I accept that I am somewhat superstitious and that it is entirely possible that I put too much significance onto random events. I recognize that I have to at least consider the possibility that Dylan never had a key to the heart of any Universal Truth and that Patti Smith isn’t harboring ancient knowledge of a version of human history that has been mostly forgotten. Maybe, just maybe songs mean nothing and neither does the random timing of what plays in public by the mechanics of random chance and the whims of strangers.
Serendipity might in fact be pure coincidence, however, I am not so sure that there is not a Radio Collective Consciousness, a hive mind that expresses itself through the musical poets of our age. I am not entirely convinced that there is not a vast eternal DJ up in the clouds spinning old 45s and bootleg tapes of Grateful Dead shows to their entirely captive audience on earth.
There is something special about hearing songs in the wild, unchained from a living room pair of speakers and set out to roam and roost where they will. I have heard Tangled Up In Blue so many times that I know it as well as my favorite blanket or my most comfortable, worn-in pair of hiking boots. I wear the song like a prayer or a talisman. I reach out to it in times of trouble and settle down to be told a story of a man that I only know intimately via his art, who perfectly encapsulated what it was for him to be on the cusp between two worlds whilst heading out for yet more unchartered territory.
Tangled Up In Blue is a song that looks to the past, to that sacred stage between childhood and adulthood, where you are not too old for ‘Sugar Mountain’ as Neil Young once sang, with its ‘barkers and colored balloons’, but you very soon will be. “You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain”, according to Neil Young, and both Dylan and those he left behind in his youthful past to become ‘mathematicians’ and ‘carpenter’s wives’ have past that sacred age by the time this song takes place. It is clear that his old friends have become as alien to him, as he has to them. It is an ode to everything that we leave behind when we grow up and move on down the line, and everything that we miss and we long for when we do. This song is a treasure. It has the quality of something fragile yet enduring that sits on that fine line between the sacred and the profane.
This song has been one of my constant companions. I have plucked out its melody on the six strings of my guitar and sang its sweet lyrics by campfires and in the living rooms of countries on various continents. Walking down Polk Street music can often be heard floating over the Californian airwaves. It settles on the top of urban palm trees and winds its way from the doors of bars and clothes shops. A car was parked opposite a veterinary practice. Inside the building sad dogs yelped and furiously contained cats glared from their carriers waiting to be prodded and poked. A golden retriever tried to escape the inevitable, only to be herded into the inner sanctum. These San Franciscan animals have better healthcare than I could ever dream of. The car started to emit a sound, a few echoing tinny almost baseless notes from a subpar auto-audio system that had to fight against the vast expanse of California outside the thin metal walls of the sedan, but what beautiful notes they were.
An old man stood leaning on a parking meter, trying to light a cigarette from an almost dead, white disposable lighter. I don’t trust white lighters. They are bad juju, man. The opening sounds, struggling to be born into their new feral Polk Street life, blossomed into Tangled Up In Blue. It was being played as loud as that little stereo could manage, and certainly plenty loud enough to shake the shitty Lexus that was the conduit for the Radio Collective Consciousness. It was loud enough to make me stop and stare. Loud enough to make that old man’s hair stand right up on end and bounce his brains around in his skull good and proper. Dylan in the wild. Free range Blood on the Tracks. It was a moment of religious awe. It was a spiritual happening. A call was sent out into the ether for comfort, to know that out there something bigger than us is listening, and that call was answered. I suspect the call was made in to the universal radio station by that frail, grey haired old man trying to stay upright in a topsy-turvy world; he was so attached to the parking meter I wondered for a second if he had fed it with quarters in order to park himself there. At that moment in time, Dylan became the folk messenger of a greater power, an eternal disc jockey taking the time to play a long track in the middle of the day to two people who happened to be standing on Polk Street. It just happened these were two people to whom hearing those words could mean the world. The song settled like a feather on the breeze. Tears filled my eyes and I could not even name why.
I walked over and offered my compadre, the old man, a light. My faithful green lighter never seems to run out, I swear it is a druggie miracle of propane instead of olive oil. His cigarette sent its profane smoke up to the heavens at the altar of poetry and music. The music kept on talking about how papa was too poor, and mama’s dress was homemade, how he could not get his red-headed teenage beauty out of his mind, but that the road and his future called out to him. In an imprint of desperate longings past I could almost hear it whistling for Dylan to attend his East Coast destiny and leave his past loves behind.
I had no desire to move away from the old man or the song. Hearing Tangled on demand, blowing through the little Bluetooth speaker that sits by my bed, or else my tinny dollar fifty headphones will forever be a thing of beauty, but transmitted in this way it washes over the soul like watered down grape juice. Out on Polk Street, thirsty for comfort, desperate for a message, longing for something bigger than myself, as the birds flew overhead, and the old man swayed whilst holding up his aching bones on the skeleton of the parking meter, the sweet juice of the song was transformed miraculously into strong fortified wine. The song had wound its way through the verses. The bridegroom was headed out for a fishing boat in Delacroix, and his future, the Bride, was reciting him ‘Italian poetry from the 16th century’. Filtered through Dylan’s vision the words ‘glow like burning coal’ while the ‘topless bar’ world that Dylan sings of, profane and beautiful, sullied and untouchable, marches past down Polk Street confronting the reality of the present.
I stood outside the veterinary practice until the final reedy notes from the harmonica escaped Polk Street and sent out their clarion call into the ether; then I turned my back on the old man and his parking meter, to the homeless man that held out his hand, sprawled on the sidewalk, dark with filth and emitting pure desperation, I turned my back on Dylan and San Francisco and the drag of the past. I wondered if her hair was still red, and if her mama’s homemade dress was still not good enough for her. I knew that somehow, Radio Collective Consciousness saw all this and sent down some blue down to the tangled-up ones: down to me and the old man, and the young white man drunk in the doorway. It was sent down to the barking dogs and the wide-eyed cats, both human and animal, but nothing ever lasts, especially not certainty in these troubled times. I am beginning to think I am a fickle creature with bad habits. I wonder if there is a shot in that animal clinic to cure that? I made up my mind to play Dylan’s Shot of Love as soon as I got home.
Even up in the penthouse looking down on some street, desolate or thriving, even from the heights of success, the reality of what really matters is out there, singing its song, longing for an adventure. It pines for a love that got lost, or a past that is simpler, fuller of inspiration, and somehow more magical as a result. Where is the magic in being at the top? Where is the inspiration in comfort? No. Tangled up in Blue is a plea from a nascent poet with his wandering boots still firmly strapped on. I wondered how old the song was by the time Dylan put it on Blood on the Tracks. Oh, how we long for days that were barely bearable! Oh, that bad knowledge! Oh…those beautiful words! Oh, the music!
Catching these songs wandering down the road, song on the lam, forging vibrant lives of their own, vital and living and real and unbidden, is the essence of pleasure and comfort. The songs stop becoming dinner music, or background noise, and transform into messages from the great beyond. That was quite enough intensity for one day, so I walked up to the grocery store. I needed a bag of apples and perhaps some bananas, but Radio Collective Consciousness had me within its sights.
Why is everything so expensive now? My kingdom for a tube of toothpaste! My soul for a honeycrisp and an overripe banana! This grocery store has good taste in music. They sometimes play the Allman Brothers, Hendrix and The Who. It is not unknown to hear Joni Mitchell. Occasionally they even make me smile.
I was still smiling to myself about the feral and wild freewheelin’ Dylan performance, when over the grocery store sound system, the familiar opening electric chords of the second best song on The Velvet Underground’s Loaded album imposed themselves on my world. “Her life was saved by rock and roll” Lou Reed sneered. I was in heaven. The Velvets on the loose! Lou Reed strutting his perfect stuff down the aisles of a little San Franciscan grocery store, amid the avocados and bottles of truffle hot sauce blew my mind. “Despite all the complications, you could go out and dance to the rock and roll station…and it was alright” Lou intoned, forming the speed-driven incantation of Rock and Roll. Radio Collective Consciousness was on pointe. I heard it loud and clear. I guess Tangled up in Blue was for the old man after all.
Both me and Jeanie’s lives were saved by rock and roll. The Eternal DJ has a sense of humor. The girl in Lou’s song broke out from her middle-class bubble and got on down to the sounds of life coming from the radio, and now the radio was playing me a reminder of who I was and what music had given me over the years and what it had taken from me too. My own personality traits that led, in part, to my life’s twisted path thrown into sharp relief. How come it never sounds this good on my powerful living room speakers? Me and Jeanie have a lot in common. We started dancing to that fine, fine music. Like Lou’s Jeanie, my life was saved by rock and roll. Lou was telling me ‘it was all right’, as his guitar sang out from beneath a sea of distortion. I began to wonder if an end-of-the-world-level disaster was about to unfold. This was not normal. This was something special. This was interactive radio psychic interference. This was a real treat.
Hearing Dylan wandering down Polk is one thing. Hearing my beloved Velvets in a grocery store is another entirely. Dylan is popular, but The Velvet Underground are niche, they are special. More than any of that, they are mine. Rock and Roll faded out and the Werewolves of London struck up its riotous opening. Warren was in the house. I dropped the bananas and ran for the door. That kind of magic is too hot for my blood. I might be a rock and roll survivor, but I am not totally reckless. Something was clearly afoot in Nob Hill today and that was quite enough of a musical conversation with the Great Beyond for one day for this musical devotee.
There is a homeless man who has a boom box who lives in my neighborhood. He was not there in his usual spot as I left the grocery store and headed for the sanctum of my home, away from the songs that had broken out of their cages to run free and wild over the Californian airwaves. This man sits outside the grocery store sometimes. He plays the same song – Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car – over and over. It is his prayer. I heard him play it one day when I was feeling as desperately sad and overwhelmed with grief as I have ever felt. I felt like I was in a forbidden religious confessional, which is a little rich for a heathen soul who does not for one moment believe any of that Christian jive. Fast Car is a song of atonement. It is expression of the holiest sound of the human struggle to survive and thrive. It is a song of love, of caring for someone else at the cost of your own happiness. It is a song of parental failure, where the young narrator sings of their stoic almost-acceptance of the reality of quitting school and giving up their future to care for their alcoholic father.
That acceptance fades into resilience: “You have a fast car. I have a plan for getting out of here” Tracy Chapman plans. I have planned alongside her in the past. I have got into a friend’s ‘fast car’ and driven away from mundane danger into the future. This song is my Jerusalem, myAbide With Me and my national anthem rolled into one. After all what use are hymns if not to inspire, energize and comfort? I asked him one time why he plays that song. He looked me right in the eye and declared: “Because people need to hear it.” Of course, this man who has an ancient boom box, but no home was entirely right. People need to hear the music, they need to hear other people’s joy and suffering in order not to feel quite so alone in this bad trip we call life.
Music is what brought people in droves to San Francisco in ‘60s in the first place. It is what binds us together, and what sets us apart from the animals, if not the birds. The winged things might have the music, but we have the words. We have Radio Collective Consciousness. I long to hear The Last Time I Saw Richard, by Joni Mitchell as I walk the plastic floors of some big box store looking for Christmas tchotchkes and life-shortening candy. I want to hear Pale Blue Eyes as I sit nursing a glass on the upper floor of Café Vesuvio in North Beach. I need to hear Me and Bobby McGee emanating from the depths of some hip vintage clothes store, and Norwegian Wood emanating from a sweet little book shop. I want to hear Patti Smith sing People Have The Power in an ancient auditorium and feel the power of her words. We all sound different when we are free, and songs are no exception to this rule.
The last verse of Tangled Up In Blue is launched with Dylan’s beat credentials “But me, I’m still on the road, headin’ for another joint”. Dylan of the 70s was still ‘on the road’, on his Never-ending Tour that he never really got off from. Dylan seems like a man forever moving on, caught up in the blue trap: heading out but caught looking back.
I think I just found the answer to my question about why these songs are so impactful in the wild. I knew Dylan knew some important stuff after all. I think he just gave me the answer in our shared propensity towards nostalgia. For a girl whose life was saved by rock and roll, these songs wove themselves into the fabric of my life, a thread of gold through the rough warp and weft. It is the association with our own lives, that human grok, that vox humana, that makes them all the more powerful. When we are taken by surprise by compassion and empathy the effect is overpowering. I did not chose to listen to those songs, those songs chose to be played around me. Serendipity: the possibility of the holy imposed on the profane.
I remember those summers, those people, those times, those roads and those emotions when all my hope was alive and breathing. It was before the grand reckoning. It was while I still had a future, instead of a past and a desperate need to accept the present as what it is. That song sounded so good when it surprised me out there on Polk Street because it summoned up the ghost of my youth, before it all went so very wrong.
I could be wrong about all of this. I am not pretending to have the answers, only a hunch and a keen eye for things that hold the human soul to ransom. I should play whatever the urge makes me want to play today. I have set my speaker near an open window that opens out onto the street. I want to see if I can give another person a holy experience, a message from the great beyond, or even just a nudge of a memory of a perfect day some place in the past. I think I will start with Zevon’s Werewolves of London. I might as well begin where Radio Collective Consciousness left off and see if I can send out some good airwaves for others to surf today. The sun is shining on this San Franciscan winter afternoon. How I love California and all its gold and possibilities. I will send some juicy sounds up there into that shining sky today and see what bounces back at me. Who knows, perhaps I can be someone else’s serendipity. Radio Collective Consciousness beaming out to you from the ‘Loin and into the bleak hopelessness of the day.