Here is a short summary of what we covered in class today. The class looks at ‘existential’ or ‘meaning of life’ questions raised by three Dylan songs. The fourth song is a love ballad, the imperative to procreate being one of the things that give life meaning. The attachment is of interest as the starting point for who the persona Bob Dylan is.
Discussion of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” lyrics and “Not Dark Yet” lyrics 32 years later (1965-1977).
—”Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the style of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” Music itself announced song as hip, fun, outside of “Pat Boone” sanitized and bowdlerized status quo. The song addresses some of the themes of “Summertime Blues” and “The Wall”:
Individuality of the young developing person stripped away: “Join the army if you fail” will soon have big consequences; “wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten”; “please her, please him”; ” try to be a success”; “twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” Truth in humor about existential question: Who am I? What is my life? Why are they trying to make me do and be what they want me to do and be? (This is Yossarian’s dilemma in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: people who have power or authority and operate with truly insane, thoughtless or evil motives have good human beings trapped within systems; cf. “Maggie’s Farm”: “Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They say sing while you slave and I just get bored / I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”) Big appeal coming out of the McCarthyist, Wonder Bread 50’s and early 60’s.
—”Not Dark Yet” (1997) Live version 05/24/2000. Comments: each line offers a discrete thought in two parts; gnomic; facing the big question about life posed by death; darkness of death; cf. Harold Owen’s (poet Wilfred Owen’s brother) memoir Journey from Obscurity volume 3 about being, through a horrible oversight on the part of those in charge, left alone on a freighter in Antarctic waters in a howling storm at night” with 6 matches, eventually five used; sense of pervasive and threatening evil; only the ‘song of the family’ and the will to hold onto and not strike the remaining match against the darkness kept Owen alive.
Dylan’s lines are powerful: soul turned into steel; scars (physical and psychological) not healed by the sun’s light and rays; taking river to the sea and then to the bottom of a world full of lies; no expectation of connection or altruism or help or companionship when looking into the eyes of other people; sense of humanity gone down drain; pain behind everything beautiful (cf. “Silvio” : “Since every pleasure’s got an edge of pain / Pay for your ticket and don’t complain”); not even room enough to be anywhere; in the end not even hearing the murmur of a prayer.
absolutely no trace of humor (even cynical or hip or sarcastic) of the sort found in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm”
pacing of song slow, like waves coming into shore; not too unlike “Sad-Eyed Lady” in its languorous delivery.
vocabulary simple and direct; as in war poetry and stories; “there it is!”; delivery in concert with drawn out phrasing of last syllables of each line
—”Visions of Johanna” each stanza a scene in itself; atmospheric; “Inside the museums” also raises the existential question of life’s meaning: infinity on trial > museum = a fossilization of human achievement, a frozen time period; raises question of what ‘salvation’ must be if it is a static (and monotonous?) state of being; wry and hip: Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues (tour of Mona Lisa in USA from December 1962 to March 1963) but other paintings: frozen wall flower; jelly-faced women; mustached figure cut off (in picture frame) therefore without knees; the figures in paintings themselves are trapped as we are. Cf. Hank Williams’ (whom Bob Dylan venerates) “I’ll never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Vignette of all night girls: street prostitutes in area around Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea Hotel.
—”Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” Dylan’s first wife Sara Lownds; married on November 22, 1965; according to Trager: “a long, languid, surrealist love ode”; in 1975 writes “Sara” for Desire album as marriage coming apart: “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” Ricks on connection to Swinburne. Why do we seek out sources, influences?
Take a look at it for next Monday. Receive it as a love poem in a Teiresias-like way.