When it comes to shining a light into every unmade bed of Dylan’s art, I have always found that my mentor, and long time faithful servant of Freewheelin, Patrick J. Webster has the right torch for the job. Patrick joined Freeweelin in March 1987 and his first article was included in Freewheelin number 19, some 209 issues, or months, ago. Since then Patrick has kept us informed and entertained with his own unique and erudite brand of interpretation with regard to many aspects of Dylan’s art. You may recall Patrick’s recent series of enlightening articles on the subject of Dylan’s song ‘ISIS’ and, for reasons that I will go on to explain, it was Part 4 in that series: ‘The Western & Isis’, that happened to flood my mind of late.
As a reminder of how Patrick linked the Wild West to Isis, the following is an extract from his article that appeared in Freewheelin number 214:
‘In his book America in the Movies, Michael Wood speculated on the motives behind the male heroes of Hollywood westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. This speculation may possibly illuminate the question why so many male protagonists in Dylan’s work have an attraction for the road and such an equivocal attitude towards women:
[T]he hero secretly fears women - women and the civilisation, compromise and settled life they represent; he sees them as sources of corruption and betrayal, luring him away from independence and a sure sense of himself, as well as from the more comforting company of men.
Wood goes on to argue that ‘women [are] a form of entanglement, a dark snare almost always eclipsed by the glamour and loneliness of wandering.’
It would seem to me that such fears and desires also operate in Dylan’s work, and further illuminate the argument that gender is a deliberately constructed discourse within the songs. One of the songs that most reflects these fears and desires, is ‘Isis’, from the 1976 release, Desire. This was a song that explored ideas of freedom and escape, a song that mixed the surreal and the allegorical, the mythic and the real, in a sophisticated melange of gender politics – and a song I want to consider in some detail.
As far as I can ascertain, the song has not commonly been seen as coming from the Western genre. However, taking Michael Wood’s argument above, I would suggest one can read this as a song dealing with ideas very much redolent of the Western, albeit a Western genre Dylan and Jacques Levy revisit with what might be called a postmodern sense of parody and irony. And furthermore, if the song is read within a Western genre, then the implications for the construction of masculinity within it achieve a still greater level of interest.
Whilst the Western has seldom been seen as an important or typical theme within Dylan’s work - it does, I would argue, deserve a certain degree of attention. One might initially consider the first words Dylan gives the world, or at least the first words found in Lyrics. The opening lines to ‘Talkin’ New York’ (1961), the first song in the collection, finds the narrator of the song:
Thus Dylan, in a certain sense, appears to the world coming out of the wild west; in a geographical, historical and cultural sense he appears to the world as if he was emerging from this genre. In addition to this Dylan has written a significant range of songs set in total or in part within the Western genre, for example: ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968), ‘Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (1975), ‘Romance in Durango’ (1976), ‘New Danville Girl’ (1985), the collection of songs from Dylan’s soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and a number of others.
The Western as a genre might be dismissed by some as a lightweight and escapist form of popular culture. However, as Jane Tompkins argues in her book, West Of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, there is nothing lightweight or escapist about the needs the Western answers, ‘the desires they arouse of the vision of life they portray.’ Tompkins argues that the Western provides an environment in which men can find a reality that might otherwise be lacking in their lives, that the Western functions as:
‘... a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunities for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanised existence, economic dead-ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice’
What is at stake is the sense of challenge, a method of getting away from the triviality of life into something that at least seems to be real. The hunger that Westerns satisfy is a hunger not so much for adventure but for meaning. In a general sense the Western is a genre in which something really is at stake. Thus the genre is not an escape from reality but an attempt to get as close as possible to something that is real. As Tompkins puts it, ‘In the Western nothing stands between the man and the world,’ and of course, the use of the word ‘man’ in this quotation is relevant, insomuch as the Western was and is almost universally about men. This is a point to bear in mind when discussing the Western in relation to Dylan’s work.
It would seem to me, bearing the above in mind, that the Western provides an effective and cogent metaphor for the representation of masculinity within the song I now want to discuss, ‘Isis’. One might therefore suggest that one can see here at least a partial explanation for the way the men in Dylan’s work generate gender performativity within a masculinity finding challenge and meaning within such a specific genre.’
To continue this subject of linking Dylan’s art to the matters of westerns and cowboys, and again for reasons that I will explain later, I had to delve a little further into my Freewheelin archive to locate an article that I wrote back in October 2000 (Freewheelin 182) which had the title ‘Desparado. (There’s a Rainbow Above You)’. The article was written following Dylan’s UK tour of September and October 2000 and the thinking behind the title of the article could be found in my conclusion:
‘At the end of each show Dylan and his band stood in a line. Like renegades before the gallows. Someone, somewhere had committed a crime and these were the usual suspects. They had been rounded up. An identity parade. Life on the road is the life of an outlaw. In his gun slinger stance Dylan looked out with mean eyes. ‘The next time you see me coming you’d better run. These are my men. The Dylan Gang. We rob banks’.
Desparado. It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you. You’d better let somebody love you. Let somebody love you. You’d better let somebody love you. Before it’s too late.
The forty thousands souls that surrounded me at Sheffield, Portsmouth, Portsmouth, Wembley, Wembley were all somebodies who loved him. Whether he is capable of coming down from his fences, opening the gates and letting us in I am really not sure. That expectation is unfair anyway. Our pleasure is his burden; yet his burden is our pleasure. And as I found being on the road with Bob Dylan: for pleasure, it’s never too late.’
For those who weren’t around, or who just weren’t interested, to take any account of the MOR music scene of the early 70’s, the reference to ‘Desparado’ in the title and the text of my article was taken from an album of the same name written and recorded by the American West Coast band The Eagles. ‘Desparado’ was a concept album with the main theme being the escapades of the Doolin - Dalton gang of outlaw cowboys who robbed banks and had a high ol’ time doing things that cowboys do.
One of the songs from the album which has the title ‘Twenty-One’, perfectly epitomizes what being a cowboy is all about and underlines the extract from the book by Jane Tompkins , West Of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, referred to by Patrick in his article quoted above. Remember ‘Tompkins contends that the Western provides an environment in which men can find a reality that might otherwise be lacking in their lives, that the Western functions as:
‘... a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunities for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanised existence, economic dead-ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice.’
These are the lyrics from ‘Twenty One
Twenty-one and strong
as I can be
Now the reason for all this talk about cowboys and the Wild West stems not from listening to Bob Dylan or even the Eagles but from the classical music station Radio 3. I find that, when I am working from home, it is less distracting to listen to music without lyrics, such as jazz or classical, because lyrics just get in the way some times and my mind just wanders off into words – which are always interesting whoever wrote them.
One of my favourite Radio 3 programs is Penny Gore’s ‘Morning on 3’ which runs from about 7 am to 10 am and includes a random mix of all things classical. I was thus tuned in to the program one morning in late July and I had mused my way through Handel’s Concert no 3 in G Minor and Beethoven’s String Quartet No 9 when a familiar sound hit the airwaves in my office. I immediately recognized the work as the music which precedes Dylan and his band walking on stage for a live performance. I had heard this music so many times before, from being in a concert hall when it was blasted out from the speakers as we waited in nervous anticipation for Bob to appear, to hearing it at the beginning of various concert recordings. When it came on the radio in such an unexpected fashion, the reason for listening to Radio 3 lost its purpose for my mind was straight away focused away from Debussy and my work load and directed towards Dylan and my passionate hobby. Sorry Mr. Thomson, those accounts will just have to wait!
I am sure that this has been researched and written about before but the composer of the music that accompanies Dylan’s stage entrance is written by the American composer Aaron Copland. I have probably read that before but have not taken a great deal of notice of this information until I went to a Copland website and read a little more about this composer who was born in 1900 and died in 1990.
During his life Copland became interested in the stories and myths of cowboy heroes and westerns and one of his most famous works is the orchestral music for the ballet ‘Billy the Kid’ which was first performed in New York in 1939. Writing in the early 50’s about his ballet, Copland provides some background information to the work:
‘Whatever else one might think, I suppose that ‘Billy’ started a trend since it was the first of the ballet westerns. Certainly it was the first time that I attempted to tap the rich source of American folk music and give it a full orchestral setting.’
The story of the ballet is a simple one. The action begins and closes on the open prairie…we see episodes from Billy’s life. At night, under the stars, in a quiet card game with his outlaw friends. Hunted by a posse led by his former pal Pat Garrett, Billy’s hide-out is found. A running gun battle ensues. Billy is captured and a drunken celebration follows. He escapes, of course, but in the end the posse catches up with him and he is shot.’
That image of cowboys on the open prairie, staying up all night, playing cards with buddies under the stars perfectly illustrates the wild west life described by Jane Tompkins. A life of freedom which ‘offers an escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society’.
In the first two verses of his song ‘Billy 1’ from the soundtrack to the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Dylan also offers a similar glimpse at the life of a cowboy outlaw:
‘There’s guns across
the river aimin’ at ya
Although there are thus the musical works relating to the legend of the outlaw Billy the Kid that puts Dylan in the same camp as Copland, the work which accompanies Dylan as he makes his stage entrance is taken from another wild west ballet namely ‘Rodeo’ which concerns a cowgirl’s search for a man! There are basically four dance episodes in this ballet and the relevant one, the one that Dylan himself must have heard hundreds of times as he is about to walk on stage, is ‘Hoe-down’, a short raucus and rousing piece.
So Dylan comes on stage to a hoe-down and perhaps that is what he expects us all to have during his concerts. But this ‘western’ business is two edged. On the one hand perhaps, again in the words of Jane Tompkins, Dylan sees himself as a symbol of freedom and his performance will give him the opportunity for some kind of conquest. More importantly however what does being part of his audience do for us? In those special moments when we are taking in the live show, soaking up the atmosphere, listening to the words, moving with the music, oblivious to whatever may be happening outside the venue. Don’t those special moments, there and then, and for that time only seem:
‘to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanised existence, economic dead-ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice.’
Thinking about it, for those of us who dare to take the time and trouble to join with Dylan in the prairie of the concert hall, under the stars, hey … we are all cowboys and cowgirls. What is more, and here’s the hook: we are certainly all outlaws!
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