Today in the Guardian, a number of Bob Dylan’s fellow musicians contributed to a celebration of his 80th birthday by naming their favorite Dylan songs, and commenting on their choices.
In her comments, Gillian Welch said this:
I bought my first Dylan record – The Times They Are a-Changing  – when I was 17, but to experience those early records in real time as he was releasing them must have been like being around when Shakespeare was creating new plays.
Yes. It was like that. Exactly like that. Unexpected. Miraculous.
Years ago, when I first fell in love with a scratchy early recording of Die Dreigroschenoper, I misheard the famous punchline from Die Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (The Ballad of the Comfortable Life), which actually goes Nur wer im Wohlstand lebt, lebt angenehm.
The original line, which, translated into English means something like “Only he who is wealthy can live a comfortable life,” came, in my misheard version, to mean something like “Only he who adopts the habits of a predator can live a comfortable life.”
When I discovered my mistake, my first take was, “God, how embarrassing,” and my second, which cheered me up a little, was “Hey, I just made my first pun in German.” (A friend of mine, who’d been partially deaf from birth, once confessed to me that he’d learned early on that when he misheard something in a social situation, being credited with a clever pun was much more to his advantage than being considered slow-witted. I now knew exactly what he’d meant.)
Brecht’s original line represented a very understandable attitude for anyone, let alone a Marxist, witnessing the horrors of the German 1920’s, but I have to wonder if he might not also have approved of my corrupted version had he been confronted with the viciousness of 21st century neoliberalism in the United States, or the schwarze Null fetishism of Wolfgang Schäuble and the CDU in the reunified BRD of today. With all due respect to the genius of the original, I’d like to think so….
*Apologies to any native German speakers who might be reading this. Der Wolfstand not being a genuine German word, as far as I know, I have no idea what anyone born into the language would make of my accidental corruption of Brecht’s famous line. All I know is that it’s stuck with me all these years as somehow being even more Brechtian than the original. This is blasphemy, or at least lèse majesté, I admit, but I mean well….
It was October, 1955, a week or so before my twelfth birthday. My mother and I, my three year-old sister, and my grandmother — who’d been living with us at that point for several years — found ourselves on final approach to a late-night landing in Paris.
We weren’t supposed to be landing in Paris. We were supposed to be landing in Frankfurt am Main en route to a reunion with my father at his new army posting in southwestern Germany. That, at least, was what was printed in our official travel orders. Now there was to be at least another day added to our schedule. The captain of the government chartered Seaboard and Western Constellation we’d first boarded early that morning in New York had just announced over the cabin intercom that since Rhein Main airport in Frankfurt was completely socked in, he was diverting our flight to Orly, the nearest international airport still clear of fog. So, like it or not and ready or not, we were now headed not to Frankfurt but to Paris, the magical Cité de la Lumiere that so much had been written about. My grandmother had taken me to see an American in Paris when I was eight, but no one had ever so much as hinted to me that Paris was a place that I might one day set foot in myself.
It was nearly midnight when we finally touched down on the runway at Orly. After the ceremony of deplaning, the guided trudge through the terminal, and half an hour or so of rummaging in purses, fumbling for passports and travel documents, and whispered negotiations incomprehensible to my not quite twelve year old self, we were bundled onto a dilapidated bus and ferried to our hotel through a mist-shrouded, and by this late hour largely extinguished City of Light.
Our hotel turned out to be the Hôtel le Littré, a modest establishment situated on the Rue Littré, in the very heart of Montparnasse, not that any of us had a clue at the time exactly where we were, or how improbable it was that any of us should have fetched up there at all, let alone by accident, let alone in the middle of the night. Standing in the lobby, with my ears still throbbing from the noise and vibration of the engines during our long flight, my first impression was of a somewhat muffled, somewhat claustrophobic lounge, with brocaded furnishings reminiscent of pictures from one of my grandmother’s old photograph albums.
While my mother was simultaneously engaged in juggling my sister and signing the register, a tiny, ancient-looking woman at the equally tiny front desk handed my grandmother a pair of the largest keys I’d ever seen. They were formidable, these keys, as though originally tasked with unlocking some ancient fortress, an impression enhanced by the fact that each was attached to a half-pound oval of brass with a number engraved on it. Looks more like a cell number than a room number, I remember thinking.
Mais non, my grandmother explained to me as we were being led upstairs to our rooms, such keys were not at all weird. Because it was customary in France to leave your key at the front desk when you were away from your room, and to pick it up when you returned, there was no need for it to fit into a pocket or purse. Besides, she said, the bigger and heavier a key was, the less likely it would be to wander off by itself. How she came up with this, I had no idea, but it sounded plausible, and my grandmother, who had been a world traveler with her father as a young girl, had never been the sort of person to make stuff up.
Okay, then. Maybe French keys weren’t actually so weird after all, but they weren’t the only things French that seemed weird to me that evening, and I was far from done pestering people for explanations. Why was it so warm in our room, I demanded, why were there half a dozen pillows and almost that many rolled-up (rolled up?) quilts piled on the beds when it was already so warm, and what was that thing in the closet off the bathroom that looked like a toilet, but wasn’t? (My utterly exhausted grandmother sighed and rolled her eyes at that last question, and then, with a perfunctory nod to her daughter, got up and padded silently, shoes and overnight bag in hand, to her own adjacent room.)
The next morning — very early the next morning — we boarded the same dilapidated bus that had delivered us the night before, and set off again, still somewhat bleary-eyed, for the airport and the final leg of our journey to Frankfurt. As we crept through the slowly awakening city, there was still little to see, but I marked the cobblestones, the improbably broad streets, and the middle-aged men with rolled-up sleeves and calf-length white aprons cranking out awnings and arranging chairs and tables on the sidewalks. Sidewalk cafés, I suddenly realized, sidewalk cafés just like in the movies.
Then, as we turned a corner, there it was in the middle distance, floating above the rooftops and autumn foliage of the city, the upper two-thirds of la tour Eiffel. This, somehow, was not just like in the movies, this was more like the word made flesh of religious hyperbole, and I was motoring away from it like a soul being banished from paradise.
The moment didn’t last. I was a little more romantic, a little more literary at twelve than the average American kid, I suppose, but I was still a kid, and I liked airplanes and adventures too. I was really looking forward to trying out my ten words of German when we finally got where we were, after all, supposed to be going.
I’ve never returned to the City of Light, not once in the 65 years since I saw it for the first and only time just as the first rays of dawn were beginning to filter through the autumnal branches of the trees lining its famous boulevards. Even so, I suspect that I’m as glad as any Parisian is that it’s still there, and that it’s still Paris. Some places, Grâce à Dieu, are eternal. Paris is one of them.
Optimism is rarely a completely honest emotion, and pessimism often seems an order of magnitude too facile to be taken seriously. Realism, as practiced by its self-described and insufferably self-righteous adepts, lacks respect for those subtler aspects of reality that an attuned consciousness can perceive, but never adequately describe — except perhaps through the approximations of poetry.
What we need is a secular Vergil to guide us deeper into the sunlit hell we’ve made of the 21st century. If he does his job well, and we are truly paying attention, we should be able to find our own way back once the tour is over.
Either you trust the people or you don’t. There isn’t any middle ground.
History has some bad news for the well-meaning: regulating Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to restore our so-called democracy to us. Freedom of expression means what it says. Any political system which calls itself a democracy while at the same time trying to ensure that genuine freedom of expression is granted only to those whose opinions seem reasonable to the average voter is engaging in a very dangerous form of sophistry.
Watching half the country succumb to the mass delusions of the past four years has admittedly been excruciating, but like it or not, the truth is that anyone can be fooled, and with the right technology, virtually the entire public can be fooled at scale. Is that really Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s fault? Should we now demand that the senile ratfuckers of the U.S. Senate bully them into pretending to fix with yet more algorithms what their existing algorithms have already been responsible for breaking?
I think not. The truth is, these two accidentally evil geniuses, and others among their Silicon Valley peers, are singularly ill-equipped to do the dirty work of policing the world’s speech for us, and threatening to ruin their business model if they don’t seems a far too ham-fisted way to avoid confronting the real reasons why the Internet has become a sewer, armed mobs are assaulting our legislatures, and half the country believes Hillary Clinton is a satanic pedophile.
All of which is not to say the current fear among liberal Americans that a significant minority of their neighbors have fallen under the malign influence of weaponized troll factories or unhinged demagogues is irrational, nor attempts to do something about it entirely without merit. The danger I see is that any attempt to restrict the future of political discourse to the limits of a narrowly conceived civility will inevitably lead to the adoption of public policies just as dangerous to democratic governance as the chaos it seeks to suppress.
Even if the government persuades a majority that it should be the guardian of right thinking, there’s simply no way to accomplish such a goal without relying on a labor intensive internal security apparatus like the STASI once had, or a universal surveillance-based social credit ranking system like the one already under construction in China.
What liberals need to understand is that no matter how ignorant, how parochial, or how viciously expressed the grievances are which have split the United States in half, and incinerated the soi disant conservatism of the Republican Party, they aren’t imaginary. Precisely because they aren’t imaginary, the people who share them are not going to stop probing the gaps in our political hypocrisies until they get answers they feel they can trust.
We need to argue honestly with these people, acknowledge that their grievances aren’t entirely based on illusions, admit our part in lying to them about their prospects for the future, and commit ourselves to being honest about the limits of our willingness to help them face that future with less fear and more confidence. How hard can it be to demonstrate that we are not the evil Democrat liberals of their paranoid imaginations?
We who can genuinely claim to represent the historical left of the political spectrum most definitely do want to see them get what is legitimately theirs, but the price of our support is a renunciation on their part of racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, the sexualization of firearms, and the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, hunting what’s left of our endangered species, using demeaning epithets whenever they feel like it, and waving Confederate flags in public.
They’d laugh or sneer at the offer of a deal so alien to their instincts now, no doubt, but what we’d be attempting to do by proposing it would be to make an honest investment in them, in ourselves, and in the future of our country. None of this is rocket science. If the MAGA faithful really want to make America great again, they’re going to have to accept the fact that engagement with people like us, and with the rest of the world, is the only realistic way forward. If we want to help make that possible, we can’t farm it out to someone who promises, for a price of course, to protect us from any unpleasantness. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, and risk something of ourselves in the process of doing it. The principle of equal justice for all demands it.
P.S., the tl;dr edition:
The philosophical difference between the Fairness Doctrine and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a matter of degree rather than kind, no matter how much the sophistries of liberal convenience would have it otherwise. The only way out of our present political meltdown is to take one another seriously, and to stop indulging in the administrative fantasies of liberal dirigistes.
Since I first heard them almost sixty years ago, J.S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello have never left me. Over the intervening decades, I’ve listened to I don’t know how many recordings of them — by Casals, DuPré, Rostropovich, Ma — and now that the Internet has finally delivered us up to the celestial jukebox as promised, hardly a year goes by without some new rendition to attend to.
This is a profound thing, an almost too good to be true thing. Play these at Rush Limbaugh’s funeral, I find myself thinking, and the world, for a moment at least, would be a better place.
Such things don’t happen, not in the public space we’re compelled to share with the vengeful, but in private we can reflect on what it is that makes us compassionate even when we know the worst about ourselves. For those private moments, I can think of no better soundtrack than these genuinely sublime compositions of Bach’s, and no better argument for their right to be called that than Yo-Yo Ma’s latest recording of them.
His phrasing here is revelatory, the dynamic range astonishing, the pacing as intense and as variable as one imagines Bach must have heard it in his own inner ear. There are bones and sinews in these performances, and no apologies. As the Italians say, they sing — so much so that I find myself wondering if I’ve ever before heard these pieces played this well, this architecturally. Even Ma’s own earlier recordings of them seem somehow less forceful, less transparent. This is very high art indeed, and I for one am grateful for it.
Had the Mexican government been blessed with clairvoyance, it could have built a wall around Cancún to keep Ted Cruz out. Perhaps Austin, with the benefit of hindsight, can build one to keep him from getting back in.