This essay is adapted from Seeking Truth in a Country of Lies.
“He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.”
– George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
The lobby of the temple of time travel called the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts was suffused with a nostalgic vibe tinged with the whiff of encroaching death when I walked in for The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. I had earlier asked the ticket girl if most of the tickets for the two sold-out preview shows were being purchased by old people; she told me no, that many younger people had also bought tickets. However, I didn’t see any.
All I saw were grey or white heads and beards, not with “Time Out of Mind,” as Dylan titled his 1997 album, but with time on their minds, as they shuffled into the dark to see where their time had gone and perhaps, if they were not mystified by their fetishistic worship of Dylan, to meditate on who they had become and where they and he were heading in the days to come. I imagined most were aware that Dylan had said that he’s been singing about death since he was twelve, and that his music is haunted by images of love and time lost as bells toll for those traveling the road of life in search of forgiveness for their transgressions.
How, I wondered, would this Dylan documentary “story” fashioned by Martin Scorsese, whose own work is marked by themes of guilt and redemption, affect an audience that might never have taken the roads less traveled of their youthful dreams but “fell” into the conformist and oppressive American neo-liberal way of life? Would this film, in Dylan’s words, get the audience wondering “if I ever became what you wanted me to be/Did I miss the mark or overstep the line/That only you could see?”
Would nostalgia for their youth be a liberating or mystifying force, now that forty plus years have transformed American society into a conservative, postmodern, shopper’s paradise where commodity capitalism has reified all aspects of life, including art objects and artists such a Dylan, imbuing them with magical powers to redeem those who buy their products, which include songs and celebrity “auras”?
I assumed many of those around me had fetishized Barack Obama as a savior even while he was waging endless wars and killing American citizens, bailing out his Wall St. and bank supporters, and jailing more whistleblowers than any American president in history. I knew that Dylan had accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from this icon of rectitude, who had served to quell all thoughts of rebellion and whose war victims were not counted by those who bought his brand since God was on his side. Here in this darkened dream factory in a hyper-gentrified “liberal” town, my mind was knotted with thoughts and questions that perhaps the film would address.
The Man Who Isn’t
I knew that no one would answer my questions, but I asked myself anyway. Moreover, I knew there is no Bob Dylan. He is a figment of the imagination – first his own and then the public’s. Perhaps behind the character Bob Dylan there is a genuine actor, and I hoped to catch an unintended glimpse of him in the film, but I knew if he appeared it would be obliquely and through a gradual dazzling of truth, as Emily Dickinson would say. An unconscious disclosure. For if the real Bob Dylan took off his mask and stood up, his ardent fans would receive it as a slap in the face, and their illusions would transmogrify into delusions as the spell would be broken. To tell the truth directly is a dangerous undertaking in a country of lies.
Dylan, the spellbinder, has, through his public personae, hypnotized his followers with his tantalizing and wonderful music. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” This sounds like Dylan’s artistic credo. His masks (personae = to sound through) have served as his medium of exchange. He has been faithful to his tutelary spirit (if not to living people), what the Romans called one’s genius that is gifted to one at birth and is one’s personal spirit to which one must be faithful if one wishes to be born into true and creative life. If one sacrifices to one’s genius, one will in return become a vehicle for the fertile creativity that the genius can bestow. A person is not a genius but a transmitter of its gifts.
Like Lawrence, Dylan has served as a vehicle for his genius. His many masks, unified by Bob Zimmerman under the pseudonym Bob Dylan, have served as ciphers for the transmission of his enigmatic and arresting art. But while the music dazzles, the “real” man behind the name can’t stand up – or is it, won’t? – because, as always, he’s “invisible now” and “not there,” as his songs have so long told us.
I wondered if my theater companions understood this, or perhaps didn’t want to. Could that be because their own reality now, if viewed from then, is problematic to them? Do generations of his fans sense a vacancy at the heart of their self-identities – non-selves – as if they have been absent from their own lives while reveling in Dylan’s kaleidoscopic cast of characters? Do Dylan’s lyrics – “People don’t live or die people just float” – resonate with them? Lacking Dylan’s artistry, are many reluctant to ask why they are so intrigued by the legerdemain of a man who insists he is absent? Has a whole generation gone missing and trying to find where they went?
I am only familiar with the musician who acts upon a special social stage, and I love his creations. Because Dylan the performer has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic, he draws me into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truths. He is an artist at war with his art and perhaps his true self, and therefore forces me to venture into uncharted territory and ask uncomfortable questions. His songs demand that the listener’s mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved him. A close listening to many of them will force one to jump from verse to verse – to shoot the gulf – since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.
A Magic Show
From the start, The Rolling Thunder Revue, a fused compilation of film from a tour throughout New England concocted by Dylan that took place in 1975-6 as a rollicking experiment in communal music making, announces that we are going to be played with and that Dylan and Scorsese are conjurers whose prestidigitations are going to dazzle us. The film is gripping and cinematically beautiful. The opening scene is taken from a very old film in which a woman is sitting in a chair and a man throws a cloth over her. When he pulls the cloth away, the woman has disappeared. Call it playful magic, call it fun, call it entertainment – we can’t say we haven’t been warned – but after decades of postmodern gibberish with the blending of fact and fiction, fake news, endless propaganda, and the fiction-of-nonfiction, one might reasonably expect something more straightforward in 2019.
I could understand it if it served some larger purpose, but as the film shows, it doesn’t. Later in the film, Dylan says, as if he needed to pound the point home, “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” This may be true for him as an artist, but as a general prescription for living, it is bullshit. Of course lies are commonplace, but isn’t it best to strive for truth, and doesn’t that involve shedding masks. Then again, what does he mean by a mask?
Society trains us all from an early age to lie and deceive and to be socially adjusted persons on the social stage, and since person means mask, do we need some white face paint to obviously mask ourselves to tell the truth? Why can’t one take off the masks and be authentic? Why can’t Dylan? In an interview in 1997 with the music critic Jon Parles, Dylan said while he is mortified to be on stage, it’s the only place where he’s happy. “It’s the only place you can be who you want to be.”
These are the sad words of a man living in a cage on a stage, and only he might know why. Yet we are left to guess why Dylan is unhappy off stage, but such guessing is the other side of the social game where gossip and pseudo-psychoanalysis sickens us all as we try to decipher the personal lives of the celebrities we worship. Maybe we should examine our own looking-glass selves.
The Mask Falls
Despite being a masked man, there are times in this fascinating film when the lion in Dylan breaks out of the cage, and while the face paint and costume remain, one can see and hear a sense of short-lived liberation in his performances. His performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is so true, so passionate, so real, so intense that his true face shines through in its genuine glory. The same for his performance of “Hurricane” and a few others. It’s all in his face and body, his articulation and energy, his fiery eyes. The performances refute his claim that only a masked man can speak the truth. As Joan Baez mordantly says, “Everything is forgiven when he sings.”
There is something elegiac about the film, for many of the people in it are now dead and their film presence – that eerie afterlife that technology confers – conveys the ephemerality of fame – and life. Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard are dead, and many of the others are in their twilight years. But to see them young and frisky and bouncing around on stage and off, giving off sexuality and joy in the music and the trip they’re on, one can’t help be gripped by the passing of time and the contrast between then and now when depression and its pharmaceutical fixes has so many in its grip. Dylan’s craggy, lined face in interviews for the film belies the young man we see perform and laugh, and though he still performs and is addicted to being on the road so often (interrupted by the corona virus lockdowns) – quite a feat for a 80-year-old – the juxtapositions of the images underscores the power of Dylan’s musical messages. “Once upon a time,” Dylan croons these days, “somehow once upon a time/never comes again.”
When one puts the then and now into historical and social perspective – which is essential since works of art are rooted in time, place, economic and political realities – one is jolted further. It’s almost as if this Rolling Thunder Revue tour was the last gasp for a dying political and artistic culture that represented some hope for change, however small, while also being a symptom of the encroaching theatricality of American life, what Neal Gabler aptly calls, Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.
The Triumph of Techno-Entertainment
Trace, if you will, the transformation of the United States from 1975-6 until today. It’s as if the theatricality of the tour was announcing the end of straightforward dissent and the ushering in of endless postmodern gamesmanship that is still with us. Masks. Games. Generations disappearing into technological and consumer fantasies where making money, watching television, and entering the system that destroys one’s soul became the norm, as the American empire ravaged the world and Baby Boomers found life in their cell phones and on yoga mats, as Herbert Marcuse and his compatriots of the Frankfurt School warned. The culture industry absorbed dissent and spit it back out as entertainment in the service of the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the ruling class. How to transform a depraved society when the culture industry has corrupted so many people at their cores is where we’re at now. “The carpet too is moving under you,” Dylan intoned in 1965, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
I looked around the movie theater before the film began and the rows were lit up by old folks staring at their little lit-up rectangular talismans. It was enough to bring me to despair. I was reminded of being in the circus in Madison Square Garden as a child where the kids were swinging sticks with cords attached with lights at the end that lit up the place.
They say the circuses are all closing, but I think not. “It’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.”
In an exchange between Dylan and Sam Shepard, who was on the tour as some sort of writer, Dylan asks Sam how he writes all those plays, and Sam says he does so by “communing with the dead.” The Rolling Thunder Revue is like that, a medium between a time when passion still lived, and today when death, dying, and nostalgia are the norm for so many whose passion has fled into things.
Capitalism has conquered consciences with commodities.
Home Before Dark?
Dylan had his fallow period after the late seventies. To his great credit, he found new life, starting in the late 1990s with his Time Out Of Mind album and continuing through his recordings of the great American songbook of love ballads, the terrain of Sinatra and Bennett. Listening to him sing these great songs he did not write, I find his masks have fallen away and that a sad, lonely man emerges. A man filled with regrets and melancholia. An old man lamenting in a movingly raspy voice lost loves and haunted by what was and what might have been. A death-haunted man voicing raw emotion that is palpable. An uncaged man.
So much about Bob Dylan is paradoxical, or is it contradictory?
Friedrich Nietzsche, another man of many faces, who advised us to “become who you are,” once wrote, “There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors.” I don’t know if the man behind the name Bob Dylan is a “genuine actor” (genuine being cognate with genius, both suggesting the act of giving birth, creating), for I have never met him. I hope he has met himself. He hints that someone is missing, whether that is the fictional actor or the genuine one, is difficult to discern. Is he becoming who he is, or is he lost out on the road “with no direction home”? He is always on the go, leaving, moving, restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.
The Rolling Thunder Revue is a nostalgic trip. No doubt, audiences of a certain age will experience it as such. Such an aching for home comes with a cost: the acute awareness that you can’t go home again. When the nursing and funeral home beckon, however, one can perhaps take a chance on truth by examining one’s conscience to ask if and why one may have betrayed one’s better youthful self and settled for a life of comforting conformity and resigned acceptance of the “system” one once raged against.
Younger people, if they are patient and watch the entire film, will experience a profound aesthetic shock that may give them hope. To see through the camera’s eye the youthful Dylan’s face as he gives some of the most passionate performances of his life will thrill them so that a shiver will go down their spines and their hair will stand on end. “And this is what poetry does,” writes Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods, “it makes us see what otherwise we wouldn’t have seen, through a sound that was never heard before.” To watch just a handful of these performances makes the film worthwhile.
Become Who You Are?
At one point, today’s Dylan says that he has always been “searching for the Holy Grail.” I suppose one could interpret that as meaning eternal youth, happiness, redemption, or some sort of immortality. He has surely created a capitalist’s corporate empire, though that doesn’t seem to satisfy him, as it never has genuine poets. But maybe to become very, very rich and famous has always been his goal, his immortality project, as it is for other tycoons. One can only guess. I prefer not to. But without question, Dylan has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic that draws you into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truth. In ways, he’s like the Latin American magical realist writers who move from fact to dream to the fantastic in a puff of wind.
He is our Emerson. His artistic philosophy has always been about movement in space and time through song. “An artist has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere,” he’s said. “You always have to realize that you are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm, you’ll be alright.”
Sounds like living, right.
Sounds like Emerson, also. “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. Thus one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.”
Like Emerson, Dylan creates a sense of restlessness in the listener that forces one to ask: Who am I? Am I? He has said “that a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.” In a similar way, Scorsese has created a dream with this film. It takes us back and forth in time via an hallucinatory experience. A sort of documentary with a wink.
It is quite a story, powerful enough to bring one to ask: Who are we becoming in this American Dream? Will we keep sleeping through the nightmares we create and support, or will we return home with Dylan and embrace the radical truth he once gifted us with and dare to “tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it/And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it” that our country continues to kill and oppress people all around the world, even here at home.
Dylan emphatically answered that question with his midnight message to JFK’s ghost in late March 2020, when he unexpectedly released a new song. He burst forth from behind his many masks and gifted the world with his incandescent song about the assassination of President Kennedy, with a title taken from Hamlet, from the mouth of the ghost of the dead King of Denmark –“Murder Most Foul.” For those who have wondered over the years if Dylan had “sold out,” here is the answer. For those who have wondered if he would go to his grave reciting the words of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock – “I am no Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be” – here is Hamlet’s booming response. Not only does this song lay bare the truth of the most foundational event in modern American history, but it does so in such a powerfully poetic way and at such an opportune time that it should redeem Dylan in the eyes of those who ever doubted him.
I say “should,” but while the song’s release has garnered massive publicity from the mainstream media, it hasn’t taken long for that media to bury the truth of his words about the assassination under a spectacle of verbiage meant to damn with faint praise. As the media in a celebrity culture of the spectacle tend to do, the emphasis on the song’s pop cultural references is their focus, with platitudes about the assassination and “conspiracy theories,” as well as various shameful and gratuitous digs at Dylan for being weird, obsessed, or old. As the song says, “they killed him once and they killed him twice,” so now they can kill him a third time, and then a fourth ad infinitum. And now the messenger of the very bad news must be dispatched along with the dead president.
The media like their Hamlets impotent and enervated, but Dylan has come out roaring like a bull intent on avenging his dead president.
If you listen to Dylan’s piercing voice and follow the lyrics closely, you might be startled to be told, not from someone who can be dismissed as some sort of disgruntled “conspiracy nut,” but by the most famous musician in the world, that there was a government conspiracy to kill JFK, that Oswald didn’t do it, and that the killers then went for the president’s brothers.
Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?
Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming,” we’ll get them as well
This is an in-your-face tale, set to music with a barely tinkling piano, a violin, and a soupçon of percussion, whose lightest words, as Hamlet’s father’s ghost said to him:
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotty and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
“Murder Most Foul” truly startles. It is a redemptive song. Dylan holds the mirror up for us. He unlocks the door to the painful and sickening truth. He shoves the listener in, and, as he writes in Chronicles, “your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it.”
Bob is our certain somebody. In these dark times he has offered us his voice.
In an interview in the 1980s, he said:
This life is a testing ground….I believe in the resurrection.
8 thoughts on “Bob Dylan at Eighty: A Masked Man in Search of Redemption?”
Where would we be without these smug, condescending pseudo-intellectuals to tell us what’s really going on? I am sure Dylan will be honored to be given the “benefit of the doubt.” This is not an essay, it’s a sermon.
I’m not sure if this is the first time this article has appeared on the website, as when I read it in the book it felt familiar. But it’s great to read it again today. It raises important questions about the role of art and artists in society as well as questions about Dylan himself. I also hope that Murder Most Foul is a signal that the artist is returning to his roots as a fearless truth teller in song. But, as other commenters have observed, at this point it might just be a limited hangout. Without being backed up by Dylan speaking of the event or of other seminal events in recent US history, it’s easy for the captive press to sweep the implications of the song under the rug, and for the general listening public to miss the point altogether. It will be interesting to see if this is a one-off, or if Bob expands on the dissent implied in the song.
I agree with you every step of the way….and yet, something doesn’t feel right. Maybe I’m naïve, but how can you, Edward Curtin, be (at least) as great an artist as Bob Dylan and still manage to speak in prose about state crimes against democracy? Why isn’t Dylan giving interviews about his road to Damascus or explaining why, out of nowhere, he’s *echoing* what most of us have known for years? Maybe he’s jumping on the bandwagon because he knows the tide is turning.
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.
I don’t see virtue in that, only compromise, made possible by people like yourself expanding the overton window.
The notion that artists can *only* speak in their artistic voice is a relic of the Romantic era. For example, is he above joining the 9/11Truth movement? Why is that absurd to consider? He used to protest in the street. Where is he now?
We’re so starved for truth, that when great icons toss us crumbs, we say thank you thank you. I guess that’s all we can do. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.
I agree Andy, Dylan said nothing at the time when his words could not have been ignored, nothing in the immediate years after and when RFK and Malcolm and Martin were killed as well. Now he comes with some vague lyrics well after it would have made a difference. Same with 9/11, it’s been 20 years and the “radical” Dylan has let that sleeping dog lie. Lets not forget that Dylan has always been a big supporter of Israel so he was never as radical as he was painted.
Yes…I would like to think about people who never received any notoriety or publicity for any reason. Great people, some perhaps naive and could not impress anyone for any reason since humanity has been denied by the masses of indoctrinated citizens. I would like to think of people who had to work in coal mines at the age of 13 since there was no other employment or any way to travel for better work. The people in the steel mills who had silent wisdom, never to be quoted. The farmers, those people who lost their homes to tax collectors or other corrupt entities. I would like to think about the grossly overweight man who was kind, honest and deeply perceptive and who was appreciated by very few because he didn’t look sexy or cool. Too many great people are unknown to us. We might be unknown to ourselves in ways that are truly important. We are not to idolize or worship but to be our real selves…., and that is difficult enough so we must not be too distracted by the lights.
Andy and Chris,
I understand your points and they have of course occurred to me as well. You both may be right. I’m not sure, but I sense that with the JFK song Dylan was moving towards change, maybe the redemption from my title, a title that ends with a question mark. I thing Murder Most Foul is quite specific before it veers off into music history and pop culture, what most reviewers focused on to the exclusion of what he was saying about the assassination. Of course it’s very late in the game and he’s been quiet on so many other issues, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The part about the song is a small part of the article, and if you reread it you will notice I raise many questions about him while praising his music. I think he is a great musical genius and hope he is the man I wish him to be. I don’t know him personally, but I would love to interview him and probe the issues you and I raise, not a celebrity interview but an existential one.
Joseph – That is beautiful and true. Reading so many comments here, I feel as though I am receiving gifts continually. Thank you. Reading your words, this poem came to mind.
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