In Bed With Bob Dylan
The writer unpacks her record collection and the lazy pleasures of a lifelong music listener
I understand why death happens: Eventually you can’t stand it anymore.
Fanaticism, truly loving music the way I do, or movies or books or baseball, is a talent that begins any other talent. No one who is gifted in any way—art or astrophysics—got there without loving a lot first. Anyone’s level of criticism precedes his level of ability, and you learn to do great work by imitating your idols. I learned to write from rock ‘n’ roll. I never thought people were choosing between reading one of my books or another author—I thought it was me or Madonna or Hole or whatever was going on at the time. I could never figure out why I was cursed with the worst voice and would never be a rock star, which was obviously what should have happened. I wanted to be on the cover of my books, because that was how albums looked. I was so affected by how much I loved Bruce Springsteen that it was my only point of comparison: In the first song on his first album, he mentions Harvard, which is why I went to school there, and I just wanted to write like he sings. I can’t think of an author who affects me that much, which is good, because the lesson of any pop song is urgency. When I hear REM’s “Begin the Begin,” I am ready for the party to start. Neil Young singing “Tonight’s the Night” is a sure sign that something very bad is going to happen. I cannot listen to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” without knowing for sure that I will never find my way home. Bruce Springsteen is so doomed and dangerous in “State Trooper” that I am comforted by how surefooted the darkness is. In “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Bob Dylan makes loneliness ecstatic. I know that you can nurse the same heartbreak for years from listening to Emmylou Harris, most especially “You’ve Been On My Mind.” When I hear the Danger Mouse mashup “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” I want to misbehave. Because Over the Rhine recorded a love song for grown-ups called “I Want You To Be My Love,” I believe that adults fall truly, madly, deeply in love as if they did not know better.
I read somewhere that a neurologist at Stanford had studied this quite thoroughly and concluded that musical taste stops evolving at age 28. My own experience bears that out. I like Mumford & Sons a lot, but I don’t own any complete albums. But maybe that just proves I am more of the times than I care to admit: Like everyone else, I download by the song. All the same, I never tire of Gram Parsons, and I am rediscovering the Cowboy Junkies, a band I lost track of for a long while but loved before I was two stone years. I have 1,447 songs on my iPhone, and I run errands and walk my dog and take the subway with the soundtrack of my life playing, and that is mostly how I listen to music these days. The range is from AC/DC to Zero 7, but there is more Bob Dylan than anything else. Of course. In the movie Beautiful Creatures, when hipster teen Alden Ehrenreich is driving around Gatlin, S.C., in a foul mood, he is listening to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” because all these years later—50?—there is still no better way to project subversive and misunderstood youth.
I have wasted a lot of time. I have missed opportunities. I am missing a few right now. I am just that way. But smart people know that opportunity is the biggest waste of time of all: It is at best a lousy dinner date, and usually another three-day conference with panels of experts who are not discussing the future of technology or women or news, with questions that are monologues, and altogether not even anything accomplished worthy of that infamous line from Macbeth. No one with anything worthwhile to do has any use for any such things. I don’t. If it’s important, it will show up in my bedroom, preferably with a California red. I know what life is for. There were all these things I wanted to do. Some of them I got around to. A lot of them, well God said ha! That is just the way it is. Cue the harmonica. What was the name of that song?
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