A Speaking Picture, With This End—To Teach And Delight/Just Like You, I’m Wonderin’ What I’m Doin’ Here

indexpicWhen I learned about the apparently true dramatic rescue of the tapes which led to Another Self Portrait,this reminded me of another apparently true and beautiful story I was told in graduate school that I have never found any corroboration for anywhere. One afternoon, in a small town in England, a woman whose name I can’t recall, a literary scholar and historian, found herself with time to kill before making a train connection. She wandered a little near the train station and couldn’t have been more pleased to find a small shop featuring rare and used books, monographs, letters. Browsing happily, she came upon a box containing old manuscripts labeled Equestrian-Horsemanship. She flipped through the folders of crumbly or yellow or marvelously preserved texts; she could decipher the antique typefaces or handwriting. One of the artifacts began with these words:

When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable…

The browsing stopped and she suddenly felt a good deal more than happy. What she had in her hands was an original manuscript of the first work of literary criticism in English letters. She held  Philip Sidney’s In Defense of Poesy, published in 1595 and written in 1579.  Somehow–not unlike outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning apparently ending up in a public storage annex– Sidney’s essay ended up in this box in this shop near a train station. The shop’s owner glanced at the opening lines and said, “Ah. Horses. I’ve got a box for that.” And in the box it went.

In the Defense,  Sidney famously argues that the work poets do to imagine deserves its own honorable category of knowledge. Poets imagine. They neither “lieth” nor “affirmeth”  and should not be asked to do either. This could be as succinct a definition of fiction as you’ll ever read. It’s also in this essay that Sidney uses his “many Cyruses” illustration of the poet’s imagination working upon reality as opposed to “building castles in the air.”  Do not ask a poet to compose an historically accurate portrait of the real, “natural,”  life and work of the Persian emperor that may inform us. Ask a poet to re-create a Cyrus who may inspire us.

And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he hath imagined them. Which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.


Poor Bob Dylan–he has been making one Cyrus after another of himself and we amuse or frustrate ourselves wrangling out one Cyrus from another, weighing them against each other, writing stories to connect them, and often enough  deciding which is the greater Cyrus. All the while we’ve not learned enough from Sir Philip Sidney:  we wring our hands and bang our heads on each other’s heads over Bob Dylan’s lieths v. Bob Dylan’s affirmeths, Bob Dylan’s shite and Bob Dylan’s gold.

Luckily, Caesar has issued a thumbs-up reprieve to the new-old-improved Another Self-Portrait. Shite no more! After several listens, I’m starting to have my favorites and my general impressions and my fanciful stories.

picture Those early Elliott Landy photos of the Country Boy in the Woods make a peculiar artificial impression. Dylan’s ability to control his visual identities is a sharp tool in his bag of tricks, and in these photos he seems to me to overwork the trick, to hasten and theatricalize a  new persona that’s already working in John Wesley Harding.   His face is sickly and exhausted and the simple white costume has the look of a redemptive ghost out of time who is nonetheless crisply tailored (NB–the best account of the motorcycle accident I’ve come across is in Sid Griffin’s Basement Tapes book).  Anxious saints, crafty and potent drifters, wicked messengers show us more clearly the redemptive ghost of Bob Dylan than this wan and somewhat affected actor.

This 69-71 material has a welcome sound of Bob Dylan  singing himself back to the health of primy nature rather than obscure nature. We are still in boats against the currents of time as we were in John Wesley Harding, but now he’s rowing with different muscles.  There’s the solace and the refreshment of playing with old-coin language.  Jolly. Saucy. A fine hand. 44 smokeless. Brakeman. Gentleman. You can hear the great release of Dylan’s using  these old coins without  irony or nostalgia. And this is nothing more or less than the great release of his  joy in open-throated singing that makes character and emotion feel like, well….breathing. It seems ludicrous to single out any collection of Dylan’s work as a voice album, but there’s such a special bird-happy pleasure in the voice he brings to this material. I hear it everywhere. Railroad Bill‘s ride, ride, ride; the hurry-up wagon verse in This Evening So Soon; in what happens when he catches his stride in House Carpenter.


  • The first stripped down Went to See the Gypsy beats the gussied up New Morning version. Here it feels like a story unfolding in real time, not so jaunty. Things seem to hold together and matter: the dark room and solicitous gypsy with his secret knowledge frightens the singer who goes to find a regular means of communication to make a “small call” for some regular companionship, the pretty dancing girl tempts/orders him to return to the gypsy’s prophecies. When he “contemplates every move,” he’s caught in time and self-consciousness in the face of all these mystic or not-so-mystic seductions. After all, the *gypsy* pulled off his tricks in Las Vegas,  and the dancing girl disappears…there’s still the dream of home and the little Minnesota town. Slowed down, the song’s got  dark tones and gravity, which we love here in the garden. And the guitars at the end are rather spellbinding.
  • On the other hand, “If Dogs Run Free scat version–Party of one!”  That would be me. The New Morning take of Dogs Run Free is hilariously misbegotten and serves the New Morning I hear–a man crying what the hell am I doing and how long am I going to keep doing it? I’ll have it any day over a melodious normalized Dogs Run Free.
  • And I feel the same about All the Tired Horses. The overdubbing on Self Portrait gives the *song* a faux drama that emphasizes the part-cheesiness and part-suggestiveness of the pun. The overdubbed version is slippery and winking and works well to throw down Self Portrait‘s gauntlet of apathy.
  • The Gaslight House Carpenter is a perfect nightmare. The boy singing it is so inspired that he sounds blind as he summons the hills of heaven and hellfire. Now, years later, he creates a drama of mounting doom that drops the Gustave Dore horrorshow.  It takes Dylan a verse or two to start piloting the ship–at first it seems he’s pitched too high, his voice breaks on “returned” but he presses on with the help of the musicians (Al Kooper’s piano a little too theatrical? Maybe not?). The vocals gather power and confidence until they swell to fill the room with the announcement that there is no other world for the lovers, just death in the grave of the sea. This could have been the sheer precious novelty of a *footnote* to the Gaslight masterpiece, but it turns out to be wonderfully greater than a precious novelty.
  • What I’ve always/only liked about If Not For You is the elegance of the title/refrain as it knits up the tossed-off charm of the lyrics. What Dylan himself has referred to as the “gallantry” of his own songs is already in this song with a nice light touch. But in this romantic take, with a luscious and sadly unattributed violin, the elegance becomes serenade-below-the-window alluring.

indexI’m paying attention to the  characters Dylan plays on Another Self-Portrait. Partly because the intensity of the vocals brings to life a motley troupe of characters, and the sequencing plays this up.  Pretty Saro, Spanish is the Loving Tongue and Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song are such good foils for each other (I’m going to ignore Alberta because it’s easy for me to ignore). Pretty Saro‘s beauty comes close to  that of Wild Mountain Thyme–eternally youthful and blooming. In Spanish is the Loving Tongue, he comes off as broken and tired and wasting in his exile–on paper this song is a thin story, but you’d never know it from the liquor Dylan’s treatment wrings out of it. (Although he does make “corazon” sound like a type of cold medicine.)  From this we go right to the worn out joyless surrender of Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song. There’s fatigue all through these songs but the singer’s fatigue in following his old drunk script with the slatternly Annie could be the bitterest on the record and is quite a counterpart to the pathos of Spanish is the Loving Tongue and youthful loveliness of Pretty Saro.

Listen closely and you can hear Dylan do some good Lennon and McCartney impersonations on the Beatles’ pastiche Working on a Guru. A moment of silence–or, go listen to Possum Belly Overalls– for George Harrison, one of the greathearted good sports of all rock music.

This is the only version of Thirsty Boots I’ve heard and I am wondering if Dylan’s taking the role of a virtuosic showman here, gliding swiftly and effortlessly through these verses is the usual approach to the song. I am wondering if a virtuosic approach to an earnest song nostalgically honoring the hard work of 60s activism and idealism is another kind of honoring? Or is it a kind of it ain’t me babe farewell? Or is it Bob Dylan reminding us who wrote Chimes of Freedom in the first place?  I’m wondering if even asking these questions is just a sign of my own cynicism.

9399_941aSomeone did have fun with the sequencing of Another Self Portrait.  All that sad lonely world of Only a Hobo pairs nicely with the beggar Minstrel Boy who sounds like a carny kid in this Basement Tapes version. The Lewis Carroll lovely nonsense of Tattle o’Day’s little brown dog leads us to dogs running free.  Working on a Guru and Country Pie link well together through the guitar work and the balmy lyrics.  These are also convivial songs, you can hear good times in the studio, and this mood leads nicely to the Isle of Wight’s hearty I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. I like combining the idle endless whiskey night of Copper Kettle with the dry-mouthed exhaustion of Bring Me a Little Water.

No option but to end with When I Paint My Masterpiece. Dodging lions and wasting time. All he sees is the rubble of the great works of long-dead men, and the rubble of his own dreams and memory. There’s no here and now (which is why I miss Botticelli’s niece–not just because it’s a knee-slapper but because she’s much more of a fantasy than the girl from Greece). Sigh, sigh, too bad he sold his obsolete Victrola. I want the song to go on because I love hearing him amuse and distract himself in the pain of idleness and lack of inspiration.

indexindex2Then I want the song to end, and all those thirsts quenched, and all that fatigue refreshed, and all those men trapped in swamps of time to reset their clocks so we can get to work on some masterpieces.  Amen to Another Self Portrait, and onward and upward.

Down Where The Vultures Feed

indexAround 1:20 in the afternoon on Friday the 26th, I sat with my back against a wall at the edge of Hoboken while I waited for the gates to open and launch the stampede to the Pier A stage. Other people sat alone or in twos or threes to either side of me; I was the 15th or 20th person from the front of the line. A man pushing an empty stroller ambled past us followed by his tiny flaxen daughter. She stopped, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed,  in front of nearly every one of us who sat facing the street and she returned every smile we gave her by ramping up her expression of expectant wonder. I realized that all of us sitting down came to just her height and when had she ever seen one friendly adult after another after another who was her own size? That was the last agreeable encounter and completely relaxed moment  I had for the next 10 hours. This is my fault. For me, the  point of GA shows is that nothing but my will and effort prevent me from getting as close to the stage as possible. If I can’t get in the first rows of a seated concert, I submit to fortune and fate. But there is no fortune in General Admission, there is only the art of war–the back of the field is for the weak, the lazy,  and the contented pacificist. I respect the pacificists and sometimes believe I can go to a GA Bob Dylan concert with just that Zen quality but when the day comes, the fire burns, and I suffer for it.

imagesSee, I want whatever passes for readers in centuries way down the line to understand that AmericanaramA, or any summertime general admission Bob Dylan concert, is not all about whether Charlie Sexton showed up (he did), or whether the new arrangement of She Belongs to Me is more majestic than playful (it is), or whether Duquesne Whistle  is a little disappointingly too fast (it is).  How are these vacuum-sealed comments, all these considered and sensitive responses, plausible when I’ve stood in the sun, then under stars, on lumpy grass for 10 hours?  The stiff limbs and the tension of staking and defending my tiny square foot of ground against barbaric invaders whose banners always read “My friend’s holding that space for me.”  How after a while I begin to feel that the world has always contained nothing at all but a cluttered stage curtained in cheap black fabric, and the My Morning Jacket t-shirt and Celtic tattoos on the man–too old for either–who is only inches from me and has for years and years been only inches from me. The three young people inches behind me are able to keep up their arch banter for so very long, as though in a contest to see who will run out of irony first. A middle-aged couple, discussing where they parked their car, is in front of me at the rail, with their son who’s about 14.  The boy is trying to look not unhappy. He has shaggy hair which likely makes more of an impression in Scarsdale than it does here among ear gauges and body art. He’s in a tough spot–this is technically a rock concert, and he still  has to spend the entire day with his parents in full view of other teenagers smoking pot and talking about Jim James. A woman on her own, about my age, stands her ground right next to me and reads the Times with patience and dignity. She owns her spot. I would love to befriend her but she’s mastered the noli me tangere of the concert pro and although I think of myself as a pro, I’m too high strung to be noli me tangere. A fat girl holding a can of beer over her head shoves past me and I look her right in the eye and say “Kiss my ass.” I am old enough to be her mother, I think. Unrepentantly.

Ryan Bingham was unexpected–I thought I’d just have to hold on through My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Mr Bingham’s got the alt-country hipster thing down and his first song expressed thoughts about heroin and depression in a big hoarse voice. It was a hard 45 minutes for me because the front of the stage was filling up with aggressive young Morning Jacket fans–I had to work hard to hold my inch of land without violence that would work against me. I was very surprised by Jim James. I knew him only from his appearance in I’m Not There.  All this time I’ve considered his magnificent (no other word for it) version of Goin’ to Acapulco to be one of maybe 4 covers of Dylan songs of all time that I consider keepers. And here was this strutting leonine person with all these filters and echoes distorting a fine voice. When he put on that circus smock with the gizmo hanging around his neck he looked like a mental patient under the delusion of being a Con Ed employee. I did like seeing the fans around me in love with this, knowing every word,  taken out of themselves. It’s a *festival* after all, and I high-handedly gave the children their moment.

I don’t know from Wilco, but I liked Jeff Tweedy’s stage self: this was clearly a man who’d been around the block and fallen down on the curb a few times and is still able to work hard and  laugh about what he’s seen and done. My territory, though, deteriorated badly during their set. It takes only one tall pogo-ing man shouting the name of every song, and shouting along with every song, jumping and shouting, to hijack my tiny window of sight and sound.


Worn and thirsty and aching and tense from my selfish voluntary ordeal, I watched some people I recognized and some I did not setting up Bob Dylan’s stage. Up close, it is something to see how agilely and cooperatively the roadies and technicians work–never getting in each other’s way, and always generous about stopping whatever they’re doing to help a colleague with a glitch.  I blinked and that whole piano was in place.  I miss the portentous ritual of the Nag Champa, the Fanfare for the Common Man, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” but Stu’s entrance nowadays is always startling and makes for a surge of attention in everyone that’s exciting.

And after the collective awakening to the beginning of Dylan’s set, we disintegrated back into our bits of jostling and sniping and texting and photo-ing and jabbering. Everything Bob Dylan does reaches me through fissures. External fissures–when tall jumping people stumble enough for me to regain a sight line to the stage; when people stop shouting the name of each song to their neighbor so I can hear the lyrics. Internal fissures–when I can break away from my tired legs and thirsty head and foul selfish mood occluding the precious spaciousness I like to think I bring to Dylan concerts–when I can break away from my own occluding self and let the performance demand its space. So in these fissures and glimpses here is what got in:

  • The *story* of the setlist is such a tug of war between Yes and No.  He tells us right off not to want anything, he used to care but…. and describes with great care not caring. He tells us that being sick of love is being sick with love. He extols a woman for being free and self-sufficient. . .and who belongs to him. He joins a violent, threatening, anarchic band of kings and gets us to surrender to him waving our handkerchiefs in the air. He leads us into two very different intimate visions back to back, Hard Rain‘s prophesying and Blind Willie McTell‘s historical lament. Finally he pulls back the curtain and reminds us it’s all theater. Something’s happening. Don’t think you can name it and know it. But take it, you can have it, and good night.
  • I feel about Duquesne Whistle the way I feel about Beyond Here Lies Nothin’–rocking beauties that say everything about that tug of war between staying and moving on. I’ve been waiting to hear him make  Duquesne Whistle bite the air like he does with live versions of Beyond Here. But this was too fast and rushed for me, I lost the words themselves and then the delectation of the words that I love on the record. So that thing happened where the recorded version retreated in me into a protected space where the version Bob Dylan is singing right now for me can’t reach. You know when a live performance of a song gets farther in than the recorded version, and you know when it doesn’t.
  • Early Roman Kings live has the what the hell is that? factor that makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan and everyone else everyone else. It’s not a song. It’s a whole show, a whole theater, a whole oratory. Every word hammers out that menacing and burlesque world and only Bob Dylan can control it.
  • Don’t like the Jerry Lee Lewis standing at the piano thing. When he sits at the piano, there’s more concentration to his playing.
  • Hatless, the ferocious mess of his hair is just right for the show’s energy.

The crowd for all its density dispersed so fast  after the show. We couldn’t wait to get away from each other. The field looked like a landfill of crushed beer cans and food containers and newspapers and some trampled sunglasses and even cellphones. Some of us had to get home and prepare for Jones Beach the next night. A few on line reviews of that Jones Beach show guessed that we got no fun encore like Friday’s The Weight singalong because we didn’t deserve any. That we were a dull audience Saturday night and being punished for it. Well, a good few of us were very very tired.

Play on, Bob. On and on. Of course you have more moxie than all of us put together. We just try to keep up from our own tiny patches of this earth you’re roaming. Some of us are flawed creatures and keeping up doesn’t bring out the best in us.  And as always:


If They Ain’t Already There


Friday I’ll be spending over 11 hours en plein air in Hoboken, New Jersey, to earn a two-hour general admission Bob Dylan concert. No, I know he won’t play for two full hours. We have been having a summer of brimstone and deluges in the northeast so I am nervously hoping these 11 hours will be merely torrid. Discomfort, impatience, anxiety, then Bob Dylan. I also hate the city of Hoboken.

imagesHoboken was the place where I spent my first Bad Year, at age 24-25. If you’re old enough to know what I mean, then you understand that our first Bad Years don’t entail the calamities and tragedies that become the turning points in our life stories. Not the terrible loss or pain that we continuously narrate to ourselves as reminders of Why We Are The Way We Are, and save up as the Special Thing You Need To Know About Me that we relate to new acquaintances. Your First Bad Year is that mess of disappointments and failures and unpleasantness you simply believed you were never destined for.


I spent 1986 in Hoboken, in the rented part of the first floor of a shambled house at the far end of Harrison Street, where the twee brownstones decayed into no-name auto-body shops with heaps of indistinguishable twisted rusted metal on the sidewalk. In a black and white photograph, our neighborhood would have had a  post-apocalyptic charm. But then there were the pollerias:  three-sided shacks offering floor to ceiling cages of live chickens for sale. The stench from a polleria lays siege to your entire consciousness. The space my boyfriend and I rented was a large shapeless room with an unfinished buckled and splintery wood floor. Our windows looked out onto a small vacant lot housing a crew of feral dogs who howled at night until bottles were thrown at the noise, and then managed to transfer fleas into the rented room–have you had flea bites? You scratch until you bleed, then scratch more, then make a funny story about the sores on your legs when you go to work the next day in a clean office with clean people. One evening after work I came back to the rented room to find  things gone: the television, my boyfriend’s guitars, much of the clothing in my closet. I went upstairs to the other tenant in the house whom we had not yet met because finding the neighbors felt instinctively right after being robbed. The upstairs door was opened by a big woman in a tank top who placed the sharp of her elbow up on the doorframe and watched me talk while she smoked from the cigarette she dangled comfortably near her face. I saw behind her were 4 cheap small messy cots lined up barracks-like, with at least one small child on each cot staring at the scene in the doorway with big eyes and closed mouths. When I was done sharing my alarm and concern about the burglary, the woman said “No habla Ingles,” and closed the door. At that moment and to this day it has seemed incredibly important to me to believe that all those children were actually her own. My boyfriend and I took badly to keeping house (such as it was), took badly to being adults together, to paying bills, to my deciding I didn’t want to keep defining fun as drugs, and to living away from New York. If you have been born and raised n New York, you know that it is an absolute condition. You are there or you are not.

All the good of that entire year belonged to the Mets. I left Hoboken and my boyfriend with a numb and stained kind of relief: I had grown up nice, with bedspreads and carpets and doormen and several unavoidable cockroaches who lived in fear of my mother, and parents who never raised voices to each other. I was not supposed to know fleas and burglars and frightened children on sloppy cots and romance that turned ugly and shitty and ended. In a real Bad Year, you find out you’re not special and you just want it to end.


So the hell with Hoboken.  I never wanted to set foot there again.  I don’t even know this new venue where I’ll be uncomfortably on foot shifting my weight for hours, sweating, indifferent to the opening bands, waiting for Bob Dylan to toe-step onto the stage, with his usual peculiar combination of the  irascible, the  humorous, and the efficient, and sing and play to us.

I know what I’m bringing in my attention to Hoboken. Lousy memories, the march of time, en plein air discomfort, and my own usual spacious light of pre-Dylan no-expectations expectancy. To everyone, remember remember that we don’t pay attention, we bring it. Paying attention is the same as any transaction–you dully hand over your cash and expect to be handed something of equal value. No, no, no. You bring your attention to the encounter of a concert: your attention is animate, it is appetent, it is responsive, it is made of this very moment shared with everyone else hearing the same harmonica notes, and entirely your own language of everything past and present you alone are bringing to those harmonica notes. Just as you know when Dylan is and is not entirely right there in that song, that line, that word, you know when you are and are not as well. If the way you bring full-selfed attention to a Bob Dylan concert or anything here-and-now is through the screen of your telephone, then. . . just please hold the phone away from my sight-line.

I will be so grateful if he doesn’t give up on Duquesne Whistle come Friday–it’s everything I’m writing about here.  That whistle blows and blows and a man hears childhood, love, faith, fate, the end, the beginning–the stations of his life going by right on time, like they do for all of us. Be there. I mean–be there.


Don’t Forget That You Are White

Hector_brought_back_to_Troy-500x344So I wanted to write about what’s happening as I read Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Tempest keeps shining through. The first bolt came in Book 4 of The Odyssey, with “cooped up on an island far too long,” and then flash after flash in both Odyssey and Iliad: pay in blood, ship you down to the house of death, hit the skies. . . More and more than that. You can read Scott Warmuth’s tidy and thorough “Tempest Commonplace” on his Pinterest board. I give him full credit for a tidiness and thoroughness you won’t find here, but I promise I found these bonbons on my own reading. And if you haven’t done it yourself, I recommend it–it’s a headier feeling of tiny time-travel wormholes even than Confessions of a Yakuza.

And what I wanted to think and write about is death and life in The Iliad, and death and life in Tempest. Every death in The Iliad matters. From the puniest chariot driver to the god-infused magnificences of Hector and Achilles, you feel the shock of life speared or sliced or trampled out of a man’s body. You feel and see the moment when each body voids its life, and there’s no attrition to the way your attention cringes with each of these deaths. Often enough Homer manages to insert, right along with the spear blow, the names of the dying soldier’s father or grandfather or the lovely island home whose soft hills he will never see again while his parents weep for his loss–Homer can send your imagination to the soft hills and desolate mother and father in the space of a man’s last breath.

I wanted to write about the way individual death matters in Tempest, in that song and in Roll On John. Then I wanted to write about the Greek hero. The man who is marked by the gods and then has to bear up under more-than-mortal gifts and ordeals until he dies exactly as all men die, once and for all. We tend to love Odysseus because he has genius that we recognize: his wit plays with his fate.  Odysseus seems to create his way through every tribulation.  He has an artist’s spirit as other Homeric heroes do not and as Romantics we love him for that and often pay not enough attention to Odysseus’s own persistent awareness that his gifts are his mortal destiny and not the way around death and the gods’ prerogatives. I hear that in Tempest, in Duquesne Whistle, in Pay in Blood, in Scarlet Town— the vitality whose playfulness and potency are born from no-bullshit mortality. Like noon at the break of darkness.

Well, I had things to say about life and death that now would ring just about as *true* as the Roman frieze at the top here showing the harrowing glories of dead Hector in unbroken stone. Then I heard about George Zimmerman’s acquittals and I didn’t expect the air to get as knocked out of me as it was. Well, I didn’t expect the acquittals themselves and the moment I heard I had one of those immediate thoughts that Homer uses to describe the speed of a god’s passage from here to there.  The only point of this event is that a black man’s life matters less than a white man’s fate.  The intricate instructions given the jury on differentiating between manslaughter, degrees of manslaughter and murder–these seem to me instructions on the value of Trayvon Martin’s corpse to George Zimmerman’s life. The jury decided what mattered.

So, if you are white like me, instead of contemplating life mattering in The Iliad and Tempest, listen for the thousandth time to …Hattie Carroll, and reflect on that rag.


72 Gypsies File Past


Imagine one rootless gypsy per year, each of them carrying a sign reading “Now This Way.”

As my birthday wish, I have a true story. When I worked as a cashier at Barnes and Noble #1979, one of our regular customers was a fellow with a soft moonface who wore every day a neat drab shirt with a nearby address embroidered over the pocket, and neat drab slacks that jangled with a large key ring. He was the maintenance man for a large apartment building in the neighborhood and liked to visit the bookstore on his breaks. Whichever of us was not occupied with a customer he’d approach with the little smile of a guileless child about to demonstrate a card trick: “Do you want to hear a joke?” he would ask every time. The first time unnerved each new cashier because of the possibility the joke would be obscene, but it never was. “Why are fish so smart?” was one I remember hearing four or five times myself. “Because they live in schools!” And I would make the  “You got me!” face and laugh just enough and then ring up his purchase which was either another inexpensive little wordplay book or an inexpensive blank book. There were days when I couldn’t bear my own pity imagining this lonely simple life; there were days when I suspected that a moonfaced simple man might be more aware than he let on of his ability to command indulgence from someone like me; there were days I was glad for a simple cheerful encounter especially when I couldn’t figure out the punch line.

My supervisor at the store was a mensch who allowed me to decorate the cord of my name tag with little buttons: one with Bob Dylan’s high school yearbook photo, one with the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’, one simply stating Bob Dylan… One day I was the cashier available for a joke, and when the janitor approached, I looked up with the ritual grownup encouraging smile.  But this time he said to me, “Do you know what my favorite Bob Dylan song is?” I froze—half disoriented and half expecting to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” and preparing a politely impressed response to that.  The janitor smiled his mischievous child smile and said. . . “Everything is Broken.”  The moment split open wide and I burst out– “Because you fix things every day!”

Martin Buber wrote, “…everything broken points to the unbroken…”

Happy birthday, dear Mr Dylan.  Keep your distance. Try not to underestimate us, and we’ll try not to underestimate each other.


We’re So Alone. And Life Is Brief


Feeling low and bleak in this winter that’s been keeping cold and dark into March, I went to an Allman Brothers concert. Gregg Allman (only his friends call him Gregory), a man not at all young, close to frail, powered by the liver of a stranger who is certain to be still mourned,  rang out a fine Tears of Rage on March 5. He matched word after word of this long and unsimple song with more heart and breath than robuster bodies could have summoned–he filled the old Beacon with the very sound of keepin’ on keepin’ on.

Tears of rage is already a state of being that demands heart and breath that have little to do with a body’s strength. Tears of rage demand a set-to with something in the world  worth the rage to shake tears out of you. Withdrawal, bleakness, retreat–you can’t know tears of rage from  down in those ditches. And remember that Tears of Rage is simply about saying I know, and meaning it, to the suffering caused by falseness and cruelties and errors.


Bleakness and falseness. Have you come across this book helpfully diagnosing Bob Dylan as a depressive?  Have you ever seen what happens when you Google *Bob Dylan Autism*? The result is the search engine equivalent of overturning a log in the forest and disturbing a nest of centipedes.

Pros or amateurs diagnosing in public any man who hasn’t called their receptionist for an appointment are just etiquette problems.   But if Dr X or just-plain-Joe try to take their  blunt tweezers to the old chestnut *Mental Illness and Art* then we have philistinism, which for me outplays rudeness.


Above  is Van Gogh’s first portrait of a Dr Gachet. The white-scored blue world that can only carelessly be called a background because it is actually above, behind, and within Dr Gachet, is why I like this version best: it is one of Van Gogh’s places where gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through. You stop for this painting because you see not that the quiet and dignified pain in this man’s eyes exceeds his body’s strength but that this body has very long been unable to scaffold this sadness, as strong as his hands seem to be, this is what they do–they hold on.  And you see that the flower seems to lean along with the man in some kind of organic sympathy, it may actually, while its own vigor has to be ebbing away in that glass,  be desperately reaching towards those golden books mistaking them for the sun. And you see that the blue around Dr Gachet is waves or skies or planks, the blue can be inside or outdoors, it can be layers of heaven growing lighter as they rise or just an old wall behind the cafe table; and you see that the scoring on the blue seeps from the scoring on Dr Gachet’s jacket–the world above and behind and of him is the same sorry stuff all atomic and restless. And you see also a world that’s concrete, jubilant, and promising in the cheery green and red tablecloth and those glowing buttery books whose facts or philosophies or verses seem not just inviting but edible. They are what this cafe is serving up! And there’s really nothing here but Dr Gachet’s eyes whose sadness beats out of the canvas like a color of its own; and the sadness is Dr Gachet’s blindness to this entire world he’s holding on to without seeing. Van Gogh gives equal weight to the yellow and blue and red and purple real outer world of upright tables and walls, and to the power of the inner world to obliterate and derange the concrete and the upright stuff and the whole spectrum as well.

van gogh

Van Gogh’s vision can do both, without canceling itself, and without redeeming. He finds the way to give equal weight to the real out here and the disordered in here, without insisting that you choose. And the punch line, if you don’t know it, is even better than you could have expected: this Dr Gachet was Van Gogh’s own physician who gave the painter digitalis for his epilepsy, which proved not a remedy.  The artist examines and tends to the doctor who could not cure him. We carried you in our arms on Independence Day.


Insanity smashing against my soul, Bob Dylan the Singer sings in a song that’s such a requiem for the spirit that I wasn’t surprised to learn I was not the only person to go cold all over when hearing that Bob Dylan the Person had bought a tract of land in the Scottish Highlands: the Romantic Gloommeister, the fearful fatalist in me imagined this real estate investment was A Sign of the Final Retirement.

What’s not a clinical symptom in Highlands? Pessimism. Self-loathing. Inertia. Isolation. Loss of libido and appetite. Moral indifference. Purposeleness. Humorlessness. Vain fantasies of escaping an unendurable present. Inability to experience pleasure. Highlands the song is an ordered and vivid and vital and droll thing that describes a bitter and dark and life-denying vision. Bob Dylan’s care in singing it should not be able to exist in the heart of the narrator he created.


So be very careful when talking about depression–anyone’s–and art. Dr Gachet and Highlands are precious and abiding things in the world that deliver pretty indelible experiences of the uniquely human ability to feel the world darkly and worthlessly.  To take these things as either symptoms, or as redemption is both all wrong. All they can do is give you a place to stand and for a moment feel that the disordered, dark, and worthless in here is somehow made of the same stuff as the precious and abiding out here. Hold that mystery. . .just one more moment…then as you were.