Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Like a rolling stone

A not-so-sheltered childhood

My iTunes on shuffle played me that song today. I was a latecomer to American popular music, and each wave of the musical revolution swept me away as I encountered it throughout my adolescence. Elvis, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan—each hit me with that same shock of discovery that the country felt during the twentieth century. One of the joys of a sheltered childhood overseas.

No less so than with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I didn’t grow up hearing it, so when I encountered it for the first time, on a best-of CD, it struck with the same intensity as it must have in the sixties. The organ, the hate-filled raspy voice, “how does it feee-eee-eeel…” Each element seemed profoundly true, profoundly sacred. It’s no wonder that Rolling Stone magazine (natch) named it greatest song of all time.

I knew exactly what he was singing about. I knew exactly how it felt to be without a home, like a rolling stone. I knew that Dylan did, too. I knew what he was singing about.

Over the years, as I listened to the lyrics more closely, I found them more and more disturbing. He’s not singing about himself. He’s singing about some rich chick who’s lost everything by being phony. He’s gloating at someone else’s downfall, about human ugliness and nothing else. The song becomes a diatribe against a person who created a fake, idealized version of reality, a person who loses everything.

The song stopped seeming universal to me and started feeling artificial. I stopped understanding why it was so celebrated, such a big deal. It seemed a cynical song about unhappiness, with nothing redemptive inside of it. Nothing holy.

But I couldn't get away from that feeling. When Dylan croons, “how does it feel?” I knew that he knew how it felt. I knew he was singing about himself, and about me, no matter what the lyrics said. He knew how it felt to stare into the the mystery tramp’s eyes, to be forced to compromise against his own will. I did, too. We all do. We all know how it feels to stare into the heart of darkness.

Biographers and documentarians (including Martin Scorsese) consistently named their books and films “No Direction Home” tacitly stating that Dylan was talking about himself. As did Dylan. After his motorcycle accident in 1966, he realized that "when I used words like 'he' and 'it' and 'they,' and talking about other people, I was really talking about nobody but me."

So many of Dylan’s song perform this same balancing act—an attempt to point the finger out that ends up circling back around to himself. His songs seem to have an inner self-referential circle, a rotation around a repeated truth. My favorite example is “Shelter from the Storm.” The narrator loses the archetypal woman filled with grace who provides him shelter, but despite that loss, he returns to the hope of renewal, again and again, in the chorus. He’s lost her, at the same moment that she continues to accept him unconditionally.

It’s a paradox, an assertion and yet a belief in its contradiction, anekantavada.

So many of Dylan’s songs end up being contemporary zen koans, in the truest sense. “How many roads must a man walk down?” is a question that has no answer. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?” Questions that can’t be answered by rational thinking but only by intuition.

I also circle back around. The song ends up again being about me and about him. What Dylan sings about is loss. The anger and fear and darkness and loneliness we get from losing something, from losing everything, from becoming detached from community and from culture, from becoming wanderers. I am the rolling stone. I am the one without a home.

And how does it feel? Not always so good.

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