….and so, having read Chronicles, I started my expeditions to Tower Records. Tower Records no longer exists.. I did what today I would sneer at: the first CD I bought was the compilation The Essential Bob Dylan. The package seemed to be an instructive overview, and I was still trailing the grimy clouds of grad school, and I still went at things as Educational Projects.
I found the songs so…peculiar. So difficult. The voice always above or below, behind or ahead of the music. The words formed phrases that would catch my attention but there was no time ponder because I was already carried into the next line, the next stage of the song’s story. And the pleasure of the melodies, with their own rough and lovely snares, and the textures of the voice, these would also capture other levels of attention, and by the end of the song, I’d wonder what had happened.
The two songs I went back to each day, over and over, trying to grasp what they were, were Tangled up in Blue and Shelter from the Storm. The line in Tangled Up in Blue that seemed like an unfathomable mystery to me was “…she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me.” In a song whose verses swing through a man’s life, like swinging through treetops, vine to vine, swooping over years and decades…..the singer takes the time to describe one simple, actual action as it would be described in ordinary prose, and delivers the words with care and feeling. The dull phrase becomes unaccountably lovely. I could not get over that….it seemed such a magnificent and reckless squandering of the song’s time and of the voice’s attention. It was a mystery to me, this experience of the utterly incongruous: he made a stage direction into a moment of delicacy.
“A creature void of form.” A creature void of form????? How can you sing this in a song, how can you toss this gorgeous and difficult phrase to me and let the song rush on? Where are the dullards with their tedious arguments about whether Bob Dylan is a poet? A poem exists in any time frame the poet or the reader chooses: put it down, contemplate, contemplate some more, roll a phrase round your mind. But try to keep up with Shelter from the Storm–try to parse all the registers of this song, the colloquial, the lyrical, the allegorical; then try to manage the completely elusive chronology–the affair begins, ends, begins, there are narrative verses that are timeless and abstract.Now try to manage all this in a brisk melody, with the singer’s phrasing always at some odds with the melody, so that there is pattern but no monotony. The refrain shifts its tone with each repetition. He can make the phrase ‘shelter from the storm” stand out and you feel there is a place that’s always safe and warm; and then he’ll bite off the phrase “I’ll give ya,” with such a bitter sense of betrayal and disillusionment you feel the blackness of a soul that can never be safe and warm. You have to parse, consider, and feel, all within seductive metrical musical time. The demands and rewards of this work are just not to be found elsewhere.
The verse for me in Shelter from the Storm, when I began listening to this music daily, was
I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like the mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth, stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn?
Come in she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
The singer’s heard the voices at both ends of life, and he can offer them to us in the delicate lyrical figure of the babies like mourning doves, and he can offer them to us in the hard and literal picture of broken teeth, men stranded without love. He can toss off these graceful and vivid images of the beginning and end of life, and then he turns to us, he changes his register from the artful to the conversational in a heartbeat–is that what we want? Is that what we’re asking him? Tell us what life is about, tell us if it’s really hopeless and forlorn–isn’t that what we want from our artists, answers and consolation? What’s his answer? He returns to his own drama of hope and hopelessness, back to the woman and her shelter, craved, rejected, craved some more. His only answer to us is his own life.
I saw Bob Dylan perform Shelter from the Storm in June 2007, at Jones Beach here in NY. He sounded cracked, tender, frail, enduring. Suddenly I got it–I got this performance of this song: I heard that he is here, singing the song for us, all these years down the road, because there’s no shelter for him.
What do you learn as a Bob Dylan fan? How to hear a life.