In the year 563, a fellow called Paul the Silentiary visited Hagia Sophia and was entranced by the effect of the hanging lamps lighting the interior of the church. “Thus, ” he commented, according to the little placard beneath a surviving lamp fixture in a case on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, although to whom the Silentiary provided his comments I couldn’t say, “is everything clothed in beauty…no words are sufficient to describe the illumination in the evening. You might say that some nocturnal sun filled the majestic church with light.” All we can know, now, in 2010, of the marvelous light within Hagia Sofia 1447 years ago, is the eloquent stupefaction of this man. The phenomenon can’t have an objective reproduced life outside this man’s wonder.
This is a sad loss, that the works of humankind cannot any longer be known only through the impressions of the people for whom the works were made in the first place. Nothing now is made, nor done, nor schemed, without an immediate objective reproduced life distributed immediately to anyone, incurious or curious.
It’s all true, everything you’ve heard: the performances of Bob Dylan’s current tour are, well, a nocturnal light, a marvelous handiwork. You’ve already read the reports of Bob Dylan’s strong and nuanced singing, the band’s working joyfully at a new level of togetherness, the new arrangements exciting and revealing, and, most of the most, Dylan’s newly greathearted stage self. You can, and should, see and hear it all for yourself.
Here at gardenerisgone, all this newness comes after a drought of 357 days. There was United Palace in Manhattan last November, and then 357 dry days passed, and then this past Sunday, there was Monmouth State University, in Long Branch, New Jersey. These droughts are fraught with anxiety ranging from ordinary fretting to nightmarish apocalypses. And as I download set lists hours after shows I am utterly unable to attend, a concept supernatural to Paul the Silentiary- I’m also fraught with bitter or wistful envy for anyone anywhere who managed to share time and space with Bob Dylan and Co., while I endured life in Brooklyn. The drought ended with an hour’s subway ride, another hour on New Jersey Transit, and another hour in a friend’s car to get to Long Branch.
I’m directing all these comments to someone in the year 3457, whom I imagine has just discovered Time Out of Mind, or The Witmark Demos. I am hoping this person finds my tale something similar to what I found in Paul the Silentiary’s account: something quaint and thrilling and gone forever and ever. Perhaps the archaeological record in 3457 will not reveal what New Jersey Transit is, just as I do not know and do not wish to know what a Silentiary is. Although I’m certain it’s something we need more of in 2010.
So my drought ended. I thought I knew the song Not Dark Yet, and always I levitate when I get to hear it live, and there it was, coming to life in Long Branch. And….something happened in those 357 days to alter its genetic code. When I worked in a bookstore, whenever someone bought a book by or about Dylan Thomas, I would chortle, “Oh, the lesser Dylan,” a comment I recognize is neither polite nor clever, despite being sincere. I liked to set Not Dark Yet against Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, as the difference between a true and beautiful vision of age, and a naive and selfish vision of age. Raging against the dying of the light is the sort of phony ardor that a young poet wishes his own elders to model. In reality, the dying of the light sounds and looks like the deep slow burn of Not Dark Yet. Vitality in age is sleepless endurance without the will to fight the coming darkness, indeed, some of this vitality is spent in tempting the darkness. A young person may be seduced by the beauty of Not Dark Yet into the singer’s aging shadow world, but a young person is likely to be reminded by Thomas’s poem that he really simply does not want to grow old and feeble.
I was proud of my subtle and arrogant reading of the song, I was sure I had it nailed. At Monmouth State University, Bob Dylan did his signature stage prance up to the microphone, the lovely low notes announced Not Dark Yet, and Dylan sang the song. Front and center, arms out, hands open–all disarming and all intent–he faced down the song’s different surrenders, and helped us hear the moral muscle needed to do this. The song will never console, but now it can inspire, when I previously thought what it could do was instruct and move.
In the new arrangement of Tangled Up in Blue, the story is abridged to the point of mutilation, and then delivered with a care that tells you what you must know about the singer’s need to get his life across to himself. And then the story is illustrated with a nearly perfect harmonica solo. It’s become a strange performance art– it’s oddly irrelevant how many or few verses he sings one night to the next.
Disarming and intent. Front and center, then back to the keyboard, then front and center. These shows have a different rhythm that’s a mongrel of theater and concert. Sometimes Dylan’s a storyteller, sometimes a sideshow barker who knows exactly how strange his creatures are, sometimes a heartbreaker, sometimes a singer–I think Bob Dylan has hit his stride as a minstrel, a one man show of many fictions and no lies. He closed with Ballad of a Thin Man, remaking that carnival, and gently reminding me that I don’t know what’s happening either. And now he’s framed by the curtain behind him with another foreboding image from a deserted and lovely floating world —well, my goodness, poor Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill are rolling in their graves and muttering, goddamn that’s what we meant all along.
You must go, you absolutely must. You can hear vigor and expressiveness (and sometimes even Stu!) on a recording, but you must be there to share the greatheartedness, to enjoy your slice of this nocturnal sun. There’s so little of ours we can keep the future from stealing, take all you can get.