Friday, February 01, 2008

In The Presence Of I: From Shelter From The Storm to Between You And Me

I thought I would begin by considering two very different songs about music. At least, my assumption about "Shelter From The Storm" is that it is Dylan's ode to music. I received Blood On The Tracks for Christmas, 2000, and immediately recognized it as Dylan's attempt to mythologize himself, from the opening "Tangled Up In Blue" through "Bucket Of Rain". Yet the real highlight of the album is the next-to-last track, in which Dylan, strumming his boxy six-string, tells the story of how music has been the only true constant, the only true love of his life. While one can certainly consider it as an achingly beautiful love song about a woman who is the object of near obsessive love, I believe it to be more about Dylan and music, rather than Dylan and any of the women he may have loved, and who have loved him.

I think it is far better to listen to what this song says about the power of music in one's life, than to read volumes of words about it. Indeed, when one considers that it takes far longer to construct a narrative or analysis of any given piece of music than to sit and let the music tell its own story, weave its own magic, the truth of something I once heard a musician say in an interview - "Music is like sex. We spend far more time talking about it than we actually do doing it" - hits home.

The analogy is apt. Like sex, music (one can substitute any art form, but we are here concerned about music) is this strange, wonderful combination of fleeting immanence and overarching transcendence. Even the longest pieces of music - a Mahler symphony, say, or one of the extended ramblings of the blues improvisers - contain within themselves this tendency to transcend the limits of time. We lose ourselves in them, forgetting that time is passing. We become, in those moments of ecstasy and transport - whether it is true love making or listening to music - eternal.

The intimacy of Dylan's rendering of his relationship with music is a far better way of saying this than any words on a computer screen or piece of paper could convey. "Shelter From The Storm" is one of those songs - and there really aren't that many - that make me wonder how the performer manages to do it. The utter nakedness of the subject, telling the whole world of one's innermost desire and vulnerability and need for protection, is more than I could ever manage to do in public.

Yet, it is also such a bold venture - to use music to tell the most basic fact of one's existence, viz., that music is one's shelter from all the storms in one's life. A song about music could either be self-indulgent, or it could transcend one's limited vision and capture the essence of who one is. I think Dylan escapes the former charge through the bald, completely honest nature not just of the lyric, but the arrangement. He is standing there, strumming his guitar, and laying his soul bare before the world.

Rather than a solipsism, the song is an attempt - within the larger framework of Dylan weaving a myth about BOB DYLAN - to let a little reality, a little truth shine through. More than anything, I think this aspect - the whole context of Dylan's revelatory exercise - gives the song its enormous power and depth for me.

Of course, there is also the simple fact that, while not the artist of Dylan's ability or genius, my feelings about music are quite similar.

I sometimes believe that I dance around the subject far too often, putting out my twice-weekly music posts, without ever being honest enough to say that my love for music is far more basic, far deeper than simple appreciation for an entertainment. I can spend pages and columns on details such as the difference between technique and emotive playing, or the way different harmonies create subtle differences within the same melody. Yet, in the end the truth is far deeper, far less amenable to rational analysis. I live without television. I live without painting. I suppose that, should tragedy strike, I could wind up living without my wife and family (unhappily to be sure). I would not choose to live if I had to live without music. I suppose that sounds like the height of irrationality, but I must confess that my love for music is so deeply interwoven in my life, that I could not separate it out if I had to. My happiest moments, as well as those of my deepest despondency, have all been accompanied by the sounds of music. My earliest memories revolve around it. There are songs that transport me, almost immediately, to a particular place and time, with all the emotional immediacy of actually being there. This is deeper than memory. It is transcendence, tout court.

Of course, there is not just the confessional mode. We must also consider the sheer joy of music, the anthemic, hymnic gift of celebration we receive. When a song gives us not just a taste of the inner-most desires, but the most grateful joy - we are also in the presence of a transcendent moment. Such moments rarely are sustained for long, even in the best songs. Yet, there are one or two that give us a chance to shout, and cheer - not those performing the music, but music itself.

The most direct of those is the song "Between You And Me" by Marillion. Another song about music, it does what Dylan's song did, but it does it with all the pulsing power of the best sing-along, stand-on-your feet hymns one could imagine. This song is a celebration of the way music is part of human communication, saying what cannot be said. We should, indeed, celebrate those moments, that reality - and stand and shout and cheer, and lose ourselves in those moments when we "can do no wrong". Those moments are indeed fleeting, but after all, they give us shelter from the storm.

Virtual Tin Cup

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