Living in the Time of Dylan

So Bob Dylan releases a new song. It’s nearly 17 minutes long and rides off the assassination of JFK. And yet it seems to be about something holy and sad, an elegy for the times themselves, the death of America. Dylan sings up his life and loves and world – old news headlines, Wolfman Jack, Charlie Parker, songs like ‘Cry Me a River’ and ‘Nature Boy’, Houdini, the highway – across some loose piano while his band sounds as if it is inventing a song around him like a shimmer.

Music is such a mysterious thing. And Dylan can certainly weave mysterious stories into song. It brings some deep emotion into me, so contrary… that happy-sad feeling great art can ignite. All the push and pull of one’s feelings as they roll.

Everywhere I look in these COVID-19 times I see anxiety, fear, selfishness, stupidity. I see the pay-off for being such a selfish, greedy, imbalanced society that forgot its weak and poor. Compassion is not just a thing for bleeding hearts, you know. It’s wisdom. It’s a part of being a fully evolved human being in a fully evolved society. We are learning that the hard way now. Undoubtedly we will pay a dark and heavy price.

But I also see people with a suddenly fresh kindness and generosity, acting in the world as best they can. The small gestures of a smile, or a friendly comment in the street. A lace of humour as you grab some plastic bags and use them as gloves to hold a shopping trolley. The people at the café thanking you for being a regular, as if today might be the last time. A woman with her 9-year-old son, bringing in his chocolate brownies, meant for a birthday he can’t have – ‘social distancing’ – to give to a food pantry for people in need. 

Kindness is everywhere. It makes us powerful again, not weak and alone. How did we forget it?

As people have to close down and retreat to their houses and a disease ravages the world, a lot of giving is happening. It is actual – and it is also spiritual and human. Feelings shared. Grace notes that might get forgotten, or never said again, so better say them now. Last will and testaments, if you like, in little more than a surprise phone call, or a ‘remember when’ anecdote, a ‘hey stay safe’ message.

The artists are coming out in force behind this. Whether it’s Dylan with ‘Murder Most Foul’ or Bono at home in Ireland, at his piano, sketching away ‘Let Your Love Be Known’ on YouTube, a song about Italy and love and singing itself. Poets are sharing their poems on Facebook, buskers visiting a food relief line to raise morale and soften nerves, photographers are creating their shining paens to empty streets where people once walked freely… this giving is growing, a kind of wake for how we were, and can be again.

So I am writing this story and listening to a 17-minute song that rains down Bob Dylan’s back pages of history upon me. And somehow my present rises up with his words and images and references, entwining like some kind of ghost dance in my heart. 

After listening to ‘Murder Most Foul”, I believe we are in the Time of Dylan as much as the Time of COVID-19, and that maybe the former will be remembered as much as the latter. I believe in the creativity of a figurehead like him and many others as much as the virus. We have talked forever of Shakespeare, but rarely of the Bubonic Plague till now… one man’s creativity much remembered, a terrible disease long gone from our imaginations. 

Great music and painting and writing and pictures are being made for our time, and the greatness of the past is coming to help us through too. We can access all  that art and writing and music, from then and now. It’s like Dylan says at the start of his song, it’s “a good day to be living and a good day to die.” Stay brave, do your best, keep our best alive.

– Mark Mordue

Painting by Bob Dylan – ‘Endless Highway 3, 2015–2016

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg