Song and Dance Men: Dylan at 70

The old man enters the club and finds his place at a small table near the stage, taking a seat opposite an empty chair. He is short, wiry, and diminutive and a little absurd in his black embroidered cowboy shirt and dark pants. His thin face is sheltered by a wide-brimmed hat; beneath a long nose is etched a pencil mustache. The eyes, when they emerge from beneath the hat brim, are narrow and seem pressed into a semi-permanent squint; it might be tempting to call them sad, but for the way they swiftly and piercingly take in their surroundings. They dart to and fro through the club, noting the mostly empty tables and the waning daylight streaming in through a solitary window, before settling on the stage, where the evening’s first performer is ambling toward the microphone.

He is young, almost child-like, with round cheeks and curly close-cropped hair. Dressed in jeans and a coarse denim shirt, clutching a guitar with unclipped strings winding off the tuning pegs like whiskers, he might be mistaken for a roadside ragamuffin, but the grin gives him away, even more than those babyish cheeks do: a grin of knowing impetuousness, a charmer’s grin, a grin that knows luck is on its side, or fate or destiny or whatever you choose to call it. Yet how to account for the contrast between the puckish demeanor and the voice? How does someone barely distinguishable from the average small-town twenty-year-old — for it is apparent to the keen observer that the hardscrabble mannerisms are an affectation, given away with a subliminal wink — sing so forlornly, so emphatically and so unaffectedly of things he could never have experienced? The words he sings are infused with the morality and vision of an Old Testament prophet, strained through the vocabulary of an itinerant brakeman. He chides and insinuates and accuses and finally takes it all back onto himself: Ah, but I was so much older then. Always his voice prowls among the words like a hunter nosing for prey in the rocks, investigating dark corners, overturning and exposing hidden things, ignoring what lies in plain sight. It remakes old sayings and never utters the same word in the same way. Not a conventionally attractive instrument, but one that seems to say, Would I be saying these things, in this way, if they weren’t true?

This performer soon gives way to a new face — and the transformation is shocking. In place of the fresh-faced, Jimmie Rodgers-like troubadour now stands a dandified Mod in a tight-fitting striped suit, a wild nimbus of hair radiating from his head like sunbeams, his sallow face guarded by a pair of dark glasses. But the most noticeable transformation — before he starts to sing, that is — is the Fender Telecaster guitar slung high on his chest. He begins to pick at it tentatively, his long-nailed fingers not quite used to the guitar’s weight and action. From the shadows, he is joined by four other musicians, and this ensemble explodes into a roaring barroom blues, tough and loose and fearless, that batters the walls of the club. The gangly singer steps to the microphone and cuts loose in a voice like a police siren amplified through a Marshall stack; he howls, wails, croons, giggles, moans, an unfathomable conviction undergirding everything and holding it together. The words are as arresting as the voice — in fact, the words don’t seem as though they could be delivered any other way. There are torrents of imagery, as though a hundred years of newspaper headlines, shared memory and tall tales were compressed into some cultural singularity before bursting out again, coalescing into a fractalized landscape where Beethoven, Jack the Ripper and Ezra Pound rub elbows with gamblers, old widows, strutting commanders-in-chief and the unnamed lost and lonely. There is jarring silliness, surprising pathos and mystifying juxtapositions of time and place. And most piercing and memorable is a question, thrown out to the audience like an unanswerable taunt: How does it feel?

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The Next 30-Day Song Challenge

  1. A song you play solely to annoy your spouse
  2. A song you would want played at your disbarment hearing
  3. A song that makes you churlish
  4. A song that fills you with a nameless dread
  5. Your favorite sea-shanty or prison work song
  6. A song that comes to mind when you hear the word “concupiscent”
  7. Your favorite obscure song that you trot out to prove you were into a popular band way before anyone else
  8. A song you used to have as your answering machine greeting back in the Eighties
  9. A song that was forever ruined for you when you discovered your mother also liked it
  10. Your favorite song about architecture
  11. A song you would have wanted to hear in the last scene of The Sopranos other than “Don’t Stop Believing”
  12. A song you can no longer listen to after seeing its title tattooed on some douchebag’s arm in a sports bar
  13. Your favorite song by a band with three or more consecutive vowels in its name
  14. Your favorite song combining Phrygian modality with lyrics about fucking
  15. A bad song you were introduced to by someone who said, “it reminds me of you”
  16. A song you would like to take back in a time machine and play to Vlad the Impaler
  17. Your favorite song by a woman whom you suspect has some really hot piercings
  18. A song played by your cousin in his shitty bar band, the one that still plays “Sex on Fire” in every goddamn set
  19. A song you would use to corrupt a child
  20. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before she had kids
  21. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before he cut his hair
  22. A song you would sing to stave off madness while sealed in a sensory deprivation tank
  23. A song you would like to beat the shit out of someone to
  24. Your favorite song by an artist you dislike not for their music, but for their profound moral failings
  25. A song you would like to have the shit beaten out of you to
  26. A song you would play to clear a house infested with spiders
  27. A song that somehow sounds orange to you
  28. Your favorite song from a band you once pretended to like in an attempt to get laid
  29. A song you hated in your youth but which you have now come to like, and which now serves as a painful reminder of how adulthood has robbed you of everything that once made you vital and interesting
  30. A song you would like to freeze to death to

Airport Security — Solved. (Badly)

Security at the airport is annoying for a panoply of reasons. It’s woefully inefficient, funneling hundreds of people into a narrow pipeline of security stations, which guarantees long delays, missed flights and tremendous irritation. It wildly overreacts to any new botched and half-assed terrorism attempt — is there anyone who truly feels safer knowing his fellow passengers have had their shoes x-rayed? And of course, there is the increasingly invasive searches and surveillance technology, conducted by a bureaucracy that has been allowed to run unchecked and increasingly amok.

We know all these reasons. But there is another reason why airport security is annoying that I think has been overlooked: the anticlimax. Security screening consists of a wait of anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours or more, during which you are forbidden from relieving the tension by joking about the one subject — terrorism — that is on the mind of literally every single person there, which is rather like being forced to wait in an elephant paddock without mentioning the elephant. This is followed by a mad shuffle to dump purses, jackets and laptops into trays, take off shoes and demonstrate that your shampoo and conditioner can’t be used to blow a hole in the fuselage of the plane. All of these things are really only the preamble to the personal screening, in which you either pass through a metal detector or stand in front of a scatter x-ray machine before being summarily waved through.

That’s it?

The reason that this process seems so onerous is that we get nothing out of it — that our time appears to have been frivolously and blatantly wasted. It is hard to think of any routine activity in which so much waiting delivers such little payoff. Therefore, one idea for making security more tolerable and thus, perhaps, more effective is to give people more for their money, as it were. I have a few ideas on this score.

Make the Screening Longer

Yes, this is an insane idea, but given that our present system is so massively inefficient, making it nominally more so in the interests of passenger satisfaction makes some sense. If passengers felt that TSA personnel were really making a big deal out of them — or, if you like, really taking them seriously as a potential threat — they would probably find the process more fair and more justified. My ideas for expanding the screening process:

Personal interviews. Every passenger has to submit to a brief, two- to five-minute interview. These would include standard questions about the traveler’s destination and purpose of visit. The screener would then have the option of exchanging small talk with the traveler, perhaps comparing pictures of grandchildren and such, or of engaging them on the subjects of politics, economics and current events. Screeners could draw upon a list of prepared questions that appear designed to elicit potentially dangerous or subversive views but whose answers would, in fact, be completely ignored, their only purpose being to permit the traveler to express him or herself and to let them know they are taken seriously.

Actors. Airport security suffers from an inherent problem: its successes are invisible. Nobody ever sees a terrorist plot foiled or a suspicious passenger with no carry-on baggage summarily hauled away for questioning. Thus, the common perception is that airport security is a fiction, a charade put on solely to deliver the illusion of safety rather than the thing itself. Well, perhaps it is — and if it is, let’s make it a good illusion. Scattered randomly throughout the day at every major airport should be actors whose sole purpose is to pose as passengers, be “unmasked” as potential terrorists and swarmed by security personnel and then arrested, in as showy a manner as possible. There should be variety: while suspicious travelers will nervously eye the Middle Eastern men, a young, pregnant white woman should suddenly rip open her coat to reveal that she is wired head to toe with explosives, screaming that she’ll blow herself, her unborn baby and all the rest of these goddamn people to kingdom come unless someone gets her ex-husband on the phone RIGHT MOTHERFUCKING NOW. There would then occur the most spectacular display of security prowess as a (carefully rehearsed) crack team of agents wrestle the woman to the ground, disarm her and drag her, howling and shrieking like a hyena on fire, to the nearest holding cell. An agent will then return to assure people that everything was under control and that all were safe. You know what would probably happen then? The whole room would spontaneously break into applause.

A lot could be done with this idea. The TSA could stage foot chases, martial arts battles of a dozen or more combatants, and even mock shootings. You would walk through an airport en route to a flight knowing full well that anyone around was capable of doing literally anything. I don’t think this would make people terribly afraid, but it would make them more alert, and enforce the principle that security procedures are there for a reason.

Of course, these ideas only make a flawed system more tolerable, while actually increasing its cost and inefficiency. So, in the interest of a constructive debate, here are actual suggestions for improving airport security.

TSA On the Go

Have you ever been to an Apple store and noticed there are no cashier lines? Instead, hipsters in black t-shirts and carrying portable credit card readers roam the floor and conduct transactions on the spot, wherever you happen to be. This is how airport security should work. Rather than a thin, urethra-like line feeding a paltry security station, the screening area should be vast and open, with TSA screeners equipped with the latest metal detector wands and other portable scanning gear. They would proactively find travelers in the crowd, quickly check them over (no one’s taking off their fucking shoes, thank you very much) and issue them a signed and dated stamp indicating that they have cleared security and may enter the terminal. No one could board a plane without that stamp, and anyone failing the brief security sweep would be led to a more thorough station — in fact, the same station to which we foolishly submit every traveler today.

Appointments

Taking the Apple store menu even further, why not be able to make an appointment with a TSA screener? I don’t think this would be as efficient as the previous suggestion — waiting rooms always run late — but it couldn’t help but improve the current situation, and people would be in a better mood if they knew that a time and place had been set aside for them. And in fact, there’s nothing to say you couldn’t combine this suggestion with the previous one. Make the security experience more like the Apple store is basically the takeaway here.

You know, on second thought, I’d really rather have the actors.

Tasting Notes of the Fall Meeting of the Northwest Illinois Scotch Whisky Society

Glen Brae 9 Year-Old

A peaty, smoky, slightly caramel nose gives way to discordant tones of apple, clove, cedar, and introspection. While some of the members present were delighted by its lightness and busy frivolity, your Secretary found it a disquieting dram, apt to give one thoughts of licking an exposed chair in a bus station, or happening upon a nude self-portrait one had no memory of ever taking.

Redpinnock 15 Year Diabolic Reserve

This notorious Speyside malt rarely makes its way overseas, and the Society was truly privileged to be able to sample it this summer. Does this whisky — distilled in casks lined with human skulls, tended to perfection by a master distiller who is rumored to be over 200 years old and completely mad — live up to its reputation? And how! A nose of peat, gravel, rainwater and bone scarcely prepares you for an explosive palette of oak, cherry, blood and iron, leveling off with a strong note of human fear. I don’t mind revealing that this whisky had an extraordinary effect on those in attendance: Mr. Rossini found himself reliving a harrowing childhood incident involving his Boy Scout troop, while Ms. Kreisler began to spontaneously recite what the members eventually identified as the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood,” a work she claims to have neither read nor heard of before.

Drumnadrochit Single-Cask 12 Year-Old

Despite some tantalizing rumors from our brother chapter across the pond, this is not a whisky at all, but an expression of untempered seawater larded with plant detritus and industrial refuse and allowed to mature, if that is the word, in a “cask” formerly used in the recycling of diesel oil. Further examination determined that the label was printed on an ordinary desktop printer, and that the signature it bore gave a clue to its true provenance. We salute the members of our Edinburgh chapter for another hearty jest at our expense. Such members, being devoid of ordinary human feeling, will no doubt delight to hear that Mr. Evans became violently ill after sampling this libation and was later found to have ingested a nearly invisible plastic filament that became entangled in his lower intestine. We wish Mr. Evans a speedy recovery and hope he is discharged from the hospital in time for next season’s tasting. We wish our Edinburgh brothers and sisters slow, lingering deaths.

Weesleekit Cask Strength (No age statement)

This unassumingly named, and now exceedingly rare, Eastern Highland malt packs quite a “wallop” — as the whisky world learned to its horror last spring, when a stray spark in the bottling plant set off an explosion that demolished more than half of the distillery and claimed dozens of lives. It will be the better part of a decade before the distillery is rebuilt and once again bottling; until that day, savor every drop of this pale, bold, exceedingly powerful dram. A nose of smoke, butane and lots of alcohol sets the stage for a taste that makes up for its complete lack of subtlety with a memorable attack across the palate. As this whisky numbs the tongue within seconds and renders all but the hardiest connoisseurs insensate with drunkenness, it made an ideal conclusion for the evening, which soon gave way to an exuberant revelry rarely to be found at our gatherings. Those photos of the event suitable for public viewing may be found posted to the Society’s website.

Hannoch 18 year-old; Glen Skye Masters Choice 14-year Reserve; Bogmannon Sherry Oak 10 year-old; Windex cleaning solvent (no age statement); Diet Rite Cola (canned September 2009); Dasani bottled water (expires February 2012)

Empty bottles of the above libations were discovered in the morning following the members’ enjoyment of the Weesleekit Cask Strength; however, as no member can recall consuming them, a report on their merits will have to wait for a future tasting.

Tambourine Satisfaction

I could have written “Satisfaction,” but you cats couldn’t have written “Tambourine Man.”
– Bob Dylan, to Keith Richards (allegedly)

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
By Bob Dylan

Driving my broke-down ambulance down Highway 9
Johnny with a bullet wound strapped in behind
The preacher on the radio asked me for the time
And directions to your carnival attraction

The newspaper reporter came down from Bootblack Hill
Said “How’m I supposed to tell any of these Jacks from Jill?”
Then passed me an empty jug and said “Buddy, drink your fill;
Before I have to go and file this retraction”

Oh, I can’t get no satisfaction
No I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try to get you to sign up for any kind of reaction
Oh I just can’t get no satisfaction

When you poured the wine and said “Let me get this right
And tell me how that shirt you’re wearin’ could be so white”
And I told you every shirt’s the same color at night
And you turned so fast I couldn’t see your reaction

Nancy on the shore bidding her sailor goodbye
Came back home to find no one had ever told her why
A sailor would just as soon kick dirt in your eye
As he ever would confess his attraction

I can’t get no satisfaction
I just can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try to get you to sign up for any kind of reaction
Oh I just can’t get no satisfaction

The regimental chief on his way back to the ball
Talked me into giving up my peg and my awl
Gave me a card that said “For a good time, call”
Then ran off to join the rest of his faction

We were throwing dice with a nine-toed freak
Who explained he’d need to see me later that week
“You see, Bob,” he said, “I’m on a losing streak
And the judge, he sent me down for another infraction”

Yes, I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
Because I try and I try to get you to sign up for any kind of reaction
Oh I just can’t get no satisfaction

I woke up in the parlor of Widow Casey Jones
Who gave me a blanket for my back and whiskey for my bones
Took my biscuit roller and traded it for a bag of precious stones
Then went to visit the minister, all laid up in traction

I went to the Union Hall to redeem my ball and chain
And sign the papers to keep you out of the rain
I hung my coat above a portrait of Calamity Jane
And headed out to join the chain reaction

Oh, I can’t get no satisfaction
No I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try to to get you to sign on the dotted line
For any kind of reaction
Oh I just can’t get no satisfaction

***

Mr. Tambourine Man
By Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Let the chips fall where they may, my dear
Because I can go all night
The reason is a friend of mine
Standing there beneath the light

He’s a gentleman of grace and class
And blood beneath his nails
He reads the secrets scratched upon
Your scabby needle trail

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Shake that wheel for me
I’m not sleeping, and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Cop a feel with me
In the haze of a drum-skin morning
I’ll keep it tight with you

You strolled in here, a bitch in heat
With Leather Jackie on your arm
And you ditched him in thirty seconds flat
Before he kept you safe from harm

You came aboard the swirling ship
A tar eager to please
Your hands too numb to grasp the rope
That kept you on your knees

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Shake that wheel for me
I’m not sleeping, and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Dance this reel with me
In the haze of a drum-skin morning
I’ll keep it tight with you

You’re ready to go anywhere
You’re willing to be lead
They way you lead those ragged clowns
By their tiny little heads

So stand up tall, my wilted rose
For a gentleman with flair
He’ll blow the leaves right off your bed
And leave a smoke ring in the air

He’ll take the diamonds from your sky
And set them on your dainty wrist
Your weariness becomes his mill
Your love will be the grist

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Shake that wheel for me
I’m not sleeping, and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man
Crack a seal with me
In the haze of a drum-skin morning
I’ll make it right with you

13 Writing Prompts

1.

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

2.

Write a short scene set at a lake, with trees and shit. Throw some birds in there, too.

3.

Choose your favorite historical figure and imagine if he/she had been led to greatness by the promptings of an invisible imp living behind his or her right ear. Write a story from the point of view of this creature. Where did it come from? What are its goals? Use research to make your story as accurate as possible.

4.

Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.

5.

A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.

6.

Imagine if your favorite character from 19th-century fiction had been born without thumbs. Then write a short story about them winning the lottery.

7.

Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a tin bucket.

8.

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

9.

Think of the most important secret your best friend has ever entrusted you with. Write a story in which you reveal it to everyone. Write it again from the point of view of your friend. Does she want to kill you? How does she imagine doing it? Would she use a gun, or something crueler and more savage, like a baseball bat with nails in it?

10.

Popular music is often a good source of writing inspiration. Rewrite Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” as a play.

11.

Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.

12.

Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

13.

A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.

Originally published on McSweeneys.net.