People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is playing on my stereo, and I’m blowing the dust off of old photos, and paging through the weathered journals that I find next to them.
In short, I am packing. We are moving.
When I page through my tattered diaries, the words dig into my palms. It’s funny: the paragraphs and lines provide snapshots of my life more vivid than many of the pictures, which in contrast, seem blurry and out of focus. Was that really how I looked in college, my hair long overgrown? Or in snow-drenched Lake Tahoe after college, all of us young and howling up at a limitless bundle of stars? The pictures resemble slides from unwatched movies, not pieces of my life.
But I’m drawn to the seemingly insignificant dates and worn covers. Time slows down and then stops, the pages feel brittle in my hands, and I notice, not for the first time, that the same questions repeat: Who am I? Where am I going?
I don’t write in a journal nightly anymore, sometimes, not even weekly. But I still ask myself the same questions when I do, and I find myself writing most in times of ensuing, chaotic change. Well, as Sam Cooke would say, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Or, it already has: My girlfriend and I are migrating to Colorado after over ten years in Boston. As we traverse state to state in our tiny Honda Civic, I plant words on pages until they threaten to burst.
But me I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
Which leads me, indirectly, to the great Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka, the infamous Bob Dylan. I knew instantly, when he walked out on stage a few weeks ago—my first time seeing Dylan—that I would write about it. I just didn’t know how soon.
Traveling offers immediate distraction, but Dylan has taken up permanent residence in my head since he tipped his hat. He’s crawled into my psyche from the poster next to my bed, peeled himself off of T-shirts and DVDs and unfolded himself.
He was always with me, Bob Dylan, found in the records my parents listened to, the used CDs I bought in high school at Tom’s Tracks in Providence, the covers bands such as The White Stripes and Phish, played. I’ve used Dylan’s lyrics in the classroom, I’ve referenced him in album reviews and even struck away at the chords of his songs on my old guitar.
But the show was different.
There was something jarring and bittersweet about Dylan’s set, right from the outset. A kaleidoscope of reactions descended on me, crackling my synapses with confusion. I’ve seen plenty of concerts at Great Woods, (now regrettably called the Comcast Center, in Massachusetts) most notably a plethora of Phish shows, and before that, the Dave Matthews Band, in those high school days when drinking beer and getting high with your friends is pretty much the best thing you’ve figured out how to do, and you can’t imagine it ever slipping away.
They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones
When Dylan walked out, the crowd, which had admittedly thinned, seemed to band together in anticipation, or in order to brace themselves. Dylan waved somberly; a flipping of wrinkled hands, and took his seat at the piano.
My eyes were drawn to him, but it was my ears that were immediately disappointed. The band began to click and cruise their way through the set, but who was this small, frail man who bent over the keyboard, growling feebly? He seemed frustrated, and there was no sense of his trademark snarl; no wit, no sense of confidence or irreverence. Where was the enigma from the Rolling Stone interviews, the Rolling Stone from the pages of his irreverent book, the reluctant rebel who refused to speak for the generation who championed him?
Dylan leaned to one side and pulled and yanked his sounds from the keyboard, but he didn’t seem to be holding the band together. Rather, they held him up, encircling him with melody, supporting his spindly frame with rhythm.
It felt like a punch to the gut. Maybe it was the beers and rum we’d drunk, three old friends from Rhode Island tossing the frisbee in the gray light of dusk, growing blurry around our small grill and telling stories. Or maybe it was the stormy darkness that had overtaken the sky, the lack of sleep, the week of hard labor and hot sun, which made me so susceptible to these feelings. But I’ve always felt too much, and far too deeply. I think that’s why I write.
I was down on Dylan, and besides, I’d been sad all weekend. My grandfather had passed away a few days back. He was 87, and one of the most giving, positive people I have ever known. In a complex twist of fate, my sister welcomed her second healthy, beautiful boy into the world two days after he passed, on my grandfather’s 88th birthday.
“He almost made it,” my dad said. Almost.
For me, the week became emblematic of the strange paradox that is time and age, irony and mortality. It was a sign from the universe, perhaps, a reminder that there is a whole lot of randomness in this existence. That life is sometimes an exercise in contradiction. That we can’t really explain anything, and that we have to seize what we have: all the hours, all the spontaneity, any source of love we can find.
It was then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate
I looked around as Dylan, who has always been a master of contradiction, slumped his way through one of my favorite songs of all time, “Tangled Up in Blue.” The verses that I’d memorized were mangled, and he attempted to make up for it by repeating words over and over, adding some glossy piano flourishes. To my right, my two friends were attempting to bob their heads, to make some sense of the chaos.
The questions floated to the surface again. But this time, they were directed at Dylan. I knew why I was here: because I’d jumped at the chance to see someone who I’ve looked up to for almost all of my life. Bob Dylan’s songwriting gift, his ability to transform himself, the fact that he has written many of my favorite songs; this was why I was standing twelve rows back from the stage.
Why else was I here?
Maybe because it was time for me, too, to begin to face reality? A conversation from a few hours ago with the good friend who stood next to me played over on repeat. “You gave the music thing a good shot,” he said.
“I’m still…” I’d said, and paused. I’m still what? My band wasn’t playing anymore, and I was moving away. I play guitar every day, but the dreams that I had a few years ago seem like just that, dreams. My writing career is tentatively beginning to take over, even as I leave the teaching profession for an uncertain future. Maybe I needed to face the facts. To grow up a little. My head swirled. Why was I here?
And why was Dylan here now? Was it art? Money? Did he actually think that he sounded good up there? What did it mean that he was still willing to give himself to the crowds, the tour, the backstage rooms and the miles on a bus and the smell of stale beer that floated over the hot night in Massachusetts?
Where down the road would the tour bus go? It seemed pretty clear as he coughed out a sharp remark between songs that no one could understand: he was going where we are all headed eventually, to that big record store in the sky.
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
I like to picture my grandfather, Joaquim Henriques De Sousa, young again, his stomach no longer protruding, his trademark thick white hair made longer and darker. He is playing soccer in Portugal, light and fleet-footed, and the sun has just begun to go down over the Tagus River. Maybe it is the day of legend, the story that my dad often tells, when he miraculously scored two goals with an injured knee.
The day after he passed, after the wake, I had a hard time falling asleep. Finally, I dreamed of my grandpa. He wasn’t as young as I thought he’d be; he was comfortably in his middle years. Happy. He sat in his old house in a green sweater that said “Sporting Lisbon” on it, and laughed when I cried and croaked out that I loved him. That I wished I’d been able to tell him that one more time.
“I’m fine, Bri,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Was that real? Was it a dream? I’m not able to approach that question. It certainly didn’t feel like a dream. Then again, my dreams never do. They feel like scenes stolen from some different version of life, a sequel, perhaps, where the reel of film is still spinning.
There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief,
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
Standing before the stage that night, my thoughts flickered with the light of the torches beside the stage, elongating and shrinking again. Then the next song began, and an interesting thing happened. The thin, crooked man wearing the round hat stepped out from behind the piano and began to play the harmonica. He improvised. He bent his knees and dug in.
And he broke into a solo that was utterly full of soul.
If you listened closely, you could perhaps hear what he was saying: “I’m not gone yet. Listen to me. This is why I’m here. This is why I was always here.”
The crowd took note, and applauded louder than they had all night, and he took over the next song with a heartfelt piano solo. These were not technically proficient escapades, but there was a distinct voice there. Reaching out. Aching, perhaps, for years gone by.
Listen to me, Dylan was saying. I’m still here, on stage, and I still have something to say. Where am I going? What does it matter? I’m right here. I’m in the moment, and you should be, too.
As the set went on, Dylan’s voice, his playing, even his band, grew stronger. Heavier. And you know what? I grew lighter. It had been a week full of bad news and good news and coping and wondering. Of expectation and distraction and hammering nails in the summer heat, hoping to think only about the nails, and not what existed before or after, in the tired morning of coffee and emails from my dad, or the blank night of beer and phone calls and texts from my mom and sister.
But it would pass. Maybe it didn’t matter why I was here, or where I was going. I just needed to stay in the moment, and listen to “Watchtower,” a song so familiar that it feels like a favorite T-shirt, stretched and faded into form.
There are many here among us,
who feel that life is but a joke
If there is one thing Bob Dylan knows, and that we realize as we get older, it’s that life is not a joke. It sounds trite, but well-crafted lyrics are like small road-signs that point to something bigger. In this case, that something bigger is the idea that birth and death exist around every corner. This is why we write, why we create art, and sometimes, why we need to escape.
Why are we here, then?
To experience it all, I guess. When I got the call about my grandfather this week, I was drinking an icy beer at a co-worker’s house, after a steamy day of shoveling dirt. My back ached, my fingernails were black. I went outside to the deck and listened to my mother’s flattened voice, watched the clouds drift across the hot summer sky.
The wetness of the can made dark circles on the wooden railing; I traced them with my palm. In that instant, the reel spun, and I remembered everything I could about him: how he watched all of my soccer matches, how he invented games like “crazy ball” for us to play in the stairwell of his house, how he woke me up every morning at 6am when we went to Portugal together. His wry sense of humor, his trademark grin and gentle laugh. As much as my dad calls himself “the Mad Portagee,” referencing his (and my) temper, Grandpa Sousa was calm. Mellow. Content with life, and able to cope with the changes it threw his way. His sense of joy came from the family orbiting around him. I could stand to learn from this; we all could.
I traced over and over the memories so I wouldn’t lose them. I thought, then, of my sister, who was in the middle of creating her own memories, about to have her second child. I thought about life and death and love and time and birthdays and irony and reincarnation and was lifted to all the sorts of strange places that the mind travels to.
And then I did what I had to do; what we all have to do sometimes. I went on with my life with a lump in my throat, with sleeping and eating and worrying and planning and loving and laughing. And writing. As I finish this essay now, I overlook a soaring range of mountains that don’t feel at all like home. Everything is changing. Everything is always changing.
And there stood Bob Dylan, singing the encore cut, a new arrangement of an old, old song, one he wrote when he was just a kid. When his future was distant and hazy, ready to be cracked open. His voice rasped and rattled, but he stood tall. He tipped his hat. He bowed. And he walked offstage. The crowd, rejuvenated; howled.
I will probably never see him again. But you know what? I’ll take him with me on my next journey, along with my memories, a stack of journals, and my copy of Blood on the Tracks.
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Photo: Bob Dylan, Royal Albert Hall 1966 by Paul Townsend
Photos: Bob Dylan (Azkena Rock Festival 2010) by Dena Flows