We are having a charmless spell of weather here in the northeast, and I’m thinking about Bob Dylan and winter. Since the point of a blog is to erode the boundaries between public and private, I’ll take advantage of this license and reveal that I have a special personal affinity to Bob Dylan and winter. I was born not far from Coney Island just about three weeks after Young Bob first stumbled out of the car and into a snowdrift that January of the coldest winter New York had seen in 17 years. Even better, the apartment my parents welcomed me to had no heat, and so Bob Dylan and I can share our earliest memories of New York as a lot of shivering and also exciting new encounters and discoveries.
I am the person everyone hates who, when a mild breeze shakes the darling buds of May, says, “Wow, did everyone else feel that draft? I’m just going to close the windows and I’m sure no one will mind if I turn on the heat.” Bob Dylan sweats a lot in his songs, and occasionally it’s hotter than a…well, you know. But really, it’s cold that he knows. He makes me feel the cold, but he never avoids it himself. In Tell Ol’ Bill, for me the coldest song, he dismally notes the snowflakes falling on his uncovered head, and that bitter grey and stormy sky sends a chill through the tranquil lakes and streams. I’ve seen the iron range outside Hibbing myself, on a bright and pleasant day in May, but that vast dark stony pit looks raw and grim and rusty–Cold Irons Bound even beneath a mild sky. On any good performance of Cold Irons Bound, he can get that bone-deep chill into the sound of “coooold irons bound.” What it is to be shackled by the cold, bound for it and bound by it.
I love the simple touch of the coat in Girl of the North Country. He’s far from the north country himself, and now he is in what we know must be a different world, from which can’t or won’t return. His lyrical memory of her unclothed body, and his vivid memory of the winds hitting heavy, are both the unreclaimable past for him, and what’s left for him in the present is the homely wish that she has a “coat so warm.” Contrast that winter with the wild fantasy of Isis‘s quest. Our hero enunciates “devilish cold” with great relish, to show he is up to the challenges of his ordeal, and then tells us “the snow was…outrageous,” and in that infinitesimal pause you can feel Dylan reaching for just the right word and tone to wink at us through the outlandish tale he’s spinning. That outrageous snow is one of the great witty deliveries in his vocals, and it’s such a world of temperature apart from the howling winds of the north country, where he’s left a bit of his heart behind as he pursues a true adventure unknown to the listener.
Then there is the blowwindcrack winter of age. In Tell Tale Signs’ magnificent outtake of Can’t Wait (“Let’s do it in….B flat”), we get the line “My hands are cold,” sung as though he has just that moment discovered in his own flesh the fact of mortality. Don’t be deceived by the apparently casual complaint that begins Not Dark Yet: “It’s too hot to sleep.” It’s a song which relates precise moments of regret and loss, each verse a pinpoint awareness of the ways age can be an exhausting battle between torpor and vitality. Being too hot to sleep is the burden of life’s warmth and quickness too much to bear, too much life in me to surrender right now, although I’m tired and want to sleep. Not cold enough yet.