Bob Dylan rode into town one day on a black Harley along an ancient road that stretched back towards the Sinai Desert and to the place where the road began at the gateway of a lost garden covered in dust and shrouded in mist. He rolled to halt before a strange red sign made from stone whereupon the word STOP had been carefully carved. Across the intersection, the road ran through a valley, then winded upwards through some hill country before it finally disappeared over a mountain ridge.
Barreling through the intersection on the other road came a convoy of Volkswagen vans, painted in swirls of bright fluorescent colors, windows rolled down and reeking of incense and marijuana. Mick Jagger was driving the first one, and he acted liked he didn’t even notice Dylan revving up his bike. Jimmy Page sat in the passenger seat with Lori Maddox on his lap, oblivious to everything. The words “Do What Thy Wilt” were written on the side of the van above a crudely drawn portrait of Aleister Crowley.
One by one other vans and vehicles speeded through the intersection, the final one with a picture of Jimi Hendrix on the side with R.I.P. stenciled beneath it. The convoy would have kept on coming in an endless line, but, for the fact, that somewhere in the rear, a hearse driven by Ozzie Osbourne carrying the mummified remains of Robert Johnson had a flat tire in the middle of a one lane bridge, The gap in traffic gave Dylan the requisite time to cross the intersection unmolested. Which he did after storing the vision away for later use and crushing out a cigarette beneath his boot.
Dylan roared across that intersection and never looked backwards. It appears he came to an understanding that music and all other forms of art need to take the cosmos into account along with the temporal needs of humanity. He understood the words of the German political philosopher Eric Vogelin who said something to the effect of, “All art, if it is any good, is some sort of myth in the sense that it becomes a reflection of the unity of the cosmos as a whole.” Dylan set out restoring the pathway of the ancients, a long forgotten road that fell into ruin as empiricism replaced the language of myth.
I would not be lying by saying that my first encounter with Dylan was both profound and life changing. I remember being eighteen and standing in line at our small town drug store waiting for a prescription to be filled. There was small bin of records next to the counter. I casually perused through the contents of the bin and pulled out a copy of Blood on the Tracks. I bought the album thinking that the bargain price made it worth taking a chance on.
I took the album home, got stoned (sorry, Mom), and listened to it a couple of times. Up to that point in life, I preferred music that matched the throbbing in my loins, not a pretty way of saying it, but truthful. I had huge box speakers mounted in the back seat of a two toned Riviera and would drive up, down, around the streets with the bass blasting, Steve Marriott screaming at the top of his lungs, and telling everyone in town that I was hot and ready to trot.
And if it wasn’t Steve Marriott, it was Savoy Brown playing Hell Bound Train, which gave off the same message but added the existential symbolism of saying I know where this train is heading, and I don’t care; ironic because at that time I didn’t know that a moving train could be symbolic or what the word existential even meant. I only knew that I was tired of all the unqualified Sunday school teachers in my life, and that I liked naked women more than anything else
It was the Stones, Zeppelin, and bands like Humble Pie, Deep Purple, and the Small Faces that told me that exploring sexuality was the order of the day, and sent me out into the world dressed in Beatle boots, tie dyed shirts and red velvet bellbottoms, ready to rumble and discover.
All good things in my life came out of that random glance through a bargain record bin; the fact that I went to college, became a father of two beautiful daughters, taught in a middle school for 31 years, became a better son and brother, everything. And the reason was simple; I quit buying music that made my loins tingle and started buying music to feed my heart and brain.
Blood on the Tracks is inarguably one of the greatest albums, if not the greatest album, of all times. People say stuff like this often, but they speak more out of sentimentally, paying homage to the sound tracks of their life. Recently, I read where someone named the Stone’s Their Satanic Majesties Request the greatest album of all time. And while it is probably better than 95% of what other people think is great, it is still much closer to the other end of the spectrum than actually being a genuine claimant for the title of the GOAT.
And the reason for this is also simple, and it’s contained in the title of the song. Rock music is existential in nature; it implicitly says not to worry if this train we’re on is barreling down the track toward a bridge that’s no longer there, and it’ll be okay as long as we can put that image out of mind, get high, gyrate, and whip our head back and forth like a bobbled-headed hula dancer having seizures in back of 57 Chevy.
I mention this to make a point. Rock and Roll came out of the loins of Elvis Presley, who was influenced by the black rhythm and blues of the South. Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton were the grandparents on one side, and Hank Snow and Betsy Gay were the other grandparents. From its birth, Rock and Roll has been the music of sexuality. It’s what the name means.
Rock music became hugely popular not because it was anywhere near transcendent. People were getting tired of seeking out God for answers to all of their problems. Nietzsche had informed us all years before that we are responsible for creating our own solutions, and early Rock wasn’t about the truth; it is and always has been about diversion from the truth. It is about running from the truth. It was, however, a lot more authentic than the pop music of the those early days of Rock, which honestly worked better as the background to advertisements meant to convert sexual urges into the urge to buy things.
The Greeks used the word metaxy as a reference to a state of existing between things. Vogelin felt that any art worth creating had to use mythic imagery to express that human beings were trapped in the middle of the cosmos and life on earth, between the future and the past, between science and God, between man’s outer awareness and his inner world of visions and dreams, and that any artist who ignored the duty to contemplate the transcendent beauty of the entire universe could not fully appreciate or correctly express the truth found in the world of reason and men.
It is my belief that Bob Dylan suddenly saw himself in this crossroad state, and shifted his gaze away from social protest and unto the skies overhead. The writer Randall E. Auxier wrote a clever and insightful essay named Blinded by the Subterranean Homesick Muse: The Poet as Virtuous and Virtue wherein he contrived a symbolic barroom scene inhabited by all of the nine muses and the poets who have come to woo them. He argues that only a handful of the virtuous poets in attendance could manage to go home with one or two of the lovely muses, and only the real Boss Daddy could take home all nine on any single night.
In this barroom, Auxier also stages a fictional contest to see which of the singer-songwriters of the modern era would emerge as the master of all poets. It comes down to battle between Dylan and Springsteen with Springsteen copping the trophy. Auxier later acknowledges Dylan as the true winner. He did offer up however compelling evidence that Springsteen has come a long way in closing the gap between the two, in particularly, the song Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothing On, which perfectly illustrates that Springsteen understood the need to include a vision of the cosmos in songs where existential heroes and hot-rod drivers raced down the dark, empty streets to the sound of Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes blaring from their radios.
I love the essay but feel that Auxier misses the point somewhat when he states that Dylan had lost some of his mastery in his later works, especially during the time period when he converted to Christianity. He argues that Dylan had lost touch with the muses and points out the remarks of pissed-off critics and failing record sales as proof.
I think it an unfair criticism.
There comes a time in life, when men need to quit hanging around in bars trying to pick up muses and start to obey the need to talk more directly to God. From the moment he realized this, that he stood in a position between God, the cosmos, and man, Dylan forgot the muses and began courageously to carve his words into the permanence of stone.
And in a world that seemingly values Kim Kardashian’s derriere more than truth, maybe it was not such a popular decision. It does, however, mean that Dylan’s body of work will stand long after the artists that foolishly took that other road, the ones who gyrated and screamed their way to great riches and fame, have long since vanished into meaninglessness and dust.