Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen III: Dreams and Visions

This summer at Shalem College I am teaching a course entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I am posting key songs, texts, and comments from each of the eight sessions on this blog. Read about previous topics Creation Myths here and Masters and Teachers here

Masters and Teachers, Too
In comparing previously how Dylan and Cohen relate to the theme of masters and teachers in the previous conversation, an important difference emerged. Dylan identifies himself with a variety of teachers in his careerfrom Little Richard in his high school yearbook to John Lennon most recently in "Roll On, John. In the "Property of Jesus" period he is an adamant follower of a teacher and "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" stands as one of the great modern odes of praise of a disciple for a sage. 


Still, Dylan's most consistent commentary on discipleship follows the line of "Don't follow leaders/watch the parking meters." He pushes back on either "working on a guru" or being one. His greatest educator is the world, filtered to understanding and a kind of personal control through his work. As "Jokerman" says:

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
the law of the jungle 
and the sea are your only teachers

Leonard Cohen fervently seeks teachers—from early poet days of figures like Irving Layton to Roshi, master teacher of the Zen community in which Cohen has served on Mount Baldy. Closeness with teachers is one of Cohen's disciplines, honing his ability to simply, confidently, and humbly address the divine as a servant of a master in "Show Me the Place" and elsewhere.

Having touched on myths of origin and purpose as well as their perspectives on guides for their paths, it's time to turn to the heart of the mythic message Cohen and Dylan bring. First, visions and dreams.

American Dream
Dylan and Cohen are masters at showing society visions of what it does not want to see in itself. Though a Canadian by birth and a transient cosmopolitan by temperament, Cohen often has America on his mind, and compares favorably to Dylan, one of the most cogent social critics of America and society as a whole over the past half century. Both take on the myth of the American dream without reservation. 

There are many examples of this trope in the Dylan canon from which to chose. Consider "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." First fiddling with Melville's Moby Dick as Dylan plays bandit with Captain "Arab" at the beginning song, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" contains one of the funniest and cutting rock 'n' roll statements ever about the USA:

But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”

Dylan pokes at American myths of Moby Dick, the Mayflower, and Columbus in his dream. Everything is upside down. If not hypocrisy, then goofiness rules. A man in trouble has a door slammed in his face while an American flag flaps above him:

I said, “Could you help me out
I got some friends down the way”

The man says, “Get out of here

I’ll tear you limb from limb”

I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”

He said, “You’re not Him
Get out of here before I break your bones..."

America is bought and named for the price of a few beads and people call to "Ban the Bums" down on the Bowery. It's all a bit of a mess.


A few decades later in "Democracy," Cohen has an even sharper critique. Same hard knocks streets, same domestic lack of bliss, same religious duplicity:

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve 
and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


It is also the same mythic American ship (the wonderfully named "Ship of State") which Cohen urges to "sail on, sail on." Whether they are sailing towards another New World that makes more sense (after the old New World winds up going the way of the old Old World) or abandoning the world altogether, these twinned ballads envision a country that needs its myths challenged, shaken, resorted, and reimagined.

Prophetic Dream
Reimagining or recasting myth in prophetic language is precisely what Cohen does in "Anthem," urging this great ship forward. While the same "lawless crowd" remains in the captain's tower of society, there is a new image of power in the song. Cohen describes a universe where light, not shadow, is the natural state of being. Brokenness provides the opportunity for a singer to help people see it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.



Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" also drops the cynicism of "115th Dream" or "Democracy." If the holy dove is trapped and "bought and sold and bought again" in "Anthem," the pending storm Dylan forecasts is even darker, but the determination of the singer to make brokenness seen is stronger. "Anthem" speaks of a singer carrying the power of illumination which matches the power of a thundercloud; Dylan also sings of a poetic voice of almost otherworldly power calling out from the heart of the storm.

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall


Dylan and Cohen's prophetic voices  not only describe corruption, but match its raw power with a protesting voice demanding a change in direction of the Ship of State. Their power lies in the ability to see the world for what it is and what it is not and then to share this image. It is hard and brave work, and sometimes it becomes too much.

Dreaming the Self
Bob Dylan sings: 

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage...
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
With all of the powers Dylan and Cohen summon up in a thundercloud, part of their appeal, like any mythic figure, is their flaws. "Field Commander Cohen" allows Cohen to berate himself for his inability to live up to the commitment he made to be a protector of the codes in which he believes:

But many men are failing,
where you promised to stand guard.


For Dylan, judgement leads to a kind of disassociation from the world Maybe everything is imagined. Maybe he has missed the cues to emerge from an endless loop of dreams where no riddles are solved. "Series of Dreams" could sound like a nightmare for one who claimed a crystal clear vision of right and wrong. 

I was thinking of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it’s wounded
And comes to a permanent stop

It might be escapism, but it also might represent the reward of transcendence for one who pays a heavy price for all he has seen.

Mystic Dream
It is difficult to find a contemporary song that better matches steely-eyed vision of jagged reality with transcendence than "Visions of Johanna." This is where we landed at the end of thinking about a series of visions and dreams. 

In "Visions of Johanna," what you see is what you get. The world is grotesque as "the jelly faced women all sneeze" and gorgeous "as the country music plays soft;" the "jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule" in a flash of archetypes from other worlds that seem almost not to belong. And meanwhile, the glue that holds this wild mosaic of images together is loneliness "that Johanna's not here." Depth of feeling, echoes of old stories, resignation to see what is unpleasant combine in a song that "looks like the mirror"of the singer and the world all at once. 



Next Up: Gods and Angels, Battles and Journeys

1 comment:

אבינועם אדרי said...

Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" Reminded me of a Bertolt Brecht poem :

When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain (1935)

Like one who brings an important letter to the counter after office
hours: the counter is already closed.
Like one who seeks to warn the city of an impending flood, but speaks
another language. They do not understand him.
Like a beggar who knocks for the fifth time at the door where he has four
times been given something: the fifth time he is hungry.
Like one whose blood flows from a wound and who awaits the doctor:
his blood goes on flowing.
So do we come forward and report that evil has been done us.
The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered
there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But
when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the
butchery, a blanket of silence spread.

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, no body calls out 'stop!'
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings
become unendurable the cries are no longer heard.
The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.