Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Out of the Heart of Darkness: Bob Dylan speaks on Election Night

UPDATE: Audio is now up at the end of this post. and now below, Thanks to RWB.

Bob Dylan has become rather infamous in recent years for never speaking during his concerts, except to introduce the band. Oh, a comment might pop up once a while (he was reported to have said at the end of one of his concerts earlier this year that a woman in the front row had been using her cell phone camera all through the show and never heard a song). But for Dylan to actually say something profound - even a short example of his ironic and sometimes sardonic humor - is extremely rare these days. In fact, many wondered if he spoke at all - until he started up his Theme Time Radio Hour show on XM and it turns out he can speak plenty.

But not from the stage.

Until last night.

He was "back home" in Minnesota, doing an election night concert at his old stomping ground at the University of Minnesota (well, he might have stomped there once or twice, but once again it's been reported he registered for classes back in the day, but never showed up - preferring to hide away somewhere else listening to old "borrowed" records and figuring out how to play the guitar). Apparently, he went off the stage at the end of the set last night - as he always does - then came back to do an encore of Like a Rolling Stone and then paused before his final song and is reported as saying something like (no one is actually quite sure what he said and until the bootlegs are online, it will be difficult to check) what the Minneapolis City Pages reported as saying:

"I was born in 1941.
That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor.
I've been living in darkness ever since.
Looks like things are going to change now."

Then he went right into his classic, Blowin' in the Wind.

Since he said those words - which was so unusual its causing the quite a stir - people have been trying to figure out what he meant. He's not known at all for speaking to political causes, in fact, he seems to flee (at least openly) from them. He is known for speaking cryptically and then the fans project on to whatever he said what they want him to say. He's really good at that.

Of course, it's obvious with the election of Barack Obama things are going to change. Dylan has had a long, long affinity with African American culture from the very beginning. You cannot study Dylan's work without studying the enormous contribution the African American culture has had on the wider-American experience, most-especially in music. He also has a personal connections, including having a daughter who's mother was Dylan's second wife, African American gospel and Broadway performer, Carolyn Dennis. So for him to be personally moved by the election of the President of the United States of color is certainly more than plausible.

But frankly, that whole quote doesn't make much sense. Suddenly he's waxing lyrical about his birth year? Since when? And what is this about connecting his birth year with the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Where is that coming from? And that he's been in "darkness" ever since? What does that mean? Those who heard him say these words inferred that he was now out of "darkness" because of a political action, the election of Barack Obama.

Okay, perhaps - but that is so out of character for him. Of course, Hawaiian-born Obama was born in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, but that is mere coincidence, or a simple twist of fate. But he not busy being born is busy dying. Dylan, however, makes a rather comic observation in his masterpiece Highlands about voting juxtaposed with getting away from a mangy dog:

I'm crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talking to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full length leather coat
Somebody just asked me
If I registered to vote

-From Highlands, 1997

A key (certainly not the key) of reading Dylan are his innovative juxtapositions. They can be positively brilliant - and he can hide a lot in those juxtapositions. It's like watching the Inspector Linley Mysteries on PBS. Those juxtapositions are loaded with clues. The hour does not permit me to go through a list of them - but it's hard to get through any Dylan song without stumbling over them - sometimes right into the ditch. But of late, Dylan's mind - as well as his heart, perhaps - has been on the next world and how that world informs this one. From the same song:

The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it's not like the sun that used to be
The party's over, and there's less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away

Well, my heart's in the Highlands at the break of day
Over the hills and far away
There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow
But I'm already there in my mind
And that's good enough for now

So if his heart's in the Highlands, what's this about "it looks like things are going to change now"? Change for what? The better? But the last time he talked a lot about change was back in 1999 when he wrote his Oscar winning song, Things Have Changed:

I've been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can't win with a losing hand

So what does he mean he's "been living in darkness ever since" - what? Since he was born? What is the sudden reference to his birth and Pearl Harbor? That was, as Roosevelt called, "a day that will live in infamy." Now the year Dylan is born is a year of infamy, he has lived in several generations of infamy - and what has changed?

If this quote is correct, Dylan is stating the obvious - things are going to change, there is no doubt about that. But why juxtapose that change with Pearl Harbor? Does he not infer to the only other time America has been attacked within her borders by her enemies by invoking the memory of Pearl Harbor?

Well, I've been to London and I've been to gay Paree
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain't looking for nothing in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

From Not Dark Yet, 1997

Is it all sweetness and light now for Dylan because of a Presidential election? Certainly there is much to personally rejoice in America electing Barack Obama despite his mixed race ancestry. Is this the dawning of a new age - that Dylan is inferring that he's lived a lifetime in the dark but now he's coming into the light because Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States? Are we all over racism now? It's hard to think Dylan believes that.

Or is he being sly? For example, if the last line is changed to a question instead of statement (and Dylan is the master of asking questions - how does it feel?).

"I was born in 1941.
That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor.
I've been living in darkness ever since.
Looks like things are going to change now?"

Frankly, that seems far more Dylanesque than some political statement from the stage after decades of silence on politics. One of the last times he spoke from the stage on a political topic was during Live Aid when he mused out loud whether all the money being raised for Africa should go to American Farmers instead - and he nearly had his head taken off by Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, though Willie Nelson thought it was a fine idea and followed up by launching Farm Aid.

What is striking is his statement - if this is correct - that he's "been in darkness ever since." That's quite a sweeping statement, but it causes one to reflect on what "darkness" might mean? Political darkness? Emotional darkness? Physical darkness? Spiritual darkness?

Or is he - the literary master that he is - alluding to the Heart of Darkness - by Joseph Conrad? Who has been in darkness ever since he was born? We assume - because we do - that Dylan is speaking of himself, after all, he says he was born in 1941. But so was American world power born in 1941 and unleashed on to the rest of the world as we went through war after war after war to this current war fighting a most illusive enemy that craves the darkness of caves. Would Dylan be so witty, so sly to use the phrase "I've been in darkness ever since," as a sort of riddle?

Are things really going to change now? If we look at the breath of Dylan's work in these last ten years, the answer is no. Why would he then get all sentimental - so out of character for him - and gush about change, when of course, he used to care, but things have changed? Is he suddenly going to start caring now - suddenly going to start being the man Joan Baez always wanted him to be?

Once again, a tip of the tinfoil to RWB for the head's up.

UPDATE: A reader at RWB who was at the concert Tuesday night has a different take on Dylan's unusual comments from the stage:
Since I was at the show, I’m hoping that I could add a bit to your understanding of the comments Dylan made on election night.

What seemed to prompt him to talk to the crowd more than anything was Tony Garnier’s donning of an Obama button. It was Tony’s turn to be introduced and Bob started to chuckle a bit and said something like, “Tony Garnier over there wearing his Obama button (raises his eyebrows)…..Tony thinks it’s gonna be an Age of Light (chuckling)…..Well I was born in 1941, the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Been living in darkness ever since……Looks like that’s all gonna change now (chuckling a bit).” Then he broke into “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

I cringed a bit at the time, not being sure what he meant, and knowing what the media would do with it: “Obama supporter Dylan says Change Coming.” I was 50-50 on whether he was making fun of the hopes and expectations of Obama supporters, or joining in. Which of course is his genius, but I found it interesting that my friend sitting by me who voted Obama took it as a clearly sarcastic slam.

Read it all here.

THURSDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Yep, RWB has the audio now of the Election Night show and will be putting it up online shortly. RWB writes that it is almost exactly as the commenter above remembered it. Stay tuned.

UPDATE! FRIDAY, NOV. 7: Well, the audio of his rather veiled comments from the stage on Election Night at the University of Minnesota is now up on YouTube along with his final song, Blowin in the Wind. A clue. What do you think? His off-the-cuff comment is very much like one of his compositions - where he'll make some statements of facts, a slight observation, and then twist it in the end. The last line - the line that matters - is a an example of Dylan's humor, the twist at the end. If that audience had any idea the twist he inferred (which we would say is true no matter who is president) they would be outraged (which is why Dylan gets booed on major occasions in his career - he ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more, no, no, no). He wasn't merely flippant, per se, so much as he was sardonic. And no one was really listening, with the exception, perhaps, of the target of his comment - his band member wearing the Obama pin (see photo below). Everyone else started cheering, but certainly someone isn't fooled. A Dylanesque moment if there ever was one. Oh, the audacity of it all.

So we're wondering over our afternoon chai here at our Cafe table if Dylan continues, for whatever reason, to point wryly over the heads of his audience (and he does literally point over his audience at the end of each of his concerts - to Whom?) that the answer, indeed, is not found inside the White House, but rather remains outside our erstwhile grasp, now slipping through our fingers, still blowin' in the wind.

FRIDAY PM UPDATE: With gratitude, our friend SC at RWB has posted a "scrupulously accurate transcript" of what Bob Dylan really said Tuesday night:
I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donny Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.

Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now -

As SC makes the point here (and get thee hence) that the addition of Dylan's comments about band member Tony Garnier's Obama button means that we now have context, completely lacking in the media reports on what Dylan said.

SC writes (and get thee hence):
Now, knowing the full context and tone of his words, I no longer think that Dylan needs to explain anything at all. I don’t believe that his actual remarks are even at all mysterious or cryptic. I think that they are crystal clear and they are consistent with how this man and this artist has tried to carry himself throughout the long and crazy years he’s been on this planet. He is being faithful, and we should also remember that it’s not easy to be faithful — it’s not easy for any of us. The dignity of this man is something that is not often pointed out. But he is a man of very great dignity, and this moment on the stage in Minnesota on election night of 2008 — offhand though it may or may not have been — was a moment where he exhibited great dignity as well as respect for his fans and for things more important than fame and wealth.

But lest I choke up too much here, let’s also lighten up, because his remarks were first and foremost jocular ones. When he says that Tony Garnier with his Obama button believes it’s going to be a “brand new time” and “an age of light,” he is clearly needling Tony, but doing it affectionately. I hate to descend to the level of saying “listen to how he says” something, but there are actually people out there who — after hearing the audio — are still taking Dylan’s remarks completely seriously; so for them, please: listen to how he says “an age of light.” Does it sound like something he believes in? Be honest for a moment and have an ear to hear. But I can’t force anyone to do so.

Once it is understood that Dylan is joking around and does not seriously believe that all things will be made new by the incoming U.S. president, then his words about living in a world of darkness for his entire life become comprehensible in the context of what his songs have told us again and again.

This litany will be of necessity very incomplete, but consider: Dylan sings of living in a world of mixed-up confusion, where everything is broken. He’s hung over, hung down, hung up and a million miles from the one he loves. He longs to disappear past the haunted, frightened trees. He looks out with his lady from Desolation Row, and sings a lullaby that goes, “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.” He sees the cat in the well, with the wolf looking down. He’s knocking and trying to get to heaven before that door shuts. He wanders around Boston town but his heart is in the Highlands — he can’t see any other way to go. The times are always changing and changing, and yet nothing ever really changes. Don’t conclude that he is without solace, however: he’s liable to stand on the table and propose a toast to the King. He’s using all eight carburetors. The hills and the one he loves have always given him a song.

The world of darkness, in other words, is not something foisted upon Bob by presidents of the United States or by political powers or anyone else in particular. For him (and maybe if we think about it for us too) it is just normality: it is the way things are.
Read the entire post at RWB. We now return to our regularly-scheduled programming.


Anonymous said...

With all due respect to your love of Bob Dylan, he is only human. Music has had a huge impact on me as well. So much, that I became a musician only to discover how empty that lifestyle of travel and performing is. Along the way, I had a chance to meet and work with some of the idols of my youth. It was a real eye opener to discover that the gods of music were fragile, and in some cases very messed up individuals. Trying to perform exegesis on anything a rock/folk or whatever type of musician says during a performance is fruitless (my opinion). These are very ego-centric, sheltered people that have an opinion about everything and thousands of people that wish to hear it, and ponder.

Dylan is an icon, but much like his friend George Harrison, it just goes so deep with these guys. Take what you can use, and find meaning towards what is important to you even if it's not what they meant when they muttered it, and then possibly forgot they even said it. They are just like you and me, except a wee bit more dysfunctional.

Catherine said...

I thought you might enjoy this entry on my friend's blog.

Unknown said...

hening - it's fun!

Unknown said...

Oh - and bingo catherine. Excellent link. That would be far more in keeping with Dylan's outlook, at least in the past. But of course, we were so much older then.


Anonymous said...


That is a good reflection on how secular we have become as a nation. Obama has used a Gospel-lite themes throughout his run. Only Christ offers hope and change, and refuge for those of us that are still stunned by the results of the election.