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Bob Dylan Knows in Singing the Highway Dust is All Over; or, The Tunes They are a-changin’

The oven bird, the icebox batty, the kitchen nook warbler – Bob Dylan can sing. Dylan’s voice blasted into the room on our old tin can speakers, that voice rising falsetto like a broken water heater then falling basso profundo like a coal car slowing for some hobo, a Sinatra nightmare, a barker in a carnie show, a crier of the street court. What do you think voices inside burning bushes sound like – Bing Crosby? But Dylan could do that too, as he showed on Nashville Skyline and the critically despised Self-Portrait album. But the voice of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, with the harmonica – a train wreck between the ears. But listeners may not value that kind of wake up call, a noogie across the ears, so they say Dylan can’t sing; but what do you want to hear in a song? He’s singing songs here, not soap or perfume ads, not elevator rides (“The yellow curb is for the loading and unloading of passengers only: no parking”). Dylan’s voice? It was electric before he ever plugged in. Dry location use only. Other types of fuses may burst. Put a nickel in your ear and a quarter in the machine. Dylan’s voice today? A slowly melting high voltage fuse. Like Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” Dylan “knows in singing not to sing,” and the “highway dust is over all,” and for that itinerate weary hobo, the dust is all over.

From a 2006 Guardian review of Dylan’s Modern Times: “Here are the kind of jazzy songs that would count as mild-mannered crooning if they were performed by Bing Crosby, but which invariably take on a slightly unsettling air when subjected to Dylan’s catarrhal death rattle.”

But the tunes they are a-changin’: check out Ben Sidran’s 2009 jazz covered Dylan, “Dylan Different.”

From a Buick 6 to a Luxury RV: Crazy Road

Hollywood steers us down the romance of the road in Crazy Heart, the Jeff Bridges Best Actor effort about a Hank Williams descendant continuing to follow his bliss of hard gigs and one night stands into late middle age roads, his only constant partners a bottle, guitar, and car. This romantic view of the road is peculiarly American, with its roots in Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road, the Lewis and Clark Trail, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

In Bernard-Henri Levy’s (2006) American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, the popular French intellectual figured out his method early and easily: “The method would be as simple as the questions and concerns were complex. The road, essentially” (pp. 13-14). Few American writers have escaped paying a road toll. One of the first to feature roads, Hamlin Garland in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), did not romanticize the road trip. In his epigraph, he makes sure we understand that the road “is hot and dusty in summer, and desolate and drear [sic] with mud in fall and spring, and in winter the winds sweep the snow across it; but it does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled. Follow it far enough, it may lead past a bend in the river where the water laughs eternally over its shallows. Mainly it is long and wearyful and has a dull little town at one end, and a home of toil at the other. Like the main-travelled road of life, it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate.”

A precursor to the Naturalist writers, writers who would try to tell it like it is, Garland reflects back on his roads in this 1922 preface to a new edition of his book: “The farther I got from Chicago the more depressing the landscape became. It was bad enough in our former home in Mitchell County, but my pity grew more intense as I passed from northwest Iowa into southern Dakota. The houses, bare as boxes, dropped on the treeless plains, the barbed-wire fences running at right angles, and the towns mere assemblages of flimsy wooden sheds with painted-pine battlement, produced on me the effect of an almost helpless and sterile poverty.”

This poverty of the road is now camouflaged in neon signs, fast food outlets, strip malls. Gone are most of the Jesus Saves signs, and in their place U-Pick fruit signs, gas stations the size of baseball diamonds, rest-stops the Joads could have lived in. The road blinds and seduces: blinding white headlights and mesmerizing red taillights; corridors of an automobile economy. The camouflage is what makes it possible for a writer like Larry McMurtry to write a book called Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (2000). McMurtry writes in his preface: “My son, James, a touring musician who sees, from ground level, a great deal of America in the line of duty, says that when it isn’t his turn to drive the van he likes to sit for long stretches, looking out the window. ‘There’s just so much to see,’ he says, and he’s right. There’s just so much to see.” But where does McMurtry begin his road trips? “…in Duluth, Minnesota, at the north end of the long and lonesome 35.” Could it be the road is the only place left some of us can be alone anymore? For to be truly alone, we must be surrounded by others we can not touch nor hear. The road is a crazy place.

Crain, Denby, Dylan and the Avatar of Health Care

“Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, either,” Caleb Crain offers at the end of his Avatar movie review (posted both on his blog and at n+1). And there’s nothing wrong with corporations, per se, either, he might have added, for, in any case, are not many of the “smug anti-corporate” critics, plotted or plotless, plugged in via their 401K’s, or their public employee pension funds? Caleb more than disliked Avatar; it gave him a migraine, attributed to “the movie’s moral corruptness.”

While Caleb was nursing his headache, over at the New Yorker David Denby must have seen a different Avatar. For Denby, “James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.”

It’s a classic case of compare and contrast.

Crain: “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned. All you need is a big heart, like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the movie’s war-veteran hero, and the luck of being given a chance to fall in love.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Denby: “Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely ‘Avatar’ looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Avatar cost, according to Denby, “nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce,” but he advises that “there’s not much point in lingering over the irony,” for “the movie is striking enough to make [claims of alternative values] irrelevant.”

Movie making has become like health care: hypercosts, waste, unnecessary tricks, and expensive tickets – but no one’s any healthier, but one’s health is irrelevant; the show must go on.

Crain: “Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Last night we were watching “Inglorious Bastards” at home on DVD and there was a brief power outage. A power outage is when the city suffers a stroke. We’ve made doctors and directors our new gods, but like the old gods, they make mistakes. Nothing like a power outage to remind us that, as Bob Dylan said, “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you” (“Like A Rolling Stone,” Highway 61 Revisited, 1965).

Where Richard Rodriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener; or, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“I’d prefer not,” Bartleby tells his boss. Bartleby, a scrivener, has given up, no longer reads the newspaper, has no home and lives in the law offices of his employer, staring at the wall. A scrivener was a human copy machine, a viable trade before typewriters and carbon paper and then copy machines. What explains Bartleby’s behavior? Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, as have Richard Rodriquez and other commenters on the disappearance of newspapers.

In the November, 2009 Harpers, we find Richard Rodriguez bemoaning the demise of newspapers, a haunt frequented by journalists these days: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper…I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet.” But critics who can’t wait to get the newspapers off their front porch ask not the reasons for its disappearance, but “so what?,” to which Rodriguez responds, “So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies.” For Rodriguez, the loss of the newspaper is the loss of our city, of our very flesh and blood. “We will not read about newlyweds,” Rodriguez says: “We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’— Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). ”

Bingle responded in a letter Harpers printed in their January issue, just arrived, and it is of particular interest regarding the dialog lacking in newspapers which encourages some critics to prefer their on-line evolution. Unfortunately, while Bingle does establish some ethos as a published writer (and we suspect he must have mentioned his Chicago law degree, but Harpers may have edited his letter for space?), his letter reinforces Rodriguez’s point, if that point was to explain that the Amazon reviewers are generally writing opinion, not criticism, what they want in a book, not what they find, if anything, in a book. We do need professional critics, but if Rodriguez’s point is that the Amazon reviewers are in part the cause of the disappearance of newspapers, we fail to see how an army of Amazon reviewers, of amateur readers, is a bad thing. Nick Hornby has also famously attacked the Amazon reviewers. While we agree that Bingle’s review of Moby Dick is not helpful, we don’t see amateur reading and writing as a philistine front eating away at the borders of our print culture.

Meanwhile, Paul Starr, writing in The New Republic (March 4, 2009), also recognizes the demise of the newspaper as we’ve known it is inevitable, but Starr also points out that what we’ve known did have its flaws (monopolies, excessive operating profits not always reinvested in the public good, and declining readership beginning probably with the advent of television – the history of the Los Angeles Times is revealing on monopoly and biased reporting, and its story as a reincarnated, functional newspaper, is remarkable. Still, its history may reinforce Starr’s point that newspapers perform a public good, but not by definition; they perform a public good only if they are good newspapers. Hendrik Hertzberg, in an April 23, 2001 New Yorker review, remarks that “for eighty of its hundred and twenty years…the LA Times was venal, vicious, stupid, and dull”). Starr’s piece is less impressionistic than Rodriguez’s, and his hope has to do with the public good that newspapers provide, for “As imperfect as they have been, newspapers have been the leading institutions sustaining the values of professional journalism. A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised. And while the new digital environment is more open to ‘citizen journalism’ and the free expression of opinions, it is also more open to bias, and to journalism for hire. Online there are few clear markers to distinguish blogs and other sites that are being financed to promote a viewpoint from news sites operated independently on the basis of professional rules of reporting. So the danger is not just more corruption of government and business – it is also more corruption of journalism itself.”

At that point, of course, it’s no longer journalism, but propaganda, the reporter someone’s mouthpiece. Whatever might be said of the amateur reader and writer, presumably his ears and mouth are at least his own, and while he might listen to the weatherman, he prefers not to base his opinions solely on the predictions of professionals, for he knows the outdoors, and knows other things as well, knows that all the writing, good and bad, ends up in the recycle bin, most of it unread. But we’ll give Melville the last word here, from the end of “Bartleby”:

“Bartleby had been [prior to his scrivener job] a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office…Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

Note: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the Bringing It All Back Home album, 1965.

Leslie Fiedler and the Either/Or Fallacy of Poetic Criticism

Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.

Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.

Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.

From Iran: “Don’t send me no more letters no,” not unless you Twitter them.

Iranian StampsOn 7 December 2006, the informative and engaging blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything posted on scholarly journal offprints and stamps. I recently read the post in a book version of the blog titled The Wreck of the Henry Clay: Posts and Essays, 2003-2009, published by the blog’s author, Caleb Crain, and which I recently purchased at Lulu (now a regular reader of the blog, I didn’t discover it until sometime in 2007). Part of Caleb’s 2006 post reminded me of my own stamp collection, which I had not looked at in some time.

I am not a philatelist. I saved the stamps more than collected them; they were given to me, each a small gift, by my students at the time, English as a foreign language students in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The saving of stamps began when a couple of students asked me to help them with translations of letters – they wanted to reply in English, or to gain more English by translating letters from home into English – and I commented on the stamps I was seeing. A rumor seemed to circulate that I collected stamps, and before long indeed I did, my students, for the most part dispossessed, disarrayed, and sometimes disappeared, happy for an opportunity to easily give their teacher something in return (though what I gained from my students, stamps or no, was more than anything I gave to them).

A number of my stamps are from Iran around the time of the fall of the Shah, and several were given me by Zahra, an Iranian doctor who stayed briefly in the US after one of her sons was killed in the revolution. When I first met her, another of her sons introducing us, she reached out, looking deeply into my eyes, and held my face in her hands, to her son’s embarrassment, though I did not mind, and she said that I looked like and reminded her of her lost son. Later I learned that she had spent days looking for him, wandering around Tehran, searching through stacks of body bags in freezers. Zahra returned to Iran and wrote to me of the war on the Iraq front, where she had gone to doctor the injured. She talked of the age of the soldiers, the waves of certain casualties as the boys ran hopelessly across the desert battlefield (but I can’t find this letter; it’s possible my memory fails here, and that this impression is from another Iranian student from whom I probably asked for news of Zahra).

But I have other letters from Zahra. In one, she wrote that rumors of shortages were unfounded. In February of 1981, she wrote: “Joe I didn’t write letter as an american or an iranian this is an outlaw letter, it is just as I feel like to write….” She asked that I “please write me letter in print with typewriter.” I grew reticent though, fearful the letters might put her at some kind of risk, and our correspondence ended. Her last letter to me closed with “…I miss you and I am looking forward to have letter from you and hear some thing about you.” She had written, “I think the people of Iran are big they’r tolerant and patient people. They can get along with all situation NO NO Joe all people are the same and all are in situation as iranian.” (I have copied from Zahra’s letters exactly as she wrote them, though she always asked me to send them back to her with corrections.)

Now of course, the revolution, a dormant volcano, erupts again, but Twitter and other e-tools may make stamps and letters, like Caleb’s offprints, obsolete.

Reading at a masquerade ball

Reading, one sometimes feels like a wallflower at a masquerade ball. Who are all these characters wearing masks and costumes hiding their true identities? They introduce themselves with some action or voice and the reader wonders if their claims are credible and reliable. And perhaps the author, the inventor of these identities, has also assumed a figmental identity. The author may slip into this new identity unintentionally, or as some sunken impulse surfaces, or intentionally, drawing the new personality with care, proofreading, editing, and revising. Perhaps these authors are unsure of themselves, so they adopt a mask; or maybe they want to forget themselves, and seek a renewal, a makeover; or maybe, for some unknown, paranoid, or disingenuous reason, they simply don’t want to reveal their true identity to their reader, whose identity, after all, they may be equally unsure of. Maybe they’re afraid of critics, and use the pen name as a shield; but critics also house mixed identities. Yeats experimented with masks. Literature is one gargantuan masquerade ball.

Readers aware of the nature of the ball may ask if an author’s opinions resonate with tuning fork frequency, if the tone of a character’s voice reveals real experience, if the happiness or suffering of the protagonist is real or contrived, if the author is a real person or an invention, planned or improvised. An author’s pen name might be employed as self-promotion, a marketing device used to attract a new readership, or to avoid having to talk again to an old reader with fixed expectations. Herman Melville wrote a book about fidelity called The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Melville didn’t use a pen name for his book. He didn’t need to. The once popular writer was already forgotten. The prolific and still popular Joyce Carol Oates has written with a pen name, and, under her real name, wrote an essay titled “Pseudonymous Selves.”

Browsing an old copy of The Believer last night, and re-reading the Greil Marcus and Don DeLillo discussion on Bob Dylan, we found an instructive paragraph on the subject of identity. Attempting an explanation of the various makeovers in Dylan’s career, Marcus says: “…there is a challenge for any artist – particularly a popular artist…to test himself or herself against an audience that he or she doesn’t know, that isn’t familiar. The question comes up whether or not you can speak in your language and be understood, and listen to the language of people who are responding to you and understand them” (p. 72).

Or perhaps what triggers a makeover is as simple as T. S. Eliot’s mannered, parlor room reasoning: “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” Or is there another clue, one that comes just before those lines: “And indeed there will be time / For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, / Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;” Do you see the cat in the image? It’s the cat that was introduced in the previous stanza. But Eliot never calls it a cat; the image of a cat emerges from the description of the fog. The cat is dressed in a costume of fog.

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.