Across My Big Brass Bed
Copyright © by Don Moss, 6/19/04
The genius of
B. Dylan that so many, usually, guys, claim, particularly boomers, has always
left me wondering where they were during English class, or if they still show
people their high school letter in football or track, that sort of thing.
A little background: Did I grow up a Dylan fan? Yes, I even heard him live fairly early on for a Virginia farm kid. I saw him perform in a modest hall in Washington, DC in the winter of, I think, 1965. I had ridden my Harley Sportster (they were cheap back then) from Richmond to DC in about 18 degree weather for the show. I didn’t stop noticeably shivering until halfway through the performance, when the electric stuff began! I was the perfect fan, an 18-year old male stupid. That was near the time that Dylan broke out of the very limited folk acoustic mode and, half of each show, “went electric,” much to the protest of folkie purists. I think he introduced his folk-rock thing at Newport, and I assure all readers that I was never a folkie purest. In fact, a guitar with no wire leading to an amp, preferably a pretty big one, put me to sleep then.
I bought his albums, from the first one “Bob Dylan,” through “Blonde on Blonde”. I listened to them about as often as Muslims are called to prayer. Because I thought they were great poetry? No, what the hell was poetry? I listened to them because Dylan made me pay attention to language for nearly the first time, particularly as language might be stacked in a 7,312 verse tune—“Tambourine Man” comes to mind. “Hound Dog” and “Rock Around the Clock” didn’t rock much with words, and, God knows, nothing by Herman’s Hermits or the Beach Boys.
There was also the Dylan image, which clashed with the earnest folk image about as diametrically as Miles Davis’s ennui did to everything Louie Armstrong. Dylan taught many a boy how to feel like an outsider, a highly popular, though not much needed, attitude refinement for boys in their teens and early 20s during the middle of the 1960s. Boys in this age range, by in large, are natural outsiders, so nearly any old Dylan served, and popular culture supplies no shortage of Dylan’s for this purpose.
Less than a year after seeing Dylan perform in DC, I saw him again at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia, and this time, I somehow got up and behind the stage during part of the show to experience his Afro’d hair explode in the glare of several spotlights. I saw the power in that white, Midwestern, Jew, whose every nasal shout was in red letters, words of a new messiah.
Soon I was in the Navy, first boot camp, then a school in San Diego, and then two years in Hawaii at Sub Base Pearl Harbor. My Dylan albums came alone for the longer Hawaii stay. During those years I attended many of the coffee shops (no, years before Starbucks, and years before countless dyke coffee shop keepers) that strategically opened next to the main gates of military bases. These places never made money and were openly anti-war-folksy, with every would-be B. Dylan and P. Simon destroying their heroes’ tunes, hour after caffeinated hour.
As if assigned to the task by the USN, I “turned on” quite a few people to Dylan, by playing and loaning guys his records. Not long before the end of my tour, I was collecting my few belongings and discovered that someone had stolen every one of my prized, but rather worn, Dylan LP’s. I thought I had loaned them to a guy at the torpedo shop, but I don’t remember being angry. Instead, I vaguely remember feeling some sort of relief. It was one more thing I didn’t have to lug back to the mainland, and they were, though I couldn’t have said why, something I’d given enough of my life.
A little background on this: Albums and the people whose tunes they imprison live rather static lives. Of course, the first couple hundred times I listed to Dylan’s LP’s I listened intently. I studied them, thought I followed their logic and evolution, but a good, or in my case, high C student, learns and is ready to move forward, at least move off somewhere else. I had reached, after about four years of Dylan listening, my full adult height, and he may have expanded my mind a little too, but I had taken several classes at the University of Hawaii, and unlike high school, actually paid attention to the material. Though a dropout from the University of Minnesota, Dylan had taught me about paying attention, but I still didn’t know much about poetry, and, arguably, don’t yet. But I was ready for more challenges than I found in those old words of Dylan that were pressed into plastic, words that he always sang just the same way. I had come to suspect that if words couldn’t fend for themselves without guitar, even electric guitar, that they weren’t quite so interesting.
Let me save the brighter readers of this scrawl the trouble of writing that I’m comparing apples to some other fruit. I know that songs and printed poetry are not in competition, that there are many terrific songs that don’t read very well at all in monotone, and that many great printed poems are barely readable at all, much less something that could be sung. What I’m describing is my relationship to, or, better, my need to fire Dylan as my English schoolmarm.
In 9/11 hindsight, a current rang among haters of a certain unnamed president, I “knew,” even before my albums were stolen, that I had had it with my one successful teacher. The kleptomania of some Navy “pal” simply helped me break away. This is a topic for some other essay, perhaps, but in hindsight I see that I was fast approaching a need to cut away from all such teachers, such gurus. There might be a way that Dylan taught me that too, but Dylan as popular artist wants to sell millions of records, or CD’s, or whatever the proper term is now, so the fewer real outsiders he creates the better for his bank account. Oh, but how could I bring in that Moloch of capitalism when talking about Robert Zimmerman Dylan? Well, for those of you who actually feel that my words are some sort of sacrilege, take an extra Prozac as soon as you finish this, go online and chat with old pals through Classmates.com. Go ahead, put on “Lay Lady Lay,” have your cake and eat it, too.
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