We’ve just finished week 4 of the class I-can’t-help-it-if-I’m-lucky to be teaching at the 92nd St Y. When I was a passive but opinionated student in this course, I felt more comfortable writing little narratives of the experience. The remedy is to act as though I’m still a passive and opinionated student.
It’s already been a parade of different voices and visions describing Bob Dylan. It’s one thing to know abstractly that Dylan is an artist who looks one way from one angle, another way from another angle, and the quantity of angles is too many to be arithmetically possible. But it’s another thing to have people smarter and more interesting than oneself demonstrate this fact.
What I hope to do here is not to provide distance learning, but to offer introductions to people and ideas that anyone may pursue on their own, with their own questions and detours and examples. Even better, perhaps someone else will want the pleasure of a similar class in their own wife’s hometown, and look into what it would take to organize one. We know that good people in good institutions are teaching the lyrics to Desolation Row in their 20th Century Lit courses, and I can’t be disingenuous and anti-intellectual about supporting that work. But the kind of informal potpourri of intelligent palaver about Dylan that a course like this provides, encourages such chances for creative and shared and unexpected relations to his art, unbound by the laws of academic discourse, valid as many of those laws. I always want to encourage my imaginary friends in their distant Future World to create singular and self-made connections to this singular art.
Our first guests were Norma and David Gaines, of Southwestern University in Texas. Norma’s background is in art history, and she spoke to us about Dylan the Visual Artist. This was a nonpareil treat for me, personally, since informed and engaging discussions of his painting and draughtsmanship are few and far between. Norma showed strongly-colored images from Drawn Blank, and described the drawing technique in terms of impressionistic and expressionistic traditions of Big M Modern art–the oblique or compressed viewpoint of a Kirchner street scene, the brisk strong outlines, singing colors, and vigorous use of empty space of a Matisse. Dylan’s willingness to return to drawings again and again with different color schemes can remind us of Monet’s variations on a theme. Norma was taken by the fiery sky Dylan applied to one of the variations of the receding train tracks, and it turned out to be a popular image with us also–so many bright and fevered and strange skies in the songs, from diamond skies, to pain pouring down, to the Fourth Part of the Day. Norma found a connection between Dylan’s self-portrait and Matisse’s portrait of his wife: the black outlined ear, the long-ish head, the bold eyebrows. What Norma did was let us see what Dylan may have seen that lingered in his mind visually as we know so much music and language lingers in his mind. The argument that Bob Dylan is a great painter is not a road I would travel on. But that his paintings have a strong visual life to them, that their palettes and compositions hold the eye and invite us into one moment of seeing the world as this artist sees and seizes it, that’s a road I can walk down, and Norma gave us an excellent clear-sighted and informative map.
David Gaines took his place at the desk to talk to us about humor and Bob Dylan. He confessed right up front that it’s nearly impossible to talk about humor without simply saying “That’s funny, isn’t it? And then that other thing, that’s funny too, isn’t it?” There are of course not just theories about humor but theories about why it is so hard to theorize about humor and now you are drifting off to sleep, as well you should be. David did great justice to his subject: he insisted that Dylan’s humor is underrated, insisted that taking humor seriously in Dylan’s songs does not extract the humor from the songs, played 115th Dream and Brownsville Girl. I laugh out loud just from the way Bob sings “I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off,” and makes that sentiment sound lyrical and poignant, plus he croons about 6 syllables more than the musical line should be able to hold. So there is humor in the performances as well as in the lyrics. Bob the maskedandanonymous ubertrickster is already a cliche, but making Trickster Bob a cliche will not protect us from by being tricked. David mentioned a book that seems worth looking up, Trickster Makes the World, by Lewis Hyde.
Since humor is everywhere in Dylan–and humor is a way of being, while wit is verbal skills that do not originate in a laughing spirit–why is David right about this being underrated? I have a theory of two parts. First part: So much of the canonical writing on Dylan, the inner circle of Dylan criticism and scholarship, does not manifest much wit or humor or lightheartedness. The writers who’ve set their teeth on Dylan and won’t let go, are going at him with a variety of tones that may on first glance substitute for humor, such as sarcasm, vitriol, puns, and flippancy, but there’s really not so much levity. Second part: A group of Dylan *fans* who are *discussing* their favorite artist’s work are more likely to resemble a dogfight, or more charitably, warring tribes enjoying a brief and suspicious truce, than a party of happy laughing friends. He’s quite clear on not taking himself seriously, a lesson we have not clearly learned. Everyone listen to Gotta Serve Somebody and laugh out loud at the fact that we can’t be morally autonomous. Bob does it.
More matter with less art: Our guest on Oct 20 was Peter Stone Brown, who raconteured us most unsummarizably, and too-briefly played his guitar for us. At the URLs above, you can first read a succinct and accurate description of Peter’s talk on the succinct, accurate, and always-engaging blog of Mr Frank Beacham, and right below that you can access Peter’s own blog. Peter’s writings on Dylan can be found on bobdylan.com, and other places you can travel to via his own site. Peter has himself traveled with Dylan from the beginning, from a concert in Newark, New Jersey in November 1963, right on up to this Fall tour. He’s a great presence, because he’s been open and available to Dylan’s refashionings and self-discoveries over the decades, contradictory and enigmatic and uningratiating as they’ve been. Open and available, and skeptical and clearsighted and unslavish. His relation to Dylan’s work is transparent in his manner of talking about the music and the performances, and can’t be reproduced or summarized easily. His comments about Dylan’s being “Internet-ready” (see Frank’s blog above) have been percolating in me for lo these two weeks and I look forward to brewing them up. A natural and idiosyncratic storyteller doesn’t fit the distance learning mode, does he.
Last night, we entered the scary world of science and math, but luckily our guide was Tim Anderson, a professional audio engineer who made it possible for us to understand some of the technical concerns of recording that many of us fans take for granted or condescend to. I’m often smug about Bob Dylan’s preference for old-fashioned recording methods, with really no idea of what I’m talking about. Tim explained not merely that but how digital recording makes it possible to eliminate from the recording the ambient sound of the room in which the music is being performed. He helped me see the way analog recording is a series of physical processes that preserve the continuity of a sound wave’s fluctuations , and digital recording reconstructs sound waves from ever-smaller sections of the wave–digital interrupts the continuity of a sound wave, although the fragmented bits are smaller than small, and the smaller they get, the more *fully* the sound wave can be rebuilt. I hope I have this right.
Bob Dylan has been outspoken about his distaste for digital sound. He apparently does not want to lose the sound of the room in which he records his songs. I like to imagine that he wishes to capture the moment in time, the place-in-time, of the performance of the song. He wishes perhaps a thumbprint, a shadow, of the irrecoverable time and place to be present on the recording. All very Romantic-talk, but whether or not I am hearing the physical traces of time-and-place in this presence, perhaps the presentness of Dylan’s voice happens because he is comfortable believing the moment is being captured more comprehensively…. Oh well, throw on the dirt, pile on the dust.
I then asked Tim to listen to One of Us Must Know, and then Most of the Time, and talk about two of Bob Dylan’s most well-known “sound albums.” He helped me hear that some of that mythic thin wild mercury is a matter of sibilance. The recording levels can be manipulated to emphasize the silvery sibilance of Dylan’s vocals, as well as the percussion, especially cymbals. A discussion ensued in which the comment was made that this sibilance is less noticeable in other songs, such as Visions of Johanna. True enough, but there seems to be enough high brightness in the tones of the instruments throughout the album–the tinkly (in a good way) piano, e.g. Even Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands has its own brightness and does not have the vast open aural spaces of Oh Mercy. Tim explained how that distance between the vocals and the instruments is achieved, and how reverb contributes to the effect on this album that some of us adore (me), and many of us can’t stand (many others). An interesting comment was made that Most of the Time sounded like “a science fiction movie,” and for the first time I could hear the impersonal quality of the the album’s music–it sounds synthetic, I can hear that, but I still find it intoxicating.
Last night’s class began and ended with the delightful experience of live music, as our own Toby performed The Times They Are A-Changin’, and then played both Lady Franklin’s Lament and Bob Dylan’s Dream, thus treating us to a wonderful lesson in Bob’s sources and borrowings. We ended the class with Toby’s performance of his own original talkin’ blues, the cleverness and pleasure of which can’t be reproduced here.