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Alias Anything You Please: a Lifetime of Dylan

Like some latter day Prufrock, I have measured out my life in Dylan tunes. Fifty years of one more cup of coffee. That’s a lot of coffee. That’s a lot of stirring. It started out with the folkies jumping on the bandwagon of his early ballads of change — lots of wind blowing, lots of hard rain — until Pete Seeger jumped him at the ‘65 Newport festival, reportedly taking an axe to his amp; Dylan was off the wagon. Fuck the bourgeois folkies, I went with Napoleon in rags, AKA Alias. I stirred through it all and dropped another cube.

Then I went electric with Dylan for forty years, moving down an endless highway, endless tour of coffee shops, stirring people everywhere, and every place he went with his retinue of wise fools and besotted sages, becoming the circus that was in town, wafting the whiff of chaos we desired like some pheromone that made you feel politically pretty for at least the length of a song. Starting out like Abbie Hoffman’s revolutionary-for-the-hell-of-it, bringing theatre to the crowded fire of the times, and ending up, some say, like the Wall Street brokers Hoffman once rained dollar bills down on, snorkeling for dollars in the stock yard.

Fifty years later, old age hitting me, like a freight train, gone the idealism that we all thought underwrote and justified the “benign” excesses of American democracy, I struggle with the relevancy of all things Dylan. I struggle with post-modernity and the relevance of relevance, the is of is-ness. Like Prufrock, I have arrived at that place again, where time is an ocean that ends at the shore, and have seen it for what it is for the first time — like some truculent escaped runaway through time, caught in a Truffault tracking shot lasting decades and ending with me facing the camera, fin de siecle stamped to my face like Jimmy Cagney’s twisted grapefruit in Public Enemy. What can Dylan do when you’re fresh out of mermaids and you’re going down in the flood of all that consciousness?

I pondered, sitting down with one last cup of coffee, as settled in, with my son, to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, newly released on Netflix. I remember the tour well. In Boston, a portion of the tour was broadcast live from Texas and I videotaped the concert with my Sony Portapak, commercials and all, and later had it illicitly transferred to cassette tape by two sound engineers at the University of Massachusetts, who groused the whole time about Dylan’s relevance and corruption (but made sure that they got their copy of the concert), and found, as I made the rounds, that nobody gave a squat about the tape, most of my friends and acquaintances having settled into Bob Marley’s more “global” appeal and less taken with the Dylan “mystique.” Political extraversion, bodies in motion, was winning the day over moody introversion, which seemed irrelevant to a world on the brink of nuclear war.

I mostly enjoyed watching much of Scorses’s film. It was especially gratifying to nostalgitate with Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg, the latter’s opening lines of Howl sprinkled throughout the film like a grave motif, “I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro / streets at dawn looking for an angry / fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the / ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of / the night.” Fuckin’ ay.

But I didn’t find any real relevance to the film. It was good to see Dylan re-animated by the ‘70s. His interview seemed as inchoate as ever, your desire for him to be profound, trumping common sense and the bald fact that he was blurting old fart cliches (but then, much of the attraction of his whole schtick over the years has largely been his phrasing of cliches and truisms, which I don’t hold against him, given its Nobel quality performance value). I kept waiting for relevancy to kick in, and sorely missed the exclusion of songs in the doco, such as I had recorded earlier with my Portapak — the ever-relevant cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” for instance, would have reminded viewers how long the southern border “crisis” has been with us. I stopped watching the doco about 80 percent of the way through, when my son excused himself to go off to a more relevant party and I sat stewing in ennui.

In his Netflix interview, at one point Dylan laments how we, the people, no longer remember the lines from great poets any more — he cites Ginsberg, Whitman and Frost — but settle for lyrical snatches from popular songs. I find this true and untrue. I get asked at times over the years what my favorite Dylan tunes is — an impossible-to-answer request; no true Dylan aficionado should have to answer — and, always, I find myself saying, “Love Minus Zero.” I don’t really know why. It just seems a perfect and beautiful tune, and no rhymes.

Otherwise, it’s true, it’s no longer Dylan albums that reach out to me any more, but the lyrics that stand the test of time: “It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred.” Have we as a species, seemingly at the height of our consciousness, ever been more profane? “The angels play on their horns all day / the whole earth in progression seems to pass by / but does anyone hear the music they play? / Does anyone even try?” No emojis for that emotion. And later, in “Trying to Get to Heaven” from Time Out of Mind, “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / if everything is as hollow as it seems.” Stuff you don’t even want to think about, if you’re Prufrock measuring out another coffee spoon. And, from the same song, the ever-profound observation, for which no comment is required or adequate: “When you think you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more.”

Heady stuff. But then you weigh it up, as I recently did, with the crass jingle-ism that you would think Dylan doesn’t need any more — the beer commercials during Super Bowl 2019, the one an “arty” Budweiser ad that features “Blowing in the Wind,” and the other featuring Jeff Bridges’ Dude making a cameo appearance to pitch “change is good” by way of switching to Stella Artois, “The Man in Me,” cooing in the background. If you’re not careful, you could almost think you’re seeing double. So, I dunno, which beer should I drink? I close my eyes and I wonder. Does Dylan need such bier hall push to stay relevant at this stage?

More bizarre is the whole silly saga of his new whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door. First is the question whether Dylan “stole” the name from an already-existing whiskey company, as they claim. That laughed aside, the most likely reason why Dylan decided to splash out, post-Nobel, on a whiskey factory is because his namesake, Dylan Thomas, has been exploited by a UK whiskey company, the mofos actually using the most famous line from his villanelle — “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Was Heaven’s Door, arch Dylan’s answer to such a molestation? A kind of inside joke? Can a whiskey company really sell a 10 year-old whiskey when it’s only been open six months. Again, I close my eyes and I wonder. Musing aside, the $50 100 proof double-barrel whiskey itself is pretty good, smooth, lyrical, honey to the tongue, or as the Heaven’s Door site says: “The richness of the vanillin and lipids imparted by the barrel are obvious and welcome, in that, the buttery texture underlines the gustatory power.” Jokerman at work? WTFK.

Similar wry devilry seems to have been at work with his selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in 2016. Not only was he coy about accepting the award in the first place, acting like the folkies were trying to kidnap him and force him to give a “spokesman for a generation” speech, he waited until the very last moment, when losing the ka-ching was on the line, before he accepted. (Did he finance Heaven’s Door with the Nobel money?) Great controversy ensued. His friend Ginsberg’s pushy nomination aside, just about everyone knows that Dylan should have received a Nobel prize for Performance, not Literature. You’d like to think that Nobels are awarded not just for lifetime achievement, but also for relevancy.

Holding a Dylan CD cover now feels like Hamlet must have felt, graveside, holding up the skull, exclaiming, “Alas, poor Yorick,” followed by the fond remembrance of things past, how Dylan helped inspire through my early years. Now, there’s serious shit ahead, and the end feels nigh; Dylan’s not so relevant. Dylan himself seems to know this at times. He says that when he wrote the song “Titanic,” off his album Tempest (released on 9/11), he was literally watching the James Cameron film. A chance to put the upstairs/downstairs of American culture in perspective at a time of 1percent / 99 percent and he chose to do session work with the band. No reference to climate change and the growing lack of icebergs. Or maybe “Titanic” was a winky nod to lefty conspiracy-theorists re: 9/11. Fans will, as always, fill in the gaps of any real concern on his part.

One of Dylan’s great lyrics haunts me ever in these days of constant and growing surveillance, both inside the mind (Facebook, Google, and Amazon algorithms) and outside the mind (NSA, the slow strangulation of freedom of speech and thought Snowden and Assange have warned us about), is from “It’s Alright, Ma” off his Bringing It All Back Home album. “If my thought-dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Words were never more prophetic. It’s just that, as the world breaks bad, seemingly under the stress of democracy’s end and the imminent Singularity threatening humanity’s demise, I’d like a response more akin to Heisenberg in the face of the powers that be than what Dylan seems to raise a glass to. “Life is about creating yourself,” he says in the Scorsese film. As the locusts arrived. It kinda give me a chill.

More articles by:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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