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he. won’t. be. there.
How do I write an alcoholic beverage sorta article about Bob Dylan? How do I write anything about Bob Dylan? It’s just simply impossible to write about such a complex personality, such a long career, such a wide range of songs, styles, interests, themes, and talent. As soon as I put something down on the screen the words seem somehow flat and empty, words that should help to express thoughts and ideas suddenly become cages.
It’s also people like him who make me realise the opposite, that words – and by words of course I mean poetry – can indeed express the inexpressible. As an art teacher once explained the art of painting to me, ‘Paint only what’s not there, the shadows – and when you’re done painting the what’s not there the subject will emerge from its surroundings.’
Poetry can work exactly the same way – we read words but react to meanings that lurk between the lines. Words act like chords that musicians play, but the vibrations that they generate in the silence carry the message and make their listeners resonate with it. That’s why Todd Haynes’s biographical musical film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, enchants me – it avoids mentioning his name other than in the opening caption and the song credits. With someone like him, that’s the only way to go.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s play with the idea of what sort of drink you think Bob Dylan would be. I would imagine that many people would picture him as some sort of bourbon: Classic. American. Easer of social unrest. Barrel-aged maturity and distilled ideas. In need of delusion because of an outspoken, brittle nature – simultaneously sweet and strong. America is, after all, the master of making freedom an illusion.
And Bob Dylan would not be just any bourbon but – with Barney’s voice from How I Met your Mother – legen … wait for it! … dary bourbon. He would be something like Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon. This wonderful bourbon is bottled as close to barrel proof as possible. In the world of whiskies barrel proof means the alcohol-by-volume strength during ageing and before dilution, which tends to be 60-65%. No dilution for this bad boy! Truly upmarket whiskies are usually kept at that high alcohol level and also spend more time in their barrels. This marriage of cask and liquor indeed develops legen … wait for it! … dary flavours. Bourbon, of course, is made mostly from corn – at least 51% – and as Dylan has often insisted, ‘I never saw myself as a folk singer.’
All of this, of course, is pure romance, as we discovered when his entourage approached us to supply his stay in Hamilton with our best Pinot grigio. Yes, that’s right! Working for the best wine store in town comes with certain privileges, this being one of them. Let’s try, then, to understand something from this marble of reality formed from a real aspect of the surreal.
Pinot grigio is the Italian version of Pinot gris. Pinot gris-grigio is something of a schizoid grape varietal, which certainly fits Dylan’s character. As he said, ‘I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.’ Both grigio and gris mean grey, but although they’re both greyish-blue and Pinot, they’re not the same wine, as the Italians and the French – being the Italians and the French – produce two distinctly different wine styles.
Pinot grigio is a crowd-pleaser, an immensely popular Italian-style wine that’s crisp, fresh, light-bodied, and easy-to-drink – enjoyable at a summery picnic but never likely to start a revolution. It brings to mind ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Lay lady Lay’. Think of all the famous tunes that you probably won’t hear this weekend, but even if you do they’ll probably be versions that are impossible to recognise. The French style of Pinot gris, in contrast, is richer and spicier, with a fuller body that has cellaring possibilities. It may not intend to start a revolution, but neither did Dylan. He just sorta did, anyway.
I must confess I am extremely far from knowing his complete discography. Okay, I actually know only one of his songs, but I know that song better than my own skin. I wonder if knowing just that one song, but knowing it so deeply, makes me know him better or worse. Maybe someone who knows nothing about him gets him the best.
Anyway, there is the Bob Dylan whom I’m in love with. I think it’s indeed possible to get to know and fall in love with an artist through just one piece of his work. To me he is a Ventisquero Syrah. The Grey. Not a wine that experts consider to be one of the best of the best, or even the best from the Ventisquero winery. The Pangea probably ranks much higher. According to the winery’s website this wine, my wine, is a deep and dark ruby colour with a wonderfully complex bouquet redolent of dark berries and graphite with a firm, full bodied mouth-feel. It’s a good example of the concept of terroir, being harvested from single blocks of Maipo Alto, Casablanca, and Apalta in Chile. Anyway, who cares? In a wine, a poem, or a song, the notes, accords, and structure either work their magic on you, giving you goose bumps, or they don’t. As Dylan once said, ‘A poem is a naked person.’ To me the Ventisquero Syrah is the one song that I will just never forget. I was hooked after the first sip and have had to go back to drink from it again and again. And again. Replay button on shuffle.
I often wonder how lonely a road being a legend must be, and whether he speculates about the legendary alter-ego from whom he took his name. I wonder if he ever feels detached from it at all, from having the name Bob Dylan and all the five decades of history-writing-history that comes with it. Strangers can feel that they have a close relationship with a person who can be so articulate about his feelings – with a poet. Many people must think they know him, but what they actually think they know is the name, the trademark – an image that probably started to form from a strong personality that wanted to express itself, then found itself cultivated by a plethora of media and media personnel, and ultimately came alive and went on separate ways from its creators. Like Frankenstein’s monster did.
People need legends, so they create them, and they also absolutely love to crucify them. The monster must therefore disappear. Dylan has said, ‘Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything.‘
I say that we should be grateful for this strong creature with no interest in killing his creators. I also wonder whether he himself likes his Frankensteinish Bob Dylan figure – whether they get on well and how intimate and honest they are with each other. I wonder how often they share a glass of that Pinot grigio. One thing seems to be certain, though. He must obviously like to go to his concerts, because they’re still touring together. Then again, why wouldn’t he go to his concerts? He always gets the seat with the best view.
Personally, I can’t wait for the weekend, but I do hope that most of the audience won’t be too disappointed about what they see – because of Dylan. Their Dylan.
Because. he. won’t. be. there.
Try Bob Dylan’s pick: Pinot grigio, we’re enjoying the Antinori Santa Cristina Pinot Grigio right now
Would you rather try and understand the legend behind the man? Old Rip Van Winkle Hand Made Bourbon is waiting here for you to worship.
I’m Not There is of course available at the best artie DVD rental store in town, Auteur House.