By obsessive, attentive, meditative listening and repeating, Dylan has gorged himself on the deep structure of the music of the Carter Family and Robert Johnson, as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare and the poetry of Rimbaud, the phrases and personae of James Dean and James Dillon, and being the very greedy listener that he has always been, he has gorged himself on just about every other form of cultural content as well. Throughout this process he has stored this material, meditating upon it and reworking it so that "[a]t a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song." The result – musically, lyrically, and thematically – is a reworking of a memorial of inherited content placed upon the tableau of a song.
Dylan's work is full of examples of this creative model. Christopher Ricks and others note how “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” comes out of the deep structure of the Scottish ballad "Lord Randal," itself part of a particular song pattern and type reaching back hundreds of years. The traditional ballad says:
O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?
O where have you been, my bonny young man?
I've been with my sweetheart, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.
And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?
And what did she give you, my bonny young man?
Eels boiled in brew, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.
What's become of your bloodhounds, Lord Randal, my son?
What's become of your bloodhounds, my bonny young man?
O they swelled and died, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down…
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one? I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways, I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests…
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son? Oh, what did you see, my darling young one? I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it…
And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son? And what did you hear, my darling young one? I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin', Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world…
Ricks traces parallels, allusions, interpretations, and plain old playfulness between Dylan and scores of texts of the Western canon – from the Bible to Yeats. Jenny Ledeen, a marvelous character who travels the Dylan circuit in the summertime with a trunk load of copies of her book Prophecy in the Christian Era, cites meditative parallels between Dante and Dylan and Dylan and the Bible.
Or consider the obvious example of Modern Times' “Rollin' and Tumblin'” – its words, and music, and tempo sliding directly out of the deep structure of the original "Rollin' and Tumblin'" performed most famously by Muddy Waters, who himself likely crafted a version of the song from blues idioms and forms already traveling in America for generations before they coalesced in the performance of a master singer and storyteller at a dive on the South Side of Chicago. Examples of Dylan's practice of repeating "old" material in order to produce "new" material abound because this is exactly how Dylan as a traditionally grounded poet and musician works.
Commenting on the apparent overlap of phrases from Modern Times with the 19th century works of the previously little known poet Henry Timrod, Suzanne Vega misunderstood Dylan's art in recent piece in the New York Times:
It’s modern to use history as a kind of closet in which we can rummage around, pull influences from different eras, and make them into collages or pastiches.
Actually, it is modern to think that composition and imagination must represent something "new," that "new" is better than "old," that creativity grounded in repetition of inherited work is less original than "modern" work that an artist claims to have generated from his or her mind alone.
“Desolation Row” is one of the finest examples of Dylan's use of inherited content reworked boldly by a poet attempting to make sense of a world gone wrong. Step right up and see science, legend, sacred text, show business, and literature circa 1965. See Cinderella, Bette Davis, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Einstein, Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, Nero's Neptune, the Titanic, and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot "coming to the carnival tonight" on Desolation Row. (Click here for the full text of "Desolation Row") Understood as a modern day use of the method of loci, the figures and things of the song emerge in a fixed geographical tableau, Desolation Row, a street whose emotional value gives it the "stickiness" classical teachers demanded for their students' memory tableaux. In fact, childhood homes were favorite vessels for ancient memory technique, precisely because of the emotional pull they exerted on the memory in the very same way that childhood homes are often the stages of people's dreams regardless of the dream's apparent subject. Dylan's narrator walks through a series of invented actions and poses dictated to himself, "re-membering," i.e. putting together, cultural content from everywhere lest, as in the later masterpiece "Visions of Johanna," he find that "his conscious explodes." The stroll through memory, even if it is painful and bordering on absurd, is controlled by the choices of the rememberer.
Imagine the scenes of “Desolation Row” as a massive, baroque painting in a cavernous ivory hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre to gain a sense of how a poet takes possession of cultural content, majestically reworking and reorganizing material in order to create a memorial in the same way that the great painters populate the walls and ceilings of cathedrals with mythic tales containing their own revisions (and reservations) concerning the sacred canon. Just as Simonides grabs the social elite in the steel trap of his mind so that their faces might be preserved and dispersed when the time is right, the storyteller of “Desolation Row” slowly unravels his memory of faces when the world calls for it. But unlike Simonides, who claims to match the map of the people at the banquet precisely, Dylan employs an aggressive form of the method of loci, applying his own unique order to the raw material of history because this is the only way that tradition makes sense to him. He reorders the canon, history, and life itself so that he can survive them:
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
The letter he receives, perhaps the motivation to which the song as a whole responds, is an artifact from before the poetic salvation of the reimagined life of Desolation Row. In fact, this letter may as well have been written in another language altogether. It is unreadable, even offensive, because it ignores the fact that only reconstructed reality can preserve a sensitive soul from the cultural chaos of the "real world." Dylan's narrator sees the same faces as his pen pal, but each with "another name," planted within his personal grid of desolation, grounded in the only terms that he can understand and accept.
In the same Mikhal Gilmore interview cited earlier, when Dylan was asked if he had a message for people about 9-11, he quoted the Rudyard Kipling poem "Gentle-Rankers": "We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth/We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung/And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth/God help us, for we knew the worst too young!" Dylan goes on to say: "If anything, my mind would go to young people at a time like this. That's really the only way to put it."
Just as Allen Ginsberg says in "Howl" – when Dylan was still just a little squirt wanting to be Little Richard – "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," Dylan, at least in his mind, emerges from a generation where visionaries face loneliness and rejection from their society. Fittingly, the word "desolation" comes from the Latin word desolare, desolatum, meaning "to forsake." Dylan literally sees his generation literally forsaken, frozen and dead, forcing him to create a new matrix for living. The result, as he sings in "Dirge," is that he "paid the price of loneliness/but at least I'm out of debt." Despite its dark side, the reward for carving new cultural paths can be freedom and lucidity that hints at transcendence and, based on Dylan's immense popularity, might even draw others towards new paths as well.
Mary Carruthers, author of The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, describes to the phenomenon of "memorial" culture in the realm of medieval monks. From the time of Simonides through Cicero and onto the stages of the Church Fathers and medieval monastic culture – not the same monks telling the jokes above, perhaps – the method of loci served as a basis for sacred arts of meditation, prayer, translation, and manuscript production grounded in reworking and relearning classical, inherited texts. Ostensibly the monks created nothing "new" for generations. Yet as a form of “memorial” culture, monastic life was a constant process of resurrecting societies' dearest inherited figures and symbols in study and art, “making present the voices of what is past, not to entomb either the past or the present, but to give them life together in a place common to both in memory.” According to Carruthers, a creative act in the ancient and medieval world was not an act of invention ex nihilo, but an act of re-imagination – the reconfiguring of texts and images preserved by the monks in the various tableaux of their memory so that they could form new sacred content out of inherited material otherwise lost and left for dead. While Bob Dylan is no monk, no saint, and no angel (particularly in light of a public religious quest that has included both Christian and Jewish orthodoxies as well as a healthy dose of anti-doctrinal fervor) he thrives not only on the content of religious stories and thinking, but also lives creatively through forms of memory and song craft derived from the ancients and utilized by the great religious traditions of the world for millennia.
Bob Dylan – to whom so many look for insight during troubled times, demanding clear answers about what to do about the meaning of life but instead receiving cryptic, laconic messages leading to so much babble and frustration – has always been quite clear about how to make sense of the world. He relies on the bounty of the canons of music, art, literature, and legend to provide the inspirational colors with which to paint and repaint personal interpretations on the canvas tableaux of his choice.
"Don't follow leaders," Dylan once said: reject leaders who lead you towards meaningless death even as you accept the infinite possibilities of your finite life. Reject damaging cultural norms precisely because you love culture so much. And if this calling for independent thought and living leaves you feeling forsaken and alone, remember that Bob Dylan also said: "'I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,' I said that."
In other words, turning inward towards a vision of a re-formed and re-membered world does not mean giving up hope on the world outside. Honest, disciplined, generous memory creates a generative tableau upon which the histories of neighborhoods and nations can be rearranged the way that they are supposed to be. Great art that gives history "another name" allows people to begin to share stories of a future that makes sense. If we listen and look carefully, we might even be able to hear and see these reimagined worlds well enough to make them real. And so, my friends, this is how rock and roll – and art and literature and theater and more – can still save the world. Thank you very much for the map, Mr. Dylan, and welcome to Modern Times.
I said that.