As a child in New York, I remember being taken to the UN for any number of those elementary school trips that seemed to have no real purpose–Mrs. Wasserstein’s run out of numbers for multiplication tables, Randy Schumann looks like he’s going to be acting up again, everyone put on your little jackets, we’re going to the United Nations. And when you’re 7 or 8 years old, there is a terrible glorious magic to the UN because you are told over and over–“Now remember, once we are in that building, we are no longer in America.” This was the closest I would get to Narnia, and despite the fact that the inside of the UN looked like the lobbies to museums and office buildings I was familiar with, the magic always worked to make me feel thrillingly if meaninglessly away and different. I expected to see people fly through the air, and friendly talking animals, and I’ll suddenly be grown up. These fantasies inevitably were blasted to nothing by the real magic in the lobby. The pendulum. A suspended metal weight swings rhythmically around a circle and an adult explains that the earth’s orbit is making the metal cylinder move. It will keep moving till the world ends. And if you’re 7 or 8, you stare at the swinging weight and you feel certain that you see it slow down, you do–right now! I’m on 46th street but I’m not in America, and the earth is not the solid sidewalks I think it is, and to top off all the marvels, I think I see the world ending this moment. Randy Schumann points at an African diplomat crossing the lobby and asks Mrs. Wasserstein in a loud voice, “How come that man can wear a dress to work?”
Apparently we are indeed facing the end of the world, tomorrow, May 21, 2011, EST, so it is a good thing that I have the time today to write my Bob Dylan Birthday post. So much of being a Bob Dylan fan is time-bending, time-traveling, end-of-times, beginnings-of-times. Therefore, it will be a fine synchronicity if the pendulum on 46th street winds down for real tomorrow. I am grateful that having been a neurotic and imaginative child rehearsed the proper state of mind for all collapses of time and reality.
So just two days ago I’m standing right where this photo was taken, on the corner of 60th street and 5th Ave in Brooklyn. I’m listening to Seven Curses on my iPod, and I’m waiting to hear “…hanging branch abandoned,” my favorite phrase in the song. I love the sound of those four As, and abandoned is a word I particularly savor in Dylan’s songs. For the umami feel of the word. He always gets so much thereness in those syllables that reference leaving-for-good. Abandoned it out West. Before I abandon it. A faith that’s been long abandoned. All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.
The building above occupies the entire block between 59th and 60th streets and 5th and 6th avenues. It is a basilica named Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I stand on the corner, I hear Reilly’s daughter seeing the bare tree, I look at the church, and a wisp of a thought starts to curl. All the crosses in Dylan’s songs, and his special attention to the crucified Jesus. The nailed, suspended, suffering, sacrificial image of Jesus seems of a piece with all the hangings Dylan’s sung: Hezekiah Jones high as a pigeon, Reilly the horse thief, the malign postcards, Rosemary on the gallows, the judge warning Jim Jones not to get too gay in Botany Bay…to the sign on the cross, the thief on the cross. Nothing but a wisp, standing at the crossroads of how many different epochs? The moments of each of these songs in their composition, their performances, my listenings. And the times out of time in the dream of eternity which we hear in some of Dylan’s hanging songs, and in the building across the street from where I stand and have this wispy thought.
Back home that evening, I have a treat. Keith Richards has posted footage of his appearance with Bob Dylan at the 1991 Seville Guitar Expo. Bob Dylan in his Forest Hills-Unplugged polka dots is elegant, rumpled, and rockstarish. He introduces Keith, who takes his side of the stage with command and good cheer. They light into a Shake Rattle and Roll that doesn’t really roll anywhere, but you want it to roll on and on forever regardless, watching the two gentlemen trading vocals, leaning into their microphones. I’d never seen this clip before, and there I was in 1991, impatient with closeups of the saxophone player. The money shot comes in the last few seconds of the clip, after the song is done. The camera follows Dylan loping off the stage, then alone across the wide empty backstage area and finally to an exit–Dylan hunched, private, and fleeing at his own pace. Thanks to my 2011 technologies, I can watch his hasty retreat as many times as I like.
And just last night I got to hear something I’d never heard before: a recording of Dylan and The Band in St Louis in 1974. The general sound of the recording brought back memories of shows I was attending at the time, before I knew Bob Dylan existed. You can hear that big arena sound, all about loud, and the comfortable swelling roars of thousands of people allowed to smoke dope to their hearts’ content.
In this technically primitive recording, Dylan’s voice is very big and very loud and you don’t miss a word. It’s 74, and he’s belting out every syllable, every consonant a bullet. For some numbers he seems mainly to be shouting to beat a stopwatch, and for others, you simply wonder if what you know is wrong, that human energy maybe is not quantifiable. Here he sings/tells the story of Desolation Row with a weird prosaic intensity that tires out the listener while the singer has more breath, and then even more. When he gets to Hollis Brown, the delivery hammers the poignancy of the song and what you get is the ugliness, the screaming wife, the crying children, Hollis Brown’s pounding head, the heft of the gun, the pile of bodies, hard-baked doom all around. And this being another song that reminds us of certain conditions unaffected by time–sickness, dried up wells, hunger are part of the natural course, and Hollis Brown does not destroy everything because his family starves, but because they starve in isolation, with”no friend.” The line goes from Hollis Brown to What Good Am I?, says another wisp of a thought in my head.
All the attention and folderol of Bob Dylan’s upcoming birthday. If you relish this man’s work, if you’ve felt a particular gratitude to have shared real time with him in the general life span way as well as in concert halls, then you want to mark this Milestone. It’s also true that milestones belong to a straight-line chronology, a chronology that summarizes and memorializes, and that is nothing like the day-to-day experience of Dylantime if you are a fan in 2011. Dylantime for us is a delirious chutes and ladders life in and out of years and decades, and always ready at a moment’s notice for a new encounter with what we thought was familiar.
Nevertheless. Human energy one person at a time is quantifiable, and 70 is a countable number. And with that thought right there, and the chance that we’ll all wake up tomorrow to the end of all time–Bob Dylan, we bless you on this mighty birthday. And if there is eternity, we’ll find you there again.