Thursday, October 13, 2016

On Dylan

This was the year for it. I guess every country needs something to feel good about and maybe it's important for the world to be reminded every now and then that America is more than bombs. Maybe it's important to be reminded that the American language, so dominant throughout the world, and often so destructive to native cultures, can be damn beautiful.

This verse cracked me up when I was 13. It cracks me up today:

"Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,'
Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'
God say, 'No.' Abe say, "What?'
God say, 'You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run'
Well Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin' done?'
God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'"

The funniest part is not the comic-drama played out between God and Abraham. It's that phrase, "Kill me a son," a piece pulled from my vernacular. Grab me a beer. Sing me a song. Kill me a son. This is how a smart, serious Jewish boy, growing up in a middle-class household not all that different from my own, a boy with literary pretensions and a musical ear reads the Book of Genesis.

I discovered Highway 61 Revisited in my father's LP collection when I was 13. The only Dylan album that came with lyrics was Empire Burlesque. It was 1994, before I had the Internet, and as I was too lazy to look up a collection of lyrics from the library, I could only listen and feel the language. More diehard fans would write down everything they heard. I didn't. But I listened to that album a thousand times. "Ballad of a Thin Man" didn't interest me that much until someone told me it was about a visit to a gay bar. ("Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you and then he kneels / He crosses himself and then he clicks his high heels / And without further notice, he asks you how it feels / And he says, 'Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan') But the best stuff was great because it wasn't reductive. My favorite was "Desolation Row." "They're spoon-feeding Casanova to get him him to feel more assured  / Then they'll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words." I felt like I had seen that Casanova, as well as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound fighting in the captain's tower and Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood. All those names with tenuous connections to a shared culture, thrown together cackling on the way to apocalypse. That seems to be how every 13-year-old sees the world.

I spent 400 dollars of my money in high school on Bob Dylan CDs. And that line from "It's Alright Ma," the one from which I got the name of this blog, will stay with me until I die. "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." The "l" was pronounced because sometimes the spoken word can improve on the written one. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" was a springboard for a narrative I could imagine for myself. I was never a wallflower at a party. When I was at a party, I was Rosemary, "seeing her reflection in a knife." I didn't know what it meant to be in love in those years, but I damn well knew loneliness and longing, and, out of necessity, the pleasures to be had in solitude. When teenagers complain that people don't get them what they mean is that they lack the facility of language to explain where their weirdness comes from. We all go to "old men with broken teeth stranded without love," because even though we're young we know that's not who we will become. That's who we are. 

As I grew up, and found myself in relationships and better and healthier friendships, met more people I related to, and discovered a certain peace that I was what I was and people were who they were, Dylan changed too. The more unmarried I stayed, the more I understood the fantasy in "Sign on the Window. "Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me 'pa' / That must be what it's all about." But when I heard it I would just smile. "Masters of War" was trite and the Staple Singers did it better. That long-ass song about the Titanic sinking was a blast, especially because Dylan stuck Leonardo DiCaprio in it, because he could.  

When I want to cry, I listen to country music, which Dylan loves even more than I do, and when I want to experience religious feeling if not religious belief, I listen to gospel, which Dylan also loves more than I do. But some things stay the same. When we say a book saves you, we mean that it makes you feel less alone, and it's a comfort to know that on my darker nights and during my darker days, that I'm just one of many people I've known, one of the many students in my classes, and the many sad folks I've met from Seattle to Riga, just one more of the "old men with broken teeth stranded without love."   


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