Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bob Dylan Week! Barbara Esstman's 115th Dream

Dear Abdul,

I hate to sound like your grandmother, though I’m old enough, and I won’t tell you that we walked ten miles to school through snow drifts, because we didn’t. But I did grow up in the ‘60s before PC’s, cell phones, blow-dryers, pantyhose, The Pill and other things we now take for granted. People believed the Cleavers were realistic role models; “drugs” meant aspirin; grass was mowed; and every bride was assumed to be a virgin unless she was about to go into labor, right there at the altar.

As pop art always reflects the culture, all songs on the radio were approximately three minutes long and as neat and contained as the Eisenhower administration. Their main concerns were puppy love, teen angels and directions to where the boys were, a strategic bit of info for those of us attending all-girl schools. Although the first crossover black artists were inspiring white kids to discover that their rears were moveable pieces of anatomy, Leslie Gore’s “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” was the closest thing we had to women’s lib.

Typical lyrics: Do-wah-diddy-diddy; rama-lama-ding-dong; shimmy-shimmy-coco-pop. Maybe they were Zen koans, but I doubt it.

Anyhow, then came Dylan.

Don’t get me wrong – he was an acquired taste, and you had to get over the shock. Normal males had crew cuts; they wore skinny, proper suits with skinny, proper ties; they opened doors for females and walked on the street-side so they could stop out-of-control Mack trucks from running over their dates. Bob Dylan was another kind of animal, one you didn’t take home to Mother, not unless you wanted to be grounded for the next month or maybe the rest of your life.

Dylan didn’t sing like anyone else, either, not in that era of love songs as safe and approved of as hymns sung by a local choir. He growled. He yowled. He slid off the notes, not with the exquisite finesse of Billie Holiday skating down their edges, but more like a Chevy fish-tailing in mud. He mumbled on and on – and on – with no respect for diction or the three-minute time limit, and we first got into his music through tidier covers by less alarming artists.

But if that was the safe entrance, it was still the opening into a wider mind who slung language like Salvador Dali melted clocks and who wasn’t afraid of jumping the paddock fence. We started thinking about peace and war instead of our next date. We became aware of being caught up in the times that definitely were a-changin’. We learned to recognize when we had the Memphis blues, even if we’d never been to Mobile or Tennessee.

He became the sound track for our lives. We swung our hips like Rainy Day Women and found this a great improvement over the Good Girl Walk. We fell in love to “Lay, Lady, Lay” and yeah, got laid to it. We sent lovers away from our windows and told them not to think twice about our geranium smiles. We divorced to “I Shall Be Released” and resolved not to work on Maggie’s farm no more. We protested the war and marched for civil rights because, damn, we wanted all those white doves to sleep in the sand and everyone to get down those roads and be a man – even the women.
It wasn’t just the songs; it was how Dylan wandered around in them, kept taking them apart and putting them back together in different ways. Not the usual rote where all patterns repeated in proscribed, expected ways. More the Confucian wisdom of “There are many ways over the mountain.” Variations on a theme that let us explore the many ways a thought or feeling could work and how we could move around inside them. He punched open our Skinner baby-boxes so we could look out into larger, richer, wilder space. Even if we didn’t escape right away, we at least got familiar with the territory and knew it was out there when we were ready.

So we still make pilgrimages to his concerts, though the audience is a regular AARP convention and most of them can’t find their cars in the parking lot after. Dylan’s still stiff and weird, and God knows what key he’s singing in. I understand how you wouldn’t “get” him now. But a lot of us did, at just exactly the right times of our lives.

Barbara Esstman, MFA, is a National Endowment for the Arts, VCCA and Virginia Commission for the Arts fellow and a Redbook fiction award winner, among other distinctions. Her two novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home, were published by Harcourt Brace and HarperCollins and are in numerous foreign editions. Both books were adapted for television by Hallmark Productions. She co-edited an anthology, A More Perfect Union, published by St. Martin's Press, and has taught extensively in universities. The next workshop she will teach at The Writer's Center is Advanced Novel & Memoir, beginning April 8. Click here for details on this workshop and her Query Letter workshop upcoming also in April.


Matt Groneman said...

I must say that I really don't like it when older folks say that young people don't get Dylan. I've been to ten Dylan concerts and have seen lots of people my age or younger there. Dylan is still very popular with young people. He might not be popular with the Britney Spears crowd, but he is with that wide range of people who still aren't interested in the lower denominator.

Also, so your second novel is named Night Ride Home -- is that an allusion to the Joni Mitchell album?

Serena said...

I adore Dylan's poetry. I think he is very influential to the younger generation as well.

Barbara Esstman said...

I wasn't saying that all younger listeners don't get Dylan -- which is why I addressed the blog to Abdul in particular, in an attempt to convert him. But art forms do have their historical contexts and speak differently to those of a certain age who live in those times. For example, I own a Nirvana cd and was certainly saddened by Cobain's death. But mine was a different reaction from younger friends who'd come of age with him and were smacked into stunned grief over his loss.
Lots of other examples that show a good work of art transcends time but still affects specific audiences differently, depending on when they encounter it. I listen to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" without once thinking of it as politically subversive, which is how it was received when it was written. I think Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" has a sane and obvious message, but readers in 1904 were so freaked out that they drove her from writing and polite society. Ditto for Dylan. Even I don't listen to his post-Blood on the Tracks music in the same way I do the earlier songs that are so closely connected to a period where this country was turning great hunks of itself inside-out. That's all. And what a relief so many of you still love him. Good choice.
PS Night Ride Home isn't an alluion to Joni Mitchell -- it's a direct steal. FYI. Titles can't be copyrighted and are fair game.