Inside the Mirror
[Author’s note for this Substack Edition of I Don’t Love Nobody: Bob Dylan at the End of Time: Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. If you haven’t had a chance, you might want to check out my preface in last week’s post. There you will find information about the roots of this book, my reasons for publishing on Substack, and the Table of Contents. Today’s post is the first chapter, the Introduction. Each Friday over the next 26 weeks I will publish a new chapter.]
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line
— from “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” by Bob Dylan
Like you, I’m a Bob Dylan fan. Like you, I’ve listened to his music for most of my life. I was born in 1960 and first heard him on the radio, probably a cheap little transistor owned by one of my three older siblings. At some point in my early childhood, my brother Dave acquired Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, and we played it on a box stereo in our bedroom, high above Carroll Avenue in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul. I loved the song “I Want You,” and it would get stuck in my head for days, with its combination of bizarre images, clever rhymes — “Chinese suit,” “flute,” “very cute” — and aching desire. I was only a child, but children have plenty of desire. The phrase “I want you” is primal, and Dylan had paired it with smart and funny lyrics that respected and deepened the feeling. The song is poetry; I was less than ten years old, and Bob Dylan made me love poetry.
In a few years I would begin building my own collection of Dylan LPs. I treasured Before the Flood, the live compilation from Tour ’74, when the artist returned to the road with The Band after seven years away. I thought the crowd noise between songs was incredibly cool, and it gave me an idea of what a live show would be like. I had never been to any rock concert. The next two records, Blood on the Tracks and Desire, knocked me out. I passed hundreds of hours in my basement as a teenager, listening on our excellent family stereo, dreaming of meeting a “mystical child” like “Isis.” Pete Hamill’s liner notes for Blood on the Tracks and Allen Ginsberg’s for Desire each offered a report on America that I wasn’t getting from the family subscription to Newsweek. Then, in September of ’76, the Hard Rain TV special, coming through the tiny black and white set in my bedroom, scorched itself into my heart. I was mesmerized: the singer in his white headdress, declaiming about the “Idiot Wind” and looking every inch a seer.
In 1978, I left home for college and adventure. That year I saw Bob Dylan play twice. The first was a famous concert at a disused airfield in Surrey, England, called The Picnic at Blackbushe. My high school friends and I joined about 250,000 other fans on a hot and overcast July day. I’d never seen so many people in one place. Perhaps you were there too? I had travelled to Britain on a summer trip to see the land where my parents had been born and raised. Because of demand, Dylan had added the show to his European tour. A couple of weeks earlier, he had played to a massive crowd in a stadium in Nuremberg, Germany, where the Nazis had held rallies in the thirties. The American leg of the 1978 tour would be derided in the press as “Dylan goes Vegas” because of Bob’s sparkly stage-wear, his big band, and new versions of old songs. But in Europe he was received rapturously. Melody Maker, the influential British music paper, published a pre-edition devoted to hyping Blackbushe and a post-edition extolling its glories. For my part, I was overwhelmed by jet lag and the size of the crowd. Also, from my three square feet on the dusty field, the stage was so far away that I couldn’t see Dylan, or Eric Clapton, or any of the other artists who played that day. The sound was great, though, from large speaker columns spread through the grounds. As dusk fell and Dylan began singing, his voice thrilled me, but it might have been coming from anywhere, from the sky itself.
I recall that day mostly for reasons other than the music. Blackbushe changed my life. I can say this without hyperbole. I had an accident that evening, after the show, that set me on new path, away from the influence of my family and toward my true calling. And this story, the new Bob Dylan story I tell in the pages that follow, also began that day in the British countryside. In this book, however, I will only mention The Picnic at Blackbushe briefly, here and there. Because I’ve already written an entirely different book that includes it, and all the crazy events that followed — a memoir, called The Golden Bird. That story is a companion to this one.
My second Dylan show was in Portland, Oregon, in November of 1978 at the old Rose Garden. I had just started college at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Dylan was near the end of the same world tour, with the big band, the back-up singers, and the saxophone player. It was a fabulous and very strange concert, also described in my memoir. I sat in the back of the auditorium with my brother, but we rushed to the stage for the encores, as you would in those days, and I will always remember how haggard and beautiful the artist looked from a few feet away, make-up dripping down his face as he sing-shouted the final song, “Changing of the Guards” from the recent album, Street-Legal.
I’m a Bob Dylan fan, not an insider of any kind, and I’ve never met him. Although, nine years ago I was sitting in a “closed” bar in St. Paul when he was probably eating in the adjacent restaurant. I suspect this because his tour bus was outside, his band was in the bar, and his son Jakob, he of The Wallflowers, walked by while I was drinking. I didn’t want to intrude on Dylan’s privacy, so I decided not to look around the corner into the restaurant. And another time, after a concert in Seattle in 1993, I shouted to him as he walked by at a distance, and he stared at me and gave me a nod. I tell the latter story in more detail in the pages that follow — a fan story.
So why am I writing a book as a fan? Does the world need another book about Bob Dylan? Reasonable questions. The shelf already groans with biographies and analyses of the troubadour’s art. Nearly every creative period has been examined. I can think of two books about the Basement Tapes, half a dozen about the sixties, and two more about the artist’s childhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota. Several albums — including Infidels and Time Out of Mind — have their own studies, and Greil Marcus wrote an entire volume about “Like a Rolling Stone.” There’s a couple of volumes about Dylan’s gospel period and a vital series of three about his live performances from the sixties to the eighties by the late Paul Williams. Books of lyrical analysis and commentary cover most of the artist’s career. Professor Christopher Rick’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin is my favorite, challenging and profound, and Michael Gray is also well worth reading. Another recent study discusses Bob’s use of classical allusions in his songwriting. A professor at Princeton wrote an analysis of Dylan in relationship to crucial events and musical trends in American history. A few years ago a journalist published a book of vignettes about people like us, Dylan fans — the ephemera collectors, bootleggers, and yes, some crazy people. Suze Rotolo, the artist’s early love in New York City, wrote a fantastic memoir about her life and their young affair. At least two collections of essays appeared in honor of the musician’s eightieth birthday in 2021. We can add those to several compilations from earlier years. Dozens of writers have dedicated blogs and self-published tomes to every aspect of Bob’s art. Some of these are unreadable, and some are insightful and excellent. I know of at least four podcasts and several fanzines dedicated to Dylan. The Bob Dylan Center, an entire museum devoted to interactive displays about the artist and his music, using the resources of his archives, has just opened in Tulsa. And we cannot forget the man himself, and his cryptic, deceptive, very funny, and illuminating memoir, Chronicles Volume 1.
[Author’s note: As I was preparing this book for publication, Dylan released a new book of essays, The Philosophy of Modern Song. I have added a few notes throughout this text with new information from that work, as it applies to my themes.]
One of the best bloggers, Scott Warmuth, explores how the artist has borrowed lines from a huge variety of sources, from classic literature to obscure tomes, from old songs to more modern tunes, for the composition of his lyrics and also, extensively, for the writing of Chronicles Volume 1. This research is at the cutting edge of Dylan studies and reveals hidden and subtextual ideas the musician has included on his albums and writings from the late nineties through the early part of the new century. Several other authors, including Robert Polito, David Yaffe, Sean Wilentz, and Kevin Dettmar, have written essays about Dylan’s propensity to lift ideas and phrases and put them into his songs. The Ecstasy of Influence, a magazine article by Jonathan Lethem, also discusses the songwriter’s use of found images, and a related issue, the overreach of copyright law. The novelist’s essay is perhaps the most creative of the bunch; it is collaged entirely from borrowed material. As you will see in a moment, these critiques bear directly on my thesis.
The life and art of Bob Dylan deserves all of these books, essays, and discussions. The musician will be listened to and studied for generations, and there is every reason for his contemporaries to document his creations in real time. But is there anything new to say?
Absolutely. He is still working. The troubadour is on the road right now, tonight in the American south, playing nearly every song from his most recent album, on what he has dubbed The Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour, 2021–2024. [Author’s note: This chapter was first drafted in the spring of 2022. At this writing, the singer has just announced European tour dates for the summer of 2023.] This title states plainly that the musician isn’t slowing down. Dylan’s musical journey is still being lived. While fans revisit peak moments from the past on our headphones and home stereos, the artist keeps moving forward. At age eighty-one, Dylan still commands the stage in cities and small towns across the world, and his new songs and shows are spellbinding. If Dylan truly is our Shakespeare, our Blake, our Whitman, we need to pay close attention until the last song is played.
This book is a study of Bob Dylan’s most recent era, including live performances. But mostly, this book is about Rough and Rowdy Ways. Musically, the album is wonderfully entertaining, with a couple of rocking blues, a few long, complex ballads — featuring Dylan’s magical phrasing — and, through the whole record, hypnotic playing by a top-notch band. And more than this, beyond the sonic pleasures, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a deeply allusive literary work and one of the final puzzles from the most enigmatic artist of the age. The lyrics are filled with treasures and secrets.
In the following chapters, we will listen together as Bob Dylan sings his newest songs. We will sit close to the stage in cities from Honolulu to New York, and we will also revisit the “Bon-Bon Club,” the juke-joint of the Shadow Kingdom — a limbo world that Dylan created in the spring of 2021 and released that summer as a streaming concert, as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on and kept him off the road for the first time in many years. Here, also, the artist has included portents and symbols, hidden in plain sight, in the songs and scenery.
But why me? How do I qualify as a guide? What gives me any special insight? I’m just a fan.
Here’s how Dylan introduced “Murder Most Foul,” the first song he chose to release from Rough and Rowdy Ways in April of 2020. He addressed us directly:
Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.
Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.
This book is my answer to Dylan’s call to “stay observant.” Because, while listening to the new album in that first pandemic summer of 2020, I noticed something bizarre. I observed something that astonished me, and delighted me, and made me question my sanity. I noticed that the musician, the magpie, the puzzle-maker, had used images from my 2011 self-published memoir, The Golden Bird, in writing one of the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways. I observed that in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” — a gorgeous tune, a tropical idyll set at the very gate of heaven — Dylan had sampled passages from a crucial forty-page section of The Golden Bird and remixed them into his lyric. I noticed that Bob Dylan had transformed my small attempt at art, and my very life — strange days I lived as a young man — into his poetry.
It blew my mind and freaked me out. And then I noticed more. As I looked deeply into the allusions on the record, I discovered that in the lyrics of Rough and Rowdy Ways the artist has constructed an elaborate house of mirrors. There are dozens. Peer into the glass; you will see heroes and antiheroes, politicians and philosophers, film stars and poets, martyrs and prophets. Most of all, you will see musicians playing their songs. You will see Dylan at home: on the stage. And of course, as always in the best Dylan songs, you will see yourself. You will see images of a fan living his life and listening to music. This is what happened to me, looking into “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Except in this case, the images were ones I had composed myself.
I hear your questions. Why would Bob Dylan take inspiration from an unknown manuscript? Can I prove my claim? How would Dylan come across The Golden Bird, and why would he care? Am I just seeing coincidences? How exactly is he using episodes from my memoir? And really? Really? Am I sure I’m not just full of shit?
You will decide. But the following chapters are devoted to the answers. So I beg your patience. Consider: if my assertion is true, I have an obligation. I believe the artist, the trickster, the philosopher pirate, has given me a story to tell. My duty, to the cause of Dylan studies (Dylanology, if we must), and beyond that, to Poesie and perhaps to the Muses themselves, is to tell the story completely and in detail. For example: in Chapter 15, I tell exactly how the phrase “if you lost your mind” — at the center of the lyric quoted at the top of this chapter — is a reflection from my own insanity in the year 1980, as described in The Golden Bird, to his song. Or perhaps, more accurately: a mirror of Dylan’s own perceived craziness, in that same year, to my book, and back again to his verse. If you are familiar with the artist’s history, you know what sort of craziness I am talking about. In that singular moment, we both lost our minds and found them again in “Key West.” I show how the phrase appears in my text not once, but twice, and how it frames all the other borrowings, just as it frames Dylan’s song, from the third verse to the last in the poem’s only repeating triplet. And then I say what I think it means. How can I say this? Because the image is from my hand.
My pledge in the following pages is to take you with me “under the radar, under the gun” and demonstrate that these clichés are purposeful and carry emanations, taken from The Golden Bird and intimately related to one of the core themes of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”: faith at the time of death. My duty is to walk with you through the lanes of “Key West” after dark, to “Mystery Street,” and show, that although such a place does not exist in the real Florida city, it is the spiritual center of Bob Dylan’s composition. My quest is to prove that the “Pretty Little Miss” of the writer’s imagination is not only a character in a traditional folk song but also an echo of a woman I once knew in a moment out of time. My requirement is to show how in the phrase “I don’t love nobody” Dylan not only cites a racist minstrel tune — a tune that a Black woman who became a folk icon in her sixties transformed into her own — he also states plainly the most basic commandment of his Lord. My commitment is to illustrate how the poet offers, in the same four words, an allusion to the gossamer-like quality of our life on Earth, via an image from The Golden Bird. And my imperative is to shine a light into the backdrop of the Shadow Kingdom, reveal what the artist has hidden in the props and paintings, and demonstrate how these totems relate directly to the story told in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
So I will begin at the beginning, as they say you should. And continue to the end. Except … straight away, this presents what I will call the “Tangled Up in Blue” problem. Time itself, which we put so much stock in — out of necessity — has a tendency to skip around on us. Indeed, the illusory nature of time, and the illusory nature of our material world, are among the obsessions of Rough and Rowdy Ways. This is a story of Bob Dylan’s newest work, but my small role begins at the Blackbushe Aerodrome on July 15, 1978. So in this narrative, at the artist’s behest, we must adapt to tripping back and forth through the decades and centuries, and we must be willing, here and there, to leave our bodies behind.
In Part One of this book, I tell how I came to write The Golden Bird just over ten years ago — as I turned fifty — and I offer a brief summary of its plot and concerns. You won’t need to read my memoir to understand this new Bob Dylan story. I offer plenty of context in the following pages. And in truth, if you were to read that story without the background I provide here, I doubt you would find all the connections between it and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” As Dylan has demonstrated throughout his career, he just can’t do what he’s done before. The artist has transferred only a few words from text to text; more than that, he has recast the images into new forms. But for an adventurous tale in its own right, and a trip through time into the apocalyptic late seventies, I hope you might someday read The Golden Bird. After all, I believe Bob Dylan enjoyed it. Maybe you will too.
In chapter 2, I review some of the songwriter’s past practices, with a survey of “pirate philosophy.” This is a phrase that Dylan has coined — well, stolen, actually — to describe his career long role as the absolute master of musical recycling, of transforming old tunes, traditions, and verse into new art. Later, in Part Two, I discuss how the musician has evolved these techniques, while sailing around “Key West,” into a philosophy now more resembling alchemy: how Lew Sully’s racist “I Don’t Love Nobody” becomes a holy relic and an image of transcendence. How a single word in a letter from a disgraced and dying Confederate general to his son evokes the ghost of Buddy Holly. How a few of an amateur writer’s plain sentences about the spiritual bewilderment of his character become shards of allegory on the singer’s aged and abraded voice.
Part One also includes reviews of a few concerts from the past decade, from rural Montana to Maui to Las Vegas. These pieces were first published in real time, on a now defunct blog, and I have revised them for inclusion here. I try to give an idea of what Dylan's songs and performances have meant to me as I get older. I know you have felt something similar listening to the Bard describe your hopes, dreams, and loves. I imagine you have felt, like me, companionship in sorrow as he sings about the realities of life in a broken world. I know you have also rocked out and sang along, often very badly.
Finally, Part One contains three essays originally published on my blog. The first is a discussion of spiritual loss in the lyrics of Tempest — the artist’s previous record of original songs, from 2012. The second looks at Dylan’s art through an analysis of The Soul’s Code, a 2008 book by the Jungian psychologist James Hillman. And the third is a piece about how fans hear Dylan’s music differently based on the time they discovered him. This includes my impressions of books by Suze Rotolo, Greil Marcus, and Brian Hinton. In Part One, my only connection to the music is my life experience — I’m just a fan who likes to read books and go to shows. I have edited these pieces for clarity, but I have not changed them to make them appear prescient. I’ve included brief introductions and sometimes an author’s note when recent information (or simply something new I’ve learned) seems particularly important in the context of the essay.
In Part Two, I show exactly how the artist sampled from my memoir and how his pirating fits in with other allusions on Rough and Rowdy Ways. I explore how Dylan transfigures literary references from many sources, including The Golden Bird, into his poetics. I describe how the lyricist weaves images of his personal history into the songs. We travel to a convent home in the North Country, not far from the singer’s place of birth, near the shore of Lake Superior, and another, between Amelia and Truman, way down under, down by the Gulf of Mexico. We visit Dylan as a boy, sitting on the shoulders of an uncle, and as an old man, walking in the fading light. On the way, we stop in 1980 and stand at the back of a theater in the American west, where the charismatic musician, in defiance of his career, is onstage preaching Armageddon. We spend time with prophets, true and false. And then we leave time altogether, via Hindu ritual, and come to a place of faith and compassion, down in the flatlands, way down at the bottom, in “Key West.”
The scope of this book is limited to my own knowledge and experience. I write with the love of a fan but not the authority of a musician. In my reviews of live shows, I do my best to convey sounds and the feelings they evoke, but my thesis is about words more than music. So I don’t write much about Dylan’s piano playing, his guitar craft, or his interactions with the band. I include very little about the fine musicians who share the stage with Bob. Many other writers cover the technical side and the personality side far better than I ever could. Ray Padgett, on his blog, Flaggin’ Down the Double E’s, goes straight to the source. He offers a series of fascinating interviews with the players themselves (all from earlier tours — current band members are apparently bound not to talk). Also, in the last few years, Dylan has exhibited several series of paintings in galleries around the world. In one respect, these pieces relate to my theme. Many are based on film stills — more evidence that Bob’s own creativity is often a dialogue with found images. Beyond this fact, Dylan’s brushwork is outside my range.
This book is about Dylan’s poetics on Rough and Rowdy Ways, particularly in the song “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Because of the artist’s use of wide-ranging allusions, in several chapters I scrutinize significant odds and ends of American culture. Alongside dozens of songs by other artists, Dylan references three dead presidents, several nineteenth century authors, a few movie stars, and two Civil War generals. I’m not a music or history scholar, but in researching these references, I have read the experts, from Robert Palmer to Peter Guralnick. I have studied biographies of L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz, and Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Naval Commander. I have watched the beautiful young Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and listened, against my will, on repeat, to Billy Joe Royal singing “Down in the Boondocks.” I include a bibliography of my research materials in the appendix.
In these pages, I try to get the facts right. But very few fans or scholars — perhaps only Clinton Heylin and Greil Marcus — can comprehend all the musical knowledge in Dylan’s piano-pounding fingers. While writing, I learned many things previously unknown to me, and I’ve integrated this research into my understanding of Rough and Rowdy Ways. But whenever the breadth and depth of the artist’s creative life began to overwhelm, and whenever another brilliant essay by a professor of literature left me wondering if anything more can be said, I centered my attention on the reason I’m here: my own Bob Dylan story.
In the chapters that follow, I don’t aim for objective or authoritative. I phrase my opinions strongly because I believe them, but this book is about poetry, and the best you can do with poetry is research allusions, feel the images, and connect them with your own life. What I have, just like any fan, is a personal version of Bob Dylan. It doesn’t really matter what any expert thinks. You are the expert. When I say that I can tell you what the lyric “if you lost your mind” means, I am talking about provenance. I say how the phrase played in The Golden Bird and how it played in one of Bob’s gospel-era raps. I say why I believe he put the idiom into the song. But in these pages, I never intend to say how “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” might play for you. As ever with Dylan, you will see what your own spirit wants you to see.
My hope here is to add context — in fact, to uncover more treasure and more mystery — not to reduce or explain away possibilities. The musician is a paragon of our age of “culture” — from the Latin root cultus, “to care,” and the French colere, “to till the ground.” To cultivate. To bring forth new growth. The word “cult” also springs from the same root, meaning a religious movement. In the following pages, you will read more about all of these connotations. Dylan is the very soul of creativity, and Dylan was created by others. By Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Woody Guthrie, and many more. We are, each of us — Bob Dylan included — the product of our inspirations. After reading this story, if you should decide to read The Golden Bird, you will not be reading another book about Bob Dylan. You will be reading about a young man living, as we all do, in the time of Bob Dylan. A young man created, in part, by the artist.
Through several eras of powerful performance, Dylan has influenced the way we view the world and the way we live our lives. He has changed us and if you are like me, you will surely say for the better. The musician has never wanted, however, to be a leader of any movement, or held to any fixed narrative, and creating us has often worked to his disadvantage. He satirizes this fact in the Frankenstein-influenced “My Own Version of You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways. We are his loving, stumbling, needy, and sometimes bitterly vengeful monster. In Chapter 23, I discuss the close relationship between that song and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
Here’s a summary of the story I tell in the following pages:
Sometime before the recording sessions for Rough and Rowdy Ways in January and February of 2020, and perhaps, in part, at those sessions, Dylan composed ten new songs. The lyrics cover a lot of history and emotion, but they revolve consistently, from “Murder Most Foul” — the first song released — to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” around themes of faith, identity, and inspiration. This final tune is a meditation, a nearly spoken word piece, gliding forward on Dylan’s tender, beautifully phrased narrative, delicate guitar lines, and subtle piano. An accordion glimmers over each verse like a sun shower. The song both leads into “Murder Most Foul,” and completes a cycle begun by “Murder Most Foul.”
In several stanzas of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Dylan adapts and transfers passages and story images from my memoir, The Golden Bird, into his lyric. I had sent the book to his business office upon its completion in 2011. A few chapters in Part Two go into great detail about these borrowings — how I came to realize them, the exact passages he has sampled, and the ways he has remixed these into his lyric. Since the beginning of his career, Dylan has inserted mirrors of identity into his art. I will share many examples in the following pages. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Bob draws lyrics from nature, historical figures, other musical artists, films, and finally the unknown memoir of a fan. Why, among these, my book? Because The Golden Bird features Bob Dylan’s music as an inspiration and faith as its main theme. Because The Golden Bird is interested not in analyzing Bob Dylan, but on my response to the music, as a young man, in my own life. Because my story is concerned with the artist only as a medium of ideas. Because, crucially, The Golden Bird offers vivid images of a profound experience common to both of us in the years 1979 to 1980: a knocked-to-the-ground vision of Christ.
On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan uses pictures from the past — from musicians who inspired him, famous characters, and tragic events. Several times he references his own songs and lines in his own memoir. He takes imagery from his contemporaries, from those who recorded with him, and from movies. He shows us scenes from the natural world. He replays stories from gospel. And in the case of The Golden Bird, Bob Dylan takes imagery from a story in which he appears — as he might appear in any fan’s life — on the radio, on the turntable, and on the stage. Dylan takes imagery from a listener who describes an experience of Christian mysticism and extremism remarkably like his own in the same era. These are the scenes the lyricist transfigures into “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
What follows is a new Bob Dylan story. What follows is a tale unlike anything you’ve read about our greatest American artist. The troubadour once said, “The highest purpose of art is to inspire.” What follows is a case study. I invite you, my companions on the highway of Dylan, to join me now, inside the mirror.
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Wow Steven. Looking forward to more about the
"the musician, the magpie, the puzzle-maker" connections.