Some days after I wake up and make my tea, pull my guitar out of its case, I am left with a sense of emptiness. I might look out the window. I might pull out my favorite fucshia ink pen and notebook, I might turn up the music, that is whatever is on my youtube playlist, skipping over the adverts and wishing I had a CD collection or at least spotify so I could listen and not be interrupted by mattress salesmen, adverts for colon scans and admonishments to seek psoriasis relief via immunosuppressants. “Side effects may include death” the narrator gleefully intones. Death is just a side effect of life. Nothing lives forever. Not even Diamonds and Rust. Everything can be crushed, everything can be transformed. There is nothing that can’t be lost, not even in the search for clearer skin, a better night’s sleep or a healthy modern colon. Everything carries risk. Nothing wins in the end.
It is all very depressing to think about. Affections are perhaps the thing most easily shed and lost. Clicking skip on some snarky ad that told me that other adverts lie, but not this one – invoking distant memories of an antique Creten saying that all Cretans are liars, in a paradox that outlived Epimenides himself, who may or may not have been an idle belly, a liar and an evil brute by his own admission. There are certainly liars, idlers and evil brutes circulating in our modern society, just as much if not more so than in his ancient one, and most of them are trying to sell something. Sell health, sell ideas, sell politics, sell relief. I don’t buy into all that aspirational bullshit: if youtube really knew me they would offer me vintage guitar pedals, tube amps and reviews of the G & L Fallout in artic white to salivate over. Free shipping on Shonen manga. Socks with Hedwig the Harry Potter owl embroidered on the ankles, and size 4 Levi high rise boyfriend cut jeans in pale blues and greys. I might go so far as Frieda Kahlo devotional candles,Georgia O’Keeffe yoni-like flowers and hardback bound beat readers. These are the things I like to look at. I sleep like a baby on my memory foam. It doesn’t help me forget anything, doesn’t cushion me from remembrance of times past, but I am sure comfortable while I cry myself to sleep at night.
Memories are reduced to either diamonds or rust, as Joan Baez sang about her vagabond lover, Dylan. Joan might have already paid, but I haven’t and never will. Some memories dissolve in the rain and the Bay salty breeze, rusted away, corrupted, brittle. Others get so compressed and molded in the hands of their makers, that their carbon forms new bonds, clearing the black fuel into sparkling sharp clarity clicks. Polaroids that don’t fade. Precious nuggets preserved in the sap of life, as it spirals down the drain. Push down on me until I remember. Crush me until I can never forget, and though memory remains hardened and eternally imprinted, only to be killed off by other memories which bury it, affection rusts.
Oh to ‘keep it with mine‘, to be saved by another vignette of record and meticulous library keeping of emotion! To replay the tracks built from love, carved into souls, and grooved into the hops and skips of sound and motion, round and round they spin. A hand in mine. A small giggle. A chubby little grin on a face that showed nothing but open adoration. A warm body of my work gone to waste. Joan had her own Minnesotan trouble maker vagabond. I fail to dredge up much rust even for mine. Those pretty arpeggios she plucks, the sweet hammer on’s beating the memory into gold, her voice of longing and love and though she is ‘speaking strictly for me’ when she says ‘we both could have died then and there’, the snow globe dance of her and Dylan in Washington Square steeped in amber, that soft warm glow that enshrines the past, fixing precious moments in time and space, wings frozen, preserved – not living yet not gone. Diamonds and Rust blown away in the Idiot Wind of Dylan’s vitriol.
Whichever of Dylan’s women Idiot Wind might have been written for – Sara, or Joan, or Suze, or all of them, some amalgam of his loves and memories and obsessions and muses – it doesn’t really matter. While Joan leads the forwards charge towards reasonable fond memories of past glories and happinesses, salted with a little exasperation at his drifting in and out of her life at will, Dylan rips away the band aid, takes it down to the immediacy of the anger of someone who remembers why they broke up in the first place. “Destiny..broke us apart” Dylan wails. He doesn’t care: he has those rusty nails and he is going to crucify himself, his women and their ‘corrupt ways’ that caused pain and suffering.
Dylan is not in the mood to be calling Joan from a ‘booth in the midwest’ to talk about cufflinks and ‘something’ which she thinks she has already paid for, in Idiot Wind. Brutal self examination, disgust for both the object of the song’s behavior, and his own stupidity, is the name of the idiot game. The answers are still Blowin’ In The Wind, along with the ‘false ideas, images and distorted facts’ that also blow in on that breeze, along with the positive changes and the roads that all men must walk down. Like Jerry Reed once sang, “she got the gold mine. I got the shaft.” Dylan is feeling shafted by the press, shattered by his women, shafted by the wind itself, that brought him fame and fortune, but also a life in which he can’t even remember what ‘peace and quiet’ was even like. The inspirational wind of his youth has come back to bite Dylan, and he is gonna use it anyhow.
“Smoke pourin’ out of a box car door’ – the past is on fire in this song. His creative past, his Woody Guthrie idolization, no smoke without fire, is in flames. The “smoking town” inhabited by his woman, whoever she might be, is fanning the fire of Dylan’s discontent, and let’s face it, it sounds magnificent. The muse failed to ‘tame the lion in his cage’ and we should be grateful for it. An untamed heart is the only way to create, and though it is a personal tragedy it is a creative triumph. Dylan sings that he thinks he is ‘finally free’, and though we know, forty five years later, that this was overly optimistic, even for a song this biting, it brings to mind his earlier words in Ballad of Plain D, another angry song about a woman, this time Suze Rotolo:
‘Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
And I answer them most mysteriously
“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”‘
The answer to the riddle of the prison of fame and creative success, the gilded cage of Dylan’s genius, was answered right at the start of it all, twelve years earlier. Poets are the birds that are never free of the chains of the skyway of artistic creation. We all have that scathing ‘blood on your saddle’: war wounds from the road and the journey.
Dylan doesn’t let himself off the hook. Where Joan was speaking strictly for herself, Bob’s rage knows no such boundaries ‘on the borderline which separated you from me’. His judgment envelops him like a whirlwind. Not the audience that tears strips off the Osiris-like figure of Dylan the Poet of humanity, not his women who loved him, not his passion for civil justice, not his friends or the scene are spared the cutting strokes of his pen, not the impromptu garotte of his steel strings. Dylan is a slugger, a heavy hitter, and he has given himself full rein. Blood on the Tracks? Blood on the saddle. Blood in his eyes for you. Joan snaps back that she has “already paid”, but Dylan wants to make it known that his success, and his love has cost him everything too, even his reputation.
Memory is destroyed by hatred and anger, both aimed at himself and others – “I can’t recall your face any more” he hisses, face contorted on the stage, bending towards the band and the floor, weighted and yet carrying the song into the upstairs choir, in the hallowed halls of The Tower of Song. Cohen knew where it was at. Dislocated from physicality, left ‘standing in the middle of the air’, rootless and disjointed, ‘hounded’ and blinded, on ‘the top’ but finding himself ‘on the bottom’, howling at the memory of love that haunts him: that crossroads hell hound beast that he kisses goodbye to, and yet won’t let him go.
He is Dylan after all. As much as he might not like it, as unfair as it is, the rest of us look to Dylan to take the temperature of love, of life, or humanity, and sing it for us. He provides the words for what we are all feeling, wanting, running away from. Those words that are brought in on the wind, caught in butterfly nets, and formed into diamonds and rust that we long to hear played.