11/20/06. I’m looking down at the top of Bob Dylan’s head, the brim of his hat covers his features. From this perch, I can see a large Deco-ish starpoint pattern on the stage beneath the musicians. The stylish stage is of a piece with this classy theater embedded on a side street in midtown, a few blocks from Carnegie Hall. The stage and the men and things on it are covered with a clean white light, a little sharper and cleaner in this small and elegant space, and brighter still because I have one of those hangovers that makes a person feel they will never deserve pleasure, or kindness, or good fortune again for the rest of their life. Senses are sharpened and everything they take in is tinged with misery. In general, this could be an ideal state for a Bob Dylan concert, but I am in for a cosmic whopper at this show.
There are Bob’s hands crabbed over his keyboard, there is Tony Garnier now with a stand-up bass that gleams quite classically in this light. Then I hear dramatic chords, chords that announce something with lovely solemnity. Then the lilting phrase I had thought I would never hear outside the studio recording. Now I am certain it’s happening: Ain’t Talkin’, live, the first time. A few dozen other people in this crowd also get it, and they greet the moment appropriately.
All Bob Dylan fans feel they own certain songs. Maybe because one song speaks better for a moment in their life than they could speak for it themselves, and maybe because they believe they sense an elemental feeling in a song that’s only audible to their ears. There are songs you feel you bring to life through your own attentiveness. I own Ain’t Talkin’ in that way–if I’m in the room when it’s being played, then my attention contributes to the song’s fullest life. Oh it’s all very scientific, you can look it up : we change something in the witnessing of it.
Live, the song moved forward in a stronger current than it does on Modern Times. I could see this in how hard Tony was working and concentrating. It seems to me now that the more rhythmic, muscular arrangement the band played that night might have been carried over from the sound that comes out in outtake on Tell Tale Signs. Bob’s voice had the-end-of-the-night gravel to it, and every word was delivered clear and strong in rough wrapping. My own miserable brain held right on till the last outback.
The way we look at the world is the way we really are, Bob says/thinks in Masked and Anonymous. Look at the world of Ain’t Talkin’.
The world’s a garden, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. It’s both mystic and diseased, with its wounded flowers and crystal fountain. You’ve got no choice but this strange place if you want a quiet stroll in the evening: it’s what’s there is when you go outside, period. Our pilgrim takes the air, a stealthy and determined assailant hits him from behind, and the walk begins. There was anger, or vengeance, or cruelty, or despair behind that blow, it may have been righteous, and it may have been punishment. And the blow–curse, sentence, accident– sends him on his way, through two landscapes of weariness and woe, the internal and the external. Two landscapes? Always keep in mind: The way we look at the world is the way we really are.
This pilgrim can walk past wounded flowers, and he can walk through cities of the plague without falling ill. His illness is the endless walking, the endless seeing, and the knowledge that surpasses speaking. And what can he tell us anyway, in a world where faith and reason are both hearsay? They say prayers have the power to heal, and people say the world is round. He appeals to his absent mother for prayers and like a child admits to her that things ain’t going well. He confesses both his sorrow and weakness. He knows the Golden Rule, but can’t stick to it. His plea hangs with no answer. No prayers, and also no altars on the road he travels, as there have been shrines for other pilgrims. There are no spiritual rest stops for sacrifice and purification. Yet he’s not alone, he has loyal and much-loved companions, but they share his code, they approve of him. Is this a fellowship or a following? He challenges Someone to deny him heavenly aid, but it’s the heaven suited to the greed for fame and honor. It’s the heaven of myth, of Apollo and Phaeton, where the wheels are flying. This is no paradise of peace and redemption, but unreachable sky where ambition and folly and love play out between an immortal god and his mortal son. This Everyman carries with him love and desire and they are dry and tormenting goads. In this world of corruption, pain, and more of the same, the folksy homespun register of “the gal he left behind” is grotesquely incongruous, a reminder of other worlds where other kinds of songs are possible. Just like that clever toothache in his heel, which perhaps is related to that tussle in the garden in the first verse. The Dan Tucker folk song and/or the wound of revenge prophesied in Genesis 3:15, which, with Bob-Dylanish ambiguity is variously translated as “her” heel and “his” heel crushing the serpent. You can’t quite know what song this Everyman is hearing, and singing.
His field of vision is vast enough in its compassion to take in plague-ridden cities, and acute enough to see the smallest nooks and crannies where suffering can’t hide. But he can be a brute, our pilgrim. He’ll grab unfair advantage over his opponents and slaughter them when they’re asleep. He’ll one-up Hamlet and actually do the crime, and then step back and gloat.
He’s immune to the plague, skeptical of all solace or explanation, accompanied only by those who see things as he does. His hands are bloodied by revenge, he bears both great and minute visions of suffering, he is prodded onward by abandoned or lost love. Day breaks, and he’s back in the garden. And finally he speaks. His few words are in the respectful and submissive tone belonging to a social order that could not survive the world he’s passed through: “Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon.” Who’s he addressing? I see a shadowy woman, who turns her face to him and reveals a sunken-eyed, depraved, twitching and hopeless Eve, who nonetheless tells him the truth. “There’s no one here. The gardener is gone.” And on he walks. To the last outback, at the world’s end. But people have told him that the world is round. No end to the road. No mercy for him, then, in his sorrow, his memories, his crimes. His walking’s just begun again.
Prayers, altars, heaven, art, Eden, love, ultimate gardeners, civilization—in the song these are portals to the vision of an age in which desire, creation, hope, community, and meaning are treacherous, worn out, violent, inaccessible, exposed as false, and we can’t get rid of any of them.
And me, up in the balcony. I can afford to try to find wit and insight from a hangover. My ticket cost over a hundred dollars which I am sure is a life-altering sum to the person who assembled the t-shirt I’m wearing with Bob Dylan’s brand logo sewn onto it. The six concerts prior to this one took Bob Dylan to 5 different states, and three months later he would take the same songs, the same musicians, the same instruments, the same hat, to Sweden and Norway. Minutes after every one of these concerts is over, I can find the set list for the show on the internet, and for just about every single show, mere days after the lights have gone back up in the venue, I can listen to every song also via the internet.
I read there is a word for this world I live in: “globality.”