If You Want Me To, Yes

 

In the year 563, a fellow called Paul the Silentiary visited Hagia Sophia and was entranced by the effect of the hanging lamps lighting the interior of the church. “Thus, ” he commented, according to the little placard beneath a surviving lamp fixture in a case on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, although to whom the Silentiary provided his comments I couldn’t say, “is everything clothed in beauty…no words are sufficient to describe the illumination in the evening. You might say that some nocturnal sun filled the majestic church with light.”  All we  can  know, now, in 2010,  of the marvelous light within  Hagia Sofia 1447 years ago, is the eloquent stupefaction of this man.  The phenomenon can’t have an objective reproduced life outside this man’s wonder.

This is a sad loss, that the works of humankind cannot any longer be known only through the impressions of the people for whom the works were made in the first place. Nothing now is made, nor done, nor schemed, without an immediate objective reproduced  life distributed immediately to anyone, incurious or curious.

It’s all true, everything you’ve heard: the performances of  Bob Dylan’s current tour are, well, a nocturnal light, a  marvelous handiwork. You’ve already  read the reports of Bob Dylan’s strong and nuanced singing, the band’s working joyfully at a new level of togetherness, the new arrangements exciting and revealing, and, most of the most,  Dylan’s newly greathearted stage self. You can, and should, see and hear it all for yourself.

Here at gardenerisgone, all this newness comes after a drought of 357 days.  There was United Palace in Manhattan last November, and then 357 dry days passed, and then this past Sunday, there was  Monmouth State University, in Long Branch, New Jersey.  These droughts are fraught with anxiety ranging from ordinary fretting to nightmarish apocalypses.  And as I download set lists hours after shows I am utterly unable to attend, a concept supernatural to Paul the Silentiary-  I’m also fraught with bitter or wistful envy for anyone anywhere who managed to share time and space with Bob Dylan and Co., while I endured life in Brooklyn. The drought ended with an hour’s subway ride, another hour on New Jersey Transit, and another hour in a friend’s car to get to Long Branch.

 I’m directing all these comments to someone in the year 3457, whom I imagine has just discovered Time Out of Mind, or The Witmark Demos. I am hoping this person finds my tale  something similar to what I found in Paul the Silentiary’s account:  something quaint and thrilling and gone forever and ever.  Perhaps the archaeological record in 3457  will not reveal  what New Jersey Transit is, just as I do not know and do not wish to know what a Silentiary is. Although  I’m certain it’s something we need more of in 2010.

So my drought ended. I thought I knew the song Not Dark Yet, and always I levitate when I get to hear it live, and there it was, coming to life in Long Branch. And….something happened in those 357 days to alter its genetic code.  When I worked in a bookstore, whenever someone bought a book by or about Dylan Thomas, I would chortle, “Oh, the lesser Dylan,”  a comment I recognize is neither polite nor clever, despite being sincere.  I liked to set Not Dark Yet against Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, as the difference between a true and beautiful  vision of age, and  a naive and selfish vision of age. Raging against the dying of the light is the sort of phony ardor that a young poet wishes his own elders to model. In reality, the dying of the light sounds and looks like the deep slow burn of Not Dark Yet. Vitality in age is sleepless endurance without the will to fight the coming darkness, indeed, some of this vitality is spent in tempting the darkness.  A young person may be seduced by the beauty of Not Dark Yet into the singer’s aging shadow world, but a young person is likely to be reminded by Thomas’s poem that he really simply does not want to grow old and feeble.

I was proud of my subtle and arrogant reading of the song, I was sure I had it nailed.  At Monmouth State University, Bob Dylan did his signature stage prance up to the microphone, the lovely low notes announced Not Dark Yet, and Dylan sang the song. Front and center, arms out, hands open–all disarming and all intent–he faced down the song’s different  surrenders, and helped us hear the moral muscle needed to do this. The song will never console, but now it can inspire, when I previously thought what it could do was instruct and move. 

In the new arrangement of Tangled Up in Blue, the story is abridged to the point of mutilation, and then delivered with a care that tells you  what you must know about the singer’s need to get his life across to himself. And then the story is illustrated with a nearly perfect harmonica solo. It’s  become a strange performance art– it’s oddly irrelevant how many or few verses he sings one night to the next.

Disarming and intent. Front and center, then  back to the keyboard, then front and center. These shows have a different rhythm that’s a mongrel of  theater and concert. Sometimes Dylan’s a storyteller, sometimes a sideshow barker who knows exactly how strange his creatures are, sometimes a heartbreaker, sometimes a singer–I think Bob Dylan has hit his stride as a minstrel, a one man show of many fictions and no lies. He closed  with Ballad of a Thin Man, remaking that carnival, and gently reminding me  that I don’t know what’s happening either. And now he’s framed  by the curtain behind him with another foreboding  image from a deserted and lovely floating world —well, my goodness, poor Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill are rolling in their graves and muttering, goddamn that’s what we meant all along.

You must go,  you absolutely must. You can hear vigor and expressiveness (and sometimes even Stu!)  on a recording, but you must be there to share the greatheartedness, to enjoy your slice of this nocturnal sun. There’s so little of ours we can keep the future from stealing, take all you can get.

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All Those Who Have Eyes All Those Who Have Ears

Here in NY, anyone with a little cash in their pocket can contemplate or even participate in the infinity-trials housed in any number of museums. At the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, we can wonder what it could take to overturn the infinity verdict on  Demoiselles d’Avignon. We can opt for a different kind of edgy titillation than that offered by Picasso’s geometric come-ons: we can be part of the art, by taking a seat facing an actual living artist, Marina Abramovic, and maintaining silent eye contact with her for a length of time (well, we could have, because the presentation of evidence in this trial ended recently when the artist took herself away).  Another large exhibit space in the museum offered a multi-media survey of Abramovic’s work. Videos of her exposing herself in different kinds of ways, photos, and living naked people employed as props (also silent)  to play out Abramovic’s ideas about flesh/exposure/encounter/vulnerability/and so on.

Rainer Maria Rilke believed that

The creations of art always result from a state of having-been-in-danger, from an experience of having-gone-to-the-end, up to the point where no human can go any further. The further one ventures, the more proper, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes—finally, the art object is the necessary, irrepressible, most definitive expression of this singularity.

Marina Abramovic’s projects, indeed much of performance art, indeed plenty of contemporary art, seems to put the cart before Rilke’s horse. Rilke tells us that art is the necessary expression of the singularity of the artist’s experience of having-gone-to-the-end. In the case of an Abramovic, the artist manufactures an experience that is plainly transgressive or eccentric. What happens is an eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too transaction, where the singularity and the art object are one and the same and the distinctions between  who is having the experience, and who is making the art, and who is witnessing the art are not easily made.

To me, what Marina Abramovic does by contriving the experience that another artist may express following the personal ordeal of being deeply transformed by having-gone-to-the-end, is an easy way out.  The silences are vacuous and the encounters are obvious flauntings. I respect the philosophical underpinnings that set up a taste for  lab-experiment art. I know that people think and feel deeply into and out of this work. But as for me, I like it better the other way round, Rilke’s way. I like it when  the artist is a living crucible of experience that I  can’t know, and then the artist becomes a master of the special language needed to communicate that experience right where it needs to go in the person who needs to know it.

Here’s a painting by Mark Rothko just above where Abramovic sat there and stared.  The painting leads to a window, which seems just right.  When you’re in front of the painting, you can’t tell which opens into more space, the painting or the window. That’s a lie–the painting wins. It opens into an impossible space inside the canvas, and opens a space inside the person engulfed by meeting this canvas. Its silence is a hush. Something in the space calls to you.

If you  hear it. I watched the many people waiting on line to take turns staring at Marina Abramovic’s belabored blankness, and then I took the elevator up and Rothko’s canvases addressed me as they do, face to face, in a nearly empty gallery.  I thought about silence and art and encounters and preferences and decided that Bob Dylan’s voice is much like Mark Rothko’s paintings. You get it or you don’t. Once you get it, you never un-get it, and you’re grateful for the company of other people who get it. Getting-it means finding yourself in a spacious and real place that is invisible.

Exhibit A is Highlands.  The song is impossible. Against a lilting, simple and repetitive musical line,  the singer describes loss of faith and desire, and he steals a lyrical Highlands from another poet–he has apparently lost invention as well as everything else–in order to soothe his pessimism and emptiness. The tune is hypnotic and the phrasing matches the rhythm closely enough to risk monotony. Monotony is avoided through the work we do to navigate the dark inner landscape of the lyrics, and monotony is also avoided  through the shading of words, more than through Dylan’s bending the timing.  The voice on the album version of this song gets across a bottomless loneliness.  Every syllable is close and lit up as through a candle waxed in black. Everything is exactly the way that it seems, and every single vowel and consonant is set out one literal and meaningless pebble at a time. Insanity is smashing up against my soul seems a dreadful alternative to  Donne’s “Batter my heart,  three person’d God.” There is also the sound of  self-mockery in real blonde or a fake, and in take it to a pawn shop. And then the dreamy highlands come alive in the blooming and the bluebells blazing.  The singer’s wit hits no marks with the testy and out-of-reach waitress, and the man who leaves the restaurant hasn’t lost our attention, although he’s lonesome and still hungry. People in the park forgetting their troubles and woes. Everyone’s got troubles and woes, this singer is not solipsistic–there is trouble and woe for all humankind. But his  bleakness paints a false idyll for himself–bluebells, honeysuckle, flowing waters– on the canvas of his forlornness, while other people make merry together in a simple city park. They are only bright-colored and good-looking stick figures, seen distantly. To our attention, they’re no match for the singer’s wit and imagination and truth-seeing But he’d  trade places with anyof’em–and he slurs these syllables bitterly to show how cheaply he holds whatever he’s got against their generic youth–lookin so good, he draws out that phrase forever. The singer’s isolation is so strong it’s self-renewing–it has new eyes, but they see how far away the world is;  and by the end of the song, the sun is breaking onto him, but it’s not the same one he remembers, and again, what is new for this singer is less and darker. And the self-imprisonment is relieved only by the imaginary bright  space of wildwood air in the *borrowed*  highlands. The I of TOOM’s  Highlands is a door that repeatedly closes on itself. As listener, I feel helpless–I feel the singer’s restless unhappiness from my fixed point as he watches the world recede from him.

If you listen to one of the rare live Highlands (my favorite is from the Rock of Ages compilation), you hear something different. Dylan addresses an audience, and  so the story’s drama is a shared experience.  The voice emerges from a dark no-place in the album, but live, the aural space has the fullness of his listeners’ attention. Dylan’s voice is pushed higher by the music, the ends of lines drawn out just a touch, consonants less bitten off–but these distinctions are arbitrary and straw-grasping, there is a fresh consolation in the voice in the live performances. It’s easy enough to hear that the audience response turns the waitress scene into exactly the glorious hilarious game of double entendres it is–he milks those eggs and that pencil for everything they’ve got–so here, it’s the waitress who’s way out of the joke. The joke belongs to Dylan and his audience–that is easy for anyone to hear. Certainly, he leaves the restaurant still disheartened and still hungry. The world is still darkened and out of reach for him. His burden is no lighter. But the momentum of his story has a different urgency, and the world he’s apart from is now visible/audible/knowable  to others. He’s telling it to live ears, and you can hear that in the voice. That is, either you can or you can’t.

When I look at the setlists for the tour that’s just started, I see that Dylan is doing more songs from center stage, nothing between him and the audience but the microphone and harmonica. If you’re lucky enough to attend any of these shows, think about the way your attention meets the song in that space between yourself and the singer. (Since I first wrote this, I’ve had the chance to hear the Athens 5/29 show–and his Hollis Brown from that night is just what I mean here. Find it and hear it.)

Hanging In The Balance Of

I read an article in the New York Times just a few days ago about a blogging theme that’s becoming popular: people photograph and document every single bite they eat. The people who do this report that scrutinizing and publishing  their own most ordinary activities can offer unexpected insights. When  Web-readers like us are sated with these insights, we can resume what sociologists centuries from now will likely describe as a defining social bond of our generation: waiting for a person who doesn’t know we exist, and whom we know only through images and broadcasts, to admit to secret crimes and/or sins whose incontrovertible evidence is already universal public property. Also, the institution that sacralized  confidence and trust into a ritual, seems in fact to operate according to necessary principles of corruption and hypocrisy.

Our theme this morning is confession, and really, it was the thing about the food blogs that got me started, not Jesse James or the Catholic Church. Crime and sin and how every new generation of sinners thinks they won’t be found out like the fools of yesteryear–this isn’t a sea change in human life, although perhaps how I may consume and participate in their dramas is. But the fact that potentially everyone can pour their image, their words, their actions into this infinitely widening stream where I type right this minute, and turn all  their banalities and depravities and insights and achievements into formatted, standardized, reproducible media for the free consumption of, well, everyone else that there is–here is where confession ends. Doesn’t a confession mark boundaries between public and private, self and other, Now and Then, secret and witness, license and accountability? No, of course, a confession does not mark these boundaries, the boundaries don’t actually exist.  We use confession to declare a desire for these boundaries, now dissolved in the ocean into which I pour these very words.  I want these boundaries, and the country mapped out by them is the size of a grain of sand.

Here is a photo of an artificial indoor beach in Japan. We’re starting our tour of this grain-of-sand-country in Japan, where Bob Dylan, in the city of Nagoya,  recently offered a performance of Every Grain of Sand that is awfully close to perfect, and so I envy the people of Japan their chance to experience sand in such remarkable ways. Dylan’s most splendid vocals feel to the listener like thought, as though the sound of the words is transmitted directly to my attention, without the cumbersome mechanics of singing and hearing. His  most Dylanish vocals seem unmediated by air. Also true is that in the best performances, I find I forget that I know every word to the song. In this Every Grain of Sand, you must hear the way he creates  space around each word, so that it hangs almost visibly, and almost visibly evaporates. You need to hear how his voice dies with “the dying voice within me.” You need to hear how he makes “despair”  alluring, and “decay” decaying. You need to hear his voice slip occasionally and almost forgetfully into the sound of ordinary beauty, and then you need to hear the strange deliberate growls as though he is counting exactly how many grains of sand he needs to voice this one syllable. And then you need to hear his conversation with the harmonica–it breaks into lines of the song as though it has confessions of its own to make. And the band so loving and intent, it cannot be easy to play patiently and ardently at the same time.

Every Grain of Sand is not like other Dylan songs, and maybe not quite in the way that all his greatest songs are their own worlds. If one of those deaf dullards with sods for ears complains that Bob Dylan can’t sing, I suppose I’d just play them the Wild Mountain Thyme from Isle of Wight and then send them on their way. Similarly, if one of those Philistine dullards demands to know whether Bob Dylan passes the Poet test, I suppose I’d hand them the lyrics to Every Grain of Sand and send them on their way. There is a peculiar  and conventional majesty to these lyrics: there is a strong impression of a regular meter, and a consistent and reassuring rhyme scheme. Even more distinctive, there’s  a gravity, an elegance, a  picturesqueness, a refinement to the lyrics throughout the song: this singer speaks to us in a sustained elevated register.  In the glancing allusions to Blake, to Baudelaire (I always hear flowers of evil behind the indulgence), to Shakespeare’s sparrow, to Augustine, and then to Dylan’s own boy-artist self (from the boy’s free wild dance beneath the diamond sky to the man’s bitter dance of loneliness), it seems as though in this song Dylan is falling back, graciously, into tradition and history that can welcome his confession and creation.

It’s a confession that’s naked and forbids voyeurism. It’s a confession that is fathomlessly personal and not autobiographical. It’s a confession that purifies and does not absolve. The time of his confession is when he hears a dying voice, struggling against the silence it should have learned from despair. A dying voice within me is not yet my own voice is it, and perhaps the confession is the coming-to-know that the voice struggling against despair really is mine, along with the despair.  I love the line “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake”–it’s bitter and arrogant and plays so cleverly with inclination, incline, leaning back into the dead past. There’s a mighty flaunting in the identification with Cain, who sees himself not as the puppet of a destiny already written for him, but a maker of history. Then the Master’s hand appears, apparently to remind the singer that every atom of his world is the work of The Infinite Unseen, and we seem to be back in the world of Saved, where consolation awaits every sinner who submits his will to Jesus. And so the song should end when our despairing and raging singer is recalled to the order and purpose of even a leaf and a grain of sand. But it doesn’t end. The singer isn’t consoled, he has more to tell us about….well, what it’s like to be human. Regret and weakness destroy conscience and happiness, we must go on regardless, the steps of time carry us forward, we’re restless creatures even though “the memory of decay” is the curse of being human and bearing the knowledge of mortality. And the glimpses of this singer’s life, the rags to empty riches–disillusionment, “the violence of a summer’s dream”  that burns itself out, and the awakening to “the chill of a wintry light.” The loneliness and the history of the loneliness. Then the reference to Footprints in the Sand, the greeting card cliche/poem, and here perhaps is our own Bob Dylan winking at us through all the Blake and Shakespeare and wings of poesy. By this time in the song, the singer’s isolation and sorrows should have touched us deeply enough that the cliche is alive and moving.

Why is this song not of a piece with When He Returns or Solid Rock? Why is it not a commonplace consolation? When I am at my most pessimistic and self-loathing, I remember that God made me and everything according to his plan for a perfect universe and if he knows how many grains there are on every beach, then he knows my purpose also, even if I don’t. The song may contain this sentiment but not at this simplistic level.  A sparrow, a grain of sand, a leaf cannot confess, cannot know regret and sorrow and history. Yet each one hangs in the balance of its own reality–each thing on the earth hangs in the balance of its own inviolate reality. And onward in his journey, our singer comes to learn that the memory of decay, the loneliness, the felt passage of time, the morals of despair–these are the reality of man. There is no absolution for this knowledge, only endurance. The song is the sound of endurance and not of consolation. I am amongst the ones who wish he still sang of the reality of man and not the perfect finished plan, although the image of “hanging in the balance” still holds on to the essential uncertainty and mystery of the song. There is still a suspension, still  a balance–hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan is not the same as hanging on to a solid rock. I still miss the magnificent syllables of “reality.”

A great performance of this song is a lesson in patience and attention. The song can teach you how a word occupies space like a planet does, and how you may witness a person’s soul without invading their privacy. Nagoya could be an unsurpassable performance. Now we may return to searching the Internet for photos of celebrity cellulite and discussions among total strangers about their spouses and diseases.

Before I go, I want to hand this bouquet of flowers to the wonderful person who assembled the compilation of highlights from the Japan shows, Made in Japan 2010. It’s got 27 tracks culled from the tour,  great sound quality, a gorgeous selection of some really marvelous performances–terrific versions of the new arrangements of Man in the Long Black Coat, Shelter from the Storm,  and Tom Thumb, a beautiful Blind Willie McTell, a Love Sick that makes me want to kill everyone in the audience with jealousy. We like to have everything, of course, but this compilation is a labor of love and a real treat and my warmest thanks to whoever put it together.

“Sometimes I Go On And On, and They Say, ‘Bob, Don’t Preach So Much.'”

A while ago, I came across some photos I’d never seen before, of the Slow Train sessions. Dylan and the other musicians relaxing in the studio. Lots of smiles, easy postures, those awful synthetic knits men wore in the late 70s. The images of Dylan are absolutely shocking. He’s dressed neatly in jeans and a dark shirt, a large and unsubtle silver cross round his neck. Next to Fred Tackett or Jim Keltner or Tim Drummond, all thin and bearded, Dylan looks like the younger brother happy to be allowed to join in. Now, there is no reason why a man whose veins run with evangelical fire can’t be well-groomed and sociable. That’s not why the photos are shocking. But it is impossible to believe that from this affable, elfin man come the sounds of despair, isolation, fervor, prophetic arrogance, seduction, and wit, which are the voices of the album.

The disconnect between a voice and its person is not news, although in Dylan’s case we’re reminded so often of this disconnect that we can take it for granted. At the moment, we talk about his sounding clear or strong in a particular show, and we can also talk about this small and deceptively frail man putting words into the air that feel  like boulders he’s summoning  from beneath his feet. But back to 1979, and the Special Case of Dylan’s voice.

One of my very favorite pieces of Bob Dylan flotsam that have washed up into my possession is a tiny book I can hold in the palm of my hand.   It’s published by Hanuman Books, whose mission statement is summed up nicely on the website Printed Matter, Inc.: “The highly saturated colors and gold printing of the books’ covers and their pocket-size format is inspired by Indian prayer books and by the tradition of Asian miniatures.” My book has a garish pink cover with the title in gold lettering, and a most incongruous color photo of Bob Dylan. Incongruous because the  photo is one of Daniel Kramer’s portraits from early 64, the striped boatneck shirt, the pretty face–the Young Artist–and the book is called Bob Dylan. Saved: The Gospel Speeches. The book collects  Dylan’s spoken addresses from the  Gospel Tours, beginning in November 1978 and ending in May 1980, 62 pieces of text in all.

The photo is incongruous not just because the chronology is wrong, but because the speaker of these speeches cannot be thought of as “younger than that now.” The speaker of these speeches is frighteningly not-young, indeed, frighteningly not-of-numbered-years. He himself seems to know this, as in a speech in Buffalo on 4/30/80, he warns the audience of Satan and says “I didn’t know a lot of these things 40 years ago either,” and I do believe he’s not being careless with the arithmetic of his own life. He knows he’s 38 when he says this, but he feels a memory that exceeds his biography.

I like to read this little book, I find myself engrossed in it often, and I am grateful to Clinton Heylin who is credited with compiling it  for recognizing that having all these speeches together in one package is not just historically significant, but a remarkable reading experience. Although I am not a Christian, I want to know why I find the songs of the gospel tours  persuasive, intimate, seductive, and beautiful, and the speeches between the songs bewitching, distancing—they are somehow false and disheartening and hypnotic, when the songs are close and entrancing and stirring.  The different effects matter very much to me, because the content is not different. In both speeches and songs of this period, Dylan is consistent: I have been changed in the way people are changed when they come to know the message of Jesus’s life and death, and come to accept the realities of Satan, End Times and  Judgement Day, being born again. The divide between redemption and lostness  may be crossed by one narrow bridge. Where he is and where I am is exactly the same in Precious Angel and Solid Rock as it is in every word he speaks to the audience from the stage. But the voices are different.

The voice of the speeches runs like a soft river. I’d say he murmurs but murmuring doesn’t capture the clarity and the mild rise and fall of these sentences about the desperate time and the Devil’s plan and Satan getting ready to wield his masterpiece (a favorite line of mine). The voice he finds for this work is not the speaking voice he uses to introduce the band members to the audience. The keys of the world were given to someone called Lucifer. If you have heard recordings of these concerts, then you can *hear* the peculiar confiding and familiar tone. He speaks quickly and comfortably, and to denigrate this work as rambling fire and brimstone nonsense is a miscalculation. A long speech he gave at the Warfield on 11/26/79 is at least a demonstration of the quickness of Dylan’s thought and his skill at composing thought into cadenced language. He talks about himself, even referring to The Times They Are A-Changin’, which could have been seriously unnerving to people in the audience who had every reason to assume they would never hear Bob Dylan sing that song again. He relates an anecdote from the gospels in which he has to recite snatches of dialogue, he offers a simplistic and alarming description of God’s vengefulness, he deals with a heckler–or perhaps a sympathizer?– who plays into his hands by shouting  “everybody must get stoned.”  He doesn’t hesitate or stumble over words, he pairs long and short sentences with an orator’s deftness. His theology is suffocating, exclusive, and visionary, as it is in the songs. All uttered smooth as a rhapsody.

The songs are not smooth as a rhapsody. Here the voice reaches, jumps,growls,  risks all its breath on one “wilderness.”  The voice opens and cracks and lets in the light of doubt and fear and desire.  Just about any I Believe In You, When He Returns, or Saving Grace from 1979 is a mosaic of sounds, meek and hard like an oak, that wake up the listener from one syllable to the next–not the lulling susurration of the speeches. In the voice of the songs is the broken and the holy (I know there are Leonard fans out there…) where any human can share the  human sounds of losing and finding oneself, awe, submission, anguished crisis. In the songs, then, perhaps, is the voice of tzimtzum. There are no cracks, no places for light to get in, in the voice of the speeches.

Of All This Repetition

This journal I’m editing, Montague Street, which I’ve mentioned immodestly here at least once, requires a kind of nonstop energy that is never unrewarding and often nerve-wracking. If you have ever worked on a project for which you have high ambitions, and which involves many people, and deadlines, and boxes and envelopes and tape, and then the US Postal Service, you may have an idea of why my state of mind often resembles Autumn Rhythm. I would like to feel more orderly, so I’m going to think briefly about order, and maybe that will help. Order as in refrains and choruses. “With her apron wrapped around her, he took her for a swan.”   “With her apron wrapped around her, I took her for a swan.”  “With my apron wrapped around me, he took me for a swan.” Bob Dylan’s performance of the ballad Polly Vaughn is one of the gems of the Bromberg vault: the vocals are vivid enough to make the noisy electric production only a small nuisance. Polly appears only as an illusion throughout the song, which belongs to her, and which is  finally about true vision.  His eyes confused by  “the setting of the sun,”  Polly’s lover, the brave hunter,  sees a swan and shoots it dead, to find the bird was his own Polly in her white apron. Again and again the fact of the illusion is stated, and mourned. “Oh and alas,” the vocals cry with the same tragic discovery each time the refrain–and the Polly-Who-Is-Not-Polly–appears.  Jimmy knows what he has done, the illusion relieves no guilt. And a Not-Polly appears again, twice, to assert the truth through a righteous vision, not a trick of the light. She appears to Jimmy in his jail cell, repeats the refrain,  thereby relieving Jimmy and the listener of the burden of Jimmy’s act: it was an error that killed her, and both the lovers’ hearts remain pure. Her ghost promises to make the truth visible at the trial. And the illusion of the final vision of Polly is doubled  in the language. Her  ghost is visible to the lawyers and judges, and now the lyric employs a simile: “like a fountain of snow.” The awful and literal  illusion of Polly is finally redeemed by the only poetic figure in the song, at the moment she redeems her lover by declaring his true innocence. The song is a beautiful thing of illusion and truth, and the refrain is so perfectly constructed for the work it has to do. Each repetition is another necessary dramatic moment of awareness that the murder was caused by an illusion, and the language is not figurative. It’s not “With her apron wrapped about her, she looked like a swan.”  But “I took her for a swan,” “you took me for a swan.”  The repetition calls our attention again and again, in different contexts, to the fact that  Jimmy’s eye is accountable for the illusion. The refrain grows like a vine through the song.


A songwriter, or a historian of songwriting and the oral tradition, would have much to say about  refrains and choruses. Being only a listener, I get to think about what a refrain or chorus does for me. A refrain returns and repeats and also moves forward.  Look at the pottery here to the left. The Greek piece is perhaps 2500 years old, the Chinese bronze vessel 9,000 years old.  Both artists found that putting a pattern on a rounded surface created a  special pleasure for the eyes: a dance of shapes that held their order and still move, go away, come back.  A friend with some expertise in pottery and ceramics once tried to explain to me how difficult it is to get a  pattern to curve around a surface and not lose its regular proportions.  The life of pattern, and the possibility for change and complexity in the life of pattern, is already a language of art and culture and natural life. But before we get out the bongs and start carrying on about fractals, let’s get back to Bob, and just a few songs whose refrains I find always the opposite of repetitive.

Dylan learned well from  ballads like Polly Vaughn, whose composers and singers learned well from even older oral traditions. Repetition must never be a static and inert  placeholder, it must serve narrative, it must be part of the movement of the ballad. It’s not hard to hear this kind of refrain throughout Dylan’s songs. Literal, purposeful, and changing as the song and the singer change, and inviting the listener to change as well. In Eternal Circle, he turns the very nature of all this repetition entirely inside out. “The song it was long, but it had to go on,” the young singer complains. His performance, which is intended to seduce and entrance his audience, is also his own prison. He can’t escape until his song, verse by verse, finally frees him.  The girl he’d like to captivate can’t really be brought down by the “bullet of light,” she is free already and indeed wanders out of the singer’s necessarily confining line of sight. What the song is–what every song is–traps the singer in the act of enchanting us. Eternal Circle‘s refrain is the trap as well as the complaint about the trap . The young singer of Eternal Circle submits to his prison with humor and grace, and the song remains ours and his, and the girl’s loss stays in the shadows.

How many roads…How many seas…How many times… Each question is born of a completely different desire,  and each question is really about the mystery of time. When will someone tell me I’m a man? When will other living things die their natural deaths? When will humans stop manufacturing death? The first two questions have real answers that will only come out in time, and can’t ever be forced. The final question can be answered, because it is not truly mysterious, it is instead the problem of intolerable and relentless human character. The song endures because each time it’s sung or heard, we have to face the problem of whether we agree that these two kinds of questions– the mysterious v. the unbearable–do have the same kind of answer.  There’s no end to what’s been said and written about this song, and it’s nearly impossible to say anything new about it, and I think the commentary will never stop because each new generation has to face  for itself the problem of the refrain: do I, in fact, agree that the passages of life, and the seeming relentlessness of evil, are both blowin’ in the wind, with all the conditions of immanence  and nowhere-ness and here-and-now-ness and rumormongering and beleaguering that the phrase implies? When we join in this superlatively familiar refrain (and this is quintessentially a song that can never have a definitive version), which affirms nothing, what kind of strange anthem are we really making?

Mercury rules you and destiny fools you. He who cannot be trusted must fall. Madmen oppose him but your kindness throws him. You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity. I’d have paid the traitor and killed him much later. But that’s just the way that I am.

What is this hideous world where sanity, madness, virtue, kindness, pleasure, conscience are in such atrocious war against themselves and each other, yet are never nullified? The violence to order may rule the song,  but everything in the song matters. How can everything matter–how can anything matter–in this madhouse?  Because this madhouse is being constructed by the singer. It’s  no metaphor for a world gone wrong, it is a world seen and made wrong by this singer. No time to think, no time to think, he keeps complaining, after another catalogue of values and philosophies and virtues and qualities and addictions. These are catalogues of the mental life, of its achievements and inventions and diseases. He cries out repeatedly that he has no time to think, and tries to implicate me in this: how can anyone find time to think in these conditions I’m describing? But these conditions are a disorder of the acts of thinking. No Time To Think is the cry of an afflicted mind, not an afflicted world.  Even at a low volume, the refrain in this song irritates and frustrates at a level distinct in Dylan’s work.  Stop telling me you have no time to think when you are taking quite a long time to pull me into your own ugly and vexatious state of mind.  I say, think twice before  deprecating Street-Legal.  The magician is quicker and his game/ Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink. Game, as in what the magician is willing to risk.

When I first would listen to Shelter from the Storm, I was so enamored of the character telling the stories of Blood on the Tracks that I took his side in everything. I took him at his word–no, at the sound of his words. So each time he told me, “‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’,” I believed his bitterness and misery was the result of the tricks, or hollowness, or contingency, or fleetingness, of the shelter. It’s the shelter that’s false every time, I believed, and its flimsiness throws him back out into the world again and again. Outside, he faces  constant assaults and demands. Outside is a world where he is somehow fugitive from law and Law, deputy and preacher, where beauty—art or human—escapes him, where God and this woman are eternities for this one suffering creature. All the pain in the sound of the song, this must be  her shelter that’s untrue and not enough. Then I heard Dylan sing this song just a couple of years ago, at the edge of a quiet ocean, a bottomlessly sad and impossibly slow Shelter from the Storm, and I knew I’d got it all wrong.  He may  not be the hero, majestically disillusioned over and over again. He’s the one refusing the shelter each time. Her door is always open, it really is safe and warm in there, and he walks out time and again. Her silver bracelets and flowers really are gifts of life and beauty for him, which he refuses time and again. And refuses in order to suffer in the demands of the world–do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn? You’re right to ask me–I can give you Art and Meaning and Beauty. But I’m going to give you Truth, which is just my own small story of myself and this woman and the love I keep turning from….and it’s the cycle of pain and redemption that keeps the song going….and it’s the song really, that’s what you want in the end anyway, isn’t it?   Our dear Dr Sigmund Filth developed a theory, we call it trauma, in which pain and fear are  too deeply embedded in the mind to be recognized for what they are, and instead are expressed as patterns of destructive and self-destructive actions that feel necessary to the *victim* and that appear utterly unrelated to the atrocity that is unconsciously causing them. Thank goodness we have art to give us  more enduring and beautiful lies about life.

One more refrain: I hope everyone who wishes to has seen Bob Dylan’s performance of The Times They Are A’Changin at the White House last Tuesday. Absolutely no anthem. Absolutely no nostalgia. But it was a space out of time where we were reminded again and again, by a voice made of time and thought from a body born in time (and how nice to see the head without a hat) that those changin’ times are a condition of life and not a revolution. The order is rapidly fading—it’s faded even since I began singing this for you. And so I end up without the calming order I wanted when I started. Quelle surprise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0D0e9pqFZQU

Trapped Out There On Highway 5

I got to hear Bob Dylan sing High Water (for Charley Patton) on both nights I attended his New York shows. Center stage and nothing between Dylan and the audience but the thin microphone stand. High Water is a song that gets just plain bigger every time I hear it .  It holds more and gives more. The verses begin with staccato brisk recitations of the words, and then open up and slow down. By the last line of each verse, and then the “high water everywhere” refrain, the phrasing takes us  back to the big muddy, the high water is everywhere, and we’re pulled by the singer into the current no one can fight.  In the music you can actually hear the vocal struggle to pull out of the current, and then the current pulling the singer back down, and of course us with him. Live, the song can be blistering and triumphant, or it can be steady and unyielding.  It is generous and embracing–we’re all in the high water.

It’s a song made for Dylan’s voice today, picking out words quickly like dropping rough stones one by one, and then the growls that come up from beneath the ground beneath the stage beneath his feet. And today we pay special attention to verse #5.  It begins like an old joke. An Englishman, Italian, and a Jew walk into a Bob Dylan song, and they’re reprimanded  by George Lewis,  a black American who was a New Orleans jazz trombonist , and whose career ran through Jim Crow, and just past the Civil Rights era. Or they’re reprimanded by George Lewes/Lewis, the Victorian writer who took up a sort of outlaw life  as the adulterous consort of a woman also named George,who was a better writer than himself. Or George Lewis is neither of these, but the name does trail histories of custom and liberty and making music and writing stories. It’s a George Lewis who tells the Englishman, Italian, and Jew, each with his own very different story of man and God and law, “you can’t open your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view.”  Reality has too many heads, and the human mind can only stand so much. And teacherly, paternally, condescendingly, this Lewis calls them boys.

And if you don’t get it in the opening lines, Dylan pulls out the big gun, and Charles Darwin himself gets called to the stage. Where he’s cornered on highway 5, the interstate running along the far west coast, north to south from Washington through southern California. Where the American west  basically stops, and traffic moves up and down between Canada and Mexico. Darwin’s trapped here, and the law, the Judge, tells its muscle, the High Sheriff, to hand him over, period. Dead or alive.  This High Sheriff carries a lot of weight: he brings us back to the album’s musical journey, with Charley Patton’s song “High Sheriff Blues,” and  High Sheriff being a post found both in the UK and the US, it links Darwin to his homeland and to the country where his ideas have been defendants in courthouses.  Darwin is lethal or he’s worthless, his death no stain on the hands of the law. “Either one–I don’t care,” is a line that seems almost intrinsically unflubbable, Dylan always gets it across as  a pitch black drawling sneer, always too cold and too believable to be just plain clever. And down in the flood  goes all kinds of histories, all kinds of *progress*. What does it mean for me to struggle through this high water? I’m reaching for certainties and salvation too, aren’t I.

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, listen to High Water (for Charley Patton), be grateful to Bob Dylan for giving us dark and fresh new ways of hearing the song live, and think about history and floods and progress.

I Know Nobody Will Look For Me There–Bob Dylan in Milwaukee 07/01/09

imagesimages-1Here are Leeuwenhoek’s microscope and the Hubble telescope. They let us see things we couldn’t see without the devices, and then we fret over what it is to make visible something that in the natural order of things would remain hidden. These things are exactly what Freud had in mind when he sighed over our poor species’ efforts to become “prosthetic gods,” and what Bob Dylan may have been sighing over when he claims we invented our doom. Of course, the man with the wooden leg really can get across the room on his own, that’s the thing about prosthetics. I think about what I was able to see with my own eyes  on Wednesday night when Bob Dylan performed Forgetful Heart for a public audience for the first time.

images-3I’m in seat 5 in the 7th row of the Marcus Amphitheater at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Seats 5, 6, and 7 of the 6th row are occupied by three tall and high-spirited men who are enjoying each other’s company very much.They’re standing up, and I’m standing too, to try to see past them to the stage.  To my right is a woman sitting down, head lowered, sending and reading text messages. Behind me are rows of chairs, behind them is a steeply sloping lawn filled with people. There’s a roof over us in the more expensive seats; if it rains, the people on the lawn will get wet. In the aisle to my right are  burly men in red shirts, the security staff, who push into aisles and step over seats, grim and aggressive and intimidating, and make people like me stop standing on their chairs, and other people stop taking photos. Dozens of photos are available on the internet right this minute. 

I can see people swarming in and out of the entrance to the right of the stage, talking to each other or talking on phones, balancing three or four beers with two hands, or just standing until a red-shirt asks them where they belong.

I know that not even 50 yards from the turnstiles that let me into this venue is another open stage, with another amplified band on it. Ringing that stage are booths selling more beer, food, things. And 50 or so yards from that stage is another one, and more amplified music, and more booths selling more beer and things to more people, and on like this for about three-quarters of a mile, stages and booths and people flowing through the land along Lake Michigan on the edge of Milwaukee. Lake Michigan does not look like a lake, it looks like an ocean.

images-4And here I am in row 7 seat 5, ahead of me are  6 rows of people  plus the security space plus the appr. 4 foot height of the stage, and maybe 8 feet back from the edge of the stage, Bob Dylan has  stalked from his keyboard to the microphone stand in front of George Recile’s drums. He has nothing but his harmonica.  Through everything around me that wants my attention, I can hear the guitar notes that begin Forgetful Heart.

 

Right here right now, it’s going to happen. As far as the pleasure this song has already given me goes, I happen to be wearing–in row 7, seat 5–a custom made t-shirt that reads “If indeed there ever was a door.”  

Well, what about it? The men in front of me, having to deal with a slow and quiet song they don’t recognize, continue talking and laughing and bending their heads towards each other. The security staff continue to push into the front rows and professionally terrorize people with cameras. People up and down and moving all around. You can hear for yourself, on expectingrain.com, what I heard: Bob Dylan’s voice ranging from gruff and broken, to tender and silken, each word present and audible, and a harmonica solo that will break your heart. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t see what I saw: Bob Dylan sort of slithering around the microphone, limber and awkward in his peculiar way, brandishing the harmonica to keep time, moving with his words, every atom he could control was indeed the song. I saw all this in the glimpses I could manage, in the spaces that opened up when the men in front of me parted for a moment here and there. And if you were sitting in the 4th or 1st row you would have seen the words as they were formed,  expressions, whatever Tony was doing, all of which were obscured to me because of people blocking my view, or the distance. 

images-5Don’t these goddamned people know that the person in row 7, seat 5, is deeply and truly PRESENT AND LISTENING, and just about everyone else is not? Don’t these goddamned people know that right in front of them is the World Premiere of Something Magnificent? Myself, I sat on a plane on a runway at Newark Airport for 3 and 1/2 hours in a rainstorm waiting to take off and fly to Milwaukee JUST FOR THIS. Will you goddamned people shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down?

 

I had enough space in my head to hold that poison for about three seconds, and manage to relish hearing Bob Dylan growl the word “heart,” and then I saw with the microscope/telescope that’s built into us–this is exactly what a Bob Dylan concert is. It is exactly as I described it, and then exactly as the men in front of me would have described it (they punched the air and sang along with It Ain’t Me Babe, Desolation Row, and LARS, and the headman of the three–who did not stop talking during all of Forgetful Heart)– turned back to me in delight when Bob did Po’ Boy). It is exactly as the security man who made me get off my chair would have described it. 

imagesWe decode set lists when he’s on tour, and use those lists to decide whether a show is same-old-same-old, whether he’s pulled out something of particular value to a hardcore fan. We puff our cigars and wonder if Stu will be gone, if  Bob will play guitar. 

images-7We know if it was a Good show, a Great show, or neither. Some of us yearn for Larry Campbell, some are  tired of Cat’s in the Well. We yawn when the row in front of us is shouting “HOW DOES IT FEEL?” Other people are in the way, or sympatico, or irrelevant.

 

But that’s bullshit, a peculiar bullshit. When I see Bob Dylan at New York’s elite City Centre, that’s the world I  get, and when I see him at  Milwaukee’s Summerfest, that’s the world I get.  Maybe I was the only person in the house whose sky split open wide when Bob Dylan did Forgetful Heart, but a concert is where this happens in conditions I can’t own or control or judge. 

images-9It’s not the set list. It’s not what I know, and the fact that I know more than most people in the venue with me, and it’s not  how all this quantity  of what I know imputes value to whatever Bob Dylan decides to do that night. You have got to be a transparent eyeball that takes in the man in front of you who talks all during Forgetful Heart. So next time you get the chance to see him perform, take in everything, and remember that this is what a concert is. 

images-1And think about this too: it’s a common and fraternal activity, this decoding and tallying. But while all this tallying and decoding is going on, Bob Dylan is performing yet another set list consisting of yet more shifts in tone and texture, somewhere else he’s giving the crowd a pile-driving Highway 61 Revisited and then lulling them with This Dream of You. Somewhere else he’s being generous with his energy and his ability to communicate entirely different  and potent emotional worlds as rapidly as some of us wish he’d toss off those hats we’re not so crazy about. How hard is it to see his touring schedule as an embarrassment of riches?

images-10I also want to add what a great pleasure it was to see Stu back in front, and taking lead prominently and deliciously—he nearly made me love Honest With Me

 

 

And this was my first Po’ Boy, and how wonderful to get that song with the vaudevillian timing just perfect. And a new arrangement of Blind Willie McTell, less of the dark swamp vision it’s been, more tuneful and majestic at the same time. Bob played the guitar on Cat’s in the Well, It Ain’t Me Babe, and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, with vigor that the sound system at the Marcus Amphitheater really did justice to. And he moved from the sorrow of Forgetful Heart,  that could deplete a person, to a sturdy and rollicking I Don’t Believe You, with exactly the same triumph and blindness that people have been breaking hearts with since the dawn of time. “May the lord have mercy on us all.”  Do you ever think the man might simply mean what he says?