“But in looking back at the places I’ve been, the changes that I’ve left behind, I look at myself to find I’ve learned the hard way every time.” ~Jim Croce~
Now for a piece of news that isn’t a secret: I could randomly pick a song from Bob Dylan’s catalog on a weekly basis and write an essay without breaking a sweat or straining a single brain cell.
From the adolescent, angst ridden instant in 1969 when I discovered him for myself, the man’s poetry has electrified my imagination. I mark milestones and setbacks based on the ebb and flow of his music across the landscape of my life.
The hours of inspiration, comfort, or encouragement his music has provided are astronomical in number. There have been periodic stretches when his playlists were the only ones getting airtime around me. Like some kind of freaked out junkie it seemed I always needed another fix.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about his songs is that no matter how many times I’ve listened, whenever I hear one after an absence, it’s always fresh. In my considered opinion his lyrical spin on emotional alienation, relational train wrecks, social commentary, prophetic utterances, and apocalyptic musings are the gold standard by which all pretenders to the throne are judged.
I freely acknowledge that the soundtrack of my life is somewhat idiosyncratic. Some, however, seriously think Dylan is the only singer-songwriter I ever listen to, which isn’t anywhere near reality, but perception is what it is, so this article is meant to tweak the nose of a common stereotype of me. It also is to pay homage to the master bluesman from Hibbing who now happens to be a seventy-seven year old grandfather.
We were on the road for seven weeks this summer—quite a few long and winding twists and turns until we arrived at our final destination, which as chance and destiny would have it, was where we had started, on the high desert of New Mexico. Music is always in the mix of road-trips. Here are a pair of tunes that have kept me company and captured my attention for more years and miles than I can possibly document.
“It’s a shadowy world, skies are slippery gray. A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet. He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat. Take the motherless children off the street and place them at the feet of a harlot. Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants. Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response . . .” ~Bob Dylan~
Jokerman is the opening cut on Infidels, Dylan’s 22nd studio album, which was released in October 1983. I was out of work and broke at the time, but somehow managed to scrape together enough shekels to purchase it hot off the press. My first thought on catching an earful was that he was knee-deep in the book of Ezekiel.
That initial assessment was likely too exclusive. It wasn’t just Ezekiel making tracks in the songs–it seethed with innuendo and associations from wide swatches of the Old Testament. There were blatantly obvious echoes that couldn’t be missed, along with obscure hints poking around the shadows. Contemporaneous news reports said that Dylan was in Israel exploring his Jewish heritage by studying Hasidic Judaism. The LP sleeve featured a photograph of him kneeling on the Mount of Olives with the Dome of the Rock in the background, which struck me as interesting in the extreme, and also made a mockery of the collective wisdom of reviewers. Their view was unanimous—the album was heralded as a return to secular themes after his born-again trilogy: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love. That appraisal was dubious and should be thoroughly discredited because separating one’s spiritual wanderings into neat and tidy compartments is an impossibility. Infidels is steeped in Biblical imagery and religious references. No song more so than Jokerman—the ominous foreshadowing of some impending gloom on the horizon is thick and palpable.
A memory involving Jokerman from 2011 remains palpable. Anita and I were driving across the heartland of Ohio on the 21st of May, which just happened to be the day Harold Camping had predicted the rapture would occur. That event was supposed to usher in Judgment Day, and according to the cult-leader’s billboards and literature, the Bible guaranteed it. The end of the world was upon us, and in that context, Jokerman took on a cutting edge boldness that was raw and startling. The fact that end times marketing schemes and circus hoopla are always headline news, we’ll revisit this sadly delusional territory again and again. In a sort of preemptive strike, I nominate Jokerman to be number one with a bullet on The Top Ten Songs Of The Almost Apocalypse.
Series Of Dreams
“Thinking of a series of dreams, where the time and the tempo fly, and there’s no exit in any direction ‘cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes. Wasn’t making any great connection. Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme. Nothing that would pass inspection. Just thinking of a series of dreams . . .” ~Bob Dylan~
No one explores the terrain of dreams better than Dylan. His use of free association and floating anxiety has universal appeal. Series Of Dreams was written and originally recorded while he was working with Daniel Lanois for the Oh Mercy sessions. That album entered the marketplace in 1989, but for reasons that make no sense to me, Series Of Dreams wasn’t included. This near masterpiece didn’t see the light of day until 1991’s Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.
There have been plenty of instances when this song crawled inside my head to rattle around for days and days. Likely because I am blessed or perhaps cursed with a vivid dream-life that runs the gamut from sweet pleasantries to nightmarish ugliness.
For me, coming awake in the midst of nighttime mind-games doesn’t stop the shaky sketches or prevent them from getting jammed in the drainpipe at the bottom of my brain. The fragments stick around, sometimes forming weird montages that jigsaw together in a puzzling array, then if creativity makes the connection, I can forge bits and pieces together into storylines or characters.
Lately the dead of night movies have been exceptionally animated, with the past and present getting jumbled together and mixed up in the future. It’s all quite confusing. I’m no psychologist, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree to diagnose the reasons for increased brain activity whilst I attempt to sleep. Life became rather unsettled on our travels—a situation involving a son put us through a grind of frustration, and created loose strings and lots of questions dangling around the edges.
On this journey we were zigzagging our way on secondary roads simply because that’s the preferred way to actually see the countryside, and the only way to avoid paying the troll of government its toll. We were halfway between here and there when Series Of Dreams caught hold of me with an intensity that riveted my attention. One phrase slapped at me. And there’s no exit in any direction ’cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes . . .
It occurred to me on a second replay that those words had significance in the context of walking by faith. We take one step after another and make turns at crossroads all the while knowing that the pathway to the days ahead is one that will be revealed only as we obediently press on. The exit to what lies in the great unknown of all our tomorrows can only be discovered by keeping the pedal of faith pushed to the floor-mat.
In this season of our lives, we exercise faith in the One who knows the beginning from the end and does all thing well—being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. We know that the Creator has a plan and is actively working it. Everything else is just thinking of a series of dreams.
Bob Dylan is a sponge. He soaks up sounds and stories, all of which gets filtered through unique lenses before being squeezed out in his art. Volumes have been written about his genius—his contribution to and influence on culture is truly incalculable. He stood on the shoulders of giants to pioneer stunning trails for others to follow.
I am grateful I was blessed with ears to hear and appreciate his music. His cryptic poetry has repeatedly enriched and juiced up my creativity. And don’t think twice about it—there’s no doubt that somewhere up around a bend there’ll be further reflections on his songs. Until then, in the enduring words of the aging rhymer of lines, may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.