February 5, 2020

Reading and Listening to Bob Dylan As the “Deal Goes Down”

By Stuart Mitchner

The first time I wrote about Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One (2004), I called it “one of the most quotable books you’ll ever read.” That was after observing, “Typically, Dylan plays fast and loose with his own title. If this book is a chronicle, so is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.”

Fifteen years ago, I’d only begun to appreciate how much Dylan’s book had to offer, how often I’d turn to it, as I’ve been doing again in the wake of the “51 to 49 Blown-Impeachment Blues.” That was after the no-witnesses vote on Black Friday, January 31, when the line that came to mind was “when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through,” from the first verse of “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” on Highway 61 Revisited.

When the deal goes down and your fancy turns hopefully to thoughts of spring training and baseball, you find yourself casting the Senate Republicans as the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. Then you think about the high-tech sign-stealing of the Houston Astros in the first “fall classic” of Trump’s reign. Then comes Sunday’s Super Bowl. If you’re a hardcore St. Louis Cardinal fan, the news of a Kansas City championship in 2020 only brings back the pain of losing the 1985 series to the Kansas City Royals, an outcome forever flawed by the most infamous blown call in pre-instant-replay baseball history. And what if the call was blown deliberately? Imagine 51 Republican senators embodied in one umpire.

The Chief Justice

Dylan leaves room for you to move around inside his lyrics, whether you’re Chief Justice John Roberts capping a 2008 dissent in a case in which neither party had anything at stake (“When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”), or a Town Topics columnist looking for some creative diversion from the impeachment debacle. Thus, with apologies to the composer, I’ve been reimagining that opening verse of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Instead of being lost in the rain in Juarez at Eastertime, I’m lost in the fog of the Senate watching the elaborate Kabuki-clockwork Mikado based on “The Senator Has a Question,” with the Chief Justice in Groucho Marx’s role as Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner. Having tried smiling through the “gravity and negativity” issue, I related “Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue” to the minority leader’s rhetoric of “perfidy” and “grand tragedy” in the face of adversity.    

Dylan’s Truth

I’d like to believe that the Chief Justice knows his Dylan, especially the passage on page 220 of Chronicles: “Sometimes you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true. Then again, at the same time, you’re thinking that the only truth on earth is that there is no truth on it. Whatever you are saying, you’re saying in a ricky-tick way. There’s never time to reflect.”

I’m setting the last line off by itself because it has less to do with the Chief Justice than how it feels to a columnist heading for a Tuesday afternoon deadline: “You stitched and pressed and packed and drove, is what you did.”

Instructive Negativity

When TIME (July 5, 2017) referred to the “unconventional” speech the Chief Justice delivered the previous month to his son’s graduating class at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, it wasn’t because he ended by reading lyrics from “the great American philosopher, Bob Dylan.” It was when he went against the cliches of the occasion. “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.”

“Forever Young,” the song the Chief Justice quotes at the end, is true to the sentimental conventions of the occasion, written for Dylan’s son, Jesse, “who he was missing while he was on tour.” 

As ironic as a phrase like “the importance of listening to others” may sound on February 5, 2020, I’d like to think that the theme of instructive “negativity” at the heart of that unconventional commencement speech came from serious attention to the words and music of Bob Dylan.

Medal of Freedom

I began a review of Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest with a snapshot of “post-millennium Americana in all its glory” at the White House May 29 as President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to the then-71-year-old singer “with the shadow mustache and air of tenuously contained vehemence,” who “might have stepped from the pages of a story by Flannery O’Connor. When he was called forth to receive his medal, a cheer went up from the overflow East Room crowd. Dylan did not look happy. Not once did he come near to a smile. He was fidgeting like a prize fighter at the ringing of the bell, the president standing by while a disembodied female voice read the inane citation, something about “a voice in the national conversation.” Tending to the other honorees, Obama had been his usual unflappable self. With Dylan, it was as if he were putting a collar on a pit bull or decorating a land mine. As he and Obama shook hands, Dylan gave the president’s arm several little pats, as if to say, “no harm done, hang in there, you’re all we got.”

The Nobel Prize

Four years later, October 18, 2016,  in a column about Dylan’s Nobel Prize (“Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now, The Hour is Getting Late”), I revisited Chronicles at a time when the virtual universe was “buzzing over Donald Trump’s rocky horror picture show.”

Next I made the obvious connection between the Republican candidate and Dylan’s commentary on the song “Disease of Conceit: “A conceited person could be set up easily and brought down accordingly….  A person like this can be controlled and manipulated completely if you know what buttons to push.”

The column ends with reference to something Dylan told Nat Hentoff: “I’ll never finish saying everything I feel, but I’ll do my part to make some sense out of the way we’re living, and not living, now.” After wondering what sense Dylan was making of the way we’re living and not living now, I listened to “All Along the Watchtower,” observing that the quibbles about Dylan’s qualifications for the Nobel reminded me of the people who point out that princes can’t possibly be keeping the view along a watchtower. For a writer whose songs are bigger than life, the watchtower can be 10 miles long and a hundred miles wide if he so desires. And those two distant riders approaching as the wind begins to howl, what news are they bringing from the other side of the first week of November?”

As for Iowa

There are several Dylan lyrics I considered tying into the results of the 2020 Iowa caucuses, but when I checked at 3 a.m. Tuesday the score was nothing to nothing across the board. For now the best fit is “Too Much of Nothing” — as in when there’s “too much of nothing, no one has control.”