In his rangy, vital shows at the Beacon last week, Bob Dylan played songs from almost every stage of his life as a performing artist and he didn’t throw any of them away. His reminiscing in tempo included time-drenched standards he’d made his own on his recent Great American Songbook CDs. (“Autumn Leaves,” “Why Try to Change Me Now” et al.) He leaned most on his last album of originals, Tempest (2012), but he cherry-picked other songs of experience from the 00s—“Summer Days,” “Things Have Changed,” “Honest With Me”—90s—“Trying to Get to Heaven,” “Love Sick,”—70s—“Tangled Up in Blue.” He didn’t slight his original glory days either. There was nothing hoary about “It Ain’t Me Babe” or “Desolation Row” thanks to his lit-from-within piano-first re-arrangements. He ended by seguing from his folkie hopey apotheosis, “Blowing in the Wind,” to his white nego blues, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The difference between the songs’ tones/meanings wasn’t elided but as Dylan and his band found their ways through the melodies they became vectors of reconciliation. Per Eudora Welty’s musing: “The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and young, the past and the future, the living and the dead.” Or as Dylan himself had it in “Summer Days” (which got a shit-kicking Bob-Wills-is-still-the-king country swing workout at the Beacon):
“She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘You can’t!? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.’”
[Zimmy meet Gatz.]
One of Dylan’s attempts to repeat the past last week didn’t work out too tough. The great Mavis Staples who opened for him has still got all of her voice but her new material wasn’t worthy of Staples Singers’ classics like “Uncloudy Day“ (which killed Dylan when he was a kid). Far from her elemental side, Ms. Staples seemed almost cringy in her deference to (the absent) Dylan and the very white crowd. Race-based awkwardness served to underscore the answer is still blowing in the wind.
Mr. Memory hasn’t been trying to catch that wind since “Hurricane.” (If only his fans could remember to forget how he got wobbly on Obama before the 2012 election.) But Dylan will never be entirely blank to black and white truths of America. The following excerpt from Eric Lott’s new book Black Mirror is on point there. It jumps off from a line on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” (an album that was named after Lott’s 1993 book on the fraught history of 19th C. minstrelsy and white cultural appropriation). B.D.
I’d argue that the key line on the whole of “Love and Theft” is “I wish my mother was still alive” (“Lonesome Day Blues”).
Dylan’s mother Beatty Zimmerman, it turns out, died in late January of 2000. To make too much of this fact would be as foolish as thinking it had nothing to do with the feel and spiritual vibe of the album Dylan wrote and recorded a little more than a year later. It is certainly one of the ways “Love and Theft” is an “autobiographical” record, as Dylan has averred. The line above seems to come out of nowhere, at the end of a disjointed verse in the middle of the internally dissociated “Lonesome Day Blues,” as though live and direct from the unconscious. Closer inspection reveals the connections, which have the odd effect of making the song seem even more self-exposing. Singing against a heavy blues downbeat, the song’s speaker sits thinking, his “mind a million miles away.” It is on the whole a roving set of reflections on drastic loss. He left his long-time darlin’ standing in the door; his pa died and left him, his brother got killed in the war; Samantha Brown lived in his house for four or five months but he didn’t sleep with her eeeeven once. Then comes this:
I’m forty miles from the mill—I’m droppin’ it into overdrive (2x)
Settin’ my dial on the radio
I wish my mother was still alive
In some deep current of feeling, mother and radio are bound up with each other: it’s a genius couplet. Both are major modes of cultural and more specifically musical transmission (“overdrive” indeed). The mother is the prelinguistic source of all music, her heartbeat the first rhythm we hear, her hum among the first melodies; losing her in the process of individuation is our first loss, the first lost object to be introjected as part of the ego’s melancholia and one template for our later relationships. The radio mimics the mother’s subsequent status as ghosted, disembodied musical source (hand on dial), and its status as a technological anachronism in an age of streaming digital devices casts upon it a similarly vestigial and recursive shadow (that is to say, when you hear the radio, you remember the first times you ever heard the radio; the same goes, unconsciously, for the pull—or push—of your mother’s voice). So it’s no real surprise that the two references might come one after the other, or, as the syntax of the line suggests, that the radio itself might remind the singer of his mama. The phrase “love and theft” finds an especially poignant resonance in the context of Dylan’s mother being stolen away; such is the power of her originary position, moreover, that she might even be the long-time darlin’ the singer last left standing in the door. (As a Stanley Plumly sonnet once had it: “Freud says / every fuck is a foursome.”). In any case, Dylan singing about his mother opens rather effortlessly onto singing about music and by implication his career, and given that doing so has helped create a powerful song on a powerful album, we might say that loss is recuperated here by, and in the service of, a melancholic art.
Writing of German baroque theater, that form shot through with melancholia, Walter Benjamin once suggested that it compensated for its keenly felt sense of the “destructive effect of time, of inevitable transience” with an “enthusiasm for landscape,” the alternative to temporality’s decay being not timelessness but place and setting, “chronological movement . . . grasped and analysed in a spatial image.” “Lonesome Day Blues,” like much of “Love and Theft,” issues in a landscape of loss or stasis pocked by washed-out roads, barren fields, enigmatic whispering winds, and rustling leaves. This is the psychic space of melancholia through which the album feels its way. (And incidentally, considering the way melancholia generates topographical fictions, from late Freud’s map of the mind—ego, id, and superego—to Dylan’s Mississippi, one might say that “Dixie land” too operates as a melancholic topographical repository.) As I take my last waltz through this tattered terrain, in many respects the terrain of Black Mirror at large, let me give you some parting glimpses of what I see.
While this place is age-old, it also strikes me as age-specific, namely, that moment in middle age at which the fragility of the body—your parents’, your partner’s, your own—wakes you up to the realities of (what Dylan has limned as) “the physical plunge into Limitationville.” “Time is pilin’ up . . . / We’re all boxed in,” goes “Mississippi”; that’s why “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” But one determines to go on, for love or money: “I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past / But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free.” You tell yourself that “old, young, age don’t carry weight,” but it’s only because “It doesn’t matter in the end” (“Floater”). “Time and love has branded me with its claws / Had to go to Florida, dodgin’ them Georgia laws” (“Po’ Boy”), you sing, and this hesitation between states (in every sense), the ambivalence of all the above lines, is a hallmark of melancholia. “Well I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car / The girls all say, ‘You’re a worn out star’” (“Summer Days”). There is a solution: “I’m gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey—I’ll die before I turn senile” (“Cry a While”).
But it’s the memories that haunt you, things acquired, loved, and lost. “Some of these memories you can learn to live with and some of them you can’t” (“Sugar Baby”). So many things cluster here: the people you once clung to, the wrongs you couldn’t help (“So many things that we never will undo / I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too,” Dylan sings in “Mississippi”), the very sources of your energy and your art. “These memories I got, they can strangle a man” (“Honest with Me”), not a good thing for a singer, but understandable if what you’ve got in your throat are traces of a thousand different songs from apartheid America. Race, memory, and music meet in musical melancholia, where you get by with materials you barely remember taking in the first place: you were too young, or they were too available, or both, and they work so well, speak so solidly to your condition. You reach back to your roots, you work through your masks, and you find yourself again in the land where the blues began.
1 Stanley Plumly, “Sonnet,” in Out-of-the-Body Travel (New York: Ecco, 1977), 31.
2 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (1928; London: NLB, 1977), 92; Butler, Psychic Life of Power, 174.