Bob 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.
But 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.
If 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.
I give up.