Tuesdays on 92nd St, We Do Not Abjure Educated Rap

images 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.

images-12Here 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…

images-13 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.”

images-7 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.

images-2The 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.

images-8“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.

images-15Walter 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. images-11 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.

images-16 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.

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7 thoughts on “Tuesdays on 92nd St, We Do Not Abjure Educated Rap

  1. It was a great class. I never notice the self-reflexive elements in the song before. The ending talk regarding Visions of Johanna was also enjoyable. In retrospect, I never realized how similar Brownsville Girl it to Visions of Johanna, both songs being about a romanticized woman, and the singer is with a woman who he does not love.

  2. Thanks for another absorbing report. This does sound like it was an especially rich talk. I would take issue with one thing, though. I don’t think Dylan started skipping the 3rd verse because there was anything problematic about it. For one thing, for a while in the mid 90s or so (I think it was then) he regularly sang the 3rd verse–but dropped the 2nd. I think the issue here is 3 verses rather than 4. In a number of his early 4-verse lyrical songs, the 3rd verse is actually (structurally) a bridge. Dylan never used a musical bridge until Blonde on Blonde, and I think he eventually came to find those early 4-verse songs musically unsatisfying to sing. So he would drop a verse, usually the pseudo-bridge. (The 3rd verse of “Love Minus Zero” is another one, as I remember, that he often drops in performance.) But the 3rd verse of “Tambourine Man” is too brilliant to banish altogether, so tries making it the 2nd verse of 3 and–since a bridge is a kind of superhighway, or downtown bypass, in the structure of the emotional narrative–he gets (I think) a more breathtaking song.
    Interestingly, the 3rd verse of “Baby Blue” is not a bridge–it is more like a bog–and he never skips that. (I just heard him sing it tonight–the performance did not take off until the last verse, where his singing–for the first time I can recall hearing–wonderfully brought out the empathy that underlies the song’s compassion. In other versions I’ve heard, his singing is all tough love, with or without a hint of sadism.)

  3. Interesting, John. Isn’t the “You have many contacts” in Ballad of a Thin Man a bridge or is that a false bridge again? In later version he always kicks it up a notch and belts in out, and it leads into another verse, not a chorus.

  4. Dorothy–you’re right, of course. I missed that–perhaps because I was thinking about the lyrical songs, which is where almost all his use of the bridge occurs–and not his other genres, including whichever one “Ballad of a Thin Man” belongs to (prophetic rant?). But in any case, I sure did overlook it.
    Makes me wonder if I missed some others, and if I didn’t, what prompted Dylan to first use a bridge in a kind of song that–no matter who’s writing it–just never has a bridge, which is a pop song technique–one that apparently goes back to the Italian sonnet. (In his A Test of Poetry, Louis Zukovsky prints a 16th-century English sonnet that he says is the “best English equivalent of the Italian sonnet,” which he prints, following the rhyme scheme, as 2 quatrains, a couplet [bridge], and a final quatrain,” and he praises this poem for its superior “melodic invention” to the familiar English sonnet, which he calls a “degenerat[ion] into a short discursive verse form dealing with moral subjects.”

  5. Hi John. I’m the Dylan fan formerly known as Dorothy Amigo. I apologize for the alias, just an chat-room force of habit. I recently re-read you wonderful piece on Oh Mercy for Montague Street. Thank you so much for the contribution.

  6. Lucas:

    Ha! No problem. Boys will be girls, as the feller says! Glad you liked my piece.

    But if it’s not out of order to ask, what’s the prognosis on Montague Street? When can we expect to see it in the flesh? Or when are you going to announce it to the world?

  7. We had some delays in post-prodcution. We are at the finishing end, as somebody once said. We will have it published by year’s end. Sorry for the delays. We’ll mail you a contributor’s copy as soon as we get them from the printer.

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