The World of Research Has Gone Berserk. Or, to borrow from Leonard Cohen: “And that’s the way I want to end it.”

images-1Below is the version of the paper I happily delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Boston, last Friday, Feb 27. My offering was sandwiched between two extraordinary talks: first, the playful, impressive, provoking erudition of David Gaines’s piece on Bob Dylan, exile, and creativity. David teaches at Southwestern University in Texas, and his invitation made it possible for me to participate in the conference. David set a tone that was grave, informed, and lighthearted. It seemed clear that the people assembled in the room were not entirely prepared for Bob Dylan to be treated with such fluid intelligence. Following me was Nick Smart, of the College of New Rochelle, who offered an exhilarating ride through Bob Dylan’s literary Hall of Mirrors: Nick traveled through tropes, influences, references to demonstrate Bob the mercurial, Bob the protean, Bob the conscious literary artist. The talk was chaired by Adam Lifshey of Georgetown, and his enthusiasm and professionalism made the whole experience seamless and extremely enjoyable.

images-4Only on other universes, academic conferences are merry, friendly experiences where participants come together in a happy collaborative spirit.

 

images-3Somehow we managed to bring that experience to the Lexington Room of the Hyatt Regency in Boston last Friday afternoon. Don’t you want to read David’s and Nick’s papers? Better, don’t you want to meet them? I will ask them if they would be able to let me print their talks here, but of course nothing obliges them to.

images-6The beginning of my talk required a bit of stagecraft that can’t be translated into text: I had taped a map of the world to the wall behind me, on the map I’d placed little red stickers on each location Bob played with the NET in 2008. This came to 90 venues, and, if I counted right, 99 shows. So that’s what starts the talk, just gesturing to the map behind me. I know that this version isn’t up to snuff for academic citation and all,  but the text is there.

 

Show Me All Around The World, or The Whole Wide World Which People Say Is Round. Talk delivered at NEMLA 2009 conference, Boston. 2/27/09.  By Nina Goss.

The map: Here are the 90 places Bob Dylan took his show in 2008. In Lee Marshall’s sociological study of the Never Ending Tour, he writes about Dylan’s being unique among contemporary artists in setting out to create a new audience for himself in the latter period of his career and then actually doing it.  He is accomplishing this by using a strategy of small venues, repeated itineraries, and the unwillingness to provide nostalgic experiences to audience members who are his contemporaries. The result is this map, which is typical of one year of the NET. I want to talk about the clever and the profound ways that Dylan manipulates the conditions of global culture that make this possible. I want to read you a definition of globality, which would be the condition that is created by the forces of globalization. Globality is a “social condition characterized by the existence of global, economic political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant.” (Manfred Steger 7). Globalization is the creation of new and the multiplication of existing social networks and activities that increasingly overcome traditional political, economical, cultural and geographical boundaries” (Steger 9).

How does the NET work? I think it is best summarises as the creation of an ongoing environment which enables the performer to reach inspired moments in performance. (Marshall 20809)

 

Perhaps an unintended pun here is the phrase “NET work.” The NET could actually be held up as a model of a cultural product that has finessed the mechanisms of globality with extraordinary effectiveness. Consider what the ongoing creation and sustaining of this new audience entails: the management of labor, currency exchange, communication, contractual legal concerns, the need for consistent technologies in each venue, language issues, transporting people and equipment. Concerts that have been cancelled, greatly delayed, or interrupted because of some glitch in these interconnections and flows, are rare exceptions that prove the rule. “Don’t you dare miss it!” his concert posters read and that’s the point–it’s up to me to get there on time. He’ll be there, and he’ll be there because he’s manipulated this set of conditions we call globality in order to sing Like A Rolling Stone in Estonia one night and Oklahoma another.

 The slickness of the machine behind the NET makes the work invisible, and does not mean that Bob Dylan pretends to be above or outside the machine that transports and transmits and reproduces him to a level of perhaps greater visibility than he’s ever enjoyed. He plays with his identity as a commodity in sly and clever ways. For example, every night, a live offstage announcer introduces him ultimately as “Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan.”  On the one hand, he seems to submit to being declared the contracted property of a multinational corporation, appearing before his audience according to the terms of his sponsor. On the other hand, everyone there knows that the performance is being recorded more or less clandestinely by bootleggers, using technology that trumps the hegemony of the corporate sponsorship that Dylan acknowledges. The Columbia recording artist will be reproduced by any number of anonymous pirates every evening. Indeed, audience recordings show up on Columbia’s “official bootlegs”, thus confounding Dylan’s identity as “Columbia Recording artist,” and the legitimacy of corporate control of performing art even further.

   But he plays with this new world in more profound and provocative ways, as in 2 performances he gave in Japan in 1994. One show took place in Hiroshima, and one in Nara. In both cases he performed songs from his early youth: Masters of War in Hiroshima, and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in Nara. Andrew Muir’s book, Razor’s Edge, follows the Never Ending Tour from 1988 to 1999. Muir gives informed overviews, as well as detailed personal accounts of shows flung far about the globe. He describes a show in 1994, in Hiroshima, where Bob played the first acoustic version of Masters of War since 1963. I regret I’ve never heard a recording of this performance. Muir writes:

Here he was in Hiroshima, an American in the first Japanese city obliterated when the U.S. dropped The Bomb, singing out against the terrible sufferings of the innocent in war. I have rarely been as moved. How strange that such a blunt, unforgiving, adolescent piece should achieve that effect. Or rather how strange it would have been in almost any other location (109).

The strangeness Muir mentions is key.  It would seem an obvious, benevolent gesture of solidarity to sing an anti-war song in Hiroshima. But Masters of War is not an anti-war song,  (Bob himself says this in an interview following his outrageous performance of it before receiving his Lifetime Achievement Grammy.)  It is not a song begging for peace or even advocating peace. It is adolescent and blunt as it indicts the elders, the Masters, who remain safe, their power reinforced by the destruction of innocents who may be manipulated to believe that their sacrifices are for the general good, but who will be sacrificed regardless. The song’s voice expresses vengefulness and a righteous morality. He would set these Masters of War outside the embrace of the mythical lord of forgiveness, Christ himself. He fantasizes gloating over their deaths. He accuses them of manufacturing such terror in their pawns, that young people will choose not to bring children into a world so treacherous. These are not mature philosophies that offer a vision of a pacifist utopia. They are the violent rages of youth against its own exploitation. 

He sang this in a pointed gesture of historical significance, the first acoustic performance since the song’s earliest life; note also the peculiar modern novelty of a traditional, low-tech acoustic performance.  Decades of the forces of globaization brought this moment to an audience that might have contained survivors of the bomb, and that almost certainly contained the children and perhaps grandchildren of the survivors, and relatives or descendants of those who did not survive. In a voice that is like a sharp clear whisper, patient and emphatic,  he offered the song’s pitiless judgment, its fantasy of revenge, to people whose country suffered the worst single moment of destruction in history, and who lost the war as well as a military presence in the world, defeated by the nation that is the home of the singer. Within Bob Dylan’s lifetime, the city of Hiroshima saw destruction, defeat, renovation, security, and peace. And still, the song does not celebrate healing; it does not offer unity and reconciliation. It admits different kinds of violence, and different ways the human heart darkens against others. Muir was absolutely right to find it “strange” that he was moved by this performance, which reminds us that war destroys the spirit.

    In 1994 Bob Dylan also performed at The Great Music Experience in Japan, in the city of Nara. There is excellent film footage of this.  He stands in the center of a large stage, with a full orchestra behind him. When the performance begins, instead of Dylan’s being overwhelmed by the arramgement, or the song diluted by it, he creates a new voic suited to this situation. Inside the lush sound of the orchestra, his voice seems to grow, to become sonically larger. Not louder, but more expansive. The vocals are not foreground and the orchestra is not background, and the orchestra does not complement the vocals–instead, his voice becomes capacious enough to hold the orchestra within his song.

  Although Hard Rain was not composed on the occasion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (See Marqusee p 60.) It has still often been heard as a ballad for the anxious spirit of the atomic age, a boy’s journey through a world that has become shards of horror and of hope because of the threat of perfectly feasible destruction. Dylan singing this in Japan could be a We Are The World bit of kitsch, and it is not. Because of his performance, his awareness of the musicians behind him, and some intrinsic majesty to the song, the performance is a peculiar and comeplling collaboration.

 Bob Dylan performing Hard Rain in Nara, and Bob Dylan performing Masters of War in Hiroshima, can only be thought about, and felt, as a coming-together of so many stories that took decades to develop: political, biographical, technological, economic. It is puerile and sentimental to ascribe some quality of *transcendence* and *timelessness* to the songs themselves. It is foolish to find a *closure* to anything at all in seeing and hearing Bob Dylan perform these songs in Japan. It is Philistine to reduce these events to effects of globalized  culture that is erasing traditional boundaries of time and space. Better to stick with Andrew Muir’s “strangeness.”  The peculiar availability of these songs to new settings, the peculiar adaptability of Dylan’s performing self to new settings, our capacity for emotions that are not familiar and not comfortable–I believe that the conditions we call globality, globalization, provoke us to facilitate new relations with the art.

 

  I want to end with one of Bob’s more remarkable world-visions. This is from Chronicles, published in 2004, and describes an incident Bob fashioned from events of 1989. An entire chapter in Chronicles is devoted to the making of the 1989 album Oh Mercy, conventionally considered the launching of the late great flowering period of his career. The album was recorded in New Orleans, and Dylan’s descriptions of the city are among the most artful moments in that beautiful book. He shows you a city where past elides with present. “In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions…After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you’re in a wax museum below crimson clouds.” In the center of this place out of time, hidden in the woods, he finds a character who seems just right for the world Bob Dylan is going to exploit/create with his new art. This is Sun Pie, a man who’s set up a marketplace called King Tut’s Museum in the middle of the wilderness. He sells not only the vernacular fetishes of his part of the world, but generic, clichéd souvenirs of nothing-and it’s one of these trifles that he gives Bob Dylan for free (a bumpersticker reading “World’s Greatest Grandpa”. But Sun Pie is also a voice of an eccentric vision of global history. He explains that Native Americans were originally Chinese who across the land bridge from Asia. He prophesizes an apocalypse involving  Chinese dominance, and displays a Mao and a Bruce Lee poster.  He offers dark moral pronouncements. (It seems that from this fiction we get Man in the Long Black Coat, or vice versa.)  There is a global vision, and a moral vision inside King Tut’s museum, where everything is for sale.  Dylan writes, “Sun Pie talked in a language you can’t misunderstand” (207).  And at the end of the episode he writes, “I was thinking that if Sun Pie was an active man, I’d go to great lengths to get out of his way” (209). Sun Pie is an important fictional identity for Bob: “He had an odd way of talking, made me feel like I wasn’t in his place at all, like he had just strolled into my place” (204-5). Ultimately, intimidated and bewildered by his own creation, our hero flees back into the world he’ll continually bring us closer to, as it changes around all of us.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Volume One. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Marqusee, Mike. Chimes of Freedom: the politics of Bob Dylan’s art. New York: The New Press, 2003.

Marshall, Lee. Bob Dylan: The never ending star. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

Muir, Andrew. Razor’s Edge: Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour. London: Helter Skelter Publishng, 2001.

Steger, Manfred B. Globalization: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

 

 

 

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Show Me All Around The World: Bob Dylan, Japan, History, Strangeness

images-13 Andrew Muir’s book, Razor’s Edge, follows the Never Ending Tour from 1988 to 1999. Muir gives informed overviews, as well as detailed personal accounts of shows flung far about the globe. He describes a show in 1994, in Hiroshima, where Bob played the first acoustic version of Masters of War since 1963. I regret I’ve never heard a recording of this performance. For all those people who complain that Bob Dylan doesn’t “communicate” enough to the audience, I invite you to consider what the hell you mean by communicate: the simple fact of this choice is a message more intimate and provocative than any speech the man could give from a stage. Muir writes:

Here he was in Hiroshima, an American in the first Japanese city obliterated when the U.S. dropped The Bomb, singing out against the terrible sufferings of the innocent in war. I have rarely been as moved. How strange that such a blunt, unforgiving, adolescent piece should achieve that effect. Or rather how strange it would have been in almost any other location (109).

images-32The strangeness is key.  It would seem an obvious, benevolent gesture of solidarity to sing an anti-war song in Hiroshima. But Masters of War is not an anti-war song, it is not a song begging for peace or even advocating peace. It is adolescent and blunt as it indicts the elders, the Masters, who use young people as playing pieces in their wars while they remain safe, their power reinforced by the destruction of innocents who may be manipulated to believe  that their sacrifices are for the general good, but who will be sacrificed regardless. The singer is himself brutal, he doesn’t appeal to ethics, but to vengefulness and a righteous morality. He would set these Masters of War outside the embrace of the lord of forgiveness, Christ himself. He fantasizes gloating over their deaths. He accuses them of manufacturing such terror in their pawns, that young people will choose not to bring children into a world so treacherous. These are not mature philosophies that offer a vision of a peaceful utopia. They are the violent rages of youth against its own exploitation. 

images-5He sang this in a pointed gesture of historical significance–the first acoustic performance since the song’s earliest life–to an audience that might have contained survivors of the bomb, and that almost certainly contained the children and perhaps grandchildren of the survivors, and relatives or descendants of those who did not survive. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles about what it is to be a child of Pearl Harbor, the cusp event of the 20th century.  He offered the song’s pitiless judgement, its fantasy of revenge, to people whose country suffered the  worst single moment of destruction in history at the hands of the singer’s country, and who lost the war as well as a military presence in the world. The Japan he sang to has been rebuilt, secure, at peace. And still, the song is not a healing thing, it does not offer unity and reconciliation. It admits different kinds of violence, and different ways the human heart darkens against others. Muir was absolutely right to find it “strange” that he was moved by this performance, which reminds us that war destroys the spirit. Dylan offered them a quiet and personal rendition of the song, and their responses are their own business. 

 If this performance were *timeless* or if it *erased boundaries between nations* it did so with a strong cold truthful reminder of the corruptibility of spirit that characterizes war.  It seems outside history because of its  time and place and the identities of the singer and the audience, not despite these factors. 

In 1994 Bob Dylan also performed at The Great Music Experience in Japan, in the city of Nara. There is excellent film footage of this. The first time I watched it, I see Bob Dylan looking small and preoccupied, standing at the center of a very large stage dwarfed absurdly by an entire orchestra behind him. His guitar seems a pointless prop. A friend tells me, “He’s going to do Hard Rain.”  I can’t imagine the surreal catalog and the  heroic journey holding up to a  schmaltzy wall of violins and cellos.  I prepared myself to be undone by Bob Dylan’s embarrassment. The strings start up, Bob starts strumming and singing, and after the incongruity of the first line or so, all bets are off. A New Voice is born, is what happens. Inside the lush sound of the orchestra, his voice seems to grow, to become sonically larger. Not louder, but more expansive. The vocals are not foreground and the orchestra is not background, and the orchestra does not complement the vocals–instead, his voice becomes capacious enough to hold the orchestra within his song.

images-23Hard Rain was not composed on the occasion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I mentioned elsewhere in this blog. It has still often been heard as a ballad for the anxious spirit of the atomic age, a boy’s journey through world that has become shards of horror and of hope because of the threat of perfectly feasible destruction. And here it is being sung by its composer, who lived to see the threat carried out and the world scarred over but still intact. And he’s joined by musicians who are the beneficiaries of extreme cases of sacrifice, destruction, and renovation. The whole thing could be a We Are The World bit of kitsch, and it is not. It’s not, in part because of the strange and suggestive world of the song’s lyrics, in part because all the performers do their jobs with professional skill and focus that can’t easily be sentimentalized, and in part because Bob Dylan found a new voice equal to a setting–both the stage at Nara and the thousands of unseen watchers enjoying the video footage–that would have seemed preposterous at the level of science fiction when he first performed the song in the tiny hole of the Gaslight, for an audience of people who almost all knew each other. 

 

 Bob Dylan performing Hard Rain in Nara, and Bob Dylan performing Masters of War in Hiroshima, can only be thought about, and felt, as a coming-together of so many stories that took decades to develop: political, biographical, technological, economic. It is puerile and sentimental to ascribe some quality of *transcendence* and *timelessness* to the songs  themselves. It is foolish to find a *closure* to anything at all in seeing and hearing Bob Dylan perform these songs in Japan. It is Philistine to reduce these events to signs of a homogenized global culture that doesn’t recognize the traditional boundaries of time and space. Better to stick with Andrew Muir’s “strangeness.”  The peculiar availability of these songs to new settings, the peculiar adaptability of Dylan’s performing self to new settings, our capacity for emotions that are not familiar and not comfortable–all these real-world factors can combine to provoke us to ask “What is it I just saw and heard?”  Why are we so grateful for these moments?

 

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Here is a photo of the Mihama Nuclear Reactor in Japan and there has to be a story that brings the Japanese people from Hiroshima to Mihama that is not a shallow story of healing and victory, but a story in which time passes and things change, and some people felt some of these moments of change with special clarity and wonder.

Spirit on the Water and Ain’t Talkin’: same place.

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The piano plays a light and inviting tune with a slightly old-fashioned loveliness to it. Wake up, relax, and enjoy, the tune says. The voice comes in a little higher than is usual, a sweetness and playfulness in the phrasing and even the low growls are playful and not ominous. 

 Spirit on the water, darkness on the face of the deep/I keep thinkin’ ’bout you, baby/I can’t hardly sleep.

There’s a vastness out there, there’s an infinity, a Spirit that moved across the seas and all life sprang from darkness….. Or it’s a long dark sleepless night, and I’m stuck here, I can’t get  this woman off my mind. 

Like Ain’t Talkin’, Spirit on the Water begins by stepping directly through Genesis, and then straight on into endless walking,  restlessness prodded by desire, through a world where faith and certainty are memories or fantasies. The melody of Ain’t Talkin’ seems to be a current of dark water, inexorable and beautiful and grim. And Spirit on the Water seems to be a fresh young stream, sunlight glinting off it.  Dylan’s Ain’t Talkin’ voice seems as low as it’s ever been, the words come up from the earth below his feet. Dylan’s Spirit on the Water voice comes from the air and the light around his head.  And the songs both describe the same world.

images-22He’s a wanderer in Spirit on the Water: he travels by land, through a new morning after the sleepless night, it’s the dawn of the day, and yet he doesn’t sound exhausted by his journey. There’s the stop-time inside his mind, the thoughts of this woman, he can’t stay away from this inner life of love’s trials–it doesn’t sound like she’s a sure thing, since he wonders why she can’t treat him right and he threatens to throw his love away into the sea of he can’t have her. And always the delicious playfulness of the phrasing, the rising lilts  (“If I can’t have youuu..”) In Ain’t Talkin’, he doesn’t have to tell us how arduous and rough his road is, and when he tells us he’s “trampling through mud” in Spirit on the Water, we don’t hear an ordeal, we hear a cavalier attitude  in the pursuit of this love.

And then there was light, but he’s blinded by the colors he sees, in this newborn world, it’s so rich–not the same as the wounded flowers of Ain’t Talkin’s garden. He has hidden pain, but he can’t explain the source of it, he doesn’t know anything about causes, about the root and truth of things, he only knows what he feels,  his apparently unrequited love. He’s pining from love, pale as a ghost, bearing his love token–but this bit of lyrical drama either backfires because she’s never seen a ghost, or he realizes as he’s saying it that it’s not going to work.  All you have to do is hear him acting out those lines–“You ever seen a ghost? No. But you have heard of them”– he fits the question, the pause for thought, the funny appeal to a kind of inconsequential faith  (you’ve heard of them)  all into the bouncy melody. Suffering  and belief turn to levity.

The singer is somehow sentenced  here as in Ain’t Talkin’, he can’t go to paradise ever again.  Because he killed a man back there. This has a noirish feel to it, a hip underworld cleverness, and we’re also back in Genesis, no return to Eden, no one can go back to paradise. There’s an appalling expulsion at the end of Ain’t Talkin’, when the singer finds the gardener has left, but here there is wit, bravado, and insouciance. And there are old familiar shrines, comfortable places where her sweet voice calls to him, reminding him of  pleasure, hardly the bitterly missed altars on the road in Ain’t Talkin’.

images-31Bosch’s one world of delights and torments and fantasies seems just right for the one world of Ain’t Talkin’ and Spirit on the Water. One world in which love, pain, ancient certainties tested and longed for, can appear as a landscape of grim depthless anguish, or a landscape of humor, light, and play. And the palette for each landscape is sound.

The Whole Wide World Which People Say Is Round, Part 3: Creating an imperial empire

I’m of the crowd who believes that when Bob Dylan sings It Ain’t Me Babe, he’s singing it to us, his audience. Audiences always want something and it’s the rarest performer who can make us want, show us what we want, refuse to actually hand over what we want, and thrill us anyway. What we want and what Bob Dylan ain’t change over the years,they  change depending on the performer he is at the time. Until I heard two live versions of the song in 2005, my favorite was the Rolling Thunder It Ain’t Me Babe, which you can see in Renaldo and Clara.su39010 He cavorts around the microphone like a little savage, complete with feathers and greasepaint, his eyes are dazed and dazzling, and he bites off the words and spits them out. I can hypnotize you, and you’ll never catch me, you’ll never tame me is what this performance tells us. In 2005, I heard him do this song once in New Jersey, and once very far from New Jersey, in Glasgow, Scotland.  “I’m not the one you want, babe, I will only let you down,” he set each word down separately in its own growl, each word was final, each word seemed to be an announcement of its own.mask The vocals came from someplace dark, as if to say You’ll never get what’s hidden, you’ll never even know if there’s really anything there but you’ll feel every word. 

 It Ain’t Me Babe pulls us in and turns its back on us, a strong rendition of it is an awful teasing dance. I like to think that the song now, with its dark hollow allure, might have something peculiar to say about the currently neverending relationship Bob Dylan is relentlessly creating with audiences as far apart as Montclair, New Jersey and Glasgow, Scotland.

 

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That my first overseas Dylan concert should have happened in Scotland was a special treat for me.  Around the 1890s,  my great-grandparents apparently decided they’d had one pogrom too many and made their way from some unknown Russian spot of misery to the tolerance of Florence Street in Glasgow. There is a particular history of hospitality towards Jews in Scotland. When the Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow opened in 1879 the Glasgow Herald reported the event, and mentioned a “unique and attractive ceremony,” which is much more charming than a lot of things the paper could have said. I saw where my great grandparents lived, near a small  bridge crossing the River Clyde. My great grandfather worked in a cigarette factory, and my great grandmother was a seamstress, the kinds of  occupations which have served poor people on the move for centuries. I suppose they got used to a variety of things which I take for granted: the English language, being left alone, warmer winters than in Russia. 

sandyford_hotel_roomHere’s a photo from the website of the small hotel chain that owns the hotel I stayed at when I visited Glasgow in 2005. A person could certainly write one of those familiar migration stories beginning with my great grandparents’ Glasgow tale of persecution, exile, tolerance, opportunity, endurance, and then leading to my Glasgow tale of assimilation, security, freedom, leisure, affluence. 

And it’s all over. It’s only later that I think of all the songs I would have loved to see him play which he didn’t – at the time the setlist seemed pretty much perfect. I have no doubt that the quality of Dylan’s performances varies wildly, but on this occasion he blew us away and I’d definitely take my chances again if and when he comes back.

Above is the conclusion to a review I found on the Internet  of the concert I  enjoyed also that November night at the SECC. The review was by a fellow named Mathew West, who at the time apparently lived in Edinburgh, a person I don’t know, and whose review of the concert can be found by anyone with Internet access anywhere in the world. 

images-11Air travel is standardized and the distance covered is invisible to the traveler.We are used to  instantaneous anonymous community. We demand unmediated, unmonitored instantaneous transmission of information. We have to deal every day with unmediated and unmonitored appropriation and manipulation of information and of other people’s words.  These conditions appear uncontrollable and inexorable, and they are in fact the products and services, or byproducts, of a corporate oligarchy that continues to absorb or destroy smaller commercial entities and erase boundaries and differences through economic control. This is a catalog of the truisms which characterize the Now I  understand we occupy. 

486512316_7d52d4da96_sth_brixton_20th_dvdth_dscf0762Where is Bob Dylan in all this? Bob’s everywhere! Here he is in Sweden, Spain, and Brixton, all in 2005, the same year I saw him in Glasgow. Or maybe these photos are Sweden, Milan, and Nashville, I’m not sure–three other places he performed in 2005.  In Glasgow, he opened with Maggie’s Farm, as he did in Bologna one week earlier, a fact I mention only because on the bootleg recording of the Glasgow show, right before the show begins, a man close to the taper calls out “TWEEDLEDEE!” in what I hear as a thick brogue but Mathew West would hear unaccented. If this man had been at the show in Bologna he could have heard Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Maybe he was at the Bologna show, or maybe  he’d already downloaded it, been blown away by that night’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and wanted it live for himself. In Glasgow, Bob did give us a Sugar Baby in which the delivery seemed to be exactly one-tenth of a heartbeat longer than my ears expected to hear each phrase, thus creating this wonderful tension throughout the song. One of those performances in which I know what it means to hang on every word.  And of course when he sung “some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff,” a companionable, hearty, appreciative roar went up. I also recommend this show for a ne plus ultra Just Like A Woman: Bob paused between each line of the refrain, and this Glasgow crowd gave him back a thundering “JUST LIKE A WOMAN” each time, and he let us sing “I just don’t fit,” and then he actually  purred back to us into the microphone “That’s right.” Some concerts are lovefests, this was one of them, and perhaps my great-grandparents could not have hoped nor dreamed of thousands of people showering honest love all over an erstwhile Jewish man on a stage a mile or two from their strange new street. And he did the forbidding/enticing  It Ain’t Me Babe at this show, too.

How does the NET work? I think it is best summarised as the creation of an ongoing environment which enables the performer to reach inspired moments in performance.

Lee Marshall offers this admirably pithy remark on p. 208-209 of his book, Bob Dylan, The Never Ending Star.  Perhaps an unintended pithiness here is the pun in the phrase “NET work.”  The “ongoing environment,”  in which the man pictured above appears on identical stages hundreds of miles apart, night after night, more often than not within 20 minutes of the time stated on the ticket for each appearance, is of course an extremely well-oiled and expensive machine. The parts of this machine are exactly the cliched catalogue of modern life I breezed through above: people and things and money and information moved around with astonishing speed and safety and efficiency, all made possible and protected by economic networks that to a great extent manipulate culture and power and diminish regional differences. 

images-41Dylan has said “The songs are the star of the show, not me” (Hilburn interview, 2004), and in 2006  he said of the songs on Modern Times, that “when I was singing them, they seemed to have an ancient presence” (Lethem, Rolling Stone, 2006). Dylan could almost have you believe that the perfection of this global cultural machine was ideally timed to satisfy his desire to bring the peculiar timelessness of his songs to an audience that would hear them as timeless, and not as historical. Dylan himself has said right out that he expected people to attend early NET shows who wanted a revival of the history Dylan’s come to represent, and they would not find what they wanted, and they would not return. But younger people, people who don’t or can’t identify with this history, would be his repeat audience.  They are the ones who would take advantage of this speeded-up and seemingly borderless world   to experience as often as possible this “ongoing environment”; they would become fluent in the combination of routine and surprise that characterizes the Neverending Tour.

But what does it mean when we say his music is timeless? Timeless as performances. Timeless as compositions. This topic deserves its own space. images-21But I want to end this post with a glance at the people who continue to be “shocked–shocked!” when Bob Dylan appears in a lingerie or SUV commercial, or when Bob Dylan allows Pepsi to use Forever Young to sell soda, and  I think the latest is another ad with Times They Are A-Changin’ ? I can’t keep these straight. To these people I say: if you have bought Bob Dylan CDs from a retail establishment, and if you have purchased tickets to a Bob Dylan concert through any source, and if you watched No Direction Home on television, maybe even saw I’m Not There in a movie theater or rented it through NetFlix–you and Bob are already enmeshed in the one world of commerce and advertising and intellectual property and filthy lucre. How exactly are these offended people telling the difference between the moneylenders in the temple and the good people in the temple who just happen to be exchanging cash? Why is a 6-figure recording contract a higher moral ground than a Cadillac commercial? What do you think it takes to mount a 2 hour rock concert–honor, love, and benevolence? How clean do you need this man’s hands to be for the sanctity of your own conscience?  I suggest listening to your own favorite version of It Ain’t Me Babe.

Or What Part I Was Supposed To Play—Lee Marshall’s *Bob Dylan: Neverending Star*

imagesIt’s no surprise to me that Ron Rosenbaum would be drawn to Bob Dylan. Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, and The Shakespeare Wars interviewed Bob for Playboy in 1970, and has referred to him several times in his current blog, for starters. After reading his books on Hitler and Shakespeare, I see where Bob Dylan fits into a peculiar sequence: a life in which the relation between effects and mortal facts seems so disproportionate as to create an aura of mystery that demands a sensible narrative.  Now I’ll be accused of deranged or careless hyperbole: the paragon of evil, the ultra-touchstone of western culture, and a singer-songwriter with an uncharacteristically long career, all together.  But there is a quality of extremity to the actions and productions of some lives, and in the imaginations of their contemporaries and those that follow them, the extremity fashions the individuals into symbols, myths, and places of violently contested meaning. While researching my dissertation on the Holocaust, I came to find Franz Stangl, Rudolph Hoess, and Heinrich Himmler much more terrifying men than I found Hitler, but that is because I saw them as three natural men making choices in their knowable lives, none of the three was already implanted in me as the inexplicable symbol of the conditions they governed. Certainly theater companies, actors, scholars, will argue about the most authentic or effective way to stage and perform Ibsen’s plays, but the piety and passion that goes into the quest to identify Shakespeare the man and identify the gospel versions of his plays is a one-of-a-kind argument in culture. Rosenbaum’s books tell stories about the drive to explain extremity, without competing for an explanation. 

b-31fimages-1 images-2I have a bookcase full of books about Bob Dylan. In one of them, you can find a capsule summary of nearly every documented action of Bob Dylan’s life and history from 1902 to 1995. In another one, you can read a chapter titled “Is Bob Dylan Also Among The Prophets?” In another one, you can read detailed descriptions of ordinary people’s accidental and fleeting interactions with Bob Dylan: what he said, what he wore, the expressions on his face, how tall or not he appeared. It is not hard to find evidence that this life is already fashioned in popular and critical imaginations as a kind of extremity.

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Lee Marshall’s 2007 book, Bob Dylan: The Neverending Star tells a story about Dylan’s life that tries to theorize the extremity without entirely  simplifying it.  The theme that coheres his story is stardom, and his method is contemporary critical theory. What we talk about when we talk about Bob Dylan is values and beliefs that appear authentic and self-justifying: “Stardom is intricately bound up with two key ideologies of modern society: individualism and democracy,”  Marshall writes. Modern society creates the star as the representative of these ideologies. We impute to stars the quality of being “an ultimate individual”  whose greatness depends on luck, talent, and effort, rather than the nominal and automatic superiority that’s the aristocrat’s stardom. A star is a commodity, a star feeds commerce, and the biggest stars are entire commercial solar systems on their own. Stars must be representative within their fields, they must become symbols, and symbols are easily reproduced and commodified, for they bring their whole constellation of values and meanings with them every time their image appears in any context. And stars “unite subjectivities”–here I think we do not have a modern/postmodern idea: It is a very non-modern fact that public individuals create communities around their presence and actions, and these communities may be manipulated to benefit those in power.

And so Marshall uses these definitions to narrate the peaks and valleys and plateaus of Dylan’s career in terms of Dylan’s stardom: the argument is not so much whether New Morning is not as good as Blonde on Blonde.  Marshall’s critique would ask us to see how the changing relationship between Dylan and his audience, based in part on changing values and meanings for rock music,  tells us how these albums are different. Marshall stays head to head with Dylan’s persistent and mercurial stardom, and Marshall respects Dylan’s own acute consciousness of himself as a symbol. [N:B: Here I have to say that I didn’t know what to do with the fact that Chronicles only appears here in as an example of Dylan’s late output, and is not used as a source throughout the book. Chronicles is Dylan’s record of his consciousness, he is merciless in exposing his *subjectivity*  across decades of shifting winds of change. Why omit his voice? What is Marshall doing here that I’m missing  in my ignorance?]

Marshall confesses to being something of a fan, and this saves him trying to occupy the  captain’s tower, the fantasy land of most contemporary theory from which the writer surveys the tiny swarming creatures below him or her with very heavy dull tools. He really wants to respect Dylan’s songwriting and performance gifts, and set those gifts into widening circles of cultural shifts, politics, social change. This sounds not at all new when I set it out like this. The most original bits are when Marshall works hard to make the concept of performance, the singular here-and-now  of a singer singing a song, integral to his examination, and his discussion of NET, which I want to deal with on its own.

images-3Here’s the thing with stories: it just is a fact that when you come into a story midway, you’re at a loss. In a story, events cause other events, and you need to follow the pathways of meanings according to a sequence. The great bloviating world of postmodern *thought* has plenty to say about false narrative and let’s just not invite them to this party.  Because our party is going on full swing without them, if indeed one became a serious Bob Dylan fan anytime in the last, oh, 30 years. Marshall is spot on about the unique achievement of the NET–unlike other long-lived stars, Bob Dylan has created a new audience for himself in the latter chapters of his story, an audience that does not understand that they shouldn’t get the story because they started it late. There are those among us who became interested in Bob Dylan through hearing Blood on the Tracks, or Time Out Of Mind, or–and I testify these people  exist–Self-Portrait. These albums become keystones in these fans’ own relationship with Bob Dylan, and each of these relationships should have its own chronology. If a person is turned on in a big way to Dylan when Planet Waves came out, or after being dragged to a show in 2007  with a friend who couldn’t give away an extra ticket, then for both of these people hearing Highway 61 Revisited will be a chapter in a story about Dylan and his audience that can’t be captured by the historical narrative.

images-4I’ve heard Bob Dylan perform what I’d call irreverent versions of Desolation Row on 175th Street in Manhattan, and at 211 Stockwell Road in London. In my own small way, I’ve become part of what Marshall calls the “NET cocoon,” and it’s the way that time and space are oddly collapsed in this cocoon that’s what I have to address next.

The Whole Wide World Which People Say Is Round, Part 2: Just Walkin’

images7 11/20/06. I’m looking down at the top of Bob Dylan’s head, the brim of his hat covers his features. From this perch, I can see a large Deco-ish starpoint pattern on the stage beneath the musicians. The stylish stage is of a piece with this classy theater embedded on a side street in midtown, a few blocks from Carnegie Hall. The stage and the men and things on it are covered with a clean white light, a little sharper and cleaner in this small and elegant space, and brighter still because I have one of those hangovers that makes a person feel they will never deserve pleasure, or kindness, or good fortune again for the rest of their life. Senses are sharpened and everything they take in is tinged with misery. In general, this could be an ideal state for a Bob Dylan concert, but I am in for a cosmic whopper at this show. 

There are Bob’s hands crabbed over his keyboard, there is Tony Garnier now with a stand-up bass that gleams quite classically in this light. Then I hear dramatic chords, chords that announce something with lovely solemnity. Then the lilting phrase I had thought I would never hear outside the studio recording. Now I am certain it’s happening:  Ain’t Talkin’, live, the first time. A few dozen other people in this crowd also get it, and they greet the moment appropriately.

All Bob Dylan fans feel they own certain songs.  Maybe because one song speaks better for a moment in their life than they could speak for it themselves, and maybe because they believe they sense an elemental feeling in a song that’s only audible to their ears.  There are songs you feel you bring to life through your own attentiveness. I own Ain’t Talkin’ in that way–if I’m in the room when it’s being played, then my attention contributes to the song’s fullest life. Oh it’s all very scientific, you can look it up : we change something in the witnessing of it. 

Live, the song moved forward in a stronger current than it does on Modern Times. I could see this in how hard Tony was working and concentrating. It seems to me now that the more rhythmic, muscular arrangement the band played that night might have been carried over from the sound that comes out in outtake on Tell Tale Signs. Bob’s voice had the-end-of-the-night gravel to it, and every word was delivered clear and strong in rough wrapping. My own miserable brain held right on till the last outback. 

images-10The way we look at the world is the way we really are, Bob says/thinks in Masked and Anonymous.  Look at the world of Ain’t Talkin’.

 

 

The world’s a garden, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. It’s both mystic and diseased, with its wounded flowers and crystal fountain. You’ve got no choice  but this strange place if you want a quiet stroll in the evening: it’s what’s there is  when you go outside, period. Our pilgrim takes the air,  a stealthy and determined assailant hits him from behind, and the walk begins. There was anger, or vengeance, or cruelty, or despair behind that blow, it may have been righteous, and it may have been punishment. And the blow–curse, sentence, accident– sends him on his way, through two landscapes of weariness and woe, the internal and the external. Two landscapes? Always keep in mind: The way we look at the world is the way we really are.

images-111This pilgrim can walk past wounded flowers, and he can walk through cities of the plague without falling ill. His illness is the endless walking, the endless seeing, and the knowledge that surpasses speaking. And what can he tell us anyway, in a world where faith and reason are both hearsay? They say prayers have the power to heal, and people say the world is round. He appeals to his absent mother for prayers and like a child admits to her that things ain’t going well.  He confesses both his sorrow and weakness. He knows the Golden Rule, but can’t stick to it.  His plea hangs with no answer.  No prayers, and also  no altars on the road he travels, as there have been shrines for other pilgrims. There are no spiritual rest stops for sacrifice and purification. Yet he’s not alone, he has loyal and much-loved companions, but they share his code, they approve of him. Is this a fellowship or a following? He challenges Someone to deny him heavenly aid, but it’s the heaven suited to the greed for fame and honor. It’s the heaven of myth, of Apollo and Phaeton, where the wheels are flying. This is no paradise of peace and redemption, but unreachable sky where  ambition and folly and love play out between an immortal god and his mortal son. This Everyman  carries with him love and desire and they are dry and tormenting goads. In this world of corruption, pain, and more of the same, the folksy homespun register of “the gal he left behind” is grotesquely incongruous, a reminder of other worlds where other kinds of songs are possible. Just like that clever toothache in his heel, which perhaps is related to that tussle in the garden in the first verse. The Dan Tucker folk song and/or the wound of revenge  prophesied in Genesis 3:15, which, with Bob-Dylanish ambiguity is variously translated as “her” heel and “his” heel crushing the serpent.  You can’t quite know what song this Everyman is hearing, and singing.

 

images-121 His field of vision is vast enough in its compassion to take in plague-ridden cities,  and acute enough to see the smallest nooks and crannies where suffering can’t hide. But he can be a brute, our pilgrim. He’ll grab unfair advantage over  his opponents and slaughter them when they’re asleep. He’ll one-up Hamlet and actually do the crime, and then step back and gloat. 

images-131He’s immune to the plague,  skeptical of all solace or explanation, accompanied only by those who see things as he does. His hands are bloodied by revenge, he bears both great and minute visions of suffering, he is prodded onward by abandoned or lost love. Day breaks, and he’s back in the garden. And finally he speaks. His few words are in the respectful and submissive tone belonging to a social order that could not survive the world he’s passed through: “Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon.” Who’s he addressing? I see a shadowy woman, who turns her face to him and reveals a sunken-eyed, depraved, twitching and hopeless Eve, who nonetheless tells him the truth. “There’s no one here. The gardener is gone.”  And on he walks. To the last outback, at the world’s end. But people have told him that the world is round. No end to the road. No mercy for him, then, in his sorrow, his memories, his crimes. His walking’s just begun again.

images-8 Prayers, altars, heaven, art, Eden, love, ultimate gardeners, civilization—in the song these are portals to the vision of an age in which desire, creation, hope, community, and meaning are treacherous, worn out, violent, inaccessible, exposed as false, and we can’t get rid of any of them. 

 

And me, up in the balcony. I can afford to try to find wit and insight from a hangover. My ticket cost over a hundred dollars which I am sure is a life-altering sum to the person who assembled the t-shirt I’m wearing with Bob Dylan’s brand logo sewn onto it. The six concerts prior to this one took Bob Dylan to 5 different states, and three months later he would take the same songs, the same musicians, the same instruments, the same hat, to Sweden and Norway. Minutes after every one of these concerts is over, I can find the set list for the show on the internet, and for just about every single show, mere days after the lights have gone back up in the venue, I can listen to every song also via the internet.

 I read there is a word for this world  I live in: “globality.” images-33

Whole Wide World Which People Say Is Round. Part 1

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Below is the abstract I submitted to NEMLA (the Northeast branch of the Modern Language Association) for this talk I’ll be participating in at the end of February. The theme of the panel is transnationalism/internationalism/globalism. Now that I read the abstract it appears unsatisfactory, as always happens after the heated work of cobbling together a description of a talk or paper you haven’t actually written yet. Well, as always happens to me. I see it will not be too easy to carry out this project of discussing “creative destruction” and “the integration of political and cultural entities.” I wish to stick to the idea that  especially over the last 20 years in this  chapter of his career, characterized by the Neverending Tour, “Bob Dylan” has exploited with astonishing success the machinery of globalized culture. In Chronicles, Dylan relates that his manager tried to discourage him from his grand scheme to play small venues year after year, in order to build a new audience. And  in 2008 we have Lee Marshall arguing that Dylan has in fact accomplished something remarkable: in this latter part of a career believed to have peaked decades ago, through this relentless circling of the globe, Bob Dylan has created for himself a new kind of audience, a new culture of live performance, and a new type of relation between an audience and a performer.  Consider this: what about the management of labor, currency exchange, legal differences,and  language issues that make it possible  to  set up a stage outdoors in Spain that is just about identical to a stage indoors in Canada, and thus to provide two concert experiences that appear indistinguishable? And do this year after year, with very few glitches? This  is only possible through finessing the machinery of global culture with great skill. 

images-14But while “Bob Dylan” is becoming a global project, his compositions  over the last 20 years keep offering us peculiar relations between the individual and time, the individual and history, and the individual and place that are not simply reactionary or atopical, but a strange new vision of timelessness and displacement appropriate to the world he is distributing his presence to so tirelessly. 

 

Oh dear, now I have to fashion one of those segues that links what I end up discussing with what I originally planned to discuss. That’s all right, I can still stick to the conclusion here about “the visions of a morally accountable I/eye facing transcendent and redemptive historical time, and the inescapable reality of corrupt and opaque present life.”  Next up, the songs themselves.

 

Recent valuable studies such as Lee Marshall’s 2007 Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, argue that Bob Dylan—the artist, the media image—has become an increasingly fascinating globalized project. I invite us to turn our attention to his work itself, and discover there a relation between the individual and the world that challenges two of the emerging identities of globalized culture, so-called “creative destruction,” and the integration of political and cultural entities.

Schumpeter’s definition of “creative destruction” has helped us envision a market-driven global culture:  agents must compete constantly and violently to occupy this inch of space and this moment in time. Economic interdependence and instantaneous communication have commodified a we-are-the-world humanism that flatters the privileged consumer.  It is tempting to theorize Dylan’s mutations as exemplars of this boundaryless and evanescent new world; I argue this would neglect the supremacy of the man’s work over his theorized life.  From his early songs like Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, through the tragic panorama of Blind Willie McTell, and up to the suggestive allegory of Ain’t Talkin’, he has combined the traditional imagery of postlapsarian, prophetic history, with minute attention to politically real life.  Through the living art of his performances, he has shared with us the “monstrous dream”: the visions of a morally accountable I/eye facing transcendent and redemptive historical time, and the inescapable reality of corrupt and opaque present life.  We find profound differences between the qualities of dynamism, evanescence, and universality as they characterize the globalized culture Dylan has found a home in, and these qualities as they are, dare I say, immortalized in his art.