If asked what it is about Bob Dylan’s art that makes me so obsessed I would surely reply something to the effect of—with my love and fascination for both the poetic malleability of the English language and that strange alchemy in which an artist shapes the air to create sound, and in turn grants these sounds form and meaning through arrangement, thus the creation of music, of song—one cannot help but be enraptured by a genius of this craft. However, my passion for Dylan’s work goes far beyond being marveled by one’s skill at a particular task. It is as if the man can interpret what happens to vibrate within my heart, mind, and spirit at any given moment. I am not speaking of any concrete definition for a certain set of an assortment of agreed upon symbols; I am not speaking of no more than what words mean and the specific tale they tell in any individual song. What I am trying to convey is beyond that, or perhaps beneath. It is a matter of timbre and tone, of phrasing, color, nuance, and sentiment; and, as expressed by the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, it is a matter of the “innuendo under the skin of language” (2012).
This is no claim that this man has endeavored to write a fact-checked biography of my emotional state or inner-life. What I speak of is a mystery. To appropriate an idea by the artist and scientist Bern Porter—it is the harmonious mystery of what occurs when plasma encounters plasma:
“Your plasma has your name and its up to you to fulfill your
name. And however you may feel, doubt or question whether
you’re negative or positive, you must believe in yourself. I have
this, it is mine, it was given to me, I believe in it, however many
flaws, however many errors, however many wrong decisions,
however many negatives, I have this, I am positive about it. I
will radiate it and if there’s someone who receives, fine, they are
radiating, let us hope their radiation corresponds with mine
—Bern Porter (Melnicove, 2009).
With Dylan, it is the obvious precision and concentration that his songs must demand of their creator, but it is also so much more than that. With Dylan, it is performance. To paraphrase something he once stated in an interview a long time ago, he is both a song and a dance man. And as it should be with all great music, these things speak to me—of me.
As I find myself unable to articulate with pinpoint precision all that I am trying to communicate, I’ll recede behind the two long quotations that follow. I know that the crux of what I am getting at dwells somewhere within (and is waiting to be extracted, by a mind more incisive than mine certainly, to be served up as an elucidating parallel) these passages from the first segment of Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past—1913’s Swann’s Way:
Presumably the notes which we hear at such moments tend
to spread out before our eyes, over surfaces greater or smaller
according to their pitch and volume; to trace arabesque designs,
to give us the sensation of breath or tenuity, stability or caprice.
But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations
have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those
which the following, or even simultaneous notes have already
begun to awaken in us. And this indefinite perception would
continue to smother in its molten liquidity the motifs which
now and then emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and
disappear and drown; recognized only by the particular kind of
pleasure which they instill, impossible to describe, to recollect,
to name; ineffable;[…].
[…] the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven
notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown),
on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its
unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness,
of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from
all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by
certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion
corresponding to the theme which they have found, of showing us what richness,
what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night,
discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as
valueless and waste and void.
On Bob Dylan’s brilliant new studio album (and 35th overall), Tempest, there is a little gem of a lament titled, “Long and Wasted Years.” I write “little” as on an album comprised of songs that generally run near the six-minute mark or more, with it’s run-time of three minutes and forty-seven seconds, “Long and Wasted Years” is one of the more concise offerings to be found. As with the majority of these new Dylan compositions, this is a meticulously crafted song that utilizes melodic repetition to create both momentum and tension. As there is no chorus or refrain, in this instance he employs a descending guitar riff that chimes out mournfully through each verse.
This song resides in that soft but certain territory beyond love and beyond hate. There are no good-guys or bad-guys, no exact right or wrong. There is no victor here spitting insults, only two incompatible losers not only stuck with regret and heartache, but also seemingly still stuck together. Featuring refined, forlorn phrasing and enunciation that skillfully convey the restrained anger and impotent sorrow (or, interchangeably, restrained sorrow and impotent anger) of a wounded marriage, it is not hard to imagine this song sequenced on his masterpiece of hurt feelings from 1975, Blood On The Tracks. In fact, this song fades in mid-riff as if this melancholy litany has been going on for quite some time now—far too long actually—until it all abruptly ends as Dylan arrives at the title with the lines: “So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.” Honest in its inability to point a finger directly at one or the other, this song perfectly captures the perplexing truth that with love-gone-wrong there is room for remorse without the definitive weight of guilt.
On his album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, released in January of 1964, a twenty-two-year-old Dylan sang, “You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine/We’re both just one too many mornings, An’ a thousand miles behind.” Here, in “Long and Wasted Years” we receive a similar lament from a man who can not only still empathize with the complexities of romantic relationships and matters of the heart, but give them voice as well. Albeit, now it arrives void of the wounded vanity of a romantic young man, but with the sullen comprehension that seeps in with maturity: Sour hearts and sorrow do not need culprits, only victims. Another major distinction from the younger man’s work is here there is no sense of theatrical finality. His use early on of the open-ended word Maybe, seems to permeate throughout the entire song’s atmosphere.
“Is there a place we can go, is there anybody we can see?
It’s the same for you as it is for me?”
I write “open-ended” to not only signify the ambiguous nature of the word itself, but for the questions the word’s placement in the lyric leaves unanswered: Does it belong to the anterior statement, the line that follows, or maybe both?
In fact, it is this Maybe that serves as an engine, not only for this tune’s lyrics, but as what has driven this couple through these long years.
Now, I could have employed the rambling preamble above for any number of Dylan’s compositions, but today it’s like this:
—————————————-(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Like it? Buy it.
Dylan, B. (2012). Long and Wasted Years. [Recorded by Bob Dylan] On Tempest. Columbia [CD] 2012.
Dylan, B. (1963). One Too Many Mornings. [Recorded by Bob Dylan] On The Times They Are a-Changin’. Columbia [CD] 1964.
Komunyakaa, Y. (Winter, 2012). On The Edge of Diminished Light. Oxford American, (75), 109.
Melnicove, M. (Spring, 2009). Bern Porter: A Found Essay. Esopus, (12), 30.
Proust, M. (1928). Swann’s Way. (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Trans.). New York: The Modern Library. (Original work published 1913).