At left, Pace University, a hall of learning located on the southernmost protuberance of Manhattan. It is a long and arduous journey from here at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, to 92nd St and Lexington Ave; even if you get a seat on the express, the subway is crowded at all times of the day. After a long day of pedagogy and bureaucracy, the chair of Pace’s English department, Walter Raubicheck, offered his time to our little Dylan crew uptown. Our class this Tuesday involved Walter’s presentation on Mr Tambourine Man, primarily the poetic life of the song. Full disclosure laws compel me to reveal that I have known Walter for several years through the Dylan meet-up group (next meet-up Monday 11/9 6 PM Kettle of Fish 59 Christopher you can meet Walter yourself!). Acquaintances or no acquaintances, discussing assonance, Keats, and consciousness with strangers at 9 PM on a weekday speaks of Walter’s energy level and generosity.
Here is another building, it’s the house where Keats died in Rome. Let’s say that a difference between a great poet and a lesser poet, is that the voice of the great poet gets past so much insulation in us and finally reaches that chamber where we actually *hear* a single human speaking into us. And let’s say that one way we recognize this greatness isn’t only in encounters with the art, but in uncanny dropoffs of time: Keats’ death was prolonged and painful and mainly conscious, and the awfulness of this suffering rings through the windows of this house like a real feeling, not because the painful death of a decent young man is by default a tragedy, but because the young man’s living self is something we can meet in his poetry, and so his death can be a strange true pain to us now. How did I end up on the Spanish Steps?? We need to get to the jingle jangle morning…
Walter introduced his talk by reading from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. As you can see at the left here, a nightingale is a rather meager and drab bird to withstand the weight of so much enduring Romantic thought and feeling and beauty. And those little wings have to carry it high, by the light of the moon. Before arguing for a connection between Mr Tambourine Man and the Romantic tradition, Walter reminded us that Dylan himself is “self-taught” in literature. He referred to an interview Dylan gave to Robert Hilburn in which the topic of traditional English poetry came up; Chronicles also offers tastes of his fluency. Walter’s point here being merely to establish a legitimate sense of tradition, rather than to impute grand precocity to Dylan’s naively captivating song. Mr Tambourine Man is no more naively captivating than Keats’ Ode.
Keats’ nightingale represents the effortless and thought-less freedom the speaker, weary from consciousness of the sheer facts of human mortality, will never know. The nightingale represents the “predicament” of the speaker, and then for one moment, transports the speaker from his predicament. Or transports the predicament away from the speaker? The tambourine may serve the same purposes in Dylan’s song. The tambourine calls to the singer in his weariness, his numbness, his inertia and exhaustion. Then the tambourine, like the nightingale’s song, offers the short-lived “energy to pull the speaker out of his psychic state.”
And so in both the poem and the song, there is a speaker/singer awoken through his own attention to a sound. It’s a sound he listens for and hears with peculiar openness, and so it is not a general alarm that awakes him, but a personal address. In both the poem and the song, the speaker/singer needs this address in order to “get access to that level of psyche”–from which poems and songs are seeded. It isn’t the endstop of freed consciousness the nightingale and the tambourine provide, but these sounds open a portal to language and music, so the consciousness can be articulated and shared. Shared. Let me show you what something I have felt is like, I want you to feel it too.
The song’s first two stanzas may be a catalogue of everything the singer wants to free himself from, and the pleas to be freed. Branded on his feet, as though seared with a brand, to join a herd of other weary, numb, blind creatures. The patterns of sound and the voice’s careful cadence entrance us as the tambourine begins to entrance him. Hands can’t feel to grip. Toes too numb to step. Single syllables are an effort. The infinitesimal pauses between words are a nanosecond long enough to convey the effort of singing. But there’s the swirling ship, the promise of air in the sibilance. And the voice soars to announce he’s “ready to go anywhere.” He’s already moved away from being part of the branded herd, and is ready for his own parade.
Walter pointed out that Dylan rarely performs the 3rd verse. The ragged clown behind. We talked about why that may be so, since the omission of that verse is so consistent it invites a little speculation beyond throwing up our hands at Dylan’s idiosyncrasies. We wondered if that verse, with Dylan’s self-portrait of the newborn artist, laughin spinnin swingin, is too personal? That it moves away from the universal in the song? Walter pointed out how much he enjoys the lines that reassure: don’t be afraid, it’s not aimed at anyone, there’s no “negative motivation” here. There’s benevolence and generosity in this inspiration.
“Take me disappearing.” We take this kind of originality in language for granted sometimes. This clause is just wrong grammatically, and it wakes us up to what’s happening to the singer: absurd to ask someone to take me…nowhere. They’re with me, so it’s not nowhere…. But of course we never quibble with this, because we’re already on that razor’s edge of passive and active, of internal and external, of here and not here, that the singer wishes me to be balanced on as he goes through it. And Walter pointed out the participles throughout the song: vanished, swirling, laughing, spinning, swinging, driven… There are many verbs in this song that are not active. Remember, we are on the razor’s edge of passive and active. Walter pointed out the dark and frightening places the singer has to get through before ending up on that windy beach. Through those smoke rings of his own mind, there’s a frozen, haunted, deformed, twisted, sorrowful world. How fast does he get through this? Not fast enough not to notice the cold and the fear and sorrow. And remember that he’s been appealing to the tambourine man repeatedly, to play for him. To get him where he needs to go, even though he knows he has to get through the haunted places first. This is just not about intoxication, it’s about facing a kind of awakening. It’s a fairly brave song, not so much a song about a euphoric dropping out. The beach is not calm. The sky is too sharp and bright. Only the singer knows what circus sands look like. Memory and fate are drowned, but he still knows there’s a past and a future, a today and a tomorrow. Only one hand waves free. Picture the difference between two hands and one: there’s something childish, puerile, cliched about dancing on a beach waving both your arms over your head. There’s something oddly graceful and dignified about one hand waving free. And a touch of restraint. Remember this song is about consciousness. Not unconsciousness.
Walter brought us back to history and Tradition, and the nightingale in Jokerman. Walter hears in this song Dylan distancing himself from the Romantic figure of the 60s. He’s got that freed awareness, but without truth, what good is it? The grown up Jokerman’s dance is a little sinister, a little grotesque, more ambiguous, more un-inviting than the boy’s dance on the windy beach.
The song more than others takes me through smoke rings of other images that have become indelible parts of the song. This portrait of a girl by Lucian Freud, it just is haunted frightened trees to me. The line in the song just is this portrait. The branch is perfectly lovely and unfrozen, but her face will be afraid forever and the tree can’t protect her. I visit this girl often in MoMA, and as soon as I see her, I hear the song, and I stand there for a moment hearing the song and looking at her and wishing I could give her the song to help her.
Then there’s Rudy. This is what the song conjured for me the first time I really paid attention to it, and what it conjures, effortlessly, every time I hear it. At the end of the Circe episode in Ulysses, Leopold contemplates the passed-out Stephen, is overcome by tenderness for the boy, the tenderness leads him to a vision of his dead son, Rudy. The Rudy he sees is an 11-year old boy, wearing a Roman helmet, and an Eton suit, and reading a book “right to left”– obviously reading Hebrew, Bloom’s native/ancestral language. In this image is collapsed history, empires, civilization, and the weight of what Bloom sees in the son he has lost, the past and the future he lost through the death of his son. The moment of human love has enough weight to collapse time in this way. Bloom endures a sudden awakening to a consciousness of time larger than the present, and there is the sleeping young artist, and there is benevolence and compassion and strangeness, and there is magnificently compressed and astonishingly communicative imagery. Much here that echoes in Mr Tambourine Man. And there is a beach, and there is sand, and there is a diamond. Here’s the passage itself:
… shadows… the woods
… white breast… dim…
(He stretches out his arms, sighs again and curls his body. Bloom holding his hat and ashplant stands erect. A dog barks in the distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. He looks down on Stephen’s face and form.)
BLOOM (Communes with the night.) Face reminds me of his poor mother. In the shady wood. The deep white breast. Ferguson, I think I caught. A girl. Some girl. Best thing could happen him… (He murmurs.)… swear that I will always hail, ever conceal, never reveal, any part or parts, art or arts… (He murmurs.) in the rough sands of the sea. a cabletow’s length from the shore… where the tide ebbs … and flows…
(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)
BLOOM (Wonderstruck, calls inaudibly.) Rudy!
RUDY (Gazes unseeing into Bloom’s eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauveface. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet howknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.)
My favorite performances of the song are three. One is the studio version on Bringing It All Back Home, because of the care, the fastidiousness of the voice. He will get this across to me, this impossible vision. He is patient and loving with his song and with his listener. Two is the Isle of Wight performance. This is the nightingale Keats heard. Third is a performance in Memphis, April 25 2006. He found the darkest rhythm in his own soul to get this song across. To get it across years and years, to bring anyone who was listening to wherever it is he was going.