Don’t Reach Out For Me

Donald Trump called Haiti and Africa “shithole countries.” Countries that expel shit. The crappy fetid people who are thus defecated come to the United States where they are called immigrants. The New Yorker is on the case: the cover illustration for the issue following the comment shows the yellow fiberglass top of the president’s head sticking out of a sewer! On another Trump front, Masha Gessen faces down that two “unhinged” men are, right now as I type,  arm’s length from nuclear attacking each other. I remind myself every day that a process which took months, and was visible all that time, and required thousands, then millions, of people to sustain it, made Donald Trump president. It did not happen quickly, in secret, at the hands of a few people who could hold and move a few mighty levers and, Satan’s presto, Donald Trump is president. The arithmetic of the popular vote and electoral college is not a moral argument I can hide behind with my New Yorker subscription: Donald Trump got to be president out in the open, carried across this country and up to the ruler’s chair in the arms of millions of sane people. You better keep this one plate spinning, I tell myself every day. You better never forget that this is happening because nothing along the path–a path that was sunlit and open to us–was large and solid enough to stop it right here, or here, before reaching the door at the end of the path, which opened and let us all in. I am of this, it’s not happening to me.  The problem immediately following this rational, healthy, and true admission is the magic trick involving setting up mirrors just right so that I get to observe myself on a special moral high ground:  I have acknowledged my inertia and privilege. Two points for me for recognizing my own entitlement.

I think I can do myself in one better. President Donald Trump is a great show. Inarguable, unbidden, justified horror and outrage can be titillating and delicious. Did I read this editorial in the Times yesterday for any objective other than pleasure? So, my topic today is about knowing I am standing still, and worthless, and captivated, while so many people harmed in this train wreck are going past me. There is art for this condition.

Look up an installation called Exodus 2016 by the artist Jon Kessler. It was on display at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and I don’t know where it is now. I found it the one wonderful thing in the Biennial, and a writer for the blog The Art Newspaper did not:

Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, suggested in a press conference that irony was absent from this show. But then how to explain Jon Kessler’s ridiculous sculpture, Exodus 2016, in which a few dozen kitsch figurines, including one of a man happily reading a book, are set on a spinning pedestal going round and round in ‘exile’. Does Kessler really believe that Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo look like that ornament of the old woman gladly carrying flowers? Irony is a poor tool and offensive when the situation is deadly serious.

“A few dozen kitsch figurines, including one of a man happily reading a book, are set on a spinning pedestal going round and round in ‘exile'” is an accurate description of Exodus 2016. The piece is a tower about 6–7 feet high whose several stacked parts and the mechanisms that connect them are simply engineered. At the Whitney, we were kept at a short distance from the piece by stanchions surrounding it on all four sides, but, except for the smallest figures, the whole thing was all clear and readable. Dozens of figures of people, animals, and novelty creatures are fixed to a clockwise-revolving disc of unfinished wood, and all figures face forward. The disc sits on visible wheels which, in turn, rest on a clean and practical white upended trunk, something I could afford at  IKEA. Rising above the disc is a clever but uncomplicated arrangement of an iPhone on a selfie stick, which is set so the figurines are captured as they pass by the phone, then uploaded to a large screen that’s framed with familiar icons to look like a jumbo iPhone camera feature. A video-editing app creates footage of an endless spiral,  an illusion of figures descending featurelessly into a gyre. As the figures sink, they lose detail; their shapes become silhouettes; the silhouettes become indistinguishable tiny receding blips; they are gone. I didn’t time it, but in a few minutes the figures that disappeared into the video abyss would return, of course, and appear as recognizable video images on the screen, become again silhouette, then again the blip, then sink again. The rods, the wires, the selfie stick, it’s all right out there, ungainly and without mystery. Who would look at Exodus 2016 and say, “I wonder how this works?”

Kessler’ really knows his kitsch, and selected his population for the right qualities of vapid,  craftsy, and artless. Nothing I saw seemed to be a child’s toy, nothing was an Archie McPhee parody of kitsch, and nothing was a legitimate curiosity. Some, though, are  tiny, smaller than paperclips, and I couldn’t make them out from the distance imposed by the installation. A few were several feet high and loomed over their companions. Stock figures: Hobos with sticks and bundles. Peasant women with bonnets and aprons and baskets. A fat-headed fanciful creature like a troll–something the cat-obsessed woman who works in Payroll would have on her desk next to a little sign reading Is It Friday Yet?  There’s a young country buck in gleaming china whose trousers and blowy top seem painted on his perfect limbs.  He’s got a goose at his side, which for some reason adds to the Paul Cadmus vibe.  There’s a proud upright doomed white soldier with his pack. He strides heroically into battle while still endlessly revolving, dying, and being revived. A small unpainted metal woman covered in graceless cloth and holding a swaddled babe stands at a bit of railing connected to nothing—it took me a moment to get that she is the classic immigrant story. Here is her first glimpse of the New World. There are two African women whose elongated bodies and natural breasts are carved from solid pieces of wood. On one, a slim arm balances a jug on her head, gracefully as they do, at home as they are in bright sun and seared brown grass, huts. There’s a fisherman lazing asleep on a log, if I saw correctly. A chubby little white girl with a folksy kerchief, fat little legs, fat little mouth open in stupid happiness at gathering flowers on a bright woodsy fresh day, eternally unmolested and unstarving. The cheerful lad and his silly too-large book, he’s reading and walking and smoking his healthful pipe, free and charmed in his imagination and his surroundings.

I know exactly how to read each figure because I am Kessler’s righteous panopticon. I know who is offensive, who is a hollow cliche, who is merely sentimental or puerile.  Every one of them is the antithesis of authentic identity. I recognize and dispatch each before they spiral into disappearing shades, and reappear. I dispatch again, the gyre swallows, on and on.  As long as I want. Then I tried to see them with unconscious eyes, and saw what looked like Kessler’s love for his collection: everyone fixed sturdily and cleanly,  with neighbors to keep company on the rounds.  Looking at the contraption in this mode,  I thought also about how hard it is to accept the kind you are, and leave others alone, while everyone keeps going. Of course this is always and already the way privilege works: we are the eyes of our time and place, others pass and stream before us, we know and we name. Eventually the others disappear. Or they hit the jackpot,  and they get to come stand over here with us.

The two perpendicular planes of motions complement each other’s repetition. On the horizontal plan everyone is moving in a false forward; it must feel to each as though he or she is advancing. Vertically, it’s one stream both up and down into oblivion; not just a trompe l’oeil of up and down at once, but that’s how the vertical journey of rising-in-sinking must feel to them. The allegory is clear and smart without being precious.  On the horizontal plane is the rotation that follows the physical and rational laws of traversing the earth: gravity holds us upright; if you keep moving forward in a circle, you’ll pass the same places and things over and over again; if you mind your own business and your neighbors mind theirs, everyone is more likely to stay in their own little space. On the screen is the vertical plane and its illusion of depth: here of course is the fact of life’s impermanence as all  beings moving inexorably towards loss of distinction. We all extinguish so the ones behind us can take our place. And Kessler’s mechanism implies, like any gyre, a Somewhere at the bottom, a maw waiting. But everyone returns whole and undigested–so, for as long as I choose to witness Kessler’s Exodus, I get to dream the metaphysical dream of revival, or the philosophical ordeal of recurrence without end.

I feel large, mobile, and thoughtful as I move on from Exodus to Bob Dylan’s big parade  heading down the swallowing gyre, Tempest, which steals and scrambles the Carter Family’s song, Titanic. Dylan helps himself to the melody, verbatim phrases like “sad, sad story,” “rich man,”  “darling wife,” and the dreaming watchman. Dylan and the Carters both get the casualties wrong, but the Carters are off by 1093 and Dylan only by 93. The differences between the songs are rooted deep in peculiarly contrasting moral and historical visions.

The Carter Family’s Titanic sounds perfectly folksy. The melody is regular and simple.  Each four-line verse of two couplets follows the same basic meter, u/u/uu/u…/uu/uu/. The voices, high and lightly strained, recite the lines one plain syllable at a time. What I expect from this soundscape is   homespun thought and feeling. I expect to hear the lament of simple decent people who are aghast at the death toll, who quail at the hubris behind the metal behemoth, and who raise their hands to a higher power who seems uncaring but surely is up there. Instead I’m surprised by a tricky circular irony and a liberal intelligence. Although the watchman’s dream is instructive, in the way of dreams in myths,  it occurs in the language of reality and requires no oracle to interpret. Even asleep he is on the job, and awakes without apparent surprise into his duty, which is, quite realistically, to save the “rich man” first.  The captain should be the model of the heartless, driven machine-age man who “let the Titanic go on” in order to “win the record.” But he’s just a drunk, thus a pardonably weak man. “Not knowing that he’d done wrong” is offered without irony. Go ahead and throw the first stone at him.

On shore, motherless children cry, but not for gods to return their drowned mothers to them. “Surely they’ll invent something to raise the Titanic someday.” Progress will rescue their mothers, the same circle of aspiration, greed, competition, and ingenuity will wheel on until mankind makes the machine to rescue the casualties of last year’s great machine. Their mothers are dead forever, but these children will live to see or themselves invent a machine to raise shipwrecks, and the Carters know it. This is partly a tragic-ironic critique, but it’s a mistake to hear the Carters’ song as a rustic lament for a bygone, slower, pious, better world. This twangy ditty is a sharp vision of modernity, and I am exactly the stock figure who is pleasantly surprised to learn that something like a Carter Family ditty can be a sharp vision.

Dylan’s Tempest, on the other hand, shares a good deal with Kessler’s mischievous postmodern depiction of the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery. One, the characters are a mixed bag of mainly phonies: fictional appropriations, anachronisms, stock figures, unknown origins, historical fact. Two, there is a panopticon, but Dylan’s is inverted: as I was the sentinel  for Exodus, Tempest has its watchman, who knows everything within his sleeping, blind, and dreaming mind . And three, we’ve got our horizontal and vertical planes: the mightiest ship can only be a little compromise between us and the vastest plane on earth, the sea. So although attention rises often to the vertical in the song–to the sky, to the heavens imagined above the sky, to the encompassing bodiless eye of the watchman–the vertical does its strongest work in descent. And because this is a song, we can hear the two planes. Dylan begins each stanza with a great upsurge in the volume and strength of the vocal, and then sinks into a milder and even breath for the last line. Each stanza feels like a wave cresting, then breaking and returning to the sea. Forty-five times we rise in resistance and contest, then subside.

There are so many grades of Being in these 45 well-cadenced verses. No, there seems to be every grade of Being on this Titanic, every human form takes center stage to face his/her/its death. I tried to divide the figures into categories and came up with the following:   (i) Historically  accurate; (ii) Anachronistic (further divided into Decorous (Wellington) and Ludicrous (Jim Backus); (iii) Appropriated; (iv) Stock character; (iv) Invented/unknown;  (v), the “many, many others,” the forever nameless 99% of history; and (vi), the watchman. The result is a havoc, as I’m asked to witness in the same plane the terrible deaths of realistic men and women, factitious men and women, and mere cliches of men and women. And mortality itself is havoc, since the preposterous cast here is dying in several incompatible worlds: one governed by an indifferent but familiar pantheon of the Christian god and attendant angels; one manipulated by a malign Wizard; one laid waste by an impersonal Reaper. The rough and fastidious old voice sets each vignette in the rocking cradle of its stanza, and I’m lulled into believing there is an affecting drama unfolding in time, instead of an absurd montage where the unreal outweighs the real.

Where the Carters end with their sly vision of a future that promises technological wonders powerless against the loss created by technological wonders, Dylan begins his song by turning time against itself, undoing progress, and leaving it at that. The “great ship” is “sailing into tomorrow/To a gilded age foretold.” The term gilded age originated with Twain’s 1873 book, and was revived to name the bling bacchanal the wealthiest Americans created for themselves between the wars, in the 20s and 30s. Twain’s gilded age preceded the dreams and money that went down in the Titanic, and the Titanic went down before the “foretold”  period characterized by that nickname.  The Titanic has already sailed into a tomorrow, where it is sunk and gone, before we’ve met a single passenger.

Look also at the difference between the indefinite pronoun they in both songs: in the Carter’s song, the one they is the master They, the powers-that-be who conceive and create the things that transform and advance culture. They will retrieve and repair what they gave us and we broke. In Dylan’s Tempest, they is the opposite of a superstructure. Dylan’s they is the doomed mass of humankind. They are the struggling creatures always the casualties of forces they can’t understand or influence, whether that force is human or divine judgment, nature or invention. And it can be hard work just to separate the real ones from the shams.

I obviously have nothing here to contribute to the cause. I do read what people like me are supposed to read, and I understand  Ibram Kendi ‘s reprimand:

Racist is not a fixed category like “not racist,” which is steeped denial. Only racists say they are not racist. Only the racist lives by the heartbeat of denial.
The antiracist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America — the heartbeat of confession.

And even though Kendi’s vision of history turns the true story of power into a metaphysics of essentialism, which is a falsehood I detest, I still want to be the Good White Person who confesses instead of denies. So after reading Exodus and Tempest, and reading myself enchanted by both, I think I’m left knowing how Matthew Arnold feels in 1851, in Dover Beach. He can hear and see the veil being torn asunder on his moment in history: the note of sadness is eternal, the ebb and flow of human misery is without beginning or end. He detects maybe a new note, which clashes and smashes as certitudes recede and confusion rolls in for good. But he knows that he stands, upright and safe, with enough time and a clear mind to attend to a masterful figure, and he can at least turn to the dream of certain and enduring human love. To me, Arnold has drawn a truth-telling picture of one safe moment for one fortunate creature. And that’s the best I can do with my stories of standing on  shores and watching other people without my luck. Someone else please take on Bob Dylan and Dover Beach, and have your turn being true about something, anything. Try to feel where you’re standing and don’t pretend the ground is shaking if it really isn’t.







All The Truth In The World

Mich There’s a vast Michelangelo exhibit at the Met now, primarily of his sketches and other preparatory work on paper, and it is logically well-timed with Bob Dylan’s more or less recent five-night Thanksgiving 2017 stand at the Beacon across the park from the Met at 74th Street. Michelangelo is the master of masters of bodies rising and turning in space. How does torque work? Forget that, how does torque feel? How do shoulders angle to bring hips up so a man can leave the spot where he has been sitting in time to turn a sheet of paper into air just when I choose to look at it? You walk through these galleries and the paper and cases fall away and you feel your own ungainly solid little steps forward, you feel your own submission to gravity, you’re heavy and slow amid these limbs rising and reaching, slaking and twisting through space. It’s exhausting and puny being a little heavy-footed mortal, shuffling among them.

Bob Dylan gets himself up and down and twists around a lot in these shows lately.  Restless on the piano bench, which is turned the long way round so he can stand more quickly, I suppose. He turns towards us to squint with that curiosity which is sometimes that of a naturalist come upon a possibly distinctive specimen, and sometimes just benign. Then he’s up, boom, turns his back on the piano, and heads to his stage space–not too close, not too well-lit–turns back, turns forward, wrestles the microphone stand. Even from front row, center, where I reigned on Friday night, you have to turn and turn to follow him: he keeps you busy, plus breaking all the sight lines, with the moving around, even on a small stage, and even following the same tracks night after night.

The songs are incompatible contrasts of benevolence and malice, giving up and going forth, trying and not trying. He used to care; he’s sick of love; go away; he sleeps alone; he’s sunk and selfish in his melancholy. And yet, “my friend,” he says; and overwhelming and humane like Zarathustra, here he comes off the mountain to see what other people need. He restores lost friends in shared memories;  he’s going to burn down the place where we’ve reveled with him as summer fades. He can hear the beating hearts of strangers keeping heavy time; and other people’s blood will spill to pay for his power, safety, or gain.

Time is locomotive, or an ecstatic dance, or a clock without hands. It was always a treat to see people startled and leaping to their feet if it was the first time they’d heard the new Thunder on the Mountain. Patiently we sat out each autumn leaf falling quietly and mercilessly to its final rest. But the work of getting into heaven before it’s too late is now strangely jaunty. And desolation row too seems a brisk and well-lit avenue.  Once upon a time, though,  is so very very past and dim that we all ripen just by listening. The two encores fit together: Blowin’ in the Wind and Thin Man both deal with facing down, whether in a shared and stirring way, or a frustrated and locked-out way, questions we can’t answer.   We should have felt humbled by those encores, a little overcome by truth so far off, but we always left considerably more vital than we came in.

And if you were lucky like me, you got all this yes and no, and up and down, and retreating and seizing, 5 times straight. Dylan’s voice is now surprisingly ranged: pity me in my sepia sadnesses;  quail before my rock-throated tyrannies; keep up with my running and dancing down that mountain; go ahead and relish the magnanimous ohs in Tangled Up in Blue–“just so you’ll knoo-ow.”

A few years ago, the Times printed a photo of Bob Dylan from, I think, the 1964 Halloween show, alongside a recent photo of him on stage. They did it on purpose to show us what happened to the marble faun in the intervening years: the face, once not so unlike one of Michelangelo’s Sistine ignudis, now guttered and slack. There was supposed to be a point to this juxtaposition, but I’m not sure I remember it: something about when older people dare to leave the house, they let us see what aging looks like?

When Michelangelo was in his 60s, he was visited in his studio by the Frenchman Blaise de Vigenère, who wrote:

 I saw Michelangelo at work. He had passed his sixtieth year and although he was not very strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very hard block of marble than three young masons in three or four times as long…And he attacked the work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly at the point marked, that if only a little more marble had fallen, he would have risked spoiling the whole work.

And even later, when he was about 75, Michelangelo famously took a hammer to his own Florentine Pieta, smashed Christ’s limbs and other parts, then divested himself of the work and let a lesser sculptor repair it badly. So we have two powerful images of what, when we ourselves get to a certain age, become desperate to  see/imagine: not just the old artist’s vigor, but the mystery of art still driving potent old hands, which though gnarled can still make or ruin according to the still-formidable flame of inspiration.

Bob Dylan moves nimbly on stage and he generally ends a show looking the same as he began it, while Tony or George may look a little fagged. But we’re really greedy for the changes, for songs remade with invitations to new meanings and impressions–new relationships I can have with them. The new Tryin’ to Get to Heaven has destroyed for  me the harrowing mortality of the album version and I am very unhappy that this song is no longer funereal. And the new Thunder on the Mountain really did send me straight to Zarathustra, able to read it with fortuitous appetite and vision inspired by the thrill of this new arrangement. More new, more new, more change, more possibility. More, more–see a theater full of Bob Dylan fans as gluttons at a banquet, ugly with our napkins stuck in our collars, banging heavy forks and knives on the table.

But there’s something else in these contrary setlists. It’s not merely that the  personas and entire worldviews are varied, but they seem incapable of coexisting. And they appear, take hold, and pass away quickly. This could be a trite lesson in *mindfulness* and the transience of all frames of feeling, but I’m not that affirming. I hear the impatient and fearful restiveness of age. Everything that’s been felt and seen, everyone recollectible, flies in and says their piece: this was right; this was real; I was true; I knew you; no, I did; no, this was the best place; no, this was right; here, this was real; you I really loved; no, you; this I did know; or was it thisAnd none of it is right. No, all of it is. Mark my words, this controversy starts to matter. And then, I think, it’s all that matters.

The Beacon 11/20/17
Many thanks to Frank Beacham


Crewmen Walk Around On Deck Listening For Mermaids

Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture follows the basic recipe for lectures by Nobel literature laureates: he tells his artist’s origin story; he considers a history of literature and his place in it; he acknowledges the moral scaffold from which Nobel laureates are expected to address their good fortune.

He’s transparent about the mimicry that rules his origin story. He sees his own destiny, an “archetype,” not just a teen’s idol, in the person, dress, mannerisms, voice, and material of Buddy Holly. And he describes the process of learning a cultural identity that other artists describe in terms of a setting or condition or identity whose mandate they awaken to. Imre Kertesz, Hungarian victim of Nazism, describes his “Eureka!” moment, “Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but as an adult, how a dictatorship functions.” Toni Morrison in her lecture uses the figure of a griot, an archetype Morrison can claim as an ancestor, to invite the possibility of  a language that can “reach toward the ineffable.” Bob Dylan tells us “By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it.” Through extraordinary desire but ordinary discipline, Dylan simply memorized the histories, conditions, and identities he chose to embody.

And by acting out Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey, Dylan reveals to us the process by which he became a modern interpreter of men of great awareness and action, who go forth into the certain dangers of ordinary life, of greed, of power, of mythic nightmares, of their own willful insanity, and the destruction they survive, wreak, witness, or don’t survive. He set up his own place in literary history the same way he set himself up with histories and identities: he read hard enough until whatever he saw, heard, felt, understood in other writers’ characters could speak right through him and be heard as his.

And the moral scaffold is another cheat. “All that culture. . .what happened to it? It should have prevented this.”   (Intoned, no less, over light-jazz piano tinkles.) This is the Nobel Question which has provoked manifestos, laments, and koans from literature laureates. Bob Dylan asks it only from behind a mask, as part of his Paul Baumer impersonation. Dylan pretends to be a young man asking why millennia of  the ordered, truthful, beautiful work of righteously inspired men and women hasn’t persuaded us to stop choosing indifference and violence and destruction–pretends to be a made-up young man in a well-made and truthful fiction. If you think Dylan is being naive or trite with his what happened to western culture? question, please think again. Dylan asks the question from inside itself in the moment he provides the listener with the common pleasure of having a great story read aloud by a gifted reader.

Storytelling for Bob Dylan, unlike his fellow laureates, is a matter of minutes, not hours, of my attention.  Four minutes, eleven minutes, three minutes, to show me, with recitations that rhyme and scan, a boat going to Italy; a man who tries but can’t flirt with a waitress; soldiers in the Civil War and their mothers; what it feels like to love someone more than is good for them or not enough; whether age is refined or exhausted vision; whether action is ever worth it.  And his lecture is another performance of musical speech, which has to beat the clock to tell stories.


PS: When I was a child I had a favorite record of Sterling Holloway reading The Jungle Book. Every time whoever this man was said ” great greasy Limpopo” in his strange rough and sweet voice, which did not quite sound like an ordinary adult, even a theatrical adult, I could see right then and there branches draped with wet green stuff  hanging low over pools of steaming water filled with alligators. Listening to Dylan reciting his Nobel lecture, I feel mainly that same dreamy pleasure of being read to by someone who knows what they’re doing. That 8th paragraph on the printout, the one that starts “You know what it’s all about,” it sounds like he picks out all of it–bourgeois town, the Revelator, a boggy creek, muffled drums, stick a knife in his wife, comrades–all this wild stuff,  on one breath. He raps “justification for discrimination.” Try saying this clearly: “Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river.” Now try saying it vividly.

I’ve got tickets in hand for his 3 shows at the lovely Capitol Theater in Port Chester next week. Bob, think about reciting paragraph 8 for us.





Triplicate: I’m Expecting To Wake Up From A Dream



On a street that’s busy day and night, down three steps, there’s a dark tavern. The bar is to the west, it’s long and deep. A few low tables scattered with a great deal of space between them. A very low stage bellies out from the south wall. The east end is hung with a thick indigo velvet curtain. The two bartenders are twins, women who are four feet high, skin that is white or whiter depending on which shadow they’re standing in, and gold-colored hair; they are perfect in every way. One in silver and one in black, they are Polka Dot and Moonbeam.

The stage is just big enough for two men. There’s a thin, thin fellow angled over and around his upright bass whose varnish is rubbed away in ugly patches. His face looks always like that of a man who’s just been saved from drowning. Beside him is the old singer wearing a shiny black suit with pearls sewn in a broken line like Morse code down the sleeves and the trouser legs. Where pearls are missing are tangles of silver thread that catch the light.  The singer has the head of a real gentleman. He slides one foot about as though grinding out a cigarette. On and on he sings in the voice of the sun on black rock-strewn water. The bass player looks at nothing, and sometimes shakes a cramp from his hand without missing a phrase.

At the table closest to the curtain sits a third woman, the color of almonds, wearing a sailor suit of floating navy pants and white blouse with stars and medals, a tiny white cap. She entertains a heavy young man in a suit that’s unexpectedly too big on him. The table is tiny and low and, while they talk, the boy keeps stretching his arms in the loose sleeves and shifting his legs nervously to keep from touching the woman’s knees. “All the time…” the singer sings.

She laughs, her head back, a lovely hand on the tiny cap. “Oh my yes. Couldn’t be more right. I have just the thing.” When she rises, she is as tall as the top of the indigo curtain. She glides to the bar, Polka Dot has already stirred and poured a cocktail, which is turquoise in a frosted glass. In one turn, the woman picks up the glass with her right hand, opens her left fist onto the bar and little white beads, pearls, roll out. Moonbeam gathers them with a sweep. Back at the table, the woman hands the big young fellow the glass. “Darling,” he says, drinks, hands her the empty glass, then walks through the curtain which is hard to push aside even for someone his size. “I’m weary all the time…”

The door opens, grey cold light from the street comes in, and a man, small and clean and smiling and neat enters, shuffles melting snow from his shoes, looks around, rubs his hands together, and smiles with happy charm. “Something’s open! My luck! Freeze the blood of the devil out there.” No one turns round, but for one beat, the bass player drops one link in his rhythm. The singer snaps his long-nailed fingers; the bass player blinks, cringes, and on they go. “When I find her…”

At the bar, the small man takes in Polka Dot. “Two fingers of whiskey that’ll burn up, not down.” Neither twin moves. But the man’s now distracted and in two steps he’s at the stage. “Oh hey. That’s a fine old song. Listen to you put it over like a pro. I know this one. Here you go fella.” And holds out a five. The bass player plays on, looking out past the man’s shoulder, the singer shuffles. “Once there was...” All right, then,” the man says and lays the bill on the stage.

A frosted glass with a colorless drink has appeared. “Bartender knows best!” says the man, and he drinks. Waits a moment then says, “One of those where the kick comes up on you? All right, then.” He takes a seat, watches the show.

There are two women now at the table by the curtain. This new one has thick grey hair, a fresh strong face: she seems to have just alighted from one mountain and is waiting for the next. “Directly, directly so,” says the tall girl. And back to the bar, where Polka Dot places, and the woman lifts, the glass of turquoise, then the sweep of tiny pearl beads from the woman to Moonbeam. The grey-haired woman stands, drinks. “Good girl” she says and pushes easily through the curtain.

On the stage, the five-dollar bill has disappeared.

“I think I know this one too. A good old song, this one too,” the neat man says, finishes the clear drink and frowns at the empty glass. “A thousand drums…” The door opens again admitting a long startle of sunshine and a mailman holding out a stack of dozens of envelopes, there are so many he needs to balance the rubber-banded stack like a tray in his palm. “Here you go ladies,” he says and drops the bundle next to the cherries and lemon slices. “Bee-yoo-tiful day out there!” Moonbeam giggles into her hand.

The mail is still lying on the bar when the man looks right at Polka Dot and says, “Let me have a double of that Curacao. I’m thinking that’s the special here.” Moonbeam and Polka Dot turn their heads, and, though he expects they’re checking in with the tall hostess, it’s the stage they’re looking at. The bass player fixes his enormous startled wet eyes on the singer. “Still it’s a real good bet…” Maybe the old man shrugs a shoulder. The hostess is up and at the bar in moment, there’s the blue drink.  Just two beads roll from her hand. She hands him the glass without comment and walks right back to her table by the curtain. “All right then,” he says and drinks. It’s dry and stings very badly. “How many times a day…” He walks right to the curtain, starts to push it to the side, and looks over his shoulder at the tall woman. She’s lovelier.

“All right if I go on through?”

“Of course.”

My heart…” The music is louder here, a trick of the space. He sees a narrow hall that goes on to the right following a long blank wall. Not blank, though, is it. There’s a  window, a dim window that barely reflects  the weak bulbs widely spaced above it. The avenue must be on the other side, he figures, and  walks a few steps along the window, smooth and frosted or grey. A few feet ahead something is moving on the other side. Someone walking by outside. Further along maybe the men’s room, the singing now much clearer. “And some of them mine..” Dark shapes moving towards the window, away from it, why can’t he hear street sounds. “Apple tree…” Puts his hand up to the glass without thinking, and is through in an instant. It’s the same here, he can even hear the singer’s breathing, and dark shapes everywhere moving. For a moment one of them looks like…but maybe not. “Of paradise where roses bloom…”


I Blow It For Ya Free


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.



(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



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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