Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dylan's Ain't Talkin': Spiritual Light Shines Through This Lament of a Weary Traveller on Life's Long Road

Modern Times was Bob Dylan's 2006 followup to his critically acclaimed Love and Theft. Being 65 when he produced this album, he became the oldest living person at the time to have an album enter the Billboard charts at number one, a feat which he repeated at age 67 with Together Through Life. (Tony Bennett became the oldest performer to have a #1 on the Billboard charts when he introduced his Duets II in 2011.)

"Ain't Talkin'" is the last cut on the album, right after "When the Levee Breaks". Weighing in at nearly nine minutes it seems to show Dylan's fondness for opening his albums with an upbeat tempo and closing with a lengthy lament. eg. Highlands, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Tempest ends with a pair: it's title track and Roll On John.

While listening again to the album yesterday I was struck by all the Biblical allusions. The opening line has the narrator walking out into a mystic garden, and several thoughts combine here, the immediate one being the Garden of Eden and the old hymn "I come to the garden alone..." Dylan's affiliations with Christian and Jewish mysticism are well known, but less known is that this song
derives its chorus from a Stanley Brothers song, "Highway of Regret".

But which garden is it really? Jesus frequently withdrew from the crowds to be alone with the Father, to be nourished in prayer. During Passover it was the Garden of Gethsemane was he was betrayed by Judas and taken.

The second line brings to mind a line from the Song of Solomon, "catch the little foxes that spoil the vines.." This is the first clue something isn't right in Paradise. Getting hit from behind is further evidence. What ought to be a beautiful place, was intended to be so, is fraught with sorrows.

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vines
I was passing by yon cool and crystal fountain
Someone hit me from behind
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

Instead of saying "prayer has the power to help" the narrator states, "They say" so as to keep his own convictions ambiguous. But he is correct to note that evil isn't "out there somewhere" but resides in the human heart, and though he is trying to live his creed, it isn't going so well.

I find Dylan's use of the word ain't and the leaving off of the g at the endin's of words has been part of Dylan's songwriting from the beginning. "Ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe..."

They say prayer has the power to help
So pray from the mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I'm trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
I'll burn that bridge before you can cross
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
They'll be no mercy for you once you've lost

In verse three the narrator bares his soul, discouraged by how worn down he is by weeping, then expresses his what he is really feeling, though he knows it is wrong.

Throughout the book of Psalms in the Old Testament we see passages in which David expresses very strong emotions of despair, anger and jealousy. Not all Psalms express the tranquility of Psalm 23. Psalms 55 and 73 reveal a man deeply troubled and what he wants to do or say is expressed in his prayer that ultimately circles round -- after deep honesty -- to a place of trust. Verse three is that valley of fog and shadows in the midst of the "cities of the plague."

I'm picturing here the chaos that defines the setting in Dylan's 2004 film Masked and Anonymous. The plague is real. How we respond is what reveals who we are.

Now I'm all worn down by weepin'
My eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry
If I catch my opponents ever sleepin'
I'll just slaughter them where they lie
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walking through the cities of the plague

Here's another picture of the world we live in that demands that everyone be "up to the minute" on everything.

The whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you're down
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Eatin' hog-eyed grease in hog-eyed town
Heart burnin' – still yearnin'
Someday you'll be glad to have me around

While listening to a lecture by Jordan Peterson this week he stated that when Nietzsche had Zarathustra declare that God is dead, what he was saying are that the foundations of our civilization are gone. The inevitable result is the collapse of the structures it supported, and in point of fact that was the outcome as we saw massive horrors committed in the name of idealistic ends in Germany, the Soviet Union and China. And it's not over yet. At some point Peterson stated (and this is a paraphrase) the reason why our contemporary world is run by Machiavellians is that the ruling philosophy of the day appears to be "If all truth and morality is arbitrary, then the only way to decide what is right and wrong is Brute Force."

This next stanza brings together all these ideas into one. The first line speaks to the Machiavellian ethic that dominates the halls of power with the fourth line referring to "our Father who art in heaven" whom Nietzsche has declared dead.

They will crush you with wealth and power
Every waking moment you could crack
I'll make the most of one last extra hour
I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Hand me down my walkin' cane
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Got to get you out of my miserable brain

The next stanza brings the previous thought home. The narrator is one of many such travelers who also share this faith that has been mocked and denounced, that once permeated Western Civilization but has been dismissed.

All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
My mule is sick, my horse is blind
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Thinkin' ‘bout that gal I left behind

The first line in this next stanza directly connects to Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures and the wheels. Much can be said about these wheels. Ezekiel 1:16 states, "This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel." In other words, Ezekiel is trying to describe something akin to a gyroscope, a notion worth further elaboration.

The line about walking with a toothache in his heel reminded me of the song from Godspell where a disciple sings, "I'll put a pebble in my shoe, and watch me walk..." There something monastic about this kind of act.

It's bright in the heavens and the wheels are flying      
Fame and honor never seem to fade
The fire's gone out but the light is never dying
Who says I can't get heavenly aid?
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Carrying a dead man's shield
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' with a toothache in my heel

This theme of unending suffering is not new. "Everything's Broken" tells the extent of this world's brokenness on Oh Mercy (1989). And the kinds of fears referred to here are detailed in "Shot of Love" (Shot of Love, 1981).

The suffering is unending   
Every nook and cranny has its tears     
I'm not playing, I'm not pretending
I'm not nursing any superfluous fears   
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Walkin' ever since the other night
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' ‘til I'm clean out of sight

Here at the end is the clincher. Who is the ma'am he's talking to? And who is the gardener? The answer to that can be found in this passage from the Gospel of John.

As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Up the road around the bend
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback, at the world's end

* * * *

I've chosen to analyze this as it struck me, and I am certain that others have already investigated the other sources of many of these lines, and if someone points me to those I would welcome that information. I've not done that digging yet myself.

My guess is that if Christopher Ricks had published Dylan's Visions of Sin after Modern Times he would have included a discussion of this song in his chapter on Fortitude.

Meantime, the road goes on... Keep walkin'.  

Another great song... 

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