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He’s Not There (2007): Talkin’ Bob Dylan Symposium Blues

A group of some one hundred and fifty scholars, writers, musicians, critics, and other careful listeners came to Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World at the University of Minnesota this past March looking for a cure … Read More

By / June 1, 2007

A group of some one hundred and fifty scholars, writers, musicians, critics, and other careful listeners came to Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World at the University of Minnesota this past March looking for a cure for their Talkin’ Bob Dylan Blues. With more than fifty papers presented over three days on topics including (but not limited to) Dylan and the disabled, sleaze, Japan and England and Italy, Andy Warhol, Zen, trains, Virgil, the Nobel Prize, his fans, and the apocalypse, it was a chance for some of the artist’s most faithful interpreters to try to craft something beautiful or useful or dissonant or inspiring from thinking about Dylan’s work from just about every conceivable angle.

Musician Spider John Koerner started the program by pointing out the irony of the impending explosion of Dylan Talk in the land of the typically laconic Minnesotan, joking: “Did you hear the one about the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her?” Then conference organizer Colleen Sheehy noted that regardless of any Nordic reserve in the air, all of the participants shared a burden for which she was quite grateful: “We can’t stop talking about him,” she said.

In our defense, Dylan is as ubiquitous as ever, and there is a lot to talk about. Tune in to Theme Time Radio Hour, and for just $12.95 a month (yes friends, that’s just $12.95 a month – satellite radio receiver not included), host Bob Dylan will talk your ear off every week, a freewheelin’, genial, and even giddy host introducing and parsing a thematic grab bag of country, soul, rock, and blues. Hear the Yoda of DJs declaiming excerpts from Paradise Lost or a poem by Emily Dickenson, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” a capella, answering (probably fake) email correspondence from listeners, preaching about the Bible or Women’s Names or Laughter, sharing recipes for drinks, or rattling off forty or so names of favorite flowers, including the name of one – the Victoria Sorgum – that he invents on the spot, cracking himself up on air. Though he does not address the audience directly, Dylan performs incessantly – upwards of one hundred concerts a year at county fairs, private corporate events, casinos, festivals, zoos, and mid- and large-size halls, even spending a few summers with Willie Nelson appearing only in minor league baseball parks. Having recently shared his visage with an ad campaign by Victoria’s Secret, published the first segment of a multi-volume memoir, produced a documentary on his early career with Martin Scorsese, and green lighted a bio-pic entitled I’m Not There (featuring not one, but seven actors in the role of you-know-who), when it comes to the public sphere, Bob Dylan can’t stop talking either.

Ain’t Talkin’

Expecting a symposium of “talks” to glean a deep sense of Dylan Talk is a tall order. Consider the stubborn claims of “Ain’t Talkin’” from last year’s album Modern Times: Here a cantankerous, downhearted narrator voices resignation about the fact that there is nothing at all left to talk about in the world, let alone him; all that remains is to ramble. “Ain’t talking, just walkin’,” Dylan’s narrator says – a wandering Jew par excellence, a drifter, a runaway slave.

Like the curse of the biblical Cain himself, the curse of the hero of “Ain’t Talkin’” – as well as the majority of Dylan’s songs from Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006) – carries the burden of what might otherwise be considered twin blessings: difference and survival. And while Dylan’s hero in “Ain’t Talkin’” and its companion songs is set apart by having nothing left to lose, he also never has the security to sleep in the same bed twice:

Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ Through this weary world of woe Heart burnin’, still yearnin’ No one on earth would ever know

These lyrical concerns carry striking parallels to the intractable state of Cain, archetypal rolling stone whose soul is chased by a sin for which he cannot repent. In Genesis 4:13, Cain says to God:

‘Now that you have driven me this day from the soil and I must hide from your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.’

Again from Modern Times, but in this instance from “Spirit on the Water,” Dylan says:

I can’t go back to paradise no more I killed a man back there

The sin of murder in paradise references a biblical trope explicitly, not an uncommon occurrence for an artist who once sang in “Jokerman” that “the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Law of Jungle and the sea” were his only teachers. But who, in fact, is the man that Dylan’s narrator killed back there? Cain killed his brother Abel in a rage sparked by jealousy. Recall that each of the brothers and the first children of Adam and Eve had tried to please God with a sacrifice. When the sweet scent of the burning fat of Abel’s flock tickled God’s fancy more than Cain’s fruit and grain, Cain became creation’s first murderer. What rage festers at the heart of Modern Times?

“Ain’t Talkin’” says:

All my loyal and my much-loved companions They approve of me and share my code I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road

Likewise, the center of Cain’s crime rests at the crossroads that God himself had demanded to link human and divine: an altar. In Dylan, it is precisely the lack of an altar, the ultimate weigh station between worldly and otherworldly life, which generates the rage bubbling up amidst the gregarious freedom of his creative witnesses. Dylan’s characters’ anger and fatigue are often directed at the absence of their (or his) access to God – an absence that an altar might have cured, but for many reasons cannot. Amidst voices declaiming dissatisfaction at the human divine partnership from songs like “With God on Our Side” to the suggestion of the broken promise “back there” in “paradise,” many of Dylan’s best lyrical obsessions are rolling contemplations on exile – lamentations on the limitations of a life where mundane talk or singing about God is possible, but holy talk with God is not. And as the song goes, a person without an altar to meet the divine – as well as, it seems, the good deeds or commandments embodied by the Golden Rule – is a person lost:

They say prayer has the power to help So pray from the mother In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others But oh, mother, things ain’t going well

Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ I’ll burn that bridge before you can cross Heart burnin’, still yearnin’ They’ll be no mercy for you once you’ve lost

In sixteen minute mini-epic “Highlands” from 1997 – a signature tune for the restless but resigned Dylan of the last decade – the narrator says: “Talking to myself in a monologue.” Like worry beads through the fingers, like Psalms recited for protection and comfort on a crowded bus, like a mantra, like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, much of Dylan Talk is a monologue striving towards becoming sacred dialogue. When words don’t work, as they often do not, he prefers walking and wandering, another act fused with sacred potential. Both talking and walking rest on the hope of transcending a kind of sin – not necessarily template biblical sins like Cain’s murder of Abel, but the contemporary sin of meaninglessness as described by the narrator of “Love Sick” in the first line of the first song on the same album as “Highlands”: “I’m walking through streets that are dead.” If this monologue serves no higher purpose and cannot live in the Highlands, it is better for him just to keep his mouth shut – good advice for my colleagues and I as we prepared our words on Dylan as well.

Revisiting Highway 61

When I arrived at the presenters’ reception on Sunday morning, people were already buzzed. Many had spent the day before traveling up Highway 61 on a seven hour bus trip touring Robert Zimmerman’s hometown of Hibbing. They had scanned the library books of Hibbing High School, looking for a familiar name in the check-out cards in the back; conjectured on the composition of the faculty before his matriculation and its impact on his worldview; noted the building that had housed the movie theater his family had owned; visited his childhood home in short, solemn lines in and out of the door; squinted into the second floor window of another building in town where his bar mitzvah had been held in a rented room. Everyone at the conference was, in one way or another, seeking Bob Dylan’s roots, and the visit to Hibbing had set the tone for all of the talking that would follow. From the specific landscape of Dylan’s world growing up not far from Highway 61 – and then the social, cultural, religious, political, and geographical influences he had found on the mythic adventurer’s Highway 61 and beyond it – visitors were rubbing up against a sense or an illusion of getting closer to answering the question of where Bob Dylan had really come from.

I had spent the Saturday before the conference not in Hibbing, but at a suburban synagogue in St. Paul, giving a sermon and teaching class about Dylan and religion. Talking through a cluster of favorite Dylan songs about religion anchored by “Highway 61 Revisited,” I had collected impressions to the question of “where Dylan comes from” myself. After the class, ten or twelve people gathered around the lectern, each with a question or story to share. This one’s aunt had babysat for him and this one had had her hair done with his mother, and this one had been his bunkmate at camp, and this one, a second cousin by marriage, knew for a fact that “Highway 61 Revisited” was not about politics or religion or Vietnam. “It was about his family,” she whispered, leaning forward, speaking slowly and dramatically. “Everyone knows he abandoned them,” she said. “He didn’t even invite them to weddings.” Arching her eyebrows and nodding her head slowly, it was the nod of assumption that she knew better about the motivations of a man who was, at least for her, just a good Jewish boy gone bad.

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Families and parents of all shapes and sizes do get grilled in Dylan’s rereading of the story of the Binding of Isaac, but at the same time, on a grander mythic level, it is one of the best examples of Dylan’s hunger to reveal the dark side of the nexus of altars and human-divine talk. If the story of Cain is a biblical prototype for murder in the throes of both ritual and familial passion at an altar, the story of Abraham and Isaac comes in a close second.

Highway 61 runs right down the center of the United States, beginning in Minnesota at the Canadian border near Dylan’s birthplace and ending in New Orleans at the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as the Blues Highway, Highway 61 was a primary route of Exodus of slaves from the South towards the industrial cities of the North. As Dylan hears it:

Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’ God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?” God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin’ you better run’ Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’

According to his midrash – the ancient Jewish art of interpreting biblical texts that Dylan falls into by purpose, instinct, or chance – Abraham is an easily corruptible huckster who builds an altar for his own son, a model venue for the four successive verses of the blind leading the lame that follow. Highway 61 is the site of a flippant conversation between God and Abraham – the name of Dylan’s father, as the second cousin by marriage at shul might have added – that produces not only bad talk leading to a bad altar, but an endless cycle of a suffering that orbits around it.

A Fun Loving Guy

Yet even this multilayered reading of the perils of family and a wicked mythic pattern could not stand alone in the face of reports from the field by Bobby Vee, who lit another lamp on the highway in the auditorium after official greetings and the music of Spider John and Tony Glover.

Tan and slim with grey hair slicked back, five decades in the music business and recipient of thirty-eight top ten hits and seven gold records, Vee moved lightly in a double-breasted jacket and jeans to the tip of the proscenium. He radiated an I’m-so-happy-to-be-here smile, palms open, relaxed in his element, working the room. As his lapel mic kept flickering in and out forcing him to share a hand-held with the interviewer, Vee remembered without pretension how he and his band had given a kid named Elston Gunnn a shirt for their first show together because he hadn’t had a clean one to wear; how Gunnn with three “n’s” had been working as a busboy in a dive, but still claimed to have just come off of a tour with Conway Twitty. Zimmerman cum Gunnn cum Dylan banged on the piano with Vee’s band for a month until just before Buddy Holly’s plane went down in an Iowa field and he had passed the reigns of rock and roll on to both of them: Vee would replace Holly on the tour that had also taken the lives of Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Dylan would claim at the 1997 Grammy Awards to have locked eyes with Holly from the audience at the Duluth National Guard Armory just before his death in an exchange of spirit that had animated Dylan’s work, especially the recording of the breakthrough album of the most recent portion of his career, Time Out of Mind. “He was a good-spirited guy, a fun loving guy,” Vee said of Dylan. “And he stays as current as the bread in the bakery.”

Here was straight talk amidst the interpretive rambling: Bobby Vee, one of Achilles’ own soldiers, stepping out of a flat narrative tapestry and describing the hero tying his sandal, an ordinary, ratty guy like you and me through whom an unexplained gust of genius had blown, shifting sense in the world. Information about the singer within the songs served each listener’s need to bring him down to earth somehow, to construct a biography with reasons and causes explaining how this person could or could not contain his gifts.

Even more, as sane, sensitive, and invested as interpretative obsession with the work of a great artist may be, it is also interminably personal. Stories of encounters with Dylan played counter to the universe of the artist’s sounds, images, words, or movements inevitably blending with the interpreters’ own hopes and dreams, creating an echo chamber of meaning where hearing or remembering who spoke first – the artist or the listener – was difficult. Questions rose and fell as to whether Dylan and his listeners could actually be talking about the same thing at all.

10,000 Talkers

I recently returned to my copy of Scorsese’s No Direction Home, looking for the scene of former singing partner and lover Joan Baez explaining how if you don’t “get” Bob Dylan his music can fall totally flat, but if you do, he can touch you so deeply that it is painful to hold. I found an excerpt of Mavis Staples instead, scion of one of the great gospel vocal groups ever, mistress of a thick, trembling, soulful voice that can crack open mountains, and, rumor has it, one of 60’s hipster Dylan’s unrequited loves. She sings a few verses of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in the film, coming to the line “I saw 10,000 talkers whose tongues were all broken,” pausing, saying “Lord have mercy,” and then a few lines later, she stops and sucks in a long breath before the camera cuts away, tears welling-up in her eyes.

Rightly so, after all of this talk of talking, it is difficult to bring forth a sense of what all of this Dylan Talk brought to the world – more broken tongues and windbags to make poets cry? Maybe it was only the reflection of a sense of a shared purpose for seeking meaning in the brave, beautiful, up and down experience of elevating language through listening and talking in a world so full of flat, mundane, damaged words – but I still sensed many small prayers in the air.

The core story of Dylan’s most compelling recent work is his wandering characters’ experience of exile on the flat, haunted earth – from paradise due to some unnamed crime, from a lover, or from a sense of where they could otherwise be. The wanderer wrestles with the tensions of choosing to report his experience of the world. Should he talk or plead his way out of it or simply resign himself to a path of silence, reflection, and survival? These choices carry Dylan’s work into conflicts that have shaped the most cutting, definitive, and radical religious art of recent times.

As in Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” – where a man from the country wastes his entire adult life waiting to enter the gate containing the Law only to discover on the verge of death him that the door had been meant only for him all along if only he had opened it – Dylan’s characters are primary witnesses to humanities’ losing its ability to communicate with and influence the divine. Even though it is only one answer to exile, in “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” (1978) Dylan offers a stunningly close parallel to the set-up of Before the Law. Yet his hero, standing alongside the messianic figure of Senor, reaches a very different conclusion than that of Kafka’s man of the country with a lost and frozen soul:

Senor, senor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon? Seems like I been down this way before. Is there any truth in that, senor? How long are we gonna be ridin’? How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door? Will there be any comfort there, senor?….

Senor, senor, let’s disconnect these cables, Overturn these tables. This place don’t make sense to me no more. Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, senor?

As on Highway 61, a vacuum of corruption has filled the crossroads where the Law may have once obligated the world to make some kind of sense. Dylan’s hero turns to Senor, the Spanish term for the Lord, and demands action. Despite recent, perhaps cunning claims to the contrary, Dylan’s characters keep walking, talking, paying, praying, loving, longing, packing, moving, and chalking it all up to a written, recorded, performed experience of words of challenge and comfort – a full-on package of options for making meaning out of exile even when they fade in fatigue to silence.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sadilkov – grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism – put it this way in a teaching translated by Arthur Green and Barry Holtz in Your Word is Fire. Prayer, listening, silence, and words all share mysteries to keep:

Take special care of what you do in the moments immediately after prayer. The spirit of your worship may remain with you and affect your thoughts and deeds. One who prayed with great fear of heaven may see awe turn to anger. One whose prayer was an outpouring of love may be overwhelmed by unwanted passion. In order to avoid such pitfalls, it is best after prayer to begin at once your work and study.

These words require careful thought, but their implications are best not committed to writing.

These are choices worth talking about – Dylan’s and more; almost imperceptible altars for crafting something beautiful or useful or dissonant or inspiring out of these blues.

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