Hold My Hand, Bob Dylan
The percussive pittering of the rain on the attic roof shingles pattered in time with the beats of my heart. A few weeks prior I had donned the black robe, and accepted my college degree, the world’s most expensive piece of paper, to the sound of clapping hands. Now, a part of my life had just ended and soon another part would begin, but before it did I had a summer of limbo. Just floating, like Dustin Hoffman in the pool in The Graduate. I was spending the rainy day photographing all the strange corners and objects in my attic room. In the corner my girlfriend of a few months was quietly drawing in the dull, yellow, light of an Indiana afternoon.
When the needle dropped onto the twirling black disc otherwise known as Blonde on Blonde, its crackling was as comfortable as the relief the gray skies were giving us from the heat. Bum. Baaa. Ba. Baaa. “Well they’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good.” What the hell did Bob Dylan mean by that? As unpredictable as he was, was Dylan really the type to write a drug anthem? Maybe he meant an old-fashioned stoning, where people threw rocks at a perpetrator, like they did in the Bible. More likely than that, he kept it vague on purpose; giving us listeners the song, to do with it what we wanted. Blonde on Blonde has so many different voices, faces, places, and sounds it has been relevant to every phase of life I have been in since I first bought it.
Now “Visions of Johanna”, that was a drug song. And it was one of the greatest rock songs ever written. “Ain’t it just like the night to plaaay tricks when yer tryin to be so quie-yiit / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”. As a youngster, the first time I really heard that song, I revised my anti-drug policy, and went full fledge into experimentation. I had to see what he was talking about. But what was going on in that room where the heat pipes coughed was a much higher bridge than the one I was willing to jump off. Was Johanna really blood and freshly cooked heroin mixing in a needle and then flowing into a vein? Was this what salvation was like after a while, asked Dylan in the song. For someone not quite 20, a visit to the other, artificial side of reality was a look at salvation. Ah, the folly of youth, with the “gall to be so useless and all.”
Even further back than that, when I first got the album as a college freshman, I saw it as dark, enigmatic party music for people who thought that John Keats was a lot more important to human history than Bill Gates. It was a whimsical soundtrack capable of sustaining a room full of inebriated fools in a singalong session with enough merriment and debauchery to be a contemporary twist on The Threepenny Opera. My closest guy friends and I would gather in a dorm room on a Friday night. Slowly, the volume on those boombox speakers would be pushed to the end of the dial. These sessions would eventually reduce those speakers to a quivering, shredded fuzz. For that year though, the speakers got loud when we needed them to. “You know it balances on your head / Like a mattress on a bottle of wine / Your brand new leopard-skin pill box hat”. We were newly liberated from our parents and not yet on the rollercoaster of our 20s. Of course, well before we reached our goal of having a wall of forty 40-ounce bottles, the album revealed emotional depths that fell far below the surface scratching of malt liquor.
Back in that attic room, Blonde on Blonde was a love song, about individuals intertwined, and the risks of such an action. As the album played, for the first time I realized I was in love. It might have taken 21 years, but love had definitely reached me. Blonde on Blonde was the rain, and light melodies and persistent, driving rock beats soaked me, gathering into puddles on the floor. And then the camera stopped clicking and the pencil stopped scrawling and for a time two lost souls found each other in their dark caves and helped each other around the rocks they found there.
And later, when love followed those tempting signs that say “Only 100 miles to South of the Border” while I stayed up in the cold North, Blonde on Blonde came back out. It was my therapist that made confusing things a lot clearer and roped in feelings that ran amuck. “And when we meet again, introduced as friends / Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” By that time, the album was so important I would only listen to it on record, and only a few times a year. It was an event, to be alone in my room, laid out on the floor by candlelight, with the vinyl turning next to me. It was an old friend, come to reminisce about other times, to shed light on the present, and to get me excited about what was to come.
And now, in New York City, where the initial recording sessions for the album were held, I lay on the wood floor of my apartment and listen to Dylan as he speaks to me. Blonde on Blonde still illuminates my life in ways that no other piece of art ever has. It’s so vast I’ve managed to fit my life thus far into it, and there seems to be room for quite a bit more. Dylan’s Night Watchman in “Visions” asked himself if it was him or them that was really insane. As I am washed on the waves of everyday life with this grooved, black, vinyl life preserver to keep me afloat, I find comfort in the fact that we all are insane and that, for at least the duration of this glorious album, it doesn’t matter.