January 18, 2023

Bob Dylan in the Land of Where or When 

By Stuart Mitchner

Dylan is beyond music and lyrics, he has something else. It’s that indefinable something else that makes him special.

—P.J. Harvey, in The Guardian, March 25, 2001

Bob Dylan’s “indefinable something else” is why I’m writing about him again this week. I’m also still walking around with, haunted by, “Where or When,” the last of the 66 songs in his new book The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan is not only still part of the where or when of life, he’s even farther “beyond music and lyrics” than he was when singer songwriter P.J Harvey said as much in March 2001. At that time he had yet to write Chronicles: Volume One (2004), record Modern Times (2006), and win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

As numerous reviewers have observed, The Philosophy of Modern Song is marred by some of Dylan’s sloppiest writing. Last week I suggested that in spite of the scant coverage of female songwriters and performers and the offensive language inspired by songs like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” the new book could be read as a coda to his tour de force Chronicles. Having returned to that extraordinary work, which I’ve lived in for almost 20 years, thanks in part to its evocation of New York’s Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961, I’m thinking the only “coda” worthy of the name may be the music of Modern Times and 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.

“63 Going On 20”

In Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday 2010), Sean Wilentz recounts how Chronicles became a “focus of controversy” two years after it was published, as bloggers began reporting on its unattributed borrowings from authors ranging from Mark Twain to Marcel Proust. My detour from The Philosophy of Modern Song to Chronicles was also prompted by complaints from reviewers about “old man rants” and eccentric “elderly uncles” and “crusty old curmudgeons,” not to mention otherwise positive notices scolding the old guy for occasional obscenely sexist caricatures of “evil women.”

In the where or when of his memory, Dylan was technically “elderly” at 63 when Chronicles was published, but he’s 63 going on 20 when he writes about Chloe, the other half of Ray and Chloe, who put him up when he arrived in New York in late January 1961. After referring to the “somewhat mysterious couple,” Wilentz suggests that they are “almost certainly a fabrication,” a composite based on several real-life couples. 

In the context of one of the most resonant phrases in Dylan’s music, “how does it feel” when you first see Chloe in the winter 1961 moment, with her “red-gold hair, hazel eyes, an illegible smile, face like a doll and an even better figure, fingernails painted black”? She works “as a hatcheck girl at the Egyptian Gardens, a belly-dancing dinner place on 8th Avenue” and she’s “also posed as a model for Cavalier magazine.” She has her own “primitive way of looking at things,” always saying “mad stuff that clicked in a cryptic way, told me once that I should wear eyeshadow because it keeps away the evil eye.” Later in the book, Chloe becomes more of a presence, a Dylan female like the one in “Tangled Up in Blue” who “bent down to tie the laces of my shoe”; she’s “cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper — always hit the nail on the head.” She also has “her own ideas about the nature of things, told me that death was an impersonator, that birth is an invasion of privacy.”

Does it really matter whether Dylan is composing or fabricating or simply remembering a vision of Chloe half a century after the fact “wearing a Japanese kimono over a red flannel shirt” as she cooks up some steak and onions? Then there’s her hobby of putting fancy buckles on old shoes and how she wanted to “do” Dylan’s shoes (“those clodhoppers could use some buckles”), he says no thanks, and she tells him “You got forty-eight hours to change your mind.” Whoever, whatever she is, she’s alive on the page, never mind where or when and she’s not to be messed with.

Another version of Chloe soon shows up in the person of a waitress at a lunch counter wearing “a close-fitting suede blouse” that “outlined the well-rounded lines of her body. She had blue-black hair covered with a kerchief and piercing blue eyes.” Says Dylan: “I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me.” It’s surprising that that line has yet to surface in a Dylan lyric, but one day maybe it will, or maybe it already has in some song that “it seems we’ve heard before.” The New York chapter (“The Lost Land”) ends with the waitress
pouring Dylan a cup of “steaming coffee” as he turns back toward the street window: “The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.”

The Girl on the Cover

Other Chronicles women include Susie Rotolo, known as Suze, the girl snuggling up to Dylan as they walk down a Greenwich Village street on the cover of the Freewheeling album. She’s 17, “fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian,” raised in a left-wing family and “involved in the New York art scene.” In love “for the first time in my life,” Dylan goes from wanting “her body next to mine” to “Times Square movie theaters, the ones like oriental temples.” No wonder, since meeting Suze “was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights,” she who had a smile “that could light up a street full of people.” Although we know for a fact that Suze is a real person, in that passage she sounds more like a fabrication than Chloe.

In Dylan’s evolution as a writer, the most important female in the New York chapter may be the one Suze introduced him to when she was helping out backstage at an off-Broadway production of Brecht on Brecht. According to Wilentz, it was while waiting for Suze that Dylan caught the show and heard the Black actress Micki Grant sing Brecht and Weill’s number “Pirate Jenny.” At this point, Wilentz quotes from Chronicles: “it was a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend,” but it was also, in Wilentz’s words, “a revelation” that in time would lead Dylan to write “the strong but imitative song of prophecy ‘When the Ship Comes In,’ “ which later led to “the imagined twilight world of ‘Visions of Johanna’ and the rest of Blonde on Blonde.”

“Dark Eyes”   

I found a woman and a song in the “Oh Mercy” chapter of Chronicles, along with a back story so haunting, so where or when, that I need to pass it along. Dylan was back in New York from the New Orleans recording sessions for Oh Mercy (1989) in time to wrap up the Empire Burlesque LP (1985), for which “all the songs were mixed and finalized” except for an as-yet-unwritten acoustic number that made sense to Dylan because the rest of the album was so “heavily produced.”

A seldom sung line from “Where or When” is “Things come back to you as if they knew the way,” like the moment in a corridor of the Plaza Hotel, best known in the lore of rock as the place the Beatles stayed during their first visit to the city in February 1964. The woman of the moment seemingly comes from the same world as the women in the pieces Dylan has been chided and derided for in reviews of The Philosophy of Modern Song:

“As I stepped out of the elevator, a call girl was coming toward me in the hallway — pale yellow hair wearing a fox coat — high heeled shoes that could pierce your heart. She had blue circles around her eyes, black eyeliner, dark eyes. She looked like she’d been beaten up and was afraid that she’d get beat up again. In her hand, crimson purple wine in a glass. ‘I’m just dying for a drink,’ she said as she passed me in the hall. She had a beautifulness, but not for this kind of world. Poor wretch, doomed to walk this hallway for a thousand years.”

That’s an odd yet perfectly, clumsily Dylanesque piece of writing. Does it really matter that some lines may be borrowed or patched together from anonymous sources? Can you hear Dylan saying “Poor wretch”? Well, yes, maybe so, and yet he’s clearly/unclearly moving at his own pace and in his own deceptively slapdash style.

Later that night, Dylan sits at a window overlooking Central Park and writes the song “Dark Eyes.” He records it the next night “with only an acoustic guitar and it was the right thing to do.”

And it’s one of the best, most moving things he ever wrote, a standout promising better things on an album that has since been deemed one of his weakest.

How Does It Feel?

Listen to the song Dylan drew from that hotel corridor moment. How does it feel? The slow, singsong tune is as easy to sing quietly along with as a child’s lullaby or a bedtime prayer: you don’t need to be a singer to say the words with Dylan, preferably at 2 or 3 a.m. in  a hushed YouTube corner of the night. From the first line — “Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside” to “A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes” — it feels right. In that special place he occupies in the where or when of American music, it’s like P.J. Harvey said: “He’s beyond music and lyrics, he has something else.” 

Note: George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University Sean Wilentz had a major hand in designing the permanent exhibition for the new Bob Dylan Center that opened in Tulsa in May. His chapbook Bob Dylan Approximately was published on the occasion of the opening.