What’s nice about a blog is the infinite license to exploit all kinds of appealing contradictions. Lies, trivia, profanity, banality, slander, narcissism, ignorance, and confessions of malevolent or grotesque desires all appear in attractive layouts with professional fonts. The ravings of every fool and sinner come across as a formal publication, and although it is certainly possible to ornament these things with clear signs of psychopathology, we all–readers and writers–have come to expect a publication-worthy standard for all ravings . Then there is the irresistible fantasy of everyone and no one reading our unscrolling Times Roman vacuousness or night thoughts: I demand the *freedom* to say exactly what I think and feel with no shackles or repercussions of any kind, and I demand the dream of entranced or deliciously horrified readers hanging on every word. We must have all of these dichotomies right now, in the new spirit of crying baby gratification that characterizes La Vita Plugged.
So, in this spirit, I’m going to tell a story I guess I’ve told already, because I want to, and it doesn’t matter if I do. On the evening of January 24, 1961, Bob Dylan stamped snow from his boots, clambered down the steps of Cafe Wha?, struck another match and started anew. And on the evening of Jan 24, 1961, I was also, in my own small way, on the verge of an exciting new development. At the very moment Bob Dylan was sizing up the first of the little basements where there was just enough light for him to learn what he needed to learn, I was also in a tiny dark space farther uptown, albeit in an upstairs eatery with tablecloths and clean bathrooms, where my parents celebrated their first wedding anniversary over steaks and martinis and my father’s Lucky Strikes, and discussed whether I’d end up Natasha or Roger. These were very different times: pregnant women ate steaks and inhaled secondhand smoke and did not know the sex of their unborn child. Clinton Heylin reports that in late February 1961, Bob Dylan attended a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott concert at Carnegie Recital Hall, while my parents learned how to manage cloth diapers with sharp safety pins, and fortunately agreed that Natasha is a dreadful name for a baby girl. Me, my parents, and Bob Dylan all shivered in the very same cold New York winter at the very same time and developed new habits at the very same time.
For now, let’s travel further into the past than 1961 or 1941. As Michel de Montaigne went out one morning in 1569 or 1570 to take the air around his own estate, he fell off his horse, and hit the ground really very hard. Hard enough that he hovered not unpleasantly and not uninterestingly, as he reported, between life and death for several days. His household and family believed they were tending to their dying master and Montaigne noted their agitations along with the strange repose accompanying his maybe-almost death. He recovered, and found himself in a new frame of mind which he chose to take as a new compass for his attention and energies (he had a nice amount of both to spare, being a landowning nobleman ). So Montaigne began the project of his Essays which have created for themselves many generations of ardent readers who have very little in common with each other and who would disagree strongly about which Montaigne is the real true Montaigne. This should start to sound familiar.
397 or 398 years later, another affluent young man of leisure falls to the ground and hurts himself, and then picks himself up with a refreshed outlook that he also puts to work in expressive pursuits. Montaigne would find a motorcycle a curious object. Otherwise, there’s very little in John Wesley Harding that a well-read 16th century French nobleman wouldn’t recognize –the only real anachronisms I can find are a telegraph, and the lightbulb and the record on the liner notes. I also don’t know if gold was measured in carats in the 16th century.
If you have not met Montaigne in his essays, you can meet him–and I do mean meet him, and not read about him–in Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful new book, How to Live? We travel with Montaigne through his inner and outer lives, and through his Europe, and Bakewell is an ideal guide: too informed to be superficial, too witty to be pompous, too vigorous in her intelligence to be glib and conclusive in her insights. Ignore the book’s marketing, which unfortunately makes an effort to set it alongside the current trend of high-class watered-down Philosophy 101 books whose authors shall remain nameless.
Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.
Montaigne’s Essays famously discourse upon Montaigne’s impressions, speculations, opinions, meditations, influences, in what we would call *real time* but was the only time Montaigne himself had to hand. Montaigne never lost interest in the world filtered through Montaigne, and this is where people like me, we countless millions publicizing our inner lives, come in. Bakewell writes, again with generosity and decorum,
This idea [i.e., blogs/forums/]–writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity–has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…
The problem being that one person’s invitation to enjoy the companionship of an amiable, curious, and informed inner life is another person’s desultory narcissism. The unfortunate lesson of Montaigne is not exactly the invention of self-articulation without the framework of confessional or historical prompting. The lesson is that some people’s restless rambles create a far more worthwhile shared festival of humanity than others.
Here is a portrait of King William IV of England, sometimes known as Old Bill. I don’t know anything about him, but he has a vaguely anxious and pudgy look, and his hair seems on the verge of dishevelment, so perhaps his inner life is more of the White Rabbit always-too-late type than the Montaigne let’s-take-a-break-and-think-about-this-for-a-moment type. Tell Ol’ Bill could be my very favorite song of restlessness, and I am delighted to find there are many interesting possibilities for the old bills among whom we can pick and choose an origin for the name Ol’ Bill. Many of them have to do with the law, and certainly our song’s hero seems bound and beleaguered, and miserably free as well. There are certainly many self-imposed forced marches in Bob Dylan’s later songs, and the rambling of Tell Ol’ Bill is a march I always like to accompany him on.
For one moment the singer lies restless in a heavy bed, otherwise he is outside, in a world that is summer and winter and day and night according to his own calendar and clock. By the river he’s penniless and alone, but he glows with flame (he once also slept by a stream with heaven blazing in his head–water and the burden of inspiration). The flame seems to ignite a song, which he sings to his lonely self. Hearing his own echoes, he thinks it could all drown him, like Orpheus. Or like an old man with nothing to his name and with only a river’s whisper for company.
On he goes, then, maybe one smiling face will drive the shadow from his head–the body’s fires apparently can’t light the brain’s shadows. A moment of inspiration cannot undo the vexations of memory. The chances of a smilling face retreat in a nameless place, where he is stranded, now tossing on a bed rooted heavily to the lonely ground.
We move inside the tossing and the vexation, to entreaties. I’ve given much thought to Larry Sloman’s notes on this for Tell Tale Signs–that the song is the torture of love gone ugly just like so many times before. But every time I come to a hill in Bob Dylan, a high hill especially, and every time kisses are placed on foreheads, I think I’m in a netherspace between Gethsemanes, Golgothas and restless quite ordinary human beds–and this is a space I believe Bob Dylan owns. (Remember that Golgotha means skull, and consider the amount of time it is we spend inside the pained confines of the singer’s miserable brain in these later songs–but we don’t like codes. We like….faint whiffs of suggestions.)
Now we’re hearing a man tormented by memory of love, and memory of destiny thrown to the winds, and the lonesomeness of his own song. He still is on the move. Following that coldest benediction, he is momentarily and suspiciously relieved of doubts and fears, which helps time move very quickly. The seasons are always new, and waters are tranquil lakes and streams, still and friendly. How long does peace last? Only to the next troubled night. The enemy at the gate: gates of horn are true dreams, gates of ivory, false dreams. The enemy is subtle, and sometimes the enemy is real.
The world gone cold, and the sound of the lost one’s voice is ringing off the tongue. How perfect that ringing is. It’s got connotations of hard cold metal, of love tokens, of the song that began this journey, and of the circularity of time and peace following pain following peace.
The stars are cold, but the night is young. The night is young. That romantic cliche is wonderfully placed here as a moment of hackneyed devil-may-care in a song where fate is so bitterly thrown to the clouds and winds. Now I raise my hand to the gods–tell ol’ Bill the battle’s still on. Tell him–when he comes home–to keep the faith, fight the good fight. Poor Bill is the only creature in the song who has a home, and his friend the singer would send him right back out of its warmth to the gray and stony sky above and hard ground beneath. The singer lies about his sad strandedness–I’m not alone! he says. We have reinforcements! Having sounded this battle charge at the end, he takes one look at the face that matters, breathes out his bravado, and utters the ordinary man’s version of fate. Ordinary convictions of fate can sound a little like plain insisting that someone else should agree with your version of things: How could it be any other way?
Whatever “it” is, I don’t care. The whole song seems to be a meditation, or unfolding of the moment of Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, wihch is alluded to in line the woods are dark, the town is too. The poem captures that moment of wanting to stop, sink, melt into things once and for all. We’re all heading for cold and dark for good, what are we waiting for? But the horse doesn’t know it’s mortal, and its blind animal impatience to get on with life wakes the rider’s obligation to keep on keepin’ on. I do think Tell Ol’ Bill‘s cold and exhausting world unfolds up and down and out and in from that mortal restlessness.
The recording sessions for the song that are in circulation are one of the inestimable treasures of the loveandtheft world of bootlegging. Dylan is patiently insistent with the band, and he is self-flustered and something called a “turnaround” gives him a big headache (do not tell me what this is, I don’t want to know). From the chatter and noodling between takes, there is a moment of empty charged time, the briefest moment when invisible things are gathered up, and in the next moment the shape of the song just happens. The difference between Dylan’s gruff speaking voice and the cadences and textures of the singing, where gruffness is put into many kinds of service, is always a surprise, something unaccountable. The rhythms of this song hold up to multiple listenings, the one really weak take loses the percussive dark joy of the music, and the take in a minor key is the one you want to go on forever, reminding you infinitely what keepin’ on feels like.
Here is Montaigne’s tower, where he sat and wrote, played with his cat, conferred with his servants, thought about cats and servants, and wrote some more. Montaigne was a happy accident of a writer wanting to write about nothing but the world as it occurred to him alone, having the time to do this at great length, and making the result worth our while. Bob Dylan sings that secret thoughts are hard to bear, and we make a grave mistake to take this to mean he is unburdening his secrets to us. He shows us what the burden feels like, that’s all he does and why ask for something else? We all can learn the lesson about emotions we can never share. Limning our solitudes with the richest palette is not the same as relentless confession.