s the same building in 2009. It’s been turned into the CUNY Graduate Center on one side and Oxford Univ Press on the other. I attended a talk and performance there on September 17. It was titled, “Bob Dylan: American Poet. The Musical Settings Inspired by Dylan’s Lyrics.” The focus of the evening was the work of composer John Corigliano, and of New York musician Howard Fishman. Mr. Corigliano has taken the lyrics to seven songs and set them to his own music, to create a song cycle he calls “Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.”  Note the very careful preposition in that title, which ambiguously links the work to Dylan. Howard Fishman may be familiar to some of you through his performances of The Basement Tapes material.  Greil Marcus, who requires no explanation, moderated a discussion with  Corigliano and Fishman, then a pianist and a soprano performed songs from Corigliano’s song cycle, followed by Fishman’s performance.

images-1Here is something concrete and immutable and eternal that John Corigliano and Bob Dylan have in common: an Academy Award. They also have  Pulitzer prizes in common but I don’t know if you get an object for display  with that award.  In his conversation with Marcus, Corigliano told the story of his artistic relation with Bob Dylan:  he was not familiar with Dylan’s songs, as he had been listening to contemporary classical music in the 1960s, although he was “fascinated” by The Beatles’ music, which he found “natural and ingenious.” He admitted it may have come to pass that as he sat in a coffeehouse in the early 1960s, “sipping his cappuccino,” Bob Dylan could indeed have been singing within earshot, but Corigliano did not *hear* the song being performed. Folksinging entails “simple melody,” and “the song stays the same—verse, chorus. verse, chorus.”  A folk song “does not change emotionally verse to verse.”  The apparent monotony of folk songs deafened John Corigliano to distinguishing any one song, and therefore he came to Bob Dylan’s work “with innocence.”

images-4 What Corigliano wanted for his project was “an American poet.”  A “great poet,” but a certain kind of great poet: “a great poet who speaks to everyone.”  Something brought Bob Dylan to his attention, and he “sent away” for a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

Bobgonnaflash1 He found the lyrics of this man’s songs poetic, and set about using the lyrics of seven songs, and his own music,  to “tell a story of  political awakening.”  The “Prelude” is Mr. Tambourine Man, followed by what we know as Clothes Line Saga but which was referred to as Clothes Line Blues, then Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, concluding with the “Postlude” of Forever Young.

images-6 Corigliano wanted an “amplified soprano” voice to perform his compositions. He wanted the effect of  and opera singer’s “technique” without the sound of operatic singing.  He talked of the amplified voice being more “natural” than the unamplified performance of an opera.

Corigliano and Greil Marcus talked about Masters of War and Clothes Line Saga. Marcus mentioned Viggo Mortensen’s cover of Masters of War at a Howard Zinn tribute, in which Aragon’s performance  “cut the song free” while still retaining its “vehemence” and “desperation.” Corigliano  sought “ways of treating emotionally dense material” by “play(ing) against it.”  The music is “distant (distinct?) from the savagery of the words.”  He talked about the importance of the last line of Clothes Line Saga: the shutting of the door on the political  reality of the world outside–then the door opened again to let the wind of political  awareness come blowin’ in.

images-7Howard Fishman and Greil Marcus talked about I’m Not There. Marcus’s description of the song was Big Letter True, and gorgeous: he talked about the inaudible lyrics as conveying textures of feeling that make the listener feel that everything is at stake for all of us: the singer, the woman in the song, me listening. Howard Fishman was so taken with the song that he wrote lyrics to fill the gaps in Dylan’s rendition. Also a devotee of Marcus’s Old Weird Republic, Fishman sought approval from the authoritative critic, sent him his new version, and Marcus apparently gave Fishman the thumbs up he desired.

OK,  Not Ideas About The Thing, But The Thing Itself:  singer Amy Burton and pianist Stephen Gosling performed four of the songs in Corigliano’s project, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, Chimes of Freedom, and Forever Young. Ms. Burton sang in a lovely operatic soprano, doing her best to get the words across currents of  music that swelled and dropped and lingered and halted in the way of contemporary classical music. She sounded in every way like an opera singer. In Chimes, she emphasized with great vigor the word “not” in the 5th line, so we could definitely appreciate the irony of a warrior who refrains from fighting. She lengthened and flailed with alarmingly effective histrionics in the verse cataloguing the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandon’d and forsak’d, so there was certainly no mistaking the great flashes of these chimes of freedom for the outcasts of the world. Forever Young was set to a comfortable melodic structure, Ms. Burton sang it straight,  and I hope her friends will be begging for her  Forever Young at weddings, anniversary parties, and brisses, which is right where it belongs.  I had to leave before Howard Fishman’s performance, and I can say that I did see him play at Suze Rotolo’s reading for her memoir, A Freewheelin’  Time, and his covers were professional and faithful.

images-8 That I simply do not have a taste for John Corigliano’s music is neither here nor there. That he began this project with a  conclusive disparagement of the entire, apparently inexpressive, genre of folk music,  a claim that many of us in the audience could have challenged right then and there with our own iPods–that is also neither here nor there. Ignorance and arrogance can certainly precede good art,  and they often have. That a 71 year old American musical artist is not familiar with the tune to Blowin’ in the Wind–that’s a tough one, but, I want people to take me at my word, so we will take Mr Corigliano at his.

It’s the whole implicit  propriety of the experience that I hated. The whole effete conferral of   legitimacy, the presumption of significance, the gloss of authority given by Marcus’s presence, and Corigliano’s utterly complacent tone—there just was no sense that one artist was hungry for something he found in another artist’s work and wanted to grab it fast. Corigliano condescended to the moral depth he hadn’t expected to find in Dylan’s lyrics, yet, as a musician sensitive to poetry,  made no mention of the musicality of the words, the patterns of sound that are still present in the printed lyrics. He wanted a great and inclusive poet to transfuse his work with  greatness and inclusivity, and perhaps for some listeners the bloodless operation was  a success, and they didn’t notice there was no love and theft at work, none at all.

High Degree Thief

images-1Our excellent and tireless archaeologist, Mr. Scott Warmuth, has once again discovered shards of English in Mr. Bob Dylan’s output that can be traced to other material. His muse having abandoned him mid-sentence sporadically throughout Chronicles, Dylan paged frantically through a 1961 Time magazine for phrases that could help him describe the cultural and political context of the 1960s.  Then, either snickering with a shoplifter’s cheap sense of victory, or showing the mild and unreadable mien of the habitual liar , he dropped them into the holes in the sentences he’d left hanging.  The purloined passages were skillfully sutured into  the body of of nimble, vivid, and engaging prose that surrounded them, and lay there undetectable to the reader’s ear, and unattributed to their original author. The devil is in the details, is he not.

imagesThis seems like a lot of work, but we know that Bob Dylan is practiced at his crimes. Stymied by the task he set himself to write a song that muses restlessly about the frustration and torpor of age, and the burden of memory, he paged through the memoirs of a dying Japanese gangster and luckily found just the phrases to round out lyrics that had left him stuck. Once again, another convenient, unattributed and unthanked writer saved our lazy and duplicitous hero the trouble of inspiration.

images-2We can relieve  the anger and disappointment at Bob Dylan’s dereliction of originality, and we can give in and join him. The possibility can’t exist that Bob Dylan can scan text, store, retrieve, and synthesize language more quickly and unconsciously than we can. Nor that as the years go by, his reliance on facile memory and synthesis has grown. He’s a charlatan,  picking and purloining and pretending, consciously,  and betraying the sacred myth of the pure original artist. Let’s prove we can do it too. Give yourself a challenging writing assignment, something that demands a high degree of expressive and descriptive language, and that demonstrates a compelling and distinctive voice. Pull something off the shelf–maybe Montaigne’s essays, or last month’s Harper’s, or Mickey Mantle’s biography, or Bob Dylan’s memoirs. Flip through, pick out some phrases that appeal to you. Insert them into your piece of writing, disguising any seams in the tone, and voila. No irony here. If he can do it, you can too.

images-3 I give up. What is the great pleasure people have in accusing Bob Dylan of fraudulent artistry? Scott Warmuth merely does the hard work of research, it’s the rapturous  dismay of Dylan’s audience that I wonder about. What is the standard for originality in art? John Heartfield puts his name to collage pieces that are no more than jigsaws of found materials. Duchamp signs this fountain, or scrawls a mustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, and these objects end up in museums and textbooks. Christopher Logue’s War Music rewrites the Iliad from English translations, and if you think this is an adolescent exercise in postmodern playfulness, I urge you to read some of it. It’s fascinating and moving and extremely strange. Anne Carson has done similar work with classical literature. We don’t condemn Logue because Homer can’t be financially or personally harmed by Logue’s theft? But that still leaves the problem of  being impressed and captivated by Logue’s unoriginal work.  What are exactly the standards of originality and ethics in creation that Bob Dylan is violating? Who gets to get away with these violations, and who doesn’t?

Old men in their dry months (poor TSE, you wish you had enough juices to write Floater)

images1    images-1There is a fine essay in the  October (I believe) Isis (2008) tracing Hemingway references in the song Moonlight. Dylan’s early comments on Hemingway support the author’s argument that there is a substantive, thematic link we can forge between Dylan’s gothic song about love and some kind of violence in a dark and threatening world, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms, both of them narratives of love inextricable from war. Dylan’s admiration for Hemingway’s experiments in how much can be borne by the fewest words influenced Dylan’s own experiments in how much can be borne by metered and sung language. This is what I want to be reading: close attention to Dylan’s work that brings him further into the kinds of canons people conventionally elevate. Hemingway is already becoming superannuated, more often elevated in convention than in honest response. Good enough: I want my Dylan conventionally elevated,  if only because it will bring him routinely to the attention of enervated intellectuals who may be refreshed and awoken.

Hurrah for the author of that article, who forged strong links in the chain of a particular cultural lineage. And now for something slightly different:

“You know Tomi in Shinogawa, don’t you? He’s a brother who helped me out once. Well. this fellow’s the bookie at Tomi’s place, a guy called Kiyomasa. Seems he’s a good man, but from what I heard caused some kind of trouble that put him on bad terms with the younger men.  So they asked if we couldn’t take him in here in Asakusa till they get it out of their system…”

“…A good bookie makes all the difference in a gambling joint–it’s up to him whether a session comes alive or falls flat….”

“…As I said before, there are some men who are like the paneling in a john, however old they get, and there are others who become the main pillar of the house while they’re still young. Age just by itself doesn’t carry any weight.”

A dying man summons a doctor, and instead of treatment, requires an audience for his confessions. “I’m 73, doctor. I’ve done pretty much as I pleased all my life, and I don’t expect to be cured at this stage.”  The doctor is attentive, and the story he takes in and then relates to us is detailed, engrossing, personal. Ichiji Eiji’s life in the Japanese underworld is a tale of love and theft: debt and schemes, escaping on the run, good luck and bad, characters who follow the code or don’t, women seduced and lost and remembered. John Bester’s translation is an unadorned and generically colloquial English, if there is such a thing. Reading Confessions of a Yakuza can link you to a way of life that is exotic and familiar, a world that is obsolete and immediate, a single life that is long and eventful and ends soon enough. 

Confessions of a Yakuza is on its own a voyeuristic treat, and paced so briskly that a long life truly does end too soon for the reader. Also,  on my own I enjoy 20th century Japanese literature enough that I probably would have read this for no ulterior reason. This made me a good reader for our purposes here: I was captivated enough by the book that the bits shoplifted for  Love and Theft  really wrenched themselves out of their own context and whacked me hard. I wasn’t just skimming the book waiting to find Bob Dylan lyrics. the  I counted 5 phrases that ended up in Floater, one that ended up in  Po’ Boy, two in Lonesome Day Blues. If I missed anything, I’m happy to be corrected.

Old men and their lives. There’s something odd and charming in imagining Bob Dylan reaching out to this dying Yakuza, hearing in his saga the kind of drama we imagine might  affect him–you know, gamblers and women, honesty outside the law, the simple hard work of going where  your own luck and your own bag of tricks can take you. The singer of Floater seems to be the aged version of the singer of Tangled Up in Blue–he also lies or sits in sunlight coming through a window, and then his life pours through him. Tangled Up in Blue gives us a  young man who abandons cars and love in romantic dark nights, who manfully  hauls in fishing nets while poignantly recalling the one woman he’ll never escape, who loses himself in a reverie of Dante while getting high with the stripper who knows his name, who is brutal and selfish and loses more love, who confesses he doesn’t understand the plots of anyone else’s life. He ends up as restless and alone as he began, but there will be more chapters to his tale. 

The fellow in Floater can’t do much better than his own second cousin.  He is timorous as he mutters about going out in the wind ( a breeze can turn into a squall, you know). He won’t be intimidated by anyone old or young,  goddammit. Contemplating the new grove of trees sends him reeling through the years, back to the generations who scattered over the country making homes for themselves, starting a history that would end up as the singer’s fragmented, irritable, searching memories. His grandparents’ dreams and hope lost even to the imagination and sympathy of their grandson, who refuses to recall his own dreams and hopes. Finally, love in this song is the nuisance of having to kick someone out–someone who wants you to give something up. What is it that this singer won’t give up, tears or not?  What’s he treasuring that he won’t give up? The song, by the way, ends with a line right from Confessions of a Yakuza. 

Oh that crazy enigmatic sponge, that Bob Dylan. Just when you want to set him as  a stone in the rushing river of American history, of American traditional forms of music and poetry, you have to deal with Japanese gambling dens. Sure enough, someone like me with enough time on their hands can construct arguments and conclusions about why a Japanese gangster *belongs* in Love and Theft. That is fun to do, but not the real work: hearing whatever lives there are to be heard in the songs.

Confessions of a Yakuza, by Junichi Saga, tr. John Bester, is published in paperback by Kodansha Press. I got my copy through Amazon’s used book service. For serious fans who want a very special experience of uncanny glimpses of songs, I urge you to read the book straight through.

Genius of generosity

b-31fPerhaps you’ve seen this mockup photo of the Lincoln Memorial statue with Bob Dylan replacing Abraham Lincoln in the big stone chair. I don’t know the provenance of this photo. I don’t know if it’s intended as an ironic critique of the way Dylan’s fans idealize him as a political hero (in which case the photo is clever) or whether it is indeed the personal idolization of Dylan by the photo-maker (in which case it is, for me, quite a misstep). I don’t know if I’m being naive in not being able to tell the photo’s intention. I’m interested myself in how Lincoln and Dylan both offer certain extreme examples of the concept of *greatness* and *heroism* in American culture: how an individual is idolized and mythologized in their own time; how the story of their idolization is sustained over time. What constitutes greatness in American culture. Elsewhere, a look at Lee Marshall’s book, Bob Dylan: Neverending Star, will contribute valuable insight to this topic, but for now, I need to stick briefly to Lincoln. I am no Sean Wilentz, whom I invite here, publicly, to write a book on this topic so I don’t have to do the work of thinking about it. But the issues of a personal awareness of something the individual understands as “destiny,” coupled with gifts of sufficient magnitude to serve this concept of destiny with some gravity; and also a severe and troubled moral awareness that is always monitoring the relation between the gifts and the destiny, for an effect of restless achievement–these seem to be interesting premises for some model of the way we talk about both Lincoln and Dylan.

So I start reading books on Lincoln that can help me with these ideas. I’m reading a book called Lincoln’s Virtues: An ethical biography, by William Lee Miller. It seems that in 1842, when Lincoln was practicing law and serving in the Illinois state legislature, he was invited to speak to a temperance organization. His speech is considered a signpost in his own moral development. In it, Lincoln refuses to parrot the conventional demonization of drinkers; instead, he offers an argument for moral inclusiveness, in which the drunkards are not essentially different from the abstainers. Miller quote this passage from the speech:

Indeed, I believe if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and
hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class.
There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and the warm-
blooded, to fall into this vice. The demon of intemperance ever seems to
have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and generosity.

When I first read this, I was on the subway, and I bolted upright in my seat, clutched the book to my chest, and stared as though I’d seen a ghost. I felt I had seen a ghost. Maybe I am the only Bob Dylan fan who did not know he borrowed these lines for Summer Days. I sure hope all the rest of you felt as I did when you yourselves came across this passage from Abraham Lincoln’s 1842 Temperance Address. I don’t have any other way of putting it–I felt I’d seen a ghost.

I calmed down, put the book away, went right to the song. I let my brain go on a merry journey that would *explain* this appropriation: well, of course, the song is all about intemperance. The hot free days of summer, they’re gone, the singer isn’t the young rake he once was, he’s a worn out-star, he’s toasting a king for crying out loud, and even his woman’s bloodline goes back to a defeated empire–everything here speaks of obsolescence, aging, the autumn of a year, of a life, of history. Time to give up. But not the singer. He’s spending all the dimes he’s got left from his youthful stardom , he’s chatting up the girls, he knows where something is going on. He’s burning down the place. He’s way out of bounds for an old man, and a has-been. Intemperance, excess, lawlessness, that’s what Summer Days is.

This is all preposterous. Bob Dylan read Lincoln’s eccentric and lurid image, perhaps even entirely out of context, and just liked the sound and feel of it. He filed this way inside a memory that no neuroscientist will ever be able to anatomize, and here it ended up. Is that what happened? In Dylan’s omnivorous reading, he came upon this speech, was delighted by Lincoln’s irreverent and for Lincoln’s time, quite appalling, defense of the warmth and brilliance of drunks. Whatever it is that conceives a song in his head did its work, and the song was seeded from the speech. Is that what happened?

Of course we can’t possibly answer these questions, and Bob Dylan can’t/won’t/shouldn’t have to answer these questions. The biggest risk I’ll take is to suggest that perhaps something like this offers a nanosecond of a glimpse into his creative process. There is a vast promiscuity at work here, an infinite jumble in the man’s mind, and a kind of ordering agent that does not have to be conscious or deliberate. I know this description sounds pedantic, but it is a way for me to think about this issue of sources and influences that demythologizes it. Dylan isn’t just the human jukebox, or the human American Songbook. He’s unstoppably promiscuous in his appropriations.