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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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.


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.


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.



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.




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.


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.






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.