How can I explain?
I pick up a copy of Art Ops #1, by Shaun Simon and Michael Allred, and my consciousness, if not my conscience, explodes. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The story opens on an art heist at the Louvre, only it’s not the Mona Lisa that the Art Ops team is after, but the subject of the painting. Before the night watchman can click his flashlight, Madame Lisa Giocondo is three dimensional again – living and breathing – and a look-alike model has been put in her place.
I turn the page and it’s lovers so entwined. And a little boy, lost.
Then, the night plays tricks and spray-painted figures become shadows and shadows become violently alive.
Then, the only thing that can save a life is the artist’s brush: “More color! More life! Let’s dance!”
And Mona Lisa is shopping at the market, looking radiant in a yellow hoodie, hoping that the boy who works there will finally ask her out. Only it doesn’t turn out that way at all.
I’m trying to be quiet and hear what Simon and Allred are saying, but all I’m hearing is Bob Dylan. And I’m seeing visions; and hearing them too.
It’s not the version of the song that most people know, the one from Blonde on Blonde, the one driven by Kenneth Buttrey’s drums and Al Kooper’s organ and Joe South’s mesmerizing bass. It is, rather, a live version, recorded during Dylan’s controversial 1966 tour of England and first officially released on 1985’s Biograph. It’s just Dylan alone on stage. Dylan on guitar and harmonica. Dylan sounding all broken hearted and high. The studio version will make you tap your feet and nod your head. This version will stop you in your tracks, bring everything to a halt. Dylan, himself, sounds like a little boy, lost; his voice howls with the ghost of ‘lectricity.
It is a performance that belongs in a museum, should be hanging in the Louvre. Every word is a brush stroke, every breath a carefully careless line on canvas. And out of all of those marvelous lines, all of those words and phrases and breaths and sighs, I keep hearing this, over and over and over again:
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.
Dylan’s song is about a lot of things. Love lost, comes to mind; Johanna’s not here.
But what it is – especially this version, this live and raw recording – is a living, breathing work of art; it is a reminder – complete with rough edges and flubbed lines – of how the poetic, the beautiful, and the sublime inhabit not just the walls of museums but also the city apartment and the subway train, the empty lot and the open road, and the rain.
I’m hearing this as I try to make sense of what Simon and Allred are trying to say. It is something about art being alive, something about art saving lives.
Reggie gets a new arm, made of paint and imagination, indestructible. “Gotta get up,” he says, “gotta get up. Bad things always happen when you’re on the ground covered in blood.” And he’s right about that, he’s damned right.
Then, a superhero all in black glides from the rooftop to the street below, like a dancer on a string.
Then, Mona Lisa (“Exhibit A: Live and in the Flesh”) is being hunted, has a real hard case of the highway blues.
Infinity goes up on trial.
And Dylan, his voice an echo, lays down on the rhyme: Freeeze . . . . Sneeeze . . . . Jeeeze …. Kneees.
Lisa Giocondo peeks around the corner at the Body – at the superhero all in black – and at Reggie whose arm, whose painted and indestructible arm, is exploding with color. She is wearing the yellow hoodie and she is smiling to hide the blues. She is always smiling to hide the blues.
In the song in my head, right near the beginning, Dylan lays it all on the line.
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.
And then I’m hearing an entirely different song, from an almost entirely different Dylan.
It’s like I’m stuck inside a painting
That’s hanging in the Louvre
My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches
But I know that I can’t move.
That’s the human condition, right there. Johanna’s not here. Just another case of the highway blues. What salvation must be like after a while. A good place to be in, when everyone has counted you out.
Art Ops #1 caught me by surprise. It made me laugh. It made me think. It put a song in my head that I can’t stop hearing, a vision that won’t go away.
You should probably stop whatever it is you’re doing and read it. Right now.