I Know All the Hindu Rituals
Bob Dylan and T. S. Eliot, Fighting in the Captain’s Tower
Poetry is language charged with meaning to the greatest possible extent
— Ezra Pound
I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know? There’s truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more. You can’t go through life without reading some kind of book.
— Bob Dylan, 2012
. . . Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness . . .
— T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"
You can take it or leave it, but here’s the truth: Bob used my 2011 memoir, The Golden Bird, as a primary source for the themes and lyrics of his sublime and incantatory song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Yes, it surprised me too. But I have studied, researched and reflected, and I understand why he borrowed my story. If you are serious about the art of Bob Dylan, please read on. Dylan scholarship hasn’t caught up yet, but it will.
I have written about this at length previously:
Recently I came across a reference on the Expecting Rain discussion boards, from a user, “My Echo, My Shadow, and Me,” to a book by Gary Hall. It's called Pirate Philosophy for a Digital Posthumanities. I’m guessing it’s the source of the phrase in the title of Bob’s song. Hall works at Coventry University in Britain, as “Research Professor of Media and Performing Arts, and Director of the Centre for Disruptive Media.” From the preface (my bold):
In the chapters that follow, Pirate Philosophy proceeds to ask how, when it comes to our own scholarly way of creating, performing, and sharing knowledge and research, we can operate in a manner that is different, not just from the neoliberal model of the entrepreneurial academic associated with corporate social networks such as FaceBook and LinkedIn, but also from the traditional liberal humanist model that comes replete with clichéd, ready made (some would even say cowardly) ideas of proprietorial ownership, authorship, the book, originality, fixity, and the finished object.
Dylan again, from 2012, with his own take on cowards:
And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.
At the opening of his first chapter, Hall includes this definition:
Pirate . . .from the latin pirate (-ae; pirate) . . .
Transliteration of the Greek piratis (pirate)
from the verb pirao (make an attempt, try,
test, get experience, endeavor, attack . . .)
In modern Greek . . . piragma: teasing . . .
pirazo: tease, give trouble
And from Dylan’s “My Own Version of You,” a song that describes in exquisite detail Bob’s recent songwriting process:
All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you
In this essay, I describe more of Bob’s pirating in “Key West (Pirate Philosopher).” I reveal more teasing and more trouble, and dig up more body parts. We will travel to both morgues and monasteries.
Here I show a key intersection between my book and Bob’s song: T.S. Eliot’s spiritual masterpiece, Four Quartets. The poet’s work is central to my text, and Dylan “telescopes” my use of it into his lyrics. I touched on Dylan’s allusion to Eliot in my previous articles, but here I go deeper into the connections. I also examine the nature of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and Four Quartets as musical rituals. I demonstrate how the metaphysical alchemy of Dylan and Eliot’s poetry is key to two scenes in The Golden Bird — an early one that inspirits the action, and one at the climax — and how Dylan’s song, a cryptic gospel, mirrors that tale.
With Timrod, Junichi Saga, and the classical poets, Bob transferred nearly complete phrases into his compositions to create new effects and altered meanings: his own versions — new monsters. He uses a different method for The Golden Bird. Dylan has distilled my themes and episodes into his verses, using only a few of my words, and concealed allusions. The basic idea will be familiar to the dedicated student of Bob, because of the work of Scott Warmuth, on his blog, “Goon Talk.” The relevant post is here:
Dylan’s use of The Golden Bird is akin to his “telescoping” of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro into Chronicles, Volume 1, as Warmuth describes it. You should read his full post if not already familiar, but in brief: On his death bed, sick with gangrene, Hemingway’s character Harry wonders if there is a way of condensing all of his ideas for unwritten stories into a single paragraph. Dylan rephrases the idea in Chronicles, and goes on to use the method to transfer key concepts from the novel into his memoir. Here’s Bob’s version, which Warmuth has also quoted (italics mine):
I need to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library — everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right.
Dylan got it right. I keenly recognize my story, and not in an everyman, universal and human sort of recognition. I see it in bizarre details that exist far outside common experience. That said, Bob has written and structured his song to appeal, as he does, to deep wells of common need. In a song about the space between life and death, Dylan has compressed my memoir into “one verse.” And then a few more. The middle section of The Golden Bird, from which Bob has pilfered most freely, takes place, like the song, in a Floridian “land of light” that is not quite of this world, or the next. Please see my previous posts for all the connections. Here I will limit myself, as much as possible, to Four Quartets.
Another couplet from “My Own Version of You”:
I want to bring someone to life - someone I’ve never seen
You know what I mean - you know exactly what I mean
These lines connote, in classic Dylan fashion, a meaningful ambiguity. Do we know exactly what he means? Can it be known? I read it as a dig at analysis, and the plagiarism critics, and a confirmation that these obscure allusions exist, all at the same time. I take it as a grain of salt for my own interpretations, and also, validation.
There are differences between the “thefts” from Hemingway and his use of my story. Most obviously, I am no Hemingway. My manuscript is obscure to the point of invisibility. It was self-published and is not currently for sale. It was sent to Dylan’s office upon its completion, in gratitude for Bob’s inspiration and free permission to quote a multitude of lyrics. And also, the intertextuality between my book and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is rarely verbatim. It’s thematic, and reliant on patterns and like images. Crucial words are repeated from book to lyric, but most of the inspiration Bob takes from my manuscript is, frankly, runic.
The arcane nature of my text and the buried allusions are part of the point. The song is an incantation that transports a listener out of the present moment. (And who doesn’t need that right now?) Dylan is a puzzle master, and as I have demonstrated previously, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” is a treasure map to songs, literature and history. Artistic inspiration is mirrored, and time is transcended. Dylan appears in my book only distantly, as muse. Eliot’s poetry, likewise, is a source of both illumination and doubt. As mentioned, the metaphysics of their work — the “live” performance — has dramatic effect on events, as I will describe. These mysteries are Dylan’s stock-in-trade and he seems to enjoy using hidden and shadowy sources. Who, after all, guessed he might take lines from a Japanese gangster novel or a New Orleans guidebook?
I believe Bob Dylan used my book because mirrors of inspiration are at the center of “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” It is a record of muses, disguised and in plain sight, from Calliope to Penelope, from Billy Emerson to Stevie Nicks, from Walt Whitman to Edgar Allen Poe. I believe that Bob decided to include, covertly, a reflection of his own inspiration over a young person’s life — a boy born in St. Paul in the very moment Zimmerman became Dylan in a cafe just across the Mississippi river. In The Golden Bird, Bob’s records soundtrack my early adulthood, to strange ends. I believe that my story — so different than the artist's life, due to his gift, his calling and his fame — unknown, “under the radar,” yet replete with reflections of Dylan’s art — the story of a nobody, but absolutely original — allowed the singer to see himself from a distance, from offstage. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” he plays my view, and my youth, back to me.
I know, it's crazy.
In turn, I hold up the mirror again.
Four Quartets is named precisely in the second line of this half-verse in Dylan’s song:
I play the gumbo limbo spirituals
I know all the Hindu rituals
People tell me that I’m truly blessed
Bob telescopes my many references to Eliot’s masterwork into a single line of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate). Below, I discuss my contention that the link is from my book, but first, how does the line refer to Four Quartets?
It’s a great example of Bob compressing a universe into two perfect words. Eliot’s poems, written on the eve and in the first years of World War 2, are profoundly influenced by concepts from the Bhagavad Gita — the “Divine Song” of Hinduism. Before moving to England for graduate work, Eliot studied Sanskrit and ancient Indian texts at Harvard. The poet concluded another major work, “The Wasteland,” with the Sanskrit mantra:
Shanti shanti shanti
This chant, always included as a formal ending to an Upanishad (a Vedic religious text) is translated — inadequately, but the best a Latin-based language can do — as “The peace which passeth understanding.” It is also recited at the close of all important rituals, such as weddings and cremations.
The Gita is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, who is a manifestation of the Hindu God Vishnu, the Preserver. In “Burnt Norton, “East Coker,” “the Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” — all named for places with specific spiritual import to Eliot — the poet meditates on the Divine Song’s key ideas: time and the concept of right action. Eliot quotes the sacred text directly in the third quartet, “The Dry Salvages.” These concepts, and others he explores — the space between life and death, and the Eternal Now — are core, as well, to the themes of Dylan’s song.
The intertextuality is also, vitally, indicated by form and pattern. Four Quartets is intentionally musical. The title is an obvious clue to this purpose, although for Eliot, the four instruments of his piece are Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Eliot was inspired by Beethoven. The poet also took clues in structure from the Bhagavad Gita itself, and from the concision and power of Dante’s Divine Comedy. (The Italian poet’s work, as I have written about previously, figures strongly in parts of “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”)
The Bhagavad Gita is also translated as “the Song Celestial.” It was written to be chanted. As anyone with even a pop knowledge of Hinduism knows, or anyone who paid attention to the career of George Harrison knows:
The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see
By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free
“Awaiting On You All”
Chanting mantras, to quiet the ordinary processes of the mind, and to summon a mystical state of consciousness, is a basic practice of Hinduism.
In performance, Four Quartets has the effect of ritual. If you listen to a reading of the poems by a skilled orator (here's one by Alec Guinness), the spell of the musicality is transfixing. Since ancient days, rituals have used song to transport participants from a mundane, everyday consciousness, into an awareness of other worlds. Eliot’s poem, read aloud, creates a visionary state. Time — the illusory nature of which is a main subject of the poem — seems suspended. And it works even if the meaning of the words is not fully comprehended. You may take part in the ritual with no sense of the allusions, to the Bhagavad Gita or otherwise. The images, the meter, the rhythm of the poetry, and the intonations of the performer, work together to take the listener from the ordinary to the sacred. Although, if one comes to understand the sources and their subtleties — from Krishna’s wisdom on time to St. John of the Cross on love — the effect is magnified.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has a similar effect to Four Quartets. I have read dozens of comments online testifying to the song’s hypnotic power. Earlier, I used the word “incantation.” The song induces a transporting dream, and not, primarily, because of the meanings. While the choruses contain idyllic imagery — “fine and fair,” “sunlight on your skin” — most verses are enigmatic. Like Four Quartets, however, listeners don’t need to understand the allusions to be swept out of the ordinary, and through “the gateway key, to innocence and purity.” Bob’s phrasing, the minimalist and haunting music, and mystery of the powerful images take us to “paradise divine.” In my previous posts, I have documented dozens of allusions contained in the lyrics, but my impression is that many Bob fans could care less. Most listen to music for the feel, even with an artist as literate as Dylan. As with Eliot, however, the words matter. Knowledge of the sources provides a deeper understanding.
As mentioned, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a mirrored room of inspirations. In my previous articles I’ve shown how Dylan pays tribute to a variety of songs, such as the old gospel, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Here, we see that Bob has also devised his new song, in form and musical quality — the hypnotic accordion, the soothing vocal, the repetition of certain words — to reflect the incantatory properties of Four Quartets, and its inspiration, the Bhagavad Gita.
I hope I have clarified that Eliot’s poem-cycle can be fairly described by the phrase “Hindu rituals,” but still, how can we be sure that Dylan is referring to Four Quartets in his lyric?
In the very first song on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan telegraphs his intention to bring in Four Quartets. Straight away, we might take subtle direction from the title, a variation of Whitman, that the artist will be spending time with the great poets. Eliot, in fact, alludes to Whitman’s work in several lines of the Quartets.
The most direct connection between Bob and Tom, however, passes through the ancient Greek writer Heraclitus. “Everything’s flowing, all at the same time” — as has been noted on the Expecting Rain discussion board — is certainly from the philosopher’s aphorism: “Everything flows.” Dylan adds “all at the same time” to the Greek's notion that change is constant, which puts it into perfect context with Eliot’s musings on time in Four Quartets, that “all time is eternally present.” Another link to Heraclitus, with theme in common with Four Quartets, is found in Dylan’s song of the shadow, “Black Rider.” He sings:
The road that you’re on - same road that you know
But it’s not the same as - it was a minute ago
The adage from Heraclitus:
No man ever steps in the same river twice.
In Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in Eliot’s work, we hear:
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the
. . .
Fare forward, travelers! Not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus
Dylan’s allusion to Eliot, through Heraclitus, crystallizes when we consider that the epigraphs to Four Quartets are also from the ancient Greek writer:
Although wisdom is common, the many live as if they have a wisdom of their own.
And, the quote alluded to by both Eliot and Dylan:
The way up and the way down are the same.
And who do we find Bob listening to at the end of “I Contain Multitudes?” The same composer to whom Eliot listened while writing “Four Quartets”: Beethoven.
Additionally, in “False Prophet,” there is a clear link to the Bhagavad Gita in the last line:
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died.
This is a recitation of Krishna’s words to Arjuna:
He is never born, nor does he ever die; nor once having been, does he cease to be. Unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient, he is not slain when the body is slain.
Interestingly, this passage is quoted in a slightly different wording on the insert to “Brainwashed,” the last record released by Bob’s good friend George Harrison:
There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.
As an aside, I had the picture of George from the CD, with this quote, pinned on the cork above my desk during the years I worked on The Golden Bird.
And here’s another connection between Bob and the “Hindu rituals,” from “My Own Version of You”:
I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind
I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind
I say to the willow tree — don’t weep for me
I’m saying the hell with all things that used to be
Sanskrit is, of course, the language of the Bhagavad Gita, certainly written for the benefit of all mankind. The second couplet, although unrelated to Eliot, is also fascinating. It’s clearly a reference to Psalm 137, “By the Rivers of Babylon” (and likely a nod to the reggae song of the same name). The weeping willow is Salix Babylonica, or the Babylonian willow (apparently misnamed, as its origin was truly in China, but it stuck), reputed to be the tree under which the Jewish people,
sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof
No matter that the trees of the Euphrates were really poplars. In the song, Bob seems to have decided to stop all that weeping. In fact, to hell with it. He is dismissive of the concept that he remains, in any sense, spiritually in exile in Babylon. (That’s his story apparently, but not where it ends — also a reference to Judaism. See my previous posts.) Instead, the singer has turned his attention to improving his mind. Arabic and Hebrew are both offshoots of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke — whose life also was given for “all mankind.”
Before looking at how Dylan transferred my use of Eliot’s poem to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” let’s examine a couple more connections between Four Quartets and Bob’s song, on right action, and the nature of time. Here is an excerpt from Eliot’s passage with specific reference to the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, also from “the Dry Salvages”:
I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant —
Among other things — or one way of putting the same
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been
And a few lines later, he quotes the Bhagavad Gita directly:
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death” — that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
In my previous work, I have shown that Dylan’s “Key West” is a liminal space between death and life, the place of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis, where we step outside of time. “Key West” is a place where you can hear about the death of William McKinley on a radio that doesn’t yet exist. Or, as Eliot says to open the first poem in his cycle:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Steve Ellis, in his essay on Four Quartets, in The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, writes that one of Eliot’s themes is that our existence here is ghost-like, and that we are trapped behind a “temporal barrier.” Reality is on the other side. In one of my prior essays, I highlighted the role of L. Frank Baum in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” as contained in these fragments:
I’ve never lived in the land of Oz
— beyond the shifting sands
Look at that post for the full explanation, but here’s a quick summary: Dorothy’s home in Kansas — where Bob Dylan frequently passes through with the band, because he, like us, doesn’t live in Oz — is portrayed in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as relentlessly grey. It is a dusty place of hard short lives. In a gospel view, reflected in Bob’s lyric, this life is not reality. To get to the place of colors, one must travel “beyond the shifting sands” (part of the Deadly Desert surrounding Oz). The passage of sand, of course, is also a well-used metaphor for time. We need to travel beyond time. Kansas might be the “home” that Dorothy is trying to get back to, but it only an inferior, temporal one.
Dylan captures the same idea again in "False Prophet":
You don't know me darlin' — you never would guess
I'm nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
There are other gospel connections as well. Eliot’s poem, despite the Hindu influences, is primarily a Christian work. Eliot was a practicing member of the Anglican Church when he wrote Four Quartets, and besides the Bhagavad Gita, the other primary allusions in the poems are The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing — the anonymous work of a Christian mystic, and the writings of St. Julian of Norwich. Now we see, that indeed, Dylan and Eliot, in sourcing their lyrics, visit the monasteries. The gospel connections between “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Four Quartets, and my memoir will be described below.
I believe that what I have outlined above is enough to prove that Dylan makes an intentional connection between “I know all the Hindu rituals” and Eliot’s Four Quartets. With this allusion, Bob draws attention to the links in theme and music between “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” — currently the last song released in his catalog — and the final masterpiece of his fellow Nobel Laureate.
And there is, as I have indicated, more going on. Dylan is walking us through the looking-glass. Perhaps some readers remember how, several years ago, for a tour or two, Bob set up mirrors at the front of the stage, reflecting out towards the audience. The story was that it caused problems for photographs, which Dylan notoriously hates. But I think there’s more to it. Maybe it can be summed up by:
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
—“One Too Many Mornings”
Bob is always saying, “see yourself.” He says, “If you are looking at me, you are looking at yourself.” From 2012:
But we have to know ourselves first. People listen to my songs and they must think I’m a certain type of way, and maybe I am. But there’s more to it than that. I think they can listen to my songs and figure out who they are, too.
I do a lot of that in The Golden Bird : listening to Dylan and figuring out who I am. And then I read Four Quartets and try to figure out who I am. By including “my” Eliot — my “Hindu rituals” — in his song, Bob highlights two ideas the artist continues to hold paramount: First, it's not about him, it's about you, and second, the magic happens in live performance — song is ritual and a transformative force for the soul.
Here are the words that open chapter one, of Part One, of The Golden Bird. The chapter is titled, “Blackbushe.”:
Marie was a witch. Bob Dylan introduced us.
My memoir begins on July 15, 1978. British Dylan fans over the age of fifty-five may recognize the date. Bob played the Blackbushe Aerodrome in rural Surrey, in a hastily arranged show billed as “The Picnic.” Apt, perhaps, if one’s idea of a picnic in the countryside involves being jammed together with a quarter million others on a concrete field. I was among that number. I was three days away from St. Paul, Minnesota, and a few weeks past my last day of high school. I loved Dylan, but I was surprised to find myself there, surprised to be seeing him live for the first time.
I had travelled to England on a post-high-school adventure. A teenage neighbor of my aunt — with whom my friends and I were staying in the suburbs of London — had told us about the show. I grew intensely excited, and I insisted that we go. In those days, we learned of concerts through daily and weekly newspapers, and in America, "Rolling Stone” magazine. I paid attention to these in St. Paul, but Britain was long way away in 1978. I hadn’t heard about Dylan’s European tour in support of the new record, “Street-Legal.” I had travelled four thousand miles, to the land of my ancestors, to see my fellow Minnesotan for the first time.
I was born in 1960 in St. Paul. As I lay in my crib, Dylan played his first open mike at the 10 O’Clock Scholar in Dinkytown, two miles away. My mom did our grocery shopping in the Midway area of St. Paul, across the street from his gigs at the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor.
Eighteen years later, Dylan had changed the world. I had simply grown up, a sensitive misfit in a chilly and conservative family, the last child of English parents. And now I was back in the old country. In my book, I describe the day in detail. I describe my emotions, my anxiety, and the concert scene. I was disoriented. I was jet-lagged. I reminisce about listening to Bob albums in my St. Paul basement, and wanting, like the singer, to go “down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,” no matter the cost.
My first reference to Four Quartets is on page one of The Golden Bird, which is titled “Blackbushe.” Here’s the passage:
Of course, I’d never heard of Guernsey and its wild magic before that summer night. I’d never heard of pagans or vegetarians or T.S. Eliot or E. E. Cummings, or so many other things. I had certainly never heard of Jesus Christ Lightning Amen.
I knew nothing of Blackbushe, either, a week before. But with the concert just minutes over, I hung suspended, at a still point, a pivot between past and future.
The phrase “still point’ is an allusion to this passage from “Burnt Norton”:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Eliot told his editor that the image of “the still point” was suggested to him by The Greater Trumps, a 1932 novel by Charles Williams, in a passage about the dance of the Tarot figures. Williams writes:
It is, incidentally, the aim of all magic to find the still centre or point of equilibrium.
He goes on to write about “the immortal dance,” the constant change that defines temporal life. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus.) The image of “the still point” suggests a moment in the dance when a passage opens through the time barrier, a moment when an awareness of the sacred becomes possible. Eliot himself described the dance, in an introduction to Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry:
[A great dancer is] a being who exists only during the performances . . . a vital flame which appears from nowhere, disappears into nothing and is complete and sufficient in its appearance . . . a being which exists only in and for the work of art which is the ballet.
Eliot’s description of the dancer sounds very like Dylan.
When Bob takes the stage at Blackbushe (which I am too far away to see, although the sound is good), I quote from "Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I give my reaction (bold added):
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is nowhere I’m going to
The song rang through my head like an incantation
I continue my description of the scene, highlighting the intensity of the music:
Dylan’s voice, fierce and triumphant, rode high on the barely contained cacophony of his band and the drunken shouting of the mob.
Boooaaaoooobb!!! Booooaaaaaaoooob!!! Aaaaaaargh!
Blackbushe was a tremendous success for Dylan. The English press raved. “The Picnic” was a hit in a time when Dylan had been through personal struggles and an artistic set-back (the negative reception to “Renaldo and Clara”). The newly released “Street-Legal” had also received very positive reviews in Britain, in strong contrast to the notices in America. The record is a beautiful mess, a metaphysical chronicle of despair and the failures of desire.
At that moment in time, at the end of a successful European Tour, in front of one of the largest crowds of his life, Bob rocked. With his large band, he put on a concert of rare power, a high point of performance in 1978. The American tour that followed was also excellent, but it was trailed by a cynical press, and famously, ended with illness and a vision of Jesus.
After the show, leaving the concert grounds, on the dark lane:
I plunged into the earth. My head hit violently on an edge, something sharp — rock or concrete. I thumped to the bottom of a pit.
I lay for a while in the cool ground, alone in a strange bed, dreaming.
The chapter goes on to describe my rescue from this accident. A woman stops to help as I crawl out of the ditch. She stays with me through the ensuing ordeal: an ambulance ride back to the concert site, stitches in my forehead, and the two mile walk, again along the lane, to the train station, where thousands of people stand shuffling in the street, as the trains are delayed. When my rescuer — I call her Marie in the book — and I finally get a seat, in the wee hours, she says,
“You’ll remember this, eh? You’ll see this night on your head for a long time to come.”
Thirty years on and a scar still lines my brow, feint but visible. It’s a reminder of a song and a dancing spell. It’s the mark of a black night, an opening in the earth, and a blind fall. I spilled blood in the soil of England. Something hidden shivered and woke.
She puts me up that night, in a borrowed flat in Brixton. I describe how I am propelled by my accident, and by Marie, into a more inspired life. I experience a shock of enlightenment, and have visions that the dirty streets of London are flooded with beauty. Of course, I fall in love with Marie. She is nearly a decade older than me, married, separated, a nurse, a nature lover, a pagan, a Catholic. She loves me as well, but is resistant. There is an age difference. There are complications and impossibilities.
Marie tells me about the farmhouse in Ireland where she lived with her husband: “Ballyaughnavishnu”:
“‘Ballyaug’ is Irish. It means ‘home of.’ And Vishnu is an Indian god — the Preserver. He’s part of a trinity, a cooperative of sorts, with Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer. They all work together, if you see, eh? So, Ballyaughnavishnu means ‘home of Vishnu.’ Clever, eh?”
She gifts me Four Quartets. I amble the countryside of Sussex, staying with one of her friends, and contemplate my desire, and these lines, from “East Coker”:
Shall I say it again?
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
This hardly seemed fair. I’d only just tasted ecstasy. But the poem had an otherworldly quality, and I succumbed easily to its cadence and images. Eliot made me feel that this summer garden, with its ripening fruit and tangled tendrils, was just a beautiful façade, a surface sheen on a more subtle, more true existence.
By my attendance at Blackbushe, I had travelled, as I had imagined, “down the tracks to ecstasy!” Moments later, I was compelled by poetic order to give it up. Of course, I could not. I was an eighteen year old boy, not St. John, or St. Julian of Norwich.
These references to Four Quartets in Part One of The Golden Bird are the first of the "Hindu rituals" that Dylan cites in his song. As described in my book, Bob's live performance, one of his most renowned, opened a doorway out of the mundane, into the sacred. In my text, I equate these inspirations: Dylan's "dancing spell" and Eliot's "still point." And I equate the ecstasy Dylan inspired me to search for — the same that he followed, the same that eluded him — "hounded by your memory" — with the ecstasy denied in these verses of Four Quartets. Thus, in the voice of the artist:
I know all the Hindu rituals.
In The Golden Bird, I present the "incantation" of "Mr. Tambourine Man" in close sequence with the hypnotic poetics of "East Coker." (Later in the book I also call "Little Gidding" an "incantation" — see below.) And so, Bob replays this unity in his own mesmerizing song, "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)":
I know all the Hindu rituals.
I've said it before: it's all about the mirrors. And the magic that can be conjured by song, by lyric, particularly in live performance. My "accident" at Blackbushe is the first spell telescoped from my book into Dylan's line, the first of our rituals. Another gateway to the supernatural opens later, also powered by an alchemical reaction between the lyrics of the two poets. I'll describe this second "live" ritual soon.
The Golden Bird continues in this vein, highlighting the tension between spiritual and natural desires. The ideas of Eliot’s poem-cycle permeate the tale. Another reality hides behind the temporal curtain.
Marie finally gives in to my entreaties, while we are listening to “Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks” (“Murder Most Foul”). From the moments before:
Our love offered only paradox. It couldn’t be escaped or denied, and it couldn’t go forward into any conceivable future. We had pledged to each other under more secure circumstances, outside the restrictions of time and incarnation. Now we suffered the results, trapped in 1978 like wild birds in a net, and we couldn’t get out alive.
Christianity, as mentioned above, is at the crossroads of The Golden Bird, Four Quartets, and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” In all three texts there is more of a mystical devotion, in fact, than anything that can be called religion. Eliot borrowed ideas from Christian seers. Dylan, as anyone reading this knows, had a profound and public immersion in gospel for a period, resulting in some of his most powerful compostions and concerts. In the last few decades, although plenty of Christian imagery can be found in the songs, he seems to pay more heed to the scriptural instruction that one should “pray in a closet.”
My own experience of Jesus, an extreme and messianic version — like Bob’s, yet different — is at the center of The Golden Bird. Most of Dylan’s telescoping in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” mirrors these adventures.
Part Two, titled “The Silver Cross,” prefaces that time. My affair with Marie, of course, goes bad. After a year back in America, at college, I return to visit her at her island home of Guernsey. This section describes six months I spent in Europe, chasing desire. Our attraction and bond is stronger than ever. But she is pregnant by her husband, with whom she briefly reunited, and they hope to save their marriage to raise the child. Now she gifts me a small silver cross, as some sort of solution, or recompense, for our failure. I describe how this puts me in mind of Eliot’s poems, and this passage:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the
Now I have no choice but to accept the poet’s verdict, which is influenced, in this verse, by St. John’s Ascent of Mt. Carmel, in which desire is turned on its head:
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
I submit to what Eliot calls “the darkness of God.” I don’t feel I have done anything morally wrong, but I am in love with a married pregnant woman. I am an immature young man, separated from everything I most need: a sense of myself, God and woman. While licking these wounds at a squat in London, I hear the new Bob Dylan record: “Slow Train Coming.”
I quote a few lyrics from it in my text, including this one:
Do you ever wonder, just what God requires?
You think he’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?
Famously, Bob picked up a silver cross from the stage in late 1978, while feeling ill, not long before having a direct experience of Christ. In my book, I consciously chose this commonality for the title of Part Two.
In Part Three, which opens after I have returned to college in Oregon, I explicitly reject, like so many others at the time, Dylan’s gospel. In London it had provided, like Eliot’s poetry, a clue to reclaiming my life from the early wreckage. But as a very young man, I had no religious fervor. I liked to smoke pot, listen to music, read books, and meet girls. Dylan’s turn to gospel began to seem nuts. My spiritual seeking was only one aspect of looking for my life. I liked poetry and art and I had no interest in doctrine. I read books on Zen Buddhism. Here’s how I put it in the memoir:
In England the previous October, while hanging around at Theresa’s, I’d been impressed by Dylan’s new convictions. They had given me hope at a moment when hope seemed futile. More recently, back in the vast new world, I’d been influenced by my college buddies. They thought Dylan had lost his mind, trading creative thought for the dictates and dogma of a narrow creed. My friends disparaged these records as uncool and impossible to relate to. Logically, I also couldn’t see how the artist’s focus on Jesus, on one single religion, could lead to any higher awareness.
Then I met Jesus too. Part Three of The Golden Bird tells of the year I walked around America barefoot — 1980-1981 — in a cult called the Christ Family, who believed that the Lord had made it back to Earth. He was also walking around, going by the name of Jesus Christ Lightning Amen, and gathering the chosen. For nearly that entire year, I was blissed out. Crazy, eh? Yes. Think for a moment however, about Bob, who, under circumstances of fame and creativity, did nearly the exact same thing. People, including me, just before my own experience, thought he had gone insane.
And yes, I know, cults: bad bad bad. I can only repeat what I have written before:
My mention of a cult may raise issues of manipulation and control in your mind. We live in an age of conspiracy, greed, and cynicism. It seems right to doubt because so many “believers” are fools, tools or corrupt. And because so many believe in the most outlandish conspiracies (Q?), others believe only in the gods of science and materialism.
Faith, like dignity, is an outmoded concept.
But our moment in time is not the world described in my book or in Dylan's messianic “phase.” Neither is our cynical age the place described in his new song.
“Key West” is the world of gospel.
I was, like Dylan, crazy for God:
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line
The belief in the physical return of Christ, in my case, or the belief in its imminence, in Bob’s version, took us to a similar passage between worlds. From Eliot’s “Dry Salvages”(my bold):
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint —
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it it is not music at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled . . .
In the cult, I skipped the queue, past “a lifetime’s death in love” of a saint, and perceived, by a hint half-guessed, the miracle of the Incarnation, and a reality free from the restrictions of time. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Dylan’s images telescope and replay my experience of millennial Christianity, because they provide a reflection of his own.
Dylan’s intention is also indicated by the first line in the “I know all the Hindu rituals” couplet: “I play the gumbo limbo spirituals.” The gumbo limbo tree, as I have noted in another essay, is common to south Florida, and is also known as “the tourist tree.” This is because of its peeling red bark, which resembles the skin of a tourist who has neglected his sunscreen. Another way of putting this, of course, is that a person might get very sunburned.
He loves a pun, Bob. In The Golden Bird, my adventures in Jesus end dramatically, in a manner that I have recounted elsewhere. I returned to a more normal life, and although I have never let go a basic Christian belief, the intensity of the fire of that year is long gone. The events, as I tell in my book, were searing, and in the end, I was extremely Son-burned. As was Dylan, in the years after his proselytizing from stage, when he seemed to believe “the end” might come at any moment. It takes a while to recover, when you realize that you are still alive, in a fallen world, and must make the best of it:
I got both my feet planted square on the ground
Got my right hand high with the thumb down
Such is life - such is happiness
The second line, contrary to common perception, is a signal that the gladiatorial combatant will live. The idea of being forced to continue battling through a world apart from God, and stuck in time, has continued in Bob’s music from his gospel period until the present. I could cite many examples, but here’s just one, from “Ain’t Talkin’”:
As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon
There’s no one here, the gardener is gone
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Up the road around the bend
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
In the last outback, at the world’s end
It’s not difficult to imagine who “the gardener” is. In Eliot’s final Quartet, “Little Gidding,” he describes Bob’s post-gospel phase situation succinctly:
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment. There are other places
Which are also the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
Little Gidding was an Anglican community, founded in the 17th Century and devoted to the contemplation of eternity. Eliot’s “broken king” was Charles I, seeking refuge during the English Civil war, but I like to read it here as Bob Dylan in the late 1980’s. (Of course, this song was written much later.) It’s possible that Bob took his “world’s end” phrase from the poem. I see him, strolling in a garden, perhaps by the fountain, with a view of the “sea jaws,” where “someone hit me from behind.” Now and in California.
Again, I have detailed events and images from Part Three of my book — “Lightning Amen” — that Dylan has telescoped into his song, in other posts. But these “thefts” also relate to the common themes of Four Quartets and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” so I will briefly summarize. Please look at my other essays for more.
“I’m so deep in love I can hardly see”: I discarded my glasses, with all the rest of my possessions, when joining the cult. In keeping with the extremity of our belief that Jesus was back, and that we were in effect, already dead, who needs glasses? Still, it made getting around a challenge, as I’m quite near-sighted. This is a great line. There’s truth — the depth of belief that would make a person throw away his glasses — and humor — I truly couldn’t see.
The repetition of the word “Key”: It opens three lines of two choruses. One of these has an extra, internal repetition of the word. Another has three “keys,” two of which appear in a single line. The final chorus has four lines that open with “key,” with the last repetition appearing for a final emphasis.
In my story, I emphasize the code of the cult, the agreements we lived by. We called them “the three keys to heaven”: No killing, no sex, and no materialism. These precepts, and our absolute belief that Jesus was back, provided entry to a nether world between life and death, and a land outside of time. This was how we had lost our minds. In the place Dylan describes as “Key West.”
The choruses and their slight variations offer a myriad of reflections of the asceticism I describe. Eliot’s inspiration, St. John of the Cross, wrote about going “the way of dispossession.” He said that “one must divest oneself of the love of created beings” to come closer to an awareness of God. The intention of the cult was the abandonment of violence, and of sexual and material desire. It led me, temporarily to Dylan’s “enchanted land.” Other words Bob uses are “the gateway key, to innocence and purity,” “the place to be, if you’re looking for immortality,” “the land of light,” and “paradise divine.”
The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees
They can give you the bleedin’ heart disease
People tell me - I oughta try a little tenderness
As one might expect, abandoning material and sexual desire is not so easy for a young man of twenty. These lines refer to the vulnerability of sexuality, that would be my exit chute from the cult. I have explained this in depth elsewhere.
“Its hot down here and you can’t be overdressed.” We were not. We wore white robes and bare feet.
Key West is under the sun
Under the radar - under the gun
This couplet contains another pun on “Son,” and alludes more specifically to an episode that led to the end of my involvement in the cult, when I was threatened with death by a group of crazies who had given me a ride. Also explained in more detail in my annotations.
The “healing virtues of the wind” is a mirror of Bob’s own early take on the answers that might be found there, and the phrase we used as greeting and farewell in the group: “in the wind.” And whoever made it up probably stole it from Dylan. Mirrors of mirrors.
“I heard the news — I heard your last request” reflects an episode in which I use the same phrase, “I heard the news,” to describe my reaction when John Lennon is killed. This is of course, a restatement of Lennon’s words in “A Day in the Life”: “I read the news today, oh boy.” In the same scene I describe searching the radio dial (“playing both sides against the middle”) for tribute shows, listening to Lennon, and all the “requests,” including the song “God.” As you probably know, in that tune, Lennon disavows each and every inspiration in his life — the Beatles, Elvis and Zimmerman — all save Yoko. Most explicitly, the song rejects giving one’s self to anything called “God,” which John calls “a concept, by which we measure our pain.” By replaying my passage into his song, Dylan puts another mirror on inspirations, this time, on his friend John. Strikingly, these few days are the only time in my cult year I even hear a radio. More circumstances are described in the book, and other posts.
The line, “People tell me that I’m truly blessed,” the last of the triad that includes “gumbo limbo spirituals” and “Hindu rituals” — or, as I like to think of it, getting “Son-burned” while living a life of non-attachment — is telescoped from a passage earlier in the same interlude, in which the reaction of my fellow cultists to Lennon’s death is to play a tape of a sisters’ choir, with the chorus of “Everything’s a blessing, so count your blessings.” There’s irony here, again pointing to the pain of living in world separated from God, and the difficulty of faith, while stuck in time, when your heroes are only human, and when inspiration itself can die, shot in the back by a crazy man.
There’s more allusions, more telescoping to describe, before I get back to Four Quartets and the climax of The Golden Bird. But I want to stop for a second and again, get perspective on what Dylan is doing here. From the 2012 “Tempest” interview: “You make everything yours. We all do it.” Originality is what you do with what is available. Originality is voice and life, not material. Creating yourself is using a pre-existing world of creation creatively. Art requires the involvement of the viewer, the reader, the listener.
And beyond these comments on art, Dylan still preaches, in his quiet way, gospel.
Fly around my Pretty Little Miss
I don’t love nobody - gimme a kiss
This is my favorite couplet. The first time I heard the song, this lyric stood out, and offered the strangest of feelings: I know this from somewhere. On repeated listings, this couplet clued me in: I know this from my own deep past. It is a brilliant condensation and transference of the conflict and heartbreak from my cult chapter.
A very brief recap: There was girl. We had astral sex. On the side of the highway. Down in the flatlands. It sent me out of the group. Yes, astral sex. If this is too woo-woo, and you’d like an academic version, here’s Professor Steve Ellis again, on “Burnt Norton”:
One might say that the matter of the poem could be relevant to many different “out-of-body” experiences.
The “matter of the poem” of course, is a release from time’s constraints, and, as the Quartets develop, a path of Christian mysticism. In the waking world I pledged to “divest myself of the love of created beings.” In dream, however . . . “Fly around, my Pretty Little Miss.” . . . I adored this woman, and the Christ in her, and she me . . . “I don’t love nobody”. . . I don’t love no body . . . Gimme a kiss . . . “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” — Louis Armstrong.
Please see my earlier posts for the full story.
The last bit of telescoping that Bob does from The Golden Bird is from my penultimate chapter, “Katabatic Wind.” Here we see the second instance of why the specific term “Hindu rituals” fits so well as a description of Four Quartets, as transferred from my text.
In the late 1980’s, long past (in the scale of a young man’s life), my adventures in radical Christianity, I lived for a few years in Boulder, Colorado. Like Ginsburg, Corso, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Naropa Institute. And all the rest. Naropa is a Buddhist meditation center and an art college, founded in 1974 by Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage, and the recently departed Diane DiPrima. I hadn’t moved to Boulder for Naropa, but I did enroll in a summer session in 1988, and attended a class taught by DiPrima. At a group workshop, I met Ginsberg briefly, and he patted my knee. Many other young men had closer relationships with the poet.
My years in Boulder were informed by the intellectual, poetic and mystic energy that Naropa symbolized, and the natural beauty and powers of the Colorado mountains. My text describes friendships and romantic relationships in this period. It describes the inspiration of poets and authors — Eliot, Neruda, Rilke, Doris Lessing — and the inspiration of singers — Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Hüsker Dü. I had long before stopped believing I could live on Earth and also live like Christ. But I believed in magic and art. I had a close friend, another inspiration — Rich, a painter — and we walked and talked for hours, and smoked large amounts of marijuana. Here’s a sample of my text:
I thought if a person had enough will, he could make synchronicity happen. In my mind, it had become a dangerous kind of game . . . hidden forces and tensions, wound on the coils of desire — a nearly sexual longing for transcendence — seemed tucked away, ready to explode in every café and canyon of this high electric land. When a spring storm blew through and the thin dry air crackled, it felt like the sky itself might tear open and characters from stories and creatures that had died might appear in the foothills and walk into town.
Summary seems inadequate for the next events. It’s true that Bob Dylan telescoped my book into a few verses, but he is Bob Dylan. And I am writing an essay, not a song. So in a moment I will offer a couple of longer passages from the book. They will tell the story better than any synopsis. Perhaps, one day, interested people will be able to read the entirety of my book. But here’s the gist, that leads to the excerpt below: I reluctantly, over many months, fall in love. And then I am betrayed. Next (bold added):
The following day in the afternoon, a storm rushed out of the mountains— a Colorado zephyr, a katabatic wind. Walking to the café was like running in water. Lightning had ignited a wildfire in the foothills, between Sunshine and Boulder Canyons. I gazed up at it and it gazed back, a flaming eye over the city. Night fell as I walked home and the wind drove harder. Trashcans and debris hurtled down the alley as I scurried to my door. Where did birds hide on such a night?
I sat on my bed in the small, paint-spattered room, listening to Dylan off a scratchy bootleg cassette, singing, “She’s Your Lover Now.”
“Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?”
. . .
The storm howled outside.
I picked up Four Quartets, the slim volume of poetry that Marie had given me nearly a decade earlier which had often guided me with sublime vision and uncomfortable truth. One passage, from “Little Gidding,” drew my gaze and I read it aloud, over and over again, like a chant:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire
I read it aloud like an incantation.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire
Late in the evening I went back outdoors into the tumult. In the center of Pine Street I looked west, eight blocks to Molly’s house and several miles to the fiercely illuminated canyon. I flung my arms into the oncoming gale and screamed.
In the night, I awoke to a quiet house. The air had calmed . . .
The phone rang mid-morning and kept on until I crawled out to answer it. It was Rich.
“Steven, did you hear?”
“Molly got crushed by a tree last night.”
“What? Jesus. What do you mean? Jesus. Is she okay?”
“I guess she’ll be alright but she’s pretty beat up. Her friend is in worse shape — broke his back.”
“Oh man. Oh Jesus. Who? A Swiss kid?”
“No, some guy from Niwot. I guess they’d been seeing each other. Carin told me. They were wrapped together, looking at the fire, and that huge maple in front of the house snapped off and smashed them; took a few hours to get them out.”
“Oh fuck. Oh man. Did I do it?”
“Was it me?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Steven? No, you didn’t do it! A fucking tree did it! The wind did it!”
“Of course. Shit. Thanks for calling, man.”
“Hey, take it easy, Steven. I’m sorry, man. Take it easy.”
I read a quote in the paper the next day, from someone who’d been up in the canyon: “The roar was the loudest sound I had ever heard.. . It was an awesome sound, dynamic because the whole sky was roaring like a blast furnace…the fire had a spiritual quality, like seeing Buddha or Jesus Christ. It had an angelic form to it, a consciousness.”
So, that was crazy. But that’s what happened. It was a verbatim quote from the paper too. It’s true, people have been known to eat magic mushrooms in Boulder, but I hadn’t. Not that day.
In Eliot’s poem, “the dove descending” is an image of the spirit of Jesus entering his apostles at the Pentecost. It is also an image of German bombers over London, letting fly their weapons of fiery death. The poet unites these things as one, under the banner of “Love.” He tells us that suffering, through human wickedness and mortality, and purification, through the compassion of Christ and the repentance of sin, are both forms of fire, and the only choices we have.
Eliot wrote “Little Gidding” in the same period he performed fire watch on the streets of London, during the Blitz, in 1940 and 1941. My two grandfathers had the same duty in those years, as residents of the East End, near the docks — the most heavily bombed area of the city. My father, a boy of seventeen and eighteen, also helped with the watch, while studying engineering at technical school. All of them spent nights in backyard Andersen shelters and days walking through rubble and exploded clouds of plaster. My mother had been evacuated to the countryside, but returned to her West Ham row house for the final bombings of the war, the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Here is the verse from Acts 2, 1-6, describing the descent of the Holy Spirit:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance . . .
The “shirt of flame” is an image from Greek myth, a tunic given to Hercules by his wife Dejanira, that had the quality of poisoning her husband, should he betray her. Of course, this happens, and Hercules builds a pyre and immolates himself.
As you might imagine, I have struggled to understand some of the things that happened to me as a young man. I’m sure that’s why I wrote it all up in a memoir. I am not a church-goer, and I never will be. But you’ve stayed with me here, I hope the spiritual theme is coming through. Perhaps you can see how Bob Dylan might have been attracted to my story.
I cannot help but believe that my chanting of T.S. Eliot’s “Hindu rituals” had a relationship, not causative, but mixed up with the storm that night in Colorado, and the resulting accident. Molly wore a shirt of flame that night, one that I had given her. I know many people will dismiss this as metaphysical nonsense, but my lived experience proves otherwise. I believe that humans are the vessels of spirit. I believe that the ancestors live in us, and so I know that my parents’ wartime experiences live in me. I believe that our bodies are completely intwined with the natural world, from tens of thousands of years of evolution.
I ain’t no false prophet - I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head
— ‘False Prophet”
“Everything’s flowing, all at the same time.” And within that flow, in the career of the songwriter, live performance is crucial. The “ritual” of words sung, words recited aloud, have a physical effect in the universe, if they are words of power. And who created those words, who owns them?
One of the ideas that Dylan is working with in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is that we are small, and the Word is big. The Gospel is big, and our “love of created beings” is not equal to it. Yet we feel so “proprietorial” about our brief lives, as if we own anything, as if we are not just repeating the myths of the Greeks, the poetry of Romans, the stories of the Civil War, the earth knowledge of the Indians, the rhythms of the Blues, and the verses of the Beats. The thing that matters, is if we can use these sources in a creative way, a truthful way, and communicate, and re-inspire.
That’s all for the point of axis, in The Golden Bird, between T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Bob Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” There are, however, a couple more items of interest. In the section I have been describing — “Katabatic Wind” — I grow despondent after my romantic failures. In the last scene, I walk in the mountains, intending to kill myself, if I can find the courage. First, I kneel on the rocky ground and pray, for my estranged family, for my friends, and:
for Dylan, always standing in the shadows on the path ahead. Then I said:
Our father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done,
One earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
and the power and the glory
for ever and ever
When I raised my head, I saw three angels —three smears of clear light — on the low ridge opposite. We looked at each other for ages. I could hear them with my eyes.
They said: Don’t you dare. You stay here.
You can take it or leave it. You may or may not be able to relate to this, but I’m pretty sure Bob could.
Seattle, January 10, 2021