I Blow It For Ya Free

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People are “dissenting.”

Problem 1: He writes songs. It is true that the work of parsing arresting imagery, intricate syntax, subtle characterizations, rich and ambiguous observations, and narratives with difficult chronologies is hard enough when the voices of the text occur in the silence of your own reading. But when your attention to characterizations, imagery, and so on, is also snared by rhyme and melody, you learn to be a different kind of reader.  In the decades since Dylan’s songs have moved and enchanted people with these qualities, good books have been written on the work of learning to listen as a reader.  I’d like to recommend the ones that have served me well and should be helpful to anyone curious about what “new poetic expression” might feel like to a listener attending deeply to musical language. First, let’s hope the Nobel motivates someone to reissue Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature, the 1982 publication of her 1978 PhD thesis. She takes on the challenge of describing Dylan’s songs as a synthesis of language and music into a new prosody. Other studies that can  enrich your listening-as-reader are Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Hinchey’s Like a Complete Unknown, Aidan Day’s Jokerman, Wilfrid Mellers’ Darker Shade of Pale, John Gibbens’ The Nightingale’s Code,  and the by now quite familiar Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by Christoper Ricks.

Problem 2: He’s already overserved in two regards. Dylan has enjoyed more accolades and awards than almost any other living artist. And Dylan is an utter First-Worlder, a man born middle-class and American, who sings and writes in English in a commercial, popular genre. His award does no justice to the Nobel’s global cultural mission. The Nobel’s website provides this brief mission statement for the literature prize, “…one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”  The award seems to be need-blind.

Problem 3: The Nobel Prize matters. In a moral way.  There are comparisons to Sartre. Now, here is where fans have an advantage. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the distance between right and wrong, the difference between righteousness and vanity, what kind of pressure makes your conscience explode, and whether keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within is authentic virtue. Dylan gives a person an opportunity for moral reflection on every one of his records. My own motto is “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,”  which I translate as beware of asking other people to be avatars of my conscience.  If I want more readers for more books by more marginalized voices, there are many things I can do as a teacher, writer, or activist  to make this happen, instead of asking the Nobel committee to do it for me. If I think, as Sartre did, that the Nobel Prize institutionalizes writers, then I shall refuse the award when its conferral threatens to institutionalize me.

So bottoms up to us. Like I say, we’ll get more out of this than Dylan will, or needs, or wants.

 

 

Drinking White Rum In A Portugal Bar

I picked that subject line because I think it’s always described  the one moment of pure happiness in Mr. Dylan’s oeuvre of “new poetic expressions,”  as it was described hours ago by Sara Danius, a friend I never knew I had. And we’re all in that Portugal bar today.

And the mountain-tops that freeze,

Bow themselves when he did sing

I didn’t expect that he would ever win, and I developed a smartly deconstructive sour grapes attitude towards the Nobel: awards exist to honor the award-givers; no category of art can do justice to the sheer range of his singularities; the Nobel glorifies marginalized voices in a sanctimonious ritual of self-aggrandizing Democracy. The question for me has always been, does the Nobel deserve Bob Dylan?

I hadn’t expected it to feel this good, I admit.  I keep crying. We’ve been handed a gold-trimmed ticket, is how I see it. Where are people talking about Shakespeare’s life forms? Keats’ prosody? Milton’s and Dante’s new myths from old cloth? Where are people talking about whether poetry can face down any void without filling it up with lies? I want Bob Dylan in all these conversations–any conversation about art, meaning, beauty, lies, the opposite of lies. Although he’s been in these conversations for decades,  this big medal will get him in more of them, and that’s something I want.

Listen to Hard Rain, Mama You’ve Been on My Mind, Highway 61 Revisited, I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, Tangled Up in Blue, Gotta Serve Somebody, Not Dark Yet, Ain’t Talkin’, Tempest–no, of course you’d need a creature inhabiting more than three dimensions to design the wreath that could fit around just these nine songs. No Nobel committee could have anticipated that one person would write One Too Many Mornings and Scarlet Town. I thank the committee for acknowledging  this life’s work that’s been right under its nose all these years. He doesn’t need you, but plenty of us are grateful for this gift–it will come in handy.

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(And condolences to Philip Roth. I’ve bored people for years by saying repeatedly that Highlands is an entire Philip Roth novel in sixteen minutes. With a melody. And subtle and witty rhymes.  And I am right. And Bob wins.)

Someone I Used to Trust

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Some people walked out of some Bob Dylan concerts this summer. Paul McCartney wonders if  Bob Dylan is doing too many new songs at these shows. “But my concern is for the audience,” he says and I believe him.  Sir Paul is a man who knows money. He thinks about what I’m paying for a Paul McCartney concert ticket. He respects the contract between us. I saw his show in Albany, NY, in 2014; it was his first after an alarming little hiatus while he recovered from something he caught in Japan. The evening was a parade of pleasure. He brought 50 years ago to life, he even brought 30 years ago to life.  If we’d forgotten why we love him, he reminded us dozens of times. He flowed from instrument to instrument; he danced and smiled and laughed. The customary comment  that he’s “spry” for his age doesn’t cover the joy he takes in running here and there and simply being Paul McCartney.   I don’t know what it takes to make those songs sound the way I wanted to hear them–exactly like the record, but nothing like a recording. I forgot there was a contract between us because Paul McCartney did not forget there was a contract.

Now I want to turn back into a pumpkin and lecture on the dark arts of Mr Dylan whose contract with the ticket in my hand is not less binding, only differently binding. Of course he cares as much as Sir Paul cares about delivering on my purchase of his time. Of course he works each song. Of course he hears himself. He’s not immured, or stranded, in an unreachable realm of intentions none of us can fathom. Although he doesn’t boogie so much for us, and his beauty is an acquired taste, Bob Dylan is even so not a weaker magnetic field than is Sir Paul.

“So much for these long and wasted years…But I miss you most of all, my darling.” These two lines are what I hear most often two months after the four shows I took in (Wolf Trap twice, Forest Hills, and Atlantic City). He sang Long and Wasted Years and Autumn Leaves back to back each night. The songs are both disingenuous about the same thing: how painful it is to endure memories of love–listen, listen, there is more pain where that came from. The first song feels like the iron it mentions; each word rings out like metal striking stone and turns the air cold and acid. The next song is deep and mild; I could hear one ochre leaf falling from its branch, and see, there is a crimson one following its dying brother. In the first song the scenes of a long lifetime are hard to bear: an exiled family; hints of ugly scenes.  In the second song I just follow each bygone moment fall softly to its rest. Both songs need a deeply-lived voice and that’s what they get. Cracked and sore.

There’s not enough of me to have lived the lives of either of these songs, let alone both of them. But if I pay enough attention, Bob Dylan will live them both for me.

Bob Dylan fans are cultish arrogant dullards. We’re a cult of opacity and contrarianism, and contests of endurance and minutiae. Our love is so deep and agonistic. We think Sir Paul is right,  and we like to see people leave the shows. Each disappointed ticketbuyer only deepens our pretentious righteousness.

Just give us more.
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Shadows in the Night. Fallen Angels. Part 1

R1Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1660 when he was 54. It hangs in the Met, and every time I pass it I note  a resemblance  to see Bob Dylan. There’s a resemblance in the lineaments of the round, fallen face and pigheaded mouth, in the eyes a command to expect nothing, and the glimpse of bushy hair under a dark hat. I love both more as old men.

I had the great pleasure of being invited back to ASU’s Delta Symposium  this year. The theme  was “cultural heritage.” I twisted this term almost out of shape in order to indulge myself and set Dylan and Rembrandt up together. I wanted to see if anything would happen that I can take back to Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels. These records bring me discontent.

 

Rembrandt could be the earliest modern artist to create a vast body of impersonating self-portraiture. He completed more self-portraits in paint and in ink than any other artist, and generally depicted himself in anachronistic costume or garments otherwise unconventional for a 17th century Dutch self-portrait by an established artist.  He made himself a bystander of his visions: there’s his face on a fellow shocked at the stoning of St Stephen. He painted himself as the apostle Paul, as the prodigal son in a plumed hat, raising a glass of golden bubbly, a contented wench on his lap. He painted himself grimacing, he painted himself lush in fur and velvet, he painted himself upright and proud; he etched himself as a small man with a tired face, a dogged laborer with his paper and pen in front of a small prison-like window. He painted himself older than his years, then older, and even older.

Bob Dylan came of age at a wonderful time to be America’s greatest songwriter. 20th century American modernism combined regionalism and intellectual cosmopolitanism, radicalism and nostalgia, individualism and collectivism. It was a modernism with room for Woody Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg to both tower compatibly and also trace their roots back to Whitman.  We’d have a hard time creating a better environment to radicalize American songwriting into the body of work Dylan’s provided, that repeatedly re-roots itself in the service of originality.

In terms of Dylan’s relation to the age that formed his art, he was first an acolyte, then master, then a world-unto-himself. This pattern resembles Rembrandt’s relation to 17th century Holland.   Rembrandt Harmenszoon  van Rijn was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1606, and by the age of 14 was drawing with the brilliance and single-mindedness of a prodigy; just in time for the golden age of Dutch painting.

The spread of Calvinism in the Netherlands in the 16th century had aggravated ongoing violent conflict between the region and its Catholic colonizer, Spain.  In 1609, a truce in this conflict meant victory and independence for Holland although historians don’t recognize the end of Spanish rule until the Treaty of Munster in 1648.  The outcome, though, for the region was still  an optimistic populace who could now take greater and freer advantage of the cultural and economic dynamism native to its hub, the great port of Amsterdam.  There was a  growing mercantile class with money, status, and vanity.  While  the Catholic Church and an extensive noble class were no longer the dominant sponsors of art in northern Europe, painting enjoyed enormous and lucrative popularity. Peter Mundy, an Englishman who visited Amsterdam in 1640, wrote

All in general striving to adorn their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces, butchers and bakers not much inferior in their shoppes, which are fairely sett forth. Yea many times blacksmiths, coblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their forge and in their stalle.”

And portraits are a peculiar adornment: a portrait renders the sitter a distinctive, imperishable,  and valuable object. Wherever the sitter in reality may be, alive or dead, their  image and gaze become a fixture in a room. A wealthy and ambitious burgher can add himself and a Rembrandt to his holdings in one object.

Rembrandt’s early years as an artist were both conventional (i.e., study and apprenticeship) and successful. He moved to Amsterdam in 1620 to study with a fine teacher, Peter Lastman, returned to Leiden, which his growing ambition and reputation outgrew, and returned to Amsterdam in 1631/2, where he died in 1669. Neither success nor leaner times interfered with his prolific self-portraiture in all the media he mastered.

Since it’s  Rembrandt’s one face I’m looking at as it ages through a few self-portraits, and I want the analogous change-in-time for Dylan’s work, I didn’t think a variety of songs would suit. So I  picked Hard Rain  because it is Dylan’s coming-of-age masterwork it’s a song that has aged with the listener and the singer, until ultimately maturing into another song.

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1962’s  A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall  is an astoundingly strange song that’s an undisguised take on  the  medieval British isles ballad known as Lord Randall, which is presented in Child’s Ballads as Lord Rendal in 21 variations. All the variations share a frame: a young man, called Lord Randal, Lord  Rendal,  Lord Donald, King Henrie, also Willie, Billue, and Tiranti, returns to his mother who begins a dialogue with the question “where have you been?” In each variation,  the 2nd line of each of the son’s answering couplets is a version of make my bed for I must lie down. Each dialogue unfolds a story of the son’s having been poisoned and thus returning home to die. There are  tainted fish or eels, and while the culprit is repeatedly a woman, his young sweetheart in the most extensive and familiar versions, she may also be  his stepmother, wife, or grandmother. In the longest versions, the mother prompts the son to list his legacies, sometimes ending with the curse of hanging and damnation for the lover who poisoned him.

  The original ballad, then, is the story of a young man bearing thorough witness to his own murder, carefully distributing his possessions, indicting the woman who betrayed him, and  insisting his mother make his deathbed.  Dylan’s song  turns Lord Randall’s death into a story of persistence and triumph but there’s a deeper way Hard Rain is rooted in these old ballads. The young men all know death is coming; there will be no rescue.  They all know the identity of their  murderer, and they all know they have been betrayed. What’s ultimately chilling and affecting in the ballads aren’t these facts but the dignity of the dying boy’s words. He presides over the last moments of his life by getting things exactly right. Lord Randal ballads teach that order and truth matter past one man’s death. Dylan’s Hard Rain, from its opening to its ostensibly heroic and redemptive ending, is also a ballad of getting things right.

The verses ingeniously narrate a coming-of-age. The first verse describing where he’s been is composed as a childlike counting song, and the final verse is no longer a catalogue of sights and encounters but a lyrical declaration of action.  Where he’s been is impossible, terra incognita, seven forests and twelve dead oceans. He’s pushed himself past endurance, crawling on those crooked roads, but he’s young and made for ordeals.  The glimpses of what he’s seen, heard, and whom he’s met, are to us cryptic and loaded. Foreboding,  treacherous, gracious, unreadable. But to the boy, they are the best he can do as he recollects all he’s encountered–too much rushes by to describe more fully than these fragments, but he’s determined to get this world right.

The refrain announces that all of this world will be pelted by a hard rain. We gather the rain will fall on all he’s seen and heard, on everyone he’s met. He announces that he’ll go back out before the rain starts and he’ll visit the places where people are poisoned, and hungry, and imprisoned, and despairing, and death is implacable but a coward with a hidden face.  Here in the lands of ordinary suffering is where he’ll go out into the rain to tell, think, speak, and breathe “it”– whatever it he meets. And telling, thinking, speaking, breathing  is nothing heroic. It’s the plain catalogue of being conscious and accountable  in the world. The final  allegory of standing on the flood, losing the magic thread of faith, sinking beneath the water,  climbing out under his own strength to scale the mountain, turn,  make sure he’s got it right, then face all us “souls” with the  song he’s learned: this is the work of choosing a life attentive to the world, getting it right,  and then bringing it to us.

Hard Rain is sometimes incorrectly heard as Dylan’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis; the song was written too early. But the allure of hearing the hard rain as atomic and annihilating can still be satisfied through setting the song alongside the soft rains that preceded it. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” may at this point be more familiar than  Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem of the same name that Bradbury reprocesses. Teasdale’s poem, subtitled “War Time,” is an anti-elegy for the First World War.  She describes a fresh spring, birds and frogs and plum trees are all free and bright in a soft nurturing rain that’s falling on a world flourishing without concern for the presence or absence of mankind. No remaining living thing “will know of the war, not one/Will care at last when it is done.” If we “perished utterly,” spring would awake without us. Teasdale lightly and cleverly suggests that the world can restore itself to Eden once we play out the full measure of our fallenness and extinguish ourselves from the natural order. Bradbury reworks the same motif for the atomic age and with a much heavier hand than Teasdale’s: his brief story describes the gruesome running down and collapse of an automated house after the bombs have fallen and pulverized the house’s family into shadows on its walls. The house’s electronic voice  recites Teasdale’s poem as it dies. Teasdale’s  poem has a dark, chill irony, but  Bradbury’s ugly story suits our post-atomic age–when we go, the world goes with us, no rains will be soft.

Dylan didn’t need a missile crisis to know this in 1962. And what I love about Hard Rain is that he’s moved past the childish bravura of Let Me Die in My Footsteps: he’s going out ‘fore the rain starts to fallin‘. He’s going to face down the suffering we’ve already got, get it right, and report back to us. In the time we all have together before some kind of hard rain comes.

A strong performance of  Hard Rain is tiring: depending on where I am and how the world is, different fragments will be especially suggestive. Dylan’s quest may sound especially bold or dangerous or personal.  At the end of a strong Hard Rain, I may feel pity, or I may feel heartened, or intimidated, or grateful. But each weak performance of Hard Rain is a quest that’s failed, and failed shamefully: A singer who’s indifferent to his own visions, who stands, sinks, and climbs automatically, and  reflects nothing to me I couldn’t see for myself..

Dylan’s young mind and young vision  wrote the song for his young voice: In the studio version on Freewheelin’, his enunciation is deliberate and precise. He has to show what he’s seen that I haven’t seen.  The repeated word hard, and then the culminating rain, perform the work of the ordeal. The hards climb, I,2,3,4 , finally 5 steps up to meet rain’s one syllable which young Dylan stretches out to find two sounds in the vowel—ay and ee. It’s in the singing we hear the rain as  the  adversary, and Dylan still needs  breath for the last four syllables, a gonna fall.  As a young man, he wrote the line whose singing describes and overcomes the rain.

In the 1962 Gaslight performance of Hard Rain, you can hear a few men’s voices joining him in the refrain, in the small room. This is not anthemic: it’s a shared quiet dream, a folk tale, shared by a band of brothers. In  the powerful 1963 Carnegie Hall performance, he calls out, highlights  the refrain—as though inviting the audience to join him. He knows this song is something new, but what kind of song is it? When the refrain comes around the second time, he brings the line closer to himself. It sounds to me as though here he’s learned that he can’t share the singing of this: we can’t all know his song as well as he does. He really does have to do all the work.

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This 1629 painting is arguably the first of Rembrandt’s self-portraits where skill, form, tradition, and singularity come together. He is 23.

This picture belongs to a genre in 17th century Dutch painting called a “tronie”, the depiction of an exaggerated facial expression or a recognizable character, a type. Painters used tronies as exercises in depicting readable feeling and character, often using themselves as convenient. Tronies were popular as readymade paintings: they added charm and dramatic interest to a room.

Rembrandt’s piece here is a tronie of expression, and as such both a useful exercise for the artist and a marketable product.

Nothing in the subject’s appearance speaks to rank or profession. The lace collar and the jacket can’t identify this young man as a soldier or a painter, as a scion or a burgher. His expression is reactive and fleeting; he’s not a study in contemplation, he’s not an allegory. There’s a world moving outside the painting, and this boy is part of it while not limited to any station. This is one arresting moment of conscious life in a young man’s face.  Full light  falls on only one quadrant of the face, the plane of the cheek is illuminated, while the expressive features, the eyes and mouth, are in shadow.  Never mind: the open, forward life of this face is bright beneath the shadow. Light and dark are both momentary states, opportunities for the young artist.  This painting’s shadowed eyes are in fact a crucial innovation in Rembrandt’s development. Art historian H. Perry Chapman emphasizes the “originality” of this move, Chapman exclaims ”this feature is so stunning visually…” Through the dark–because of the dark–we see the young artist stopping with us for just a moment, before he moves on.

 

And the two artists move on…

Two Hard Rains from the 70s,  Bangladesh and Rolling Thunder, test the song’s staying power. If the singer can’t be a boy genius again, astounded by the world and claiming his voice, what can he see and then what can he give us?

Dylan’s unexpected appearance at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh occurred  5 years after he had performed onstage anywhere in the US, except for the one-off Guthrie tribute concert. It was experienced in the moment as a triumphant shock of a return to life. And the first song he performed was Hard Rain. You can hear that Dylan is nervous, and the other musicians are nervous. He sings in his rough country tenor, rushes some of the long lines without sacrificing too much precision. In the refrain, the repeated word hard  is low and heavy, not soaring, and he pulls back on gonna fall.  You can also hear the musicians working to find and stay in the groove of this long song.   It’s not difficult to find the uncanny aptness of choosing Hard Rain for this moment: it offers images that seem ordinary while loaded with threat or wonder; performing it simply is the act of facing others with the song he knows well.  The concert for Bangladesh had been publicized–and motivated–by  images of foreign horror and tragedy at a time when distant suffering was not routinely visible.  We weren’t used to looking at photos of hungry, immiserated people in a remote  country. At the Madison Square Garden show, Dylan is facing the largest audience who’d ever heard him sing this song, most of whom wondered if they’d ever see him perform any song again. What comes through most clearly are the nerves and the work. He would get across that the world is indeed like this. The reflection at the end is humble and compassionate. In its awkwardness, the song that night was uncannily relevant.

A good example of a failed, albeit delightful, Hard Rain is from  1977, on the 2nd  Rolling Thunder tour that was recorded—and filmed for television broadcast—at Fort Collins,Colorado. The melody is sped up and playful, the other musicians know their parts and get in the groove fast. In his Rolling Thunder persona, Dylan’s a circus master and  the song’s images are more fanciful than prophetic. I see a masque, faux sinister, under the hard  rain, which sounds perfectly endurable, just like the actual  rain falling on Fort Collins. The delivery is full of taunt and relish, and Dylan’s voice is strong and also coarse. The lively, bouncy tempo is pretty far from the original melody, and the refrain sounds like an ordinary chorus, with the hards repeated for the toe-tapping rhythm, not for courage and climbing. Dylan sounds  been there, done that, ready for something else.  At the end I don’t want to be a soul, redeemed, I  just want to be part of the carnival.

 

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An especially present and alive self-portrait is this one from 1634. We take for granted that the unique charisma of the expressive face is the artist’s intent; instead the work is another exercise in expression, color, and composition. The use of light and dark here is more active than in the 1629 portrait, and Rembrandt is perfecting his peculiar immanent glow. Light infuses the surfaces here, it doesn’t fall upon them from an identifiable source like a  window.  Looking at this painting, your eye is never still despite its being a static composition of a single figure in no setting.  The contrast between the rich black bonnet  and the brightly glowing right side of the face. Then the deep black and the shades of black and brown in the costume.  The scarf is draped, casting its own shadows on the chin and neck. The fur of the collar, though soft and thick and brown and black has to be distinct from the soft and thick hair of different shades of brown. The parted mouth gives us a sense of immediate active life: speech, breath.. The  bonnet  was common to  16th not 17th century artists, the furred collar and oriental scarf were not contemporary dress. We engage  with the contrasts of textures and depths  and in the liveliness of our attention we meet the sitter in his moment of intelligent thought, and an apparent awareness of the  own wit.  Not a young boy caught in the tumult of his inner life, but a man capable of irony and fine judgment.

My first live Hard Rain was April, 2005, at my very first Bob Dylan concert at the Beacon Theater on 74th St. I’d just begun La Vita Dylan, and I hardly knew the song; I don’t think I’d heard it all the way through once before hearing it live. This was back when he played that toy keyboard. He had to plant himself and hunch, and the effect was part puppet and part mad scientist. That Thursday night,  he handed over every single word of the song. The blood dripping was horrible to see, the tireless bloody drummers were  terrible to behold. I saw the face of all my own pessimism, black and none. I’m not much of a swimmer so the sinking was rough, and then to get up that mountain with him took a lot out of me. When he reached the mountaintop and turned, with light for me, I ‘d not felt so grateful in years. Then the strangest thing of all happened! The building absolutely roared! All around me other people were on their feet, arms up, roaring. In front of me was a man in his 50s, wearing a blue shirt and a tie, he was up and shouting. He came here from work, I found this remarkable–didn’t take off his tie. How can all these people hear what I just heard? And indeed they had. We were in it together.

 

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Rembrandt was 52 when he painted this and, no, that was not elderly in the 17th century. In this painting, which we own here at the Frick, you can see the challenges of painting old flesh: it demands complex shadows, asymmetrical highlights, and an extensive palette of flesh and hair tones. An old man’s beard is different colors. The colors on an old face can’t be blended into smooth passages.  As a viewer, you can’t take in an old cheek as a complexion, there are too many shadows.  How many creases are in the forehead? What’s the name for the colorless grey of old eyebrows? What’s the name for the color of the shadow between the brow’s creases?

It  seems hard to accept that this is a self-portrait. How could the old fellow in the painting have painted this painting? I see a man dreaming himself as a grand bulk draped in fine soft cloth. His broad hips are made for sitting.  His body isn’t tense with power he’s wielded for decades; perhaps he’s simply overfed and slack with wealth.  The slender stick emphasizes the large soft body and the left hand holds it loosely. It’s not a scepter or even a walking stick.

The outfit   is anachronistic and also unrealistic: the yellow robe, or jerkin, and the white neckcloth are 16th century dress, the sash and cane would have been considered oriental accents in 17th century clothing. I’ve been reading a depleted regal character here, but  the costume in this portrait is a near copy of that worn by the esteemed Dutch painter, Maarten Ryckaert in an engraving by Anthony van Dyck. It’s likely that  Rembrandt adopted this look and  pose  as a way of representing himself as part of an esteemed tradition. Instead, 358 years later, I would guess the Frick doesn’t get one visitor a month who’s familiar with Maarten Ryckaert. And  I have a small print of this Rembrandt painting over my bureau. It gives me always a jolt of tenderness mixed with  awe. Mighty, extravagant, foolish, and enfeebled, this old man presents himself completely to my gaze  and forbids all condescension.

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Bob Dylan the old man sings Hard Rain, but  I hear Ain’t Talkin as the old man’s Hard Rain.  No more dialogue. And no impending doom. The calamity in Ain’t Talkin’ happens fast. The singer idles in a sick and enchanted dreamland.  Alas, his languor is interrupted  by an unseen assailant, and he wakes up in the real world. Here there’s no idling allowed. There’s endurance, there’s monotony. Not going in and out, no magic standing on water and emerging from the ocean, no mountains to climb. Just a road, and the walking is dogged, steady, and mundane.  The world goes on around and by him. Landscapes, cities roll by. He does not see one thing at a time and remember how each looked.

There is no test. Nothing stops the walking, though. You walk and walk through all the mortal afflictions of any great Bob Dylan song. And that is the song. There’s nothing waiting to be reflected.  Whatever needs to be known well is already around him, around us. There’s a mother here, as in the old ballads. He  appeals to her for divine intervention before immediately confessing a lack of faith.

The refrain of Ain’t Talkin’ doesn’t soar. But it’s not hard to take grating. It’s rather lilting and companionable.The tune is never cold or unpleasant. Sure, walk with me a while. We’re all heading in that direction anyhow.

At its aged best, Dylan’s voice is mightily earthbound. It’s scorched and rocky. With this voice, the road itself  in Ain’t Talkin’ becomes audible. In an indifferent performance of Ain’t Talkin’ ( which, come to think of it, are very few and far between) isn’t a different experience of the walking, but you can’t really feel the road beneath your feet.

Contrast Ain’t Talkin’  to Rocks and Gravel where the vocal—the long long exhale on the nnnn—plays out the stamina required to build that road. Not the same as walking it—which is what we feel now, with Ain’t  Talkin.

A Frenchman who lived in Leiden for 20 years as a schoolmaster had this to say:

The Dutch in the midst of their Boggs and Ill-air have their houses full of pictures.

Amsterdam in the 17th century was a terribly unhealthy place. The plague swept through regularly and even with no understanding of microorganisms, people feared the diseased air. The cool, ventilating light of the Dutch painters we love was a precious fantasy for the burgher. Paintings  brought characters, landscape, drama, narrative, into the presumably healthier air of one’s home. Whereas Vermeer’s light seems pure and blue and vitreous,  Rembrandt’s light is sourceless illumination. It’s the way things look in themselves,

Dylan’s most recent turn, to standards familiarized by Frank Sinatra, are virtuosic performances of lives that I say never had the will or appetite to live Hard Rain. These characters flourish in the smooth, well-timed, affecting, fine voice which Bob Dylan has summoned for them. Ain’t Talkin’ and  recent songs like Scarlet Town, Narrow Way, or Pay in Blood, share the sound of a harder lived life, many sinkings and clamberings up mountains–often not all the way to the top.  I want Bob Dylan’s breath to get again the marvelous unreal  glow of  a late-life Rembrandt self-portrait — this is the way my own old head looks This is the way Isee the old world, born again and again, from these old eyes.

Is what I want.

 

 

 

 

References

Dickey, Stephanie S. Rembrandt Face to Face. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2006.

 

Chapman, H. Perry. Rembrandt’s Self Portraits: A study in seventeenth-century identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

 

Hall, James. The Self-Portrait: a cultural history. London: Thames and Hudson, 2014.

 

Wright, Christopher. Rembrandt: Self-Portraits. New York: Viking Press, 1982.

 

Bailey, Anthony. Rembrandt’s House. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014 (reprint, 1978 ).

 

Ormiston, Rosalind. Rembrandt: his life and works in 500 images. Leicestershire: Anness Publishing Co., 2012.

 

White, Christopher, and Quentin Buvelot, eds. Rembrandt by Himself. The Hague: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Has A Thousand Hearts And Eyes (What did I ever win?)

  
Yesterday I stood  in the middle of 52nd street to catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan merely leaving a bus and walking about ten feet to the backstage door of the Ed Sullivan theater. I did eventually get my glimpse of stubborn shoulders and yet another brimmed hat.  I don’t usually stoop to age-inappropriate fan behaviors like waiting outside doors; the few other people in 52nd street with me appeared to be shabby autograph hounds waiting for Bill Murray. Passersby occasionally asked  who was on the bus and I wish now I hadn’t answered each time: No one was interested and I know I seemed barely more palatable than the fellow next to me holding a grimy plastic bag filled with other plastic bags.

Nevertheless, I had a good long time to stand there in the sun and contemplate the bus. I tried to contemplate thousands–thousands–of this.  Not, of course, even  counting outdoor shows. Climbing down bus steps or pushing off a car seat or turning a corner on foot onto a dry or wet or icy or snowed-up sidewalk.  Sun or shadow or night or wind or rain. Alongside people much-liked or not especially liked, or indifferent to. Feeling good, feeling shitty, feeling frightened, feeling hungry, thirsty,  feeling nothing much. Talking, smoking, both or neither. Hearing Dutch,Norwegian, Slovenian, Spanish, Hebrew, Finnish, French, or English but with different Rs and vowels. Hearing his name shouted over his shoulder or, like yesterday, no shouts of recognition.  Through the door to the usual unfamiliar faces exerting disinterest.   Got my clipboard here, busy, just doing my job. Or unfamiliar faces effortlessly indifferent.

That was the first time I’d seen Bob Dylan since Nov 2014 when I took in the 5 Beacon shows here and the show in Newark, NJ. This was the tour with the same setlist every night.  Isn’t he doing the same exact songs every night? Acquaintances who’d read this in reviews presented this fact as a criticism: Maybe it’s his age? You waited every time for him to do something different?

I waited for the same songs and yes of course it’s age. A whole story about age performed in a voice I’m still not used to. A careful and rugged and emotive voice. I sound arch, as though my ear is too exceptional to get used to Bob Dylan singing with transparent feeling and mortal charms.

Every night the crowd erupted for “she should have seen me back in ’58…”  in Simple Twist and I cheered along insincerely the first couple of times and then stopped. I  own a t-shirt with a photo of him from 1958 that I bought at Zimmy’s in Hibbing. It’s not a terrifically rare photo–he’s standing in front of curtains in the Zimmerman living room, holding a guitar and rolling his head back in a Presleyish way. He looks plump, spoiled, unpromising. How fast he’d become gaunt and sly and learn how to sing “those are the hills of hellfire, my love” commandingly,  like a grownup. I get it, I get it. Bringing everyone back to some 1958 that could even be real for lots of the audience, that’s hilarious, and an authentic Bob Dylan group hug. I think I felt left out. 

Instead I whooped every time he got out of bed in Workingman’s Blues and went into town “on a whim” where he sees. . . his father. “At least I think it was him.”  And if it was, his father’s apparently got his own business in town. An astounding vision. The miracle-mystery of time. Or just a passing stranger who may be familiar. He’s equal to both stories or neither and isn’t it a hell of a thing what can happen to a man when he just wants to get out of the house.  That’s what I liked to cheer for.

The first three songs end on peculiarly humble inspiring notes:

  • Mr Jinx and Miss Lucy took the grand and tragic way out but not me. I remember what caring felt like and I’m sticking around, so welcome to my Show and Concert. 
  • Back when I cared, perhaps, there was a woman who was free and complete. Nonetheless she belonged to me. Indeed, I spied on her in her secret room. Even if a Peeping Tom, I want to end by celebrating her. Everyone–Let’s give her a trumpet and a drum and salute her! Give her the instruments and let her make her own song. 
  • You’re the only love I’ve ever known, now bless me as I sail away. Into the measureless nothing that lies beyond our  love. A love so vast that the world itself becomes the throne with nothing, of course, left to rule over. I admit it–I haven’t said or done anything in all my rich contrariness. But still, I won’t leave without your blessing.

That fierce solitary lover  sets off in his boat and sails to the grim and compassionate land of Workingman’s Blues. The sad quiet intro changed the stage set: here are dark trees and scattered meager lights and the rustling of very tired people finding each other somewhere to rest. We in this song makes togetherness a mode of survival. Some minutes ago he’d brashly told us four times that he’s no longer a man  who even cares. Three songs later he laments a past so full of trial or sorrow or both that we’d weep just to hear it.  

All these songs about how much it takes to go nowhere. Waiting for You–I’ve never liked the bland country melody and six times I’d wait, lukewarm until the one special moment of the shout out to all of us. Our thousand hearts and eyes.  He perks up out of the rocking-chair Waiting for You when he hears the train. Duquesne Whistle is too fast live, as Thunder on the Mountain also was for me. That train has his whole life on it and rushes round him while he stays put, although not unhappily. Please, for me, more restlessness, more nerviness.

Which is why Love Sick brought heat down on my head time after time. Pretty recently I heard Prof Ricks say that Love Sick is not a “romantic” song. He was emphatic about its potent lack of allure. I didn’t have the courage to say, “Speak for yourself, Professor. ” The band never failed to dig in and tear up in an arrangement that wasn’t so much new as more.   And every time, I’d steer my boat right into the rocks of that voice. 

How we all had to pull together to keep up with him for those last three songs. Stalking the stage, scaring us like a hellfire prophet. And I’ll tell you, those oooohs and the thundering anticlimax–so much for these loong and wasted yeeeahs–you could think after 3 or 4 times this would come off a little kitschy histrionic. It never did. Every time it was some kind of shattering disillusionment followed by such a gentle and loving Blowin’ in the Wind that I forgot there was bitterness in the world. Finally, the gift, the Great Humility laid  at our feet, Stay With Me. This must be how people felt when Saved was released: the condescension and pity for everyone who’d have to settle for a recorded Solid Rock. You had to be there to earn those last three words every night. 

I left out a lot, didn’t I. 

In the new Workingman’s Blues he prays the fugitive prayer. Here it is:

 Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations: they have no knowledge that set up the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save.

As Jerry Wexler once said, “I don’t believe in this shit.” Nonetheless–touché. 
  

In Which I Attempt To Persuade Professor Wilentz That ‘Cross The Green Mountain Is A Good Song

I was one of several people invited to speak on a Dylan panel that was part of Arkansas State University’s Delta Symposium in April. The panel was organized by ASU’s Frances Hunter and Lauri Umansky–women I am proud and privileged to have worked with and look forward to working with on just about anything at all–who also are the editors of the upcoming volume Professing Dylan, to which I had the privilege and pleasure of contributing an essay. Here is an amended and spun-out version of the paper I read for the panel. 
  One theme for the 2015 Symposium was film.  I took my invitation as a chance to dote on ‘Cross the Green Mountain.  A few years ago, I attended a talk by Professors Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at which, in a context I don’t remember, Prof Wilentz mentioned that  Bob Dylan is a good historian, but ‘Cross the Green Mountain is not a very good song. Prof Wilentz is one of the anointed executives of Dylan scholarship whom I esteem and like unreservedly.  He could be the only one. His remark wounded me–I didn’t care that I may have got the song wrong, but I cared horribly that someone who cries when he hears Lone Pilgrim can not be moved and entranced and then moved again by my ‘Cross the Green Mountain. What I could do with the ASU symposium is  compose a story about Bob Dylan, the Civil War, and ballads–a story that serves my love for the song without sinking to defending it.

   Dylan’s affinity for the civil war is one of the most fertile cell lines in his story. The ongoing business of fracking his lyrics for purloined shards of other texts began with the discovery of lines by the Confederate poet Henry Timrod scattered through Modern Times.  For  years now his  stage costume has evoked riverboat gamblers, gentry, carpetbaggers.  We know the early scenes: the boy pushing his way into the NY folk culture who spent afternoons in the 42nd st library hunched over microfiche newspapers from the 1860s. 

“The nation was on the cross,” is Dylan’s famous and gruesome description of the civil war, and it’s quite a precocious allegory. The factual havoc of the war is slavery, secession, battle,  decisions, mistakes, good moves, unpredictable losses and gains, emancipation, and a reunification of worn-out people depleted of property, fellowship, pride and hope. Americans haven’t lost the pleasure of mythologizing all this into sacrifice, martyrdom, redemption. Back in the quiet library those afternoons, our boy took in how factual havoc looks the moment it takes the shape of history. And I mean shape literally: he took in the way a headline is loud and spare; he took in the expert and reliable engineering of lines fit to columns, columns fit to pages.  He took in the decisions and mistakes and corpses and a hill won today and lost tomorrow–all in the right-angled order of instant history.  

     Inequality is the American story’s  fault line.  A geological fault line is just the land itself, lovely or not, until it moves. It will move and when it does there’s no safety or peace until it stops. One place Bob Dylan’s songs  take us is into the  trembling  house built on the fault line.     
   Back to1960, and the fault line is quaking under Jim Crow and the Cold War. The growing population of postwar urban intellectuals was exactly what the folk song needed for an episode of reawakening. All folk revivals since Gottfried von Herder’s  work in the 18th century share a pattern: urban elites fantasizing that the emotional, sensual, and moral authenticity dulled by materialism can be harvested from rural unlettered culture. Political consciousness and activism energized the American midcentury folk revival. Not a salon, but a movement that grew from facsimiles of villages and hearths–folk festivals and coffeehouses.

    In 1960, Folkways releases a collection of civil war ballads recorded by the movement’s early heroes: Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, New Lost City Ramblers. Blacklisting and civil rights are nowhere on these antique songs and still the record is a soundtrack to the 50s and 60s. 

    Irwin Silber ‘s liner notes help explain the Civil War’s pride of place. He gives the war credit as the  “catalyst” for American folk music. In the mid 19th century American culture was growing its own musical forms from the ballads brought here by the waves of Irish, Scottish, English immigrants and by slave songs migrating west and north. There was strong stuff but it was unbound.  The civil war was a hideous perfect storm for this art. All the potent themes of balladry were to hand:  coming of age in war; men larger than life; tragic love; fellowship.  Fought as it was by cavalry and infantry, our civil war was an excellent delivery system for  new ballads. With thousands of men on the move transmission and adaptation could cover so much ground so quickly. An art form uncannily well-served by history.
 Take a moment for this thought:  of all the participants in the Folkways project, including of course Irwin Silber, only Pete Seeger is significantly more than a chapter or footnote in Bob Dylan’s story.  In 1960, our hero is a restless prodigy-cum-nuisance.  Zimmerman no longer but few people care. The now-hallowed Minnesota Tapes are just some hours’ worth of vanity and faith.  And by1962, New York’s Bob Dylan is the beguiling princeling of Silber’s and Seeger’s folk revival. He has already charmed  men and women who hope to awaken America to its birth mandates of liberty and justice. This Bob Dylan teaches himself to write the songs for the dream of quaint truths and progressive politics. 

  Young Dylan, though,   molds  quaint and progressive  in his own form, and that’s where we get John Brown. The song John Brown is partly derived from an Irish ballad in which a soldier’s mother, Mrs. McGrath, faces her crippled son returned from battle. For his version, Dylan takes a name that connotes Everyman and refers to the icon of civil war martyrdom.  John Brown the abolitionist died a martyr to the cause of freedom–most significantly, he died a martyr to the cause of armed insurrection as the only means to freedom.  Dylan’s song combines the  coming of age in wartime ballad with the tragic wartime mother ballad.  He turns John Brown into a boy who learns that all war is civil war, all soldiers are kin, all men face death with terror, even in a good old-fashioned war.  Dylan gives Mrs Brown both glorious scripts of the folk song-mother. Her son returns from the noble war a medaled hero. And the same son returns from bloody battlefields a disillusioned and crippled grotesque who gives her the medals she wanted and then abandons her. Yes, a precocious protest song that deftly manipulates tradition to remind  us that all war is hell. The audience at the Gaslight didn’t really need this lesson, and I think there’s another one in the song. There’s no holding back in the repulsive final portrait of the soldier who left looking “so fine”. The ruined face and strangled voice, the missing hand and that awful metal brace stay horribly with the listener (as though the parents did open the door at the end of The Monkey’s Paw and face their third wish). John Brown’s broken body reminds me that real boys are paying the appalling cost of my righteous protest.  It’s only a little more genius from here to Hattie Carroll, the ne plus ultra of warnings against sancimony.

  John Brown is a young man’s song. The protagonist is bound to his mother, vigorous enough for battle, callow enough for disillusionment. The young songwriter is bold enough to demand pretty severe moral reflection from me.  My beloved ‘Cross the Green Mt is an old man’s song. 

   ‘Cross  the Green Mt was written for the 2003 civil war film,Gods and Generals, and Dylan’s video for the song is arguably better known than its lyrics. It takes place in a civil war camp and Dylan wears a fake beard and wig that transfigure his face into an ageless inscrutable creature oddly unrecognizable despite millennial Bob Dylan’s customary ageless and inscrutable appearance. Dylan then wore this getup onstage at the Newport Folk Festival. Of all places. He always tells his story more cleverly than we can, but we press on anyway.

  The lyric tells of a prophecy–the singer rests after the labor of crossing the mountain and in his sleep receives divine vision. Heaven assails him, and he staggers under the blow–“I–I dreamt a monstrous dream,”  he stammers. Although of course we listeners recognize the matter of the dream as our Civil War, we’re never told whether the singer lies dreaming before or after the war. The monstrous vision he’s granted is either a prediction of calamity he can’t prevent or a recreation of calamity he can’t undo. Figuring the Civil War  as a kraken rising from the sea to sweep through the land of the rich and the free is a stroke of ingenuity because it supports my motif. The sea god Poseidon is also the god of earthquakes. The ships bringing slaves across the ocean to America brought the deep fault line atop which was built our ideal of freedom and fortune. The fault line of slavery erupted into the Civil War which, after it swept through the land, left behind it freedom, the destruction of fortune, and the fault-line still shaking.

   The dreaming singer is granted a god’s eye view of this war.  There are no sides to take. He sees all things at once and each thing in its own time. He can see miles of ravaged land and one soldier dying in his friend’s arms. He can see entire woods stained with soldiers’  blood. He can see the one honorable captain laid out with reverence by the very men who killed him in ghastly error. He can see flames far and wide and one woman’s faith in the survival of her already dead son. As in any dream, this one is overdetermined.  He recalls or predicts an irrelevant 30s  standard,  Stars Fell on Alabama. This song is set against a documented meteor shower and the visionary dreamer can count each meteor falling harmlessly and prettily from the sky onto the grown-over battlefields of Alabama. 

   With the same compass, he surveys the moral landscape. He can see that God’s vengeance is unsparing and also exhort all of us to serve God with good cheer in the knowledge that Heaven shines in an eternal truthfulness beyond the surprises and masks of earthly days and nights. He hears the bells of vespers and he knows all men are blasphemers. Perhaps a 360 degree moral compass means corruption and virtue, and martyrdom and plain grievous suffering, circle each other relentlessly. This  endless circle must be a reasonable picture of war.

  Remember all this horror and knowledge come to us from a dreamer at a great height. His exhausting vision, foretold or relived, takes place while he sleeps where he’s chosen to sleep. Indeed, where he’s earned some healthy rest following his mountain crossing. Whatever the Green Mountain is, it’s a place where any past battlefields have been healed over.  From a mountaintop we may safely see the story of the old grey world: what nature and what humankind have built and dug and ruined and repaired. On a mountaintop the singer is safely remote from whatever the present moment brings to or demands from the lives below. Although he’s alone and unprotected from the shades gathered in the mountain air visiting him in a monstrous dream, he is also protected from the mortal living and dying of these events. 

  The song’s soundscape is smooth and patient. It’s breath-like.   The 24 verses are all 4 lines of 4, 5, or 6 syllables. Each verse has the same rhyme scheme of ABCB. While we parse the images of blood and death and loss, and contemplate the meditations on sin and truth and virtue, the vocals and  music rise and fall with an enchanting dolor. 

   ‘Cross the Green Mt is a war song for a man too old to fight. He sleeps on a momentarily still fault line. The factual havoc and suffering of the past visit him–inspire him–and he breathes out an ordered artful vision. That ends with a reflection on unspoken but still true fellowship–“we loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.” Something like “I saw that his face looked just like mine.”
   I don’t know that I’ve  learned anything about the Civil War from these songs. I’ve learned what it is for Civil War songwriting to age in Bob Dylan.   I think I believe that history is only the factual havoc of the past aging in the thoughts and acts of succeeding generations. I think Prof Wilentz would call that glib.

    I think I could end any talk on Dylan with Eternal Circle so here I go. This 1963 song is so charming, and a manifesto to boot.  It enacts the law of concentric circles that must ensnare song, singer, and listener in every single performance. In The Eternal Circle, we learn how it is to be the singer, without ever hearing the song he is singing. Images of vision and not hearing dominate the eternal circle. He sees, he is seen, things happen outside the song, and he remains captive to the melody and the story that he performs.  He has to sing the song he’s not singing to us, because it’s long and a singer is bound to the song he’s singing. There’s the girl, he sees her and she’s the one at the moment. She’s there because he’s singing. He’s singing the song we can’t hear to her. Time is controlled and clear and neither here nor there

  The song tells him when he may rejoin the world–when he’s done singing it. Meanwhile he can see the world listening to him and going on without him. As listeners we pass both our time and the singer’s time, and the singer also passes his own time and the song’s time. 

The trick in Eternal Circle is that for once we are as close to Bob Dylan as we ever wanted. It’s the Holy Grail–we know his thoughts as he sings. We get the secret self  his audience may not have because they are only hearing the song. Which we can never hear. There’s a way that song is the only art form that serves up time for real–ungraspable, repeatable, ungraspable, rhythmic, ungraspable, mesmerizing, ungraspable. 

The old man closes his eyes,  sleeps and dreams his song.

The song passes our time and the song passes the singer’s time.

  

Memorize These Lines

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I attended a talk at Columbia Univ’s Heyman Center featuring Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz discussing the new lyrics compilation edited by Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow. The Nemrows publish the Simon and Schuster imprint through which Lyrics is offered. I don’t own the book because I can’t afford to buy it at the moment.

Prof Wilentz introduced Prof Ricks, asked Ricks to describe the motivation for and production of the book, and companionably ceded the two hours to Ricks, three songs, and questions.

The origins of the project involved Ricks’ longstanding desire to do something about the many and strange discrepancies in official lyrics transcriptions. We’ve learned to work around the small and very large differences between what we hear and what we read through consulting or ignoring the various official published texts, bobdylan.com, tawdry and earnest websites, each other.  Ricks wanted to contribute a transcription that didn’t simply get more words right, but do justice to the “multimedia”  nature of Dylan’s art, in which the words of a Dylan song don’t precede or determine the vocals. How a Dylan lyric means is how Dylan sings the lyric. Transcribing a Dylan lyric–setting the line breaks, indenting and spacing verses and refrains–invites an original approach to typesetting language whose timing is peculiarly intrinsic to its meaning and its affect. Ricks found this invitation exciting, as well he should. He understands that how our eyes read some kinds of text–poetry, or Bob Dylan lyrics–matters. Where we pause, where we reverse our train of vision to begin again with a new line, where a rhyme is embedded in a phrase and where it signals the conclusion of a phrase–any poetic text choreographs my saccades and my comprehension to create rhythms of sound and meaning. If Bob Dylan’s songs are the wonders of sound and sense that Christopher Ricks and I and you understand them to be, then let’s encourage  an original form of poetic notation to transcribe them.

The Nemrows’ particular bona fides as Dylan scholars or critics didn’t come up in the talk and I’m not familiar with any work either has done on Dylan. Ricks told us that the Nemrows did the first passes of transcribing based on their listening and comparing notes with each other and they kept up the contact with Jeff Rosen’s office.

The result is a clothbound thing of Gutenbergian proportions and a most solemn design declaring from ten feet away that this is a volume of unmistakable legal, cartographical, historical, liturgical, philosophical, collectible majesty. The enormous pages are buttercream. If I had a copy, whenever I felt sad I would open it up to I and I and  lay my cheek upon the paper. The size is intended to accommodate an entire song on one verso and recto span. Ricks objects to interrupting a song in its own aural time by turning a page. Apparently only It’s Alright, Ma requires a page turn.

There is the contentious and exhausting and exhaustingly contentious matter of what Ricks calls “variants”. He used only the official recordings, including the Bootleg series, and appends notes recto. Someone can tell me what the Tangled Up in Blue page looks like if he’s used the Real Live variant. And no other Tangled variant.  Idiot Wind would have the small changes from Hard Rain and not so small changes from the NY session as officially issued on BS 1? And of course, no North Saigon If You See Her. Is this like leaving out one of the Unicorn tapestries? Or leaving out Benjy’s point of view in The Sound and the Fury? Or leaving out 10 different episodes in Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps? In no time at all and without even paging through the book,  I am exhausted and contentious.

Ricks used Just Like a Woman, It’s Alright Ma, and Black Diamond Bay as illustrations of his aim. We had xeroxes of these as well as Mississippi which we did not have time to hear and discuss. We listened to the BOB, BIABH, D versions of the three songs. I observed:

  • Just Like a Woman
    • Yes, I see that rhyme is served by these breaks and indents. Pain/rain–friend/again. Knows/clothes/bows. …curls/…pearls. Each set of end rhymes is differently indented and creates a new pattern on the page. This shaping is valid on its own and then creates consistency for the one-off line for the single word Hurts as well as the lonely dangling That. Hurts belongs in this relation to curse and worse. Hurts is left after a curse and worse. And as sung,  That is its own falling star in the verse.
    • Ricks insists that Takes/aches/makes/breaks and fake/make/ache/break hold together in a rhyme cycle that sets apart “Just like a little girl.” I hear this, and I see and hear the pillar of takes/aches/makes/breaks. Even so, the break and indentation of “Just like a little girl” 3 times looks . . . disingenuous. It’s a lyric central to the dubious misogyny conversation that Ricks is helping keep alive; the break is not part of the song’s soundscape.
    • On the other hand, the “and” that I hear clearly before “…when we meet again..” is not transcribed. It is there, breathed and real, when I listened just now.
  • It’s alright ma–
    • Ricks has transcribed “false goads I scuff at.” Goads?! Sean Wilentz himself remarked out loud that he has never heard the word goads in that line. Nor have I nor has anyone I know. Gods sounds wrong and I respect those who dislike goals despite hearing it. A goad is already external coercion, already an admission that one’s will is controlled. False or real isn’t relevant here. Ricks was amenable to an error there.  I think a talk promoting the book is not the time to be gracious about unsubtle anomalies. That is what the editorial meetings were for.
    • Why include the space before each iteration of “It’s alright, ma…”? To me, setting these lines off is a precious effect unsupported by the vocal phrasing.  Does he do the same with “Forever young” and “Blowin’ in the wind” and “Ain’t talkin'”?  I don’t like the imposed aphoristic reading of this kind of transcription. The refrain is sung right on the same breath as the preceding lines in each case.
    • On the other hand, he does idiosyncratic business with transcribing the 2nd verse as 5 lines–not giving “is busy dying” its own line as he does with “Person crying” in the 3rd verse.   Ricks told us of his fascination with the discrepancies in length in verses 2 and 7. What authority grants these discrepancies as being audible rather than imputed? This is a real question.
    • He transcribes “insure you not to quit.” I respect those who hear “assure” and I question the spelling. Did he choose the money-related spelling to reinforce the song’s marketplace motif? This is clever although “ensure” is proper for the lyric’s meaning.
    • And I hear, “And though the masters make the rules.” Not “Although the masters make the rules…”
  • Black Diamond Bay.
    • Ricks is fascinated by Dylan’s “Singing off the rhyme.” And wonder is the right response: rhymes conventionally guide the singer’s attention and the listener’s expectations for both sound and sense. Singing off a rhyme requires a peculiar kind and degree of concentration for a singer and creates peculiar kinds of surprises for the listener. And the name of this peculiar is just Bob Dylan.
    • Ricks was super tickled by the rhyme, “Verandah/And a”. That’s a good one but I wanted badly to see what he makes of “virtue..dirt. You…” That one song merits a revolution in transcription.
  • Mississippi
    • We had copies of this but no time to hear and discuss.
    • “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees.” Why?  Why did Ricks do this? Allow it? Did he wish to follow the comma splicing pattern that is somewhat reasonable in three previous verses? Then why not “Some people will offer you their hand, and some won’t” ? No comma there. “Leaves, falling” is carelessness that could and should have been corrected.

I think the most numerous and responsive audience for the book will be competitive Dylan enthusiasts obsessed by detail. As a contribution to literary culture, it is an interesting and unwieldy creative experiment in transcribing musical speech whose artfulness makes such luscious demands on the listener’s sensuous and intellectual attention.  What I want now is a series of small, homely, practical volumes of the lyrics with as many pf Dylan’s own sung variants as can be tracked down.   I want a committee of informed and serious people  committed to compiling the lyrics into one collection that may become an enduring reference that will be hotly contended until there’s no breath for arguing.

When I finally have my own copy of this Ricks-conceived objet-d’art I’ll display it as a trophy of my status in a community I largely avoid. On low days, the buttercream pages will restore me. I’ll greedily find mistakes and someone somewhere will victoriously prove me wrong. Vive la Dylan fan! Le Dylan fan? Capitalize Fan?. . .

 

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