“Where once a dreadful abyss yawned a railroad bridge now stretches, from which the passengers can look comfortably down into the depths.”
– Kierkegaard (as quoted by Adorno)
“It’s mighty funny; the end of time has just begun/ Oh, honey, after all these years you’re still the one.” – Dylan
To reference the seminal cultural critic Theodor Adorno in a discussion of a major figure of the 20th-century avant-garde is so common as to be a cliché, like quoting de Tocqueville when discussing the “inherently American.” And so, for what I am about to do, I sincerely apologize. But–and this almost certainly coincides with the aging of the most recent revolutionary generation–there has been a recent trend toward discussions of the effects of aging on still-productive members of the major art movements of the past century. Witness the recent Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) retrospective of late-period filmmakers (an event only recently possible, with the centenary of the still-young form). And if there is one art form in addition to film that most defines the cultural landscape of the past century it is amplified and recorded rock music, whose history more or less starts with a generation born in the 1940s, unburdened by wartime and Depression, who now begin to slip into history and thus provide a nearly-closed portfolio of work for judgment.
The trouble, arguably, with the major figures of the first societal mainstream rock ‘n’ roll generation (here defined as more or less bounded by the Beatles on one end and the Stooges on the other) is that the large majority of them have not remained productive or culturally influential past their middle age, either because they died young and their reputation is based by necessity solely on the work of their first bloom; or because they were unable to sustain a relevant level of novelty or depth, and faded into a comfortable reputational hammock. With the Beatles retired early, that pretty much leaves Bob Dylan, as so often in his life, standing apart and above. (The Neil Young enthusiasts out there can pipe down: this is for the purpose of the argument at hand, though I would posit that Young’s real lasting influence is his guitar playing, not his talented but conventional songwriting.)
Enough throat-clearing. The main thrust here is that I’d like to examine “late-period” Dylan–the period introduced by Time Out Of Mind in 1997 after a long silence but defined by the trilogy (so far) of pseudonymously self-produced records Love & Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009)–through the lens of “late style” as defined by Adorno in his 1937 essay “Late Style In Beethoven,” and expanded upon in On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, a posthumous collection of Edward Said’s lectures and notes (with a useful introduction by MIchael Wood) broadening the scope of the idea of late style. What in Adorno’s work applied specifically to Beethoven (his subjective and uniquely isolated experience and its effect on the future of music), and was explored in its implications by Said, seems broadly applicable to a top tier of long-lived and culturally influential artists.
Adorno’s idea is that the nearness of mortality is the defining influence on the creative work of an older artist, consciously or not. This sense of radical perspective manifests as what he calls “uninhibited subjectivity, or, better yet, ‘personality’.” Adorno believes that the artist who began his career by breaking with existing forms, even creating radical new ones, embraces “classical” form as he ages and then, where one might expect him to reconcile the two approaches, conversely leaves the wreckage of form to stand as form; the way a skyline, fractured by a catastrophic earthquake, becomes equally iconic in its brokenness. As he puts it, “The maturity of late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation…they show more traces of history than of growth.” And yet, he says, wait – it’s not personality unleashed that we’re seeing, not unbridled expression “disdaining sensual charms with the sovereign self-assurance of the spirit liberated,” that in itself would be confining, “relegating [late works] to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document…It is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality.”
Instead, he sees in late Beethoven an unearthly serenity, an “incorporeal spirit,” expressionless and distanced, already drawn back from the world’s irreconcilables and willing to let them stand as such. Said notes that “[w]hat has evidently gripped Adorno in Beethoven’s late work is its episodic character, its apparent disregard for its own continuity…they often communicate an impression of being unfinished.” Where a younger Beethoven synthesized and transformed the forms he learned from Haydn–the fugues, rondos, and sonatas of classical tradition–according to his own invention; the elder Beethoven lets even the decorative elements hang free of any tethering theme:
“Everywhere in his formal language, even where it avails itself of [singular syntax], one finds formulas and phrases of convention [Said calls them”unmotivated rhetorical devices”] scattered about. The works are full of decorative trill sequences, cadences, and fiorituras. Often convention appears in a form that is bald, undisguised, untransformed: the first theme of the Sonata Op. 110 has an unabashedly primitive accompaniment…that would scarcely have been tolerated in the middle style…and all of this mixed in among…the most restrained stirrings of solitary lyricism. The relationship of the conventions to the subjectivity itself must be seen as constituting the formal law from which the content of the late works emerges [italics mine].”
Adorno’s thesis is that death, the cessation of consciousness, is fundamentally untreatable in the guise of art; that, as art is a gesture of a creature grappling with its experience, that which by its nature cannot be experienced can only be addressed obliquely as art: “Death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory.” Thus while mortal subjectivity is not and cannot be the perceptible object of artistic inquiry, it nonetheless darkens and contorts the diorama of the work. In a tangible way, the animating force separates from the clay. “Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work. Hence the overabundance of material…hence the conventions that are no longer penetrated and mastered by subjectivity, but simply left to stand.”
This is the first idea of late work, the grappling with the idea of closure. “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective is the light in which–alone–it glows into life. [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis…In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” It is a sense of lost totality, the impossibility of unity between opposing ideas, the futility of a harmonious or moralistic summation of life as coherent narrative.
The second animating philosophy of late work is an idea of Said’s that there is a chronological sense of lateness, prior to death, that manifests in the shadings of meaning as the word is heard. A person described as “late” can be understood in the sense of “deceased,” already departed; also as having missed or passed his time, in the sense of an appointment or convergence with the spirit of his times. In this sense, an artist who has made a significant impact on the culture in his relative youth can come to seem posthumous in his own lifetime. Lateness in this sense, says Said, is then “a form of exile…late style is in, but oddly apart from, the present…For Adorno, lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.”
Between 1983’s Infidels and 1990’s Under The Red Sky, Dylan’s songwriting seemed increasingly adrift, the songs written for the sake of putting out albums rather than through any emotional urgency; with expensive-sounding productions that, while they adhered to the grandiose standards of the day, hung on the hollow songs like a pope’s robes on a drifter. Dylan himself admits to a crisis of confidence, a feeling that perhaps he had gone as far as he could and that the portfolio was complete. He retreated from the gospel choirs and digital gloss of his 1980s records and made two intimate, acoustic records (Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong) of old blues and folk songs. Recorded live in the fashion of his first, eponymous album, he returned to the archaic material he made his name performing 40 years earlier, but this time as the aging, ironic storyteller and entertainer he’d impersonated as a baby-faced 20-year-old.
When he re-emerged as a songwriter in 1997 with Time Out Of Mind, critic Robert Christgau claimed to be mystified by the common reaction that the record was “in [an] intrinsic way ‘about death’…[What] the mortality admirers hear in it is their own.” This seems like contrarianism. The title itself implies a post-consciousness in which time, which only exists to a consciousness able to both retain memory and envision potentialities, need not exist; or is freed to exist in as a sort of ethereally free-standing concept, time without memory. The songs’ monochordal vamps obsess over loss of love, loss of life, numbness, vacancy, betrayal (“I thought some of ’em were friends of mine; I was wrong about ’em all“). There is blood in the clouds, echoes of the “Blood In My Eyes” of World Gone Wrong, a tale of a would-be john–aged? deformed?–rejected by an amused and scornful prostitute. In fact, there is a meteorological aspect to the impending winding down of the world of Time Out Of Mind: The songs take place in gathering darkness, under cloudy skies, approaching or just past midnight. The ticking quarter-notes of the graveyard organs of “Love Sick” are like a cosmic clock winding down: “I see lovers in the meadow/ I see silhouettes in the window/ I watch them ’til they’re gone and they leave me hanging on to a shadow/ I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick.” The narrator is fading away from the world, ever less of a participant, ever more a dispassionate observer who sees the shrouds beneath the skin of even young lovers.
Even the narrator’s own obsessive, self-destructive love seems to address a decayed, failing, unfaithful object; and he himself seems to question the emotion: “Every day your memory grows dimmer/ It doesn’t haunt me like it did before/ I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere/ Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.” The flesh is falling off of his face, the old ways of communication frustrating and pointless: “Well I’m tired of talking; I’m tired of trying to explain/ My attempts to please you were all in vain/ Tomorrow night before the sun goes down/ If I’m still among the living.” Church bells are ringing as the sun sets; he wonders (knowing, of course, and answering in Love & Theft’s “Moonlight”) for whom they toll.
“I’m drifting in and out of dreamless sleep
Throwing all my memories in a ditch so deep
…Well I don’t dare close my eyes and I don’t dare wink
Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think”
Said describes the Greek poet Cavafy’s work as “fulfilled but also denuded of promise…witness [to] an animated, disciplined spectacle in which he once participated but that, like all temporal things, now seems to be moving away from him.” The Dylan of Time Out Of Mind is in the world but not of it, feet still planted in the dirt, but his perspective already distanced, even celestial. The narrator is an old nomad taking one last look at a messy world he has loved. In “Dirt Road Blues”, as the bass swaggers and pulses like a jug band (the epitome of visceral music-making: the essential transaction of continued life, the lips and breath on the carrier of water) as the celestial abuts the earthbound like the sun pouring over the horizon in the sunsets and midnight moons that permeate the record. The published lyrics are as conflicted about the possibility of synthesis, the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living (if you’ll pardon the rotten shark). “Gon’ walk on down that dirt road ’til I’m right beside the sun/ I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone;” but as recorded, they embrace an opposing form of oblivion: “Gon’ walk on down that dirt road/ ‘Til everything becomes the same.” “Standing In The Doorway” is a list of irreconcilable dualities, which the narrator hopelessly leaves to stand, unable to choose, too late for it to matter.
“Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today, it’s moving too slow
I got no place left to turn
I got nothing left to burn
Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow…
I know the mercy of God must be near.“
There are two dominant strains, increasingly exclusive of all else, of songwriting presets in late-style Dylan, the juke-joint blues and the Tin Pan Alley weeper; and “Standing In The Doorway” is the first example of the latter style, which is first apparent in Good As I Been To You’s “Tomorrow Night”. Dylan handles the AABA-Bridge forms in the simplest possible way, and even seems to revel in refrigerator-magnet Tin Pan Alley lyrical imagery (storms raging on rolling seas, evening shadows, stars, winds of change, making your dreams come true). As much as has been made of Dylan’s debt to the Harry Smith/Carter Family strain of hallucinogenic nightmare folk, his late work often seems like a determined genre exercise, that genre being pre-rock ‘n’ roll American music of any kind: acoustic blues, mountain laments, the early Chicago style of Howlin’ Wolf and, no less, the moon-June balladry of Hoagy Carmichael and Bing Crosby. In “Moonlight”, “Beyond The Horizon” and especially on Together Through Life (“This Dream Of You,” “Life Is Hard” whose shuffling, chromatic melody like Willie Nelson singing standards, is almost more than Dylan’s rickety voice can handle), Dylan highlights a little-commented connection: that the Carter Family’s hillbilly-formal dialect shares a vocabulary with Tin Pan Alley through the genealogy of 19th-century romantic poetry and parlor songs. “We learn to live and then we forgive/ O’er the road we’re bound to go/ More frailer [sic!] than the flowers, these precious hours,” goes “When The Deal Goes Down,” an archaic language of roses and moonglow that bows equally to Stephen Foster, Wordsworth, and explicitly, in Time Out Of Mind’s epic closer “Highlands,” to the Scottish poet Robert Burns (about which more shortly). Ethnomusicologist Tyler Bickford points out that “Dylan seems almost to be curating his vision of American music,” an extremely subjective but rigorously integrated one that prioritizes the creaky, the quirky, and the downright frightening details and asides that colonize the familiar.
Adorno would find this–first, the embrace of timeworn cliché; and second, the resolute anachronism–unsurprising. “[T]he middle Beethoven…always drew the traditional accompanying figures into his subjective dynamics and transformed them according to his intention–if he did not indeed develop them himself…and thus free himself from convention on the strength of their uniqueness.” Just so, the young Dylan drew upon the talking blues of Woody Guthrie, the old English forms and Appalachian murder ballads, but repurposed them for his own highly contemporary needs. “Not so the late Beethoven…[I]n the very late Beethoven the conventions find expression as the naked representation of themselves…[The] abbreviation of his style…seeks not so much to free the musical language from mere phrases, as, rather, to free the mere phrase from the appearance of its subjective mastery [i.m.].” In Dylan, the verbal vine-tangles of the early work are lashed to the rack of blues couplets like ivy to a fresh-built wall, decorative and with a strong implication of timelessness. It’s not, then, that he couldn’t recreate the magisterial formlessness of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, but that, now, it’s more important for him that formal experiments not distract from the play of language on the cement shoreline of familiar strictures. For Adorno, again, this impulse is inextricable from the thought of death: “If, in the face of death’s reality, art’s rights lose their force, then the former will certainly not be able to be absorbed directly into the work in the guise of its ‘subject.’ …The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves [i.m.]. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art.” It enables what Christgau insists is the primary summation of Time Out Of Mind, “simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received.”
But it is Adorno’s expressionless regard of the approach of a time beyond consciousness that is the dominant mode. The narrator is “all used up and the fields have turned brown.” He feels “like I’m coming to the end of my way…When I’m gone you will remember my name?” It’s “too hot to sleep, time is running away.” In “Not Dark Yet” (as in, “but it’s getting there”), a rattling snare drum sounds like a conga, like rain on a stretched tarpaulin, and massages an enveloping, warm track for a deeply cold song. “I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still/ Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from/ Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer.” As the album winds down through “Can’t Wait” to “Highlands,” you can almost see the narrator fade and grow transparent as the visceral world draws away. “It’s way past midnight and there are people all around/ Some on their way up, some on their way down,” each according to their earthly deeds. Human feeling, the love of a good & caring woman, becomes a part of a foreign past (“She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind/ She put down in writing what was in her mind/ I just don’t see why I should even care“). He becomes a purgatorial phantom, taking his leave: “Night or day, it doesn’t matter where I go anymore; I just go/ I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true/ That’s how it is when things disintegrate.”
Said’s concept of late sensibility as a sort of premature posthumousness carries a similar scent of the supernatural: an artist left for dead, or to the autopsy of a dead past, rises, walks and continues inconveniently to exist, even to produce. Ives has this quality; the man who, after harnessing the rough comedy of earth and the ascent to heaven in his Fourth Symphony, was becalmed for the remaining 20 years of his life on the shoals of the impossible “Universe” Symphony. Similarly, Said devotes particular attention to Glenn Gould, who (in the words of Michael Wood, in the introduction to On Late Style) “created his own form of lateness by removing himself from the world of live performance, intransigently becoming posthumous, so to speak, while still intensely active.”
Dylan, especially, runs the risk of seeming posthumous in the sense of having had a catastrophic, even cataclysmic, cultural effect, but remaining productive. Unlike many of his peers, who embraced their one cultural moment and never quite let go, Dylan has always impatiently shrugged off canonization. Wood attributes to late style “a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness,” and this “unaccommodated stubbornness,” which Adorno admired in Beethoven, has been an element of anachronistic and premature lateness characteristic of Dylan throughout his career. Though Dylan fell victim to the baroque indulgences of other Boomer-era icons in the 1980s, he managed to step back and re-ground himself in his own foundational influences, and, to a certain extent, in the fantastical context he’d created for the public persona that he came to inhabit. Said notes as a touchstone for the establishment of late style the “moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile [i.m.].”
And so it’s into a kind of Valhallic exile the narrator of “Highlands” journeys. His “heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam/ That’s where I’ll be when I get called home/ I can only get there one step at a time.” Some sort of happy hunting grounds are at the end of his journey; the refrains outline a fairy-tale world of horses, hounds, bow and arrows, and other anachronistic dream-things. Meanwhile, the verses describe an increasingly distant-feeling world (“I’m in Boston town, in some restaurant/ I got no idea what I want/ Well, maybe I do but I’m just really not sure“). He has a confused interaction with a waitress–they can converse but in some crucial way they don’t inhabit the same world–she asks him to draw her, and he says, more or less, that he can only sketch from life. I’m right here, she protests, and he evades the obvious explanation. Miscommunications, misunderstandings and misheard questions seem about to ignite into an argument, when he slips, ghostlike, onto a “busy street” where “nobody’s going anywhere.” He’s conflicted about his passing: “I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes/ They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright colored clothes/ All the young men with their young women looking so good/ Well, I’d trade places with any of them in a minute, if I could.” But the vivid, mundane details of human society–dancing, voter registration, leather coats–barely register on a narrator increasingly estranged from day-to-day life. “The sun is beginning to shine on me/ But it’s not like the sun that used to be/ The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say/ I got new eyes/ Everything looks far away.”
His dislocation is as much temporal as psychological (“Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery/ I wish someone would come/ And push back the clock for me“); the lateness in Said’s sense of the word is explicit (“Feel further away then ever before/ Some things in life, it gets too late to learn“). The traveler, unmoored, is no longer the agent of his own journey (“Feel like I’m drifting/ Drifting from scene to scene“); like the captain of a ship nearing harbor and accepting the tugboat’s guidance, he’s taken his hand off the wheel and is being pulled in to dock.
Dylan: “By the beautiful lake of the black swan
Big white clouds, like chariots that swing down low
Well my heart’s in the highlands
Only place left to go…
There’s a way to get there, and I’ll figure it out somehow
But I’m already there in my mind
And that’s good enough for now.”
Adorno: “No longer does he gather the landscape, deserted now, and alienated, into an image…
The caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything characterize
the very late Beethoven,
are those moments of breaking away;
the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind,
and turns its emptiness outward.
Not until then does the next fragment attach itself…
for the mystery is between them,
and it cannot be invoked otherwise than in the figure they create together.”
[line breaks, obviously, mine]
The idea of landscape, physical landscape, is an important one. Per Adorno’s description of objectivity as a fractured landscape, Said expands this into an idea of time as three-dimensionally tangible, a terrain that can be experienced and explored. If we think of post-Time Dylan as synonymous in several meaningful ways with with Ulyssean narrator of “Highlands,” the travelogue of a man taking leave, then the 21st-century trilogy of records are chapters of formative context, of places where the soul of the world gathers and pulses most vitally. They stagger forward chronologically as well: In Love & Theft, the Confederate South of blackface minstrelsy on “those Rebel rivers;” Modern Times, the “modernity” of mid-century juke-joint Chicago; Together Through Life the bloody, passionate Cormac McCarthy world of the contemporary Rio Grande borderland. In Dylan’s own memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1, he presents not a continuous narrative of becoming but snapshots of himself at unexpected and highly personal junctures. Wood says of Proust, “He sees a person as a crossroads, time as a body, ‘characters as duration’.” The three Jack Frost records (Jack Frost is Dylan’s pseudonym for purposes of unmediated production) are, similarly, his timeline of the brief and productive resting-places of the narrative of American music.
The other defining characteristic of the “Jack Frost trilogy” is a distinctive blend of ironic, bawdy humor with mature and deeply romantic love; the former prevailing in Love & Theft and gradually deepening into the latter by Together Through Life. Wood remarks that “lateness has its playful as well as its tragic aspects,” and Said adds that “[t]ruly this world is pre-historical in its freedom from daily pressures and cares, and in its seemingly limitless capacity for self-indulgence, amusement, and luxury: and this too is a characteristic of twentieth-century late style.” In Wood’s assessment of Mozart, “‘[A] sudden lateness [Mozart, of course, died young, so his “lateness” is highly relative], as distinct from maturity, produces…’a special ironic expressiveness’.” Dylan, while always ironic, seems to have returned from his self-imposed, post-Under The Red Sky exile equivocal, satirical and with a sarcastic sense of the anarchy inherent in wordplay. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” is a raucous buddy movie about “Siamese twins…coming to town” (as they reappear in “Honest With Me”). “A childish dream is a deathless need,” says Dylan, and proves it with childrens’-story references to the Land of Nod & dead man’s bones; one straight-up knock-knock joke, a prank call (“Calls down to room service, says, “Send up a room“) and a tip of the cap to the patron saint of clever chaos, Lewis Carroll. The bar-band shuffle and blues couplet gives him room to indulge in lowbrow, crowd-pleasing jokes (“I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time“), sometimes at his own expense (“Well I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car/ The girls all say, “You’re a worn out star”). The spectre of death is never far, but the joker’s getting in some last-minute jabs (“I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift/ Gonna break the roof in – set fire to the place as a parting gift”). “[Said] sees,” says Wood, “‘[a]musement’ as a form of resistance…amusement, like pleasure or privacy, does not require reconciliation with a status quo or a dominant regime…The tone of the individual cases may be tragic, comic, ironic, parodic, and much else, but…will be unreconciled.”
Even the devil-may-care twins, though, are voyaging to the ever-setting sun, and “his Master’s voice” still calls. The apocalyptic banjo of “High Water,” pounded by waves of accordion and tambourine, adding and dropping out, bodhran-like and tympanic, is a Biblical revelation flood of old-testament punishment (“I’m preachin’ the Word of God/ I’m puttin’ out your eyes“); and each-for-himself betrayal (“Don’t reach out for me,” she said/” Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?“); and Dylan reaches even farther back, to pantheistic pagan horror. Like Persephone trapped in Hades, “[T]he emptiness is endless, cold as the clay/ You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Like the disintegrating narrator of “Highlands,” he’s “feeling like a stranger nobody sees…Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t.” “[O]ne cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness,” says Said, “but can only deepen the lateness.”
For Dylan, a rapprochement with the idea of death is crucially contingent on a firm commitment to fleshly, earthly pleasures in the time remaining to enjoy them. Nick Pinkerton, in a Village Voice review of “The Late Film” at BAM, points out that “Age tends to lower inhibitions” (viz. Hitchcock going “as deep into criminal-sexual neurosis as contemporary mores would allow” in Marnie and Frenzy and Kubrick’s “sex odyssey [Eyes Wide Shut]”); and Dylan has no problem getting “on bad terms with the younger men” by competing lustily on their turf. His come-ons are forward (“You gonna need my help, sweetheart/ You can’t make love all by yourself“), virile (“I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed/ Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard“), reckless (“Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains“) and grinningly disingenuous (“Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months/ Don’t know how it looked to other people/ I never slept with her even once“).
But the primary romantic mode is a patriarchal calm (first introduced on “Sugar Baby”), a mature love, passionate without being grasping or desperate; an autumnal blossoming, unbothered, knowing but sincere, charming and insistent. “Nettie More” seems to mourn a lost, but not forlorn, love–the death of an elderly spouse, perhaps. The iconography is domestic: home cooking, details of the weather. “Spirit on the Water” may be a unique example of a love song between two older people, long friends perhaps, who bloom into something more in the sunset of their lives:
“I’d forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
That we were meant to be more than friends…
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time.”
These late-life love songs are Dylan in his early-Tin Pan Alley idiom, exploring slightly more complicated harmonic territory in a Gene Autry/Ukulele Ike world of lazy summer days, bees buzzin’, fishing, storms (this time harmless). Weightless and carefree violin and banjo shadow a tapping kick drum, like a gently pounding Salvation Army bandsman with one strapped across his chest. The urgency of younger love is gone and unmourned. The “privileged forms,” qua Said, are “anachronism and anomaly,” as befits the tender and indescribable shadings of the shared memory and history of an elderly couple. In fact, there’s no sense that the impending dusk indicates any kind of permanent parting (“Beyond the horizon across the divide/’ Round about midnight, we’ll be on the same side“; “We live and we die, we know not why /But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down“). In “Moonlight”, Dylan sketches a picture of natural tranquility that evokes the loveliness of a sunset over a country church graveyard:
“The clouds are turnin’ crimson
The leaves fall from the limbs an’
The branches cast their shadows over stone…
The boulevards of cypress trees
The masquerades of birds and bees
The petals, pink and white, the wind has blown.”
The bell tolls for the aging couple, and the narrator, with a wistful, resigned shrug (“Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with/ Are the things you need the least“), offers his arm (“[W]hen the time is right to strike/ I’ll take you ‘cross the river, dear/ You’ve no need to linger here“). “Lateness,” says Said, “is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.” Worldly humor and settled love are the only healthy responses to the consideration of a full life. “My heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free/ I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.”
Together Through Life is in many ways the culmination and flowering of the romantic strain of the later records; it’s the breeziest Dylan record since Desire. (That may be no coincidence. Desire is also the only record as dominated by one instrument, a trenchant fiddle, as Together is by David Hidalgo’s norteño accordion; and the only one on which Dylan collaborated on the majority of the lyrics, in this case with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter.) It may be Hunter’s influence that softens the more scabrous edges of Dylan’s sarcasm, but where Time Of Out Mind lived around midnight, Together Through Life can see the dawn. Its ranchero blues and 12-bar rhumbas celebrate, rather than mourn, the unreedemable divide between the unsentimental dead and the virile living. Dylan adopts the lecherous groan of Howlin’ Wolf rather than Bing Crosby’s croon; and Modern Times‘ grab-bag of the late-period idioms–apocalyptic (“If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break/ Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make“), romantic (“When I’m with you, I forget I was ever blue/ Without you there’s no meaning in anything I do“), religiously redemptive (“Few more years of hard work, then there’ll be a 1,000 years of happiness“), and colloquially jokey (“I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed /I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head“)–is mollified and stripped down to “this dream of you which keeps me living on.” The Dylan who can turn from plain-spoken idiom to King James curse in one quatrain (“I got the porkchops, she got the pie/ She ain’t no angel and neither am I/ Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes/ I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams“) sounds relaxed and colloquial, the world be damned (“Just as long as you stay with me/ whole world is my throne/ Beyond here lies nothin’“).
What Dylan has not done is ascend into the sort of ethereal world of Messaien or the Ives of the Universe Symphony. His relaxed, mature pleasures are resolutely earthbound, even as he looks forward, with puzzlement, resignation and curious interest to a personal sort of Elysian Fields. Said quotes Mozart in a letter to his father as declaring, “Death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness;” in other words, that the perceptible presence of an end-point focuses the mind on the pleasures that remain, and provides the fodder for an irony which can be satisfyingly aimed at the younger or less enlightened. For example, I’m not sure the Touch of Evil cynicism of “It’s All Good” need be taken as sarcasm: It can easily be taken at face value, as in, yes, the world is evil, corrupt, and venal, but “I wouldn’t change it even if I could.” Said describes Adorno in words that can easily be applied to Dylan, as “an aging but mentally agile…man of culture who is absolutely not given to ascetic serenity or mellow maturity,” and if a calm acceptance, even savouring, of the existence of evil is the price of admission, well: “[L]ate style abjures more bourgeois aging and…insists on the increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism, and more important, uses [that] to formally sustain itself.” The songs’ apparent placidity is deceptive; per Adorno: “The work’s ravaged character does not always bespeak deathly resolve and demonic humor, but is often ultimately mysterious in a way that can be sensed in pieces that have a serene, almost idyllic tone.” Said defines this as the crucial duality of late style, that “it has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradictions between them [i.m.]”. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.”
The danger in writing a piece like this is the danger of presuming to pen a premature obituary. This is especially true about Dylan, an artist who, like Stravinsky and Ellington, resists easy identification with either familiar career arcs of inspiration and decline or the retrospective narrative of his discipline and historical context. Remember that one of Said’s definitions of “lateness” is a sense that the artist is out of step with his culture, that he cultivates a kind of determined anachronism by way of formal stance and pre-emptive defense against obsolescence. He recalls that Proust, in “self-consciously set[ing himself] the task of re-creating lost time, thus completely identif[ies] the artistic vocation with memory.” But to deepen the sense of lateness that already shrouds Dylan is to miss both the mature insight of his Indian summer, and the circular quality that is ever-present in his work. The urge to anachronism can be seen a trait of a man (as Said describes the elderly Richard Strauss) as “a figure of superannuation…living well past his real period, exacerbating his already-unsynchronized idiom by moving stubbornly even further back in time.” But like Stravinsky’s late embrace of the earliest Classical forms, Dylan’s use of blues, 1920s standards and English ballad forms; as well as ripe lyrical cliches (the book of love, walking down the road feeling bad, walking the lonesome valley), is a way of infusing his music with a timelessness and sense of renewal and reiteration. Said sees a similar circularity in 20th-century writing, saying “Literary modernism itself can be seen as a late-style phenomenon insofar as artists such as Joyce and Eliot seem in a way to have been out of their time altogether, returning to ancient myth or antique forms such as the epic or ancient religious ritual for their inspiration [i.m.] (see Dylan’s “I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned” in “Ain’t Talkin'”). Modernism has come to seem paradoxically not so much a movement of the new as a movement of aging and ending, a sort of ‘Age masquerading as Juvenility,’ to quote Hardy in Jude the Obscure…with its sense of accelerated decline and its compensating gestures of recapitulation and inclusiveness.” The precocity, even agelessness, that sometimes seemed to possess the young Dylan (Hardy again: “A ground swell from ancient years of night seemed now and then to lift the child in this his morning-life”) is mirrored in the prosaic quality that suffuses his old age. “There’s a moment when/ All old things become new again/ But that moment might have come and gone,” sings Dylan. As physical time advances, the landscape of his creative life retreats past his actual memories into the symbolic landscape of vaudevillians and balladeers in which he has always imagined himself.
Said’s book itself, as Wood points out, was the one of the incomplete projects at the end of Said’s own life, “closing a long chapter about the making of the self that opened with Said’s book Beginnings…and the whole point about beginnings, as distinct from origins, is that they are chosen…[T]he self’s unmaking is another affair, and late style comes close to that.” Dylan’s origins in small-town Minnesota were so rapidly subsumed into his “chosen” origin story–as a hobo, a carnie, a castaway–as to be irrelevant to what has come to be the truth, that the elderly Dylan is, literally, the world-hardened singing drifter he imagined himself as at 20; and indeed it makes little sense to think of today’s strange, worldly poet of the vulgar as sharing anything like a life with the ambitious youth of 1962. The “ground swell from ancient years” that impregnated him then has ripened into its proper fulfillment: There are certain people who seem “right” at a particular age, at which they belong in some hard-to-articulate way; and Dylan’s late style, the unresolved coexistence of unearthly, end-times withdrawal; sweetly complacent mature romance; and earthy, anarchic humor; seems like an arrival and a culmination. Said quotes the Austrian modernist writer Hermann Broch on the the style of old age: “[I]t is a gift implanted along with other gifts in the artist, ripening, it may be, with time, often blossoming before its season under the foreshadow of death…it is the reaching of a new level of expression, such as the old Titian’s discovery of the all-penetrating light which dissolves the human flesh and the human soul to a higher unity; or such as the finding by Rembrandt and Goya, both at the height of their manhood, of the metaphysical surface which underlies the visible in man and thing, and which nevertheless can be painted [i.m.]” The mature artist trades the gift of foresight for the gift of insight: The former is increasingly useless, the latter eternal.
by Franz Nicolay
This essay leans very heavily on these two books:
Adorno, Theodor W. Essays On Music; “Late Style in Beethoven.” Selected, with Introduction, Commentary, and Notes by Richard Leppert; New Translations by Susan H. Gillespie; University of California Press, 2002.
Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. Introduction by Michael Wood. Pantheon, 2006.
Thanks to Maria Sonevytsky & Tyler Bickford for their reading & helpful comments.