You Went Years Without Me, Might As Well Keep Going Now

Jean-Martin Buttner [Swiss journalist]: Why are Dylan fans the worst? I don’t mean the people who like music, I mean the obsessed kind. And why do they look as ridiculous as they do?

Greil Marcus [writer and critic]: I don’t know the answer to that. There’s no question you’re right. Hum. Not just the worst, they’re the stupidest. I think it’s because something in Dylan’s writing leads people to believe that there is a secret behind every song. And if you unlock that secret then you’ll understand the meaning of life. Like every song is this treasure chest, and nothing is what it seems.

Buttner declares that “obsessive” Bob Dylan fans “look ridiculous,” and then Buttner asks Greil Marcus to explain his aspersion as though it were an observation. Which Greil Marcus proceeds to do–he explains that obsessive Bob Dylan fans look ridiculous because they are stupid. And they are stupid because “something in Dylan’s writing leads people to believe there is a secret meaning behind every song.”   Each song is a “treasure chest” in which the “stupidest” people find “the meaning of life.”

For me, it all boils down to  Greil Marcus’s little “Hum.”  It’s patient and thoughtful.   How tiring it must be to confront, day after day after day,  the misjudgments of other people on a topic in which one has an enduring and influential professional interest. Such inane misjudgments, and so very many other people.

Here is a painting called Hunting Scene, by a painter named Piero di Cosimo who lived from 1462-1522. It hangs in a corner of a Renaissance gallery on the 2nd floor of the Metropolitan.   Rolling from one end of the painting to the other is a rampage of bloodthirst and destruction that seems eruptive, an orgy that may give irony to the conventional title, if I knew enough about irony in 15th century Florence. A dog leaps on a lion’s back and clamps its jaws on the lion’s eyes, and the lion’s pain is right there in his horribly outstretched tongue. Animals bowed and bug-eyed in terror are clubbed to death by satyrs. A mighty man embraces a beast and I can hear its ribs cracking. A naked man seems at first to be oddly crouching on a horse, until I see the small unearthly transparent monkeyish beast leaping to the man’s back and I realize he’s trying to flee–the poor hunter a victim to his prey.  And behind these deaths I can make out trees in flames.   The forest itself is so mad with violence that it’s spontaneously combusting.

Each assault is vivid and the canvas seems to shudder in its frame. Fear and pain and cruelty are so piquantly displayed on all the little faces. I can’t look away and I’m kind of distressed because as a rule I can’t stand anything to do with hurt animals.  When a couple of stylishly dressed French tourists glided over to see what was in this little corner of the gallery, I quickly step aside with a voyeur’s embarrassment.  They moved on and I turn to the placard describing the painting, hoping for an adjective or two to confirm my own response. Instead, I read the biography of a thing: this painting may be a thing that Giorgio Vasari described among a series of panels; it is a thing that “possibly” hung in the “John and Mabel Ringling museum;” the origin of the content “seems to be derived from the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius.”   Here I had made a special friend with Piero di Cosimo’s lurid pagan vision. But the museum reminded me that nearly one hundred generations of people esteeming and protecting the painting led to our meeting. My having been in a strangely vicious or avid mood when I ambled over to that corner of the gallery,  my little intoxicated fascination with it, the discovery that I was enjoying violence–even with all this personal agitation, my attention was only a mayfly’s moment in the life of this object.

Hard Rain/ Slow Train: Passages about Dylan, by Michael Anton Miller is a new book published by Jupiter Hollow Media in Denver. Miller’s purpose:

This book pays attention to the poet in Bob Dylan. The genius we know by that name includes the poet but cannot be delimited by that designation. …Geniuses are like Rorschach tests. We can’t help seeing in them that which we see, because we are who we are….It’s more a matter of getting to know ourselves better…. And so the attention paid to the poet in Hard Rain/Slow Train, focuses on the words and on the way they are used, not as a way of trapping the poet but as a way of suggesting the incredible and astonishing patterns of his flight, which is like the magical and mesmerizing flight of a butterfly.  The sight of a butterfly on the wing thrills the heart.

Michael Anton Miller leads us right into his magic kingdom of treasure chests and secret meanings of life. His voice is florid and certain. There is something in Bob Dylan’s writing that leads Miller to believe

   It is an integral part of Dylan’s genius to have recognized that our ordinary longing to find love in the world by connecting up with a significant other, which plays such a central role in our emotional life and development, parallels the more profound longing of the human spirit for self-realization…

In the point of view developed in this book, the “I” or self is understood as representing the masculine factor in personal consciousness, which primarily manifests itself through the will, as individual existential self-assertion.  On the other hand, the mind is taken to represent the feminine factor in which the thoughts of the self are continually conceived and given form.


Here I respectfully return the keys to Miller’s magic kingdom for the time being. I am not a good tourist for this kind of philosophical/psychological itinerary. Conceptions of feminine and masculine consciousness will never appeal to me.  And Michael Anton Miller heard something in Dylan’s writing that sounded to him like a meaning of life.  His book may be strange and fervid and even objectionable, and I wish it well.

Daniel Mark Epstein’s book, The Ballad of Bob Dylan, is sane and informed, personal and insightful, comprehensive and engaging. Epstein narrates and critiques Dylan’s career along the axis of four concerts he himself attended in 63, 74, 97, and 09, in DC, New York and Maryland. He provides detailed descriptions of these shows, interlaced with biography, cultural context, and analysis of Dylan’s work. The sense of a ballad, a story with one storyteller, is heightened by Epstein’s frequent transcription of interviews, or summaries of other texts, or description of film footage, without context or attribution in the text itself. He relies heavily on familiar  biographies for his telling of Dylan’s childhood and simply knits what he’s borrowed into what is supposed to feel like a coherent and reliable narrative. He takes interviews, film footage, critical reviews and other writings, and lays them all out for us as bits of documentary evidence in his ballad, rather than an assortment of other points of view.  I came away with an unexpectedly large and intimate knowledge of drummer David Kemper. Since Kemper  seems to have given Epstein a lot of his time, it is very fortunate that he was already Epstein’s “favorite” drummer of all drummers who have worked with Bob Dylan. Epstein’s  memory of the 1963 show in DC is astonishingly detailed and responsive. The end result of all this nonchalant testing of the reader’s credulity can be endearing, there is so much of it, and all handled with such good cheer.

Epstein’s book is smart and energetic and upright, and guaranteed to please a great range of readers. Its publisher, HarperCollins, could afford a fairly breathtaking cover photo.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and guess that Greil Marcus and Jean-Martin Buttner would be more likely to find Michael Anton Miller ridiculous, obsessive, and stupid, than Daniel Mark Epstein. In Epstein’s book, Dylan is gifted, inspiring, curious, flawed, familiar. In Miller’s book, Dylan is misshapen, fantastic, wrong, personal. Epstein’s Dylan is a treasure chest, and it’s the kind that can be cataloged by Sotheby’s. Miller’s is the kind Marcus deplores–a secret stash, where nothing is what it seems.

Even if I never finish Miller’s book, and I read Epstein’s through in just a few sittings, I’m with Miller. Art comes from bright and weird and misshapen places and it awakens bright and weird and misshapen questions and feelings in us. Of course art is a treasure chest with secrets and meanings–that is the life of fantasy, and meeting art can make us fantastic. Making public one’s weird and misshapen meaning of life is a free ticket to looking ridiculous and stupid. To anyone who recognized themselves in Buttner’s and Marcus’s exchange, I say–play on, play on, play on.  There’s room enough in Bob Dylan’s songs for all our magic kingdoms.

“Love and Theft” and all its loving backward turns hits the streets on Sept 11, 2001, when “you can’t repeat the past? What do you mean you can’t, of course you can,” becomes supernaturally, horrifyingly, irrelevant, and “coffins dropping from the sky like balloons made out of lead,” becomes hideously, supernaturally relevant. We wait five years for Bob Dylan to tell us more, and he leads us right into these Modern Times. And he wastes no time announcing  these modern times  with ancient echoes: And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.  Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon/There’s a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon/Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow.  Now, in a world not quite yet destroyed, when we hear him sing this in show and concert, we know the show is almost over.

Here’s a prophet for you.  The thunder peals, and he looks round his mountain, taking a measure of what he can see. He sees all the way to the moon, where fires burn impossibly and airlessly, and then he sees all the way down to the folk in the alleyway and their wild ways. But the sun/son will be here, light is coming. Our prophet’s going to get that trombone. Like an angel’s trumpet but with a blues voice. This will be music made for important announcements and dancing in the streets, and ruckuses. Because today is the day. He has the news. Today is the day. It’s today, what we’re waiting for.  Stick with him because there’s hot stuff—ruckuses, fires burning in dead lunar air, the light of suns and sons—and it goes with him everywhere. And we all know that fire talks truth to prophets.

I have heard the key turn in the door once. We want keys to open doors and trunks and lockets and codes, and we want to play that trombone in the right key too. And so we get Alicia Keys….and now our prophet is back on earth, and we’ve got to face all those mortal years separating him from this girl’s youth and beauty and music. He can see ruckuses and moon fires, but where is that girl born in the very kitchen of Hell! Where hasn’t he roamed to find her—even all the way to the hot land where Elvis rests in peace. We need to stick with him, but now he’s looking for this girl. It’s this way often with Bob Dylan—just when you think he’s coming at you from on high, where you want him,  a pretty face carries him away. Spirit on the water/Darkness on the face of the deep/I’m wild about you, gal….

But listen, His very soul is expanding, and it’s me and you he’ll let in—even straight into his heart.He’s come back to us, no?  See? The key is really for us.  Sort of. Whoever gets there will only sort of understand. There is a space we can’t enter. The key won’t open that door. And you could be wrong anyway—you might not be that You.  There is not even solitude in the mountains. Who is it that brought him here, to the mountain in the first place, and now wants to run him off? Away, get thee down.   You know what, whoever You are, You come read the writing on the wall. It’s a code?  You have the key to it already. Anyone can read what it says, our prophet is not here to translate the mystery. Come read what it says yourself–you/You  don’t need a translator.

He’s got to get going.  The thunder sounds again—reminding him today’s the day.  Got to get going.. Now the thunder sounds like a drum, rolling and portentous.  He wants to sleep where the music’s coming from. We have heard that music comes from a far better land, where perhaps sleep is long and dreamless.  And he can get to this place on his own, just follow the music. Remember, You/you,  he’s done your will night and day. He deserves to rest. But the sun is on its way.  He can’t stop here and unload, can he.

So back to the world’s ruckus. Things are under siege, angry people firing guns, guns in the dark. He’d like to get out and try something—to help them? To find a new way not ruled by violence? He’s too far from town, though, isn’t he? Too far from the busy, settled world of men, women, anger,  pistols? That’s no excuse—the cold wind blows, picking up speed, he has to follow the hot stuff. He’s going to get out there for the first time in the song—and see what other people need.  A prophet goes among the people and hears their side of things.

It could be that these others need something like love. While you’re still free, and can roam on a loose rein, pick one to whom you could say: ‘You alone please me.’She won’t come falling for you out of thin air. He’s going to take his time with this, really sit down and study it. The art of  it. The expertise, the skill. Really get it right. No more wandering and chasing anyone through Tennessee. It’s true Love’s wild, and one who often flouts me: but he’s a child of tender years, fit to be ruled.  Somewhere there’s a woman pure at heart, who’ll do just what he says, because her goodness will meet his  in free submission. Safe love, permissible intrigue sounds just right. And while he’s waiting for that good woman to take her place under his schooled thumb, the world has gone nowhere and he’s tolled right back to it. How can we stand this cruel world? [And Clinton Heylin missed this line from Kokomo Arnold, whom we shall get to presently.] All of us, look—the world outside goes on its wicked harming ways.

Thunder again—he knows, he knows, he already told us/you he’s on his way to find out about the needy ones. And taking the hard road, too, no shortcuts. Some day, some day, he’ll lie down with the music, stand next to his King, have the sweetness of both. He’s not faithless, he’s true to love that needs no book-learning. True throughout—true to everything. Ready now…

C’est l’amour, c’est la guerre. For all this trouble and cruelty, on this hard road to succor—an army’s needed. He can’t do it himself, but he’s dead set to raise this army. Have you ever heard him call anyone a son of a bitch? Well, then, this is serious business. A children’s crusade! The motherless children, who’ll fight for anyone’s love, they’ve got nothing to lose.  He’ll empty the orphanages. And he’s clean at heart. He’s said his religious vows, right on the corner of 38th Ave south and 54th street, in Minneapolis. The milk of innocence and compassion courses through him like a torrent—he has, in Herculean fashion, drained cows dry. Such is the measure of his virtue.

So, his little troops behind him, orphans with guns, you know– like fires in the sun that can’t be consumed and destroyed. Oh. but the devil of  hot desire trips him up on the hard road.  This woman now, she’s got what she’s got and he’s got what he’s got—it’s the way of the world, you know. Neither of them is blessed with anything but they have what they need, those pork chops and that pie. The cruel world still awaits though.  Shame on my greed and wickedness, before I throw the first stone at these un-divine lovers. He knows he’s clay like me, no angel at all, leave him to his sweet and greasy love and keep my dreams to myself. He can’t read them and can’t make them come true. Got nothing for you, had nothing before—just got these pork chops for me and my friend. After all his religious vows, he damns my dreams. DAMN, even. DAMN and SONS OF BITCHES. Oh, the language he has to use to be heard over that thunder.

And it peals again, but this time the wind’s twisted itself into real trouble, bearing straight for him.  Here it comes—the twister may yet get him, but he’ll get this in first. Slip it in of a sudden—the calamity five years gone. The masters of war now belittled to ladies in Washington. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, scrambling for safety—can’t you see them running, lifting up their skirts, and looking up at empty skies? Empty and safe over their heads, because a man said… “Let’s roll,” and saved them, and was killed. A gruesomely impudent allusion, I’d thought for long, and in fact it’s my imagination that’s gruesome and impudent. This line is no topical cleverness at all. Lifted in toto from Mr. Kokomo Arnold’s own beautiful story of peril, sorrow, and duty, Mean Old Twister.  I heard something real that was not there, and so our wicked old artificer cannot be blamed for playing bloodcurdlingly fast and loose with history. I did it.

He survives that twister, just as Kokomo Arnold does. And again–today’s the day! Look! Everybody’s heading out! Swarming over endless plains, perhaps, but still he wants to go, he wants to join them, follow. He does not want to lead and command and see and explain. It turns out he doesn’t want the risk of a new sun/light/voice. He doesn’t want any new. Doesn’t want to see or be a New. Don’t ask him to do more, and, besides, once again he tells you he’s clean: he did it right there and then, and fessed up on top of it. You—whoever You/you are– cannot ask any more of him.

But still here, though. Not quite satisfied with that raised fist. Not really going. No more hard road down either. Going up north—farther into the mountain, where he seems unable to stand or lie or sit. He’s gone to outpace the thunder, damn it, and live like quiet people do: money, working the earth, tools, and a real room where a man and his tools can rest between bouts of real work. And he’ll leave us with what we demand of a prophet. He blesses us, finally using the word God, and indeed pairing it with Love, in a common exclamation which we may take commonly or particularly, it’s our call. For the love of God, we must turn to ourselves for pity.  The world remains cruel, there is love and sun and gods to be found, and we’re to find them on our own.  He will  leave us now to turn to his work, and in his last act of generosity implores us to turn to our own souls. His other act of generosity—a song worth singing. He’s given us quite a lot here, and we should part as friends. As Kokomo Arnold sings, “Everybody happy round here in my neighborhood.” Try the version from Bethel, New York, on July 18, 2009.






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