I been wonderin’ all about me: Why Bob Dylan?

imagesBob Levinson’s class, which I write about here, places me in the healthy and  uncomfortable position of having to talk in front of strangers about What Bob Dylan Means To Me. Bob Levinson relentlessly invites us to join in discussions, and he models enthusiastic and utterly non-judgmental listening, so there’s just no hope for it: if you talk in that room, you might as well say what you think and feel.  I’ve fashioned a workable persona for Other People, in which I can mock myself for having four thousand three hundred Bob Dylan tracks on my iPod, and I can mock myself for considering 5 days in Hibbing, Minnesota, to be about the most glorious vacation I ever enjoyed. Even at a concert, this persona goes to work, because chances are that the person sitting next to me does not feel as though every cell in their body is ringed with flames at the prospect of seeing Bob Dylan in profile for 2 hours performing  songs they’ve seen him perform dozens of times before. Which is how I feel.

images-1But I have to function without my Other People persona in Bob Levinson’s class. This exposure invites me  to look at what I’m exposing to myself as well as sharing with the people in the class, what I take for granted when I type away self-indulgently on this blog, or what I take for granted when I’m bickering with my Inner Circle about which Born in Time is the most poignant. 


images-4If I had to look at the parts of what I take for granted and give an answer devoid of wit to the question: why Bob Dylan day after day?– what would show up? No funny pictures, just answers…



***The kinds of attention that have got to wake up and go to work when I listen to Bob Dylan’s music create the richest inner life I’ve ever known. The range and saturation of aural pleasures, then the apparitions of images on my mental screen, then riding the currents of feeling, then the work of parsing lyrics,  and then glimpsing new faces to familiar words and new associations to familiar phrases, and new personal connections to a lyric, and new invitations to contemplate motifs and themes and ideas. There’s a delicious battle among competing kinds of attention, maybe it’s a dance, or even an orgy, that is the highest pitch of aliveness because all my energies are working, there is no passivity here.

***No artist’s lifework compares to Dylan’s. Listen to North Country Blues, then listen to Rainy Day Women #12 and #35, then listen to Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, then listen to If You See Her Say Hello, then listen to Brownsville Girl, then listen to Dignity, then listen to him do This World It Can’t Stand Long…I give up. It’s not the variety. It’s the completeness and the self-sufficiency of each fleeting and provisional self. Proteus is what he is because he’s not pulling on costumes one after the other. When he’s a leopard, you can’t tell him from something that’s been a leopard since birth and when he’s water you can’t see where he was once a leopard.  Each of Dylan’s selves is its own strange certainty, and he communicates fully from each one. So there is no superficial sense of novelty for the listener that can fade with repeated encounters. Day after day, I rotate  through all these here-and-nows and there’s never fatigue, just endless renewal.

***Food for thought. “Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.” Is this virtue or this expedience? Can I ask more of myself than keeping one step ahead of my conscience, or is that the best I can do? “Shut softly your watery eyes/The pangs of your sadness will pass as your senses will rise.”  Is my emotional life a self-made prison? And attention to the world of the senses, this will release me from that prison? And can this help me understand the brutal feeling in “I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die”?  “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.” Look hard at why the sweetness of life is an “awful truth”  — it’s rather disturbing, isn’t it? “When you gonna wake up?/Strengthen the things that remain.” What if you did this each day, in your own context–wake up from dreams and illusions and fantasies, really see what remains, and strengthen it?  There is no code, no coherent philosophy, no guide in Bob Dylan’s music. But there are countless opportunities to reflect on and to challenge our own experience of this version of death we call life (I always wonder about that line–does it say something about the way our mayfly lives are just tiny pauses in the eternal nothingness we came from and the eternal nothingness we’re headed for? Well, that’s a cheerful thought.)

***It is not easy to find anywhere the combination of inspiration and moral intelligence that is essential to what Bob Dylan does. Not possible to find it. All the invention, all the beauty, all the emancipation from convention, all the fuck-yous to expectations–all of this is lit from within by what I think is the most severely accountable eye any artist has possessed. If you listen widely and deeply to Bob Dylan’s music, the one sustained note is the distance between right and wrong, and the exhausting work of trying to know where you are in that span between right and wrong. He’s created  an art that is wildly inventive and fearlessly exploratory, and not morally anarchic. This is never not extraordinary to me.

images-6I give up.


6 thoughts on “I been wonderin’ all about me: Why Bob Dylan?

  1. Nicely said. I agree 100%.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment. I like your “100%.” I hope that means you give up too sometimes when you try to find words and just can’t…. Thanks for reading this post.

  3. This is astonishingly well said. I mean, it’s true about Dylan, but you’ve just explained why we (those of us who do) all love poetry. You could edit out all the Dylan-specific points and give this to high school kids skeptical of poetry–and get through to them, or at least wake them up. Really, I love this.

    And one of the Dylan-specific points you make I really like is the “completeness and self-sufficiency of each fleeting and provisional self,” and especially the phrase “strange certainty.” I think here you are on to way of capturing something everybody has always known but never (before) been able to put their finger on: Dylan is always recognizably Dylan but he is also always reinventing himself. Your paragraph on this is the first time I can recall seeing these 2 apparently contradictory facts brought together and (somewhat) reconciled.

    My own, somewhat cryptic (for which I apologize–I just can’t see the matter more clearly), contribution to this question is that Dylan makes us see that our individuality (which matters) is not personal (which does not matter).

  4. Bob Dylan’s taught me the meaning of *strange*, and I believe it is very close to what you write here about individuality not being personal. A dog with two heads is not strange, unexplained lights in the sky are not strange. The strange is not the weird, and not the inexplicable either. The strange is the ineluctably real and ineluctably Other. To be struck with the individuality of an Other is the epitome of consciousness. The purpose of consciousness? I believe this is what Keats meant by negative capability, and I think Bob Dylan’s negative capability regarding his own person is pretty much unmatched. When the individuality of anything is experienced as real, it is not *personal*, and it is *strange.* Of course there are profound and hallowed philosophies around this, Buber and Levinas are prominent here. But listen to an hour of Bob Dylan, and you can make it happen for yourself. Thank you so much for opening a window on my gushing here.

  5. Connecting “strange” with “individual” is certainly suggestive, and “strange” is definitely a key word/concept in Dylan’s songs–as is “stranger,” which is a word that can be positive (“perfect stranger”) or negative (“you should not treat me like a stranger”) or first positive and then negative (strangers in a strange forsaken land) or both at once (“friends and other strangers”).

    The connection between strange & individual suggests a different orientation for thinking about the meaning of “individual,” one that strikes me as very American, in the sense that in America (and in what I recall off the top of my head of Dylan-speak in interviews) the word “rugged” in “rugged individualism” is pretty redundant. That is, etymologically (and logically) individual means indivisible–can’t be broken down into parts. But association with “strange” also asserts that the indivisible individual can’t be absorbed or completely assimilated into anything else either–an individual can not be reduced to a mere part of something else, and so remains always somewhat “strange” (a word whose root, dictionary.com tells me, traces back through the Latin “extraneus” to “egh,” the Indo-European root for “out”).

    What’s that you said about Dylan’s songs showing “new faces of familiar words?” You hit that nail on the head.

  6. Way cool Nina!

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