Exhuming Bob: The Jewel In The Forehead Of The Toad
December 11, 2007
The Jewel In The Forehead Of The Toad
I ride on a mail train; can’t buy a thrill.
Bob Dylan. How did this guy get into my life? As someone said of Hank Williams: Bob Dylan sang my life. Up to a point. How he could know so much about me is totally unbelievable. I’m three years older than Bob which is not all that much, especially at this age. Our mental states were quite similar while we were working out our mental problems in somewhat the same way, not that Bob had ever heard of me but one of the hazards of exposing yourself on records or in print is that kindred spirits recognize each other. One of the occupational hazards, I suppose.
I’m going to use as a starting point Dylan’s record of Mixed Up Confusion. I must confess that I had never heard the song until a couple years ago. I had bought three copies of Biograph when it came out but never opened one. I bought all three copies as an investment and that turned out to be one lousy investment. So after twenty years these sealed copies weren’t listed for much more than I paid for them so I didn’t think I’d be losing much by opening one. It was then I first heard Mixed Up Confusion. Was it a revelation you ask? Hell no. It was just a noisy song. But as I was sitting watching the river flow and reading Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces it occurred to me that the book needed some constructive criticism so I gave it. You may have read that criticism right here on this blog. Then having the kind of mind I do I had to read the rest of Marcus so as to make knowing and intelligent comments on the guy. Marcus reopened the subject of Dylan in my mind. I dismissed the guy a few years ago, right after hearing Mixed Up Confusion. I had to start thinking about the Bob again because I couldn’t figure out exactly what I used to see in him.
Bob and I first made extra-sensory contact back in ‘64 and as you are well aware this is ‘08. A lot of water had flowed by in the river and under the bridge while I was sitting and watching it since way back when.
In the interval I had worked out my mental problems even integrating my personality according to the tenets of C.G. Jung. I’ve got the same old face, and getting older, but I’m a different guy.
Here’s the rub. I lived by Dylan for maybe five years from Blonde On Blonde until my life began running so fast I had too many other things to think about. Greil Marcus raised some irritating points about Dylan that made me regret my former adulation. Now, this created a small problem because I love my life and I have the notion that I have perfect taste and that whatever I have ever liked I must still like or I don’t really have perfect taste. You can see how Marcus put me up against the wall. Another one of those extrasensory contacts. And there was Bob getting more ambiguous by the moment as Marcus plodded on.
Damn near threw me into a panic.
So now I had to develop a new perspective for my infatuation of the toad with the jewel in his forehead. That’s how I look at Bob now. Well, you know, I’ve read most of the books on Bob, not so much reviews or interviews so that I have the means to analyze this prime influence on my young manhood.
I’m standing in my library when my hand fell on a Dylan book I bought some time ago. It occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t read this one yet. The book was the Rough Guide To Bob Dylan by Nigel Williamson. English fellow, obviously never been to America. Nigel had a pretty good handle on Bob so my mind focused on the jewel in Bob’s forehead. Mixed Up Confusion. This was where Bob was at in 1962. The rest of his career is the working out of this song. Trying to clear up the confusion. Get Straight. Walk like a man and the words of that tune..
Not enough attention has been devoted to Bob’s boyhood in Hibbing although guys like Howard Sounes in Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan have made a stab at it. Nobody has touched on the real source of Bob’s malaise though. I mean why was he living in mixed up confusion? His songs give off hints that could be investigated by someone in the right frame of mind but it’s not going to be me. I’ve got other things to think about. I’ve got my own life to live. Bob does generously provide the lyrics on his web site however for anyone interested.
Obviously the early years were not so happy as they could have been. Bob had difficulties with his mother and father; nothing too egregious but one gets the notion that perhaps Bob thought parents and child were mismatched. Should have been born to someone else. I live with that feeling too. Bob and I both knelt at the same altar praying: There must be some way out of here… But just through that door over there and when it closes behind you you can’t get back in. I didn’t design this place I just live here.
How well he got along at school isn’t absolutely clear but it seems that no one felt any compunction to take Bob at his word which should be the finger on the sign pointing: This Way.
That Bob had time on his hands is obvious by his listening habits on the radio and his reading habits. Bob took it all in as did I. Country, Rock, Swing, Folk, Easy Listening. He doesn’t seem to remember the Folk very much but he must have heard those Harry Smith songs before if he crawled all those late night country stations beaming up on a million watts or so from Del Rio, Texas. He must have got Waterloo real clear. One of the great country stations of the Midwest. I don’t know if he could get WCKY in Cincinatti O-ha-o, as the announcer always pronounced it up there in Hibbing or Wheeling West Virginia. Boy Wheeling used to play some unusual items. Came in pretty clear in Michigan where I lived. Carter’s and all that? Old hat.
So I don’t know what blew his mind so much when he got to Dinkytown down at U. Minnesota. Atmosphere I guess. The hip thing was pretty heady. Tickled my fancy.
I’m totally amazed he was blown away by Woody Guthrie. Never had much use for Guthrie myself. This machine kills fascists! Who the hell ever saw a Fascist in America? I never did and I looked. I was curious. I wanted to find one.
Read Bound For Glory too. Left me cold but then that’s a matter of taste or perhaps temperament. Anyway Bob’s got all these musical influences rolling around in his mind and he meant to do something with them. He took off hitchhiking for NYC in the middle of a Minnesota winter. God, what balls. If anything got him into the Hall of Fame that must have been it.
I’ve done it. Not Minnesota but over on the Illinois, Indiana, Michigan side. Must have been out of my mind. Well, just young and dumb, but even that’s no excuse. I bet Bob feels the same way. There I was in three feet of snow with trucks going by at fifty miles an hour. Rearranged my own personal snow bank every time it happened. But this isn’t about me, well, actually it is but only in relation to Bob.
This hitchhike through the winter wonderland must have left an indelible stamp on Bob’s mind. Did mine. Made him cold. Bitter. Put bite into some of his songs. Tears of rage. Hello New York City sayonara Chitown. Boy, there’s two places that’ll give you a vivid impression of mankind. Did me.
Bob was there at the creation of Rock and Roll and it was a life changing experience for him. Some guys like Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson could settle into quick and easy imitations but Bob had trouble sorting our his influences and making a sound that was his own. Landing in Greenwich Village and its vibrant Folk scene, if some of those guys can be called vibrant. I’ve got a whole collection of their records and some of ‘em are so dull they make Bobby shine.
So Bob settled in doing things like Talking New York and other folkie stuff as he put his musical roots down coming up with Hank Williams influenced Folk stuff. He was doin’ all right too but he couldn’t forget those Rock and Roll rhythms.
So just as he was drolling out Folk anthems in ‘62 he went into the studio and did this strange Rock and Roll record called Mixed Up Confusion. Tryin’ to be Elvis Presley. Sun years. Hot licks and all that jazz.
So Mixed Up Confusion is not good but it’s not bad either. All his miserable past is focused into that song and all his magnificent rise emanates from it. The song is a knot. It’s like when I first started writing. I could tell my whole life story in three Ernest Hemingway style sentences. Brief and pithy but there couldn’t possibly be that big a demand for a haiku on my life. I’d have to kind of elaborate, get loquacious, a little. That’s what Bob did after Mixed Up Confusion. He began to elaborate. Stretch it out. Separate those musical strands. Mercerize it whatever mercerize means. Seen the world somewhere. Memorized it. This might be the appropriate time to use it; might not.
Now, I only heard the song in 2005 but in the way memory works I was able to shift it from here to there so that me and Bob was in two places at the same time together. You know, we went to the same school together at different times. It was a lot easier to do than explain.
Bob and I began to work out our problem in the same way, he singing, me listening. See, I told you it was easy. First though Bob had to dump those Folkies. He was made of stiff stuff though. It was a lot easier for him to do it than it would have been for me. But he was gonna climb that mountain no matter how high. When you get to the top you’ve left everyone behind anyway. I’ll say I know but that wouldn’t be 100% true. Wouldn’t be a 100% lie either though. Kinda half way between the pillar and the post. You could kinda reach out and touch each one with your hands. Have to be kind of a contortionist though. I saw a guy once who could fit himself into a shoe box, big shoes, cowboy boots, size nineteens, but I never wanted to emulate him.
So Bob had been laying this folk stuff on the people pretty thick. They believed in him. They thought he was sincere, didn’t bother to ask. But he got himself a hot electric band and showed ‘em what boogie folk was. That’s when the sh.., uh stuff, hit the fan. It was messy. Got all over everybody. But Bob was kind of a Magic Man. He survived it. Prospered. Took more balls than I got to do it though.
They booed him. Loud. Shouted things at him. Like, Judas and Traitor and Go Home. He said he didn’t believe them but that must have been sheer bravado. They had their point. Well, don’t look back as Farragut said in Mobile Bay. Full speed ahead boys. Let ‘em deal with this.
Bob knew a thing or two about himself, if you know what I mean. He was beginning to sort his Rock and Roll ideas out. Tears of Rage. All the anger and frustration of his youth was finding a vent. The mood was terrific, who in the hell cared what it meant. If you wanted your songs to sound heavy but mean something plain you could borrow the Sound of Silence from Simon and Garfunkle.
He was beginning to be able to project his vision of Rock and Roll. It would appear that he wanted to create an entirely new paradigm as he does manage to sound different but retains similarities to both Presley and Little Richard, two of his major influences. The tentative gropings of Bringing It All Back Home progressed through Highway 61 Revisited to full realization in Blonde On Blonde. Rainy Day Women is a weird and raucous vision of Rock music but in reality is neither fish nor fowl. The general reaction to Blonde On Blonde was one of puzzlement. The music of Rainy Day Women was repellent to most while the lyrics of that summer of ‘66 were impenetrable. Nobody and I mean nobody had any idea of what Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands was about. Still Dylan’s vision of Rock was loose and exciting.
Bob Dylan had also reached a plateau with the release of this his major opus. He had realized or perfected the style. No farther development was possible. The rage and resentment that had fueled the music even perhaps psychotic had reached a culmination.
Thus in the summer of ‘66 Dylan had no place to go. I presume he was out of ideas hence his accident and retirement.
The summer of ‘66 was traumatic for the Dylan, myself and the country. While Bob’s new record lay on the counter waiting to be bought on July 13th Richard Speck committed a horrific crime in Chicago. He ritually murdered a passel of nursing students. At the time the memory of Kennedy’s assassination was still strong. At the time he was shot there were people who thought and said that the assassination would release an epidemic of murder. I don’t know that Speck had any relationship to Kennedy, perhaps his killing was merely a harbinger of the murderous unrest stalking the land.
I had just graduated from Cal State at Hayward that June of ’66. I was taking graduate courses at UC Berkeley. Twenty-eight years old at the time. The Dylan record had hit the stores at the end of June. Now, the record was psychologically disturbing and unsettling by itself. Records were the generation’s means of expressing itself, replacing the movies of the previous generation and books of still earlier generations, so Blonde On Blonde had earth shaking qualities not present in CD s today. Not only did Blonde On Blonde erupt in that memorable summer but Procol Harum, Cream and Canned Heat first emerged. All exhibited a new form of craziness what with Cream’s I Feel Free and Canned Heat being named after a drug substitute. The following June, The Summer Of Love would see the release of the even crazier record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles.
So we were reeling from Speck’s astounding crime under the influences of the psychotic or near psychotic Blonde On Blonde when two weeks after Speck Charlie Whitman barricaded himself in his tower and opened fire on the world or at least as much of it as he could reach on the University of Texas campus. Whitman killed or wounded dozens.
At the time I was cracking my brain trying to learn a year’s worth of Latin in an intensive six week course while trying to prepare for a move to graduate school at the University of Oregon.
At the same time Bob was working out his rage and hatred in full view of the world with what were actually night thoughts I was privately doing the same under the influence of his lunacy as he exposed himself on records. I was still hurtin’ every single day searching for my own release and the way out of from where I was at. I was strange enough, hair parted in the middle getting longer by the day, to feel some affinity to Speck and Whitman as well as Dylan. Whatever I saw in Dylan I saw aspects of in Speck and Whitman. Dylan did too; at least he said so at an awards ceremony setting his audience on their ears. I know what he was talking about and everyone in that audience should have too. No man is an island, send not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
In the summer of ‘66 the so-called Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was in the mopping up stage. The new paradigm of ‘Freedom’ was in place at the home of the Golden Bears. The obscene rag The Berkeley Barb was being hawked on the street corners and wherever. The homeless and runaways were throwing down their sleeping bags in doorways creating the new street sitcom of the Brave New America.
The man who dubbed what went before as The Old Weird America had graduated from US Berkeley that very same June of ‘66. He was on his way over to San Francisco to become the reviews editor of the new journalism espoused by The Rolling Stone, the most successful of the generations publishing ventures. The San Francisco Oracle published for a year then disappeared.
I gathered my things together and headed North to the land of perpetual overcast, Oregon.
While I was familiar with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 with the addition of Blonde On Blonde I began to immerse myself in the three records for about three years. I listened to a side a day every morning when I got up. I know that when Bob talks about his hour of darkness he really means his whole life. That’s what I would mean by it. That’s what I meant by it. It wasn’t a question of not dark yet it was a question of when is the sun going to shine. I was trying to stay on the sunny side of the street but I just couldn’t figure out which side was it. It was going to be dark for a while yet.
Those Dylan years were dark years for me. Probably as dark as it has ever been. Let’s hope so because I don’t want to go there again. But I suppose I have to thank Bob for steadying me through the dark period. Apart from the stray line popping up in my memory from time to time I cannot remember the lyrics of a single song or could I quote a whole verse. The titles were terrific though and I remember a lot of them. Whole novels were in those titles. Whole novels were in many of the lines. I responded to the title It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. How great. I didn’t need the song that rumbled and loped in the background of the thoughts it released. The tone and mood were the perfect background to the darkness swirling in my mind. Occasionally a line that was another novel in itself would break in like ‘I ride on a mail train, baby, can’t buy a thrill.’ One more line and I would have had a trilogy. Possibly I could have named the trilogy The Weird Old Greil Marcus. I might yet.
Here’s Greil Marcus forming this weird extrasensory relationship with Bobby. Marcus gets himself all wrapped up in the lyrics of Like A Rolling Stone; begins to live his life like it’s the fifth gospel right after John. I mean, Dylan’s good, but…
Dylan had an effect on a lot of people not least Greil Marcus. Marcus had seen Dylan in ‘63 in Philly and was blown away. He attended several concerts between ‘63 and ‘66 each apparently a religious epiphany. As just a spectator in the audience he could do nothing but adore his idol. Beginning with his job at Rolling Stone in ‘66 he had an entrée backstage at anyone’s concert including his idol Bob’s. Thus he could get up close and personal with his hero. Ask almost any question; form a relationship. Shape Bob’s thinking and attitude a little even in time display his SI credentials.
Apparently Marcus got as involved with Bobby’s lyrics as much as I did, heck, as much as a multitude did. Marcus has followed Bobby down seemingly owning all the records and CD s having heard all the songs at least once, as indeed has Nigel Williamson who wrote the Rough Guide. I can’t really go much further than John Wesley Harding. I gave up on Bob after that, not necessarily because his stuff wasn’t that good, but wherever he was going I wasn’t following. Our minds and problems slipped out of sync. Most likely he went his way and I went mine.
But Greil Marcus became obsessed with one Dylan song: Like A Rolling Stone. He went so far as to write a long essay on the song published as a single volume. A song has to be in your gene’s to devote that much effort to it.
From this point on I’m going to refer to Marcus as Greil for convenience and because I’m going to get more personal. I hope there are no objections.
Speaking from the ‘bully pulpit’ that Greil has created for himself he has declared Like A Rolling Stone not only the best of Bobby’s extensive canon but the greatest song of all time. As an influential critic he has got the ball rolling in the direction he wants it to go. But, there are dissenters.
Nigel Williamson, who may be considered an authority on Dylan’s entire oeuvre equal to Greil, in his Rough Guide to Dylan lists what he considers Bobby’s Top 50. He lists Like A Rolling Stone no higher than eighteen of Dylan’s best not even considering the whole song corpus of the world. Williamson’s top 18 all come from Bobby’s albums before John Wesley Harding. Further of those songs which I know well I would agree with Williamson with the exceptions of #4 Girl From The North Country, #5 Mixed Up Confusion and #8 Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. I would move To Ramona closer to the top. The Flying Burrito Bros. Version of the song is as good as it gets.
The extravagance of Greil is alarming in a critic. The excess can only be explained by Greil’s relation of the song to some intense personal problem. Now, Greil has not only written several books that almost repeat the same thematic material, John Winthrop- Abraham Lincoln-Mike King Jr., but he has written numerous reviews, essays and been interviewed many times. A great many are available for downloading from the internet so that Greil’s psyche can be searched. In searching through his essays one comes to a remarkably irrelevant and revealing essay. Irrelevant because it has nothing to do with any subject anyone would go to here him lecture about.
On Oct. 13, 2006 Greil read a piece for an audience at the Richard Hugo House. In it he revealed his central childhood fixation.. Because of the death of the inseminator of his mother, a father he never knew by the name of Greil Gerstley, Greil Marcus apparently considers himself an orphan which he is in a manner of speaking in fact.
The incident that catalyzed his feeling he tells thusly:
It was 1955; I was 10. We had just moved into a new
house in Menlo Park, California. There was a big radio set up, and I’d play with it at night, trying to pull in the drifting signals from across the country; Chicago, Cleveland, Omaha, even New Jersey. One night a few lines came out. I don’t remember the exact words, but the gist is clear: “When American GI s left Korea, they also left behind countless fatherless babies. Once everyone talked about this. Now nobody cares.”
As I got older I realized it was an echo of something other than what the words from the radio described. I know it was an echo of an absent memory of my own father, whose name was Greil Gerstley, who was lost in a typhoon in the Pacific when his destroyer went down.
So in times of teenage unhappiness, the fantasy that I might have lived a different life, been a different person with a different name, was more a fact than a fantasy. If my father had lived, both my mother and I would have lived very different lives. But it was the kind of fact that, when you try to hold onto it, slips through your fingers like water.
Alright. Bobby’s song is addressed to a woman while Greil dwells on, delights in the line ‘How does it feel.’ So, what woman does Dylan’s song call to mind in Greil’s experience. I’m afraid it must be his mother. I won’t speculate on whatever lingering fears Greil may have. Suffice it to say that his mother and father in the pressures of war were a dockside romance and marriage. Virtually as the marriage was consummated Greil Gerstner was shipped to his death in a Pacific typhoon.
Greil tells us that he was born six months and a day after his father’s ship went down. Thus as his father sank into the waters of the Pacific Greil was a mass of stem cells evolving into hands, fingers, ears, eyes, nose and…a memory. It is almost eerie the way he dates his memories from this period when he was scarcely recognizable as a human being..
I suspect he considers his mother’s remarriage in 1948 some sort of betrayal of the memory of Greil Gerstner. One wonders if Greil is a Junior. One has the feeling that he was never really comfortable with his adoptive father, Mr. Marcus. I can understand this. There was no genetic affinity to the man. When my mother remarried also in 1948 when I was ten I could never consider my step-father as other than a stranger and an interloper in my mother’s bed. I was furious that he was sleeping with her when my inseminator, my own genetic material, wasn’t.
Both Greil’s reaction and my own were irrational but fully natural and understandable. It matters little that the Gerstners would have undoubtedly been divorced within two years of his father’s return while he would have ended up with a step-father anyway. He can thank his lucky stars his mother remarried as well as she did.
At least his half brother Bill is looking out for him. Thank the Lord for what few favors he bestows.
Greil’s mother is his problem and the source of his admiration for his favorite song and he has become obsessed with his dead father. Then things began to happen. Someone was doing a documentary on the death of the Hull, his father’s ship. Certain stories were told Greil in the course of the documentary that don’t make sense to my experience.
I was in the Navy on a Destroyer Escort, a hundred feet or so shorter than a Destroyer. We were sent through the heart of a typhoon also. I know what the term ‘towering seas’ means. The ship came close to dying several times but we made it through. If the ship had rolled there would have been no survivors. I can’t understand how there were any survivors of the Hull, Gerstner’s ship. In seas like that the ship is tightly sealed to prevent flooding and consequent sinking. The only exit is on the bridge to allow changes of the watch and whatever. When that sucker rolls it is a floating coffin. Nobody gets out. If you happened to be on watch on the bridge you would be thrown into frigid waters with a life expectancy of two minutes at most. To protect myself from the numbing cold I had on so many clothes that they would have saturated and pulled me down before I could come up for air the first time.
I do not understand that there could be survivors of the Hull.
Greil should check his facts more closely, the ship rolls over it doesn’t pitch over. The ship will not right itself at something like a thirty degree roll. Anything more than that and it’s Hello, Davy Jones, goodbye San Francisco.
All that baloney about breaking out of a trough is sheer nonsense. Only a fool would cut the engines. There are so many things happening with the water that survival is sheer luck. At one time the seas were flowing beneath us faster than our headway. That makes the rudders useless. If you don’t have control of the ship you’re sunk. I don’t know how we made it. I really don’t.
So Greil should research his father’s situation more fully and stop blaming everyone. It was just one of those things. Could have happened to anyone. Ask me.
At any rate Greil made the connection of those abandoned Korean children with his own and his father’s. Greil obviously believes that he is as one of those abandoned kids.
The problem then gets back to the woman of Like A Rolling Stone. Only Greil’s mom situation makes Like A Rolling Stone the greatest song ever written. He has to come to terms with his feelings about his mother. That’s all I’ll say. If he rereads Obsessive Memories closely she should be able to find his way out and maybe find another world’s greatest song.
Greil’s obsessions with Like A Rolling Stone soured Bobby beyond redemption for me. However in forcing me to reexamine my own fixation on Bob’s three greatest LP s he has compelled me to come to a truer understanding of what I found in those songs. The use I made of them.
Unfortunately as one door closes another opens. Memories come flooding back of that memorable summer of ‘66. I ride on a mail train, baby, can’t buy a thrill while it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry. Blonde On Blonde, Richard Speck, Charlie Whitman, there’s a novel or two or a trilogy in there somewhere. Can it be found before I die?