Maybe Bob Dylan dedicated his longlong-awaited Early Roman Kings performance to Obama’s reelection. Maybe playing the song, with its singer troublingly identifying with those rakish, bullying, hip, frightening, glittering, indestructible tyrants, was a combination of triumph and warning. We helped put the crown back on your head, please wear it as well as possible. In 2008, Obama looked like the hero being outfitted with his special cape and special sword and the solemn rules of his magnificent quest. Now he looks like a man singed by a wildfire he’s got to walk back into while his townspeople huddle behind him in fear, hope, doubt, anger, derision, trust. I wish I’d been in Wisconsin when Bob let it be known that he expected it to happen. It did not at the time seem a sure thing to me. I would enjoy having the memory of that camaraderie to sweeten the relief I feel now.
A hurricane tore through the town right outside these garden walls. I didn’t take this photo at left, but below you can see the photo I did take of the aftermath of this business, which took place a short walk from these garden walls. However, being stranded and fearful in well-lit rooms in a watertight apartment in Brooklyn is not the same as being stranded and fearful in a dark cold housing project a mile from my watertight apartment, and not the same as being stranded and fearful in three feet of water alongside the pile of lumber and upholstery that was your living room. This is my worst experience of the destructibility of the world around me. And my most sobering experience of how Job-like people are in their anger and grievance–something must account for this! I saw good people’s honest and urgent belief that the machine of civilization is responsible for their safety and comfort. The photo here shows a drastic misfiring, a calamitous interruption rather than the way things are.
Strengthen the things that remain are always to me five beautiful words. Learning how very little remains of me after a calamitous interruption was something I wasn’t ready for. Job is Job because alone on his rock he’s surrounded by the ghosts of everything he’s lost, and not just what he’s lost, but the ghosts of all the threads that tied him to Purpose and Necessity. Me, I own nothing, and no one depends on me for food or shelter or safety. My work doesn’t serve any necessary mechanism that would break down in my absence. Even if love isn’t friable, I’ve already found out that life is. When I felt last week how thin the threads are that bind me to the destructible world, I felt a cold ozone-y lightness. Alarming and a little too wonderful. Exactly like being suddenly weightless. I know a person in this position should right away ballast themselves with the reminder that our bonds to all other people are always and already the threads binding us to the destructible world. I know that, and I still felt and feel the cold ozone-y weightlessness. If you’re fed up with impractical introspection, and I really don’t blame you, you may click right here.
Here is my After photo. That water and wind tore through the metal, concrete and asphalt and tossed the bits with a jaunty flourish along the Belt Parkway. Saw the changing of his world. Yes, I’m here to tell you that Tempest becomes a different, uncannier, more luminous song when you’re standing on the salty wreckage of your own neighborhood, than it was when you were wondering who Clio or Cleo is. Tempest has its singular moments, and yet does what all the best art of disaster does. It is a terrific allegory for our dogged embrace of everything that does not ultimately matter in the very moment of its not-mattering. Every snapshot of sacrifice, affection, betrayal, heroism, faith, doubt, even the reckless gamblers, is set ruthlessly against the glimpses of implacable destruction. The song’s melody has a patient, rocking feel, and Dylan begins most verses with a merciless delivery of each syllable like a fist pounding a podium, and ends with softer, milder tones. So the sound of the song is a pendulum: sacrifice and doom; affection and doom; valor and doom; faith and doom. The vignettes range from the stock moment of the Astors unaware that their days of luxury sight-seeing are over, to the clever and sort of ballsy choice of having Jim Dandy *come to the rescue* of a crippled boy, to the subtle irony of Davey’s whores getting their final command from a man in the form of being released to their deaths. The web of religion that runs through the song is viciously tangled against itself: Jim Dandy dies in peace amid a vision of the rising Eastern star; the bishop admits at the last that human can’t save human; disembodied love and pity send useless prayers; there are angels, and they turn aside; the captain reads of apocalypse and weeps–this here-and-now apocalypse occurring under and over him was his to prevent. At one point Dylan undoes whatever transcendence you may want to glean from his tale by blaming “the wizard’s curse.”
The artist gets it right: in a single moment Leo grasps the disaster, acts with altruistic reflex, and loses his mind. It’s the truest moment in the song for me, he’s the central character for me. His doomed sketches would have given the glorious ship art’s eternal life. He’s struck and undone by love just as his muse the ship is struck and undone. And he is the opposite of the watchman for whom the calamity is the phantom of his sleep: Leo the artist sees the calamity for what it is, acts because the impulse to preserve life is irrepressible, and in that moment knows the full weight of an absurd universe and goes mad.
Rising and falling with the swells of Tempest, hapless meaning after hapless meaning, is just the right equilibrium for me in an intrinsically destructible world that hasn’t destroyed me so far, and but hasn’t bound itself to me–or me to it–with enough strong threads to make a Job out of me. Thanks to Bob Dylan for being able to show us how preposterous it is that we don’t regularly lose our minds, without losing his. And like I said before, if you can’t stand any of this, click right here.