October 06

In Memoriam: Welcome to Bob Dylan's "Modern Times"

Stephen Hazan Arnoff

When Mikhal Gilmore of Rolling Stone asked Bob Dylan about the significance of the release of his album Love and Theft on September 11, 2001, Dylan offered a metaphor capturing the essence of his artistic vision:

I mean, you're talking to a person that feels like he's walking around in the ruins of Pompeii all the time. It's always been that way for one reason or another.

Ever since he trundled into New York City at the age of twenty in 1961 – in the words of early patron and former partner Joan Baez "he burst on the scene already a legend, the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond" – and thirty years after he declared unequivocally "It Ain't Me, Babe," people still look to Bob Dylan to make sense of what does not make sense in the world. Now, amazingly, with the August 2006 release of Modern Times, Dylan at age sixty-five becomes the oldest living artist ever to top international record charts.

The key to understanding the longevity of Bob Dylan's creative output and public appeal lies in the self-reflection he offered to Rolling Stone. Dylan's allusion to Pompeii is fitting both because his technique of composition dates back to the artistry of sages, poets, and rhetors of the classical world and because the stories he tells are grounded in committed, creative remembering of faces, names, stories, phrases, and melodies otherwise frozen in the past. In considering Dylan's pattern of awakening the artifacts of the past so that they might be carried into the future through art, an insight Walter Benjamin once raised about the appeal of great novels applies. Great novels, Benjamin said, offer "the hope of warming the shivering life [of readers] with a death we read about." As an artist immersed in translating societal and personal loss, Dylan masters contemporary expressions of ancient systems of memory that transform even the most powerful and painful truths into generative and life-affirming lyric verse that people can truly hear. Despite the little daily deaths of loss of meaning or the gaping losses generated by events like 9-11, great art and great artists suggest maps for turning forsakenness into resignation and transcendence. To understand Dylan's creative process is to reveal strategies for living righteously amidst empires, East and West, that are continually flattening memory and misinterpreting the opportunities of mortality as an excuse for promoting a culture of death.

Pompeii Revisited

Bob Dylan has often been compared to Homer – and Shakespeare and Milton and Dante and Keats and Whitman and Rimbaud too. But if one wants to flirt with a juxtaposition of Dylan to a poet of the past, particularly a poet from the classical world, Simonides is the most fertile pairing, exemplifying work memorializing and renewing the cultural rubble that the mainstreams of their societies would otherwise leave behind.

In a well-traveled story related by the Roman rhetors Cicero and Quintilian, the lyric poet Simonides (ca. 556-469 BC) had been invited to chant at a large banquet in honor of the wealthy nobleman Scopas. When Simonides concluded his poem – and after Scopas had told him that he would pay him only half of his fee – a messenger informed Simonides that two young men were waiting for him at the door. Simonides went outside, but there was no one there. With the poet still absent from the banquet hall, the roof collapsed, killing Scopas and all of his guests. As friends and relatives of the dead arrived to collect the bodies of their loved ones, they found them so disfigured that they could not identify who was who. Simonides, however, recalled the place where each of Scopas' guests had been seated at the table and identified them all.

Very much by accident – an actual, horrible accident – Simonides had discovered the "method of loci," a core memory technique of the ancient world, which uses exacting visualization of specific locales as templates for storing and remembering information. Just as Simonides had instinctively used the fixed tableau of a banquet table to place and recall the names and faces of the scores of guests at Scopas' feast, so many ancients employing the method of loci "placed" or "stored" information (for example, the words of a speech) piece by piece in different locations throughout a meticulously crafted, unique, and unchanging background. The memory tableau might be a perfectly reimagined banquet table – as was the case with Simonides – or the rooms of a house, a main street, or any other stable and intimately known space. When a person required the knowledge stored within the tableau he or she would take a "stroll" through his or her mind to "re-collect" and "re-member" the words.

While the description of Simonides' "discovery" is almost certainly apocryphal, serving as a narrative mode for teaching a system developed by many people over a long period of time, it suggests a compelling and singular role for poets: that they have powerful tools of memory and communication to make sense of the past in a way that allows those still standing to move forward, particularly in times of communal crisis.

As echoed in his statement to Mikhal Gilmore, the central narrative figure of Dylan's body of work has always been a solitary person on a life-stroll through the United States of Pompeii, his songs representing glimpses into the stages of a journey through what was has been upended, what is changing, and what has been damaged. Yet unlike Simonides, the memory system Dylan employs offers shifting tableaux for memory – songs carried in a rotating backdrop of archetypal lyrical vessels such as the proverbial traveler's road, a ship, a train, a dream, a horse, or a woman's face. The content buried and drifting and tripping in and around these tableaux consists of the flotsam and jetsam of the lyrical vocabulary of traditional post-Civil War folk and blues, country and art songs from the heyday of recorded music leading up to the Depression and beyond it, cinema from silent to noir to Western, literature and poetry, old radio and television shows, the Bible, and layers of mythology. The raw material of Dylan's songs is an exhaustive library of popular culture spilling forth from the shelves of collective memory onto the poet's writing table for filing; pieces of a cultural puzzle configured and reconfigured, each song a "re-membering" encounter with the popular canon in which elements of a hero's quest unfold. Dylan's narrators' rambling with a supporting cast of archetypal friends including Leadbelly and Charley Patton and Neil Young (the Bards), Mona Lisa and Madonna (the Lovers), Jesse James and Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (the Outlaws), Jesus (the Savior), Lenny Bruce and Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee (the Jesters), and Captain Ahab and the Vice President (the Madmen) epitomizes the breadth of the raw cultural material upon which he calls.

The allusions to figures and texts in the landscape in which Dylan's heroes seek adventure directly reflect the fluid, and heavily referential (as the title of "Love and Theft" implied) way that their creator composes music. "Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist," Dylan said to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in 2004:

My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I'll be playing Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," for instance, in my head constantly – while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song.

Dylan's practice of repetition and "meditation" leading to new work is familiar to any committed musician, the jamming and wood shedding of repeating scales and riffs, a familiar rhythmic phrase, or a favorite song that ultimately bends itself into a melody that is called "new," even if its creative genetic code can be traced back to the original, older form from which it slowly emerged. Though this repetitive practice takes place in garages from Olympia to Boston and in jazz clubs and in the locked rooms of teenagers everywhere, Dylan is also describing an art of composition used by bards for thousands of years.

One of the most compelling studies of the art of repetitive, formulaic, meditative musical-poetic composition appears in Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960), an attempt to explain how it was possible that Homeric epics – some of which are well over 10,000 lines long – could have been memorized and performed orally by the composers and bards of ancient Greece. Lord maintains that singers, performers, composers, or poets in traditional cultures create an original though inherently formulaic lyric every time they perform. They do not repeat a text verbatim, having memorized it "word for word." Rather, each performance is comprised of a performer's reworking a shared body of modular, traditional formulae within deep structures of action and narrative common to his or her culture. Think of how the basic narrative of a story like Little Red Riding Hood exists across scores of cultural milieu. A person well-versed in fairytales, even if he or she has not heard a particular version of a fairytale before, can quickly fill in the details of a new version within the genre because a prototype already exists deep within him or her. While the names and places and emphases of the story change based on the locale of the storyteller, its "Little Red Rising Hoodedness" stays the same. It is the strength of the skills of the storyteller that make a story great or mediocre, but a stories' essence carries through regardless.

Recall the old joke of a man visiting a monastery where the monks know each other's shticks so well that they just tell each other the numbers assigned to the jokes rather than telling the jokes themselves. After a few weeks watching the monks fall down with laughter whenever they hear the numbers "43" and "5" and "16," the man stands up before the group, takes a deep breath, and loudly says "20." The room is silent. No one laughs. Later, the man asks one of the monks what he has done wrong, "It's all in the way you tell it," the monk says.

Hence the Iliad and the Odyssey follow predictable epic narrative patterns and are full of stock characters and repeated epithets like "rosy-fingered Dawn" and "grey-eyed Athena" that serve as signposts, basic riffs of the repertoire to help the bard stay within the traditional form. Having grasped both the deep narrative structure and the catch phrases and formulae of the genre after years of listening to masters, a bard does not recite a rote text from memory. Rather, the bard activates his ability to access all he has heard recited before him, the "performance notes" gathered over years, laid out in various orders in a Simonidian tableau in his head, creating his own, traditionally grounded, but original performance as he sings and plays. The more he listens to other bards, the tighter his system of memory, and the more he practices, the richer his own expression becomes.

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