The Dylan Soul Barometer

I will forever complain about the total waste of hard earnt cash that was Dylan and the Dead. I will never stop bitching about the Dylan show I saw back in the ’90s, where he failed to actually play any of his songs, instead just murmured lyrics while a band played mostly boogie woogie and he sat in the spotlight for the vultures to gawp at, as if he was a Beat panda, a jive talkin’ road traveling bona fide rare breed. “Look, Darling! It’s a Dylan!” I was guilty too. That was why I was there – to gawp. Why should Dylan have made an effort if people are content to simply tear a little of his soul and suck out the juice of genius, fed on the tears of paradise, suckled on pure lyrical prayers to humanity and the lack of it, to the muse, to life. More than that, prayers to a life so keenly observed, so uniquely experienced through some lens of existential suffering that humanity en masse, started to look to Bob for Answers. It is no surprise that the muse closed her lips, and the vessel cried Enough!

I got into Dylan’s music through a studied determination not to waste my listening time, I did my research – I bought my copy of Rolling Stone. I bought my copy of Creem. I bought my copy of Q and NME and Melody Maker, and poured over them with my dirtbag teenage diligence. I needed to know who to listen to. I needed to know what to spend my hard earned Saturday grocery store cash on: what was top shelf sound and emotion mainline to the soul clues about how to cope with this nasty cold world that had seen me broken and on my knees before I was even able to fend for myself. the abuse I suffered as a child left such a gigantic hole in my soul, a hole that sucked in everything around it, that swallowed people whole. It sucked in novels and poetry. It devoured the suffering and pain of those around me, chomping down on whatever juicy FEELING it could get a hole of. I ate TS Elliot for breakfast, and Sylvia Plath for supper. I never ate at lunchtime: TS Elliot is pretty heavy stuff, and isn’t digested easily. It is a bitter pill to be counseled by Elliot whilst embroiled in the carelessness of youth:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Time. There was to be time, and that was too much baggage for me at the time. I was meant to prepare a face to meet the faces that I would meet? Worse than that, there was going to be time to murder! Create! I was not ready for any of it. I was a black hole soul-feeding vampiric off everything around me, unable to function. Depression, thy name was Paltry. It was an overwhelming weltschmerz, a weight of the world on my shoulders. Nothing pleased me, nothing kept me high or happy or content. Nothing had much of an effect at all. I was a girl shaped iron jaw of death-worship. I wanted to die, or so I thought. I was not only disinterested in life, I was dismayed I was being forced to live it. I didn’t ask to be born. Me and Peter Green crying “I just wish I had never been born!” will only take life so far. In those depths of depression, Dylan singing To Ramona felt like he was singing straight to me, telling me I was defeating myself and that one day he might come crying to me instead. It kept me breathing. It kept me hopeful. It kept my head above water. How strange, I thought for this man to mean so much to me and never know he saved my life one night on the 13th floor of some high rise, as he played on loop while the acid turned on me bad. “There’s no one to beat you, no one to defeat you, ‘cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.” Each line carried me further through the night. Each line written just for me it seemed, Dylan’s voice carrying through the speakers..”I’d forever talk to you but soon my words would turn into a meaningless ring”, Dylan assured me that everything changes, even though he could not be there to help me. Night turned into day, the stars sat back on their thrones, and I brought myself out from under the table. Bob Dylan saved my life, and that is a heavy trip to lay on anyone. I would have been out that window on psychedelic failing wings, if he hadn’t written that song and it was not playing that night.

The doctors put my tender teenage self on hard core antidepressants and told me to put a smile on it. I didn’t like how they made me feel – or not feel. Nothing felt real, nothing felt honest, nothing felt like something, not ever, not at all. Elliot was not pleasing me, “What else is there in store, TS?” I wondered. He had the answer for me between the thing card covers of a slim volume of poetry: There was to be time, for the works and days of hands, that lift and drop a question on my overly full plate. Time was piling up on top of me. Days? I could barely manage hours. I sometimes could not take minutes. My mind never stopped, the bad movie reel to reel never stopped spinning, the tick tick of the tape against the feeder, the soundtrack didn’t cease. “Jezabel!” “Dirty little girl. Evil. You think you are CLEVER?” Actually, I did. I still do. Really, deep inside, in a place that I don’t wish to acknowledge I do think I am not a total imbecile and look down my nose at those who tried to destroy me.

Barely human. Unfeeling. Not the kind of people who dig Bob Dylan.

The kind of people who don’t like Bob Dylan are the kind that make snide dull comments about his voice, his ‘cleverness’, tut at his druggie stonededness, sneer at his Rimbaud possession, and step on his highway boots. These people are not my people, I am happy for them to exist living their Barry Manilow lives, I simply try to steer clear, the normal hoards can get hostile when they smell someone different. These people do not eat up the kind of hot dog records that Dylan is interested in delivering, instead they chew on Celine Dion and Barbara Streisand declaring their reedy high perfect pitched clear crystal cut voices to be perfect and pleasing, and chow down on musical and lyrical nothingburgers of factory-made meaninglessness. Chiffon cake, five days stale, with not a drop of cream to choke down the desiccated crumbs, not the sumptuous glossy bohemian stew of Dylan’s three ring circus. Their palates are adjusted to such unappetizing fare, anything more, anything real, anything offering comfort and meaning would be rejected by bodies operated by brains who fail to comprehend the bigger picture. It is not their fault, they are numbed by their mandatory brainwashing schooling alongside lacking any natural sense of curiosity.

The kind of people who do not like Dylan are not concerned by Elliot’s dark promise that there will be time to “murder and create” nor are they disturbed by the long slow grind of measuring out inadequate sad lives in ‘coffee spoons”. Yet, there are some of us, out here in the cold that shudder at the thought of it. Dylan’s success and popularity gives me hope for mankind: hope that there are enough of us out there, enough of us who are not like them, who ‘take the rag away from (our) faces’ and know when the ‘time for (our) tears is upon us, yet also know when it is time to digest the meals served to us by the warriors of causes, the artists and the freaks, and raise our fists, saving the tears for later when there is time. For all those years measured out in small tiresome, painful increments, both Dylan and Elliot know there is never quite enough of it left. If only we could bank time to use when we need it. I would take a cool sunday afternoon when I rolled up my sleeves and set the needle upon the vinyl of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, and replay that day over and over again.

Girl from the North Country cascade of picking, tender gentle lyrics, emotion, and a quiet playfulness floated into the ether. I sat back and pulled at my cigarette, tapping the ash appreciatively into the heavy glass ashtray. I was precocious. So was Dylan. My precociousness stopped at writing bad poetry, smoking cigarettes, drinking Amaretto liqueur and snorting lines of yellow speed in mall bathrooms. His strange boy Rimbaud existence went beyond a ribbon necktie and a fuzzy brain ( Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead, or curly hair? Take
– Lennon/Dylan taxi ride 1966!) that expressed itself through his fuzzy unkempt hair, Dylan breathed out genius through his childlike anti-Charles-Atlas physicality, and in his wild mercury veined state of consciousness, he became the ‘walking antique’ he wrote about in She Belongs To Me.

It is hard, after all the disturbing of the universe that the young Dylan was engaged in, after all that ‘music from a further room’ which seemed to be transmitted from the heavens, from the graves of Rimbaud and Camus, Verlaine and some Italian poet from the 18th century, through the airwaves, right to that groovy forehead of Dylan, and from there, in a series of dreams and electric impulses that ran to his fingertips through the ghost of currents running along Johanna’s face. It is hard to accept the passing of time. Dylan is immortal. Enshrined, lionized, forever Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues again, moving from Song For Woody Guthrie model Dylan, to Rimbaud Dylan, to Beat Bob on the road again, to the Rolling Thunder Gypsy, round the dubious baptismal backwaters of his Christian era, Boogie Woogie in a suit, and all the transitory stages in between in the evolution of a genius. Yet time still passes as time will and Dylan is still tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door, and so are we. Not necessarily the heaven of the Abrahamic religions, despite his ’80s posturing Dylan is above religion for the most part, and remains so throughout almost all of his more important output (Gotta Serve Somebody is the stunning exception to the rule), but is instead dedicated to propagating a heaven where the world is equal and fair, where the Hattie Carroll, the Hurricane, Emett Till and all the other victimized and ill treated murdered martyrs are both remembered and rightly elevated.

No, I never trust anybody who says they don’t like Dylan. The first time I met Billy we spoke in Dylan lyrics, “old women condemned him, said he should apologize”, whilst I told him that “I ain’t gonna get lost in this current”. When we met again we did the same. Dylan’s words, cut up, chosen carefully, taken out of place. It was my test, my entrance ticket into my circle of being, my way of feeling out if we were sympatico. No Dylan. No go. Not my kind of person.

He pulled out a thick hardback worn book of Dylan lyrics, heavily notated in sharpie and marked with yellow post it notes, and opened the hard case of his Martin. I miss that guitar. It was a late 80s model, grand orchestra body, rosewood back and sides, not laminated, resonant and solid, a Adirondack spruce top, indian rosewood fretboard. It had a small ding under the pickguard, where he had fallen over drunk with it strapped on. The case had beautiful green velvet and a compartment for strings, picks, a tuner and tabs of acid. Any guitarist worth their callouses has a few tabs of acid in their guitar case. I currently have none. Sad state of affairs. He opened the book at random, flipping it about a quarter of the way through, smiling and tapping the page. “What, Billy?” I looked down. Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues stared back at me in it’s monumental perfection. The Martin which I had never touched before was being dangled before me. He had barely had it five minutes himself. It was a grown up guitar. It was not my Ibanez with a high action that sounded like a cat clattering across a hot tin roof, and tore my fingers apart. It was not cardboard and plastic and cheap wood. I passed him my joint, he passed me the Martin. “Play it, Baby!”

I hit that first G chord of Dylan’s Blues, dropped down into the C, my fingers barely touching the strings, a lush rich resonant tone rang out as I sang “If you see St Annie, Please tell her thanks a lot!” My fingers picking out a little folk trope here and there, working through the words and examining the soul of Dylan awkwardly, appreciatively, savoring this guitar that I loved so dearly and that was not mine. “Im going back to New York City! I think I’ve had enough…” I ended…Retrieving my joint and passing him back his expensive new guitar I nodded. There was nothing else I would rather have played on that guitar, if I was only ever going to play one song, that was it. The Fates had chosen well, guiding Billy’s gnarled fingers towards Juarez. He rejected the guitar and kept my joint. “You keep it, Detroit. It’s yours.” I told him not to be ridiculous. “Play Corrina Corrina for me, and lemme finish this, and you can have it. I’ll wreck it, you won’t.” So I did. The Martin was mine, thanks to Bob Dylan, and some shitty Mexican brick weed that had been trying to masquerade as acapulco gold or sensimilla. Everything was sensimilla for while, it was code for “this green ain’t bad”. The Martin was mine. I kept it perfect for years, alongside me, until the day Billy threw me out and took my guitar back meanly. He destroyed it, of course. It is the wreck of the Martin, the Ferrari of guitars, covered in sharpie, destroyed, smashed, gutted.

The loss of the Martin was nothing to do with Bob, just another twitch on the spider’s web, another signal lost in the sky. I have my little Guild, it is a sweet guitar, and I am used to her now, I even named her Joni, but nothing will ever be the Tom Thumb Martin, or the fact I treasured it because it was given to me by someone I used to love almost as much as I love Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home.

Humanity measured in Dylan’s-per-million, scaled from a young Dylan sucking the milk out from a thousand cows, using a kindly-sweet black bandanna waving it in front of a disinterested cow, the matador of words, his lance a tambourine, his passes and hiding in the shadows out of discontent playing out in the ring of his circus while the rest of us watch on, waiting, holding our breath to see if our modern prophet, reluctant as he always is, is going to trip along with ‘one hand waving free’ or will he ‘stumble and land in some funny lagoon?’ TIme has been slipping away and it appears Icarus managed to make a safe landing. Rough and Rowdy Ways would be amongst the best of most artist’s output, instead it is an affectionate and satisfying coda to a long career standing far too close to the sun and surviving and not only this, I would not rule out a follow up triumphant release of new music. I knew he wasn’t going to leave us having to listen to his Sinatra covers, such a bizarre choice for the not exactly tender-voiced Bob.

Whatever he does, Dylan is still relevant. If you ever want to know where someone really stands, what is going on behind those eyes, if they are “Us” or “Them”, on the side of freedom and justice and love and light in the darkness, you could do a lot worse than ask them where they stand on Bob, and if you ever have a guitar to put into someone’s hands, ask them to play Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues, if they hop to that D in the right place and sound intent and honest singing about returning to New York City and having had enough you might just have found someone who you don’t mind passing the years with, or at least long enough to share a joint and marvel at how John Wesley Harding and Bringing It All Back Home, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan are all perfectly acceptable answers to the question “what is the greatest album of all time.

If you look in the rearview mirror of the USA as you drive across those large expanses of the heartland, those long roads that go on forever and ever, straight, and long, grey and passing through plains and parched lands that are screaming for water and hope, you can see Dylan at the head of a line that stretches out from the French existentialists, the Beat heroes, Dylan Thomas in the Chelsea drinking a bottle of whiskey and waving out from his window in the Tower of Song; Neal Cassady in a huge boat of a car he is meant to be delivering but instead drives into a ditch taking the pristine shine off the efforts of men who would build things out of metal and wood but neglect their souls. Kerouac waiting, thumbing a ride out to Colorado half in love half in hatred with his Moriarty- their women behind them in buildings and fields patient and injured. Huncke the holy hustler throwing styrettes of morphine out like flowers before the feet of the travellers, a boho parade with the rear held up by Napoleon on a white horse stolen from Maggie’s Farm, being irritated by Botticelli angels blowing mouthharps, on their way to a wedding or a wake. And Dylan with his collar up against the wind and the rain and the snow, hunched into his jacket, curled into his words and his music raising a thumb, hitching a ride, hopping that traincar, stealing my affection as Billy puts the pedal to the metal and roars on past. Just because someone once had a soul, a tender feeling, it doesn’t mean it can’t all be lost, and lost it is.

There is always Juarez and the blessed train tracks that bring the beat back home.

Leave a Reply