You probably can’t read the caption below this classic New Yorker cartoon by Carl Rose. The mother says to the little girl “It’s spinach, dear.” And the little girl says “I say it’s broccoli and I say the hell with it.”
This has pretty much summed up my feeling about Like A Rolling Stone. The song has been a tonic, sure enough, yet not quite a joy or a revelation. There are treasured moments in it for me: “Go to him, he calls you, you can’t refuse” Here are 3 sets of 3 word each, 3 simple present tense phrases, 3 syllables, then 3 syllables, then the final 4 syllables and somehow this extra syllable pulls out the line into a perfect Siren’s call. If you’ve ever walked through SoHo on a warm summer Saturday evening, all those bistros and cafes and barsandgrills with their sidewalk tables and all the hilarity that black American Express cards can buy–there’s nothing to say about this except “all the pretty people drinkin and thinkin they got it made.”
But extracting and relishing lines is not what we’re about here, is it. We can leave that kind of supercilious laziness to Clive James (isn’t he the one who declared that no Bob Dylan song is as good as its best line?). LARS has never entered me whole and left me internally rearranged. No live version I have heard has deepened, or colorized, or teased my experience of the song.
That I haven’t heard the song deeply, that I haven’t found it prying open my own doors of perception, has been a problem for me, let me tell you. Until now.
I’ve had the great pleasure to find this book, Like A Complete Unknown: The poetry of Bob Dylan’s songs 1961-1969, by John Hinchey, published in 2002. I’ve had the equally great pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Hinchey on the topic of Bob Dylan, and the possibility that someone may actually read this and actually track down his book would be as much as I could ask of this self-indulgence I call Blog.
Reading John Hinchey’s book constitutes having a captivating, revelatory, and passionate conversation about Dylan’s songs. His focus is the creation of address in the lyrics. Let me quote here from his introduction:
My theme is this: the most distinctive feature of Dylan’s poetry is the way it is implicitly shaped by the changes (as Dylan imagines them) that are induced in his listener in response to the song as it unfolds. That is. when Dylan addresses “you” in his songs, he means it and acts like he means it. As the lyric unfolds, “you” are changed by what “you” hear, and anticipating these changes in the “you” he is addressing, Dylan’s perception of and attitude toward “you” changes correspondingly. (14)
I hope other people will find this speaks to your own experience of being changed by a song, of somehow collaborating with the singer in the creation of the song’s feeling and meaning. I like so much his use of the word “unfold”, because that is the etymology of explicate, and knowing this, we’re invited to see an explication of a lyric as an unfolding of it, explication as work we do to help the lyric open into shapes, rather than the conventional nonsense that we confine and desiccate poetry by explicating it.
Now, Hinchey’s own explications of Dylan’s lyrics are demanding and intimate without being academic or self-indulgent, if this makes sense. He gets himself up close to the songs and the mark of how effective his descriptions of the songs are is that whenever I disagree with him on something, I feel such a strong reaction that my own relation to the song is illuminated and either changed or reinforced.
I urge you to take on Hinchey’s reading of LARS for yourself, and I’m not going to summarize or analyze here his fascinating discussion. Enough to say it freed me to go back to the song, and start to create my own experience of address with it, which I had never done. Here are bits and pieces:
All the talk about how the singer is viciously putting down the woman, Miss Lonely. All the talk about what a nasty angry triumphant song it is. It is largely men doing this talk about the song, and no one seems to consider the time-honored tradition of men telling women how to live their lives, which is what this song sounds like. There has been no shortage of men throughout history who have applied resources of knowledge, enthusiasm, and authority– resources that rival even Bob Dylan’s gifts– to the task of telling women how their lives ought be lived.
I think LARS takes that tradition and turns it around. I’ve often wondered, why on earth does she keep listening to what seems to be a harangue? I know she’s there, because I know he isn’t asking “how does it feel?” rhetorically, he isn’t addressing the thought of this woman, he is addressing the person. Why does she stay for this ordeal? Because she already knows something. Now she isn’t talking so loud or seeming so proud. She is already falling from the pedestal of her vicarious, pampered, artificial, impotent life. He’s got her exactly when she will understand every difficult word of the song. She’s starting to roll, and the singer’s art and labor is to sing her into the reality of the rolling stone.
Some art and labor it is, too. The images in the song are naked mysteries, not gauzy metaphors. They’re a language of reality the singer shares with the woman. I am invited into their strange language (literally strange, as Bob Dylan himself always uses the word). I am invited because the condition of the world this language describes is that it’s the real one we all inhabit together. Only we must have our own chrome horses and diplomats and our own jugglers and clowns. The singer only knows how to sing about hers, because LARS is her song. I have to make my own vocabulary for reality. Hard work for everyone, isn’t it?
Remember that “no direction home” contains a home. There is a home. There’s no way to find it. This is not the same as homelessness. And the word home is the bit of vocabulary that does belong to every single person who hears the song.
What does it mean to ask someone “how does it feel?” It means that whatever you know about the person’s life, about the reality we all inhabit, you can not know on your own how their life feels to them.
How banal this sounds, and how awful the truth of it is, and how often he asks her how it all feels–at each step of her coming-into-reality, and how much humaneness in his granting Miss Lonely her individuality, and how much humaneness in making such an effort to relieve that loneliness by asking her to tell him how she feels.