June, 2011 Archive

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It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I began this blog six years ago at the start of a long, gradual splashdown toward full retirement which yesterday concluded.  Larry and I chose Bob Dylan as the topic of the final week in the Great Works course we co-taught, and hoping to make a small gesture of farewell for the last interpretive sally, I selected a song which has been my friend since I was the age of this year’s students.  I woke up at the usual time, gripped by the usual anxiety about facing the class eight hours later, and decided to write out some parting remarks.

Song lyrics

1965 Performance

This song is about departing and starting, about being through and beginning anew, about relinquishing the past and welcoming change, about what Virginia Woolf called “Time Passing” and what Mary Oliver called “The Journey,” and what Thoreau called “Spring.”

The song’s emotion is elegiac, the paradoxical bittersweetness of a eulogy–a mixture of strong feelings that modulate from harsh to insistent to comforting and encouraging.  That mixture is expressed in the repeated melodic line of every stanza, the regular meter of the lyrics, the amazing congruence of the rhymes, and the complexity of the singer’s tone.

The situation the song sets up is one of forced evacuation from one’s home—the rocky transition from resident to refugee. The speaker’s rough voice is that of the cherub holding the sword at the Gates of Eden, chasing Adam and Eve out of Paradise—proclaiming the end of Innocence.

This is a metaphor for other endings:

  • breaking up a love affair
  • striking the set after the performance of a play
  • concluding a dinner party
  • attending the last day of a class
  • graduating from college
  • retiring from a career
  • facing death

One strain in the voice is threatening, cruel, even sneering.

  • You must leave now— the place you occupied is no longer yours—you have to abandon whatever you’ve surrounded and protected yourself with.
  • Take what you need…you better grab it fast—And make it quick, I mean it.
  • Otherwise you’ll be shot or trampled: Yonder stands your orphan with his gun… Look out the saints are comin’ through.
  • Your position has been given to someone else, who’s waiting to occupy what used to be your room and is already wearing what was in your closet: The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
  • Whatever you’ve committed to, accumulated and relied on in the past has lost its strength.  That means the forces with which you built your defenses—All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home/All your reindeer armies, are all going home–and also the desire that let you drop those defenses in bed: The lover who just walked out your door/Has taken all his blankets from the floor.
  • The reality on which you’ve based your life is shifting: The carpet now is moving under you— and even the heavens above are collapsing like a tent: This sky too is folding over you.

Another strain in the voice offers cold but prudent counsel:

  • take what you need, you think will last. Now you must distinguish your grain from your chaff, your goods from your stuff.
  • The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense: there’s no more security and predictability, so be wary and wise.
  • Take what you have gathered from coincidence. You cant rely on abstraction or principle, only the tentative knowledge gained from your own personal experience.

The chill in the voice is also bracing.

  • It urges courage: Leave your stepping stones behind
  • It promises freedom: Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

And finally the voice redirects nostalgic longing for the old flame that’s burned out to the opportunity for beginning: Strike another match, go start anew

And it alerts us to the sound of a future unseen, perilous, and yet beckoning, where something calls for you.

So on this last day of our class, where the works we’ve read have stimulated all of us into affirming new beginnings, this day before all of us “must leave,” lets listen to what this song of Innocence and Experience has to say.