I have long liked Dylan's song, Mr. Tambourine Man, in particular the Royal Albert Hall recording of it, which, I heard an ethereal echo of it drifting out the windows of a car in the underground parking lot as I was leaving a Dylan show at Foxwood's MGM Grand several years ago. And I've always been partial to that particular version of the song, mostly because (I think) it has that long, extended harmonica riff that is haunting and ethereal - an echo that tells of charms and portents.
So, yes, I always did like the song but on that night - that night at Foxwoods MGM Grand and leaving the parking lot and hearing the echo in the late late summer-early Autumn night then at that moment something deeper sank in. Perhaps because I was following in another car (so I promised to go under the spell) as if being led somehow. And I dutifully followed, although it was night - late night - after midnight. Does this count as a jingle-jangle morning?
It could be the lines, that then I understood them then, just as I understood now (if not better now), how your weariness can amaze you. I was branded on my feet. I realized then that for so long I was, had been, weary - branded on my feet and the ancient empty street was just too dead for dreaming anymore. I don't know when that switchover happened, but it sunk in that night that this much was all too true. "My senses have been stripped / My hands can't feel to grip."
How did I get there? I couldn't retrace the steps. You just sometimes find yourself in this place where the trees are "haunted" and "frightened" and despite your incredible fatigue, you know that you will in the jingle jangle morning come following because really, what choice do you have? What options are there left for you when you are in that place?
The jingle jangle morning irresistibly pulls you along and you are ready to go on that magic swirling' ship and for Mr. Tambourine Man to "cast his dancing spell (your) way" and you not only will follow, it's more than this - as Dylan emphasizes without over-singing it, you promise to go under it. It is a promise to go under a spell. There's no maybe. There's no "perhaps" about it - it is so absolute that it could even border on the defiant. A turning your back on everything else to follow this spell. Maybe this is what you do when you are this weary - you take an oath, you cross yourself, and you promise to go under it. There is a certain freedom in that in that it takes the onus off of you and you are held in the sway of someone else. How that appeals to the weary. You will fall under the spell, fade into your own parade and say goodbye to all memory and fate - at least until tomorrow (note that tomorrow never comes - not only in song, but in real life - it's a construct we always seem to forget. Elusive slippery tomorrows...).
You will get beyond the haunted frightened trees if you do follow and you will find yourself upon the windy beach "far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow." It is there and in that place where you can "dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free". There you are silhouetted by the sea, "with one hand waving free" and in that place, again, all memory and fate just vanish. You have conquered by falling under the spell (or it has conquered you or maybe it itself is fated.) Either way, you are free at long last. Such a relief to the weary, as I said. Even if it is merely a conceit (because perhaps ultimately we cannot escape fate or Fate), perhaps then we have to ask ourselves, is this then our Fate? The scene Dylan describes - is that our Fate after all, to drive all memory (and with it perhaps a great deal of pain) deep beneath the waves far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Such a promising promise! It is absolutely a place where I, anyway, wanted (and want perhaps) to be. A diamond sky that glimmers clear; not the thick cumulus purple bruised sky that hangs so heavily over my head all too often. Instead he offers a cotton-wool sky that frees rather than suffocates; the clarity of a diamond.
I try to sort out what was going on then - why was I so weary - what had branded me on my feet. I had been churning out articles at a fast clip which was all to the good and many (if not most) of them were Dylan related. I made regular trips to New York and met with some people and had some interesting conversations, but still there I was branded on my feet.
That weariness was an emotional branding. Something happened that summer - something so difficult to write about but when writing pieces that are memoir you make a promise not to hold back, even the nasty icky stuff that is you, or the stuff that happened to you. Both are important. Yet this delving of the self, all of this emotional spelunking is tiresome not simply to you, but you wonder, is sit tiresome for the reader too and this brings with it doubt and self-doubt is never a good thing. This too can brand and sear. It burns and churns at the insides.
My guess is that Dylan probably grew up with the sound of a distant freight train and that perhaps he heard these sounds as he drifted off to sleep. I don't know. When my grandparents moved to the U.S. their property backed the Long Island Rail Road and I often fell asleep to the doppler sound of the train whistle, which I likewise found comforting and soothing. It was but a part of the background of what was a happy time in my life. Perhaps Dylan and I share that seem feeling of drifting off to sleep to that sound - somewhat melancholy, yet promising at the same time. I can't think of any other musician (though surely there is someone, but not one I can think of) who can effect and capture that ghostly, ethereal sound of a passing train such that you feel yourself carried along with it. Springsteen captures it a bit with "I'm On Fire" but I think only in the one song and I can think of no other artist who captures it as regularly as Dylan and with that harmonica sound so perfectly, so right on that I am right back in that place again. Safe where I belong, it seems to me.
For me, I realize now retrospectively that there is something so seductive about the whole stanza:
Though you might hear laughing', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing'
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind
It's just a shadow you're seein' that he's chasing.
He was the "ragged clown behind" and perhaps he, like me, was just "escapin' on the run". I should not have paid it any mind - and Dylan's advice is sound. "It's just a shadow you're seein' that he's chasing." He was a shadow on that summer, a shadow of the past, escaping, on the run, and I too was on the run from my feelings but there was freedom offered in Mr. Tambourine Man, an echo of "Don't Look Back."
The over eight-minute performance of the song, which is nicely captured by D.A. Pennebaker in the film Eat the Document, shows a large gathering of people outside of the hall, all gathered in the late afternoon (it looks to be autumn, or late summer) and they stand there crammed together - literally hundreds of fans - yet there is silence among them. The only sound is Dylan's voice echoing out from the hall and around all the bricks. It is absolutely a haunting scene (the song itself is haunting, but the scene in ETD with the fans standing around is simply amazing for that many people to keep silent). If the jingle-jangle morning is conveyed in sound, surely this is it as the crowd seems mesmerized by the slip and slide of Dylan's harmonica.
I spent my time then, much as I do now, solitary and alone. Some, many, would say, too isolated and I could not disagree with this assessment. I must like it that way for I choose it daily (for better or worse). Likewise, there is something solitary about "Mr. Tambourine Man" and perhaps this is another reason why it appeals. You find yourself utterly alone and in need of escape. Your only companion as it were is the Tambourine Man himself who really may or may not see you but you certainly see and hear him. You follow, you promise, and so it is. You are under his spell. My mind was overly engaged (between the whole New York - mad situation, which was painful and joyful all at once). How that diamond sky with one arm waving free (unfettered) offered that elusive (and sometimes dangerous thing) we call "Hope." I wanted to be back on the summer Slip 'N Slide of my youth with all that it had to offer on the front lawn, unafraid and following fearlessly. I wanted to find my "power animal" like in Fight Club and it would perhaps be a penguin and I would "slide" fearlessly in my cave…
I was listening to "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" and the two in some ways seem to jibe for both are pieces that reflect hope in some way in desperate situations. Both are about journeys of some kind: either a flight of intellect and spirit or a literal following or both. In "Last Thoughts On Woody" Dylan references the Grand Canyon - here it is the beach and the diamond sky. In both there is escape in places of splendor and there is hope to be found in both. Fate may be fate, it may have led Woody to the awful place where Dylan found him when he first went to New York (or in New Jersey, where he actually found him, and was shocked to see him in such a place) yet he also found hope there: in some way he managed to see some thing positive in all that was so very, or seemed so to Dylan (and perhaps in fact was, as Dylan describes it, negative.
I look on it now and at myself at the time - my shyness, reclusiveness, and wonder if these two pieces reinforce those qualities of mine. That desire to hide out but at the same time a strong desire to cut loose and light out for something greater. This takes courage - to look at the situation for what it is, awful as it is or may be (like Woody's situation) or to be so weary, so branded and yet…. and yet…. To want to slide…
Both pieces coax the listener gently out of his/her shell. Or they are an invitation to "come with" even if that invitation is not accepted. In some ways perhaps it is a bit of a dare: Do you believe me, he seems to be saying? Are you bold enough to follow, fall under a spell for the promise of…. and then you have the rest of the song with all that it promises. Each says Basta! in some way to the present situation and let's move on now. Take your chances, go under the spell, leave the ragged clown behind and come with me and live! As for hope, my old friend and author Hans Koning used to say, "When there is no hope, you just do."
I may be ready for to fade, but it is into my own parade. There is something definitively celebratory about that. You are no longer just hoping: you are doing something active - following, coming, heading somewhere and leaving the past behind. Time to move on and find hope elsewhere.
This is your Fate.
Good advice; easier said than done when one is feeling hope-less. As Dylan has said, "You can't win with a losing hand" which I'll counter with C.S. Lewis who said about life, "You play the hand you're dealt: in the end, I still think the game's worthwhile." And I do: I still think the game is worthwhile, no matter what my hand (and truthfully, none of us know what hand we hold for it is always changing: it is mercurial and that is the nature of life - sometimes you hold a winning hand and you don't even know it.) The converse is also true. I'm not sure we always know which is why the words of C.S. Lewis are so very profound - because no matter what, you play the hand you are dealt. What choice do you have? It's that or fold and folding is not an option that I really want to take. Folding is suicide and that is not a viable option, or it is if you study the ancient Greeks in some ways of thought but not to my mind. Not at this juncture and I hope never.
And so it makes sense that these two pieces of Dylan's would resonate with me. I need hope and I need it bad. Life is not a game of competitive misery. We have our demons, our trials, tribulations … name it all - we are not as unique as we like to think in this regard. Pain is pain is pain and we have all felt it and we all will, I guarantee, feel it again. The only difference truly is Hope. Will we feel hope again or will we turn our back on it, this is the question. Will you choose a live that is hope-LESS or will you determine that there is hope for you? Without hope, there seems little point.
This is not to say that for those years - perhaps three maybe more - I did not sink into my own misery. I did. I wallowed. I rolled. I sank deeper and deeper and no, this is not something I am proud of. It just was. But it was not, on reflection, misery so much as it was a full retreat into the self - a hermetic existence in which I sealed others out such that one person perhaps could get in - Mr. Tambourine Man and why. Again, because he offered and offers that hope in the most desperate of times.
I can't analyze Dylan's lyrics and say he definitively means this or that: I'll leave that to others who are likely far better at it than I, and more, that has never been my intent. My intent is simply to tell you what his music has been and is to me and has been and why it resonated and still does. It will always offer me some freedom, some escape from the past that is haunting me - "far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow" which is exactly where I want to be. Dancing beneath the diamond sky ----- with both arms waving free, but I'll take the one that he offers.
I'll take that….I'll take it as it comes. But more, something for the future, and that is where we follow that jingle-jangle sound.