Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mona Lisa Musta Had the Highway Blues

I began to listen to Dylan in my senior year at Oberlin, a liberal arts college in the Midwest. From fifth grade on, much of my life had been focused on music. I played the cornet in the band and orchestra, sang in choirs, and did the bugle calls at the beginning and ending of the school day, as well as at Boy Scout summer camp. The adults I looked up to most in life included the organist and choir director at our church when I was very little, the band director in my junior high school, and Rafael Mendez, a trumpet virtuoso in the 1950's. I selected Oberlin because it has an outstanding Conservatory of Music and I knew that meant there would be a lot of great musical performances to attend while I was there.

But I didn't go there to study music for two reasons. First, my cornet playing was not good enough to compete with the skill level of the students admitted to the Conservatory at Oberlin. And second, I believed it was my patriotic duty to study the hard sciences, to help my country win the space race and overcome the shame of Sputnik having beaten us into space. It was up to the smart kids to help us win back our technological advantage in the world. And I was a smart kid, so the responsibility fell on me.

Things were pretty black and white during my childhood in the 1950's and early 1960's. I was raised in a church which set out clear standards of conduct to be followed. I concentrated on math and science in school, where there was always a right answer and a wrong answer. I was in the Boy Scouts, which reinforced our church's teachings about what constituted right and wrong behavior. I got into ham radio where clear rules were set out by the FCC and the procedures for making contact with other hams were clearly delineated from decades of tradition and the law. I was a good student and a good kid. I learned the rules, followed them and did what was expected of me.

But during college, life began to get a little more complicated, a little less black and white. By the time I started college the mighty struggle for equality spearheaded by the great Martin Luther King had begun and MLK had just given his "I Have a Dream" speech just a few weeks earlier. Less than three months into my freshman year, our nation's president was assassinated. We watched his suspected killer being murdered himself on live black and white television. Civil rights workers were being blasted with fire hoses, as well as murdered, in the South. By the end of my sophomore year, our nation had escalated its advisory role in Vietnam to an active campaign of bombing North Vietnam. Not long after that, the nation began drafting more and more men in my generation into military service to fight in Vietnam. As college students we were protected from being drafted, but once we graduated, the chance of our being drafted would increase considerably.

So throughout my college years, protests and demonstrations became more and more common. During my freshman year at Oberlin, the first protests were over trivial issues of whether men and women should be allowed to visit each other in their dorm rooms, while much hotter protests went on in the South over racial equality. Gradually demonstrations over racial equality spread further throughout the nation and then protests over the draft and conduct of the war in Vietnam became commonplace. 

Life was no longer black and white. Everywhere you turned, there were now two sides you could be on and everything in between. Life was no longer orderly, like it had been in the 1950's. Chaos was becoming more common. 

In my personal life, I met and fell in love with the first love of my life during my freshman year and we dated steadily during much of my first three years of college. But during my junior year, she ended our relationship. I'm sorry to say that I have no recollection of her reason for doing this. Like the chaos in the world, there was now chaos in my personal life. My saving grace was that I was studying hard in my major and getting uniformly good marks, slightly higher than a straight A average, as Oberlin allowed a teacher to award an A+ to a student on a test or course.

I was likely going to be able to get into a top grad school, so that part of the plan was still in place. But I had lost my first love and I was devastated. I had switched from the hard sciences to an easy major, psychology, because the hard sciences were, well, just too damn hard! I had selected that major when I was in turmoil over having gotten a D on a physics test, something I had never experienced before in my life. My mind and feelings were in chaos over this unexpected turn of events. I decided to switch to psychology, because clearly I needed to understand my mind, which was full of conflicting thoughts and feelings. I excelled in the subject, but it had no answers whatsoever for the chaos in my personal life, mirrored in my mind. 

During the early part of my senior year, I finally discovered Bob Dylan. The Cleveland radio station played Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands one night and I heard it in the psychology lab of one of my classmates. This was music like nothing I had ever heard before. I had participated in music all the way through my high school years and I had attended three years of great classical music performances in college so far, and this was like nothing I had ever heard.

This was not music from the past. This was music newly created which impinged upon me with an immediacy I had never experienced. It was soothing some of the feelings I had been experiencing in the chaos of my mind over the loss of my girl. The lyrics brought amazing images my way, usually too quickly for me to assimilate or understand them all. I began by listening to the current album at that time, Blonde on Blonde, which ended with the Sad Eyed Lady song that first grabbed my attention. This is still my favorite Dylan album. And after playing Blonde on Blonde over and over many times, I began to obtain and listen to the earlier albums. There were only six others at the time!

Almost immediately I was assaulted with the song, Ballad of a Thin Man, and the challenging line, "Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?" This described me perfectly. I was Mr. Jones! This music was stabilizing my life and sanity and shaking me up to the core at the same time. There was no question in my mind that something very different was happening in my world because of this music. But I had no clue whatsoever where this might be leading. I didn't understand most of the songs, but I couldn't stop playing them, because they were expressing how I was feeling, and I had no way to express those feelings in any other way.

I was still totally at sea, but now I had a life raft to hold on to, as the waves threw me about.

But gradually as I played Blonde on Blonde over and over, I began to realize there was a song I understood, Visions of Johanna, which begins with, "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it." There it was. My life in the very first lines of the song. The sound was just gorgeous, which gave me a good feeling, some reassurance, while it proceeded to deliver the awful truth about my life, maybe all life. Life was not black and white, a fairy tale that will proceed along according to script, if one studies all the proper books and passes all the necessary tests. No, it was full of seeking and not attaining, of ambiguity, of shades of gray, of unrealized visions of perfection.

Music had been transformed for me. It was no longer about technical excellence in performance and a glorious sound that just made you feel good. Meaning had entered the scene. For the first time in my life, I was drawn in to music in which the meaning of the lyrics was not a straight forward matter. They were not black and white, simple to get, right there in the words. There was ambiguity, layers of possible meaning, and visual images that came tumbling out with the music, one on top of another. It was too much for my simple mind to comprehend.

But the music was so gorgeous that I did not dismiss it when I realized I did not understand it. I could tell it was worth pursuing, that it would help me endure my life, maybe even begin to understand some of my life, or perhaps accept aspects of my life. This music was not trivial. It addressed the most important questions in life, but in a real way, with language from the streets, not stuffy pronouncements from the masters of the classics or the lofty heights of the pulpits.

The life raft became a rock in my life. For the next forty-five years of my life, Dylan was always there. And like much of the world, I discovered that "popular music" had been elevated to the level of great art, exploring all the issues addressed by all previous artists. For any mood, there has always been a Dylan song or album that would fit it perfectly.

And as I sought to understand the songs more deeply, I eventually began to realize that what I was coming to understand was more about myself, or life in general, not just about the song. The songs were not written about me, but the songs so beautifully plumbed the depths of the human condition, that when I got down to the core of the understanding, there I was, there we all were, frail humans struggling to be our best, beset with all manner of difficulties and shortcomings.

There were no simple answers. But in presenting us with amazing images of our own predicaments in life, we could see ourselves, and with that came hope, and often even a proper course of action in a difficult situation.

An example comes from a song Dylan wrote thirty years after my struggles with the loss of my first love. The song is Love Sick, written in 1997. It is a song that deals with how I was in those days of my junior and senior years in college, love sick. The early part of the song describes the feelings of being love sick so perfectly. "My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired, and the clouds are weeping." And then, "I'm sick of love, but I'm in the thick of it. This kind of love, I'm so sick of it." At my core, I was in that condition for years.

Variations of that last section become the chorus, three variations in all. There's no getting around it, no denying it. It is so full of pain, and the pain is so familiar, as we've felt it ourselves for years. By the third time through, the anguish has grown so strong that he admits that, "I wish I'd never met you" and "I'm trying to forget you." Of course we've been there too, many times over. As we listen, we are feeling exactly what we have felt many times before.

And he concludes with just where this has led us many times before as well, "Just don't know what to do" (Yes, we've been there, thrown up our hands in despair) and then, "I'd give anything to ..." and in the original performance on the Time Out of Mind album, there is the slightest little pause, enough time for us to complete the line in our head.

The very first time I played the song, the conclusion of the song was unexpected, illuminating, revealing, honest and poignant. After all this pain and anguish, surely this final desire would be to be rid of her for ever more, wiped from our consciousness forever.

But Dylan delivers the truth, like he always does.

"I'd give anything to ... be with you."

Of course! Let's be honest. More than anything else, we don't really want to forget her, we don't really wish we had never met her. The truth is, we'd give anything to be with her!

The first time I heard this, it was like the stories you hear about the Zen master who clobbers the student across the side of his head to wake him up. BAM! Snap out of it, quit your dreaming, this is no fairy tale, this is real life, your life. You'd give anything just to be with her!!

And once again I had learned something important about myself and about life.

This is what happens when one experiences great art. And this has happened to me over and over as I have experienced Dylan's music, lived with Dylan and grown with Dylan. And I no longer consider myself to be Mr. Jones. With Dylan's help, I have come to get at least a clue about what is really happening here. Without question, Dylan has been one of the biggest influences in my life, leading me over and over to the truth about life in general and my life in particular. His life work has enriched my life many times over.

© Ron Chester 25 June 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED