Sunday, November 11, 2012

Long Distance Train


Bob Dylan and “Tempest”

Someone cleaned out the CD’s from my car last night. Whoever did such a thing is, of course, a sorry specimen of human being. He/She/It took all my most played Dylan (that’s why they’re in the car), the new Beth Orton, the new Cat Power, the latest Tom Waits, etc . . .
A drag, but ultimately it’s just stuff, and at least I have digital copies of most of it. In fact, suddenly all those compartments in the Honda have a clear Zen feeling to them. I’ve always hated physical clutter and I find that my brain works better, runs leaner, when my environment is spare. This is not an easy state to achieve, after fifty some years, three children and a household full of acquisitions (mostly books). And I do like certain “things” as much as anybody: my technology, some tools, comfortable furniture. Given these challenges, at the very least, I like to stay organized; my ground rule is neat piles of similar materials. Basically, if there are three or more unlike objects in the same stack (newspaper, books, yo-yos, banana) I am compelled, before eating, drinking, peeing, or any other essential human need, to disassemble and redistribute such pile. Generally I can put up with a pretty tall stack of like items, although the chances of plucking anything useful from it grows slimmer as the tower rises. 
So I guess I might thank that low-life gutter thief for diminishing my often mind-boggling listening choices while driving. Frankly, there was a bunch of stuff there that I could only enjoy if the exact right mood was upon me (Tom Waits’ “Bad Like Me”) and two or three that pestered me with their very presence, purchases that failed to live up to my hopes (Neil Young’s “Le Noise,” The Jayhawks’ “Mockingbird Time,” a recent album by Ry Cooder). The empty CD compartments are soothingly clear (weird, I know). Still, the cretin who went through my car also took the very best of Bob Dylan: “Live, 1966,” “Love and Theft,” “Time Out of Mind,” and most painfully of all, the essential late-period collection, “Tell-Tale Signs.” Of course I have listened to all of these many millions of time (just barely exaggerating), so in a way they exist more in my mind than they ever did on disc, and again, I have the digital. Still. Take my crappy Jayhawks CD but don’t fuck with my Bob Dylan.
Ironically, Bob’s latest release, “Tempest,” remained in the player, where it has held pride of place for many weeks now. The irony is that “Tempest” is, in part, a record of searing contempt and sad resignation at the many disgraces of our culture. I am grateful that I can still play it at maximum volume as a fitting rejoinder to the creeps and the spiritual disease that afflicts them. It is the only CD I had that really does the trick, and now it is the only CD left anyway.
I have meant to write up my ideas about “Tempest” for a while now, but I’ve held off for a few reasons. First, dozens of other writers put their thoughts down in the immediate weeks after the album’s release. I’ve been working in elementary schools too long for pushing in line. I’d rather go last and slip down the hallway like one of those kids who take forever to get back from the bathroom. Second, I wasn’t ready to offer an instant reaction, not one that would make sense anyway. “Tempest” is a strange record, and it takes me some time, and many hearings, to have something real to say. And last, I had two Dylan concerts to attend after the album came out, and I hoped his performance of the new songs might add to my understanding. Dylan, however, confounded us (as usual), by leaving “Tempest” off the set lists.
I’ve now seen Dylan 39 times over 34 years. It’s not many shows compared to some people, but more than any casual fan, and over a broader range of time than most. My perspective is on Dylan over a lifetime (mine and his) not just one record or show. But I try to keep a current point of view, not overly nostalgic for this or that “glory year,” be it the Rolling Thunder Revue, or even my favorite span: from “Desire” through the gospel period. My “thesis of Bob” is that his art provides a living context for a life in motion. I am always most curious about what he’s thinking and creating right now. But my mania for Dylan goes in waves. After Bob leaves town and heads for the next joint, I often leave him behind for a while as well. I stop reading the discussion boards, I look for other artists to listen to, and I even neglect to check the news page on Expecting Rain. Dylan remains a  subliminal force, but I actually go weeks at a time without direct input from his sounds.
Dylan played here in Seattle a few weeks ago. In the last few days, I’ve felt him slipping back under the surface, and for a while, I almost skipped this review. But as his long time student, I try to keep my mind open to signs and wonders, even if they seem at first like a slap in the face. This morning , despite the disappearance of “Manchester Free Trade Hall, 1966,”  “The Witmark Demos,” and “Philharmonic Hall, 1964,” from my vehicle, I found “Tempest” cued up and ready. The past is gone, stolen by a marauder in the night, and the only voice left is the ragged 2012 one. So I ask myself: What does it mean? How does it feel?
The album opens with a lovely, swinging country riff, flowing into “Duquesne Whistle,” a train song. Railway ballads are an American tradition and a fitting place, nearing the end of Bob’s career, for the 71 year old artist to begin. A search at turns up 56 compositions that mention trains.
In “Freight Train Blues, ” from 1962, Bob was already hearing the call:

I got the freight train blues
Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes
And when the whistle blows I gotta go baby, don't you know
Well, it looks like I'm never gonna lose the freight train blues.

An early word for the blues, of course, is a spiritual. A few years later, in the liner notes to “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan  mentions a “holy slow train” where “time does not interfere.” This was not merely an image from the folk idiom, but an early whisper of the salvation train — an essential part of Dylan’s world-view. This became entirely clear in 1979 with the better known “Slow Train Coming.”  
In a Bob Dylan song, a locomotive whistle is a signal of a soul journey. A lot of people are waiting on station platforms, contemplating the future. Some have hearts beating “like pendulums swinging on a chain” (“Trying to Get to Heaven.”) Others are “waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track” (“I and I.”)  In “Honest with Me,” the “Southern Pacific is leaving at 9:45,” and the singer needs to make an escape from dire circumstances. 
Another recent Bob character is “well-dressed, waiting for the last train” (“Things Have Changed.”) Concert goers in the last few years have seen a lot of this one, standing center stage, blowing the harp. With “Duquesne Whistle,” it seems that train has arrived. Fifty years on from his first LP, Dylan still has not lost his blues or his rambling shoes, but the end of the tracks is clearly in sight. On ”Tempest,” the singer jauntily surmises that the Duquesne train is “on it’s final run,” and the whistle “ain’t gonna blow no more.”
Another long-time Dylan theme is at play: the twin image of a woman as both lover and Madonna. “Where are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat),” from 1978, had both trains and a mysterious, absent woman with the power to make things right:

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write
There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much
But she’s drifting like a satellite
. . .

There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
But without you it just doesn’t seem right
Oh, where are you tonight?
In “Duquesne Whistle,” the woman is back “on board” and “in my bed,”  but now, with advancing years, she is also a “time bomb in my heart.” The train barrels on, the whistle is blowing “right on time” and singer has no choice — sometime soon the journey must end. So he tunes his ear to another comfort: “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, Must be the mother of our Lord.” It’s the same Mama that’s been on his mind forever, even back in the mid-1960’s, when he was making revolutionary and supposedly irreligious music. She is Johanna, she is Sara, she is “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” whose “railroad gate” he just can’t jump.
In “Duquesne Whistle,” Dylan no longer strives to leap fences. He no longer needs to call upon his friend Alan Ginsberg or his own shamanistic powers to sweep away the veils. He’s older now. All he needs to do is keep riding the train. The “sky’s gonna blow apart” soon anyway and he sees ahead that the “lights of my native land are glowing.” He is thinking about a refreshment of the soul, a place where “that old oak tree, the one we used to climb” may still be standing.
“Duquesne Whistle” finally describes, after all these years, a direction home. Perhaps this time around Dylan has been reading T.S. Eliot. Selected passages from “Four Quartets”:


In my end is my beginning
            . . .

We die with the dying:
                        See, they depart, and we go with them.
                        We are born with the dead:
                        See, they return, and bring us with them.
                        . . .
                                    We shall not cease from exploration                                   
                        And the end of all our exploring
                        Will be to arrive where we started
                        And know the place for the first time.

            Next up is another kind of love song. Once more, Dylan is just getting started at the time one usually lays down to rest: “It’s soon after midnight, and my day has just begun.” We meet the Dylan women again — Charlotte the harlot, in scarlet, and Mary in green. Apart, sexual bliss and divine mother; as one, a mystical fairy queen.  And in between the verses about these ladies who possess his heart, ruminations on the our slaughterhouse culture — “I’ve been down on the killing floors,”— and those who wield the knives:

They chirp and they chatter
What does it matter?
They're lyin' and they're dyin' in their blood
Two-timing Slim
Who's ever heard of him?
I'll drag his corpse through the mud.

The singer’s character is not exonerated. He occupies the same mortal plane as Slim, and he might just have to do the clean-up himself. But the mindless babble of the players and talkers makes him sick. Just like fifteen years ago, he’s “sitting here listening to every mind-polluting word.” He’d rather be with Charlotte and Mary, especially at this late stage of life: “It's now or never, More than ever.” The tune itself is a lullaby. Donnie Herron’s steel guitar weaves through George Receli’s and Tony Garnier’s soothing rhythms of drum and bass. Bob’s voice is smooth and assured. Of course, he might be “singing praises” to a higher power, the fair lady laying across his big brass bed, or both.
            “Narrow Way,” the third song on “Tempest,” is a great honky-tonk rocker, and one I wish Dylan and band would play live. The singer continues to exclaim gratitude for his woman (“she has crowned my soul with grace,”) but most of the lyric revolves through a lesser known but essential late-period obsession — a sense of disappointment with God, as if the character in the song has been spurned by his maker. The Creator has left the singer in a world where phony religion has usurped any real possibility of knowing Him: “You got too many lovers wailing at the wall, If I had a thousand tongues, I couldn't count them all.” I think Dylan really believed, back in 1980, that Jesus was about to lean down and lift the singer to his heart, leaving the world behind. In his famous gospel rants he said as much.  
“Narrow Way,” like “Trying to Get to Heaven,” “Mississippi,” and “Not Dark Yet,” contains regret for a spiritual loss:

Look down, Angel, from the skies
Help my weary soul to rise
I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plow
You broke my heart, I was your friend 'til now.
It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday.

Everywhere, “on distant shores,” and “in the courtyard of the golden sun,” the singer has been forsaken by his captain or betrayed by his own faithlessness, settling “for a drink of wine and a crust of bread” — an empty ritual that does not satisfy.
            Dylan and the boys romp through eleven stanzas, anchored by a relentless repeating guitar line that induces addiction. The music gives a sense of being trapped in the physical world, although not entirely unpleasantly: “I'm still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest. I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.” Again, it is only the character’s attachment to a woman that compensates for the distance he feels from his maker: “You can guard me while I sleep, Kiss away the tears I weep.” Like early masterpieces on “Highway 61 Revisited,” on “Narrow Way” the seriousness of the subject matter is belied by the sheer rollicking fun of the song. This one makes my brain and my body dance.
            “Long and Wasted Years” has less spiritual subtext.  I hear it as a straightforward lament over a deep love gone wrong. Interestingly, the woman still seems to be in the singer’s life. In fact, he can still hear the disturbing things she says in her sleep. Then she’s away, but not so far, leading a parallel life: “Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me.” And here comes the locomotive metaphor again: “Two trains running side by side, Forty miles wide, down the Eastern line.” Moving through life together, on a similar track, but never coming together. This feels like a song about an early love (perhaps a wife) who has stayed in touch (perhaps because of the children). The heartache never completely goes away:

It's been such a long, long time
Since we loved each other when our hearts were true

. . .

I think that when my back was turned
The whole world behind me burned
It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle

The music is structured as a waterfall of chords and phrases between stanzas. Then, while Bob sings his sad tale, the instruments pool and ripple before beginning another descent. All a person can do is stand in the river and watch it flow.
            On the next composition, “Pay in Blood,” things get intense. The voice, crooning and comforting on the previous song, is wielded like a mace. He swings it intentionally and unapologetically, “grinding” it out, like his life, in the opening line. When I first heard this song I wanted to check my stereo to see if it was busted, the opening words are so gnarly and distorted. After that the lyrics become more intelligible, but no softer. “Pay in Blood” is a spiritual, in the way that “Like a Rolling Stone” is a love song. In the latter the object of the singer’s derision is a old lover, but he is also ranting against his own alienation and separation from his roots. An underappreciated fact of Dylan’s songwriting throughout his entire catalog is that some of his most withering lines come at his own expense. The classic phrase, “How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home?” is mostly a self-reflection. In this new song, the actor walks through the violence with eyes wide open. His own aggression is naked. His responsibility is only assuaged by his self-awareness that a price is indeed being paid. But by whom? A straightforward Christian reading might say by “the blood of the lamb.” But I have never been able to accept the abstraction of that dogma — that because Jesus got nailed to a cross a couple thousand years ago, now everything’s good. As Bob says elsewhere, “the suffering is unending, every nook and cranny has its tears.” The cost in blood is current, and our best impulses, our love and our most natural selves — our Christ-like essence — are still being crucified daily:

How I made it back home, nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?
You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?

 On “Pay in Blood,” every life is capable of feeling pain and causing pain. This is same message Dylan was delivering forty-some years ago:

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

“Pay in Blood” is about being down in the mire, aghast at the stupidity and foolishness, but used to it, standing like a statue while the pigeons crap on you: “My head’s so hard, must be made of stone, I pay in blood, but not my own.” I hear the same spiritual regret that is present in so many other  late period Dylan songs. He would like to offer his own blood but it isn’t accepted.
            The music on the track is buoyant and energizing, with a shifting tempo. A warm piano sound and bright guitar line contrasts nicely with Dylan’s harsh voice. In some ways I am reminded of Rainy Day Women, with its party atmosphere, and in this tune there is a related line: “I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done.” Who is he talking to here? “Everybody,” I would guess, including himself. Perhaps the point is that we should not feel so all alone.
            The next song, “Scarlet Town,” is a lament in the vein of “Ain’t Talkin’” and “Desolation Row.” We are back in the sorrowful mystic garden, where regressive forces wage battle with the visions of poets and dreamers:

In Scarlet Town, the end is near
The Seven Wonders of the World are here
The evil and the good livin' side by side
All human forms seem glorified

In “Ain’t Talkin’,” the singer cries, “I'll make the most of one last extra hour, I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back.” In “Scarlet Town,” “you fight your father's foes, Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows.” For the primitive brain, the need for vengeance and an enemy trumps the evolution of the soul. Again, for fifty years, despite all Dylan’s changes in style and emphasis, a basic part of the message stays the same. As ever, in some alleyways and along certain rural roads, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.”
            In between “Scarlet Town” and “Desolation Row” however, Jesus has come and gone from Dylan’s life. He couldn’t quite hold on. The spiritual regret again:

On marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born.

Luckily for him, he still has Charlotte (the harlot in “scarlet,” from “Soon After Midnight”). In this hypnotic and dirge-like tune however, she is not seeming quite so attractive: “Set 'em up Joe, play "Walkin' the Floor," Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore.” Hey, everybody gets down sometimes. This is not a happy song. No party atmosphere here.
            “Early Roman Kings” ties right back to “Pay in Blood.” Despite the recent  wars and the financial crisis and the reelection of a moderate president, the kings are building crucifixes for the slaves as we speak. Who says Dylan is not political? This one is like a “Masters of War” for Wall Street. Still, in this tune Bob reaffirms that the answer, while currently blowing in the wind, will eventually come down, not to Democrats or Republicans, but to the will of his true Commander in Chief:

I can strip you of life, strip you of breath
Ship you down to the house of death
One day you will ask for me
There'll be no one else that you'll want to see
Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings
I'm gonna break it wide open like the early Roman kings.

The music is a Muddy Waters blues holler. Nothing too original there but it does the job. This is a man expressing displeasure with the powers of the landowners.
            “Tin Angel” is a murder ballad. I file this one with “Hollis Brown” and various other grim “true” stories. Interesting for a few listens, but I tend to press “skip.” See, I am not a devoted consumer of EVERY word. I know a lot of people list this among their favorites though.
            The title track of the record, however, despite its length, I could listen to over and over and over. In my school library, kids borrow the books about the Titanic endlessly. We are fascinated with the scale and drama of the tragedy, and to my ears, Dylan’s upbeat melody is delightfully hummable.  My favorite verses:

When the Reaper's task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They wait at the landing
And they try to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgment of God's hand

As in “Scarlet Town,” with “the evil and the good livin’ side by side,” we are often subject to the worst tendencies of our fellows, and we are not always saved by the efforts of the best. In Dylan’s philosophy, drawn from the old songbooks, justice is rarely accomplished on earth. We ride one ship and sometimes the elements rise up against all.
            Redemption is saved for the last song on the LP, “Roll on John.” It’s a hymn of brotherhood that the irreligious Lennon might like:

Shine your light
Move it on
You burned so bright
Roll on, John

John could be cutting and cynical, it’s true, but he also had an incredibly tender side, expressed in songs like “How?” and “Look at Me.” This song circles back nicely to “Duquesne Whistle,” which describes a journey to the end of life, and to another sort of beginning. For those as influential and famous as Lennon and Dylan, life is a cage, and the only way out is into the beyond. Despite our loss, Lennon is free:

Sailin' through the trade winds bound for the South
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth
Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave

Lennon’s isolation is Dylan’s isolation. The appreciation in this song is light and genuine, and I get the idea that Dylan deeply misses Lennon. Who else occupies a similar spot in the culture? You can say McCartney, Jagger, or Richards, but not one of them has maintained the continued artistic validity of Dylan. We were robbed of many decades of fascinating work when Lennon was killed. From the hugely transformative sixties, only Lennon and Dylan could say the words, “Come together right now over me,” and we would take it seriously; we would not think it a pop star sales pitch. Each had a moment when they seemed to believe such a thing. Both turned away from such conceits when they realized that the revolution is personal before it is political (Dylan well before Lennon). Dylan sings it here as a tribute to that ancient time and the enduring influence of his friend.
            “Roll on John” leaves “Tempest” where it began, moving down the tracks into the light. Tonight, in the late autumn of 2012, in the fiftieth year of his career, Bob Dylan is in the Midwest, playing another show. Just before Thanksgiving he’ll take a break. In the New Year, many of us will once again begin checking his website, waiting for the announcement of new shows, new recordings, new thoughts from our favorite song and dance man. Meanwhile, the Duquesne whistle keeps on blowing. Roll on, Bob. 




Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bob Dylan in Montana

This past Tuesday I traveled to Missoula to see Dylan. Here's my comments on the concert, also published at Bill Pagel's Boblinks website.

Just a few impressions of last night's excellent show in western Montana. I made the journey all the way from home in Seattle, nearly a thousand miles under my wheels in two days. But I suppose that's not far compared to the distance traveled by Jose from Bilbao, Catalonia, whom I met on the grass before the show. Bob clearly inspires some effort.

I liked the new band entrance, Stu first, already playing, followed by the other guys and finally Dylan. Very dramatic; it was a thrill to see the great Bard step out from behind the curtain, in the bright glare of a low sun, joining us once again. He wore reflective shades against the light and a broad brimmed hat, a dark jacket, white pants. From the first moment he was entirely present and communicative. It is a myth that Bob does not interact with his audience, just because he does not banter with small talk. He communicates a great deal with gesture and subtle facial expression. Open hands show appreciation and camaraderie, smiles and bemused eyes show his good humor. And this is in addition to the art, the reason we came, the deep communication of the songs. Under the wide Montana sky it is clear that Dylan is happy to play for us, and excited to jam with his stellar band.

As for those songs: Lately there has been a discussion on the boards about the darkness in the music, as if it is anything new, or as if it is a defining characteristic of the man himself. But since the beginning, Dylan has tinctured  hard truths with a bitter humor: back in '64, teasing the crowd as they laugh at the intro to "Gates of Eden," chuckling, saying "yes, it's a very funny song!" Bob has always twisted the dark strands of culture — greed, violence, vanity —together with light – sometimes romantic, sometimes spiritual. In an age of celebrity it is easy to conflate the man with the lyric. But we simply don’t know where the character of the song ends and where the singer begins. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’s in good cheer. On a summer night in the west, he offers once again his beautiful and desolate tales for our consideration, and often laughs.

A couple of the lovely dark bits: "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum." The piano has worked a wonderful transformation on this song. I wish I could describe it. They jam a very tight sinister jazzy bluesy thing, Dylan really leaning into the vocals. I close my eyes and see Romney and Ryan skewered together on Dylan's shish-ka-bob. Take your pick though of any evil twins you can imagine. It's a non-partisan critique really. The band just winds so tight you can see the smoke.

"John Brown" is a grim one he's played for 50 years now, and I can't say that tonight's version is a true standout, but I enjoy watching him center stage with harp, growling out the grotesque tale one more time. A parent raises a soldier for her own sick glory. I don’t need Dylan to write another protest song to prove that he is anti-war, anti-jingoistic; this one will do fine, and he plays it often (you might say "religiously").

The band and Bob enjoy all the rave-ups, "Thunder on the Mountain," "Highway 61," "Summer Days," and so do I, the piano also a great change-up on these tunes. If only he would get the damn organ out of the way so we could see his hands better on the keys. If you stand far right, perhaps you can, I'm not sure.

The slow songs don't mean as much to me in these iterations, although "Simple Twist of Fate" is sweetly played by Dylan on guitar, and "Spirit on the Water," a song I am never excited by at the opening, won me completely by the heartfelt singing Bob puts into it, and the hypnotic, jazzy rhythms. This seems like a song Bob wrote for someone he really loves, and anyone doubtful of Dylan's capacity for joy should listen and watch closely to the current live rendition.

Okay, you get the idea. Worth the thousand miles for me. I love seeing Dylan in a field in a smaller town. After the show I was entranced by the happy faces in the dispersing crowd: beautiful sexy young women with their lovers, old hippies, just regular people with hearts split a little bit open by the great artist and his band. Looking at all of them on a beautiful breezy night in western Montana, my own heart felt a little broken, I don't know exactly why. I think Dylan, through the last 35 years (I'm 52), after I see him again live, brings out the youth in me, the vulnerable soul, the longing. His music, dark and light, tears open the mundane and routine fabric of life. All the loveliness and loneliness and sad beauty of the world pours in. “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’ . . . “

Rock on through the Midwest and the East, Bob! See you in Seattle in October.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Bob Dylan and The Soul’s Code

I'm back. Here's my present for Bob, on his 71st birthday.  

“You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are . . .”
                                    — Bob Dylan, “’Cross the Green Mountain”

            In 1997, the Jungian psychologist James Hillman published The Soul’s Code,  an analysis of human motives based on the idea that each of us enters the world with an innate purpose.  Hillman’s book has cast a new light my own biography and my life-long relationship to the art of Bob Dylan. The Soul’s Code has also helped me understand why Dylan’s music is compelling and intensely intimate to the lives of so many. Hillman, who died last October at age 85, proposed that each individual has a calling, an image of a life’s work that is neither a product of nature or nurture. In Hillman’s “acorn theory,” the origins of behavior are outside standard conceptions of human development and even outside a mortal idea of time. Rather, they are contained within a seed of potential carried over from the invisible world of myth. There are many hints of destiny in the theory, but none of predetermination. The growth of a person’s acorn is up to the character and choices of that individual.
In this essay I can only give glimpses of Hillman’s beautifully realized ideas, so I send the reader back to the source for essential detail. My intention here is to show how Hillman’s concept of the daemon, or soul-companion, provides insight to the artistry of Dylan, to the individual fan’s perception of that art, and to my own peculiar relationship to Bob’s music.  My intention is to show that Bob Dylan, in all his guises and personas — folkie, rocker, bluesman, small town boy, family man, story-teller, liar, thief, Christian and Jew, etc . . . — fulfills the purpose of his own acorn by creating an essential array of psychic images for his listeners. Across the planet, on a simple stage in plain sight, Dylan sings songs that contain multiplicities. Because we can not say exactly who he is in all the stories, we call him an enigma. Still, Bob Dylan is directly before us, perhaps in your town tonight. He makes shoes for everyone and still goes barefoot.
            The acceptance of a world independent of time, that can not be seen by physical eyes or explained by rational means, is essential to Hillman’s theory. The psychologist matter-of-factly includes the soul in his model of psychology. Dylan has demonstrated throughout his career that he subscribes to such a notion. In his lyrics, from the stage in song, and even to Morley Safer on the set of “Sixty Minutes,” Dylan has confessed allegiance to an invisible power. I am sure however, that many of his fans, despite their love of Bob’s music, are unable to share his spiritual convictions. My aim is not to convert anyone. There are a thousand angles and perspectives on Dylan and any attempt to squeeze him into a particular frame is a crucial mistake. My argument requires no set geometries of belief. Bob Dylan, above all, requires the strict application of an open mind.
One well-known biographer divides the singer’s career into a time before his Christian conversion, when Bob was looking for a  unifying theme, and the time afterwards, when he has been refining that spiritual consciousness. The man has a good point but I would put it differently. I would not point to a dividing line, but say instead that the ancient and invisible world of myth and folktale is necessary to any discussion of Dylan, as necessary as the traditional songs of Woody Guthrie. You do not need to have religion or spend your days in metaphysical contemplation to like a good story, which is truly Dylan’s stock-in-trade. Cynicism, however, is a liability. if the tale is compelling, you must be able to suspend disbelief.
With Dylan, we are nearly always walking in the borderlands of the known and the accepted. There are countless examples of this and you can choose your own, because all the points I want to make are about personal motives and personal relationships. Many people have had the irrational yet powerful sensation that Bob wrote a particular song about their particular life. I also feel that Dylan’s music has been with me every step of the way — as described in the title of his last record, “Together Through Life.”
Despite Bob’s constant touring and his visceral effect on so many fans, he remains essentially unknowable. This drives some people crazy but is exactly as it should be. For the most part, Dylan has managed to escape the cult of celebrity. Like most true artists, he realizes that nothing of value is shared by a superficial view of a star’s life. The details of the day-to-day can only obscure the more important picture told in lyric, performance, interview, and prose. What we get in these media is not the mundane or titillating, but the images a deeper part of the listener, the soul-companion, might understand. Dylan is walking through modern times in near perpetual disguise, even as he stands before us singing a simple song. As a fan, I am able to connect with the artist as he delivers the art, without the clutter of the trivial.
Often I read a particular blog that offers fascinating research into the many thefts and cryptic allusions made by Dylan for recent work, mostly from “Love and Theft,” and the memoir Chronicles. Because of these fictions, the author seems to regard any straightforward acceptance of Chronicles as naïve. He is probably correct about many of the fabrications and allusions. But I doubt that it matters much. I believe in the “truth” of the overlaid story, despite the theft. When I read Chronicles, I see Dylan’s mind moving through New York in 1962 and I see Dylan’s imagination in New Orleans in the 1980’s. Clearly, Dylan’s “personal” reflections are never to be taken at face value. But why is that surprising and why does it matter? It is an illusion to believe we could ever know day-to-day life as Dylan experiences it. For that matter, it is difficult enough to empathetically experience the moment-to-moment of our dearest friends and family, even as they attempt to explain themselves carefully. But what we can know and feel is our soul’s response to another soul’s ideas, the pictures that form in our own mind when someone shares a story they care about. I don’t need to know the true names of Dylan’s early hosts in NYC, but his thoughts on the Civil War are gripping and speak to my sense of humanity. Bob is constantly telling us, in Chronicles and in song, that the important changes are happening below the surface of things. Which leads us back to James Hillman and the invisible.
According to the archetypal psychologist, each person arriving on earth carries a unseen daemon as a guide and link to his life’s purpose. Other words he uses for this companion, depending on context, are character, fate, genius, calling, soul, and destiny. The word genius is not meant in today’s popular sense, as a person of remarkable and exceptional talents. In that connotation the word is practically meaningless anyway, tossed around easily on surges of trend and fad. In that sense it is only occasionally used on someone who actually deserves the title, like Dylan or Picasso.  In Hillman’s acorn theory however, a genius is not the exception in human affairs, but the norm. A genius is not a particular person but the particular purpose of each person. Everyone has a multi-faceted image that provides a reason for living. For some, like Dylan and other artists and leaders, discovering and using this call is an inescapable journey. For many, it is a gentle tug, a voice that leads us on.   
Hillman also expands the common understanding of imagination. I used to think of it as a creative ability, using paints or words or clay, on a blank background. Hillman, however, speaks of the soul’s code, the image we carry and desire, as both subject and object of a creative life.  Usually, when the artist’s talent in a particular medium is exceptional, we say he or she has a gift. Hillman writes that the acorn is a singular gift possessed by every person. Imagination does not create something from randomness. Imagination returns again and again to the soul’s image and reveals its need. The people you are born into and the places you find yourself, as strange and foreign as they may seem, are the canvas. The image is the gift, whether it says you are a painter or a schoolteacher. Everyone has a genius and we are all artists, born with brush in hand.
Usually we think of human development along a timeline: the innocence of childhood, the naïveté, recklessness and passion of youth, the productive prime of life, the wisdom and infirmities of age.  Each of these stereotypes contains a kernel of truth. But Hillman has a more exciting idea. We are not simply mortal, travelling from one weakness to another kind of weakness, or from one strength to another kind of strength, or even from birth to death. Instead, we move in circles around an expanding idea of purpose. Human development is a progression not of the body but of the imagination.  Our mission is to reveal new facets of our individual soul, share what we find and use our gifts on the ground. Time is merely the soundtrack of a movie, providing context for particular scenes. Time provides parenthetical marks for our bodies but has no real bearing on our purpose. 
A cliché I read a lot these days is “magical thinking.” People usually write “magical thinking” when they think you will agree, as all intelligent adults must, that magic is only a game for children and those who write for children. I believe instead that having a mind open to magic is a necessity. Magical thinking is mythical thinking and a natural part of the creative mind. Magical thinking is imaginative thinking, a higher feature in early humans and a vital tool in evolution. We are still more primitive than we like to think, a quality both positive and negative.  The magical mind is the unlimited one that takes us forward, unbound by time. 
I agree that magical thinking can be naïve and treacherous. You can set yourself up for all kinds of hoaxes. Hillman writes that a Puritan attachment to “innocence” is a gateway for those seeking power, for those who would like to exploit the lives of others. Another part of our ancient brain, the reptilian brain, is the exploiter. The lizard brain holds God like a club, smashing to the top over a pile of bodies.  Religions manipulate fear of the Mystery to keep their followers worried and obedient. A magical mind, however, can not be cowed by this cynical strategy, because its distinguishing feature is freedom and its over-riding motivation is imagination: the discovery of innate potential. 
Obeying the summons of the genius — finding your gift — can be wrenching however, even for those who are not called to any position of great influence or art. Even the most ordinary of people and talents might need to overcome circumstances of parenting and society to discover a way to unlock imagination. Finding my own destiny was a struggle because it pointed in a direction 180 degrees away from the culture of my birth and the family I was born into.
Bob Dylan’ s art is a creation of the unbound mind. He has never been “the voice of a generation,” but he has always worked with the essential images of our age. While still a teenager, paying attention to the art of Bob Dylan opened my head to the magical, to the invisible, and less esoterically, but just as vitally, to a life outside the mainstream. Like many thousands of others, I began to find images in his work that fit, like pictures of a jigsaw, into the idea of my own destiny. From the romantic story poems of “Blood on the Tracks” to the anti-romantic free verse of “Street-Legal,” Dylan’s songs pulled me forward into life. When I first heard these records I had no experience of life that could help me make sense of them, Nonetheless, the poetic ideas within them germinated within me.  I wanted the intensity of “Sara” and I even wanted the lost love of “ If You See Her Say Hello,” before I had had any real love at all. I knew these things meant being fully alive.  I am sure these examples from Dylan’s mid-seventies resurgence are common to many. “Street Legal” is less relatable to some fans — but my soul seized upon it as well. For reasons hidden at the time, I needed the crazy edges of its vision. I needed my mind to smash open, beyond mere romance.
For other fans, a decade earlier, “Highway 61” had done a similar trick. But for me, a teen of the addled seventies, “Street Legal” offered more pertinent images. “Street-Legal” was  liberating for my imagination even though it had no answers, only glimmering symbols and troubling questions. Unlike “Highway 61,” no counterculture could seize upon it as a manifesto to be followed. No one who could feel the crazy depths of the Dylan’s crack-up album could be too surprised when Bob went all “Judas” again on his fans, ironically, by turning to Christ. When Bob found Jesus, his older fans were outraged because it seemed Dylan had defected to “the other side.” But they were behind the curve. If they had been listening carefully, they would have realized that “Street-Legal” wasn’t a message about the individual in the morass of society, looking for a team to believe in. It was about an individual alone in his own brain, looking for his soul.
I could relate to that. So, as a young adult, Dylan cracked my brain like an egg. In 1978, at his massive concert in the south of England called Blackbushe, metaphor became reality. I split my head on a rock and my true nature came leaping out into the open. I departed from the rationalism and conservatism of my upbringing and became a late period hippie.  The first part of this new life was about romance and dissolution of that romance. Basically, I lived two years of ecstatic highs and then despair, in a distillation of Dylan’s late sixties and seventies music. All I skipped was the happily married child-rearing years. Of course I was not emulating Bob. I was just living my life.
I have told this story already in a memoir. Strangely, I wrote that book before I knew about the theories of Hillman. Intuitively, I included a soul companion in the story, discovered that night in the earth of Surrey. I called it and my book after an image from a fairy tale: The Golden Bird.
Just being a rebellious hippie, however, was not enough. Understanding that you have a daemon is not the same as understanding what it wants, or how to get there. The circumstances you are born into put obstacles in the way. Perhaps overcoming these barriers strengthens  the soul. My parents had a very compelling story, nearly mythical on it’s own, and it was huge wall to my own development. My father was a self-made man, an American success story. My parents were refugees from the poverty and ruins of bombed out, 1940’s London. They escaped the bitter austerity of post-war England to create a well-made life in the new world. During my teenage years in the 1970s my father was rising to the very pinnacle of corporate success. He was an overpowering and commanding presence. Many aspects of my Dad’s life and values, apart from his disavowed British heritage, were strange and repellant to me. In order for my own daemon to break the husk of the acorn, to breathe freely, I needed a strong story of my own. I needed my own myth.
Once again, Bob led the way. In the fall of 1979, while lounging bitterly around a friend’s flat in London, nursing my romantic wounds, I first heard “Slow Train Coming.” I heard it as an affirmation of a transcendent possibility, as an opportunity. Plus it rocked. The restrictions I heard in the lyrics, that so many of the sixties’ fans objected to, were not being imposed by an authoritarian church, but by an individual conscience trying to find a bearing. The record reassured me that my own spirit was still my strength. The woman who had disappointed me and the birth family I didn’t relate to and the free enterprise system I was unwilling to work for were not the arbiters of my fate. Indeed, my fate was still to be discovered. “Slow Train Coming” meant freedom, not obedience to any authority but the “authority on high.”
In May of 1980 I dropped my liberal arts studies at the University of Oregon and began wandering the highways of America with an ascetic Christian cult. Up until that time I had not been much of a joiner, having successfully evaded boy scouts, summer camp, high school clubs and collegiate political groups. Neither had I previously committed to religion. My disposition since puberty was that of an outsider. I was an impulsive young man however and without guile. My parents would have used the words willful and gullible. On the spring evening that I exchanged my jeans and t-shirt for a white cotton sheet sewn into a robe, I gave myself to a complete unknown, an idealized reality. I transmuted powerful romantic and sexual inclinations into allegiance to an invisible God. I alchemized my disdain of my own father into a reverence for the higher concept of Fatherhood.
The archetypes of my ideal assumed the form of a popular myth. Jesus appeared to me in a university bathroom. I truly thought this fellow with the reddish beard, glistening eyes and coarse hands was the Man. I was very stoned and it made perfect sense that He had crawled out of the books, out of my yearnings and into the flesh. He told me He was Christ and I had not a reason in my head to doubt. At a vulnerable and idealistic time in my life I dropped everything normal and routine to immerse myself in a ancient story. I became a character in a fable taught to children as truth. For nearly a year, the gap between story-time and ordinary reality closed.
In my cult experience, I opened myself to the invisible, so that my daemon might walk through the door and gain a foothold in the physical world. At the time I couldn’t know it, but my calling was not really to be a disciple of Jesus or an ascetic for life. Christ, rather, was strongest link in my cultural background to the unseen world. It is true that I had a spiritual yearning. But a more accurate way of  saying the same thing is that I had finally activated my imagination. I began finally to circle my life’s purpose, even though it appeared I had gone totally nuts. My imagination allowed for the fantastical and the magical because only these things could create the incontrovertible change demanded by my  daemon. Hillman says, “Christ is a bridge, because the Incarnation means the presence of the invisible in the common matter of walking-around human life. A god-man: visible and invisible become one.” I chose the extremes of a cult not as an allegiance to a particular ideology, but as a kind of palate cleanser of the soul, a way to fully rid myself of the culture and nurture of my birth family. The nonviolence and non-materialism of the Christ family was an extreme but necessary strategy of my genius to counteract and nullify the extreme and prejudicial atmosphere into which I was born, an environment that was largely a product of my parents’ war experiences and my father’s corporate ambitions.
So, was my own turn to millennial Christianity caused by Dylan’s? Not exactly. But Dylan had done he always does in a fan’s life: provided a mirror of essential and hidden images. When Dylan had brought the vehicle of Christ into the open, it made it more real for me than the Episcopal church ever had. Months later, when I met a copy of Jesus in a college bathroom, my imagination seized upon the opportunity to uncover its own desire, its purpose, its genius.
Only after I had subsumed myself into the image of Jesus and purged all of the absorbed personality of my childhood in His name, could my own true nature begin to reveal itself. In fact, I only lasted ten months in the cult, because my true nature involved a sexual attraction to a young woman, which was not allowed under our ascetic code. Our love never took a physical form but this didn’t matter. As soon as this love became obvious I was swept back into the world on a strange tide of events, a bizarre blend of the metaphysical and the carnal. The details are in my book. My true destiny required I give up the white robe and take part in society. 
When I came back to the world, I was a different person. I had cut the template of my birth family irrevocably from my life. I turned my attention away from the heavens and toward the earth. I became a gardener and later a teacher of young children, occupations I couldn’t have fully conceived in my prior life. I became a father with far different priorities than my own Dad. Of course, some of these things might have happened without such an extreme excursion into the land of myth. Perhaps. All I know is that I am still working on uncovering the images of my destiny and it took a profound shock to begin.
But what about Dylan? I can’t claim to know what purpose was served in Bob’s own life by his Christian period. Probably he needed a cleansing of his own recent troubles, as seen by the records from “Blood on the Tracks” to “Street-Legal.” In the music of recent years we have heard a less obvious, but more deeply burnished sort of spiritual conviction. The only thing I am sure of is that by continuing to write songs and perform them, new and old, Dylan answers the call of his own daemon. Any further conclusions about his personal life is a fool’s game. The real question, in all things Dylan, is not what the songs mean to him, but what does it mean to the images within me, to the soul-companion within the listener? Dylan’s acorn has grown to be the mightiest of oaks, providing shade and sustenance for many thousands of other souls. And the journey continues . . .