Words And Music By and About Bob Dylan–Week 6 at the Y

images Bob Levinson’s skills as facilitator were tested this Tuesday, when the guests in our class turned out to be Mr. Alan Light, music critic and journalist, and Mr. Pat Guadagno, musical musician. Bob Levinson had to conduct the two-hour  session between erudite overviews of Bob Dylan’s career, and ardent performances of Bob Dylan’s songs by Mr Guadagno as well as the class’s own Toby Fagenson, whose 12-string guitar first impressed everyone in the room as a show-and-tell object, and then was put to good use. And indeed Bob Levinson made the whole evening move smoothly, and made certain that both guests enjoyed adequate air-time to do justice to their particular Bob Dylan skill set.


images-1Alan Light–whose essay providing an overview of Bob Dylan’s performing history can be found in the Cambridge Companion to BD–began the evening with a great rush of feeling in response to his participation in different memorial events following Michael Jackson’s death. He seemed sincerely impressed and unnerved by the emotional theatrics, their scope and intensity, that he’d witnessed this past week, and also sincerely impressed with the deftness of the hastily assembled public memorial show.  Light could not help reviewing for us the inarguable significance of Jackson’s contributions to American music and culture. We are a decorous and warm bunch in room 280 at the 92nd St Y, and we listened with respect. I would have enjoyed seeing the We Are The World video on the large TV we have in the room, but there was no time for that and maybe it’s insufficiently respectful of me to have wanted to see the shots of Bob peering with great fascination at the music sheet in his hand while he sings his bit, as though this man  has discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

images-2After paying our respects, we more or less gently segued  to Bob Dylan via comments regarding stardom and public reception. Light reminded us of the astonishing speed of Bob’s rising star in the early 60s. That things were happening literally “in a matter of months.” From the Gaslight to Carnegie Hall. From singing Barbara Allen to writing Hard Rain. The astonishingly intrinsic  differences in the young man at the three consecutive Newports. It can be a strange kind of startling refreshment to be offered for contemplation facts one already is familiar with. 

images-3 Bob Levinson asked Alan Light for his impressions of Together Through Life.  He “likes it a lot.” He addressed the criticisms of the album as unoriginal and not rich with the ambitious portent of some of the songs on Modern Times (which Light does not enjoy as much as TTL). Light argued that it’s a mistake to “fault him for setting  a different target and hitting that target.” It’s not “visionary,” and “you can’t force that every time.” Hear, hear, I say. Light also calls TTL a “sound record” as opposed to a “words record.” MT is a words record. We all wanted to pursue this distinction: what else is a “sound” record?  Predictably, Light identified the thin wild youknowwhat, and the Lanoisian works. I wonder myself about this distinction. One can hardly call Oh Mercy not a words record, but of course the sound remains in one’s mind as a singular flavor, a color. Maybe we can test the sound records with the synesthesia method, by asking whether they do create a color and flavor of their own. A quick run through in my own head tells me that Another Side and John Wesley Harding would be sound records in this way. The recently remastered New Morning would also qualify:  the remaster  unveils  Bob’s strong piano playing throughout, which was not so audible on the previous CD, and which does create a luscious tone binding the songs together. 

images-4images-5 Pat Guadagno gave us ardent and tuneful renditions of Visions of Johanna  and Sweetheart Like You.




Alan Light talked also about the way that Bob Dylan’s albums are almost sketchbooks for the live performances of the songs. He uses concert performances to “improve” the songs. In this way, the album itself changes as the songs take on new faces through the concerts. We are lucky that Bob has not waited long at all, as he did with Modern Times,  to start breathing different lives into the new songs from Together Through Life.  Important also to see what happens to songs when they’re taken away from their neighbors on their albums and set in different contexts on stage.  Pairing the bluesy amble of Jolene with the apocalypse of  AATW for recent encores is a when-worlds-collide experience that is not to be missed.

images-6images-7Pat gave us ardent and tuneful renditions of Romance in Durango and I Want You.  I may not be getting the order right here, I apologize for that. He is a wonderful guitarist and accompanies himself with beautiful verve. 



images-9Alan Light gave us a thoroughly depressing history lesson about the superannuation of print media. He was a founding editor of the magazines Vibe and Trax and it is his professional opinion that the print magazine and the journal as forms of media  cannot survive against the immediacy of the Internet. He talked about finding ways to write both  substantively and electronically. We all have our fingers crossed with you, Mr Light. 

images-10 Alan Light played for us a recording he brought of Rosanne Cash singing a perfectly lovely version of Girl From the North Country. Apparently Johnny Cash once gave his daughter a list of the 100 greatest country songs and now she is recording a number of them on an album called “The List.” This reminded me of her exciting rendition of License to Kill which I had the pleasure of seeing her do at the 2006 Lincoln Center tribute. All of which made me think about what a cover version of a song is. Sometimes it’s like a photograph of someone you love. Sometimes it’s like a captivating discussion of the song. Sometimes it’s a love letter to the song. Sometimes it’s an x-ray of the song. Barb Junger’s versions of Bob Dylan songs are love letters to the songs. Jim James’ version of Goin to Acapulco is like an x-ray of the song. I have a very short list of covers of Bob Dylan songs that satisfy any of these categories. Very short, like a micron long. If you haven’t heard The Roots’ Masters of War, that is in a category of its own. 

Mention of Johnny Cash led Alan Light to request seeing the footage of Bob and Johnny doing Girl from the North Country on Johnny’s TV special. This is an excellent way to end any evening, but it just made me want to see the footage of them doing One Too Many Mornings in the crowded studio. Bob chewing his gum.  “You are right from your side, Bob, and I am right from mine.”  “I know it.”



Educated Rap. Week 4 at the Y

imagesIf it weren’t for Eadward Muybridge’s photography, we would not know that a galloping horse does in fact have all four feet off the ground at some point in its stride. Also, because we have human eyes and human brains, we can *see* movement in a strange new way by moving our eyes across these images. We see into the horse’s stride, we have a secret about how a horse moves. We know the bigger picture the horse doesn’t know.

 We like to do this. We like to stop time, trace the arrangements that can’t be seen in the moment of their passing, or in their own motion. We  hold the pause button, make the cross-section, see what’s lying still before us. Observation yields knowledge.

images-6Let’s get back to Bob Dylan, and our guests from last night’s class, through this timepiece, which both stops time by claiming that Bob Dylan is indeed iconic–someone whose value and visibility in culture are cemented and permanent, no longer in question–and it keeps time a-movin’—I’m late for that Bob Dylan concert where what’s familiar to me could be an astonishment to the person next to me, and where I know at some point I will be… moved. 

51uc0i1MenL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_51TH5YEZTFL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_41A0M68R3QL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_Robert Polito, David Hajdu, and Ben Hedin have each performed cross-sections of Bob Dylan’s art/life/career. I can talk about the great service Hedin provides by assembling a chorus of many timbres that have talked about Bob Dylan over the decades.  Studio A is a treasure chest for serious listeners, who might not believe they can have the New Yorker piece on the recording of Another Side of Bob Dylan right in the same package as Rick Moody’s wild and beautiful ride through Blood on the Tracks. David Hajdu really does take on the stories of the Baez sisters, Bob Dylan, and Richard Farina, with a novelist’s sense of character and plot. The feat of not allowing Bob Dylan to dominate the narrative is remarkable, and the book has to be read to really appreciate its uniqueness in the Dylan library. I am making my way slowly through the Cambridge Companion, and can’t speak yet to Robert Polito’s work. Let’s say that if their work is effective for us, it is like the Oris  Bob Dylan watch: by conferring a certain value and telling a certain story,  it makes History out of Time; and if their work lights up/changes/refreshes your listening to Bob Dylan’s music….if it moves your relation to the art it engages, then it’s keeping time, fluid and forward and no stopping.

images-9The writing itself fed into last night’s discussion, but the discussion itself is what matters here. Hedin, Polito, and Hajdu invited different kinds of cross-sectioning, and it’s for each of us to decide how and where we’re moved by their invitations.


images-1Polito and Hajdu spoke interestingly about the anatomy of Dylan’s later songs. Polito talked about Dylan as “collage artist.”  A collage can “intensify” boundaries between its assembled parts, or it can erase boundaries. Dylan has always incorporated matter from other origins into his work, and he is doing this lately with a peculiar emphasis on literary sources, and with a peculiar promiscuity. Polito described Dylan “dropping lyrics in with tweezers….He’s interested in seamlessness.”  David Hajdu spoke about Dylan being criticized by people who are “applying the wrong set of standards” to his compositions, which challenge the commercial models of assumed *originality*, songs as discrete and frozen objects.  Ben Hedin added to this discussion by remarking that with  the “allusions on “Love and Theft” …the simple act of using [other people’s work] is integral to the renaissance he began to enjoy in his late 50s.”

images-10Don’t start me talkin’–Everything about collage can be found in Dylan’s recent work. The greatest collage work combines illusion, audacity, the thrilling razor’s edge between order and disorder, and  between new and used. Great collage demands great impudence and extraordinary formal control. Great collage makes its audience feel inexplicably voyeuristic, inexplicably cheating,  inexplicably cheated, and offers its own special intoxication. It’s incredibly hard to pull off, and the artist has to be so fluent, have such command, over the form they’re working in. David Hajdu talked about the “line” of the song, Dylan’s effort to keep “paraphrasable meaning at bay.” Because the coherence of a collage is an illusion, it can’t be honestly paraphrased. And because a song is not an idea, but an address to feeling, it can’t be paraphrased. Because Dylan seems so often so effortlessly able to make syntax and melody one single thing, and then put across a character behind the lyric–that can’t be paraphrased neither. Ben Hedin mentioned “some kind of inevitability” in Dylan’s turn from “conventional originality” into this collage mode.  I find this idea so intriguing, the inevitability, of loveandtheft, that if I start dissecting it now, I’ll just kill it dead.  

images-2There’s anatomy, and there’s excavation too. David Hajdu excavated documents and a recording to provide more fodder for observation and scrutiny. He read from a 1965 interview with Robert Shelton, in which Dylan riffed a little acidly on the label “poet.”  “Anyone who would call themselves a poet is not a poet.”  “To be a poet doesn’t mean you have to write down words on paper.” Even though we know it’s self-defeating, we have such a strong hunger for any declarative statement Dylan has made. We sift through the record, and painstakingly remove and examine anything that looks as though he might be saying something we can frame and freeze. This is a futility we have awful trouble resisting.  Even beyond that, we’re comfortable criticizing the original preservers of this history. Hajdu was certainly right when he gently dispraised Shelton for letting his “celebration” of Bob interfere with creating the most thorough documentation possible. Bob’s unhealthy habits, the confounding contradictions and tensions and “chaos” of his mind–Shelton glossed over these rough spots and the Bob Dylan of Oris Watches has attained, in his lifetime, a status where we can be discontented with poor Robert Shelton’s misguided and affectionate reverence for a young artist who merits austere reverence. Then I listened with practiced and exceptional alertness to a perfectly uninteresting recording of young Bob Dylan playing the harmonica somewhere behind Richard Farina and Eric Von Schmidt. Such is the life.

IMG_0215If we pick up and travel to locales of historic interest, we thicken up those cross sections. Our Bob Levinson shared his pilgrimage to The Basement, and I saw for myself that The Basement is indeed a basement.  I guess in 1967 squirrels could have scampered outside and footsteps could have been heard overhead and maybe a phone ringing in a distant room, and meanwhile Tears of Rage.  Robert Polito talked of Hibbing, and the impossibility of condescending to the place once you’ve seen it. The way the ordered and scaled town winds down into that gigantic iron pit, past the foundations of the old Hibbing that a person can stand on–the sense of place here  offers too strong a feeling of time, and too many visual contrasts, to be at all insipid. The high school is everything you may have heard it to be: a glorious monument to a frontier community’s devotion to ideals of assimilation and permanence that I dare anyone to belittle once you have stood beneath the crystal chandeliers in the auditorium. Where the piano Bob assaulted still stands. The photo shows  yours truly and BJ Rolfzen, the man who gave Robert Zimmerman the B on that Steinbeck essay. We talked about teaching high school, about William Carlos Williams,  and nothing about Bob Dylan. If you’re a Dylan fan and you want to be humbled and troubled by the Search for History, go visit Hibbing. 

images-13Ben Hedin says, “You put on Dylan because you want to have your heart broken.” He feels Together Through Life is “a dud.” David Hajdu spoke elegantly about the “diminishment of strengths” that is influencing Bob Dylan’s recent compositions. As a songwriter who composes with his voice, the soi disant deterioration of his voice has prevented him from creating complex melodies. Robert Polito feels Together Through Life sounds like “outtakes,” with all the songs at a “certain level of quality,” which is not especially high. 

images-14 Stop. Observe. Determine. Stop. Go.  I’ll be missing class next week. I’ll be on a plane to Milwaukee to see Bob Dylan perform there on July 1. I’ll be in the seventh row, almost close enough.



Never Being Greater Than Himself: Ron Rosenbaum and Week 3 at the Y

imagesimages-1It’s 1977 in Los Angeles, Ron Rosenbaum is done with that day’s two-hour interview of Bob Dylan at the studio where Bob was working on post production of Renaldo and Clara, and Ron is eating a green chili omelet. I learned last night that after each session of the multi-part interview Dylan granted Playboy’s young journalist, the young journalist would go eat a green chili omelet. Did Ron Rosenbaum gaze out at the Angelenos and consider which ones would become murderous or stupefied with envy to know how he had spent the afternoon? And then I think that at some point that same day, appearances  to the contrary, Bob Dylan had something to eat which he likely does not recall in 2009. And I wonder what it is like to be a young man who has become accustomed to other young men being visibly nervous in his company. A little stammering, eye contact a little too focused and then darting away. Accustomed to an awareness that what he is wearing, how he is holding his hands, the expressions on his face, the most trivial topical comment he makes, will be registered on his companion’s awareness like a trilobite’s shell in a riverbed. 

images-3  I’ll probably never eat an omelet again without somehow thinking absurdly of the orange and black scarf Ron Rosenbaum wore throughout his talk at class last night, and the poster to Renaldo and Clara. This is why I’m no reporter. 



images-4Back to the cold metal of history. Ron Rosenbaum, in the company of marketwatch.com’s Jon Friedman, spoke generously about the 77 interview (published in 1978) , and his current Bob Dylan project, and Bob Dylan more or less in general, for our two hours.  Rosenbaum is the interviewer whose conversation with Dylan in 1977 was the occasion for what has become the most quoted comment Dylan ever made about his own music: “the thin wild mercury sound.” And he was the interviewer  whose conversation with Dylan was the occasion for what’s become another quintessential quip: “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think Bob Dylan has a lot of the answers myself.” 



Rosenbaum was candid and self-effacing and also vivid in his description of the 77 interview, which I now am able to picture as something like the image here: apparently the conversations took place in a small backlot building at Warner Bros, and Rosenbaum brought a half bottle of Tequila to steady his nerves. I like the Skid Row tawdriness of the half bottle of booze, and I see a picturesque Depression-era  shack rather than what I know was  a portable office situated  yards from a busy movie studio, but this is why I’m not a reporter. We know that Bob’s anxiousness over Renaldo and Clara motivated him to participate in a lengthier interview than he’d done for some time, and his anxiousness also brought him to the interview focused and eager to explain. “The first few sessions were terrible,” Rosenbaum confessed. Dylan’s preoccupation at the time with Renaldo and Clara led to “painstaking explanations” of the film’s symbolism. AlthoughRosenbaum was not persuaded in 1977 (nor yet in 2009) that this movie is the strongest representative of Dylan’s art, Dylan needed this chance to talk about the film before moving on to other topics. As Rosenbaum  said yesterday, “Once we got off the bullshit of Renaldo and Clara and onto music” the talk became easier. Rosenbaum did not approach each day’s session with a strategy, and his loose approach to letting Dylan speak, and prompting clarifications with brief comments or questions, of course led to the captivating material we have today. You can read the entire interview here: http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm

images-8Rosenbaum played a minute or two of the recorded interview. Bob sounded….familiar, much closer to the brisk and youthful  Dont Look Back voice than to the  hypnotic singsong rasp he’d develop just two years later with which to terrorize his gospel audiences. Even so, it was impossible to hear this voice and then  picture RollingThunder’s white-faced hellion spitting out the lyrics to Isis.

Back to His Master’s Voice: Rosenbaum is clear about his impatience with the wretched excess of Renaldo and Clara, and he made an interesting point regarding what might have been behind the excess. He says that Dylan “listens to people he mistakenly believes are more intelligent than he is.” Allen Ginsberg, a great influence on R&C, is one example Rosenbaum uses, as well as Norman Raeben, the painter whose classes led Dylan to renovate his muse into a conscious one. The movie was ruined by Ginsberg’s “scheme of personae.”  Rosenbaum argues that Dylan has found himself in need of “an intellectual framework to hold on to as a filter for the gusher of talent in there.”   Let’s take up somewhere else the question of whether Bob Dylan is a special case of the problem of appetite for influence as opposed to anxiety of influence.

images-9Rosenbaum  was present, no not just present, but an important witness, to the period before Dylan mutated into the unfamiliar figure of  the gospel years. Rosenbaum’s new  project is a book about Dylan’s spirituality and belief, about “Dylan’s argument with God.” He  confesses to having felt “betrayed” by the Christian period, betrayed “as a Jew.” His books on Hitler and Shakespeare speak to their subjects through personal contemplation and experience, and I am hoping his full scale book on Dylan and belief will do the same. I’ll hope for the same combination of candor and scrupulous research. 

But back to the timeline of human evolution. Rosenbaum feels that Dylan post Greil Marcus’s Old Weird America, Dylan post Marcus’s construction of him as the “revivalist” of American music, Dylan post 1997, is “boring.” The albums sound the same. He is in a “safety zone” in this “roots period.”  He is not working at the same intensity of creativity that brought us the work through 1966, and then Blood on the Tracks. (Didn’t mention John Wesley Harding, so I can’t vouch for his opinion there.)

The exception is Chronicles, which passes the carbon dating test for fully-evolved brilliance. Rosenbaum enthused over the book’s “amazing clarity.”  He was “knocked out” by the book: “The voice in the book was so much the voice of his best musical work.”

images-10I’m among the standard bearers for believing that Dylan’s “best musical work” is scattered very fertilely from, oh, 1961 to spring of 2009, and I respect that for Rosenbaum, I likely fall into the category of Dylanolatry, for the very reason that I do not think Desolation Row is definitively a better song than Cross the Green Mountain. Neither one of us has the stone tablets to win an argument on this point, but I guess I want to add two more coats of (solid?) gold to my calf:

41NbjlGHlyL._SL500_AA240_In Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars—which you’ll find yourself wanting to read in one sitting—you can find an excerpt from the NY Times Book Review discussion of the book, which begins with the phrase “In his besotted, passionate new book….” Rosenbaum asks the question “Why do we feel–those of us who do–that there is something in Shakespeare beyond what we find in other literature?”  He describes a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was “disturbingly, mysteriously more than an intellectual experience.” His introduction contains seven paragraphs that begin with a variation on the phrase “I want you to care…” an intimate emotional appeal to a personal reader, and not a journalistic or academic appeal to credibility.

41BQS51THRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_It isn’t that this degree of intensity and scrutiny can’t be found in writing and speaking about Bob Dylan. But to be “besotted” with Shakespeare is to be enriched, and inspired, and articulated, with grave justification. To be “besotted” by Bob Dylan’s art is to be eccentric at best, truly besotted without grave justification.  At worst, you’re just a person who doesn’t listen to enough Neil Young.

There are  many tedious arguments of more or less insidious intent about the social construction of popular culture, about the institutionalization of elite culture, about why an exegesis or a syllabus will mummify Desolation Row. I’m not completely allergic to these arguments, but I think the resolution is finding more and more and more and more voices bringing besotted and passionate attention to Dylan’s art.

images-13My other coat of solid gold could be a little flaky. My impossible dream is not to disprove, but to disarm the mythic argument that Dylan rocked the world to bits by 1966 and never reached that height on the   Richter scale again.  This narrative is based on a lust, a famishment, for artists to perform revolutions that the rest of us can join in passively, at no cost. Rock my world to bits, make it new, make me the chosen one who really  gets what you’re doing, who’s on the right side, who gets the great thrill of being changed forever, at your expense. Make me see truth and light and god, but not any truth or light or god my parents saw. Make it all new and make it for me. And do it again and again and again, keep doing it for me.  Then I’ll love you for good. 

images-14Art that’s a rich, deep, deft, and unique expression of the texture and presence of human life. Fierce and impotent feeling, failures and raptures of desire, thoughts pointless and the sudden glimpse of something that could be Something. This can’t satisfy the hunger for a world blown to bits. I hear it everywhere in Dylan’s work 1989-2009, regardless of what hole in a tree in Alabama he got it from.


I’m not accusing Ron Rosenbaum of being deaf to what I hear in Time Out of Mind. I’m trying to use what I hear to tell a different story about an artist’s “arc”, a story that has its own hungers, that’s for someone else to diagnose perhaps, but a story that doesn’t demand the artist be a hero and a martyr every day to earn my love. 

Don’t let other people get your kicks for you.

I’ll Plant And I’ll Harvest What The Earth Brings Forth: Week 2 at the Y

images Cultivation. Cult. Culture. Agriculture. Got a head full of ideas and they’re driving me insane. Our guest in Bob Levinson’s class this Tuesday, week 2, was writer-theologian Stephen Hazan Arnoff. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from him the last time I attended this course, and also in correspondence outside of class. He roots Bob Dylan in time-out-of-mind traditions of religious visionaries, oral and textual expressions of faith and doubt, and the strange new worlds some few people in all of time have taken the rest of us to show us how far we can go. From these roots, Hazan-Arnoff sprouted a lecture on cultivation: the “intention” and “technique” of Dylan’s art that produces the harvest of Dylan’s transformation of culture. The tools, the material, the seeds and I would say ultimately the fruits are Man, God, Law. 


We started with Maggie’s Farm, where cultivation is trampled by power, and the false vain paranoid power that’s the enemy of the free person’s loyalty to truth and to right. Nothing cultivated on this farm, and the abused and exploited singer is the only person who gets what a farmer is supposed to do: supplicate nature so things will grow. Maggie’s Ma comes on to the servants with man and god and law, but only the singer is using the language of prayer.

images-2What is growing on the farm? Hazan Arnoff offers “salvation” as the answer, and used the clip from I’m Not There, where Allen Ginsberg pulls alongside Jude Quinn on the highway, asks Jude what’s next, Jude looks heavenward and says “salvation.” What could be left for the artist who is spading through culture all the way to bedrock?  A bigger audience?  Better reviews?  Salvation….? Stephen turned to Desolation Row as both the labor and the harvest of this cultivation. Stephen calls Desolation Row the ‘secret history of Maggie’s Farm.”

images-5It’s important to remember that there really were postcards of the hanging. You really could buy souvenir lynching photos. So the song is launched from a world where atrocity is commodified as culture.  It’s launched into  the singer’s imagination where every category of meaning–every form of culture that humans have invented to make ordered sense of themselves and the world–is inverted, exploited, manipulated into the one vision and voice of the young singer leaning into Desolation Row. Politics, literature, religion, pop culture, myth and folklore, history, science and the industry it spawns–these forms are all playthings for the artist whose vision is strong enough to see that indeed all of culture has been a matter of humankind playing with life in order to “unlock its secrets”, to quote Stephen. 

images-8So the song cultivates culture, and its tools are certain gifts of composition and performance granted to one Bob Dylan, and the harvest is pretty close to the secrets of this universe: we find out that the great unending work of culture has been an odyssey along desolation row, as idols and texts and stories and discoveries and lovers too, are fighting and destroying each other to win the high ground of Truth. I have to reap the awe-ful  bounty of the singer’s labor but what’s the cost for him? He’s really done the work, I’m just buying his goods at this produce market.

images-11Well, he doesn’t feel too good. Somehow the doorknob broke and he’s trapped and alone, don’t ask him how he’s doing, you’ve already heard the song for crying out loud. He’s spent and sick from the labor and harvest of  his own song, and unless I get it, unless I get that from selling postcards of lynchings to worshipping Noah’s great rainbow to building ships that sail the ocean and then sink in it, to making a song called Desolation Row, we’re all cultivating together, he doesn’t want to hear from me. 

images-13Stephen went on to talk about Augustine of Hippo’s own conversion at the voice of a child, and Bob Dylan’s cold and angry and frightening vision of I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, and the not-so “secret history” of Dylan’s song:  I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill. Stephen talked about the world without martyrs that Dylan feels he’s discovered in his dream, and he  explained the root of this word: witness. And what’s the cultivation the artist can do in a world without martyrs or witnesses? He can offer us, for starters, the nightmare vision of those purposeless, darting, fearful people on the watchtower, who see approaching towards them what has already happened. He can offer us the nightmare image of a jury crying “for more”–more what? justice? drama? facts? All a jury has to do is follow the law–isn’t that enough? Ah, but the law is just what we set up in a fallen world where we can’t see our way by nature’s fair light.

The human mind can only stand so much. It’s hard to win with a losing hand.

And down the highway, down the tracks–Stephen discussed man and God and law in Senor and Franz Kafka and Highway 61 Revisited and Hasidic traditions and Lord Protect My Child and then the 2 hours were up and I had to get on that train and ride home.

images-3On the #4 train, I thought about how much Stephen’s lecture is going to fertilize the happy idle hours I spend digging around in Ain’t Talkin’– “There’s no one here, the gardener is gone”–that line is already sprouting all manner of weird new shoots thanks to Stephen’s cult/culture/cultivation/agriculture….. 


(And that insolent drawl he gets in his voice on Maggie’s Farm–how the hell did he pull off exactly the right voice for that? Like I haven’t listened to BIABH 263 times, and I’m only hearing this now? I give up.)

I been wonderin’ all about me: Why Bob Dylan?

imagesBob Levinson’s class, which I write about here, places me in the healthy and  uncomfortable position of having to talk in front of strangers about What Bob Dylan Means To Me. Bob Levinson relentlessly invites us to join in discussions, and he models enthusiastic and utterly non-judgmental listening, so there’s just no hope for it: if you talk in that room, you might as well say what you think and feel.  I’ve fashioned a workable persona for Other People, in which I can mock myself for having four thousand three hundred Bob Dylan tracks on my iPod, and I can mock myself for considering 5 days in Hibbing, Minnesota, to be about the most glorious vacation I ever enjoyed. Even at a concert, this persona goes to work, because chances are that the person sitting next to me does not feel as though every cell in their body is ringed with flames at the prospect of seeing Bob Dylan in profile for 2 hours performing  songs they’ve seen him perform dozens of times before. Which is how I feel.

images-1But I have to function without my Other People persona in Bob Levinson’s class. This exposure invites me  to look at what I’m exposing to myself as well as sharing with the people in the class, what I take for granted when I type away self-indulgently on this blog, or what I take for granted when I’m bickering with my Inner Circle about which Born in Time is the most poignant. 


images-4If I had to look at the parts of what I take for granted and give an answer devoid of wit to the question: why Bob Dylan day after day?– what would show up? No funny pictures, just answers…



***The kinds of attention that have got to wake up and go to work when I listen to Bob Dylan’s music create the richest inner life I’ve ever known. The range and saturation of aural pleasures, then the apparitions of images on my mental screen, then riding the currents of feeling, then the work of parsing lyrics,  and then glimpsing new faces to familiar words and new associations to familiar phrases, and new personal connections to a lyric, and new invitations to contemplate motifs and themes and ideas. There’s a delicious battle among competing kinds of attention, maybe it’s a dance, or even an orgy, that is the highest pitch of aliveness because all my energies are working, there is no passivity here.

***No artist’s lifework compares to Dylan’s. Listen to North Country Blues, then listen to Rainy Day Women #12 and #35, then listen to Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, then listen to If You See Her Say Hello, then listen to Brownsville Girl, then listen to Dignity, then listen to him do This World It Can’t Stand Long…I give up. It’s not the variety. It’s the completeness and the self-sufficiency of each fleeting and provisional self. Proteus is what he is because he’s not pulling on costumes one after the other. When he’s a leopard, you can’t tell him from something that’s been a leopard since birth and when he’s water you can’t see where he was once a leopard.  Each of Dylan’s selves is its own strange certainty, and he communicates fully from each one. So there is no superficial sense of novelty for the listener that can fade with repeated encounters. Day after day, I rotate  through all these here-and-nows and there’s never fatigue, just endless renewal.

***Food for thought. “Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.” Is this virtue or this expedience? Can I ask more of myself than keeping one step ahead of my conscience, or is that the best I can do? “Shut softly your watery eyes/The pangs of your sadness will pass as your senses will rise.”  Is my emotional life a self-made prison? And attention to the world of the senses, this will release me from that prison? And can this help me understand the brutal feeling in “I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die”?  “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.” Look hard at why the sweetness of life is an “awful truth”  — it’s rather disturbing, isn’t it? “When you gonna wake up?/Strengthen the things that remain.” What if you did this each day, in your own context–wake up from dreams and illusions and fantasies, really see what remains, and strengthen it?  There is no code, no coherent philosophy, no guide in Bob Dylan’s music. But there are countless opportunities to reflect on and to challenge our own experience of this version of death we call life (I always wonder about that line–does it say something about the way our mayfly lives are just tiny pauses in the eternal nothingness we came from and the eternal nothingness we’re headed for? Well, that’s a cheerful thought.)

***It is not easy to find anywhere the combination of inspiration and moral intelligence that is essential to what Bob Dylan does. Not possible to find it. All the invention, all the beauty, all the emancipation from convention, all the fuck-yous to expectations–all of this is lit from within by what I think is the most severely accountable eye any artist has possessed. If you listen widely and deeply to Bob Dylan’s music, the one sustained note is the distance between right and wrong, and the exhausting work of trying to know where you are in that span between right and wrong. He’s created  an art that is wildly inventive and fearlessly exploratory, and not morally anarchic. This is never not extraordinary to me.

images-6I give up.

Big ideas, images, and a scrupulous attention to facts: Bob Levinson’s Dylan class at the 92nd St Y

I can tell you the best way you can spend $300 this summer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which is about what a manicure, a bottle of wine, and 3 ballet lessons for your dog would cost in the area surrounding 92nd St and Lexington Ave:

Discussing Dylan:
Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky with One Hand
Waving Free
Discussing Dylan:<br>Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky with One Hand<br>Waving FreeBob Dylan is one of the cultural icons of 20th-century music. He’s a giant, a genius and a multi-dimensional artist who is revered and respected worldwide for his stunning achievements in music, poetry, politics, art, literature and film.      

Examine and discuss Dylan’s remarkable life, career and music with the following special guests:

Jun 2 – Louis Rosen
Jun 9 – Stephen Hazen Arnoff
Jun 16 – Writers Ron Rosenbaum and Jon Friedman
Jun 23 – Writer/teachers-David Hajdu, Ben Hedin and Robert Polito
Jun 30 – Singer Bob Cohen, writer Billy Altman
Jul 7 – Singer Pat Gaudagon, radio host Rita Houston
Jul 14 – Singers Pete and Maura Kennedy, writer Alan Light
Jul 21 – Poet/Writer Sadi Ronson-Polizotti and Anthony DeCurtis

images-1These classes are organized and led by Bob Levinson, a man whose ardor for Bob Dylan’s work passes every test my arrogant self could apply: Bob L. has not only seen Dylan step forth from the shadows into the Gaslight in 1962, he has wept at a 2007 performance of Shelter from the Storm. By his own account,  Bob has “grown” with Dylan through the decades, always saying “Yes,” to Dylan’s new invitiations to thought and feeling. Also. being a mensch of the highest degree, Bob Levinson’s connections to La Vita Dylan are numberless and invariably a matter of mutual grace, courtesy, and admiration. I need only offer one example to prove my point: the very first class of Bob’s  I attended was in 2007,  through New York University’s Continuing Studies Program. I walked into the assigned room on the first evening, and found in the center of the classroom, an affable mustachioed man seated next to…..Clinton Heylin.  Prior to this moment I had read much of Mr Heylin’s writing on Dylan and was impressed with his singleness of purpose and severity of attitude: if the position of guarding the Gates of Hell ever becomes available, Clinton Heylin is the man for the job. In person, even in a denim jacket, he confirmed my impression. The one question I quakingly asked him was treated with what I realize now was the tone it must have deserved, yet Mr Heylin was decorous and considerate towards Bob Levinson. That’s when I knew Bob Levinson was an exceptional person in addition to being the kind of  Dylan enthusiast that draws the rest of us like magnets. 


 Classes feature a guest speaker who becomes the center of a discussion that ranges vigorously through topics of particular interest to the guest, and then anything anyone wants to bring up. Last night was the first session of this summer’s course, and the guest was musician and musicologist Louis Rosen, a very popular instructor at the Y. Mr. Rosen took an extremely generous and thoughtful approach to being the initial guest of the session, and offered a spectrum of ways of thinking about Dylan.  He spoke a little about the problem of politics in the early songs, and pointed out that songs conventionally labeled “protest” in fact deal with universal complicity in injustice rather than finger-pointing accusations. He asked the vital question of whether we approach Dylan as a “cultural icon” or as an “artist.” Talked about Dylan as the great composer of love songs. Helped musical ignoramuses like myself   *hear* the structure of the melody in Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You. Talked about longevity and relevance. Talked about appropriation and authenticity. Someone did mention Jesus, but rain never came up. I jest–Mr Rosen really was able to cover a surprising number of pulse points, as well as gracing us with a personal confession regarding the significance to him of Mississippi (he favors the Love and Theft version, we won’t get into that). The personal, the universal, the problematic–to bring all these into yourself at once is the work of engaging with Bob Dylan, and in the guise of an informal discussion, Lou Rosen did just that.

images-2 As the weeks go by,  my undistilled and weakly bridled interest in the topic at hand will become increasingly apparent to the other people in the class and their indulgence, should they bestow it, will be a gift I’d never take for granted.