Sunday, June 11, 2006

Voices in My Attic: No. 1

I have been a Dylan fan since 1963. Despite his gruff and raspy voice, I find many of his songs to be extraordinary. I marvel at his ability to string words together in lyrical, tuneful, epical strands. So naturally, I was delighted to discover that he was ranked the # 1 songwriter of the 20th century by Paste Magazine.

Next to the article about Dylan in the magazine, I found a five page memoir by a Tennessee novelist named William Gay titled The Man in the Attic. The man in Gay's "attic" is Bob Dylan, and his memoir relates Gay's relationship with Dylan, a man he has never met, but whose lyrics and melodies reside in his mind, triggering memories spanning forty years.

Gay's story got me to thinking about the voices in my "attic," and so I thought I would take a shot at writing about them. You are reading the first installment.

There are numerous voices residing in my attic. Some occupy tiny rooms and some live in well equipped suites.

I will start with Bob Dylan for two reasons: 1) Gay's article about him inspired me to think about my own attic's voices, and since Dylan surely has been a major one, I will start there. 2) Dylan is undoubtedly the first person to really get me thinking about ideas, philosophies, and worldviews.

Dylan occupies one of the larger rooms in my attic. He probably lives in one of the suites, although not the largest suite. I think that one is reserved for Moses.

Moses? Why wouldn't the largest suite in my attic belong to Jesus? Because Jesus dwells in my heart, not my mind. I have offered Him the position of King, and as much room as I am able to give Him from day to day, He occupies.

O.K. Back to Paste Magazine's # 1 songwriter of the 20th century, and my own relationship with him.

As I said above, Bob Dylan walked into my life in the early 1960's. I was just coming into my teen years, and like most teens, beginning to explore the world outside of my family, my neighborhood, and my close circle of friends.

NASA was putting astronauts into space, and my father, who at the time worked for the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission, was somehow rubbing shoulders with guys who worked there. He would often bring home posters for me which depicted artist's conceptions of space stations and futuristic space craft. Many of these concepts were wild, looking like something out of a science fiction movie. But they were actually drawn and painted by NASA artists and engineers, as they imagined possibilities of the future.

This was the decade space exploration began in earnest. We began by shooting Alan Shephard into space, and followed by placing John Glenn into orbit around our globe. By 1969, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon.

Television now brought us news from around the planet, from far away places, and from all across America. We watched John Kennedy's heartbreaking funeral procession, his casket carried on a caisson, boots turned backwards in their stirrups, and his young son John-John saluting his father while standing next to his veiled, widowed mother.

Earlier that year we watched as Washington D.C.'s mall swelled with over 200,000 civil rights protestors, and Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his legendary "I have a dream" speech. The "British Invasion" took place just months later as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and countless other British rock bands crossed the Atlantic and filled coliseums and auditoriums with their wild, revolutionary music. Teenage girls swooned and screamed as these mop-haired musicians swept onto the music scene, dominating the airwaves in just a few, short months.

As a coming-of-age young man, my head spun with the lightning-fast changes sweeping the nation. The artwork from NASA along with their successful space program, and the television news and imagery carried me toward thinking about my world on a global scale.

We didn't understand it yet, but America was in the throes of a watershed decade carrying away our national innocence. Generations of black anger over past-done deeds and yet-to-be-righted wrongs broke through the surface of America's cultural landscape and spilled over into our national conscience. Young people, rejecting the materialism and traditions of their parents and grandparents, donned tie-dyed tee-shirts and sandals, set up communes, and began to practice "free love." Boys and men alike stopped going to the barber as their hair cascaded across their shoulders and beyond. Their faces ceased to feel the razor's touch.

These were revolutionary times.

Into that world, Bob Dylan's lyrical and tuneful songs became a plumb-line of sorts for a generation seeking meaning. He wrote and sang of Masters of War, of how The Times They are A-Changin', and how the answers we sought were Blowin' in the Wind.

Though raised a Lutheran and actively involved in church activities, I had yet to meet the living Christ, the One who transforms us with the new birth. Catechized, able to come to the Lord's Table, and even serving as one of the church's acolytes for Sunday services, I still groped in the dark to understand who I was and what I was meant to be and do.

In Catechism class, I met Helmut Thielicke through his classic work, I Believe. He, with the assistance of my pastor, Norman Minich, had introduced me to the Christian creeds. I knew the creeds and what they stated, but I did not yet know Him of Whom the creeds spoke. Both of these men still occupy tiny rooms in my attic, and on very rare occasions, I hear a footfall or two across the attic floor, or the creak of an old chair.

Dylan's footsteps however, are heard with a good degree of regularity.

Some might think it odd that a Christian would grant more room in his attic to someone like Bob Dylan, than a former pastor. I have had many pastors over the years, and some have bigger rooms than others. My intent here is not to demean or diminish any of them, but rather to speak honestly. Dylan's was the first voice I heard that helped me to see the larger world, to ponder and to question ideas and philosophies. I met Dylan before I met Jesus Christ. And although many of Christ's faithful followers have large rooms—even suites—in my attic, Dylan clearly took up residence there first, aside from my father and mother of course.

The lyrical imagery found in Dylan's music stirred the mind and passions of this young man. Consider these provocative words from Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall found on his The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album (his second-1963):

"... Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one? ...
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',"

or these words from the same song:

"... Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one? ...
I met a white man who walked a black dog ..."

Can there be any doubt as to Dylan's meaning? At the time of this album's release, the civil rights movement had kicked into high gear. Young, black Emmett Till had been murdered in Mississippi. A lonesome, 51 year-old black woman named Hattie Carroll, waiting tables in a Baltimore hotel, had been caned to death by a drunken patron early in 1963. And two blacks had been murdered in the town of Oxford, Mississippi when black student James Meredith attempted to attend college at the State University located there.

What did Dylan project would come of this pattern of violence toward blacks in America?

"... 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..."

The "blue-eyed son" would do more than just see and hear and meet. Stirred by his observations, he would also act:

"... Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
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 ...
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'..."

The "blue-eyed son" had seen and heard. Now he would go out and speak, warning the hearers of the hard rain that's coming.

Two or three years before I entered into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, these words penned by Dylan resonated deep in my soul. It was as if God had begun to set the stage for what He knew was coming. I was to be a messenger one day, one who would speak the Word of God. Barely a teenager, I did not yet grasp the depth nor substance of the message, but through Dylan I was being prepared somehow to hear the call of God. I could not yet define it, but an ache had formed within me—an ache for truth.

Dylan has been rumbling around in my attic ever since. For his 1989 release, Oh Mercy, Dylan penned these words found in Ring Them Bells:

"Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams,
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams,
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world's on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride ..."

Click here to listen to a clip from the stanza above.

I don't of course endorse everything that Dylan has written. Nor do I endorse his lifestyle and personal choices. I only know that his music touched and continues to touch something in me. I could write an entire book, maybe two, about the lyrics and imagery found in Dylan's music. He writes of wars and rumors of wars, of love, found and lost, of laying down our "weary tune" and resting, of our desire to be "forever young," and oh so much more. His music touches on nearly every aspect of life in our culture. His work is expansive, his message and impact profound.

Bob Dylan is unquestionably the poet of our generation. And poets are often prophets, speaking of things to come, or of the consequence of continuing down the path we are already on.

Many are put off by Dylan's gravely voice, and cannot get beyond that stumbling block to discover what's beyond. Sadly, I have no one in my close circle of friends who share my love of Dylan and his music.

Still, he remains a significant voice in my attic.

2 Comments:

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Mary Yerkes said...

Mark,

Loved your post! What a great concept--voices in the attic.

Very well done.

 
At 3:01 PM, Blogger Dave Lambert said...

How wrong you are--Dylan's in my attic, too! I still have the Freewheelin' album and those songs continue to resonate in me as well.

 

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