by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it…’
Ever since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, there has been a tendency to think that the best way to appreciate a Dylan song is to sit, listen, and scratch your beard (if you have one).
It never used to be that way, at least not when we first began tuning into Dylan and nobody in their wildest dreams was thinking about the Nobel Prize. Go to any rocking party in the 1960s and it’s likely you’d be up and dancing to the Rolling Stones ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, Ray Charles ‘I got a woman’ or Bob Dylan doing ‘Tombstone Blues’, ‘From a Buick Six’, ‘I Want You’ or ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’. And as the party moved into a slower phase, ‘Pledging my Time’ worked well with ‘You can’t always get what you want.’
We could get profound about this if we want to. Wei T’ai, a Song Dynasty poet, once commented, ‘If the poet…keeps nothing back to linger as an aftertaste, he stirs us superficially, he cannot start the hands and feet involuntarily waving and tapping in time, far less strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!’
What is extraordinary about this statement is how poetry is seen culturally, not as something to be studied on the page and received intellectually, but which registers in the body, first, and by so doing can achieve some amazing ends.
If listening to Dylan doesn’t set your hands and feet involuntarily waving and tapping in time, you are unlikely to enjoy the experience. If you want to get what Dylan is about, get up and dance! It’s not what the song is about, it’s what it does. Forget, for the moment, about the words and treat Dylan’s voice like another instrument, and if you can feel that ‘high wild mercury sound’ that Dylan was after, you’ll be on your feet before you know it. The music is received at a viseral level.
We could push this further if we wanted to, and might find ourselves in some fairly strange territory. Some of Dylan’s performances, especially during the Rolling Thunder tour, I have thought of as ‘ecstatic rock’ (my term). Recall some of those hectic performances of ‘Isis’. The reverberating guitars, the swirling violin, the rolling drums and Dylan’s incantatory voice put me in mind of Shamanistic traditions and the whirling dances of the Sufi dervishes, the aim of the music being to put one into a state of religious ecstasy where one may indeed ‘set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits.’
For a long time I’ve thought of Dylan as an expression of the archetype of the Shaman, the voice that guides us through lands of the spirit, something like a Virgil to Dante’s narrator, guiding us through the levels of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, or, if you prefer, the Bardo planes of existence we find the the Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘I came to a high place of darkness and light’). But to get through you have to keep moving, you have to keep dancing. As the Beastie Boys put it: ‘Keep the body moving.’
In ancient musical traditions the relationship between the dancer and the musicians was reciprocal. The dancer would call forth the music as much as the music would bring out the dance. The dance begins in the body of the dancer, and the musicians then feed that movement with the right rhythms and sounds. It’s a co-creative exercise.
This can’t happen in the same way with recorded music, but through dancing, we might merge with the music in such a way as to feel as if we were somehow calling it forth. It issues not from our sound systems but from us. Speculative, heady stuff, I know, but sometimes I wonder who Dylan’s dancer was or is, what swaying muse is summoning his sounds into the world?
These thoughts came to a head recently when I decided to have a Dance to Dylan hour at my coming birthday celebration. I will be mumbledy mumble years old. Sorting out the playlist is totally the fun part. Below are a few of the tracks I’ve set aside for the celebration. Dates indicate performances. Play them loud! Try them at your next dance party and see what happens…
One More Cup of Coffee: 1978. If this doesn’t get everybody on their feet nothing will. A three minute bongo-drum solo. Wow! That ‘valley below’ becomes a wild and adventurous place.
All Along the Watchtower 1978. There’s a feast of wonderful performances of this song, but you won’t find anything swirlier than this big band version. Violin to the fore! The wind begins to howl, and it’s a hurricane.
Ballad of Hollis Brown 1974. Fast paced blues has always been the staple of good dancing rock. The three chord, twelve bar structure is perfectly suited to it. Both fresh and familiar. Dylan and the Band are working sweetly on this one.
[insert song 3]
Wicked Messenger 2000. A kick ass version. Note the way the harmonica cuts across the music, upping the ecstasy quotient – high wild mercury?
Isis 1975. A little on the slow side for vigorous movement, but all the elements of ecstatic rock are there. The shaman is hard at work.
Blind Willy McTell: 2011. Here the master harmonica player carries us through a bouncy, jazzy version that is top of my list of many superb versions. Just try to stay seated with this one!
Stay with it as the road unwinds, folks, and let those hands and feet take you to the music. Somebody is casting a dancing spell your way.
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