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Three Dylan Songs That Spoke To Me, Personally

April 18, 2015

Sunflowers, a painting by Bob Dylan Something that I can (probably) safely cop to, now that I'm on the senior side of 50, is getting my drink on and listening to Bob Dylan.

I mean, I've never been a Dylanologist, per se. But the man's music has been with me for pretty much my entire life, in one form or another. Some of it is pleasant; A lot of it is crap. I can't really defend Dylan to anyone otherwise uninclined. He's creaky, cranky and makes a snarled racket.

That said, at three distinct times a Dylan song has crashed into my life, speaking to me directly with a lucidity I never thought possible from a pop song.

I know practically by heart the lyrics to a number of Dylan songs, "Maggie's Farm," "Simple Twist of Fate," "One More Cup of Coffee," "I Shall Be Released," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Desolation Row" and probably most all of Highway 61 Revisited , come to think of it.

But I learned all of those songs over time. I remember the exact moment that these three songs came out of the daily din. I remember them with far more clarity than I remember all the times around them.

"It's Alright, Ma (I'm only Bleeding) (1965)

Life reflections on three Bob Dylan songs The first time a Dylan spoke to me directly, I was a wee lad of 22, lost in my own head, late at night, my head too filled with conflicted spirits.

I was playing Bringing It All Back Home quietly on a cheap record player, not paying much attention because I was all up into my own sad shit. Twenty five years later, I can remember the exact moment Dylan's voice cut through my internal monologue, :

Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

With my attention captured, Dylan, with his lonely guitar, laid out a description, verse by verse, the many woes of the world.

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in.

I'm not sure what problem those words solved for me that night. But I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to, he reminded me.

You must create your own space in this world. It is your own personal space and thus is the space that will get you through life, Dylan seemed to be saying. In the end, you answer to yourself. Live in your dream, or be enslaved in another's. It was a call to freedom.

Dylan spit out lyric after lyric not pausing or diverting his stream of thought. His soings from this period are as verbose as any rapper's today. The man had a lot to say back then.

"Isis" (1975)

Life reflections on three Bob Dylan songs Flash forward maybe 15 years. All those extensional concerns of my early 20s had simply dissipated by then, as so much youthful energy being burned off. I had dropped my girlfriend off for a very early flight that left the D.C. National Airport at 5:40 am. Having agreed to have an early brunch with a friend who lived nearby, I had a few hours to kill in the pre-dawn spring Saturday morning in Old Town Alexandria.

Have you ever been in Old Town Alexandria 6 am on a Saturday morning? Deserted. As the sun was coming up over the silent prefabricated colonial town homes and I walked around, Dylan's "Isis" came up on shuffle.

If "It's Alright Ma" had lessons for the young soul, "Isis" held nothing but mockery of the very idea of sagely advice.

The narrator is in love with Isis, who marries him but soon sends him away, promising that the next time they'll meet, he will be different.

He meets a man at a laundromat who offers to take him on a money making job of some dubious sort. He accepts, dreaming of the riches he can bring Isis. The piano plods on, a fiddle cries alongside Dylan's voice.

Rough was their journey, to a set of pyramids encased in ice. Inside was a body that would fetch a good price, the man told him.

The man then died. The narrator decides to plod on nonetheless. When he found the body there with "no jewels, no nothing." It was then realized that his companion, "was just being friendly."

I was captivated by this story as I walked around Alexandria, listening as attentively as I would to a dear old friend with a particularly engaging tale. Again, Dylan here is insistent, like this is a matter he must get across anyone who is listening to him, with only his poetics to save him from being considered a loon.

After his journey, the narrator returns to Isis, and the following exchange takes place

She said, "Where ya been?" I said, "No place special"
She said, "You look different." I said, "Well, not quite"
She said, "You been gone." I said, "That's only natural"
She said, "You gonna stay?" I said, "Yeah, I jes might"

Such a casual exchange after such a harrowing journey! Was there a point to this shaggy dog narrative? Fuck I know. Life just happens, it rolls along like a stream, wearing down and polishing even the most jagged of rocks. And in the end Dylan got his Isis, through machinations totally beyond his (and our) understanding. So! Happy ending, as the shady masseuse asks.

"Highlands" (1997)

Life reflections on three Bob Dylan songs I didn't hap across this lazed ambling 16-minute shuffle until 2007, again through the random shuffle.

Now we're getting into my middle age, and Dylan's as well. His voice is hoarse, tired. This song popped up when I was walking down a bridge in Portland, the one over that beautiful river that cleaves the city. The sun is going down--there was sun that day, but it was descending. It had been a long day of work, and my mind was crawling to slow.

Ambling along it's easy to fall into the lazy groove of this song. Dylan's croaky gibberish hovered around the edge of my consciousness, until the music tensed up slightly and Dylan unrolled this tale, again calling me, somehow, to pay attention.

This song details an exchange, real or not, that Dylan--lets assume the Dylan is the narrator for our own story telling purposes-- has with a waitress in a diner. This takes place in Boston, on what the narrator assumes (but does not know) is a holiday. Gypsy stars, amirite?

Dylan sits down at one of the empty tables. The diner is empty, except for the two of them. A waitress comes over, a pretty face with long shiny legs, Dylan informs us. "What'll it be?" She asks.

Dylan leans back looks at her (my embellishment but you can feel this in the song) and asks, What do I look like I want?

The waitress sizes him up and says "You look like you need hard boiled eggs."

That's right, Dylan says. Bring me some, he ordered.

We're out, the waitress returns. "You picked the wrong time to come."

Haha. The waitress is nobody's damn fool. (BTW the official Dylan site obfuscates these lyrics for some reason. Very badly, given how crisp Dylan's retelling of the moment).

This edgy transaction continues. Sensing the reluctant customer is an artist, she asks him to draw a picture of her. He demurs, politely at first but firmly insistent:

I say, "I would if I could, but I don't do sketches from memory"
"Well," she says, "I'm right here in front of you, or haven't you looked?"
I say, "All right, I know, but I don't have my drawing book!"
She gives me a napkin, she says, "You can do it on that"
I say, "Yes I could, but I don't know where my pencil is at!"
She pulls one out from behind her ear
She says, "All right now, go ahead, draw me, I'm standing right here"

So, Dylan sketches out a few lines "then show it for her to see."

I'll pause here just to say how much I love that last line. It's so matter of fact but so slyly melodic as well. All the seemingly casual lines in this part of the song are crafted with this care, it seems.

Anyway, the waitress, when she sees the results, is aghast, throwing the napkin back down. Now Dylan is insistent, boldly defending the throwaway drawing, as if it were defending in the first place.

It doesn't look a damn thing like me, she protests. Yes it does, he counters. She said you must be joking. "I wish I was," Dylan responds.

The conversation devolves quickly, with the waitresses accusing Dylan of never reading woman authors. It's his turn to be indignant, as he haughtily pointed out of having read Erica Jong. When she goes away for minute, Dylan, slides out of his chair back to the busy street "where no one is going anywhere."

The lyrics so brilliantly capture this ordinary moment of mutual, charged unease between two people. And the moment becomes personal to me as well, a story from a guy I'll probably never meet, but feel I know very well, somehow.

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