I switch on the old TEAC reel-to-reel, thread the tape spools, sit back and listen to a 24-year-old Bob Dylan conjure up a dystopian mindscape he imagined midway through the ‘60s: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown.”
Here in the lee of the pandemic, these words appear prophetic, as alive today as when they were written. But not only is my equipment old, and I shall wear my trousers rolled, but the Bard of Hibbing turns 80 this month, still on the road, the darkest part, croaking rather than what passed for singing.
A new chapter
On his latest album, a “Desolation Row” close relation, “Murder Most Foul” recalls John F. Kennedy and the assassination with allusions aplenty and Weltschmerz earned by decades of Dylan’s never-ending tour. Had JFK not met an untimely end in Dallas, and had he uncommon longevity, he would be turning 104 this month. Were Dylan’s musical influence Elvis Presley still with us, he would be an overripe 86, and his telltale hip-shake would have given way to titanium replacements and a jailhouse rocker. The lucky ones leave us in their prime, locked in amber. Those of us who survive into the last third of a century learn to loathe mirrors and sport hats in lieu of hair.
Dylan entering his ninth decade is all the more sobering since, whether he liked it or not, he was seen as the voice of a generation, epitomizing never trusting anyone over 30. The mocking master of the put-down tore apart a Time reporter in “Don’t Look Back,” the film chronicle of his madcap take on the straight world.
Richard Farina, whose own motorcycle accident one-upped Dylan’s and took him out of this life two days after “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” was published, labeled Dylan “Morgan the Pirate.” As we see in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary, he was a precocious talent but also a prevaricator by trade and not all sweetness and light, as Joan Baez learned right on camera.
I was fortunate enough to work with Dylan one of the last times he really sang, in his first appearance at the White House, celebrating the music of the civil rights movement. Pete Souza’s photo of Bob stepping offstage in the East Room and shaking Obama’s hand says it all.
The president ran it in his memoirs. Two men of firsts, joined by smiles, for a wrinkle in time in which a feeling was in the air that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was true again. The next occupant of the People’s House put paid to that, as if the Visigoths of 410 AD had sacked our own Rome. Everyone I knew and admired at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., down to the ushers and Secret Service, exited. Darkness, darkness, be my pillow. But I regress. We rise again.
Thin, wild mercury music
There were few who could wear Dylan’s story-song shoes. There is a reason, however tortured, why he won the Nobel for literature. “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain, and these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” The “thin, wild mercury music,” as Dylan termed the sound on his masterpiece “Blonde on Blonde,” will remain when he and we are ashes and sand.
Sadly, his fellow literary songster, Leonard Cohen, has predeceased him, with his stories of the street and his heartbreaking Magdalenes. If you crave a feast for eyes and ears, stream Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” on Amazon Prime, soundtracked by Cohen and inhabited by luminescent Julie Christie and doomed and determined Warren Beatty.
As a boy, we summered in an old mill house in Woodstock. When my artistic cousin Kathy was living there, she brought over an early Dylan album, the first time I heard him. Soon after, I made the decision to spend my scant dollars on a copy at King Karol’s on 42nd Street in New York, rather than what I had come in to buy, a Beatles record. They, too, were influenced by Dylan. If you doubt, listen to “Norwegian Wood.” The winds of the old days blow through these tracks, with blood on them blended with hard rain.
Where will we be when summer’s gone, when the last presence has passed from this earth of voices that inspired us and brought transcendent lyricism and story to the domain of Tin Pan Alley, and all we are left are derivative products of Pro Tools, pitch-fixed pablum that passes itself off as art when it is just ear candy, wallpaper for a roomful of too much of nothing.
If there is any shelter from the storm we are in, with hurricanes to come, it may be in the form of finding the head space, dropping the needle, listening for an answer still blowin’ in the wind.