01-07-2007 - Traces, n. 7
NewWorld / priests in america

Homo viator

by Santiago Ramos

In 1964, a hip American novelist named Richard Fariña wrote a magazine feature about his friend, the mercurial protest singer Bob Dylan. “Catch him now,” he exhorted. “Next week he might be mangled on a motorcycle.” Two years later, Fariña himself died in a wild motorcycle accident, placing him among the sizeable group of young Sixties aesthetes who flamed out by the end of the decade–Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison most famous among them.
Bob Dylan almost went, too–he narrowly survived his own motorcycle accident in 1966. Spurred on by that near-death experience, Dylan would transcend his Sixties persona and embark on a long and eclectic journey–toward what, fans were never sure–recording a new album for each step. Before the accident, we met Dylan the Folksinger (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), Dylan the Political Agitator (The Times They Are A-Changin’), and Dylan the Beat Poet (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde). Forty years and forty albums hence, we’ve heard from Dylan the Biblical Storyteller (John Wesley Harding), Dylan the Country Singer (Nashville Skyline), Dylan the Divorced Confessional Poet (Blood on the Tracks), and Dylan the Evangelical Christian (Saved and Slow Train Coming), among many others. He’s participated in the Civil Rights Movement, dabbled in Orthodox Judaism, and works a perpetual performance schedule known as the “Never Ending Tour.” At once exasperating and mysterious, Dylan is far too coy to let us know whether he’s found what he’s searching for, but his latest album, Modern Times, seems to indicate that his long journey has reached a definitive crossroads of belief and unbelief.
It’s hard to think up a name for this latest Dylan persona. An obvious one–Dylan the Rockabilly Poet–doesn’t capture the essence of the album and, anyway, he’s done rockabilly before. Modern Times also tells stories: Dylan sings the blues of a despondent lover (“Spirit on the Water”), an unlucky proletarian (“Workingman’s Blues #2”), and a maligned man looking for revenge (“Someday Baby”). Subtly, Dylan’s unnamed poetic persona renders a judgment on the collective destiny of all his human subjects. Here we see dramatic conflict within the album: the persona is split, divided against itself.
The darker persona–let’s call him Dylan the Agnostic Stoic Fatalist–has his say in the album’s last track, the haunting dirge “Ain’t Talkin’.” He’s “just walkin’/Through the world mysterious and vague,” his “heart burnin’, still yearning.” Answers are hard to come by:

The whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down

The persona believes in “a faith that’s been long abandoned,” and he’s resigned to the fact that there “ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.” And yet, though unremittingly lugubrious, this song contains a note of hope, stated somewhat ironically: “Fame and honor never seem to fade/ The fire’s gone out but the light is never dying/ Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?”
Skip back to track 7 for the other persona, Dylan the Senescent and Peaceful Penitent. The difference in tone is absolute: this is an upbeat song, with a melody fit for a fiftieth wedding anniversary. A calm, happy voice sings with certainty: “Beyond the horizon, behind the sun/ At the end of the rainbow life has only begun.” It’s hard to identify the “you” in this song, whether the lover being addressed is alive or dead. These lines speak of immediate earthly romance:

I’m touched with desire
What don’t I do?
I’ll throw the logs on the fire
I’ll build my world around you

But his love also outlasts his (current) finite time and space:

Beyond the horizon the sky is so blue
I’ve got more than a lifetime to live lovin’ you

The judgment of the song is clear, however: “Beyond the horizon, in the Springtime or Fall/ Love waits forever, for one and for all.”
Perhaps Dylan’s crossroads is best described as being not between belief and unbelief, but between hope and despair. No choice is made within the album; the persona does not find unity. And yet the calm, assertive hope of “Beyond the Horizon” is not refuted in “Ain’t Talkin’,” especially given the latter’s half-ironic expectation of “heavenly aid.”
Modern Times makes clear that the question, “Who really is Bob Dylan?” is not as interesting as its corollary, “What is he looking for?” The answer to the second question is also true for the rest of us.