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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops! Wrong photo!

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

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

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


Take What You Need You Think Will Last: Sean Wilentz Discusses Bob Dylan, Beat Culture, And More On 92nd St

images-1I think my favorite collaboration between Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is For You Babe, which is not more than a wild ditty. It hardly even qualifies for an outtake. Guitars play  ferociously sunny chords, Bob sings lines in and out of the music, not much intelligible except “Oh, babe, for you!” and he sings these nothings with great Pan-like ardor, and then Ginsberg begins a cheerful chant. He lists what he’ll bring: his eyes, his sacred cow. It’s all completely pointless and completely delicious: Bob’s voice soars and darts like a swallow, you wonder what serious folly will come out of Ginsberg’s mouth next, the music gets in your bones, it’s over too soon. In this whatever-it-is there is love and humor and a kind of primordial physicality of voices and music. Whenever I hear it, I am so happy that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg met each other.

images-2Yes, this is fanciful and childlike, and a trivial moment in the story of Bob Dylan and Beat culture, Beat aesthetics, Beat writers. And fortunately for that story, Sean Wilentz has taken it on. Sean’s prominence as an American historian runs parallel to his prominence as a chronicler of Bob Dylan, and that alone is a condition worth exploring. One would not say that esteemed historian Sean Wilentz also has contributed important work to the study of Abraham Lincoln. That is an absurdity, because it is an apposite dressed up as a comparison.  Why do we marginalize Sean Wilentz’s liner notes for Live 64 and not his editorship of a book of essays on Lincoln? Oh no, I’m on my soapbox. Rewind.  It’s still a long trip to 92nd St from Princeton, but Sean Wilentz’s remarkable altruism delivered him up to room S-280 to offer  a concrete and detailed picture of the moment in time when the Beat culture and Bob Dylan intersected. Prof. Wilentz very generously provided our Tuesday night class with a preview of one chapter of his upcoming book on Bob Dylan’s America. The book, to be published in September 2010, will map  the several Americas that helped form the many Dylans. The chapter whose draft he presented to us covered Dylan’s relationship with Beat culture in general, the complex relationship between Beats and Folks, the particular relationship between Dylan and Ginsberg.

images-3images-4A simplistic description of a first-rate historian would be a person with a capacious and organized memory,  a relentless appetite for story, and a scrupulous judgment for the quantity and veracity of facts that are required to narrate a viable story. We got a fine demonstration of this with Sean’s opening to his talk.  He wanted to begin with a segue between  the chapter in his manuscript before the one he would present. The earlier chapter discussed Aaron Copland  as a populist innovator. Copland’s score for the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men was understood to be daring, likely the very first movie score to use dissonance. One person who watched this movie absorbedly was Jack Kerouac. So absorbedly, that fifteen years later, Kerouac described the moment the movie made its impression in his Mexico City Blues. 22 years after Kerouac’s memory made it into his poem, his poem made it into Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara: it’s Mexico City Blues that Ginsberg recites to Dylan at Jack Kerouac’s grave in the footage often reprinted as still photos and therefore familiar as an incident in Dylan’s life and art to people unfamiliar with the movie.

Transmission, collaboration, influence, respect, performance, and What Remains: these are the themes that turn this sequence of events leading from a movie in 1939 to a movie in 1978 into a plot. And these are themes that can bind the history that Sean related in the body of his talk, in which Dylan is seen in prime Protean mode, synthesizing in performance and in composition the two cultures,  folk  and Beat, and then synthesizing himself  way past both worlds, and still bearing the genetic strands of each of them. And Allen Ginsberg along for more than one ride.
images-8What Beat writers did with syntax, with narrative, with conventional vocabularies of *serious* literature–all the many ways Beat writers created escape routes specifically for prose and poetry, was not Sean’s focus.  Instead, he drew a clear picture of the complex  cultural and political theaters of the late 1950s and early 1960s, in which Folks and Beats both fought the Rising Tide of Conformity, both “shared disdain for materialism and convention.” The Folk contingent sought a high ground where social relations and individual voices  were not the tools of the masters of war and of commerce, and not the victims of a morally bankrupt legal system . They built this high ground from a nearly lost world they saw as the spring of authenticity. They came together and they created in a spirit of purpose: sing the right songs, write the right songs, and do right, and a current will form that may beat back the tide of corruption and greed and passivity. Bob Dylan wore sloppy farmer’s jeans and a clean flannel shirt such as a poor man might wear to church, and he  bore the expression of a young man facing down the cankered world his elders have handed him.

images-6The Beat contingent sought escape. In-your-face escape. They had several getaway cars. For example, poetry  that showed language can be real without being realistic, moral without being clean, and crazy without being irrational. They formed communities based on appetites for each other, for adventures in experience, for adventures in consciousness.  Bob Dylan wore cigarette-leg jeans, leather jackets, and bore the expression of a young man who has seen entire universes only he can chart for the rest of us if we’d only stop asking him stupid questions and let him get on with his work.


Sean pointed out that the two cultures did share roots in the Depression-era political left, and Ginsberg’s own history illustrates this Allen Ginsberg’s father was a poet with strong socialist orientation, strong enough that the omission of his “leftist political stuff” from his published collected works is noteworthy. Ginsberg’s mother was ardently Communist and deeply opposed her husband’s political stance. So we do have one of the two sustaining pillars of the Beat movement growing up in a crucible of the left wing political culture that was explicitly foregrounded by the Folkies.

images-9Bob Dylan enters this crowded stage in 1961, and as Sean Wilentz put it, “Manhattan was more complicated than Minneapolis.” The brisk and certain trajectory of Dylan’s ascendance in 1961-1963 is a story that can always feel freshly strange and exciting, and more so when we look at these complications, the choices facing him. By 1961, the great work of the Beat writers had been done, and on January 26, 1961, 2 days after young Bob Dylan’s arrival, a group of NY writers held a discussion titled The Death of the Beats. The Folk world was the Here and Now for Dylan, but as Sean put it, “Ginsberg and Kerouac were in his brain.”  Then Dylan gets into Ginsberg’s brain, via A Hard Rain’s A -Gonna Fall. When Ginsberg heard the song, it seems an extraordinary thing happened. It is easy to say that he heard The New Great Thing, or that he heard the hiss of the torch being passed, and gallantly let go his end of the torch.  He did hear, as Sean put it, “the merger of poetry and song Pound predicted as the future of poetry.” But Ginsberg heard the singularity of Dylan’s art, not merely the realization or culmination or continuation of artistic ideals that he himself helped to define and put in play.

images-10images-11In the space of 15 Internet minutes you can find plenty of text, images, and film footage to document the long-running respect and different kinds of collaboration between Ginsberg and Dylan. I’m fascinated by the peculiarity of the relationship, even more than the matter of the collaborations. Allen Ginsberg in 1963, when he finally met Dylan, was not merely a renowned American poet, he was a notorious American poet: he renewed poetry with a legitimate originality,  he made reading a poem a truly unsafe act, and he was Jewish and gay and traveled anywhere he liked and tried on ways of being that intrigued him. He really was Out in a way that may no longer be possible . And then the story more or less goes that Ginsberg Meets Dylan, and acknowledges the greater artist, adores the greater artist, follows the greater artist as long as he is welcome. Ginsberg’s love is repaid with Dylan’s respect and affection and a more enduring welcome than he offered many others in his different circles. Sean talked about Dylan’s making it possible for Ginsberg to become a “cultural avatar” in the years after his own creativity was not enough to sustain his relevance.

images-12That’s a true enough history. I like the story that’s illuminated by this history: in this story, it’s the compass of Ginsberg’s spirit that becomes visible. The intrinsic freeness of Ginsberg’s spirit answered Dylan’s music, by becoming infinitely hospitable to Dylan’s art.  Desolation Row may have satisfied Ezra Pound’s dreams of the art of the future, but its Beat heritage was conspicuous to Ginsberg and he could have laid his worship right there and left it.  Yet Ginsberg did not just worship Dylan as an obvious heir–he met him right away as a singularity unbound by laws, and Dylan’s new ways of being and creating only fed Ginsberg’s availability to his art. There were partings and detours for sure, but the transparency of this inspiration is clear to anyone seeing Ginsberg’s interviews in No Direction Home.

images-14Where are relations like this elsewhere in the history of art? There is this wonderful circle to me, where Ginsberg’s fearlessness and spiritual appetite wrote Howl in the first place, and then this fearlessness and appetite is what heard, really heard Hard Rain. I learned from the story of this relationship that we use the same instruments to create with and to hear with.

www.frankbeacham.com is where you can find an excellent review of Sean Wilentz’s talk, with extraordinary photos. I recommend The Beat Reader in the Viking Portable Library Series for a good introduction to this stuff, and Bob is included in the anthology. Sean Wilentz’s book will be out in September 2010. I look forward most eagerly to the chapter on Delia and Lone Pilgrim.

Tuesdays on 92nd St, We Do Not Abjure Educated Rap

images At left, Pace University, a hall of learning located on the southernmost protuberance of  Manhattan. It is a long and arduous journey from here at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, to 92nd St and Lexington Ave; even if you get a seat on the express, the subway is crowded at all times of the day. After a long day of pedagogy and bureaucracy, the chair of Pace’s English department, Walter Raubicheck, offered his time to our little Dylan crew uptown. Our class this Tuesday involved Walter’s presentation on Mr Tambourine Man, primarily the poetic life of the song. Full disclosure laws compel me to reveal that I have known Walter for several years through the Dylan meet-up group (next meet-up Monday 11/9 6 PM Kettle of Fish 59 Christopher you can meet Walter yourself!).  Acquaintances or no acquaintances, discussing assonance, Keats, and consciousness with strangers at 9 PM on a weekday speaks of Walter’s  energy level and generosity.

images-12Here is another building, it’s the house where Keats died in Rome. Let’s say that a difference between a great poet and a lesser poet, is that the voice of the great poet gets past so much insulation in us and finally reaches that chamber where we actually *hear* a single human speaking into us. And let’s say that one way we recognize this greatness isn’t only in encounters with the art, but in uncanny dropoffs of time: Keats’ death was prolonged and painful and mainly conscious, and the awfulness of this suffering rings through the windows of this house like a real feeling, not because the painful death of a decent young man is by default a tragedy, but because the young man’s living self is something we can meet in his poetry, and so his death can be a strange true pain to us now. How did I end up on the Spanish Steps??  We need to get to the jingle jangle morning…

images-13 Walter introduced his talk by reading from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. As you can see at the left here, a nightingale is a rather meager and  drab bird to withstand the weight of so much enduring Romantic thought and feeling and beauty. And those little wings have to carry it high, by the light of the moon. Before arguing for a connection between  Mr Tambourine Man and the Romantic tradition, Walter reminded us that Dylan himself is “self-taught” in literature. He referred to an interview Dylan gave to  Robert Hilburn in which the topic of traditional English poetry came up; Chronicles also offers tastes of his fluency. Walter’s point here being merely to establish a legitimate sense of tradition, rather than to impute grand precocity to Dylan’s naively captivating song. Mr Tambourine Man is no more naively captivating than Keats’ Ode.

Keats’ nightingale represents the effortless and thought-less freedom the speaker, weary from consciousness of the sheer facts of human mortality, will never know. The nightingale represents the “predicament” of the speaker, and then for one moment, transports the speaker from his predicament. Or transports the predicament away from the speaker? The tambourine may serve the same purposes in Dylan’s song. The tambourine calls to  the singer in his weariness, his numbness, his inertia and exhaustion. Then the tambourine, like the nightingale’s song, offers the short-lived “energy to pull the speaker out of his psychic state.”

images-7 And so in both the poem and the song, there is a speaker/singer  awoken through his own attention to a sound. It’s a sound he listens for and hears with peculiar openness, and so it is not a general alarm that awakes him, but a personal address. In both the poem and the song, the speaker/singer needs this address in order to “get access to that level of psyche”–from which poems and songs are seeded. It isn’t the endstop of freed consciousness the nightingale and the tambourine provide, but these sounds open a portal to  language and music, so the consciousness can be articulated and shared. Shared. Let me show you what something I have felt is like, I want you to feel it too.

images-2The song’s first two stanzas  may be a catalogue of everything the singer wants to free himself from, and the pleas to be freed. Branded on his feet, as though seared with a brand, to join a herd of other weary, numb, blind creatures.  The patterns of sound and the voice’s careful cadence entrance us as the tambourine begins to entrance him. Hands can’t feel to grip. Toes too numb to step. Single syllables are an effort. The infinitesimal pauses between words are a nanosecond long enough to convey the effort of singing. But there’s the swirling ship, the promise of air in the sibilance. And the voice soars to announce he’s “ready to go anywhere.” He’s already moved away from being part of the branded herd, and is ready for his own parade.

Walter pointed out that Dylan rarely performs the 3rd verse. The ragged clown behind. We talked about why that may be so, since the omission of that verse is so consistent it invites a little speculation beyond throwing up our hands at Dylan’s idiosyncrasies. We  wondered if that verse, with Dylan’s self-portrait of the newborn artist, laughin spinnin swingin, is too personal? That it moves away from the universal in the song?  Walter pointed out how much he enjoys the lines that reassure: don’t be afraid, it’s not aimed at anyone, there’s no “negative motivation” here. There’s benevolence  and generosity in this inspiration.

images-8“Take me disappearing.” We take this kind of originality in language for granted sometimes. This clause is just wrong grammatically, and it wakes us up to what’s happening to the singer: absurd to ask someone to take me…nowhere. They’re with me, so it’s not nowhere….  But of course we never quibble with this, because we’re already on that razor’s edge of passive and active, of internal and external, of here and not here, that the singer wishes me to be balanced on as he goes through it. And Walter pointed out the participles throughout the song: vanished, swirling, laughing, spinning, swinging, driven…  There are many verbs in this song that are not active. Remember, we are on the razor’s edge of passive and active. Walter pointed out the dark and frightening places the singer has to get through before ending up on that windy beach. Through those smoke rings of his own mind, there’s a frozen, haunted, deformed, twisted, sorrowful world. How fast does he get through this? Not fast enough not to notice the cold and the fear and sorrow. And remember that he’s been appealing to the tambourine man repeatedly, to play for him. To get him where he needs to go, even though he knows he has to get through the haunted places first. This is just not about intoxication, it’s about facing a kind of awakening. It’s a fairly brave song, not so much a song about a euphoric dropping out. The beach is not calm. The sky is too sharp and bright. Only the singer  knows what circus sands look like. Memory and fate are drowned, but he still knows there’s a past and a future, a today and a tomorrow. Only one hand waves free.  Picture the difference between two hands and one: there’s something childish, puerile, cliched about dancing on a beach waving both your arms over your head. There’s something oddly graceful and dignified about one hand waving free. And a touch of restraint. Remember this song is about consciousness. Not unconsciousness.

images-15Walter brought us back to history and Tradition, and the nightingale in Jokerman. Walter hears in this song Dylan distancing himself from the Romantic figure of the 60s. He’s got that freed awareness, but without truth, what good is it?  The grown up Jokerman’s dance is a little sinister, a little grotesque, more ambiguous, more un-inviting than the boy’s dance on the windy beach.

The song more than others takes me through smoke rings of other images that have become indelible parts of the song. images-11 This portrait of a girl by Lucian Freud, it just is haunted frightened trees to me. The line in the song just is this portrait. The branch is perfectly lovely and unfrozen, but her face will be afraid forever and the tree can’t protect her.  I visit this girl often in MoMA, and as soon as I see her, I hear the song, and I stand there for a moment hearing the song and looking at her and wishing I could give her the song to help her.

images-16 Then there’s Rudy. This is what the song conjured for me the first time I really paid attention to it, and what it conjures, effortlessly, every time I hear it. At the end of the Circe episode in Ulysses, Leopold contemplates the passed-out Stephen, is overcome by tenderness for the boy, the tenderness leads him to a vision of his dead son, Rudy. The Rudy he sees is an 11-year old boy, wearing a Roman helmet, and an Eton suit, and reading a book “right to left”– obviously reading Hebrew,  Bloom’s native/ancestral language. In this image is collapsed history, empires, civilization, and the weight of what Bloom sees in the son he has lost, the past and the future he  lost through the death of his son.  The moment of human love has enough weight to collapse time in this way.  Bloom endures a sudden awakening to a consciousness of time larger than the present, and there is the sleeping  young artist, and there is benevolence and compassion and strangeness, and there is magnificently compressed and astonishingly communicative imagery. Much here that echoes in Mr Tambourine Man. And there is a beach, and there is sand, and there is a diamond. Here’s the passage itself:

… shadows… the woods

… white breast… dim…

(He stretches out his arms, sighs again and curls his body. Bloom holding his hat and ashplant stands erect. A dog barks in the distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. He looks down on Stephen’s face and form.)

BLOOM (Communes with the night.) Face reminds me of his poor mother. In the shady wood. The deep white breast. Ferguson, I think I caught. A girl. Some girl. Best thing could happen him… (He murmurs.)… swear that I will always hail, ever conceal, never reveal, any part or parts, art or arts… (He murmurs.) in the rough sands of the sea. a cabletow’s length from the shore… where the tide ebbs … and flows…

(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)

BLOOM (Wonderstruck, calls inaudibly.) Rudy!

RUDY (Gazes unseeing into Bloom’s eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauveface. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet howknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.)

My favorite performances of the song are three. One is the studio version on Bringing It All Back Home, because of the care, the fastidiousness of the voice. He will get this across to me, this impossible  vision. He is patient and loving with his song and with his listener. Two is the Isle of Wight performance. This is the nightingale Keats heard. Third is a performance in Memphis, April 25 2006. He found the darkest rhythm in his own soul to get this song across. To get it across years and years, to bring anyone who was listening to wherever it is he was going.

Funny, Artistic, Analog v. Digital–Many-splendored Bob D. At 92Y

imagesWe’ve just finished week 4 of the class I-can’t-help-it-if-I’m-lucky to be teaching at the 92nd St Y.  When I was a passive but opinionated student in this course, I felt more comfortable writing little narratives of the experience. The remedy is to act as though I’m still a passive and opinionated student.

images-1 It’s already been a parade of different voices and visions describing Bob Dylan. It’s one thing to know abstractly that Dylan is an artist who looks one way from one angle, another way from another angle, and the quantity of angles is too many to be arithmetically possible. But it’s another thing to have people smarter and more interesting than oneself demonstrate this fact.

What I hope to do here is not to provide distance learning, but to offer introductions to people and ideas that anyone may pursue on their own, with their own questions and detours and examples. Even better, perhaps someone else will want the pleasure of a similar class in their own wife’s hometown, and look into what it would take to organize one. We know that good people in good institutions are teaching the lyrics to Desolation Row in their 20th Century Lit courses, and I can’t be disingenuous and anti-intellectual about supporting that work. But the kind of informal potpourri of intelligent palaver about Dylan that a course like this provides, encourages such chances for creative and shared and unexpected relations to his art, unbound by the laws of academic discourse, valid as many of those laws. I always want to encourage my imaginary friends in their distant Future World to create singular  and self-made connections to this singular art.

images-7Our first guests were Norma and David Gaines, of Southwestern University in Texas.  Norma’s background is in art history, and she spoke to us about Dylan the Visual Artist. This was a nonpareil treat for me, personally, since informed and engaging discussions of his painting and draughtsmanship are few and far between.  Norma showed strongly-colored  images from Drawn Blank, and described the drawing technique in terms of impressionistic and expressionistic  traditions of Big M Modern art–the oblique or compressed viewpoint of a Kirchner street scene, the brisk strong outlines, singing colors,  and vigorous use of empty space of a Matisse. images-8images-3images-2 Dylan’s willingness to return to drawings again and again with different color schemes can remind us of Monet’s variations on a theme.  Norma was taken by the fiery sky Dylan applied to one of the variations of the receding train tracks, and it turned out to be a popular image with us also–so many bright and fevered  and strange skies in the songs, from diamond skies, to pain pouring down, to the Fourth Part of the Day.  Norma found a connection between Dylan’s self-portrait and Matisse’s portrait of his wife: the black outlined ear, the long-ish head, the bold eyebrows. What Norma did was let us see what Dylan may have seen that lingered in his mind visually as we know so much music and language lingers in his mind.  The argument that Bob Dylan is a great painter is not a road I would travel on. But that his paintings have a strong visual life to them, that their palettes and compositions hold the eye and invite us into one moment of seeing the world as this artist sees  and seizes it, that’s a road I can walk down, and Norma gave us an excellent clear-sighted and informative map.

images-10 David Gaines took his place at the desk to talk to us about humor and Bob Dylan. He confessed right up front that it’s nearly impossible to talk about humor without simply saying “That’s funny, isn’t it? And then that other thing, that’s funny too, isn’t it?” There are of course not just theories about humor but theories about why it is so hard to theorize about humor and now you are drifting off to sleep, as well you should be. David did great justice to his subject: he insisted that Dylan’s humor is underrated, insisted that taking humor seriously in Dylan’s songs does not extract the humor from the songs, played 115th Dream and Brownsville Girl. I laugh out loud just from the way Bob sings  “I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off,” and makes that sentiment sound lyrical and poignant, plus he croons about 6 syllables more than the musical line should be able to hold. So there is humor in the performances as well as in the lyrics. Bob the maskedandanonymous ubertrickster is already a cliche, but making Trickster Bob a cliche will not protect us from by being tricked. David mentioned a book that seems worth looking up, Trickster Makes the World, by Lewis Hyde.

Since humor is everywhere in Dylan–and humor is a way of being, while wit is verbal skills that do not originate in a laughing spirit–why is David right about this being underrated? I have a theory of two parts. First part:  So much of the canonical writing on Dylan, the inner circle of Dylan criticism and scholarship, does not manifest much wit or humor or lightheartedness. The writers who’ve set their teeth on Dylan and won’t let go, are going at him with a variety of  tones that may on first glance   substitute for humor, such as sarcasm, vitriol, puns, and flippancy, but there’s really not so much levity. Second part: A group of Dylan *fans* who are *discussing* their favorite artist’s work are more likely to resemble a dogfight, or more charitably, warring tribes enjoying a brief and suspicious truce,  than a party of happy laughing friends. He’s quite clear on not taking himself seriously, a lesson we have not clearly learned. Everyone listen to Gotta Serve Somebody and laugh out loud at the fact that we can’t be morally autonomous. Bob does it.



More matter with less art: Our guest on Oct 20 was Peter  Stone Brown, who raconteured us most unsummarizably, and too-briefly played his guitar for us. At the URLs above, you can first read a succinct and accurate description of  Peter’s talk on the succinct, accurate, and always-engaging blog of Mr Frank Beacham, and right below that you can access Peter’s own blog. Peter’s writings on Dylan can be found on bobdylan.com, and other places you can travel to via his own site. Peter has himself traveled with Dylan from the beginning, from a concert in Newark, New Jersey in November 1963, right on up to this Fall tour. He’s a great presence, because he’s been open and available to Dylan’s refashionings and self-discoveries over the decades, contradictory and enigmatic and uningratiating as they’ve been. Open and available, and skeptical and clearsighted and unslavish.  His relation to Dylan’s work is transparent in his manner of talking about the music and the performances, and can’t be reproduced or summarized easily. His comments about Dylan’s being “Internet-ready” (see Frank’s blog above) have been percolating in me for lo these two weeks and I look forward to brewing them up.  A natural and idiosyncratic storyteller doesn’t fit the distance learning mode, does he.

images-14 Last night, we entered the scary world of science and math, but luckily our guide was Tim Anderson, a professional audio engineer who made it possible for us to understand some of the technical concerns of recording that many of us fans take for granted or condescend to. I’m often smug about Bob Dylan’s preference for old-fashioned recording methods, with really no idea of what I’m talking about.  Tim explained not merely that but how digital recording makes it possible to eliminate from the recording the ambient sound of the room in which the music is being performed. He helped me see the way analog recording is a series of physical processes that preserve the continuity of a sound wave’s fluctuations , and digital recording reconstructs sound waves from ever-smaller sections of the wave–digital interrupts the continuity of a sound wave, although the fragmented bits are smaller than small, and the smaller they get, the more *fully* the sound wave can be rebuilt. I hope I have this right.

images-13 Bob Dylan has been outspoken about his distaste for digital sound. He apparently  does not want to lose the sound of the room in which he records his songs. I like to imagine that he wishes to capture the moment in time, the place-in-time, of the performance of the song. He wishes perhaps a thumbprint, a shadow, of the irrecoverable time and place to be present on the recording. All very Romantic-talk, but whether or not I am hearing the physical traces of time-and-place in this presence, perhaps the presentness of Dylan’s voice happens because he is comfortable believing the moment is being captured more comprehensively….  Oh well, throw on the dirt, pile on the dust.

images-15images-17 I then asked Tim to listen to One of Us Must Know, and then Most of the Time, and talk about two of Bob Dylan’s most well-known  “sound albums.”  He helped me hear that some of that mythic thin wild mercury is  a matter of sibilance. The recording levels can be manipulated to emphasize the silvery  sibilance of Dylan’s vocals, as well as the percussion, especially cymbals. A discussion ensued in which the comment was made that this sibilance is less noticeable in other songs, such as Visions of Johanna. True enough, but there seems to be enough high brightness in the tones of the instruments throughout the album–the tinkly (in a good way) piano, e.g. Even Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands has its own brightness and does not have the vast open aural spaces of Oh Mercy. Tim explained how that distance between the vocals and the instruments is achieved, and how reverb contributes to the effect on this album that some of us adore (me), and many of us can’t stand (many others). An interesting comment was made that Most of the Time sounded like “a science fiction movie,” and for the first time I could hear the impersonal quality of the the album’s music–it sounds synthetic, I can hear that, but I still find it intoxicating.

images-18Last night’s class began and ended with the delightful experience of live music, as our own Toby performed The Times They Are A-Changin’, and then played both Lady Franklin’s Lament and Bob Dylan’s Dream, thus treating us to a wonderful lesson in Bob’s sources and borrowings. We ended the class with Toby’s performance of his own original talkin’ blues,  the cleverness and pleasure of which can’t be reproduced here.

You Can Talk About Me Plenty On Tuesday Nights At The 92nd St Y

imagesHere is my current  list of expected guests for the discussion class I’ll be leading at the Y, starting next Tuesday, Oct 6 at 8 PM. http://www.92y.org/shop/class_detail.asp?productid=AM3GA19. Anyone can still sign up, and sometimes it helps to know what’s in store:

  • David and Norma Gaines, Southwestern University: David, who’s written and presented on Dylan and teaches him in his lit courses, will be talking about humor in Dylan’s songs. Norma, whose background is in art history,  will be talking about The Drawn Blank Series.
  • Peter Stone Brown http://www.peterstonebrown.com/. Singer and songwriter, and you can find his writing on Dylan at bobdylan.com: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/music/tell-tale-signs
  • Tim Anderson: Sound and recording engineer, with a special interest in the history of audio recording. Tim will help us listen more closely to Bob Dylan’s recordings, by  talking about the nuts and bolts and bits and bytes of audio engineering, how the technology has changed from 1961 to 2009, and how this affects our listening experience.
  • Walter Raubicheck. Chairman of the English department at Pace University. Walter has published on Dylan, and teaches Dylan in his undergraduate lit course. He’ll be giving us a close and ardent look at Mr Tambourine Man. Walter may even sing, if we’re lucky.
  • Sean Wilentz: You can see Sean here in his office, with evidence of his Bob Dylan affinity: http://www.politico.com/arena/bio/sean_wilentz.html.  Prof. Wilentz’s renowned work  in the arenas of political and historical commentary and scholarship fortunately leaves him time to write and speak on Bob Dylan, and most fortunately, he’ll be sharing with us material from his upcoming book on Dylan.
  • Todd Gitlin: Todd Gitlin’s journalism, and cultural and political critiques and examinations are provocative and exemplary, and you can find an introduction to his work here: http://toddgitlin.net/about.html.  He’ll be speaking to us about Bob Dylan as “oral master instead of poet.”
  • David Massengill: http://www.davidmassengill.com/ A musician and writer with strong affinity for Dylan’s work. He’ll share perspectives, thoughts, and hopefully music as well.
  • Seth Rogovoyhttp://rogovoy.com/news1783.html. Author of an upcoming book, Bob Dylan: Prophet-Mystic-Poet, also an accomplished musician. Seth will share material and ideas from his book.
  • Rob Johnson: Writer, musician, Bob aficionado, and I understand he’s been a popular and memorable guest in past classes.
  • We’re also invited to attend a session of Louis Rosen’s songwriters course at the Y, http://www.92y.org/shop/class_detail.asp?productid=AM3GA18. He’ll be devoting that session to the topics of love and lust and whatever falls in between, in Dylan’s songs.

Music, discussion, questions should flow at every session. I hope anyone who attends will see right away that all guests will welcome conversation. And if we absolutely have got to stop everything and hear the sound check of New Pony, then we absolutely will.

Feel free to email me with any questions. gardenerisgone@gmail.com