Pointed Remembrances, Pointless Arguments

Letters at 3AM

illustration by A.J. Garces

Kevin is only four- and-a-half years younger than I -- he just turned 47. Sal's about two years younger than that. Yet we're part of a generation to whom so much happened, so quickly, in such a compressed span of time, that even our comparatively small differences in age make for an entirely different measure of events -- which leads to some really pointless arguments. For instance, with patient smiles they'll assure me that Blood on the Tracks (released in June, 1974) is Bob Dylan's best album. They smile because they know that in a few moments I will sputter and fume, and we'll whir off into a discussion that has no resolution because it's based not so much on differing visions as on a gap in experience.

The "compressed span of time" I spoke of is what most people call The Sixties. As Dylan sang in a different context, "I don't call it anything," at least not to myself, because it was such a volcanic, prismatic era that it's hard to find two people who agree even on something as basic as when it began. Media pulpits like Time usually date its beginning at John Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963. I'd say it began a year earlier, in the autumn of '62, with an event nobody talks about much: the Cuban Missile Crisis, when for two weeks the world hovered on the edge of nuclear war and everyone with sense enough to understand a TV broadcast waited for the sirens that would mean not "Take Cover" but "You have 10 minutes before oblivion."

It amazes me that, when I question well-educated young people, they know virtually nothing of the Missile Crisis -- how very, very close we came to nuclear war once upon a time. Or maybe it's not so odd that the culture, as a whole, has silently decided to repress that memory. To be deeply afraid of the end of the world, with good reason, for days on end, was a mind-numbing nightmare -- made all the worse because we knew our lives depended upon two men we'd only seen on TV: John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. As with child abuse, no one likes to remember being at once so threatened and so deprived of control. I was a few weeks shy of my 17th birthday, old enough to get the full impact of events and young enough to have few ways to handle my vulnerability. The time of "I don't call it anything" had begun for me.

It had begun for Bob Dylan too. He had turned 21 a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Until then, he'd been just another folksinger, one Woody Guthrie imitator among many. Some friends of mine liked his first album (Bob Dylan), released the spring before the Crisis, when I was a sophomore in high school. Me, I thought he was an imitative little putz (a useful Yiddish word meaning, well, "putz" -- exactly how it sounds). But the Missile Crisis "blew his mind," to use a phrase he would soon make famous. During those two weeks, when he thought he might not live to write another song, he put all the songs he might never write into one: a long surreal coming-of-age odyssey unlike any song ever sung anywhere or anywhen, "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

The hard rain of the title, Dylan later explained, was the nuclear rain of missiles we all expected in the autumn of 1962.

The song, or poem, or whatever it was, was released in May, 1963 for a Columbia album called The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Friends told me it was the greatest album ever made. I wouldn't even listen to it at first, saying only, "How goddamn freewheelin' can the cat be if he's recording for an outfit like Columbia?" Then a six-foot-six Bronx Jewish streetkid named David Eric Rosenthal, who was not only my friend but my idol, took his guitar and sang "Hard Rain" for me. I asked him to sing it again, and he did. And again.

Months later occurred the event that "officially" began the time of "I don't call it anything": the murder of JFK. In the days of shock following that assassination, the only song, the only thing at all, that seemed apt was Dylan's "Hard Rain," with its long cadences of vivid, livid images that didn't pretend to make sense or draw conclusions -- a song that didn't pretend to do anything but quietly and unstoppably explode within itself. Next to that, everything the grown-up culture said was a platitude.

After JFK's death things started happening the way they have ever since: too fast to keep track of, and too brutally to take in deeply without brutalizing oneself. The civil rights movement, with its own beatings and killings, had been well under way when Kennedy was shot, and then there was Vietnam and the Beatles and LSD and hippies and riots and the Stones and Vietnam and Malcolm's death and Vietnam and Aretha and the Doors and Manson and gay lib and black power and Vietnam and James Brown and women's lib and Jimi and Janis and Vietnam and Sly and Vietnam and Martin's death and Bobby's death and Nixon and Woodstock and Altamont and Kent State and Vietnam and Watergate, and then that last U.S. chopper rising from the smoke of Saigon, and what year was it now, 1975? An era was over (though some of us didn't know that until 1980); and, through it all, only one voice had met that era consistently head-on without being dwarfed by its violence or out-run by its newness or belittled by its chaos or killed by its drugs or driven stupid by its paradoxes: That voice was Bob Dylan's.

In the 13 years, 1962 to 1975, that changed forever the meaning of the word "America," he gave us: Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, and Blonde on Blonde in 1966 -- albums we bought the day they came out, for we expected them not only to meet that moment of history without flinching (which they did), but to extend that moment backwards and forwards and twist it inside-out so that the moment wasn't only a public event but was the most intensely personal and private experience imaginable (which those albums also did). What other American artist of any time has turned out three masterpieces in the space of a year and a half that spoke of such a complex moment in history so personally to so many? The answer is: nobody.

Then the next year, 1967, there was John Wesley Harding -- which, with Aretha Franklin's records, was the most played album in Vietnam that year (according to war correspondent Michael Herr); in 1966 and '67 Dylan also recorded The Basement Tapes, though they weren't released for nearly a decade. And each album pushed the envelope a little further in terms of what could be done not just with "rock & roll," whatever that is, but with the most ancient art of all, the form we call simply "song."

No one has taken song beyond what Dylan did then. Many have filled in some of the blanks he left, and there are more blanks to fill, but none have taken the form farther. A thousand years of Western song jumped another thousand in a quantum leap in 1965-67, and Dylan did it. And no critic (until Greil Marcus, in his new stupendous Invisible Republic) took the full measure of that achievement.

Things went so fast back then, that even a five-year gap in age meant you lived with a drastically different awareness, though you shared the same history. My friend Kevin was 15, Sal was about 12, when Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited hit -- old enough to be aware of the music but not old enough to go out and live it. I was 20, and like many my age I thought my job was to live it. By the time Kevin was 18, and Sal 15, Dylan's path-breaking era was over -- and the subset that was their generation, out of which would come most pop criticism to this day -- well, many, though certainly not all, had essentially missed the era without knowing it. They'd been there, they remembered, but they'd been too young for the full onslaught of the experience. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Harding didn't sound quite the same by 1970, not because Dylan's music had dated but because Jimi and the Doors and Lennon and Van Morrison, etc., had followed Dylan's lead (as would everyone from Patti Smith to Kurt Cobain), and his fantastic breakthrough couldn't help but be taken for granted: The art of song had been changed forever.

Almost the only one who couldn't take that for granted was Bob Dylan -- he had both a rep and an achievement to live up to.

It isn't surprising that he became a Christian in the late Seventies, because, outside of Shakespeare, the Bible was the only book as expansive as his concept of song. Since then, on every album, no matter how dismal, there's at least one song, often more, written and sung from that place where all of time pours into one instant of the most intense privacy: "Señor," "Every Grain of Sand," "Blind Willie McTell," "Dark Eyes," and many another. Dylan, too, was reduced to filling the blanks his masterpieces left. But for him, and him alone, it wasn't a reduction, no matter how the critics saw it; it was a step in a journey, the living out of a life from its daring starting point, with all the inevitable detours, disappointments, failures, and unexpected flashes of victory that happen to those who keep their art going past the hormone-juiced years of youth.

Hemingway once said that the ones who quit early or die young are always more beloved than those who refuse either to die, be silenced, or go crazy -- those survivors who don't let up on their unrelenting, self-appointed, no-mercy-asked task of expressing what they need to express no matter what. What most people miss is that Dylan never asked to be loved. He rarely even asked to be heard. He just sang. We couldn't help but hear. And be changed. And be thankful.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Letters at 3AM
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
"I'm not quitting. I'm turning," says Michael Ventura in his final column

Michael Ventura, Nov. 14, 2014

Letters at 3am: The World 
That Calls Itself
Letters at 3am: The World That Calls Itself "the World"
We're capable of so much – and look what we've settled for

Michael Ventura, Oct. 31, 2014

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle