Idiot Wind by Bob Dylan (1974)

The more I listen to Bob Dylan’s music, the more I watch him speak, the more I read about his life, the more I appreciate his fearlessness. “Fearless” is a big, strong word that can be applied to all kinds of artists; just creating art takes a certain amount of fearlessness. Sometimes it’s obvious why an artist is considered fearless and Dylan’s in-your-face turn from acoustic folk to electric rock ‘n’ roll is surely one of the biggest factors in describing Dylan that way. But what I’ve really come to appreciate is Dylan’s fearlessness of himself.

Writers like to be right. Everybody likes to be right and certainly artists definitely like to be right but writers also need to be right. want you to think I’m right in these blogs. Publishing or performing your written thoughts takes a certain amount of conviction in your own point of view. Whether you’re writing an academic paper or a pop song or a mystery novel you are conveying some level of understanding of your subject and you’re trying to get that across so that others can understand you, too.

Bob Dylan doesn’t need to be right, he just needs to write. Plenty of his songs are written with strong conviction, whether they be more political (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) or personal (“I Want You”). But he doesn’t shy away from subjects he doesn’t fully understand, himself included, and “Idiot Wind” is a perfect example of that.

On the surface it’s easy to say that “Idiot Wind” may be the ultimate “fuck you” song about divorce. The relationship he describes is clearly a long and deep one and it was written just a few years before Dylan’s divorce from his wife, Sara. But because it’s Bob Dylan, it’s not that easy. The song goes:

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
I’ve struggled with these seemingly out-of-place first lines and what they’re trying to say. I thought of it before as Dylan giving us a goofy distraction of the pain that’s about to come, maybe even preparing himself for what he’s about to get into. But the more I think about it I feel like he’s actually using this to set the stage for his anger. “This is the kind of shit I already have to deal with,” he seems to say with this story. The last line is our first glimpse into his snarkiness and sarcasm that will be woven throughout the song. But because this song is so complicated, I think Dylan is also using these lines to describe the complex relationship he’s gotten himself into with the press. Dylan loves larger-than-life, legendary stories and I think this is part of why he loves lying about himself to the press (the other part being I think he genuinely finds it entertaining). Throughout the years he’s told the press he was a prostitute, a heroin addict, a circus performer, among hundreds of others. This little story sounds like the exact kind of bullshit he would feed to some journalist for his own personal amusement. So does the press and their gossip complicate Dylan’s life and therefore his relationship? Absolutely. Is at least part of that Dylan’s fault? Definitely. Also – in a great expectations-defying move, Dylan chooses not to rhyme “Gray” with “Italy” by pronouncing it “It-a-lay” which is what your brain expects after hearing Gray. He instead pronounces it more traditionally as “It-a-lee” because, again, this is a complicated song of pain and confusion and disappointment and Dylan is not going to cut us any slack for going on the journey with him.

People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
Again, Dylan is presented with challenges brought on equally by his fame and his own purposeful distortion of facts. Dylan can’t actually have conversations or connect with these people because they don’t know who he really is and even the most humble, unassuming fan still wants something from him. But Dylan expects this from these people: they’re fans, after all, and Dylan has gone out of his way to throw people off the scent of his personal life. But what Dylan doesn’t expect is to feel the same way toward his wife. I imagine that this could have been prompted by his wife simply asking Dylan for his opinion on something. The problem is that everyone wants his opinion, and he is shocked and disappointed by his wife seeming to fall into the category of “other people” by asking the same thing as they do. He can’t believe it . . . he’s angrier the more he talks about it . . . but his disappointment is clearly heard in “Sweet lady” – why aren’t you different from these people, sweet lady?

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headin’ south
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
But don’t forget – Dylan is pissed. How can you ask me a question when you should already know the answer? You’re an idiot! 

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle
Here Dylan mixes imagery with the continuing argument. Was the fortune teller someone in Dylan’s life that was skeptical of how his marriage would turn out? It’s easy to see how someone like Dylan could go a long time without “peace and quiet” considering not only his fame but the value people place on his opinion. But why has it gone on for so long? He hasn’t even known peace and quiet with his wife in his life; she is not helping him. His wife declares herself the winner in all of their fights. Maybe some were won legitimately (she was right, he was wrong) but maybe some were won just because she got the last word. And she never thought he could have the [courage? faithfulness? time?] to win against her . . . but maybe if he loses her that is how he will finally win.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
Again – anger. “Daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are” – he’s not daydreaming about how things used to be, but about the way things are now, when they’re good. And these daydreams are painful; his head is spinning. “You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.” After my parents divorced my father was obviously convinced my mother was somehow turning my sister and me against him – obvious because he told me on at least one occasion that he knew my mother told lies about him. Ironically she never was doing that and he couldn’t understand it was own anger and behavior that wedged us further apart. I hear the same anger in Dylan’s voice here – is he paranoid about what his wife is telling their children while he’s away (which is, presumably, most of the time)? I think he is, and the paranoia is making him angry to the point that he takes pleasure in the thought of her death, of her not being around so Dylan doesn’t have to deal with her anymore.

It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart
Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom
At a better time in their relationship, Dylan and his wife were walking on cloud nine, lifted up by the carefree nature of their love. But real life situations (children, infidelity) added weight and pressure to their relationship and their personal destinies (Dylan destined to be a legend, his wife destined to be the wife of a legend) added enough pressure to break them apart completely. Dylan’s world is turned upside down – he loves his wife, after all, but here he is feeling these feelings of anger and disappointment to the point of downright hatred. And isn’t this how a cataclysmic breakup feels? My first love ended when he cheated on me with a friend and I cannot express how accurately Dylan describes that here – one day you know where you are in life, the next day your life is different, forever. The same thing that once put you at the top of the world has now slammed you into rock bottom. 

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the
building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn
Corrupt can mean a lot of things. Is she literally corrupt – has she stolen from Dylan, has she cheated on Dylan? Or has she become metaphorically corrupted – her own sadness and disappointment at their relationship has permanently changed the way she thinks of Dylan and their marriage? He can’t remember her face, even though he is addressing her directly, because the face he is trying to remember is one she doesn’t wear anymore, one of the happy wife. Her mouth has changed: no more smiling. Her eyes don’t look into his: she can’t even face him. He waited for her – maybe for her to change back into the woman he once knew, maybe for her to evolve to the level he perceives himself to be. But it doesn’t matter now because he waited and waited, but he is not waiting anymore. Here we feel and here the first twinge of real sadness from Dylan here: he waited for her, why didn’t she come to him?

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
Despite the last repeating lines that are thrown directly at her, with this section we get another hint that the issues are outside both of him and are directly related to his fame. He’s surrounded by idiots! He tours the country and everyone from coast to coast falls into Dylan’s category of “idiot” and it’s overwhelming.

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory
Dylan sings this first line with much less anger than we’ve heard before and replaces it with absolute sadness. He can’t feel her anymore: physically (hard to imagine a couple in this scenario having a ton of great sex) or intellectually (he no longer has an interest with connecting with her through books, or she’s gone so far beyond his level of understanding that she’s left him behind). He crawls past her door: he’s regressed into childishness, he’s been hobbled by the pain of her relationship; she doesn’t even share his door. At an earlier point they found ecstasy together and without her he cannot get it back. And it really hurts.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry
“But you know what? Fuck that! I’m free! You put me in so much pain I am glad to break up with you!” After the pain of the last section, that pain snaps Dylan to attention and he momentarily recaptures the sick pleasure he feels when he hurts her. She’s just hurt him so bad, and isn’t he a great man for rising above it all? But she is a great woman, too, and he has hurt her so badly that he realizes they are two sides of the same relationship. While she may show him no remorse for her lack of understanding him, he is sorry for doing the same thing.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves
And in his final reflection, Dylan cannot escape what he’s hinted at before – that he’s in this, too. She did things to him, she hurt him – but why? Because he hurt her? In all of Dylan’s ravings throughout this song he is continually reminded of the love and care he once felt and knew she felt, too. But here he is, railing against her as if she meant nothing to him. What does that say about him? He’s an idiot, too. 

There are no answers in this song because there are none to be had. This couple doesn’t definitively break up or get back together in the end and it’s unclear which would even be the best choice. What we have is Dylan’s fearlessness, laid out for all of us to take in. It’s easy to write a “fuck you” or “you just hurt me” or “I’m better off without you” type of breakup song because that’s what the writer wants to write and what the listener wants to hear, because they’re satisfying. It takes courage to write a break up song that shows your own flaws, your own part in the relationship’s destruction, your own pain, your own anger, your own misinterpretations. But Dylan’s never been scared of being the bad guy, especially when “good” and “bad” are unclear. His acknowledgement of such a struggle is part of what puts him, as a songwriter, above so many others and why his art is so beautiful and important for us who want to listen.

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Positively 4th Street by Bob Dylan (1965)

Before I entered college I had experienced two major falling-outs with my female friends at the time. The first, and maybe the worst, happened in 7th grade and the second in 12th grade. While the 12th grade incident was more complicated, what happened in 7th grade felt like a cruel attack. Four girls I had been best friends with my entire life took offense to me making a new best friend. I knew they didn’t like her, but who cares? On Christmas day of 2000 I opened my email to find a barrage of hate: emails upon emails from these girls detailing everything they hated about me. They took emails I sent them and instant message conversations we had over the past few months and wrote comments in big pink letters next to my words: WHORE, FAT BITCH, DUMB SLUT were a few among them. It really broke my heart. For years I was sad about it and could hardly think about it. Then a few more years passed and I did think about it. And I was pissed. I started to really see the value in art about revenge, particularly movies and music. By the time I got to college, songs that I heard before and thought were mean were suddenly delicious.

When my husband and I first started dating he made me a playlist that was sort of an intro to Bob Dylan. Some of the songs I had heard before because they’re famous, others because he had already played them for me. The main issue I had with breaking through his music was feeling bogged down by the heaviness and sadness I had heard. Then I heard “Positively 4th Street.”

What first drew me was the upbeat sound; finally I get to hear this guy be a little happier. But what stopped me in my tracks were the first lines. Because how was I to know that Bob Dylan would be the one to understand the plight of teenage girls? The song goes:

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
Hmm . . .interesting . . . go on . . .

When I was down
You just stood there grinning
The main instigator of the 7th grade incident had been my best friend for years and our moms became friends, too. After Christmas break she told me her mom didn’t know what happened between us and told me not to say anything about it. I really liked her mom and it killed me to think she had no idea how her daughter was treating me and got to pretend to be my friend.

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning
By the end of the 7th grade school year I had finally nabbed the guy I had a crush on as my boyfriend. After word spread around school the aforementioned boyfriend-less former friend put a note in my locker saying she was so happy for me because I finally had “what we all want.” I tore the note up.

You say I let you down
You know it’s not like that
If you’re so hurt
Why then don’t you show it
When I lost my friends I couldn’t believe that they had let it happen because hadn’t I been their friend, too? Whatever really caused them to turn on me so viciously was apparently enough to end our friendships but not really outwardly bother them. I cried so much over these girls that it was as if I had been the only one in these relationships. I watched them at lunch, looking for any signs that they felt bad for what they had done. I never saw a thing. 

You say you lost your faith
But that’s not where it’s at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it
I think this is where Dylan first ups the bitchiness. “You had no faith to lose. And you know it.” When I was in college one of the girls from 7th grade sent me a message on Facebook apologizing for what had happened, explaining it as she got caught up in the moment, succumbed to peer pressure, and in the end had not acted like herself. What bullshit. I thought to myself “You were just a bitch and you know it.” 

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You’re in with
After the 7th grade fallout I had to reconcile with my own behavior; while I hadn’t bullied anyone or turned on any friends I did gossip. And I loved to gossip. I was callous with my words, routinely referring to other girls as bitches. It was painful to think of the things I had said about other girls being said about me. But it also felt like I had an inside scoop on what was being said which gave me the feeling that these girls were not as smart as they wanted me to believe. 

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I’d make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don’t know to begin with
Hindsight is everything and looking back at this time I can understand why these girls felt threatened by my new friend. She was outgoing, nice, smart, and super funny. It was easy to be her friend. And looking back now I cannot imagine entertaining the idea of trying to be in contact with these people who didn’t even know what a good friend was.

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, “How are you?” “Good luck”
But you don’t mean it
I luckily didn’t have any classes with these girls and all but one actually went to  different schools. The one that didn’t had a habit of acting very sweet to me when there was a teacher around and turning on me when there wasn’t. When she pretended to be nice to me it just made me sick.

When you know as well as me
You’d rather see me paralyzed
Why don’t you just come out once
And scream it
There have been plenty of times in my life where I wished I could just fight a girl and be done with it, instead of all of the mental torture. Hearing Dylan say “Why don’t you just come out once and scream it” makes me think of going up to that girl and just shaking her, asking her why she’s doing this – a daydream I had at the time. 

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I’d rob them
Facebook is a fun way to keep up with people, for better or for worse. Few things gave me greater pleasure in college than looking up an old bully on Facebook and finding out how shitty their life had become. I still feel that way about some people and some things . . . but for the most part I don’t get the same pleasure. It unfortunately doesn’t always feel great to see someone treated badly despite how badly they’ve treated you. 

And now I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem
I know in the end that bullying and general meanness comes from a place of unhappiness and fear. But what good does that knowledge do you in the moment? I wish I had had the courage to go up to any of these girls . . . or anyone else who caused me similar pain . . . and tell them I know they hate themselves, but that shit’s not my fault.

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
When I first heard Dylan go down this path I was a little disappointed, thinking he’s going to rely on a cliche. “If only you could walk in my shoes you would see how hard I’ve had it, what I’ve had to overcome, and the awful way you’ve treated me,” – is the message I thought Dylan was about to go for. 

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you
But then Dylan comes in with the sickest burn of the song to end it. I don’t want you to be in my shoes to see my struggles or to see how your actions make me feel. I want you to be in my shoes because I hate you so much I would take pleasure in watching you attempt to deal with your own bullshit the way I have to. A beautiful and subtle “fuck you” to round everything out.

I don’t know how he does it. This song is very simple, really, and without gender or even hints of a romantic relationship so it’s easy to adapt it into any situation you want. You can interpret this song as being directed at the folk crowd after Dylan went electric, but I think that interpretation would be way too specific for Dylan’s taste. He didn’t write a marvelous “fuck you” song for all of us to only think about his situation, after all. He wrote it for all of us and for all of our situations. But he somehow really managed to cut to the core of how painful it can be to be a teenage girl, functioning in a world with other teenage girls. Dylan managed to take a situation I wouldn’t really be able to relate to and distill it down to something that ends up being deeply personal to me. Another wonderful trick from the great Bob Dylan.


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Visions of Johanna by Bob Dylan (1966)

I did not grow up loving or even listening to Bob Dylan and unfortunately I can’t even say that I didn’t have much of an opinion of him. Growing up I thought Bob Dylan was the epitome of the singer who can’t sing; by the time I got to high school and two Bob Dylan albums beat Radiohead’s Kid A on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list I actively hated him. I even wrote a paper in my 10th grade English class outlining all the ways Radiohead was better than Bob Dylan (at this point I had no idea that Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” was a direct reference to Dylan). Despite that there were still a couple of Dylan songs I knew and liked: “Hurricane” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” But everything else – I remember thinking this about “Like A Rolling Stone” in particular – sounded too loud, too mean, too tinny for my taste.

So what am I to do when, flash forward about 10 years later, I meet the man who was to become my husband and discover that he is a huge Bob Dylan fan? Re-evaluate. And in doing so I discovered that I had gotten Dylan all wrong; that if only I had opened my mind up a bit more I would have surely fallen in love with his music in high school. The main reason that I know this is true is that I have always loved poetry and Dylan, if nothing else, is a poet.

It’s a weird experience to slowly discover something so great that seemingly everyone else already knew about and agreed on decades after the fact. But it’s fun, too, because we’re talking about an artist who went through countless changes and has written hundreds of songs, many of them so classic you don’t even realize it’s a Bob Dylan song. Bob Dylan’s work is truly an endless mine.

When I write about Bob Dylan and his music there are a few things I would like you to keep in mind:

  • I don’t know anything about the technical side of music – including how to read music or play any instruments
  • I am in no way a Dylan scholar – I have rough ideas of what he was doing and when but it’s difficult for me to put his words in the context of his life
  • My knowledge of Dylan’s music only scratches the surface of his catalog
  • I can’t help but make comparisons to modern issues that Dylan would have no way of knowing to reference – but doesn’t that just make him a soothsayer?

So all that being said, when I think of the Dylan song that most resembles classic poetry what comes to mind is “Visions of Johanna”, the third track off Dylan’s classic Blonde on Blonde from 1966. “Visions of Johanna” really struck me the first time I heard it because Dylan slams image after image into your mind all the while using his voice to convey the most relatable pain. It’s a song that I felt like I immediately “got” – whether that means understanding it or feeling it, I get it.

Here is the first verse:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
Dylan opens with a casual rhetorical question that doubles as a vague image that we can all relate to. We’ve all tip-toed around at night only to step on something that is suddenly so loud it wakes up the whole house. The same sound may be drowned out during the day but can be earth-shattering at night – that’s the night’s trick.
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
I’m sure if I read this line in high school I would immediately think of being in school. But as an adult and thinking of Dylan, I can only think of Dylan on tour. Dylan and his crew are stranded everywhere they go – holed up in backstage dressing rooms and hotels. But they’re all doing their best to deny it – because who wants to admit that they’re getting some unhappiness from living out their dream
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
The first mention of Louise is not particularly positive or negative – she’s just there. She’s tempting you to defy rain – something that cannot be done. But it’s tempting, isn’t it? Louise is pushing for something from you.
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
Such simple and beautiful imagery. I often imagine what it would be like to time travel and I always think two things: 1.) the world smelled very bad until very recently and 2.) the world was often very quiet until very recently. I imagine Dylan sitting in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York – a place known as a haven for artists but also known for being kind of a shitty place.
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
These are some of my favorite lines of the song and we’ve barely even begun. Despite the lights, the heater, the radio all being on Dylan can’t really turn them off. You can imagine why – he needs at least the light and the heat to be able to write and I’m guessing the soft country music helped, too. So he’s acknowledging there’s nothing to turn off – but then the next word is “just” which may as well be “but” here. Just Louise and her lover so entwined . . . this gives us our first real glimpse of who Louise is. To me, Louise is part of Dylan’s road crew – whether that means she’s a tour manager or girlfriend of someone in the band or something else. But she’s there, just not as Dylan’s lover (and maybe not even as a friend). And in my mind, Dylan sits alone in a large room with a bed on the other side of the room where Louise and her lover are having sex. Or maybe Louise and her lover are in the room next to Dylan, sharing a wall. Whatever the case it leads Dylan to what can be turned off, which is Dylan himself by the sights and/or sounds of Louise and her lover having sex.
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
And with this verse’s last line Dylan brings us back to the common theme of visions of Johanna and introduces Johanna for the first time. By directly contrasting the “turn off” actions of Louise with the “conquering” images of Johanna, Dylan is telling us that Louise is real (in the sense that she is physically there and Dylan can see her and talk to her) and Johanna is not real (in the sense that she is only near Dylan in his mind).

Second verse:

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
What I think we have here is Dylan describing two types of women doing essentially the same thing. We have “ladies” (so presumably higher class women) playing a children’s guessing game with key chains – perhaps referencing “key parties” or something like them – a situation that allows sex without marriage. Then we have “girls” (lower class or just younger women) “whispering of escapades” – I can’t help but think of the play on word “sexcapades” here – “on the ‘D’ train.” Maybe it’s the years of listening to rap but I cannot hear that line without thinking that D is a playful reference to dick. So maybe these women are prostitutes despite the fact that they are essentially doing the same thing as the “ladies.”
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane
It’s hard not to hear these lines and think of the Black Lives Matter movement and pitting police officers against people of color. While there are cops that mindlessly go along with what they’re told we also know there are cops that have second-guessed their own actions in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. I can’t help but think similar things were happening during the Civil Rights movement. 
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
I think there are at least two ways of reading this line. In one way Dylan is saying that the best quality of Louise is simply her literal physical proximity to Dylan. But what I think he’s saying is a response during a conversation about how Louise annoys Dylan because of that proximity: “Bob, is Louise really that bad?” “Louise? She’s alright. She’s just near. Too near, all the time.”
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
Dylan doesn’t hate Louise, he just acknowledges that she has a flimsy role in his life and career. But Louise also reminds Dylan of himself: for better or for worse Louise has stuck around on this tour with Dylan, going to the same places, eating the same food, meeting the same people. 
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
I used to be The Queen of Crushes. When I was in school I had crushes on at least 3 guys at any given time. Sometimes these were just crushes but other times I really actually liked the guy. It used to kill me to be in class, surrounded by gross and/or stupid and/or mean boys and not be around the guy I liked. It just didn’t seem fair. It was a constant reminder of who wasn’t there and that’s what Dylan is feeling here. If his love was Louise everything would be so easy – but instead he loves Johanna and Louise’s presence (especially if we are thinking she is a girlfriend of a band member) is only a constant reminder that the one he loves is not the one with him.
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
We all know what happened when Dylan “went electric” and despite Dylan’s determination to keep going electric despite the boos, there is just no way the booing and disdain did not weigh Dylan down some, because the man is not superhuman. And if Dylan felt the negativity surely the people in his band and in his crew did, too. So when Dylan looks at Louise’s face (a face that, remember, oddly reminds Dylan of himself) in between or after shows he can see the effect it has on Louise – she’s exhausted to the point that Dylan remembers she has bones in her face. And she’s exhausted because of the howling, the wailing of the audience as Dylan’s electric guitar passes through them – the sounds of his electric guitar now a ghost, post-show.
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
As Dylan looks at Louise and sees himself in her and the toll that touring has taken on her he understands that he is dis-engaging with those around him and retreating into the comfort of his mind, which is consumed by Johanna, to the point that he’s not even really there anymore.

Third verse:

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
Most of the third verse makes me think of our unfortunate current president, Donald Trump. Of course I don’t think Dylan was literally writing about a president 50 years away from being elected, but that makes me think how little politicians have really changed. Little boy lost . . . taking himself seriously . . . brags of his misery . . . he’s got a lot of gall to be so useless . . . muttering small talk . . . I mean, does this describe anyone other than Donald Trump right now?
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn
Dylan has tried to use the example of “little boy lost” to somehow relate what he’s feeling but at this point in the verse he finds himself grasping for what he’s trying to say. He’s so caught up in Johanna, longing for her so deeply he can’t sleep, that he can’t even keep track of his thoughts.

Fourth verse:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
The tour has moved to Europe and Dylan finds himself visiting museums filled with classic work, pondering how “real” it is. The works in museums are there because someone has deemed them immortal – or infinite – and once in the museum, it is up to the viewer to make their own judgement about whether or not it will last through time. 
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
What do we really know about da Vinci? About Van Gogh? About Rembrandt? Countless biographies have been written – but what were the like? Were they assholes? How did they treat people around them? We don’t really know because it’s lost to time – those facts replaced by facts about their art. If comedy could be captured and put in a museum how long would it take for us to see a piece by Louis C.K.? Eventually generations would die and leave younger generations who know him only for his art, not his actions. So in a way, salvation would be achieved. So Dylan, someone whose every move in 1966 was scrutinized and criticized, must have been struck at how after only a few hundred years these works can stand on their own.
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
Here I don’t think Dylan means “highway blues” in the sense of always moving but more in the sense of staying in one place while everything else moves. Mona Lisa isn’t going anywhere as countless people pass her by – perhaps the sadness of that is what is causing that smile?
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Dylan sees all kinds of Europeans – some so struck by the art they see that they can’t move, others just talking nonsense among themselves.
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
Growing up in New Orleans, this line strikes me as being so visual and concrete, as decorated horses and mules are staples of Mardi Gras parades. Some have flowers woven throughout their mane, some wear necklaces, some wear masks over their eyes. These striking images hit Dylan as being beautiful and strange as he wanders around a part of the world where mules and horses are used more than in the United States.
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel
But none of it even matters without Johanna, does it? The art in museums – cruel to experience such beauty without Johanna. The weird Europeans – cruel to not have Johanna there to laugh with. The decorated mules – cruel to see such a strange and classic image without Johanna.

Fifth verse:

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
The peddler .  . . the countess . . . two types of people we associate more with history than modern times. But the essence of these people were alive and well in 1966 and are alive and well today . . . think of Instagram models peddling weight loss tea. The peddling is justified because we live in a world full of parasites; the Instagram model may have done no more to make a name for herself than a countess.
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
Oh, Louise. Coming around to annoy Dylan again. I imagine Dylan sitting in a room while Louise fixes her hair in front of a mirror. Dylan spits out some philosophy and Louise, barely grasping his words, can only say “Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Louise, thinking herself to be better off than the thinking-too-much Dylan, doesn’t even realize her part in the scheme of things – that she, too, is a parasite feeding off the boyfriend in Dylan’s band – the “him” she is preparing herself for.
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
With seven lines Dylan punches the “ode” rhyme over and over again until we are lost in his words. Dylan uses this to replicate the overwhelming amount of things he is seeing and experiencing – overwhelming in part because he doesn’t have Johanna to share them with. You listen to this and wonder how long he can keep the rhyme going until you feel relief with “explodes.”
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
I don’t think Dylan means literal skeleton keys here but is referencing his older music in a way that is similar to him referring to his electric guitar as “ghosts of electricity.” Night after night, Dylan’s harmonicas play these old keys – so old to him now that they are mere skeletons. And the rain – perhaps a reference to his 1962 song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a concretely folk song that came out several years before Dylan went electric.
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
And finally, after all of that, all that’s left is Johanna. I imagine Dylan thinking back on this tour and knowing he saw and experienced things, but when he remembers the tour all he remembers is his pain of not having Johanna. 

What’s great about Bob Dylan, and all great poets, is his ability to take images and phrases and make them personal, relatable, vague, concrete, imaginative, simple all at the same time. He famously is not one to pinpoint any real meaning to any of his songs and I cannot say that I “figured out” the song. What I figured out is why this song is so powerful to me through the parade of imagery that Dylan created. And that’s really what poetry is all about.

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I Need To Talk About “Use Me”

I need to talk about “Use Me,” the song and music video from Future’s 2017 album HNDRXX.

Future has been around for a long time. To some feminist circles he is known solely for legal troubles and talking shit about his ex-fiance, Ciara. To others, he is lumped in the trap category with other wide-ranging rappers like Young Thug and Travi$ Scott. When I first heard him I thought of him less like a bouncy trap rapper and more like an adult Drake.

While other rappers revel in the hallucinatory fun of drugs like lean and molly, Future’s verses drip with the reality of taking drugs that alter your perception. They’re not always fun. Future has no fear showing us his pain from years of anguish and literal hustling and the need to rely on drugs for more than just a good time.

“Use Me,” opens with Future crooning to us before being swept up in the expansive and ethereal beat. “Tools, tools, I keep them tools,” he sputters. His voice rises up through the beat to strain to tell us “These tools are for you to use me.” In the video, we see a lone figure hunched over a booth in an empty restaurant. His hood is pulled over his head and his face hovers above a Styrofoam cup that we know is lean. We see Future’s face framed by his hood, braids, and sunglasses. His sunglasses catch the reflection of a specter – a young boy who is not there. We see the boy, too young to drive, pull up to the restaurant to formally join Future. Future pushes his hood back to look at him. Who is that?

Future can barely look at him. He looks at him through his sunglasses. Then he looks at him through his fingers, his eyes darting away and then back at the boy in what looks like both sadness and fear. Finally he stares at him, though he can’t bring himself to fully face him. Now they’re looking at each other. The boy says nothing and has no reaction. Now what?

Future tears into the first verse, a love song. “Yes to the tights that you like, they are see-through,” he says definitively. “Who pissed you off baby tell me what he do.” He is clearly not talking about the boy in the video, but he is also clearly rejecting his own fear and anxiety that we saw when he faced him for the sake of his lover. I will take care of you. Maybe no one took care of me. Maybe you’ve been wronged in the past. But now, I will take care of you. He goes from energetically spitting the lines from his booth to sitting in the booth alone again, head in hands from utter pain. Even though the first verse is a love song to a woman, it is clear that the boy represents Future’s younger/inner self. Because when we first see Future, he’s alone. The boy spooks him but he overcomes his fear. But the boy also reminds him of who he is and where he came from – inspiring him to physically move more while he raps about how he will take care of his woman. “Use me what you want me for,” he begs. I’m here for you. The boy gets up and leaves the booth; Future follows without hesitation. He is embracing his past now.

We see a lone woman in a trap house counting money. Her hair is disheveled and is nearly crying as she counts. Where is everybody? Whose money is she counting? All we know is she is alone, sad in a trap.

The boy drives as Future sits in the passenger seat. Future looks confused but at-peace; the slow movements and half-lidded eyes of Future on lean. The boy looks at him occasionally. Future raps to himself.

White men put on balaklavas and take guns from a trunk. Future digs into the second verse.

“Bout to get xanned out.” “I feel like Pink Floyd with the lean out.” The drugs weigh heavily as he sifts through his need to physically arm himself to feel safe and his own ability to get out of a trap. “Cause I was trappin’ at Grandma’s house when I came out,” he raps. This line tells us so much of what we need to know about the pain Future feels about his past. He was at his Grandma’s house, not his mom’s house or his dad’s house or his parents’ house. But he also wasn’t visiting or even staying at his Grandma’s . . . he was trapping, selling drugs to get by. When was he able to have a life or a childhood during that?

“But you get high enough, you can dodge rain drops.” My favorite line from “Use Me,” HNDRXX, Future, and one of my favorites from music in general. If you use enough lean, like Future, everything around you slows down enough so you feel like Neo dodging rain drops (and like Neo, whether you’re actually dodging rain drops or only perceive yourself to be dodging rain drops is never clear). Not only that, if you’re rich enough, like Future, you can fly anywhere you need to go. And when you fly, rain drops don’t bother you or slow you down; you just go higher.

As Future moves through this verse in the boy’s car, we see the white men in balaklavas rush the woman in the trap house, tie her up, and take her money. This happens as Future sings through the chorus: “You know niggas full of lies/You know niggas full of tries.” Everyone is lying, everyone is trying to get by. She doesn’t put up a fight and seems to accept the robbery as inevitable as she silently cries to herself. We see the boy in the room with her, watching. We see Future back in the restaurant, alone. We see the boy and Future back in the car again. Is the boy leading Future through his own pain?

Future and the boy are back in the restaurant, across from each other in the booth. The boy stares as always. Future finally looks at him head-on, no sunglasses, no hood up, nothing in front of his face. He looks at him with a slight sigh as if to say “Come on man, no more.” Future leans forward and the boy is gone. Future walks into the open door of the trap house where the woman still lay, though no longer crying. He walks in matter-of-factly and moves past her like he knows exactly where to go. We see the boy sitting there, watching. As the song winds down, Future’s speaking voice swells up: “When I was young I was in one of those houses, like a drug house, where you were always getting busted, police running around. It was my grandma’s house.”

Future may fear his past but he is fearless in showing us his pain. He’s a man who’s crawled out of nothing to the top of the music industry and rap world. He’s loved deeply and passionately and lost love and experienced major heartbreak. It’s not always fun or pretty but it’s not keeping him down. His past informs his present while he simultaneously breaks away from the past that literally almost killed him.

“Use Me,” is a beautiful piece of art from Future, a beautiful artist.

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30, a poem by Daniel Sewell

A poem* by Daniel Sewell

Sent ya bitch a dick pic and now she need glasses.
Turn your bitch Slick Rick right now if I flashed it,
Ate a couple pills took the bud out the plastic,
Flickin’ bogey ashes – bitch I stay blasted.

Microphone Cassius,
Magic with the sick shit,
‘posed to been dead,
but bitch I’m still up in this bitch!
Verbal herbal poison
Words I contortion
Fucked a pregnant bitch she saved money on her abortion.

I feel like Billy Corgan in a church playing organ
Covering Too Short, smoking a Newport.
Kurt hoped the drugs would make the pain go away
But all these thoughts up in my head made the sane go astray.

Step inside a mind that revolves around the rhyme
And every time he close his eyes, visions of white lines.
Dying in the arms of a blond blue eyed 20-something,
Don’t know her name but the paramedics chest pumping
30-something black male, OD’ed off of pills
that he wasn’t prescribed but they took his life
Left behind a daughter that doesn’t really even know him
Cause her mama thought he wouldn’t make a living off of poems.

But it was a long journey on a rocky road,
Had a hoody on and a jacket in the snow
Walking in the cold on the way to the studio
Nigga that was just a couple years ago.
Dropped a couple mixtapes on the net
And niggas tried to front like it wasn’t all that,
But guess what bitch I’m coming back!
Guess what bitch I’m coming back!

Signed to Fool’s Gold and everything’s all gnarly,
Now these bitches want my number to get up in the party.

Came a long way from extension cords in the window,
Borrowing neighbor’s power just to plug up the Nintendo.
Where the oven’s never closed and stove’s never off,
Every winter so cold niggas sleeping wearing scarves.
But I always tell myself that it’s gonna get better –
You know who you is.
You the greatest rapper ever.

So now the pressure’s on to prove that voice right.
Some people never know they goals, knew mine my whole life.
So now his turn’s up fixing up to bat
Pitching singles to the label when I use to pitch crack.

I never learned to rap, always knew how,
Ever since a nigga 8, knew what I would do now.
When I turned 28 they like what you gonna do now?
And now a nigga 30 so y’all don’t think that hurt me
that the last ten years I been so fucking stressed,
Tears in my eyes let me get this off my chest,
The thought of no success got a nigga chasin’ death
Doing all these drugs in hopes of OD’ing next – Triple X.

*This was not published as a written poem but rather as a rap song under Sewell’s professional name, Danny Brown. The poetic sensibilities of rappers are almost always overlooked in discourse about rap and hip-hop. When I saw so much public outrage over Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature I realized the public’s acceptance of rap as art and rappers as the new generation of American poets was much further away than I had hoped. Perhaps young Bob Dylan fans in the ’60’s and beyond were sick of hearing Dylan’s art referred to as merely the rantings of an angry young Jew. I am sick of hearing various rappers’ art referred to the rantings of angry young black men. Rap can be poetry. Poetry can be art. Let’s start actually listening instead of hearing only what we think we should hear. 

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90210, a poem by Jacques Webster

A poem* by Jacques Webster

She a porn star girl oh from the valley,
Who left her hometown world all for the alley,
Created Lake Tahoe all from her panties,
Used to take the long way home
Long way home all for that candy.

Jacques turn La Flame now you rolling on an Addy,
Fifty on her chain ‘nother fifty on her Caddy,
He might pop him a pill pop him a seal pop anyone
Pop anything pop anything to find that alley,
Then find an alley.

In the 90210 90210 looking for that alley,
In the 90210 90210 looking for that alley,
It’s the superstar girl superstar girl roaming in that alley,
In the 90210 90210 somewhere in that alley.

My granny called, she said “Travie, you work too hard
I’m worried you’ll forget about me,”
I’m falling in and out of cuffs
Don’t worry I’mma get it granny.
What happened now my daddy happy mama called me up
That money coming and she love me I done made it now
I done found life’s meaning now
All them days her heart’d break,
Her heart not in pieces now.

Friends turning into fraud niggas
Practicin’ have the passion you niggas packaged different,
All you niggas –
You niggas want the swag you can’t have it,
I’mma sell it you niggas salad, we ’bout the cabbage.

Youngest nigga outta Houston at the Grammys
Smiling at ’em laughing at me,
I passed the rock to Ye he pump faked and passed it back bitch
All of this off of rapping – should’ve wrote this in Latin.

I know I know I know I know I know,
I know I know I know I know I know
Cuzzo said we in the store, yeah, we ’bout to drop a ‘fo
He pass the cigarette I choke,
Tell my auntie put them poles down them poles down,
Now you know you love your own now.

Hit the stage they got their hands up don’t put your nose down,
I ain’t knockin’ nigga I knocked the door down for sure now.
Whole crew I swear they counting on me,
Gold chains gold rings I got an island on me,
Houses on me, he got them ounces on him.

Holy Father come save these niggas I’m styling on ’em,
Good lord I see my good fortune in all these horses
I’m driving too fast to stop so all these signs, I ignore them
Distant sky from north of the border, my chips is in order,
My mom’s biggest supporter
So now nigga support her, nigga.


*This was not published as a written poem but rather as a rap song under Webster’s professional name, Travi$ Scott. The poetic sensibilities of rappers are almost always overlooked in discourse about rap and hip-hop. When I saw so much public outrage over Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature I realized the public’s acceptance of rap as art and rappers as the new generation of American poets was much further away than I had hoped. Perhaps young Bob Dylan fans in the ’60’s and beyond were sick of hearing Dylan’s art referred to as merely the rantings of an angry young Jew. I am sick of hearing various rappers’ art referred to the rantings of angry young black men. Rap can be poetry. Poetry can be art. Let’s start actually listening instead of hearing only what we think we should hear. 

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We Have A Problem

Growing up as an American kid I was enamored with the idea of adult life. Unlike for children, everything seemed to be open and free for adults. You could buy whatever you wanted as long as you went to work every day. You could go wherever you wanted as long as you had a car or money for a plane ticket. Even as I got older and the reality of adulthood became clearer, I still felt that I was mostly correct, at least in theory. All that really mattered was that you were at least 18 years old and American. If you wanted to get really crazy, you just had to be at least 21 years old and American. As I got older I added little caveats to some of these thoughts, like ” . . . if you have rich parents.” When I entered high school I added a glaring caveat: ” . . . if you’re white.” But that’s just life, isn’t it? Challenges are to be expected.

Then I became a woman. And just like physically becoming a woman, my awareness that my femininity was a negative didn’t happen all at once or even have a distinct beginning.

There was the time in 7th grade when a message went up on a stall door in the girls’ bathroom that directly named the boy I had a crush on: [MY CRUSH] IS A LOSER IN LOVE WITH A ZIT-FACED 7TH GRADE SLUT. As the only 7th grader with cystic acne, I was, at first, ecstatic, even with the ridiculous slut accusation. Until my best friend asked if I wrote the message. I didn’t, but the doubt was still in the air. Pointing out to everyone that the message was more insulting to me than to him, a star athlete, only seemed to make my guilt seem more obvious. When the vice principal told me that I had to scrub the writing off myself, I asked why she couldn’t figure out who really wrote it and make them clean it. She explained that the words were “very hurtful” to my crush and that I “needed” to take them down “for him.”

There was the time in 9th grade when I faked sick during P.E. for two days in a row during the week of the “President’s Fitness Test” to avoid the “shuttle run.” I had long hated the shuttle run, in which the entire P.E. class sat and watched you run a short distance, but when the first girl in my P.E. class stood up for her test and a wave of snickers filled the gym I especially wanted nothing to do with it. I asked my P.E. teacher if I could test in private, or maybe just in front of the girls. He said he couldn’t make special exceptions. I watched every boy get high-fives from the other boys after completing their tests. As I ran for my own test, all I could see were boys licking the air in my direction and pretend to juggle close to their chests, miming as if they had breasts.

There was the time in 12th grade when my favorite teacher asked me out on a date the night after my high school graduation because he “couldn’t hold it in anymore.”

And so on. And so forth.

I long ago had to come to terms with what being an American woman really meant. I can’t go wherever I want, whenever I want, regardless of cost or method of transportation. I can’t even walk around a giant American city (Chicago) in broad daylight on a busy pedestrian street (Belmont Ave.) without cat calls and/or getting followed and practically stalked. I can’t just show up to work everyday and make enough money because I have to constantly prove that I am just as worthy of being employed as any male counterpart, who will make more money than me regardless of if he shows up or not.

So when a man who is asking me, and everyone in America, to make him President of the United States, says about women, “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything . . . Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything,” I must give pause. Not because I’m shocked by what I’ve heard, but because he’s talking about me. I have 100% confidence that I will never have to worry about Donald Trump grabbing my pussy, but it doesn’t matter. Because to Donald Trump, don’t matter. If you are also a woman, you don’t matter. Sure, my pussy and my “big tits,” would matter a whole lot to Donald Trump if they were within his physical grasp. But if they aren’t, then they’re just parts of a woman’s body and again, as a woman, don’t matter.

When I hear statements like this from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani: “So he said some very bad things 10 or 12 years ago. He’s apologized for it. And it seems to me … we should move on,” I’m really happy for Giuliani.

Similarly, when I hear a statement like this one from New Jersey governor Chris Christie: “I’ve known him for a long time and I’m really upset by what I heard but in the end this election is about bigger issues than just that so at this point I still support him,” I’m really, really, really happy for Christie. I truly am.

Because I would love to have the freedom that Trump, Giuliani, Christie, and countless other men have, to see the “bigger issues.” I would love to hear Trump casually joking around about sexually assaulting women and write it off as a momentary mistake, a lapse in judgement, something regrettable but not reprehensible. But Trump is talking about me. So I can’t. I would love for taxes or national security to feel more personal and important to me than the idea of any man, much less the President of the United States, sexually assaulting me. But Trump is talking about me. So I can’t.

These defenses of Trump are like saying, “Look, we can all agree that cancer is bad, but let’s talk about the bigger issue – the common cold.” “Bigger issues” don’t exist when you can’t get past the first issue.

There is a lot going on in the world. But in this case, the lack of autonomy given to American women is the biggest issue – one that must be solved, or even attempted to be solved, before we as a country can really “move on.”

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