Who is Bob Dylan: Bathrooms, Backseats, and Bob Dylan
Bad Days and Bathroom Stalls
It's midday. I’m weary of the hustle and bustle of the campus school day; the shirtless men grasping onto their youth outside the Hub building, swiftly kicking a hacky sack back and forth between one another, oblivious to the relentless traffic weaving all around them; the pack of frat boys marching like Hitler’s own down the crowded sidewalk; the trendy girls giggling to themselves, brightly painted cell phones glued to their bedazzled ears. I’m tired of the glazed eyes looking but not seeing; like Simon and Garfunkel once sung there are “people talking without listening.”
I duck into the closest building and welcome the stale synthetic cool air of the central air system, welcome the cold caress of the dripping sweat droplets streaming down my face and soaking into my armpits. It is quieter here, the music in my headphones – Simple Man, He Stopped Loving Her Today, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – rise above the dull echo of footsteps down the hallway; songs that are real; songs about life, living, and subsequently dying, rather than the empty beats and dance tunes dominating the airwaves outside.
I ponder further on my solitude, walking toward the restroom door, pushing it gently open and swiftly scampering into the nearest stall. Scanning the graffiti painted across the bathroom stall’s door, walls, and toilet paper dispenser, a mixture of art, poetry, and random rabble left by throngs of disjointed folks who have wandered from bathroom stall to bathroom stall. I find myself astounded by the notion of how many people have found themselves in this very cubicle since the building was constructed, as if, as I caught my breath and tenderly sang the classic songs dancing into my ears, I was sitting in the very hub of society, the very center of the civilized western world.
I remember the words of a cynical Bob Dylan as recounted in his 1966 Playboy interview with Nat Hentoff;
Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that. To go to an art gallery thing where you get free milk and doughnuts and where there is a rock-'n'-roll band playing: That's just a status affair. I'm not putting it down, mind you; but I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. I think museums are vulgar. (Hentoff 96)
Was this the boiling pot for all great American art; was this where Bob Dylan found inspiration to write Like a Rolling Stone, Blowing in the Wind, and Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts; was this his muse, allowing him to produce countless timeless classics?
Later on, after classes are through, and work is long done, my mind wanders back to the questions that swirled in my head earlier. What was Bob Dylan really saying about the bathroom and its role in the artist’s work? I rifle through numerous albums and numerous mp3 files on my Rhapsody Account, listening to the words of Bob Dylan, trying to find that coveted lyric that would bring the bathroom gallery into his songs. In my head, I want to call Bob Dylan out, tell him how full of shit he really is – tell him he can’t proclaim such bold and cynical statements without supporting it with his product. Just as I am about to abandon this effort, file this brief interview statement into the Bob Dylan bull shit folder of my mind and never ponder on it again, I hear a lyric I have never heard before.
Hidden away on his 1997 The Bootleg Series collection is a previously unreleased outtake from the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album called “Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” Bob sings, toward the end of the song;
Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom
Was this just a humorous line cleanly placed into one of Dylan’s many comic tunes, or carefully constructed proof for his later statement in the Playboy interview? I explore the rest of the song; try to get a feel for the arch of the story. From what I gather, a family man finds an advertisement for the “Bear Mountain picnic” and decides to take his “wife ‘n’ kids” to the event. Yet when he arrives he finds himself in for “a picnic surprise” because the event “Had nothin’ to do with mountains” and the family “didn’t even come close to a bear.”
The family eventually boards a big ship by the pier, where “six thousand people” also waited to join the event. However once the patrons board the vessel “That big old boat started t’ sink” even though “More people kept a-pilin’ on.” Eventually the narrator of the song loses his family and begins to run from the chaos of “Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other.” He ultimately finds his family and takes them home where he vows to have his own picnic in the bathroom. Bob Dylan sums up the song by accosting people for the scams they construct to make money, and says those people should be put on a boat to the Bear Mountain picnic.
I analyze the story in my head, thinking about how the bathroom stanza relates to the entirety of the story arch. It isn’t long before I begin to develop my own interpretation. Everyone followed the advertisement for the picnic; it became the norm for the characters of the song. Yet when, all “six thousand people” followed the same goal, and all convened on the one single ship, the ship began to sink. The ship becomes a conceit for mainstream society, which within the poems scope, seems to be primed to fall or in the songs language primed to sink.
Once that society begins to sink all “six thousand people” try to “kill each other.” This shows how fragile the conception of mainstream society is within the song. In comparison, the bathroom, where the family ends up having their picnic is safe and secure. The argument than comes to be that the bathroom represents a counter-sphere to the public domain – a private sanctuary for dissidents to preform life in their own way. More so, this sphere of existence proves to be a more successful and bountiful plane of existence.
Finally, after a long unproductive search I am pleased to have found a piece of Bob Dylan’s interview peering through the cracks of his works. Maybe, after all, behind the lyrics, the harshly strummed chords, in the screeching harmonica, maybe veiled under all of these layers, is a dirty bathroom stall, graffiti on the walls a hypo needle on the ground, Bob Dylan scribbling lines of verse on a piece of toilet paper. But why was such a telling song not included on the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album? Why keep a song so important to his worldview, and so key to where his art originated from, away from the listener?
The only logical decision for me was to throw in my new age digital corruption of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album and take a few hours to rifle through the thirteen crisply played acoustic tracks. I light up a Marlboro Red cigarette, crack open a ninety nine cent bottle of Coca-Cola, grab the Cd and my keys that are haphazardly sprawled out onto the crumb covered carpet of my off-campus four bedroom apartment. I make my way out the door, down the staircase, across the blistering asphalt parking lot and into my maroon 1996 Plymouth Breeze. The junker of a car roughly growls as I turn the key and place the CD into the dock. I back out, and cruise off for a joy ride – a little alone time with Bob.
Alone With Bob
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is the first song to greet me from the half-ass speakers my beaten up car is equipped with. It is no secret that this song is a classic among classics, a song that after its release in 1963, became an anthem for a generation of activists and downtrodden citizens, a song that went on to be covered by 100’s of reputable musicians and eventually be named number 14 in Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time. I am no stranger to this uplifting tune; but what of the songs counterparts? Were there others on the album like this music juggernaut? I categorize the song in my head as a protest song, aware of the songs relevance to the anti-segregation movement and the upcoming hippie movement of the late 60’s.
I flip through a few of the songs, “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall, “Talking World War III Blues.” As I look at the denizens walking along College Avenue, the setting sun casting a golden light on their faces – two bearded cooks outside the College Diner smoking cigarettes, a small pack of short skirted bag toting blondes waiting in line outside of the Mezzanine dance club, a scruffy bearded old man uncontrollably screaming at people from the Calder Alleyway behind McLanahan’s Market – I begin to feel a maelstrom of emotions welling up inside of me. Discontent hidden behind the glazed over eyes of the distraught looking smokers; smug and unwarranted complacency in the giggling girls prettied up for a night out; anger for the old man ignored in the shadow filled alleyway.
But in these songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I feel the desire to make a difference; like despite how shit-covered the world becomes, despite how apocalyptic our path seems to be, despite how far off the small answers to our world’s many plights have blown in the wind, I feel as though I have to find them, I have to solve them, like it’s my duty to this collective conscience we call the human race. These songs are all protest songs, songs that have grown to be prophecy for both Bob Dylan’s generation and the ones that have followed. Speckled between enchanting love songs like “Girl from the North Country,” these songs order purpose into the listeners’ ear.
But still, after a good hour and a half of driving I find myself at a loss for why the bathroom art concept was left out of this album. The messages between the protest songs and “Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” are clearly congruent. The same call for change, the same world where men become “wounded with hatred” and “a hard rain’s” eventually “a-gonna fall” exists within “Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” Like the entirety of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, this song shows a messed up world where men are killing men and a change is needed or else our ship’s going to sink. Yet, for some reason Bob chose to leave it out from the album.
Artist Against the World
Maybe for Dylan, though the bathroom was the central hub for great art and the only place worthy enough to display it, the bathroom still might have been a painful image. Maybe the bathroom was a place for pain and suffering, an image that would have conflicted with the hopeful protest songs that dominated both his second album the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and his third The Times They Are A-Changin’.
During his rise to fame, Dylan was constantly being likened to a prophet, forced into the role of a leader. Peter Yarrow, the master of ceremonies at the Newport Folk Festival, said after one of Dylan’s performances that Dylan, a newcomer in the folk scene, had “his finger on the pulse of our generation.” Many expected Dylan to assume the role of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; men who sang songs in the hope that they could change the world. At first it seemed he embraced this role, following up on his first album of original songs with The Times They Are a-Changin in 1964. This album has come to be known as a protest album with such tunes as “With God on Our Side”, “the Ballad of Hollis Brown”, and of course the very influential “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Still, for Dylan, this was not the music he wanted to be writing and the publicity his new spotlight brought was something he desired to escape from.
During this time Bob Dylan was quoted saying “Just because you like my stuff doesn't mean I owe you anything.” Though Bob was being received as the spokesman for his generation, Bob didn’t believe he owed anything to his fans. He preferred the solitude away from the spotlight. This culminated into his music as well. First he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, and completely pushed against the protest song dominate albums he had previously released. In “My Back Pages” he sang that he believed the lie “that life is black and white” and that he previously thought he “had something to protect” and that Good and bad” were terms he could “define…clearly.” But he. unlike before where he “was so much older”. he was “younger than that now.” Respectively this disconnects himself from being some enlightened leader. Nothing is as black and white as he made it in previous albums.
This line of thought can even be found in his break up song classic “It Ain’t Me Babe.” The story is of a man leaving a woman because he isn't the man she wants. But if we take the chorus alone it resonates with the changing subject matter. He is also saying ‘listen up audience, you’re looking for someone to lead you but I swear “It ain’t me, babe / No, no, no, it ain’t me babe / It ain’t me your looking for, babe” so look somewhere else, and leave me alone.’ And his threat ended up being no empty statement. In his next two albums Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited Dylan made a decision that cemented him as a musician with a pair of the biggest cajones in rock history. Abandoning his folk counterparts, and the millions of fans he had accrued as the spokesman of the generation, Dylan made the brash decision to return to his roots and start writing and performing electric music. He hung up his acoustic guitar and put away his politically charged lyrics and began to make a more personal variety of music.
For Dylan he had stepped back into the bathroom, and began making music that was both relevant to the population and his own hardships. The very personal domain of the bathroom returned to his artistic spirit. The hard rockin’ tunes like “Like a Rolling Stone”, the bluesy “Tombstone Blues”, the heart wrenching song of desperation “Desolation Row” all began to dominate his music selection and resonated between the narrow walls of the bathroom stall; songs that struck chords in the hearts of junkies, students, and brokenhearted business men.
As I pull into the Lion’s Crossing parking lot, the sun having long sunk below the Nittany Mountains, street lights bathing the now cool asphalt, I feel a slight sadness come over me. I’m a writer, call me a poet, a novelist, a journalist, it doesn't matter. Where the prospect of the bathroom artist excited me before, gave me a sense of being on the cusp of the cutting edge, I am now struck with a sharp feeling of loneliness. I see Bob Dylan in a different light, where before I always thought of him as a bit pompous, a man who had no respect for his home and frankly felt he was better than every other artist – which to be honest, in most cases was true – a man who believed himself to be a regular modern day renaissance man, now I see a man, writing in the bathroom, not to capture the energetic and feral essence that surrounds the public bathroom, but instead to hide; hide from frantic and unruly fans; hide from a populace’s misplaced expectations; hide from the music people want him to write so he can instead write the music that he wants to produce. The bathroom truly may be the social hub of society, the breeding place for great art and artists, but it is also a prison; a place where one must confine themselves to if one’s art is gonna be true to the artist.
I return to my apartment, have a few empty laughs with my roommates, enjoy a meal, and swiftly make my way to bed. I have a lot to ponder on. Is this desolate despair of a life, something all artists share, or has it become a norm only relevant to a man such as Bob Dylan. Can I escape the bleak and lonely life that Dylan has led at times in his life?
From Bathrooms to Backseats
I wake up, my throat is sore and chest is heavy with last night’s cigarettes still clogging up my air ways. Still I grab another smoke out of the pack and forage around my dirty room for my Bob Dylan the Essential Interviews book and go out to the porch. I am met with a cooler crisper air than the day before and am comforted by the warm embrace of the sun rays reaching through the trees across the road. I finger through the pages, scanning the ramblings of a truly lonely man. Finally, I stop on page 362 in the midst of Sam Shepard’s 1987 interview in the Esquire. I am intrigued by the screen play format, but it is the discussion of James Dean that really catches my attention. It seems like the Bob Dylan's character of the play finds a connection with Mr. Dean. He says that Dean was someone who “told the truth.” For Dylan this seems to be his major concern as an artist. When he was doing protest songs he wasn’t telling the truth according to who he wanted to be at the time.
As I read on, Bob Dylan also selects Hank Williams as another truth teller. He highlights that the two legends “both died in cars.” Bob Dylan pays especial attention to the backseat of the Cadillac coup Hank Williams died in. He says that he saw the car once before and when he “looked in the backseat of that car…this overwhelming sense of loneliness seized” him “by the throat.” He continues to describe the experience as “almost unbearable.” For Dylan, the experience was so surreal that he couldn't look very long and turned away almost immediately.
The play shifts to Dylan’s own vehicle incident where he wrecked his Triumph 500 in Woodstock – an experience that was not unlike James Dean’s own fatal accident. While it is unclear if this is coincidence, or Sam Shepard’s own structuring of the play, there seems to be a spiritual connection that has arisen between the three artists – country Singer, actor, Renaissance man. All men whose art proves to be too much to handle, who live all alone in the world, will end up like Hank, dead in the back seat of a car, with no one around. And for Bob, who had been struggling with drug addiction for years by 1987, this possibility seemed very real. How long can a man hide in a bathroom stall, away from the world that passes him by, before he slips away into an endless sleep in the backseat of a car with no one to even know he has passed?
I shut the book, lean back and inhale the last bit of my cigarette, letting my eyes roll back behind my eye lids, and begin to imagine my place in the scheme of what it takes to be an artist; a life that goes from the bathroom stall to the back seat of some ratty ass car. I wonder if the pain, the loneliness, the ridicule is worth the art. But Dylan is still traveling from city to city, a show every night, music still pouring out of the man’s endless cerebral plains. Maybe this is where music comes from, the bathroom stall I will inevitably find a reprieve in later in the day, and maybe the back seat is where my life will silently slip away, but the art we can produce will be something that allows our lives to transcend the death of our bodies. Like the graffiti on the bathroom wall that never seems to become completely erased.
What is your favorite Bob Dylan Classic?
"500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Bob Dylan, 'Blowin' in the Wind' | Rolling Stone." Rolling Stone | Music News, Politics, Reviews, Photos, Videos, Interviews and More. Ed. Jann S. Wenner. Rolling Stone, 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407/bob-dylan-blowin-in-the-wind-19691231>.
Dylan, Bob. Another Side of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan. Rec. 8 Aug. 1964. Tom Wilson, 1964. MP3.
Dylan, Bob. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." Rec. 1962. The Bootleg Series. Bob Dylan. Columbia, 1997. MP3.
Dylan, Bob. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan. Rec. 27 May 1963. John Hammond, 1963. MP3.
Dylan, Bob. The Times They Are A-Changin' Bob Dylan. Rec. 10 Feb. 1964. Tim Wilson, 1964. MP3.
Hentoff, Nat. Interview with Nat Hentoff, Playboy, March 1966. 1966. Bob Dylan, the Essential Interviews. By Bob Dylan and Jonathan Cott. New York: Wenner, 2006. 93-111. Print.
Shepard, Sam. A Short Life of Trouble. 1987. Bob Dylan, the Essential Interviews. By Bob Dylan and Jonathan Cott. New York: Wenner, 2006. 347-65. Print.