I’m very easily overwhelmed, depleted by the infinite midrash accompanying Bob Dylan. I make flippant comments about how it will be in the year 4018: I will be vindicated and the great minds of the day will agree with me that Knocked Out Loaded is a superior album. In 4018, the first thing we teach each new extraterrestrial species we meet is the words to Ain’t Talkin‘. But, regrettably and seriously, there are far too many people like myself who do feel that we’re sharing time and space with someone whose art moves us enough to capture our responses to it, and document it, and explain it, because we simply believe that someone even in 2018, and then in 2038, and then in 2098, will feel the same way and want some company and some information. And there are so, so many of us, and keeping up is so, so tiring and such a distraction from the art itself. It’s a special kind of fatigue and demoralization that sets in when you feel obliged to keep up with the books and the interviews and the articles and the blogs and the photos of Bill Pagel, god bless him, renovating the Zimmermans’ little Duluth house in the hopes of getting it listed in the National Register of Historic Places before 4018. And you still can’t give up trying to say something about what passed through you the last time you listened to, oh, Dignity.
Clinton Heylin–high on the list of Obligatory Midrash– dons his Ephod, tirelessly composes, and produces the second volume of his annotated catalogue of the original songs of Bob Dylan, their sources, occasions, intentions, effects, and values. The book is titled Still on the Road, a pretty clear falling-off from the title of the first volume, Revolution in the Air. The revolution, the transformation, which even occurred in the air and unbound by laws of gravity, apparently is done. We’re still moving along, though, with all that being on the road implies: some liberty, some desultoriness, some adventure, some bickering, some discovery, some tedium, all governed by maps and the rules of the road and gravity. I went straight to Dignity, a song of particularly self-replenishing gloriosity for myself. Heylin performs the necessary rituals on this song, in a brisk tour de force demonstration of his many fluencies: “In one of those rare candid sections in his autobiography,”: Clinton Heylin can evaluate the quality of intention in Dylan’s utterances. “It could be argued that the one song which defined the general artistic direction on all four of Dylan’s all-original eighties albums ended up being discarded–leaving a gaping hole at the heart of each released artefact”–Heylin’s critical acumen diagnoses the artist’s decisions and determines that recordings are whole or incomplete artefacts, and declares prognoses and/or prescribes remedies. “From now on the recording history gets messy”-- Heylin’s research provides reliable chronologies of events.“On the track sheet, it even says ‘transfer [to both channels?] and boost,’ like it needed highlighting”– Heylin understands recording technology. “On March 29 , at a show in Brixton, London, he delivered the definitive ‘Dignity’ vocal..”–Heylin’s access to Dylan’s recordings and performances is comprehensive, and his judgment is reliable. “JJ Jackson…turn[ed] the song inside and out without ever once getting in an inspired vocalist’s way”–Heylin can read a live performance cool and vernacular: we can get thoroughness and accuracy from other sources, but Clinton Heylin can be a hip critic on top of all them facts. And so Clinton Heylin, his Ephod spattered righteously with the entrails of Dignity, rests, and turns to his next purpose–Handle with Care.
For right now, I’ll stick with Dignity. Dignity’s etymological roots are in honor, and privilege, and worth, and proper, and fitting. Honor is exalted, privilege is the propers of superiority, but just proper is just correct. We don’t find this word comfortably to hand these days: we may use it to describe an elderly person who is well-groomed and uncomplaining. We may use it to describe, in a faintly disingenuous way, someone whose posture, grooming, and elocution remain presentable despite sustained public humiliation, or suffering, or both. Dignity in currency today describes my relief and gratitude that your appearance does not embarrass me nor make an unpleasant appeal to my sympathy. To acknowledge your dignity also buys me a penny’s worth of self-love–I relish for a moment my own compassion, and the gracious taste required to know dignity when I see it. I am not a churl, am I.
But Dignity, the song, embarrasses us. The singer’s odyssey in search of honor and privilege and worth and proper teases us awfully. The hero allows us to laugh with and at him as he serves up witty images and also serves up himself as The Innocent Fool asking cops to help him, and keeps on his tireless and futile and occasionally truly heroic way. We are amused and delighted and provoked to thoughtfulness by his quest. No version of this song is boring. And the sound of the word dignity is central to any performance of the song. Dylan’s magnificent enunciation of those dental consonants, “dig-ni-ty” — is a hair’s breadth away from being thespian or pedantic. He voices the very word on the razor’s edge of parody and solemnity–what he’s looking for, whether his quest is indeed foolish or heroic, is right there in the word every time he sings it. And this razor’s edge works through the song, and we start to hear the sound of what it may be to take something seriously. To risk foolishness and failure to find something to take seriously.
There is so much looking in this song. The singer looks for dignity, and his quest reveals others looking for it. The song is thick with people looking through, looking into, looking for, looking within. The wise man indeed looks in the blade of grass, and finds eternity, and the quest is over for the wise man. He is where the song should end, but that’s where it begins–the singer faces down that he hasn’t learned this lesson, and keeps looking. (If wit can be literally sublime, you don’t have to look much further than what Bob Dylan can do in fewer than 10 words.) Poor man looking through painted glass, for dignity. Here is a poor man looking through a stained glass window. From the outside, looking through into the church, he looks for the worth that a community of the faithful in a house of faith promises the poorest. And he looks for the immanent and invisible dignity that faith believes is housed even in an empty church. It is the special privilege of the poorest to appeal to this immanent dignity. If the poor man is inside, looking out through the painted glass, he wonders if the dignity imputed to him, felt by him, in this space, will endure outside that window, back in the world where he is simply another needy nuisance among millions.
Sympathy for the poor man’s looking, and the consolation he seeks from dignity, is easy for me to manufacture. So too for the thin man looking at his last meal — not knowing where the next will come from, nor even if it will come, and the poignant insight that the starving’s man hunger is less powerful than his desire for the dignity to endure his hunger with honor. These are fine-grained and clearly-felt images that I can respond to smoothly. The Englishman, though, is not so crystalline. He is certainly clear to see: combing his hair back, biting his bullet, looking within–he seems a virtuoso stiff-upper-lip caricature. The black hot wind is the problem. That’s the wind of Empire, blowing power and greed and something malodorous called *moral order* thousands of miles from the cool and pleasant land of England. What’s his dignity, and what’s the pain he’s got to bite the bullet against? Is this a moment of self-knowledge? And that stranger in the Mexican night seems another difficult lesson in dignity and self-knowledge. He’s drawn irresistibly, as people so often are in Dylan’s songs, to a window through which the fallen dark world appears as a true nightmare. A stranger alone in a strange place, all he sees are hideous threatening parasites–as indeed all creatures may appear to us when we’re strangers in a strange land. And he searches them for dignity, when perhaps he should question whether his own vision may be corrupted by fear and isolation. (I’d also like to add that some of Dylan’s lyrics offer a unique thrill when first heard, and searching every bloodsucking thing in sight is certainly one of them.)
I like very much that the song can provide for me the experience of a quest, in which my search for dignity in the song hits dead ends as does the singer’s: I don’t know what Mary Lou could tell him, and why it would cost her her life. I can imagine, but I would be wrong. Prince Phillip will talk for money and anonymity—why is there a price, what’s he afraid of? It’s terrifically clever and suggestive, but an unnerving image also. I could be made to believe that the one true moment of dignity in the song is when the singer stands at the window, with the maid–they’ll always be silent to us, and what they see they only see together, and there is a beautiful brief calm to this tiny mystery, but it doesn’t end the quest. I know I will never have the ears to be initiated into the mystery of the tongues of angels and the tongues of men. I like very much that in one tableau the soul of a nation is under a the knife, and death is standing in the doorway of life, and in the same house, a man fights with his wife over dignity. Nothing is worth the soul of a nation, or the threshold of life and death, if it isn’t worth a an argument between a man and his wife.
For me the whole quixotic romp stops–and begins again–where the vultures feed. I’ve been down where the vultures feed/I would have gone deeper/But there wasn’t any need. All great heroes have to visit the underworld. They are heroes because they enter the world of the dead in terror of their souls, not in terror of their lives. But our Foolish Knight touches down exactly where life feeds on death, which is not the same as an underworld. An underworld is a cul-de-sac, it is the no-turning-back, it is final. But there’s life where the vultures feed, where endless death feeds life’s insatiable hunger. This is the awful cycle, the awful conundrum, of life that would starve without death, and our hero recognizes the sheer fact of it, and realizes that even this doesn’t end his journey. All heroes must return from the underworld, back to life with the knowledge of what they’ve seen that no living man has. But our hero goes as far as any of us can go–we can all look straight at where the vultures feed, submit to the death-eating fact of life and convince ourselves this fact makes all Quests futile and meaningless. Or we can return to the uproarious and neverending Search for that which is worthy, proper and fitting. Even though we can see for ourselves that we may be honoring vapors and illusions and eternal enigmas….then again, we can see for ourselves that we may not be. Admitting how much is at stake, and how hapless his odyssey has been already, our hero ends at the edge of the lake. For a moment we’re anxious–the edge of the lake? he’s given up. In the next moment we’re laughing at ourselves and our fears. He’s only starting the journey again. And we’re grateful, more grateful than we can say, but we waste all this time trying to say it anyway.