Dylan’s Epiphanies

Magic Moments in Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1

I’ve been listening at night to Dylan’s 2001 Love and Theft album which can be quite the test of comprehension because of his raspy voice. Through my Bose headset, volume set just right, I can hear what he’s saying and enjoy the variety of songs. The band with him is very sophisticated, like many studio musicians, they can play anything. But the Bonus Disc has two songs: 1. “I Was Young When I Left Home” recorded in 1961 and 2. “The Times They Are A-Changing.” What a young and innocent man can do! From the 1961 song, a patchwork of many traditional folk lines nicely strung together (“ramblin’ round” “a friend I use ta know” “mother’s dead an’ gone” “with the shirt on ma back, not a penny to ma name” ‘can’t go home this a-way” ‘miss the train I’m on / hear the whistle blow a hundred miles from home” “pawn ma watch an’ chain.” A wonderful young hobo song, sung with true-to-character simplicity and clear-voiced humility. Then the brilliance of the 1963 timeless “The Times” lyrics, sung with a visionary’s confidence of things past and things to come. Jim’s made a good choice for our participation in consideration of an enigmatic celebrity. What do we really know about a celebrity? The bog looks alive with comments lately.

Epiphany 1: Just read (notice how Dylan dispenses with the pronoun in sentence openings) last night the section when he was playing with The Dead (The Grateful ones, naturally) and had walked away, never intending to return: “If you have to lie, you should do it quickly and as well as you can.” (p.114) These few pages blew me away! In his disappointed, disenchanted state, that’s when he had the amazing insight: alone in bar, sipping a gin and tonic, he listened to the “Billy-Eckstein” voice of the piano player. The real Eckstein’s voice was extremely gravelly and deep. This player’s singing was relaxed, voice emanating with natural power, no forcing the cords of his larynx. Dylan must have wondered about how much more voice he’d have himself if he kept on shouting the way he was going. After competing at the mike with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and now with The Dead, he was well aware that his voice had lost some of its chops. Now, on Love and Theft (13 years ago) he sings with a more relaxed “Billy Eckstein” voice, gravelly as hell, but it’s naturally his best lasting voice and tone in his older age.

Furthermore, there’s the Locarno, Switzerland, passage when things got really stupid, his collapse and revival. What a panic attack as he says. Dylan does come clean many times through this memoir. These moments of self-realization we’ve all had, and we should include them in our memoirs, if we ever write them. About his voice recognition he says: “All of sudden I understood something faster than I ever did before. I could feel how he [Eckstein] worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get it. I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself. I used to do this thing, I’m thinking. It was a long time ago and it had been automatic. No one had ever taught me. This technique was so elemental, so simple and I’d forgotten. It was like I’d forgotten how to button my pants. I wondered if I could still do it. …If I could in any way get close to handling this technique, I could get off this marathon stunt ride.” Amazing realization that has stood him in good stead since that time. An amazing section of discovery.

Epiphany 2. I have been finding other moments of magic in Dylan’s Chronicles. Not so much magic for me, I mean Dylan’s epiphanies. In this second epiphany, Dylan’s telling about the labor of making the Oh, Mercy album in New Orleans with a group of musicians handpicked by Danny Lanois, a Canadian, a mover and shaker in the New Orleans music recording business. The sets have been going poorly, in Dylan’s mind, long hours and nothing much complete as Dylan himself would want it. Poor guy, Dylan has lost his authority as the “big star” and others are in charge when he’s recording, getting the song arranged, overdubbed, their way. But, then, late one night 3 am, with everyone burned out and laid-back, this happened after Dylan sang “Where Teardrops Fall”:

Blind to Enchantment, and Then All of a Sudden . . .
“I sang ‘Where Teardrops Fall.’ I showed it quickly to Dopsie [a musician] and we recorded it. Took about five minutes and it wasn’t rehearsed. In the finale of the song, Dopsie’s saxophone player, John Harte, played a sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away. He’d been sitting here the whole night in the dark and I hadn’t noticed him. I leaned over and glanced at his face. The man was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis, the singing reverend that I’d known and followed around years earlier. What was he doing here? Same guy, same cheeks and chin, fedora, dark glasses. Same build, same height, same long black coat–the works. It was eerie! Reverend Gary Davis, one of the wizards of modern music … like he’d been raised upright and was watching over things, keeping constant vigilance over what was happening. He peered across the room at me in an odd way, like he had the ability to see beyond the moment, like he’s thrown a rope line out [for me] to grip. All of a sudden I know I’m in the right place doing the right thing at the right time and Lanois is the right cat. Felt like I had turned a corner and was seeing the sight of a god’s face. Then out of nowhere in the midst of it all, came ‘Where Teardrops Fall.’ It was just a three-minute ballad but it made you [me] stand up and stay right where you are [I was]. It was like someone pulled the chain to stop the train. The song was beautiful and magical,upbeat and it was complete. (Chronicles, p. 144-145, and my italics)

All the ingredients of lo real Marvilloso, out of a lax moment of fatigue or disappointment, one then hears the magic sound–breath is taken away. An apparition, a blind man, a Teresias, arises, a wizard musician stands forth, like a well-known figure who had been watching all along. Eerie,like an uncanny apparition. He had thrown a life-preserver and set things right with the world. It made him stand up and stay right in place. As though someone shouted out: “Stop! Look and Listen!” The magic is here! -–David Gilmour

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