I Can Survive, And I Can Endure, I Don’t Even Think About Spring

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.

And, in the depths of dark cold nights, he can be a Drosselmeyer and warm us up quite devilishly for one more round of as much life as we can stand. Pa rom pom pom pom everyone.

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5 thoughts on “I Can Survive, And I Can Endure, I Don’t Even Think About Spring

  1. Lovely post. As a fellow winter-lover, I’ve always responded strongly to this element in Dylan, something that when I encounter it always makes me aware of a kinship between Dylan & Thoreau–a kinship that has many dimensions. There’s a passage in Walden where Thoreau imagines it getting so cold one winter that the world actually does come to an end–a passage I’ve always suspected was the source of Frost’s “Fire & Ice” and which is very much in the impish spirit of Dylan’s “not dark [cold] yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

    I’ve always imagined that Jacques Levy came up with “devilish cold”–I don’t think the word is in Dylan’s lexicon in the portentous sense in which it seems to be primarily intended–but that Dylan accepted it because he picked up on the sense of “devilish” as “mischievously playful” and that this inspired him to top it “the snow was outrageous.” (You could probably make a good one-act play by imagining their collaboration on that song.)

  2. ‘I’m nothing but a poor lover’.
    For three nights he slept with irons around his ankles in the cells of the local garrison. But when he was released he felt defrauded by the brevity of his captivity, and even in the days of his old age, when so many other wars were confused in his memory, he still thought he was the only man in the city, and perhaps the country, who had dragged five-pound leg irons for the sake of love.

    from … Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

    just another piece of art which aspires to the condition of … cold iron bound … Bob Dylan !!

  3. The original “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” begins with wonderful wintertime imagery. Gate latches frozen, etc.

  4. Thanks for such an absorbing piece. In a wider sense, Dylan’s capacity to conjure vividly different climates, seasons and times of the day in his songs, and sometimes in whole albums, strikes me as one of his most remarkable gifts. Part of the sense of wonder I get from much of his work comes from this ability to evoke different lights and atmospheres where the emotional impact of a song or album stems from the forming of a world in which sound and lyric transmute into something which intermingles the aural and visual into one. Unfortunately, this particular alchemy in Dylan’s work seems barely to have been acknowledged let alone explained in the mass of published writings on his records. At most there has been the occasional, undeveloped reference to the cinematic quality of a recorded song, or a recognition of the wintry atmosphere created by the blend of words and music on ‘Planet Waves’, for example. Writers play to their strengths and so have focussed on Dylan’s lyrical achievements. On the rare occasion that somebody has awarded the music some devoted attention it has been from a formal musical analysis as was the case with Wilfred Mellers’ book.

    Dylan himself has hinted at the importance of the atmospheric quality of his music in his famous reference to the ‘wild mercurial sound of Blonde on Blonde’ and also in comments on how his songs aim to ‘stop time’. If, as you have said, Dylan’s work is full of ongoing vitality and richness, then for me it is in no little part due to the way that much of his music has cast so many different ‘lights’ in so many of his songs and albums. This opening up of different atmospheres for his songs to inhabit seems particularly to have occurred after Blonde on Blonde and I believe that this may explain something of the polarised responses among Dylan appreciators to some of the albums that have followed. For some this variety of atmosphere has offered new riches but for others he rarely seemed recognisable again.

  5. I enthusiastically agree with Jerry Hallier here on several counts. Dylan’s ability to convey the sense of the physical world through sound texture that’s inextricable from lyrics is powerful and invites more attention than it’s received. I think the neglect is partly due to the difficulty of finding a vocabulary to describe this bleeding of the music into the lyrics, or vice versa. Planet Waves is an excellent example–I feel cold air and see winter sunlight in Never Say Goodbye, and this sensation can’t ever be explained entirely by the lyrics. And I agree that this particular alchemy, in which sense and evoke peculiarly physical moods is especially rich in the more recent songs. The wild mercury of Blonde on Blonde is a fantastic place, subjective and unearthly. It is the feel of the physical world, its heat and cold and wind and stillness and different qualities of light, that is present in the more recent songs. The world may be too much with him, and he’s learned how to make that sensible for us.

    And thank you, Susan, for the Garcia Marquez reference–I am always happy to find these echoes that have nothing to do with appropriation or reference, but correspondences of tones or images that enrich both works.

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