As Each New Season’s Dawn Awaits

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.

In 2011, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to share our immeasurable gratitude  for  the fates and forces that gave Mr. Bob Dylan enough  health and strength to share himself with us for these decades.

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.

I’m only here to get from Montaigne to Bob Dylan. In her introduction, Bakewell touches on the Montaigne of the 21st-century, and the answer is blogs. As she decorously and kindly puts it,

 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.


Every Bloodsucking Thing In Sight

I’m very easily overwhelmed, depleted by the infinite midrash accompanying Bob Dylan. I make flippant comments about how it will be in the year 4018:  I will be vindicated and the great minds of the day will agree with me that Knocked Out Loaded is a superior album. In 4018, the first thing we teach each new extraterrestrial species we meet is the words to Ain’t Talkin‘. But, regrettably and seriously, there are far too many people like myself who do feel that we’re sharing time and space with someone whose art moves us enough to capture our responses to it, and document it, and explain it, because we simply believe that someone even in 2018, and then in 2038, and then in 2098, will feel the same way and want some company and some information. And  there are so, so many of us, and keeping up is so, so tiring and such a distraction from the art itself. It’s a special kind of fatigue and demoralization that sets in when you feel obliged to keep up with the books and the interviews and the articles and the blogs and the photos of Bill Pagel, god bless him, renovating the Zimmermans’ little Duluth house in the hopes of getting it listed in the National Register of Historic Places before 4018.  And you still can’t give up trying to say something about what passed through you the last time you listened to, oh, Dignity.

Clinton Heylin–high on the list of Obligatory Midrash– dons his Ephod, tirelessly composes, and produces the second volume of his annotated  catalogue of the original songs of Bob Dylan, their sources, occasions, intentions, effects, and values. The book is titled Still on the Road, a pretty clear falling-off from the title of the first volume, Revolution in the Air. The revolution, the transformation, which even occurred in the air and unbound by laws of gravity, apparently is done.  We’re still moving along, though, with all that being on the road implies: some liberty, some desultoriness, some adventure, some bickering,  some discovery, some tedium, all  governed by maps and the rules of the road and gravity.  I went straight to  Dignity, a song of particularly self-replenishing gloriosity for myself.  Heylin performs the necessary rituals on this song, in a brisk tour de force demonstration of his many fluencies:     “In one of those rare candid sections in his autobiography,”:  Clinton Heylin can evaluate the quality of intention in Dylan’s utterances. “It could be argued that the one song which defined the general artistic direction on all four of Dylan’s all-original eighties albums ended up being discarded–leaving a gaping hole at the heart of each released artefact”–Heylin’s critical acumen diagnoses the artist’s decisions and  determines that recordings are  whole or incomplete artefacts, and declares prognoses and/or prescribes remedies. “From now on the recording history gets messy”-– Heylin’s research provides reliable chronologies of events.“On the track sheet, it even says ‘transfer [to both channels?] and boost,’ like it needed highlighting”—  Heylin understands recording technology. “On March 29 [1995], at a show in Brixton, London, he delivered the definitive ‘Dignity’ vocal..”–Heylin’s access to Dylan’s recordings and performances is comprehensive, and his judgment is reliable. “JJ Jackson…turn[ed] the song inside and out without ever once getting in an inspired vocalist’s way”–Heylin can read a live performance  cool and vernacular:   we can get  thoroughness and accuracy from other sources, but Clinton Heylin can be a hip critic on top of all them facts. And so Clinton Heylin, his Ephod spattered righteously with the entrails of Dignity, rests, and turns to his next purpose–Handle with Care.

For right now, I’ll stick with Dignity. Dignity’s etymological  roots are in honor, and privilege, and worth, and proper, and fitting. Honor is exalted, privilege is the propers of superiority, but just proper is just correct. We don’t find this word comfortably to hand these days: we may use it to  describe an elderly person who is well-groomed and uncomplaining. We may use it to describe,  in a faintly disingenuous way,  someone whose posture,  grooming,  and elocution remain presentable despite sustained public humiliation, or suffering, or both. Dignity in currency today  describes my relief and gratitude that your appearance does not embarrass me nor make an unpleasant appeal to my sympathy. To acknowledge your dignity also buys me a penny’s worth of  self-love–I relish for a moment my own compassion, and the gracious taste required to know dignity when I see it. I am not a churl, am I.

But Dignity, the  song, embarrasses us.  The singer’s odyssey in search of honor and privilege and worth and proper teases us awfully. The hero allows us to laugh with and at him as he serves up witty images and also serves up himself as The Innocent Fool asking cops to help him, and keeps on his tireless and futile and occasionally truly heroic way.   We are amused and delighted and provoked to thoughtfulness by his quest. No version of this song is boring. And  the sound of the word dignity is central to any performance of the song.  Dylan’s magnificent enunciation of those dental consonants, “dig-ni-ty” — is  a hair’s breadth away from being thespian or pedantic. He voices the very word on the razor’s edge of parody and solemnity–what he’s looking for,  whether his quest is indeed foolish or heroic, is right there in the word every time he sings it. And this razor’s edge works through the song, and we start to hear the sound of what it may be to take something seriously. To risk foolishness and failure to find something to take seriously.

There is so much looking in this song. The singer looks for dignity, and his quest reveals others looking for it.  The song is thick with people looking through, looking into, looking for, looking within. The wise man indeed looks in the blade of grass, and finds eternity, and  the quest is over for the wise man. He is where the song should end, but that’s where it begins–the singer faces down that he hasn’t learned this lesson, and keeps looking. (If wit can be literally sublime, you don’t have to look much further than what Bob Dylan can do in fewer than 10 words.) Poor man looking through painted glass, for dignity. Here is a  poor man looking through a stained glass window. From the outside, looking through into the church,  he looks for  the worth that a community of the faithful in a house of faith promises the poorest. And he looks for the immanent and invisible dignity that faith believes is housed even in an empty church. It is the special privilege of the poorest to appeal to this immanent dignity. If the poor man is inside, looking out through the painted glass, he wonders if the dignity imputed to him, felt by him, in this space,  will endure outside that window, back in the world where he is simply another needy nuisance among millions.

Sympathy for the poor man’s looking, and the consolation he seeks from dignity,  is easy for me to manufacture. So too for  the thin man looking at his last meal — not knowing where the next will come from, nor even if it will come, and the poignant insight that the   starving’s man hunger  is less powerful than his desire for the dignity to endure his hunger with honor. These are fine-grained and clearly-felt images that I can respond to smoothly. The Englishman, though, is not so crystalline. He is certainly clear to see: combing his hair back, biting his bullet, looking within–he seems a virtuoso stiff-upper-lip  caricature.  The black hot wind is the problem. That’s the wind of Empire, blowing power and greed and something malodorous  called  *moral order*  thousands of miles from the cool and pleasant land of England. What’s his dignity, and what’s the pain he’s got to bite the bullet against? Is this a moment of self-knowledge? And that stranger in the Mexican night seems another difficult lesson in dignity and self-knowledge. He’s drawn irresistibly, as people so often are in Dylan’s songs, to a window through which  the fallen dark world appears as a true nightmare. A stranger alone in a strange place, all he sees are hideous threatening parasites–as indeed all creatures may appear to us when we’re strangers in a strange land. And he searches them for dignity, when perhaps he should question whether his own vision  may be corrupted by fear and isolation. (I’d also like to add that some of Dylan’s  lyrics offer a unique  thrill when first heard, and searching every bloodsucking thing in sight is certainly one of them.)

I like very much that the song can provide for me the experience of a quest, in which my search for dignity in the song hits dead ends as does the singer’s: I don’t know what Mary Lou could tell him, and why it would cost her her life. I can imagine, but I would be wrong. Prince Phillip will talk for money and anonymity—why is there a price, what’s he afraid of? It’s terrifically clever and suggestive, but an unnerving image also. I could be made to believe that the one true moment of dignity in the song is when the singer stands at the window, with the maid–they’ll always be silent to us, and what they see they only see together, and there is a beautiful brief calm to this tiny mystery, but it doesn’t end the quest. I know I will never have the ears to be initiated into the mystery of the tongues of angels and the tongues of men. I like very much  that in one tableau  the soul of a nation is under a the knife, and death is standing in the doorway of life, and in the same house, a man fights with his wife over dignity.  Nothing is worth the soul of a nation, or the threshold of life and death, if it isn’t worth a an argument between a man and his wife.

For me the whole quixotic romp  stops–and begins again–where the vultures feed. I’ve been down where the vultures feed/I would have gone deeper/But there wasn’t any need. All great heroes have to visit the underworld. They are heroes because they enter the world of the dead in terror of their souls, not in terror of their lives. But our Foolish Knight touches down exactly where life feeds on death, which is not the same as an underworld.  An underworld is a cul-de-sac, it is the no-turning-back, it is final. But there’s life where the vultures feed, where endless death feeds life’s insatiable hunger. This is the awful cycle, the awful conundrum, of life that would starve without death, and our hero recognizes the sheer fact of it, and realizes that even this doesn’t end his journey. All heroes must return from the underworld, back to life with the knowledge of what they’ve seen that no living man has. But our hero goes as far as any of us can go–we can all look straight at where the vultures feed,  submit to the death-eating fact of life and convince ourselves this fact makes all Quests futile and meaningless.  Or we can  return to the uproarious and neverending Search for that which is worthy, proper and fitting. Even though we can see for ourselves that we may be honoring vapors and illusions and eternal enigmas….then again, we can see for ourselves that we may not be. Admitting how much is at stake, and how hapless his odyssey has been already, our hero ends at the edge of the lake. For a moment we’re anxious–the edge of the lake? he’s given up. In the next moment we’re laughing at ourselves and our fears. He’s only starting the journey again. And we’re grateful, more grateful than we can say, but we waste all this time trying to say it anyway.

You Can All Live With Me And A Host Of Other Fine People On Montague Street

I’m happy to announce that the inaugural issue of a new print journal devoted to the work of Bob Dylan is now available for public consumption. Montague Street will be published semi-annually, and, in the words of its editors:

Our commitment is to soliciting critiques and examinations of Dylan’s work that can enjoy a respectable shelf-life and provoke lively discussions in the here and now.

The editors realize that competing with the indispensable resources Derek Barker provides in Isis, or the up-to-the-minute newsgathering of Expecting Rain is futile. It’s been a while since a strong print journal on Dylan has been up and running in the US, and the editors hope to fill that hole. Each issue will feature an assembly of writings on a theme as well as separate pieces on a variety of topics. Issue One features Oh Mercy as the theme, to honor the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, as well as a close reading of Masked and Anonymous, an interview with two New Yorkers who have provided invaluable service to generations of Dylan audiences, and other pieces. Contributors to this issue include notable Dylan writers Stephen Scobie, Lee Marshall, John Hinchey, and  Andrew Muir, as well as strong new voices, bound quite handsomely . You can read more about Montague Street, and order a copy if you like: (this URL may work better if you copy and paste instead of clicking–thank you, and sorry for the nuisance, am working on it)

I know a lot about this because I’m one of the editors. I am especially happy with the name of the journal, since I grew up about 10 blocks from the Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York, featured in photos on the cover and inside the journal (taken by our gifted art director, Jesse Tobin). Is this the street from which stairs lead to a basement? We do not presume to answer.

Discovering how many excellent people come flying out of the woodwork when you invite them to donate their time and energy to writing about Bob Dylan was probably the greatest pleasure of the many hundred hours of work this project demanded. Now is the best part, though, getting feedback and responses from more good people we haven’t met yet,  and starting and nourishing conversations worth having.

The people responsible for Montague Street:

Nina Goss and Lucas Stensland: Editors

Jesse Tobin: Art Director

Charles Haeussler: Business Manager

Visit Montague Street if you’re interested, and let us know what you think.

“You can manufacture faith out of nothing”–Bob Dylan

Worried Blues is often where I go when I want to feel a landsmann connection with Bob Dylan. The very first time I listened to it, I heard a man who truly understood my world and my life: “I’m depressed about being worried.” I don’t much care that the song traces to a sweet-faced woman named Hally Wood, and maybe further back to Leadbelly. “I got the worried blues, lord.”  Fretting out loud about  anxiety piled upon melancholy is the existential verity of a happy Jewish life, and Worried Blues is where I can reach through a song and say, “Hail, friend,” to Bob Dylan.

Luckily, we can do better up at the 92nd St Y than my impertinence, and last night we enjoyed the company of Seth Rogovoy, author of the book, Bob Dylan: Prophet/Mystic/Poet, now available in hardcover from Scribner’s. I had tracked down Seth through his active and engaging blog, and he very generously agreed to make a trip into the city to discuss his work with our class. I did read the book prior to meeting him –and to comply with what I believe is now a law governing bloggers and electronic commerce, I reveal that I bought the book myself at the Barnes and Noble on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street.

I confess that I feared the book would make uncompromising and suffocating claims for Dylan’s essential Jewishness, and I am happy to be proven wrong. The book tells the story of Dylan’s career as a story of the demands of  being called to prophecy. In one person may coexist a certain vision of life’s conditions, a certain gift of articulating the vision, and a goading conscience that fights vagaries of one’s own energy and will and the attention span of one’s audience to persist in yoking the gift to the vision. The work of the yoking, and not just the privilege of the gift, becomes the arc of a life. Prophecy may be described this way. If  Jewish history,  scripture,  and ritual have provided one prevailing vessel for lives that play out these characteristics, then Seth Rogovoy does a fine and sane job of showing how Bob Dylan’s work can pilot this vessel of prophecy, and make room for Dylan to pilot other vessels.

Rogovoy’s talk began engagingly, way down on earth, in high school where he found Bob Dylan only after enjoying the spiritual sustenance of John Denver and Seals and Crofts. And *found* Dylan in that very big way that demonstrates what I had heard Christopher Ricks say a few weeks ago: “You don’t discover Dylan, Dylan discovers you.” It was Planet Waves that did it. And since I am eager to start a crusade that yanks this album into  center stage as a thing of greater beauty and depth than it’s generally granted, I was delighted to hear that Planet Waves was the door for Seth Rogovoy on which was written  Say Friend and Enter. My delight turned to bitter vindictive envy when Rogovoy told us that he saw Renaldo and Clara in the actual movie theater. Twice.

Back to Planet Waves. Rogovoy noticed that Dylan’s publishing company was newly named Ram’s Horn Music. The ram’s horn is the ancient instrument,  called the Shofar, used to call Jews to repentance on different holy days. “The call to repentance,” Rogovoy said, channeling the energy of his original epiphany into our little room on 92nd St. “How much was apparent to me,”  he said, that Dylan’s music is itself a call to repentance. What do prophets do? They call to repentance, as a universal and communal act.   They “wake people up.”  Wake them up to their own accountability for the fallen state of the world. The Ram’s Horn called Rogovoy to a possible field of meaning for his relation to Dylan’s songs.

When Rogovoy’s personal life, as an adult, took him into intense and intimate study of the teachings and beliefs of his Jewish heritage, he could not hold back the fecundity of this field of meaning. “The texts I memorized as a schoolboy were the lyrics of Bob Dylan.” And as an adult, he is startled and, in a way, awoken by the sounds of these phrases in the Jewish scripture and teaching. What happens then is the growing desire to tell a story with the harvest he’s reaping of all these connections: Ezekiel and The Wicked Messenger.  Amos and Long Time Gone (which I had the great pleasure of playing for him upon learning he’d never heard Bob’s actual performance). Priestly blessings and Forever Young. Judges and Tombstone Blues. He talked about these connections with a spiritedness that was never proprietary–he relived the pleasure of discovering these echoes. I asked him if he was able to recall the early emotions he had as this field of meaning grew with the new discoveries. Did he feel a new intimacy with the artist who already spoke so powerfully to him? Or did Dylan’s art now have a new authority to it imputed by the seeding of the scriptural matter? Rogovoy answered,”Both.”

In Rogovoy’s book, the inventory is extensive and more often than not, the connections are unforced. I don’t think I’ll ever hear  Yom Kippur  in Not Dark Yet, and the connection between Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the life of David is highly provocative and will take a while to sink in. He works hard to place Slow Train Coming, Saved, and other gospel material in the context of Jewish theology, to support the argument that Dylan’s *conversion* had subtle but unmistakable ambiguities in his theological language. That Dylan’s work in 79-80 is  spiritually complex and not simplistic, I agree with. I would like to see more work done on this, to do deeper justice to Dylan’s addresses to Jesus, and  his experience of being revived because of a relation with the figure he conceives in Jesus, and the imagery of crucifixion in the songs and the sermons. This section of Rogovoy’s book invites more listening and thinking.

The chronological structure of the book sometimes locks Rogovoy into a summary and familiar listing of Dylan’s output and activities, and loses the momentum of the story of what contemporary prophecy may look like. The summary, though, is a reasonable overview, which takes into account other influences and sources.  I can see the book being a useful introductory text to less informed but curious and serious  listeners who wish to get an accessible comprehensive overview of Dylan’s career through this lens of Judaism. In this regard, the book makes a nice companion to Scott Marshall’s Restless Pilgrim, and although I fear this pairing may not please Seth Rogovoy, I mean it as praise to two worthwhile books on Dylan and spirituality.

Rogovoy’s talk of course could not cover the range of examples in the book, and Rogovoy also shared biographical information on Dylan and Jewish life, showing video clips. Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons?

Oops! Wrong photo!

Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons? Rogovoy used clips of these to illustrate Bob Dylan’s somewhat public presence in this community. This generally makes me feel uncomfortable because on the one hand, it’s got vestiges of *outing* to it,  which causes me  confused and inarticulable discomfort, and on the other hand, I just love Bob’s modest and awkward presence on these makeshift television sets, and his impeccable timing in responding to the rabbi’s excited spiel.

Most interesting was Rogovoy’s unearthing a source for the notorious Grammy speech, which is another unquenchably and bizarrely captivating performance piece. More Buster Keaton, I think, than Charlie Chaplin? Well, Rogovoy found the Orthodox text (commentary not scripture) in a book of blessings intended for newcomers to Orthodox observance in which appears “Even if I were so depraved my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” That Dylan was able to unreel this text, make small changes to suit that moment and the rhythm of his speech, and then to own that passage…remarkable. To find the Grammy speech flippant or just more enigmatic kookiness from the supreme enigmatic kook, is not something I can ever do. And I thank Seth Rogovoy for bringing this material to my attention.

Rogovoy used a phrase I intend to steal and use at every possible opportunity: he referred to the “unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.” That is simply beautiful and true, and I believe Christopher Ricks himself would give the thumbs up to the felicity of the phrase. What Seth Rogovoy does best is not to prove that Bob Dylan is 83% Jewish in 1987 or 59% Jewish in 2002. What he does best is show us what it looks like for Seth Rogovoy himself to be grateful for the unaccountable heft and profundity.  Read the book as an affecting personal narrative as well as for the useful inventory of allusions, and if Seth Rogovoy is speaking in your area, I strongly recommend making the trip to hear him, he’s very much in-the-moment himself as a speaker, and instantly sympatico for other passionate and committed Dylan listeners.

“Tell Me About It”–Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks On The Psychiatric Couch, Sort Of

Well, I was all ready to wax and wane on The Inventions of Bob Dylan, a talk featuring Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz, sponsored by the august Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  The discussion ranged from Tennyson to Timrod to mortality to the essential blasphemy of great religious art to Whitman to Hebraism/Hellenism. I got all my notes right here at my elbow. And then I saw the video for Must Be Santa. God bless us all–the wig, the dancing,  the who-threw-the-glass, the cigar.  Two eminent scholars discuss this  artist of unparalleled fecundity and complexity, whose expressiveness illuminates single syllables and whose vision transforms our experience of the spiritual life.  And here he is, in a platinum blonde wig, doing what could be the hora.  And smoking a cigar, which, like a bell, tolls us back to the land of Freud and couches.

The Philoctetes Center holds its talks on the top floor of a brownstone on East 82nd St. There was much to occupy one’s attention while waiting for the talk to begin. On the walls of this room were enormous metal decorations, like monstrous bundt pans.  People scurried about with great purpose, doing things with microphones and chairs. Someone scurried in with xeroxed papers and laid them on four chairs. Each paper read in large bold capital letters: RESERVED FOR GREIL MARCUS. I had just figured out  that the other three chairs were being held for Mr. Marcus’s food taster, juggler, and punka wallah, when a fresh scurrying broke out and I heard one staff member whisper to another “He’s not coming. Not coming.” And the papers were whisked off the seats, freeing them for ordinary buttocks of the realm. Professors Wilentz and Ricks manifested themselves, Prof. Wilentz quite as affable and comfortable as he was in the much more informal setting of our class at 92Y, and Prof. Ricks wearing a suit and no tie, which always has that Cosa Nostra look. They took places on facing couches, had little microphones clipped to them.

The gentleman introducing the talk explained proudly that the bundt pans were left over from the previous talk, in which author Brian Greene and scholar Elaine Scarry discussed the beauty of mathematics. There is nothing lightweight about the Philoctetes Center, as you can see.  I’m sorry I missed that talk, for what better way to introduce Bob Dylan than with a conversation on Facts, Truth, and Beauty with experts on physics and philosophy. The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone, or something like.

Profs. Ricks and Wilentz are a contrast in forms of amiability, and that kind of quick wittedness that is able to find exactly the object it needs at any moment without rummaging about. Prof Wilentz brings up Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd in connection with Christmas in the Heart, while Prof Ricks quotes Blake on the topic of appropriation (“Though they are not mine, I call them mine”).  Prof Wilentz plugs his son’s Web site, while Prof Ricks stands up to act out what happened when his elderly father attended one of his talks.  Those of you who’ve seen and heard Prof Ricks might agree with me that Christopher Ricks is ideally cast to play Christopher Ricks in The Christopher Ricks Story. I want to state here that Ricks in person is a welcome counteragent to the narrator  Ricks, whose  riffing and punning characterizes so much of Visions of Sin, and  pushes the book towards an archness that can leave those who don’t listen deeply to Dylan complacent in their resistance to his art.  In conversation, watched by a clock, there are checks and balances to Ricks’ riffs, there is his visible emphasis on the seriousness of what Dylan does and has done. The talk that ensued was well-served by  their matched wits, different styles, and a shared commitment to the self-replenishing work of listening closely to Bob Dylan’s music and finding things to say about it. The topic of The Inventions of Bob Dylan, moderated by Matthew von Unwerth, a scholar and a psychoanalyst-in-training, was supposed to be about “Dylan’s ongoing conversation with tradition.”  von Unwerth barely recited his introduction when Prof Ricks, not unamiably, put the kibosh on “inventions.” “Dylan doesn’t invent, he discovers.”  And so began a fine and discursive ramble through Perhaps The Discoveries of Bob Dylan and Other Things. There were swells of insight and feeling and a steady command of our attention.  A few of the swells:

Ricks says to von Unwerth, who related his affinity for Bob Dylan: “You didn’t discover Dylan, he discovered you. As he discovered all of us. Bob Dylan is not afraid of being just like everyone else.”  I like this twist on the commonplace of art’s universality. We hear ourselves named by great art, don’t we. It recognizes us as ourselves.



Wilentz:  “Bob Dylan is an historian unlike any other.”  And this comment refreshed the by-now tedious discussion of Bob Dylan’s channeling the vocabulary and music of bygone bygones.  How is he a historian? Because he can make the conditions of the past present in my attention. The world of Together Through Life summons a world that just doesn’t match up to the world I’m sitting in while I play the record. Village priests and ships in harbors and memories that overtake this moment right now, and Houston seems incredibly far away–one thing a historian can do is simply make you believe that the conditions of the past were  actual and livable, not the quaint compromises or ignorances of people who knew and had so much less than we do. Eliot came up a fair amount during the afternoon, so we can pull him in here too, with his famous comment on our knowing more than what people knew in the past–“yes, and they are what we know.” Perhaps one thing a historian can do is make this palpable.  Wilentz meant this in a less abstract way, of course, and he praised Dylan’s concrete historical knowledge: “Factually, he’s pretty good.”

Ricks claimed the Christmas album is not really “religious” and a woman quickly pointed out that the album ends on the word “amen.” “But it still does not have the depth of really religious songs,” said Ricks. Which led him to this fascinating observation: “All great religious art has to be accusable of blasphemy.”  Now this seems to satisfy the notion that great art ignites revolutions in consciousness. Great art is not safe, it is not more-of-the-same-me-in-the-world. In Ricks’ view, these revolutions would be “discoveries” and not “novelties”, not the intoxication of a trick, but real blasphemy–a calling into question of received truths. I admire very much, I enjoy and learn from, writing on Dylan by authors whose religious lives are fed by his work, in ways that are different from my own spiritual life. I’m thinking of Stephen Webb, Michael Gilmour, Stephen Hazan-Arnoff. And while these writers feel their religious consciousnesses are animated, or refreshed, or challenged to new ways of being religious, they do not see themselves in contest with Dylan’s songs. I venture to say that Ricks’ idea appeals to atheists who wish to make good sense of the sensuous power of great religious art. If I can feel that the Sistine Chapel, George Herbert’s poems, and Bob Dylan’s songs rouse and transform me, despite that the traditions called upon in these works do not themselves answer the big questions of my life, it would be consoling and aggrandizing to believe that these works are somehow deeply transgressive of the traditions. I say take up a maybe (maybe not) harder challenge, and start with the human commonality (Prof Ricks likes this word) from which springs the spiritual impulse and the Sistine Chapel and In the Garden.

Wilentz: On the issue of appropriation/plagiarism, Prof Wilentz is wonderfully–inspiringly–irritable. Bob Dylan “inhabits” everything he steals. Foreign material becomes his. Prof. Wilentz talked of Confessions of a Yakuza, “My old man’s  like some feudal lord, he’s got more lives than a cat.” Well, the phrase “feudal lord” refers to something in Japanese  culture and history that is “completely different” from what it would mean to an American audience. This seems obvious, but I think Wilentz is pointing to the way an alien twig, when grafted onto one of Dylan’s songs, needs a botanist to show us where the graft begins and ends. The phrase calls attention  to itself, while it also scans and rhymes along with the other verses, and then supports the images in Floater of the fatigue that power can induce. Prof Wilentz did say he sometimes wishes Bob would credit some of his sources some of the time.

There was more, much more, to this winding road, and I was told the talk was streaming on YouTube but I can’t find it there. A Q&A session that, like all question and answer sessions, had almost no comments worth the interruption of the featured speakers.

Here’s the moment I’ll not ever forget. Christopher Ricks held up the paperback of Visions of Sin, and made great witty sport of the fact that the photo of Bob on the cover, in the stairwell of Cafe Wha? I believe, was also used in the CD of No Direction Home-and the cigarette in his mouth was airbrushed from the reproduction on the CD. We all had a good laugh at that Puritanical nonsense, and then Sean Wilentz said, with a warmth both mild and serious, “I wish he would quit smoking.” And Ricks’ wit left him for one moment–you could see it leave his face–and he said, “Yes, I do too, I wish he would quit smoking.”  And that, my little Neptunian, is what it looks like when you actually share the same time-space continuum with an artist whose work can marshal the forces of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination: you are blessed in ways you can’t find words for, and you’re too close to mortality for comfort.

And I feel certain that both Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz would have much  preferred to be cast as extras in the Must Be Santa video than be asked to explain Bob Dylan. Watch it yourself:

It’ll Cost You All Your Love, You Won’t Get It For Being Right

Up to Me starts right off telling us that “money never changed a thing”  in this story we’re going to hear of love corrupted and lost and undying. But the song’s vignettes, so lacerating to the singer and so entrancing to the listener, keep coming back to money. He didn’t buy a ticket to follow her into the officers’ club where she entertains the troops, who apparently did fork over the price of admission, till the break of day. He needs an income: he works as a postal clerk, in a cage no less, and risks breaking the rules to protect the free but hunted fugitive.  One of them is going to pay the penalty of biting off more than they can chew, of taking more than they really need.  Crystal wants to talk to the pimp, Dupree, and the singer is too self-involved, too discreet,or  too high-handed, to keep tabs on whatever transaction might come of this. He assures whomever he’s singing to that the disguised and nameless girl with him isn’t his property, not anything he actually paid for and owns. And then finally  he takes  the song– this strangely poisoned and passionate and timeless world of Up to Me–and  tragically and brutally giftwraps it and hands it to her. His lone guitar played sweet for her this old time melody. This phrase is preposterous, following the intimations of whoring, the admissions of betrayal, the disillusionment. It seems like the terrible sad delusion of the grieving lover. Then the next line: “The harmonica around my neck, I blow it for ya free.”  He wears his noose or his shackle willingly, and indeed it’s his instrument, how he expresses himself, and without words.  “I blow it for ya free,” could be a candidate for the single  nastiest line Dylan’s ever sung.  Here, he says, all the pain and everything else, it’s yours anyway, and no one could sing it but me–so, no fee.

What are things worth? The song is an awful gift, isn’t it? It degrades and punctures and demonstrates and yearns for love, with different kinds of ugly price tags all through it. If the song were for me, would I want it?  Would I want it because the song itself is Beautiful and True even though it has so much dirt and faithlessness in it?

I don’t know why, but this is what I thought about after I read Roy Kelly’s impressive essay on Bob Dylan’s plagiarism, titled “A Shiny Bed of Lights,” published in The Bridge. This was passed along to me by John Wesley Harding a/k/a Wes Stace, a person of varied accomplishment, playful identity, and consistent finesse, whom you may learn more about here:  I don’t have here the date/issue for the essay, and I apologize to Roy Kelly and anyone else for that omission.

Kelly takes on the vexing issue of Bob Dylan’s recent songwriting method, which goes under many names, or rather, people identify themselves through the word they choose to describe this songwriting method. If you call it collage, you reveal yourself as an unreconstructed fan, perhaps an insufficiently skeptical fan. If you call it plagiarism, an unseemly word which seeks to erect a distance between right and wrong, you may be trying to speak Truth to Delusion. If you call it theft, which has romantic outlaw connotations, you may be trying for a kind of higher ground where you consider the issue of originality in the clear light of day, and continue to admire  Dylan’s assaults on originality, as he lives outside the law in his own peculiar honesty.

Kelly begins by outing excerpts from Chronicles which were lifted from other sources. His article’s title appears on page 165 of Dylan’s memoirs, and formerly in Huckleberry Finn. He’s got a passage that appears on page 162 of Chronicles and formerly in Proust’s Within a Budding Grove. Kelly focuses throughout the essay on Chronicles and Modern Times, and he is informed, articulate, and unambivalent:

His songwriting now resembles desk research, where someone tries to gather various data from what exists and out there, and makes use of it commercially.

What seems to me to be different now is that hardly anything remains of the personal  in the words of songs on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times. …The words recede. There is the illusion of the personal because of his singing.

I think there’s a world of difference in both method and the outcome of that method, between being inspired and influenced by the world you live in and the path you want to follow, and in deciding systematically to go through work that already exists, taking out other people’s lines and words in order to fit around them songs that you will then call your own.

Now that I am forewarned that any particular use of words that I admire or think absolutely apposite may not be his, I am as it were, more likely withhold the sun of my affection.

Kelly takes on people like myself with the assertiveness that runs through the essay:

There is always a queue of Bob apologists itching to tell us that either there is no such thing as plagiarism, or if there is that Bob is certainly not guilty of it.

It seems to me that despite the world of fans and blogs and various aerated theorists queueing to post their reasons why these reworkings are evidence of his superior, cunning, creative ability to make something new out of other people’s words, by changing the context and thus the meaning, none of it refers to qualities we once prized and praised in him. If being a Burroughs-style, cut-up, collagist post-modernist is such an admirable thing, why did we ever once rate his being a new, original, contemporary voice so highly?

Kelly supports his arguments with well-illustrated  discussions of the ethics of plagiarism, the value of originality in literature, theories on the differing value of appropriation depending on who is doing the appropriating.

The two strongest currents activating the essay are the betrayal of a certain relationship between artist and audience, and the need for a theory that can guide our relation to Bob Dylan’s work. Kelly writes, “The question for Bob Dylan fans, and especially fans in these latter times, is to decide what we are meant to know, and how to think about the way he now works.”

Kelly’s essay is sound, superior, convincing, and I accept, without defensiveness, being the aerated target of Kelly’s contempt. There aren’t many points I would argue on rational ground: I think I could argue reasonably that Ain’t Talkin’ does not “attempt to do what Highlands does better,” but Kelly already predicts that people like me would say this. I do hear much that is “personal” in “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, but here I recognize that Kelly and I wouldn’t agree on what constitutes the personal, and that’s fine. Kelly mentions Dylan’s “box” of cuttings and clippings which he now picks through when the songassembling mood is upon him, and maintains a portrait of Dylan craftily inserting phrases here and there to modify or illustrate the topic at hand. I do maintain that much of anyone’s disillusionment and unhappiness with the result is a function of the uncannily invisible stitches. He does assimilate disparate registers into the song or the prose. But again, Kelly would justifiably argue that the impersonality he finds in the recent work is exactly a result of all this assimilation at the expense of inspired expression.

It’s the link between betrayal and theory that is the only thing I want to address in Kelly’s piece. His feeling of being disappointed, in a personal way, in his relation to an artist he’s admired for decades, is candid and emotional. He traces his feeling to ethics, and to  ideas of the experience of originality in art. He employs the ideas to create arguments about bad art that betrays a trust between maker and audience, and to assert that bad art particularly degrades his relation to Bob Dylan: he will “withhold the sun of his affection” and I believe that Kelly believes that matters. The cost of betrayal can matter to Dylan, and this cost is higher because Kelly can back it with the credit of reason.

Given everything I know, given the fact that reading Chronicles was the most intimate connection I’ve ever had with a narrator and now I know for certain that much of what shattered the frozen sea inside me was little axes that belonged to other people rather than one big axe wielded by one writer–this means I’m different, changed, and not Bob Dylan. I still feel deeply the shape of an aged life in Floater, and part of this shape is truthfully another man’s life.  As I listen to the song, and assimilate into myself  what I feel to be illuminating and lovely in it, then I also assimilate into myself Floater‘s plausible fraud.

I think that to really relate to art is to assimilate it, and remain always conscious of what we’re assimilating, what we’re becoming as we listen or read or watch. The choice is always to refuse this assimilation if we identify a corrupting agent that we won’t tolerate. If I choose the fraud in Floater, I haven’t justified or excused it. I do believe Roy Kelly and I are both talking about loving art, we just see it from a different point of view.

Writers and Critics Rolling Soul to Soul

imagesOne reason I left the academic world is because I didn’t think it was a place I could learn to write about literature without capturing meaning and feeling and housing them in a solid edifice, and then placing my little house in a neighborhood of more or less similar houses. This makes me sound like I’m aggrandizing myself into a  Romantic free spirit idealizing Passion and Profundity, unwilling to sacrifice Beauty for Reason. I’ll take that hit, and offer only in my defense that I am probably too lazy to have worked towards the voice I wanted in a professional academic setting.  I turned right from that world smack into Bob Dylan, and found a stronger reason than I could have imagined for finding that voice. I’m always so happy to find that I’m not completely alone in my quest,  A recent comment here by Robert Reginio expressed  frustration with Christopher Ricks’ style in Visions of Sin, as opposed to his arguments. Mr. Reginio writes,

Ricks’ exhausting punning-for-the-sake-of-punning style suggests a lack of “seriousness” about the endeavor. Why not write about Dylan as he writes about Beckett or Keats or Milton, i.e., in a style he finds fit for a “great poet.”?

images-1Why did Ricks choose a voice which gave readers the impression that writing about Bob Dylan is a vacation from writing about John Milton?  Absolutely true that someday the wheel may turn, and Ricks’ tone in Visions of Sin may become a standard for a kind of playful fellowship between critic-scholar and reader. Right now, I’m with Mr Reginio: Ricks isn’t speaking to me, soul to soul, through Dylan’s music.

413BQ6F8M5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_George Steiner, who wrote the book pictured here, Real Presences, shares my quest in some fashion and I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t want me on his journey. I speculate that George Steiner is not familiar with the work of Bob Dylan, but I like to think that, given an hour, I could encourage him to see that Dylan delivers what I think  he wants from art: the highest moral  stakes, the severest doubt, the most intolerable mystery, beauty’s awful truth of  how sweet life can be. This book is a plea to rescue art from the *linguistic turn*  where the catalog in the previous sentence is pretty much dissolved into the boundless instabilities and illusions of language. Steiner would recreate the transcendent in our relation with art. Though this sounds here awfully reactionary, he gets the poststructuralists on their own terms, and he ultimately wants a new relation with art that can manifest real presence,  not Romantic nostalgia.  However, I personally am exempt from this experience, not because I’m a Bob Dylan fan, but because of something much less subjective and you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is

On I go in my search for writing about art that has real hineini in it. Hineini is “Here I am,” and it’s how Abraham answered Isaac on the way up Mt. Moriah. Just that–here I am.

Here’s an example that helps me identify what this voice looks like:  I’m not going to summarize it because I would rather people read it for themselves. What I like best about this piece that Ron Rosenbaum doesn’t presume Nabokov’s significance. He doesn’t write the essay from an implicit agreement with the reader that Vladimir Nabokov automatically merits this kind of attention. Instead, he works out his relation to Nabokov in this public forum, as the motive and justification for the essay. How is my attention an instrument for Nabokov’s prose? is the question Rosenbaum answers, and from that singular attention grows the curiosity and labor that produced an essay most worth reading.

IMG_0926 If you can’t keep making the language to get across how your attention is a living instrument for the art you’re describing, then find other art that hasn’t exhausted its ability to play through you, to other people. Soul to soul.