Past

“The music we play has to be tomorrow’s, the things we say have to be today,  and the reason for bothering is yesterday”  -Pete Townsend-  1972

The past, meaning not today or tomorrow, is complicated with Dylan as it is with most writers/poets.  I don’t think I’ve read anyone who speaks about Dylan and the past better than Michael Gray does in his comments about Blood on the Tracks.  It

deals with the overlaying of the past upon the present . . . a profoundly felt understanding of our fragile impermanence of control, so that in dealing with the overlay of past upon present Dylan is dealing with the inexorable disintegration of relationships, and with the dignity of keeping on trying to reintegrate them against all odds.

The overlaying of the past Gray speaks of tied to understanding, disintegration and reintegration is throughout Dylan, not limited to relationships but history, the self, words, and rhymes.

I liken Dylan and the past to Willa Cather’s Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark who comes to the conclusion that hers is a “soul obsessed by what it did not know, under the cloud of a past it could not recall.”

Dylan writes under the cloud of the past, sometimes recalling it, sometimes summoning it, many times rejecting it, and often making his listeners sense that its reality is not hinged on completely recalling it but feeling it, his and ours.

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In “Beyond Here Lies Nothin‘” Dylan refers the mountains to the past:

Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

Mountains are about yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Their presence speaks of a past, their permanence our todays and tomorrows.
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Before journeying to the “past” with Dylan, how about an old song from the past, done by Dylan in the not so “mountainous” past, and redone in the recent past by Pete Townsend, an old folk song called “Corrina, Corrina“:

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The lines that rhyme “fast” with “past” in “Mississippi” hit home the mythological reference to Odysseus in The Odyssey:

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But 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

Odysseus’s ship is split to splinters in Book 12:

Zeus with thunder and lightning together crashed on our vessel,

and, struck by the thunderbolt of Zeus, she spun in a circle,

and all was full of brimstone. My men were thrown in the water,

and bobbing like sea crows they were washed away on the running

waves all around the black ship, and the god took away their homecoming.

Holding onto what’s left of the ship, Odysseus arrives on the island of Calypso, where he eventually sets sail on a raft and winds up on the shores of Phaecia where he is stripped to nothing, even clothes.  It is here that he must feel that the past he wishes to return to, his home in Ithaka, where he is king, is lost.  Dylan,  conversely, as any study of his life will show, has tried to escape from his past, even lying about it to erase it, “pure hokum–hophead talk,” he calls it in Chronicles.

What Odysseus and Dylan have in common though are women who have come on the scene to save them.  For Odysseus, when he arrives on the shores of Phaecia, Nausicaa, the daughter of the king and queen, pulls him out of the emotional depths (sinkin fast), guiding him to what results in his return home (nostos).  Dylan’s savior women, Suze, Joan, Sara, Carolyn all have, in some way, pulled him out of one phase into another, pulled him out of a sinkin into a past that is a kind of death, one that would end his knack or talent for shape-shifting, from one music to another, one sound to another, one image to another, one personna, etc.

The ancient Greek myth of Nausicaa, by the way, has morphed into Japanese pop culture in the form of a protector of the environment.  As such, she protects our past, the one where nature is not violated, kept unharmed by human greed.  Some things, perhaps the myth and Dylan are telling us, should never become past, never even come to the point of sinkin fast.

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Dylan overlays not the present with the past but the future in “Bye and Bye” with these rhyming lines:

Well the future for me is already a thing of the past
You were my first love and you will be my last

One of the reasons I admire Bob Dylan is for the unexpected places, the twists and turns to them, he takes my mind.  Lots of good rhymes throughout this song.  Christopher Ricks quotes the lines above in association with Philip Larkin’s poem, “Going, Going” . . . Here’s Larkin, another writer who invites satisfying mind shifting, reading his poem:

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past“/”fast” rhyme in “Political World,” too, but in an apocalyptic way:

We live in a political world
Where courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted, children are unwanted
The next day could be your last

I guess in in such a world the past becomes a different world, the future threatened to be no world at all.

At the Dodge Poetry Festival in the late 1990’s, reading “The Crying Poem,” Jimmy Santiago Baca asked the audience to STOP TALKIN’ POLITICS!” and instead create “a language made of whimpers and sniffles and sobs,cry out loud, louder, cry baby, cry! Cry! Cry!”  “I’ll never forget it.

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Clearly, Dylan has a thing for this “past“/”fast” rhyme.  He uses it again on “Silvio” right from the start of the song:

Stake my future on a hell of a past
Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast

Maybe he likes it for what it says about how fast time goes by.  Time flies–future becomes present and then past.  As I’m typing this what I just typed just became the past–what I’m thinking about writing, just became present, now BAMM past!

The song’s opening with this rhyme helps defy the standard investment clause that past performance is not an indicator of future results.  In 1986, Greil Marcus felt that “Silvio” was evidence that Budweiser commercials had more of a future than Dylan’s music:

‘”Silvio” suggests he has so little left of his style he couldn’t make a convincing Budweiser commercial–there’s more musical freedom in the average Budweiser commercial than there is here. Dylan’s music now has meaning only as neuroticism.”

Well, again that was 1986.  This is now. Dylan did have a hell of a past and now he still does, and a present and future.  A better would have done well to put money down on Dylan in 86 based on Dylan’s past, good sense even, “better use your sense.”

Maybe some of us would still rather hear this Budweiser tune than listen to “Silvio“:

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Interesting that “past” is not used by Dylan during his Christian phase. Perhaps he cut off his past so severely at this time that the word never came to mind, even in a rhyming way. The “past“/”fast” rhyme appears again in “If You See Her, Say Hello” and it helps convey regretting that time passes so fast:

Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast
If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not that hard to find
Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time

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Times spent in a relationship replayed movie style, movies of the mind, not out of mind, have that flash before your eyes effect, though it can cripple the present, that living in the past stuff.  It has a way of splitting the self–keeping one from being fully alive in the present.  Optima dies . . . prima fugit, writes Virgil, “In the lives of the mortals, the best days are the first to flee.”  This is the epigram Willa Cather used for My Antonia.  Better to let them go then, on their fleeting way, or they just might keep us too preoccupied with the past to be open to what occupies our present.

Robert Shelton senses a “sea-wave rhythm in the song.”  Memories can go like that, sea-wavy, trance inducing, smoke coming up on the screen.  Hard to resist the past when listening to this song:

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In “Tough Mama,” Bob throws “last” into the rhymes of “past” with “fast,” saving it for last in the third of five verses:

Sweet Goddess
Born of a blinding light and a changing wind
Now, don’t be modest, you know who you are and where you’ve been
Jack the Cowboy went up north
He’s buried in your past
The Lone Wolf went out drinking
That was over pretty fast
Sweet Goddess
Your perfect stranger’s comin’ in at last

I want to play (and this might be lamely done) with a little Christopher Ricks-like analysis here.  Under the study of “last” I blogged about this song’s White Goddess associations.  This verse may be the most direct reference to her.  In Chronicles, Dylan states, about the “poetic muse,” that he “[d]idn’t know enough to start trouble with it.” Well, maybe in 1974 he was ready to.  Be that as it may, Ricks comes in here because I want to look at that word “last.”  If that perfect stranger is Dylan himself “comin’ in at last,” maybe it is a statement of “I know this has taken awhile but I’m ready to invoke you now.”  Or maybe, he means check out the last verse where you’ll see me “comin in at last.”  The last verse is

I’m crestfallen
The world of illusion is at my door
I ain’t a-haulin’ any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore
The prison walls are crumblin’, there is no end in sight
I’ve gained some recognition but I lost my appetite
Dark Beauty
Meet me at the border late tonight

Yes, the meeting time is set.  Is this when Dylan finally decided it was time, at last, to have a tryst with the White Goddess?  Well, again, Blood on the Tracks was next.  Clearly, this meeting was a success if Blood on the Tracks is the payoff.

Want a glimpse of the White Goddess?  A version of her appears as Jadis, the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia:
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The laughter that begins “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sets the tone for the whole song.  It is a raucous, playful, “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” romp of a song. And they rhymes enhance the fun.  Robert Shelton in his entry on “115th” in No Direction Home, that Dylan’s “ear was always looking for the rhyme that would work, unsettle, and amuse.”  The “mast”/”past” rhyme in “115th” is one of those:
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Well, I got back and took
The parkin’ ticket off the mast
I was ripping it to shreds
When this coastguard boat went past

The rhyme standing by itself doesn’t tickle, you but when the rhyme hits, coming off the throes the image of a parking ticket on the mast of a ship, well, it’s all, as Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden’s pal, says, “good clean fun.”

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The laughter alone is worth listening to over and over again:

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The Times They Are A Changin” is all about breaking from the past and the last verse hits this message home with the “past“/”fast” rhyme taking the lead from “fast” leading the charge:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

I so admire Christopher Rick’s observation that “the refrain at the end of each verse is itself unchanging” . . . and so each time it is sung it sends the message that all things must change.  This song, as Ricks says, “Was not enlightenment dawning once and for all” . . . “the times are still a-changin” and always will be. The present now will always “later be past“–this is a song of hope–for a change for the better–for forward thinking for being “younger than that now” all the time.
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Ricks will not be relegated to the past . . . here’s a scholar not done with his changes:
https://i1.wp.com/digilib.bu.edu/blogs/mugarlib/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Ricks-Dylan-Chats-Fall-2012.jpg
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In Chronicles Dylan says, “Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change , but you can only feel it . . .  but you don’t know it in a purposeful way.”  Maybe this is why the farewell in “Restless Farewell” is a restless one.  The speaker is uneasy, agitated, regretful, but finger-pointing, insinuating in his targets.  The “fast”/”past” rhyme, maybe the first time Dylan used it, helps express the break to come, the need for change, the inevitability of it:
Oh ev’ry girl that ever I’ve touched
I did not do it harmfully
And ev’ry girl that ever I’ve hurt
I did not do it knowin’ly
But to remain as friends
And make amends
You need the time and stay behind
And since my feet are now fast
And point away from the past
I’ll bid farewell and be down the line

Robert Shelton says that “[t]ime is crucial in this song.”  Time to go, time to leave the past behind, time to move on, time to cut ties, time to make the break.
Dylan chose to sing this song at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday celebration, a restless farewell of sorts, to a man whose time was to come (he died at the age of 82).  Time goes by fast . . . the last time Dylan would sing this song live was near his own birthday, May 24, on May 21, 1998.  Birthdays are celebrations of our years.  “Restless Farewell” to them Dylan seems to be saying, so we can “point away from the past.”
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The World War that takes place in “Talkin World War III Blues” lasts about 15 minutes:
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Well, the whole thing started at 3 o’clock fast
It was all over by quarter past
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This is Dylan’s first and only use of the “fast”/”past” rhyme with “past” not meaning relating to a former time.  Still there it is again, a rhyme Dylan has used for over 40 years.
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Eric Bulson says there’s joking “around about commies, fallout shelters, and nuclear war” in the song, but feels that Dylan “was seriously trying to come to terms with a very real fear about America’s future.”
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In Chronicles, Dylan shares what he felt those fears can do to a child growing up in the midst of the threat of annihilation:  “Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit.”
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Maybe in 1950, William Faulkner had the spirit of children in mind when he wrote his Nobel prize speech, expressing hope for humanity even if we seem hell-bent on destroying ourselves:
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I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
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Here’s most of the speech:
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1 Comment

  1. otoole74@aol.com

     /  January 4, 2013

    Nice job once again!

    Ken

    Reply

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