by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world’
I’m writing this at dawn on January 3. There’s a new moon, bright and hard, with the shadow of the old clearly seen. Venus standing off to one side in stark clarity. It’s deceptively quiet here, in the wooded valley where we live, but there’s a planet out there facing another year of madness and peril. As Dylan says, ‘it’s tough out there…’ I look around for the fortune telling lady but I don’t see her.
Of all the perils facing us in 2019 and beyond, global warming is the most overwhelming to contemplate. I have trouble with global warming, not with accepting the scientific consensus and the reality of it, but coming to grips with my life in terms of it.
‘I think when my back was turned the whole world behind me burned’
Psychologists and social commentators have identified a new syndrome they call climate-change melancholy, a debilitating mix of pessimism, helplessness and anger. It goes with a ‘what’s the use of anything?’ mood; it’s all going down in the flood or up inflame.
‘The air burns and I’m trying to think straight’
But I can’t think straight. Meaninglessness is de rigueur. “People are crazy and times are strange”. Why do anything at all; we ain’t goin nowhere. High water everywhere. And what’s with all this Bob Dylan stuff? Shouldn’t I dedicate my meagre writing talents to a worthy climate change blog that’s trying to make a difference, quit this slumming it with Bob Dylan, do something useful to the world?
Isn’t this ratting around in another man’s songs a privileged indulgence, along with cinnamon lattes on New Year’s morning and regrets over lost love? What good am I?
The air is getting hotter There’s a rumbling in the sky
That’s right! And I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs, so to speak, playing over and over my latest Dylan performance obsession, his 2018 brooding version of Cry A While. A nasty, back-stabbing, double-crossing kind of song, with these grand, heavy, marching chords, rebooting my brain before the sun comes up. It must be someone else’s turn to cry:
And maybe that’s the point; for all that ‘darkness at the break of noon’ pessimism there is a resilience in a good Bob Dylan song, a celebration of our capacity to bounce back.
In the grim days of the cold war, following the Cuba crisis, a brave young voice of defiance could sing, ‘but it’s all right ma, it’s life and life only,’ or ‘it’s all right ma, I can make it.’ While ‘It’s all right Ma’ is a devastating attack on all things false and phoney, there is an affirmation in it. For a kid just five years younger than Bob, it was a message of hope and resistance. And later, in the seventies, when a whole lot of shit caught up with our generation, Dylan reminded us that no matter how much blood there is on the tracks you just keep on keeping on. Look at the inbuilt resilience of spirit in Buckets of Rain (my line arrangement):
Life is sad Life is bust All you can do Is do what you must You do what you must do And you do it well
That says it all. When it comes to climate change melancholy, Bob Dylan is my medicine. It’s like what they say about the blues. Those old blues singers that Dylan loves so much didn’t sing the blues to make themselves sad, but as a cure to their sadness. They sang to uplift themselves. The blues is lit by humour and stoical resistance, full of complaints about whisky and women, and Dylan picks up on that beautifully.
The ancient Greeks coined the term “catharsis”, which refers to the elevating effect of a good tragedy. Catharsis is a kind of emotional discharge.
Dictionary.com defines catharsis as ‘the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.’ In short, listening to Dylan is inspirational. Even the darkest of songs, like Senor, give me courage to face the sun coming up and the unbearable light it brings to the world. Gives me courage to face the year, the madman cavorting the White House and other obscenities too numerous to mention.
‘Well, the road is rocky and the hillside's mud Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood…’
Of course. Reality as always has too many heads, and we must do what we must do and keep walking the road, even the darkest part.
when the cities are on fire with the burning death of men just remember that death is not the end
Amen to that.
You might also enjoy “Cry a while”: gathering all the old blues into one song
What else is on the site
You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
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And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.