Monday, December 26, 2016

Mr. Tambourine Man: Dylan Splashes Transcendant Imagery and Widens Our Imaginations

Let's start with this. As anyone who has ever been to a writers conference or who has read books on writing knows, the big no-no in writing is cliches. Using cliches ranks up there with the "to be" verb as the premiere badge of laziness, the ultimate sin for writers. To create alternative ways of saying things, however, requires imagination, a form of mental labor that the average writer discovers evades because it ain't all that easy to produce fresh and new ways of saying things in place of that which rolls easy off the tongue.

I begin here because when we hear a Dylan song, we frequently overlook what he's achieved in his lyrics. This year Mr. Dylan received a Nobel Prize "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Someone asks, "Can you give me an example?"

Listen to these lyrics, written and composed in early 1964.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it

Who ever wrote songs like this? When Dylan began his songwriting journey he did some emulation, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie perhaps being foremost among his influences. At a certain point in time his themes moved in other directions. And in a following chapter, imagination and the muse melded to produce something so original it has never been duplicated. How could it be? In later interviews Dylan himself stated he would not be able to replicate that which emerged at this period in his life.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Though you might hear laughin’, 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 facin’
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

Stop the presses! Let's examine this one statement here... "But for the sky there are no fences facin'" What is this? It's a total refab on the most mundane cliche, "The sky's the limit." The sky's the limit means, there is no limit. Dylan makes a poetic departure from the cliche and rephrases it in a scintillating new way... a meteoric metaphor leaving vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme, perfectly at home in the context of these images of abandon. Except for the sky, there are no other fences. An spectacular image, and vantage point.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus signs
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Yes, let me live so in the now that I have no intention of even knowing that now is all there is.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you
Copyright © 1964, 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1993 by Special Rider Music


It's but one of hundred of songs produced during a period in which many were experimenting, and many more were watching and listening to the this literary magician whose songs awakened something deep that had been slumbering in a generation becoming aware that there was something more to life than the emptiness of material gain.

"Mr. Tambourine Man" lit a flame in many a heart. For many it was never snuffed.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky... Remembering who you are, a spirit longing to be free.


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