Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blonde on Blonde

I’m not a famous person, so I have no inkling as to the problems someone who is famous faces.  However, I have tried to be charming for most of my adult life so I know what it means to turn a certain face to the public world; to attempt to instill a feeling, - if not of confidence, then entertainment or amusement – to the greater world, whether that world be two people who know me, eighteen students who revere my eccentricity and care or a larger audience who couldn’t give a shit about my vanity.  I say this because there are many of us who desire to be famous, to change the world or at the very least be successful at our art, without an inkling of what kind of mental toll it can take or how it can warp one. 

Blonde on Blonde is not an album directly about the trappings of fame, but it is an album that shows you what can become of one when so much is expected of and assigned to that person’s image.  It is an album of red herrings and lyrical dead-ends with only the occasional sign of truth or non-fiction, which is why it is perhaps Dylan’s best work.  It is crafted in a non-perfect sense, that is, it is meant to reflect the nature of feeling dogged down by the press, being world-weary and having only fragments of thoughts, remembered phrases and emotions to convey it – and very often the time to convey these things is late at night, which is when I most recently listened to the album.  I was driving my friend’s white, 1996 Jeep Cherokee on Interstate 91 in Vermont at 2:00 AM.  My Friend With the Jeep was asleep in the passenger seat, his dog sleeping behind me curled up next to a cooler with beer and a compression pack for our sleeping bags.  I was revved up on strong gas station coffee and chewing nicorette gum.  The rain of Hurricane Earl intermittently spit down in meek waves while the fog rose from and across the newly paved, deep black highway.  My first thoughts were of Jack Burden driving a car alone in the night on the highway in All The King’s Men, ruminating on the nature of driving alone at night and how there is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain and how at that point you are not you, because there is no one else there to make up the you that you are, for you are only you in relation to other people.  When you are alone in that car at night in the rain, says Jack Burden, you are another you, the you that is driving alone on the highway at night in the rain.  However, I was not alone.   The Friend With the Jeep was next to me sleeping, so there was no overwhelming vastness of the dark firs and pines and dim mountains, so there should be no other me.  But I was driving and listening to Blonde on Blonde and was enjoying driving and the nature of moving so I felt that I was not Me, although my friend next to me could easily wake up and identify Me as the Real Me, the Me that he had known since boyhood years of drinking beer on the back decks of beach cottages that hung over the water, that were still abandoned in early May when life was just beginning before summer would throw it into full relief against the heat.  But the Me chewing nicorette gum (I don’t smoke) and riding high on coffee singing Bob Dylan lyrics, was not that Boyhood Me or even the Current Me, but someone deep inside, someone that indentified with the Bob Dylan who was singing about drunken politicians and having a poison headache and who could make it without someone if he just didn’t feel so all alone. Although, that Bob Dylan was not even the Bob Dylan who sang those lyrics in 1966 – he was someone else entirely.  But the Bob Dylan on RECORD on Blonde on Blonde is the Bob Dylan of 1966: fatigued, pessimistic, romantic and bored.  And I suppose the Me driving that car through Vermont to see his Great Friend, who was living in a log cabin with his girlfriend in some vision of domesticity and peace, could relate to the Bob Dylan of 1966 more than the Great Friend who he had known in his boyhood; the legendary friend and friendship that the rest of the world was jealous of and could only understand through books and movies and never in their own lives. Maybe it was because that Me, that Other Me driving a car at night had left those other Me’s of the past behind and was trying to find a new identity to embrace like the Real Bob Dylan of 1966.  Before me, there was actual rural life, behind me New York dug its nails into my back and legs.  All this just like Bob Dylan when he crashed his motorcycle.

But as I drove through the night and the album spun forth, while The Friend with the Jeep and his dog slept, until finally the last harmonica and organ notes of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” faded away, I couldn’t help but think of those other Me’s; the ones who had crossed paths with this Bob Dylan of 1966; the Bob Dylan on record who created an artifice and a persona to shield him from a world of expectations and questions.  It was that “wild, thin, mercury music” that spooled from his imagination late at night and because it was necessity, it became art, it became his means of communication.  We all try to communicate in our own ways, whether its through our own art or through someone else’s and Blonde on Blonde is one of those great examples because it puts you in a world and a mood that allows you to take on a voice that is not your own and when you appropriate that voice, you can begin making your own fictions that will perhaps reveal the truth about you in small doses.  And so, as the fog turned tremendously white against the fresh black of the highway, and road signs flashed by, I let the album play again and let those other Me’s, those Me’s of the past rise and curl just like the fog that the high-beams of the Jeep were cutting through with each tenth of highway mile.

There was a First Me in a faded, tight blue t-shirt that said “Pearl S. Buck Elementary School Field Day on it.”  The color blue was still strong, vivid and royal, but the threads were worn and stretching, especially under the armpits because the shirt was meant for a eight or nine year old child and not a sixteen year old stoner.  The hair of this Me was shaggy and unkempt but not yet long and on top of the hair, there was a tight, ribbed brown skull cap.  And this me sat in the back of his Creative Writing class with another thin, though painfully thin, youth.  A kid with stringy long hair, that was dirty and on the verge of dreadlocks.  This young kid had wild bug eyes and sometimes wore a Jamaican hat over his dirty straw hair.  This youth whispered about William Burroughs and Lou Reed into this First Me’s ear and the First Me listened and nodded and wrote in his notebook, feeling excited about things but also very tired.  This First Me liked to look at the images of girls as they flashed by cars parked in the parking lot or yellow school buses and in the brick hallways and think about who they might be, but didn’t really care about who they were.  And this First Me wrote stories about kissing a girl in a parlor room with blue carpet while an ass played the piano, and in these stories the protagonist drove his car across the country to sit in a red wood forest with a jug of wine, to then hike to the beach on the Pacific Ocean and think about the distance of America.  This First Me had been “turned on” and had one day, with the slime of the mall still on his hairless arms, walked across the parking lot with a CD copy of Blonde on Blonde in his hands, ripping the cellophane off and hastily throwing it away, while throwing the CD onto his Discman. The First Me listened to songs like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” or “Visions of Johanna” and thought about being high; thought about Beat poetry and how he wanted to write it.  So, this First Me wrote Beat Poetry:

Alcohol stomachs raise,
    Drenched in rain,
Mind numbing,
    Hallucinatory craze.
Can’t get a feel for anything anymore.
    No more emotions
    Except pain, and not feeling quite right.
Wake up early in the morning,
     Can’t sleep anymore.
The drunkard, the drunken bard.


And this Me listened to the kid with the dirty straw hair, until one day the kid whispered in that Me’s ear about having sex and taking advantage of someone’s younger sister in and that Me realized that the kid was full of shit for that reason and for a variety of other reasons.  That First Me told the kid with the dirt straw hair off and then went running, listening to Blonde on Blonde along the way.  But that First Me didn’t have a good attention span, he couldn’t listen to fourteen lengthy tracks all the way through.  Sure, he was swept up in “Visions of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” and “I Want You,” but he could never make it all the way to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and after awhile all the songs mixed together.  This First Me’s hair grew longer until high school was almost over and then this First Me cut his hair and introduced himself to a girl.  And that was when the First Me bowed out.

The roads grew darker on Route 91 and that Me driving the car, who you could call the Current Me, thought about how there was something funny about the fact that the main conflict in Bob Dylan’s catalogue, in his “life” was the rural versus the urban; and how, as many times as you could write about it, it would never get old.  For that might be the main conflict of American life in general: balancing a frontier identity with the necessity to be around people, to be the center of the world, to have the greatest cities and the greatest quality of life – to prove that Europe is nothing but a museum compared to whatever vitality is inherent in the word and shape of America. So, people will get lonesome and restless in their small space in a city and think of the country and those decisions that could have led them to a happy life there.  On the passenger side, through the trees, far-off lights glinted as the car rolled along, pulling slightly to the left.  And there are cities everywhere as much as there are forests and maybe that person in the log cabin, chopping wood, preserving food for winter and drinking water from a well will hear the train whistle and wish that they hadn’t left home and all those people that lived in the city: the drooping telephone wires, the reflections of light from a family room out onto a front lawn, the sound of the baseball game from a transistor radio on a front stoop, while firemen laugh in the pizza place next door and a bum goes through piles of leaking soda cans and beer bottles in black bags.  Those images will pile up, and whatever You is facing You in the mirror at that time will get restless and feel cornered and perhaps the only way to escape is to create another You, someone who can get to those places that the You that came before can’t – we splinter ourselves into a world of our own design in order to navigate through that world presented to us.  Like Bob Dylan holding a light bulb in a press conference in 1966.

My friend continued to sleep and the fog continued to press in against the windshield ahead of me and, even though I knew the song lay imminently at the end of the album, I thought about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and about another Me, this was the Sad Me.  Now, don’t let the name fool you, this Sad Me was not just sad, but made up of a variety of experiences, this was the Me who had the mantra of “trying to forget something sad that happened to me a long time ago,” stuck in his head, which of course game directly from The Great Gatsby.  This Sad Me, had a short haircut (still remains) and asked barbers to cut his hair as if he “were just getting of the boat back home from WWII,” which pleased the barbers because they saw it as some kind of reverence for that great war, but it was really just vanity and confusion and trying to look like the real Jack Kerouac circa 1946. 

This Sad Me went to college and saw it as an idyllic paradise and seeing it as such, had to create himself into a persona that could be parlayed as a villain and proceeded to act that way along with the help of alcohol. Strangely, enough, he found similar souls who were interested in the same process and they proceeded to break things together and smoke lots of cigarettes.  This Sad Me left behind a girl he may well have loved and who may well have loved him as young as they were. And in an effort to chase after literary ambition and to get away from this love that he left behind and foolishly and unsuccessfully tried to get back, this Sad Me studied abroad in Ireland. Where, thinking of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” he wrote poems:

Writing an elegy for the color red,
Was told to me as impossible,
Because it was a thing of the past,
Arching and piercing those tugging
Notions that rumble in my chest.

The summer is dark and smells of peaches,
And there lies the color red,
Bleeding upon me and my hot skin,
Which is drawn cold in mystery and the
Destruction of understanding growth.

I left my shoes behind me
Because they simply wouldn’t fit,
And also since you left yours
Lying on the wood, so that I could
Carry you and feel the color red.

Those pebbles of promise, who
Promenade in my veins and along
The thick ridges of my mind, Thump
When I am alone because I am gray
And longing for the color red.

“Why are tears so forceful?” I asked,
And why does their hue blaze,
And hurt me so much when all
You want to do is reach,
And cry and rest on my shoulder.

I was told that tears are as
Strong as you make them – just
As you proceed with your fears,
And all those rocks lightening your load,
But weighing down your companions.

Let me climb the bluffs which
You crash upon, and allow me to
Drown in the life affirming scent
That falls forth from your
Shoulders and runs down your back.

There is no hiding the coastline
In your smile, or the fingerprints
That will soon appear on your arms,
Which are completely foreign to me,
And cause me innumerable distresses.

I have been kicked from my throne,
Left to sit in a chair at night,
Like your father laying upon the porch,
Watching moths flicker in the light,
And hearing the mailbox open and shut.

Two men will sit side by side,
Whereas they once glared, absently
Trying to figure out that they
Were both the same person, and
Wanted to use the same color.

When your summer skin sighs,
Years after I knew how sweet it was,
I can’t help but see my downfall
In the future, and how
I was absent on salvation’s day.

However, in the end you are
Absolutely the color red, flowing
Forth through the streets and
Over the trees, reaching into my window,
And my chest, and leaving me
Alone on an airplane, far away,
As I notice the color of my shirt.


These poems made the Sad Me feel better, but not completely better, so in his restlessness, the Sad Me used to go down to the streets around St. Stephen’s Green and pan handle change, pretending that he was a bum.  The Sad Me didn’t go to class, but he did meet pretty girls from California who let him go to their hotel rooms – these kinds of girls had chauffeurs.  But this Sad Me rode buses across Ireland in the night and he listened to Blonde on Blonde in its entirety.  He grew to appreciate songs like “Fourth Time Around” and “Absolutely Five Believers,” he first noticed the manic and thrilling piano on “Sooner or Later (One of Us Will Know) and as the  hillsides passed he thought that he might be able to make it if he just didn’t feel so all alone.  He also thought of New York in the winter and how much he longed to go back there. So, when his time was up in Ireland, he went home, but the Sad Me couldn’t appreciate being back in New York, so, restless again, he walked the yellow lines on roads late at night in some attempt at a statement.  Then, one night, as the snow was melting on his college campus he spoke to that girl from years ago on the phone.  And as they spoke, he realized that time had changed.  He also realized that the two of them had both indeed changed as well - but that was OK.  So that summer, the Sad Me went home and spent most of the days outside and made sure that he swam in salt water every day. That was when the Sad Me bowed out.

The Current Me, the Me driving the Jeep, sped across slick patches on bridges that ran over creeks.  The Current Me hugged the side of the highway as the road construction made the lanes squeeze right and then left again, butting against concrete dividers and striped cones weighed down by water.  The Current Me looked over at the sleeping Friend with the Jeep and then thought once more about the Great Friend who they were going to visit.  The Current Me felt a sensation that was familiar and that was the sensation of enjoying the motion of travel rather than the actual destination, which was one of the sensations contained in Blonde on Blonde. That is, the idea of enjoying moving and not actually arriving anywhere.  When you’re stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again, you just want to be anywhere but where you are and the only place you can be anywhere but where you are is when you are moving, and perhaps that Current Me driving the car thought of that because when you are moving, like Jack Burden says, you don’t have to be anyone.  And that’s what Bob Dylan of 1966, the Bob Dylan on record was aiming for – a place of motion where he didn’t have to be any of the identities that had been placed on him.  When that car is in motion or when that train is in motion, you are in a world that is your own – there is nothing but that car, that contained space, that womb of upholstery, light and leg room.  And rain briefly pelted the windshield as that Current Me enjoyed moving, but still wanted to be somewhere. And that Current Me remembered one of those other Me’s that still roved amid the rain and the fog.

The European Me used to ride trains across Europe for a period of time. That Me had money from teaching and saving and he used that money to go to Europe to visit someone who he loved.  And at points during that trip, he was with the one he loved and those times were terrific and tumultuous.  However, the European Me had a profound revelation when he was riding on a train across the width of Italy and the tracks rose up through a pass in the mountains as it bore down from Venice to Rome.  He peeled an orange in his train seat and watched as tall, snow-capped peaks of the Apennine Mountains passed by underneath an absolutely blue sky.  The European Me ate his orange and then snapped into an Italian tea biscuit and as he did so, he realized how happy he could be if he was just in motion all the time.  Behind him in Spain the girl he loved lived, but their connection was impossible so it had to end at some point.  Ahead of him was a return to the United States and to trying to publish a novel he had already outgrown and to get a job he didn’t know or think existed.  Instead, it might be possible to travel forever.  For the European Me, when the train was moving, there was nothing else to existence – there was only his travel bag and its little pouches, pouches where he put market bought oranges and small loaves of bread, plastic packs of prosciutto and compact boxes of crackers.  The European Me could ride on these trains forever and watch the people that came and sat next to him; the European Me could look out the window and feel no attachment to the love he would need to leave behind, to the friends that waited for his return to the United States, to the family that cared about him; the European Me could ride and ride and explode in little pockets of electricity just like the cars of the train – the European Me was elemental and not made of any kind of substance, he could be something that existed at all places and at all times.  But that train stopped in Rome and the European Me sat outside of a Chinese restaurant in Rome and drank beer on the curb.  That European Me eventually went back to the girl he loved in Spain to figure out what to do.  The European Me eventually came back to the United States and used up his money trying to publish his novel, he lived with his parents until finally several things happened, time passed and that European Me was gone into the ether of life along with the First Me and the Sad Me.

Now, the Current Me has listened to Blonde on Blonde countless times and could tell you all of the mythology behind “Fourth Time Around” and its similarities to “Norwegian Wood” and the first time that the Beatles smoked pot with Bob Dylan and about how “Long, Long, Long” on The White Album is an ode to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  If you’d listen, the Current Me could tell you plenty of stories.  He could tell you a story about a game he and his friends played in Vermont in September one year, when they all picked the best going to sleep song and someone picked “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  The Current Me could also tell you about listening to “Visions of Johanna” while riding the subway late at night and how that vision of country music playing soft from the opposite loft reminds him somewhat of what the word “romance” should mean, or rather how it could possibly be personified.  The Current Me would also be quick to tell you that there is nothing quite like listening to “Obviously 5 Believers” when walking in the Grand Central Station subway terminal on a rainy day, while people fumble with their umbrellas and insecurities and all you can do is strut and stride along to a searing electric blues guitar while Bob Dylan openly admits to feeling desperately alone.  There is something to that emotion and that tone in his voice that rings true to the Current Me. The Current Me would also tell you that he listens to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on random occasions and doesn’t really think of much anymore, other than perhaps how on a late summer day if you are on the right street corner and if the humidity is correct, you can absolutely smell the ocean in the middle of Manhattan and how that perhaps means something.

The Current Me made it to his friend’s home in Vermont, successfully listening to Blonde on Blonde twice in the pitch black of the highway night.  When he arrived, he was greeted by his Great Friend in the slow light of five in the morning.  The Great Friend showed him his bed in the loft space of his log cabin.  So, the Current Me climbed the large wood log steps to the loft, sneaking past the Great Friend’s sleeping girlfriend and laid out on his temporary bed.  Next to the bed, there was a small door that opened to a small wood log ledge.  The morning air blew in cool and the Current Me lay on the mattress looking at the slow light turn into blue dawn light.  The cool air came in streams and, although the Current Me was cold, he didn’t reach for a blanket, he simply let himself rest, knowing that next to him was an open door where cool air blew in and where outside the sun would slowly turn the light of the day to brighter shades as he slept on a bed that was not his own – on a bed that did not even truly belong to his Great Friend.  The Current Me would sleep knowing that this was a bed where he could stretch his legs and that there would be different beds from time to time, except that here, the next morning he would wake up and his Great Friend would be down in the kitchen frying eggs and making black coffee to drink.  The Current Me would wake up to find his Great Friend down there with his girlfriend, along with the Friend With the Jeep, and he would walk down and greet them all with a smile and make a joke because perhaps they would like that.  They would like that because they had the entire day before them, in fact they had a few days before them and those are the kinds of things that you like to enjoy along with the black coffee you drink.

A lot of people I know want to be famous or at least successful at their art.  Blonde on Blonde is what being famous sounds like.  It sounds like it in the way that 1966 Bob Dylan was famous.  Fame changes its sound with age, but its principles are always the same – trapped, constantly moving, feeling lonely, ungrounded, money, access to anything you desire, lack of desire, mistrust of love.  We all put up red herrings and other false meanings in our regular lives in order to keep people off our track, but when you are a public figure those things are more likely to happen – those things are necessary.  For Dylan in 1966, the language of Blonde on Blonde was the only way that he could communicate with the world.  He couldn’t give them anything direct, he could only give them cryptic word associations and images that they could put together.  There was passion behind the songs and they were structured, which of course gave them meaning in their loose stories.  Yet, it was a means of escaping and the escape was from a world of motion, a world of constantly escaping one town to the next, one show to the next, one press conference to the next.  The 1966 Bob Dylan would never have survived, which is why that motorcycle accident becomes a cosmic event – it seemed like it had to happen for the story of Bob Dylan to continue.  We all know that the myth of Bob Dylan continued on.  We all know that he retreated to a life of domesticity, to writing country songs with direct lyrics that were terrific, but that seemed to lack some kind of passion or epiphany that his earlier work, especially Blonde on Blonde exemplified. 

What Dylan’s work immediately after Blonde on Blonde exemplified was perhaps what the main sentiment of Blonde on Blonde was, which is (to take a line from Bruce Springsteen) “I’m just tired and bored with myself.” That is the sentiment that I am the most attracted to.  We are all made up of different versions and characters of ourselves that rise up at different points in our lives and who then fade away into that impossibility of time, love and friendships.  Those other versions of ourself seem strange but we can look to them to reveal something about ourselves; about how fragmented we are.  We can also look to those other versions to prove how far we’ve come and about how tired we are with ourselves as a subject, because the only way to become a better artist is to grow tired with yourself.  Then, you can take those fragments of yourself and begin to put them into other objects, put them into characters, put them into art in order to let those objects rise and flourish and take on a life of their own.  That also seems as though it is the key to life itself: growing past oneself in order to move forward with life, to care about others.  No one ever claimed that Bob Dylan didn’t care about himself or that he actually moved unselfishly forward with his life; perhaps the best he did was to present the world with a vision of the weary, successful, famous artist who longs for something else.  No one knows if Dylan ever did find that something else.  We know his story and we attempt to know his myth, but we’ll never know for sure and that’s OK.  It’s OK because we have this album and his other albums and our different selves can listen to them on all the different roads of life.  Perhaps Blonde on Blonde will be that beacon of light that we look to when we ourselves are famous and looking for a way out.  When we realize that there is nothing but exhaustion and it is only when we are exhausted with ourselves that we can begin to forge ahead to whatever may be next - that next version of yourself that will hopefully contain and trump all the others.

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