- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

by Bob Fletcher


She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you  mean, you can’t? Of course you can”……….. 

In order to find my voice I have needed to return to previous times. And, if nothing else, what follows illustrates the fact that Dylan provided inspiration from the start. I like to think it was subconscious. 

But her shadow was missin’ for all of my searchin’ 

At sunrise, as the day begins and the earth conjures up its frosty spittle, I make my raggedy way along the road to now. It is a job of mine to listen to those children whose thoughts stay within yesterday and lead them away from the parents who journey backwards and downwards to the lower place that is always better than here, the very same here that frightens and distorts their grasp on anything that is real. And if time allows I sit and wait. And watch as the car speed by with their seats full of eyes that don’t see and ears that choose not to hear too much of anything that doesn’t sound right and proper. Of hands and hearts and feet and minds, all of which have belonged to the wrong body for as many days as the unhappy soul. And as the radios speak their strangeness to the chilly morning, the winds join in with songs of dread. 

If I look out of my window I can see the old lady of 117 years. She has chosen today to begin her dying. Here amongst the people with crooked thoughts, each and everyone one of them sharing non-identical unrelated secrets. Her soul and spirit are too exhausted to carry her any further and her features, once so very beautiful, have been exchanged for her very own mask of the next life. Her body has long since begun to follow the road that leads to stillness and her thoughts are no longer her rightful property. The voices she hears are those of a distant childhood. Her confusion belongs to another time and her memories are as pointless as the hands she can no longer use. 

Today is my birthday. Blue has never been my favourite colour in the wider scheme. Although there are times when I wish it were. Particularly when sadness descends, a sadness that is all mine. That cannot be shared or unburdened or subdivided. Every now and more and then again I really and truly believe that I will never obviously be in the land of happiness. I used to think it a lot more but it came and went recently. A bit like the sunset. And like the sunset it will return. Of that I am certain. And the isolation will be painful, with a beginning and a guiding hand. 

I first saw DeeBee on a cold winter day in the middle of the afternoon at fourteen past the hour and fell in love there and then. She was staring at the house that Mrs Cobalt lived in for the last fifty years of her life. During that time she had watched her husband dying, her children growing older, and life passing by. At night she would feel a sorrow for the poor and their quality of a nothing life that never left much in any place for anyone to pray for, and she would sit on the porch at the back of the property and wish herself to sleep. And after two or so hours, when sleep no longer helped, she would go inside and berate her children. She would play the piano and sing along to some of the saddest songs, in a voice so full of softness it made the children cry some more. Then they would dance to the sound of her loneliness and howl at the night sky until their throats and lungs were red raw. 

But one day she simply ran out of songs to sing and the slowness caught up with her. The children were found in their best nightclothes, all tucked up in warmness with their milk and strychnine. Mr Cobalt was in his favourite chair with a hole in his head and nothing more to say. Mrs Cobalt lay on the porch cursing the day she was born. She was insane so the doctor said. She believed she could converse with jesus and share a bath with the devil. Hey, even satan needs to wash every once in a while. 

DeeBee was looking at the sign above the door. Mrs Cobalt had made it herself one summer way back when. She’d stolen a piece of wood and fashioned it just so. Then with some paint and concentration she’d written Home as neatly as possible. And there it stayed. Home is where the heart is but some people have neither, go anywhere and evermore and they will be thereabouts or nearby. There was a time when I had nothing, living somewhere in nowhere, no more and no less. And, as Mrs Cobalt was painting with every bit of love in her bones, I was busying myself being born into the world. Screeching and groaning and roaring and generally having a good time of things. Desperate people do desperate things. And as I gulped my first breath somebody let go of his or her last. That’s the nature of things. 

Amongst all this is where I happen, next door to those who bask in the luxury of their daughters and sons, the rich and landed who never really feel they are worth very much of anything to anybody deep inside. Hometown, high on a hillside overlooking the other life and its inhabitants. 

Gabrielle is an enigma, damned to breath threats of ills promised, a gallows bird, evil speaking and full of profanities, treacherous to a fault. SoFear, who sits in the launderette by day and sleeps in the chapel of rest when her darkness falls, never smiling and always going somewhere for the weekend. Along the road of her dreams stands the house that one day will be hers. Angelica, who blames him for the pain in her twisted head and the fear ever present in her dreamtime. And for turning his back at the hour of her confession. Wilson, who spends his days peeking into the place where infidelity is tried daily by twelve good men and true. He can close his eye and picture Tenerife, black in her entirety and always smiling her sunshine. Maria, the one from the Café of Light, who serves breakfast to those who steal her words and misunderstand them. Her reality is a whiskey as it comes straight with a chase. Bardot, who knew nothing of his mother and father until the day of his tenth birthday. He wakes every night with photographic memories of a childhood, recountable only in clickety-click moments, reciting his sister’s final words spoken through her cotton wool lazy Sunday morphine contentedness. 

DeeBee spent most of each and every waking hour praying for someone who would understand, and when she happened upon them she would make them stay forever and more, whichever was longer. She would teach them how to love and love them in return. She would hold and caress and shower them with kisses, and they would fall asleep in the arms of the most beautiful person ever to have lived in the whole history of time. But when they awoke DeeBee would be long gone. For despite her feather bed of sensual delights something inside her would always wake before she did. And now as my thoughts return to their rightful owner, and DeeBee stands within touching distance, two worlds are colliding. Worlds of memories and fear and hatred. Two histories to be altered and revised, two longings to be denied, two desires to be suppressed. But not just yet because happiness is all and everything to me. And my thoughtscapes and dreamways have other plans. They want to take DeeBee on a journey that will introduce her in a one sixteenth of a second to what it, and all, and everything will be. It’s just that I’m not sure she’s ready for any of it. 

Mrs Cobalt knew all about it. She just chose not to make a fuss for fear of her songs being taken away. Without them nothing would ever be the same again. Every detail of her life would nave been altered, secrets could no longer be themselves. Thoughts would be of little or no worth, souls and spirits would be denied their very existence. Matter would be nothing and nothing would be everything or not as the case may have been. And the love of lifelessness she felt so afraid of would have led her to blindness. The world in which she lived was awry, or A-W-R-Y as Chuck would have it. 

Chuck will tell you that he was a once upon a long time gone real old acquaintance of the Cobalt family in general, and Mrs Cobalt in particular. And if DeeBee is insane with love and life, Chuck is insane in the very real sense of the word and all its associations. He knows all there is to and has travelled many long roads to satisfy his desire for understanding. He is the consequence of his actions. Chuck tells everyone he meets that to know is to understand and therefore to understand is to know. Or words to that effect. And to take that away from anyone ought to be a criminal offence. To Chuck, it is what it is. His mind is a flower blooming way out of season, full of pageantry, pomp, bravery, and pride. 

Chuck sometimes lived in a place not unlike the Cobalt’s. Whenever I called by there was a fresh note pinned to the door. Gone or ‘Well Now’ and Chuck would pretend that he wasn’t home. So I would knock some more and when he could no longer stand the suspense Chuck would open up and beg for a little of that mercy. I would smile the smile and walk right past him. Then, and only then, we would talk some of his talk. And Chuck would roam in and out of sentences, and shout to the rhythm of the sounds inside his mind and tell the most outrageous stories for hours on end, only finishing when he had nothing more to add. Sometimes, in the stillness of the night, he would break off and listen to something. He was sure it was the sound of Mrs Cobalt screaming. 

To the south west of Big Salmon lies the Pacific Ocean and to northeast the Mackenzie Mountains. By road it is possible to drive to Whitehorse and pick up the Alaska Highway, which, depending on the direction travelled, will lead to Anchorage or Edmonton. Or further if necessary. Along the way are Tagish and Telsin, Watson Lake and Fort Nelson. Next come Dawson Creek and Grande (with an ‘e’) Prairie. Finally it’s the Rocky Mountains. Go the other way and it’s Lake Kluane, and d Tanacross, the Big Delta, and Mount Sanford. One thing is for certain, whichever way you go it is possible to meet people not unlike DeeBee, Mrs Cobalt, or myself. There is, however, only one of Chuck anywhere. 

For the record, Mrs Cobalt was 70 years old at the end. Or somewhere in that neighbourhood. Her great-great grandmother had known Tammany, a noble chief of the Delaware Tribe, intimately. Or so the story goes. His thoughts on things general were many. It is said that the New York democracy adopted him. Unite in peace for happiness and in war for defence. Foe enlightening the white man with these words, Tammany was made a patron saint. Mrs Cobalt also told those who chose to listen that her side of the family was pure aristocracy. Her heritage included Talleygrand de Perigord, a noted cleric and statesman who, when times were bad, had escaped to the land of the free American, returning to France only when it was safe enough to become Napoleon’s right hand man. Mrs Cobalt was proud to tell of his involvement in bringing King Louis to the throne. 

Chuck’s heritage was pure garbage. He had no family to speak of and recalled nothing of importance from childhood. Only the days spent beside the railtracks cursing the carriages full of dandy folk. Long before his destiny had been decided, he had done most things. Nothing and nobody had managed to escape his restless imagination. To earn some sort of living he had had turned his hand to just about everything using the minimum amount of energy required. He claimed to have worked the dockside along with the Union, learning the power of the collective as he went. He knew all there was to know regarding cotton picking. An acquaintance from Ontario filled him in. The workings of a canning plant were no mystery; an encyclopaedia provided all that was necessary. Most importantly, a woman called Funtime taught Chuck all about loving and how to drive a car. 

Just as today was ending for the old lady of 117 years so it was beginning for us. It never was going to take too much of anything for Chuck to set things in motion. With just enough of his talk he was able to suspend everything. DeeBee would have to wait. Our union would turn out when the time was right for such things. Of significance to chuck was the finding. He loved the thought of ideas and this was one of his. To reject ideas ought to be a capitol offence. DeeBee knew all about rejection. She was rejected the day she was born and the very moment she was rejected DeeBee renounced the notion of ugliness. Beauty is eye deep and in the skin of the beholder. And relative.

There are those who worship loneliness, I’m not one of them…….. 

Two thoughts occur: firstly, the last time I listened to Bob Dylan. 

Where do I begin? Ironically, at the end. At the time of writing it is three weeks since I left home. It is ten weeks since my marriage ended. Wisely, I have avoided Bob Dylan - most of the time. So I can’t be precise. 

Secondly, am I able to actively listen? Not at the moment. Earlier today, Lizzie asked me if I was writing again. She also asked me which Dylan song best summed up my current mood. My answer wasn’t spontaneous; I already knew that the song would feature in the introduction to this. But it seemed a good way to test the water. She laughed when I suggested ‘If You See Her Say Hello’. 

Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard argue that the song is a “wistful paean to an old flame…(Dylan) knows she’s worldly enough to take care of herself…..he respects her bid for freedom”.  Michael Gray suggests that it is a “marvellous rewrite of Girl From The North Country”. However, it is Paul Williams who illustrates perfectly my dichotomy. Should I choose to listen to the version found on ‘Blood On The Tracks’ I will discover that “the words tell the story so perfectly they actually disappear, and the listener is left alone with the performer, the sound of his voice and what comes through it….the singers depth of feeling and commitment to the truth become the listeners self awareness….” And it is the same self-awareness that becomes problematic should I choose to actively listen. Because I would choose a very different version. As Williams notes (and because I am unable to offer anything original, I am reprinting verbatim), “the shocking Lakeland version becomes a song spoken from that deep sudden urgent place where pain and anger are indistinguishable and their expression seems a violent necessity. Dylan’s 90% new words are humorously contemptuous (‘She left in a hurry/I don’t know what she was on’) and yet the honest, even humble, pain of the earlier versions is also here, and as affecting as ever (For me time’s standing still/I’ve never gotten over her/I don’t think I ever will’). No one listening can doubt this is a man talking about his own wife and something that’s going on between the two of them at this very moment, and one blushes in morbid fascination (and shame faced identification) as the character in the song snarls to an imagined rival, ‘If you’re making love to her/Watch it from the rear/You never know when I’ll be back/Or liable to appear’. The horror, the humour, the beauty of Dylan’s voice and of his commitment to self expression (however screwed up and alcohol or ego distorted his perception of reality may be), and the amazing intimacy woven between performer and audience at this moment all come together in the last lines: ‘Whether she’ll be back someday/Of that there is no doubt/And when that moment comes, Lord/Give me the strength to keep her out’. 

In truth it is not just Dylan that has proved problematic. Country, Roots, Gospel and Soul have all pierced me to the heart. And let’s face it, there are only so many variations of ‘my baby done gone left me’ a man can take. So I have spent time rediscovering jazz. However, I will admit to looking forward to July (I promise to wear the hat). And to playing ‘Under the Red Sky’ because a friend hadn’t heard it. 

I bid you all a restless farewell