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. 




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