Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize: 'More of an outlaw than you ever were'

Image result for dylan nobelIt's easy to get sanctimonious about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. It's easy to enter the warm flow of his lyricsso elastic and full of possibility that they have supported speeches of presidents, decisions of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, countless nervous breakdowns and romantic break-ups and what will likely be hundreds of articles in the next few daysand pull together something reverent and wise. It's easy to get cute and cynical too. This whole business of black-tie galas for the elite to honor themselves? It's a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame redux, but without the All-Star band and those endless guitar solos while Paul Shaffer frantically tries to reel everybody back to the chorus. 

The one thing that's not easy is not saying something. We do a lot of Dylan around herethousands of words written, thousands of hours hearing the songs, plumbing the lyrics no less passionately and carefully than Aquinas or Maimonides plumbed the holy books. The inbox is overflowing with good wishes because of this obsession. Yet another wave of Dylan is upon us, like the first time he almost died, or the second time he almost died or the years he was reborn and then came back and then disappeared in plain sight while somehow not meeting the expectations of some while still others celebrated the mere fact of living in his lifetime.

When it comes to Dylan, we're obligated to ask what this Nobel Prize is all about. Part of the answer is found in 
what Bruce Springsteen once said about Bob Dylan—not the line about Dylan freeing our minds after Elvis freed our bodies or how Dylan proved that a rock and roll song could contain the whole world. All of this is true and no one knows better than Springsteen. The rock and roll revolution at its best meant emancipation and justice and hope as powerfully as any burst of cultural enlightenment and challenge we've touched. We're thinking about that other gem of a quote, the one where Springsteen says that Dylan is like the brother that you never had.

Now wait a minute, Bruce. You're the brotherly one, the guy posing in Barnes and Noble stores across the country with soccer moms in cardigans and starry-eyed divorced dads on the cusp of old age. You're the one who turns up in pizza joints in New Jersey and L.A. to share a beer with a random admirer. As rarely seen offstage as the Coo Coo bird on the Fourth of July, at best Dylan might be spotted in public in a hooded sweatshirt looking for Springsteens's childhood home in the rain or pretending to beg for change next to his tour bus. 

There's a whole book comprised of fans' Dylan encounters. We read it twice and know him no better. Dylan is a chameleon, a path breaker belonging to no one. He is not a Bruce Springsteen kind of brother; he's something and someone else

Springsteen's comment on Dylan as your brother was cribbed from Dylan singing about Lenny Bruce, the ferocious comedic junkie prophet who died not long after Dylan first ruled the world:

They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools 
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had

These may not be Dylan's best lyrics, appearing on Shot of Love, an album that did not garner much enthusiasm in its day. But if you sit with these words for a while, Springsteen's praise for Dylan as the brother you never had might actually explain what the the Nobel Prize means for all of us who care about how the spirit of popular culture conjured by Dylan has seized the world. Joan Baez explains this spell best in an interview in Martin Scorsese's documentary of Dylan, No Direction Home:

There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything, between what pours out of Bob’s hand onto the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him. Some people would say, you know, ‘not interested,’ but if you’re interested, he goes way, way deep. 

Dylan is not the brother who puts an arm around you after losing the ballgame like Bruce. He's not offering you a beer, or dropping in for a surprise visit on the way back from college or calling you up in the middle of the night to see how you're doing. He's really more like an uncle, an initiator, a darker figure in the background. He might be the brother back from the war, a silent presence smoking a cigarette in the dark; he's an older brother, someone who has seen so much and imagined so much more than no matter your awkwardness or pain or the strangeness of your questions and conclusions, he's been there. 

He's a voice in your head affirming all possibility, a kind of ultimate affirmation, but it's tough love. He's the ancestor you think you had, or wished you had, the one who ripped himself out of the old country to make a new life. He's fearless, maybe a godfather more than a brother or an uncle. He's steady in the night, well-studied, wise, capable of soothing wild fantasies and asking you the essential question not only of rock and roll but the whole wide world after religion had officially passed the mantle of truth to philosophy and science and then on to literature and now, just like the Nobel Prize, it has been passed to rock and roll.

"How does it feel," your brother asks, "to be on your own, no direction home, a complete unknown, like a Rolling Stone?"

Image result for dylan nobelDylan is the definitive individualist, the anti-dogmatic, Romantic, wandering, unsatisfied, unbowed seeker in a world that Freud and James anticipated, Kafka writhed in, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell teased out, and rock and roll ultimately owned. Like a mosaic floor of an abandoned temple scattered across a dry field without reason or rhyme, like the words of a newspaper William S. Burroughs would throw up in the air to make poetry and prose, like seventy years of family pictures scattered in the breeze, the organizing principles of our age are no longer what we are commanded by God or man, but rather how we feel. We ricochet from curiosity to passion to wasting time in the smallest corners of endless cubicles of consciousness that keep us all apart. For many, there's no more common Law, no more tradition, no more recognizable spirit weaving patterns through the days. There are only outlaws. There's living outside the law. All the rest is commentary.

"He was an outlaw, that’s for sure/More of an outlaw than you ever were," says Dylan of Lenny Bruce. We might say the same thing back to him, admiring his capacities and good fortune just a bit too much, but also understanding that if Dylan is a prophetand he surely is not a prophet in the classical sense and surely dislikes being called onehe is a prophet of a world were everyone thinks him or herself a god, so many of us with the world in the palm of our hands but still restless and unsure about the purpose of it all.

"But to live outside the law you must be honest," Dylan sang in 1966's "Absolutely Sweet Marie." In a world where all truths are relative, individuals shape their own sense of honesty, of Law, of truth. That's a world where you miss your brother, the one you never had, the one who lays truth bare and asks the right question and lets you sit with it for as many years as it takes to feel the answer and see the world for what it really is. He's there, looking out the window, taking another drag of his cigarette, waiting for your answer, the one about who you really are. And if there's no brother to sit with you at the window, there's always the music of Bob Dylan. And does that feel? It feels great. Congratulations, Bob. You earned it.


For more on what Dylan really thinks of the Nobel Prize, look here:


And for more on Dylan, just because, visit here, here and here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Walk It Back | Song Six | R.E.M.

Image result for REMAtonement, said the mythologist Joseph Campbell, means "at-one-ment." It means being at one with oneself, abandoning the fakery and falsehoods that turn the whole of a person into parts. More important than the dissolution of transgression is returning to the seamlessness of oneself and the One—as in the Big One, the Unknown but Familiar but Distant but Present but Ever-Knowing One. You know, that One.

This evening a remnant of the children of Abraham will retrace a harrowing descent from Oneness to Noneness, and then slowly reach back again for At-one-ment. It's Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a cycle of timeless time, people trying to be like angels, turning themselves inside out to get to the place from which they just might have come.

Walk it back, says R.E.M. Imagine the song as a conversation between some-one and that One.
What, what would you have had me say instead of what I said?
Where, where would I go?
How could I follow that except to do what I did?
Walk it back, says some-one. Walk it back, says that One. Take it back, they both say. Just reach back this one last time. One time, they say. Take it back. Walk it back. What else would you have them say? What else would you have them to do? Walk it back.

Song of Ascent VI
Walk It Back | R.E.M.

All of the Songs of Ascent

Monday, October 10, 2016

9 to 5 | Song Five | The Kinks

Image result for the kinksBruce Springsteen is generally granted the crown of the king rocker of the working man. But consider Ray Davies for this honor, too. The brain behind the Kinks—a band that some say gives even the Beatles a run for their money when it comes to the alchemy of melding melodies and stories together to imprint indelible rock songs on the world—is watching the clock of the working man from the desk across from yours, a smirk on his face and a tear in his eye.

Davies does not give voice to the lunch bucket, factory horn crowd that Springsteen sings. The Kinks, especially in high-concept (maybe too high concept) records like Soap Opera, are the voice of rock and roll's Kafka. He sings for the pain and glory of pencil-pushing boredom, for the commuter, for the cog in the corporate wheel who measures out his or her days not in coffee spoons, but in the slow, perfectly symmetrical march minute by minute and hour by hour 'til the end of the day. These are journeys that end not out in the street with junkyard angels born to run, but in a pub with one flat pint too many or a darkly lit parlor watching the TV news while eating yet another serving of shepherd's pie.

In these Songs of Ascent, tracing time from mystic seas where anything is possible to time on the ground where people are found, Ray Davies—whose most recent solo album is entitled Working Man's Cafe—holds the hours with immense empathy for the resignation of the person in the cubicle, spirit fused to the tick-tock tick-tock of someone else's clock. Ray Davies is the guy on the other side of your desk writing the novel at night, just like Kafka, and refusing to show a soul, until one day just after the 5 o'clock bell, he shows it to you and you don't ever feel quite as lonely as you once did again.

Song of Ascent V
9 to 5 | The Kinks

All of the Songs of Ascent

Sunday, October 9, 2016

After Hours | Song Four | Rickie Lee Jones

Image result for rickie lee jonesIt's closing time, 
and she's standing on the corner
beneath a street lamp
all alone.
"Say goodnight, America," 
she says,
"The gang has all gone home."

Song of Ascent IV
After Hours | Rickie Lee Jones

All of the Songs of Ascent