Nothingness made visible
The cook at the halfway house where I worked was a Ukrainian woman named Connie. A widow in her sixties, she was loquacious, vain, and opinionated, a born storyteller. I could sit in the kitchen for hours and listen to Connie’s tales of the lumber camps where she worked in her youth or of the tensions and rivalries that animated the ethnic groups—the Finlanders and Poles, the French and Italians, the Serbs and Croats and Slovenians, the Aboriginal peoples—who formed Thunder Bay’s complex cultural mosaic.
Connie knew I liked her, and sometimes she would invite me to her house for Sunday dinner. This usually consisted of steak and potatoes with strawberry shortcake for dessert. One Sunday, she and her sister Mary picked me up early so we could visit their friend Petra, who was married to a sculptor named Stefan. He had an extension appointment at the university, and this had become a source of conflict in their marriage ever since Petra discovered that Stefan was banging one of his students.
“It’s a little tense there,” said Connie, “but that doesn’t matter. I think you should meet Stefan because you’ll have lots to talk about.”
They were both Serbs, and Petra resembled a gypsy, with shining black eyes and black hair that even in her forties didn’t show a trace of grey. Her figure verged on the voluptuous, but she had a tense, nervous, high-strung manner. Her hands were always in motion, and her mouth was like a red gash on her face. Stefan had a big Slavic handlebar moustache and a full head of hair but with a deep widow’s peak on either side. The house they lived in was built of stone and stained wood, and the façade was almost entirely of glass, so that even from the inside, you felt close to the trees and shrubs in the front yard.
As we seated ourselves in the living room, Connie pointed out that Stefan had made all the furniture himself. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she said, “to be able to do things like that with your hands?”
“Yes,” said Petra as she rearranged the items on a side table. “Sometimes it’s too wonderful.” Then she went in the kitchen to make everyone coffee. Afterwards, we got a tour of the house, which ended in Stefan’s studio. This was filled with lathes and worktables and pieces of wood and stone. After a few minutes, the women returned to the living room, and Stefan took up a hammer and chisel and started to work on a block of soapstone.
Chipping at the stone seemed to release something in him, and he spoke to me in an easy, fluid, unselfconscious manner about art and the people who create it. He thought that great artists usually made some sort of passage in their youth, a process of transformation that confirmed their status as an artist. For many, this passage was a physical journey from the country, where they were surrounded by nature, to the city, where they would immerse themselves in a community of like-minded people who could challenge and stimulate their creative powers. Shakespeare, for instance, moved as a young man from the English countryside in the West Midlands to London, the largest city in the country. There he discovered a vibrant theatre scene, and this brought his talent to life in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he’d stayed in the sticks. At the same time, he needed his country upbringing for what it gave to him, which was a profound appreciation for the natural world. Nature informed everything Shakespeare wrote. Stefan stopped working on the stone for a moment to close his eyes and recite the opening lines from one of the sonnets.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
Then he returned to working on the stone, and I could see a form start to take shape under his hands, the hunched shoulder and low-slung head of a bear.
In the moment I recognized the animal that Stefan was bringing to life out of the stone, a thought came into my mind. I realized that he’d been talking to me—without knowing it himself—of Bob Dylan, of the arc Dylan’s life described when he left Minnesota at the age of nineteen and established himself in New York City, where he found a community of folksingers and other performers who would support him and compete with him in the same way Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Kyd did with Shakespeare in sixteenth-century London. As I watched the bear take shape before my eyes, another thought also occurred, that Dylan had served as his own sculptor, that in fashioning his particular identity as a singer and songwriter, the tool he’d used was his voice, which for him had been as sharp and incisive as a sculptor’s chisel.
Why did I think of Dylan then? Maybe it was those four lines from Shakespeare that brought to the surface another quatrain that had been delivered to my ears in a certain weary, old-man’s voice and that I’d memorized years before:
The last of leaves fell from the trees
And clung to a new love’s breast,
The branches bare like a banjo moan
To the winds that listen the best.
Could Dylan have written a song like “Lay down Your Weary Tune” (or “Girl from the North Country,” for that matter) if he hadn’t grown up in Hibbing, Minnesota or someplace similar? At the beginning of his career, he lied shamelessly about his childhood. He’d run away from home seven times, he told interviewers such as Cynthia Gooding and Studs Terkel, travelled all over the country, and worked as a carny in a circus. He’d seen Woody Guthrie perform in Burbank, California and “didn’t go to school for a bunch of years.” Then at some point—certainly by the time of his third album—he stopped lying and accepted the apparently prosaic facts of his upbringing. In 11 Outlined Epitaphs (which functioned as the liner notes for that album), he wrote:
an’ I know I shall meet the snowy North
again—but with changed eyes nex’ time ’round
t’ walk lazily down its streets
an’ linger by the edge of town
find old friends if they’re still around …
embracin’ what I left an’ lovin’ it—for I learned by now
what it cannot give me.
Similarly, in the Playboy interview from 1978, he told Ron Rosenbaum: “I meet a lot of people from New York that I get along with fine, and share the same ideas, but I got something different in my soul. Like a spirit. It’s like being from the Smoky Mountains or the backwoods of Mississippi. It is going to make you a certain type of person if you stay twenty years in a place.”
By then, his attitude towards his childhood and hometown had changed. It was no longer important to trick people into believing he’d run away from home and had all kinds of romantic adventures in exotic places. By then, home itself was the important thing, having stayed there for the first twenty years of his life was what made him authentic and gave his music a certain credibility. By then, he recognized Hibbing as the place “that has left me with my legacy visions.”
After Bill and I left the bowling alley, we walked to where the car was parked in front of Tuffy’s Bar on First Ave. Since we had nothing else to do, we went inside. Walking into Tuffy’s was like stepping into a different world, a world that transported you fifty years into the past and hundreds of miles further west. The bar itself was an antique wooden affair that ran the length of the room. There were a few tables and chairs, a pool table at the back, and a jukebox set against one wall. What intrigued me was the mirror behind the bar, which was so covered with signs and advertisements, with postcards, calendars, and stuffed fish that it functioned more as a bulletin board than a mirror in the proper sense, what Nietzsche liked to call a “reflecting apparatus.” As we adjusted ourselves on the bar stools, I counted four signs that spoke to the impossibility of cashing checks on the premises. The only other customer at the bar was a skinny guy in his thirties wearing a jean jacket and cowboy boots. He had a ballpoint pen in his fist and was weaving back and forth over his check book, which lay open on the bar beside an empty draught glass and two six-packs in a paper bag. The bartender had to repeat the total three times and count out his change twice before they got squared away and the guy staggered out.
Then the bartender looked at us. “What are you boys going to have?” Bill ordered a small bottle of Pabst, and I asked for a draught. He nodded. “A short and a tap, coming up.”
We sipped our beers and watched Airport ’75 with the sound off. The bartender was in his early sixties. He walked with a limp and kept a glass of beer for himself under the counter at the end of the bar. When we ordered another round, I asked if the place had been there very long.
“Oh, twenty-five years at least,” he said. “Twelve as Tuffy’s, and before that it was Sanders’. I been working here ten years.”
“No kidding,” said Bill. “Did you know Bob Dylan when he used to live around here?”
“No, no. I never knew him, he never came in. A couple of his uncles used to come in all the time, though. In fact, one of ’em was in last night. You know, we got another boy from near here who’s doing real good too. He writes his own songs, and he’s had a couple records out. I think there’s one of ’em on the jukebox here.”
He hobbled over to the jukebox and spent two or three minutes flipping through the offerings. “I’m not finding it now,” he said. “And I can’t remember the boy’s name for anything. But one of his records is called “Snowflakes and Teardrops.” Have you ever heard of it?”
“No,” I said. “Is it sort of a country-sounding song?”
He looked at me uncertainly, as if trying to figure out what made a song “country-sounding.” Then he walked into the kitchen to see if his wife could remember the singer’s name.
While he was gone, I checked out the jukebox myself. It had a few pop hits by Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees, but most of the songs were from country-and-western and bluegrass artists: Hank Williams, Doc Watson, Bill Munro, George Jones, the Carter Family, on up to Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, and Johnny Cash. It occurred to me that the reason the bartender didn’t know what I meant by “country-sounding” was that for him that was what music sounded like, period.
In chapter two of Chronicles, Dylan writes about what he calls “the soundtrack of my life.” This he divides into three categories. The first is freight trains; not just their whistles, but the rumbling, clicking noise they make rolling down the tracks, the noise that carries so far on a still night. “I’d seen and heard trains since my earliest childhood days, and the sight and sound of them always made me feel secure.”
The second category is bells, especially church bells, but, “I even liked doorbells and the NBC chimes on the radio…. The ringing of bells made me feel at home too.”
The third category is the radio, and by extension, the jukeboxes that were ubiquitous in the 1950s. “I was always fishing for something on the radio,” he noted, and mostly what he fished for were songs, those three-minute stories-set-to-music (Dylan himself called them “pictures”) that allowed him to inhabit a parallel universe to the one where he lived. “Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic. Greil Marcus, the music historian, would some thirty years later call it ‘the invisible republic.’”
As a by-product of all his listening, Dylan got to be adept at describing other performers’ singing voices. When you read these descriptions, you get the sense that singing wasn’t just a pastime for him or the people he listened to, it was a matter of life and death.
- Woody Guthrie: “his voice was like a stiletto…. [he] tore everything in his path to pieces.”
- Robert Johnson: “Whenever I [listened to him], it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.”
- Dave Van Ronk: “[his] voice was like rusted shrapnel.”
- Frank Sinatra: “When Frank sang [“Ebb Tide”], I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything.”
- Roy Orbison: “He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal…. His voice could jar a corpse.”
It wasn’t only songs that fascinated the boy growing up in Hibbing, but the spoken word, when it came to him over the airwaves, also worked its magic. “There used to be this disk jockey, Rosko,” he told John Cohen and Happy Traum in 1968. “I don’t recall his last name. Sometimes at night, the radio would be on and Rosko would be reciting this poetry of Khalil Gibran. It was a radiant feeling, coming across it on the radio. His voice was that of the inner voice of the night.”
After a few beers, Bill and I each ordered a Tuffy Burger and a plate of fries. Then we drove to the corner of 7th Avenue and 25th Street to see the old Zimmerman house. Once there, we couldn’t decide which of the four corner houses might have served as Bobby Zimmerman’s home. We examined each in turn, but none of them evoked any sense of recognition or connection, and after a few minutes the absurdity of the exercise became undeniable. What difference would it have made even if we knew for certain? The house itself, the empty shell, couldn’t tell us anything more about Bob Dylan than the well-intentioned bartender in an establishment the man himself had never entered.
I went to bed that night in our cheap motel with a restless, unsatisfied feeling. Our trip to Hibbing—aside, perhaps, from the woman in the bowling alley—struck me as a series of missed connections, more or less a waste of time. What had I learned of Dylan that I couldn’t have picked up from the literature on him or from listening to his music? I spent a more-or-less sleepless night, and we left early in the morning.
Instead of going back the way we came, through Duluth to the south, we decided to drive straight north and cross the border at International Falls. We could pick up the Trans-Canada Highway outside Fort Frances and drive that finely maintained road all the way to Thunder Bay. On our way out of Hibbing, while it was still dark, we took First Avenue to where it ended at the lookout point for the Hull-Rust-Mahoning open-pit iron mine, the largest of its kind in the world. We got out of the car, walked to the railing, and drank in the view as the sun came up behind us.
The word “pit” doesn’t do the mine justice. You can’t appreciate the extent of the raw gash that’s been carved into the earth, you can’t imagine its length and breadth and depth, until you see it spread out below your feet. Even then, it’s too preposterously huge to take in with one look.
The first light of dawn made the exposed red earth gleam like fresh blood. Perhaps because it was Sunday morning, no work was taking place; there was no one around but the two of us. A few idle trucks and other machines seemed to sink into the earth as mist rose slowly from the bowels of the mine.
The only similar scene that comes to mind is an imaginative one, from Albert Camus’ novel The Fall. Camus set his work in Amsterdam, and the whole text takes the form of a monologue from the mouth of a transplanted Parisian who frequents a dive bar called Mexico City. There he meets a fellow-countryman, and for several days the narrator talks and his new acquaintance listens. One day, for a change of scene, they go out to an island in the Zuider Zee that’s famous for its quaint cottages and the peasant clothing of its inhabitants. But what the narrator really wants his friend to see is the desolate seascape that is visible from the island.
“Just look!” he cries as the bleak scene unfolds before their eyes. “Isn’t this the most beautiful of all negative views? Look at the livid beach below our feet and beyond it the bleached-out sea, above us the vast sky that reflects the dull waters. It all adds up to a pastel hell. Nothing but horizontal lines, not a single glimmer of light, the air itself lacks all color, and everything seems dead. Doesn’t this represent the universal denial, nothingness made visible? And not a single other soul, no, not one. Just you and me standing before a world at last deserted.”
It’s not too much to say that Bobby Zimmerman grew up right next door to such a landscape, in other words, that he came of age on the edge of a man-made hell, an expanding pit that had already swallowed up half the town he lived in and threatened to consume the rest. That he lived in a place and at a time when the war between the human race and the natural world had brought into being something that can only be described as chaos or emptiness or “nothingness made visible.” And that he never forgot it.
In interviews Dylan gave over the years, he had to deal with question after question about his own identity and the authenticity of his voice. In his answers—when he did answer—he came back again and again to the idea of depth, of profundity, a concept that the open-pit mine on the edge of town may have planted in his mind. As he told one interviewer: “Being a musician means—depending on how far you want to go—getting to the depths of where you are at.”
Even though the sun had come up, the air remained damp and cold. After we’d gazed into what appeared to be the bottomless hole of the iron mine for several minutes, Bill and I returned to the car and started the drive back to Thunder Bay. That was forty years ago, and from where I stand today, I have a pretty clear view of two such pits, vast and dark, one before and the other behind. The one behind me is called the past, and the one in front, death. A tenuous thread between the two is Dylan’s flawed but strangely captivating voice, a soundtrack I’ve been listening to for more than fifty years. Remarkably enough, it still sounds as fresh and insistent, as rewarding to hear, as when it first arrived over a transistor radio in a darkened teenage bedroom, and I welcomed it, I rejoiced in it, as my own introduction to “the inner voice of the night.”