Bob Dylan and Me: Not Dark Yet - A Memoir
I've Been Here All Day
Alone at the bar, a country tune wailing behind me, voices mingling with torrents of smoke billowing all around the dark room. Alone in public, a bottle of Straub beer perspiring down my clammy hand, a Marlboro Red cowboy-killer burning dangerously close to my callused fingers. Only here, away from my responsibilities, away from all the people I know, away from the tragic mistakes that have blemished my last couple weeks, only here can I close my eyes long enough to take a breath and ponder upon this life I have led. I stand up momentarily to let the blood that has rushed to my head settle, to shake off the stiffness that has crept over my body.
I carry my beer across the barroom to the TouchTunes digital jukebox that glows beside the wooden restroom doorways and lean my arm against the wall beside it. Browsing nonchalantly through the massive catalogue of tunes, I quickly graze my fingers over the touch screen keyboard and type “BOB DYLAN” into the search bar. The collection that I am presented with is slim mostly including the regulars; the Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone types. Yet amongst the mess of overplayed, uninspiring songs my eyes fall upon Not Dark Yet. Dylan’s 1997 single from the triple Grammy winning Time Out of Mind album is a heart wrenching piece exploring the impending nature of what Dylan believed was his inevitable death. Having suffered through years of addiction, both alcohol and drug related, a series of bitter and soul crushing divorces, and a variety of musical periods and comebacks, Dylan had become tired and actually suffered from an unknown illness during the recording of the album.
I feel in this moment a bit like Bob Dylan, a writer, a lover, a damaged man, full of regrets, facing my own seemingly fragile mortality. I forage in my wallet’s many pockets, in hopes I can find a single dollar, just enough so I can hear the hauntingly beautiful Dylan song. A ten, a twenty, a five; I search behind my credit cards almost ready to lose hope but finally see the crisp corner of a folded up dollar bill. I waste no time in flattening the folded dollar out and slipping it into the slot on the front of the machine. It takes me a few swipes but it is finally accepted. I press the play button and stumble slowly back to the bar stool I had been sitting on.
The music starts, its slow dark tone reverberating throughout the room. I hear a collective groan from the old men who come to Jackson’s bar on a regular basis. I can’t tell if their frustration is because the song isn’t the usual upbeat country tune, or because they are being forced to face their own short lives. I block them out and fade into the chilling guitar riff. I try to drift away, back before there were bars and beers, back before there was love and lust, back before I was able to hate myself, back when I could welcome the face in the mirror. I drift away to life without this feeling of dread, without this song or Bob Dylan, back to a time where I could reflect upon my life and my bad decisions.
Ain’t Looking For Nothing
I wake up to a mildew infested ceiling. The mold above me reminds me of the night outside, stars sweeping across the sky forming a ravaged battlefield, Orion cringing from Scorpio’s strike. That damned poison. I study these constellations, something my father taught me about on late night camping forays, in order to keep my mind away from what I truly feel. Inadvertently, however, it is these very images of pain and loss that plague my very soul.
The soul – such a cliché concept. I find myself searching for a better term but find none. Does my body ache? Does my mind suffer? Is there any tangible affliction coursing through me? No. It is my very being that reels. My very being that is inundated by harsh words and despicable looks.
Like any other morning I close my eyes, wishing that my mother, three rooms up the hall, will remain in her peaceful slumber. Remain there until the morning has long passed and it is too late for us to venture forth. I love my mother. She is full figured, yet feminine in every aspect. Make-up every morning; deep red lipstick, blush, cover up. Her permed hair; hard to decipher whether it pours gently down her shoulder, or billows upward from her fiery cheeks like the smoke during a midnight camp fire. Yet what I love most is her smile; a smile I despise during mornings like this. Wide, full, and gleaming I never see it fade; in hardships; in pain; in sorrow. Her slightly yellowed teeth light up every room she enters.
Alone with her I never frown. After I am let out of my preschool class, we often sneak away, just the two of us, and share a meal at the local diners. We keep it our secret. My brother, at school doesn’t know, my father, at work isn’t told. These escapes comfort me. I am provided the companionship that my peers fail to give me. Still, even in these small vacations, I find myself alone.
I am not sure if I have fallen asleep, or if my mind has wandered so far away that I have lost track of time, but now I can see small pillars of light forcing their way through my window blinds. The streaks warm my cold body, causing me to rise from my hibernation. I refuse to look at the room. It is a sickening sight. Instead, I listen for the footsteps I hear coming down the hallway. I panic. Standing from my bed I quietly walk to my door, swiftly opening it to snake through the small crack. Looking left, I jog into the living room, and take a sharp turn toward the front door. To my right a putrid yellow sofa extends between the two walls blocking off the corner. It is there that I leap behind and wait, wrapped up in the fetal position.
Looking back I wonder why I hadn’t wizened up. Every time I attempted this trick I concealed myself in the same location. My mind would wander, ignoring the reasons for my escape, pretending I was a cowboy waiting for the Indian tribe to pass. Of course moments later my mother would locate me and force me into the shower, smiling the entire time.
As I am strapped into the front seat of my Mom’s maroon junker, I find myself reminiscing about a Sunday school lesson on Moses; Moses who God used to bring his people out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, and into the promise land. Where was my Moses? Where was my Canaan? No, instead I got an exodus to school, where I would find myself faced with the oppressions of my fellow Pharaohs.
I’ve Still Got the Scars That the Sun Didn’t Heal
"Mrs. Cower.” I inquire in a soft spoken tone, my hand raised high into the air.
“Yes Eric, what is it that you need?” Her belly jiggles as she walks toward me smiling.
This was the First Grade. Long gone were my attempts to escape this hell. Long gone were my secret rendezvouses with my mother. I had accepted the fate that was to come of those who were like me. A fate that meant I would have to struggle through school, alone. The conflict would never get easier. The ridicule didn’t change, only the harshness of the words. With age came knowledge; knowledge both constructive and destructive.
Lowering my hand, I squeak, “May I please go to the restroom?”
She nods her head rapidly exposing her short chrome colored hair. Motioning me toward the restroom pass, a wooden cube with the room’s number on it, she moves back toward her desk. We had just gotten back from recess and Mrs. Cower was allowing us to recuperate for a few moments. I, however, am well rested as I sat alone on the seesaw the duration of our recreational break. I was turned down when I asked to join the daily pickup football game in the field. No surprise.
Standing, I make my way clumsily through the rows of desks, trying not to waddle into a classmate’s seat. As I brush past them, I can hear words spoken under their breaths. “Fatty.” “What a scruff.” “Here comes fat ass.” I wonder where students my age learn such hateful banter. Grasping my Golden Ticket, I hurry out the door and down the hall. The restroom was usually a reprieve – a no-fire-zone in my war. But my enemy would not adhere to the rules.
Entering the restroom, I move toward the urinal. Holding myself up, I use my right hand to lift up my oversized grey tee-shirt and the left to lower my whitey-tighty underwear and fire-truck red sweat pants. My father, who I loved very much, worked a lot of the time and had not yet had the chance to show me how to properly relieve myself in a urinal. Behind me I could feel the door opening as a cool piercing breeze slapped my bare skin.
A maniacal series of chuckles erupts behind me. Uncomfortable, I count the seconds closing my eyes tightly. I try to ignore the reality I am in. Nintendo. Playing War. Jedis. Superman. Despite my attempts to focus on enjoyable thoughts, I am unable to muster the courage of the Man of Steel. Beside me a demon with curly hair smirks pompously; his coterie circles. I am unable to count them.
“Why are your pants down,” I hear him question
I don’t answer.
“Don’t you know how to pee? Are you a baby or something?” His interrogation continues.
I still don’t reply.
I look down at myself.
“You are dirty.”
I am from a low income family, though at this time I didn’t know and took every word to heart.
“You are dumb”
I am at the top of my classes.
“And now you are also a baby…What a loser.”
Finishing with their assault, the curly haired leader reaches out and slaps me on my bare ass. Satisfied with their work, they proceed to do their business and leave. Once again I am alone. The no-fire-zone breeched. Despite me knowing that most of their words were wrong, I begin to cry. I am beaten, embarrassed, and left exposed. Having spent far more than my allotted time in the restroom I gather myself, pulling up my pants and wiping away the tears. I must go on. Back in the class room I apologize for taking so long. I am excused. The teacher doesn’t say it, but she knows what I go through. The rest of the day I do not speak again. Not that it matters since I have no friends to speak to. I let my mind wander as my swollen eyes look out the window. I sigh. If there is no Moses waiting for me, then why can’t I have a personal Superman?
Shadows Are Falling
Back in the bar, the song continues, the drafts continue to flow, and the tobacco continues to burn. I finish the last gulp of the green colored bottle before handing another two dollars and twenty five cents across the chipped wooden counter. The barmaid reaches in her refrigerator, grabs another beer, and cracks off the cap. She hands me the drink as I trade her for a one dollar tip and nod my head, ready to get back to the song playing over the speakers. I wonder to myself why now, after all I had gone through as a child, was I unable to face the light that waited for me outside the heavy bar door.
The first verse passes before I begin to really listen to Bob’s words. His raspy voice begins to sing again as I perk up my ear; “Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain / Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.” I see this all too clearly, both by my childhood experience and my own horrific actions of the past few weeks. Though I long to be the victim like I was so long ago, now I can only see the victimized surrounding me. People I have wronged. I force away the thoughts of my wrong doings to continue listening. The short but important chorus sings “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” It seems like my entire life has been a series of dark moments; only before I was able to recognize it could get worse. I again look back to a younger me, who in hindsight seems to be a much stronger man.
How does emotional music make you feel?
Well, My Sense of Humanity Has Gone Down the Drain
The song reaches its halfway point; Bob’s voice gently fades away into an emotional instrumental section, I sip down the last bit of my fifth or sixth beer – I have lost count. Ordering another, my mind wanders across the nation to the iron rich mountains of Minnesota. My thoughts mosey along highway 61, past Minneapolis and Duluth, far away from this once proud now poor coal mining town, out of Winburne, Pennsylvania. I find myself staggering along the streets of Hibbing, Minnesota; trying to retrace the very steps that little Robert Zimmerman took when he was a young boy. When asked about why he changed his name Dylan once answered “You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free” (Leung). The young Robert Zimmerman had become so separated from those around him, so disillusioned by what seemed to him to be a place he wasn’t even meant to be born, that he ran away after going to college never to look back at what was his home.
Dylan changed his name, left his hometown, and started anew in New York; living an almost completely different life. Though his time in Hibbing was assuredly dark for him, a boy completely on the fringe of society mentally, Dylan knew what he wanted and new it wasn’t dark enough yet for him to stand down. I remember a similar feeling in my own life; the changes I made to myself when I made it to high school. The style changes, the behavioral shifts, the constant battle for approval by my peers. And for much of my life it worked. I was happy, even religious. I had girlfriends and a group of guys; I was respected and even envied by some. But life is fickle, and things always seem to come back around on the wheel of fate.
Dylan, who was so hell bent on running away from home, found himself changing too rapidly. His popularity threatened his independence and eventually crept into his privacy. The stress caused him to look to drugs and alcohol and brought up suicidal emotions. Like Dylan, I also found the pendulum of change swinging too far. High school came and went and college welcomed a new life for me. For the first year, things remained constant and generally good. I had a girlfriend of six years, a church to welcome me, good friends for company, and good grades to show my effort. Yet when I decided to move away from home and live in State College, things began to fall apart.
My financial stability began to crumble, I stopped attending church on Sundays, and eventually I was greeted by a late night text from my girlfriend saying she was breaking up with me. Within a few months everything that was solid had collapsed, and my foundation was gone. I started drinking with my friends, hoping to uphold at least their approval. And now, I sit in this dark bar, alone, listening to Bob grumble about his fading life, imagining our lives as one. My head is light and vision blurry from the smoke and alcohol coursing through my lungs and my veins. I want to break down in front of these old men, cry until they kick me out. While life was hard and spiraling out of control, I survived and knew my life could be much worse. At least I had my virtue and my dignity intact. I was a good person. But all of that is gone now. The man who wouldn’t hurt a soul was no more. As the song ends, I can no longer forget about what happened, about the last few weeks, about what I did; the pained cries of a heartbroken woman, the detestable eyes of a betrayed brother, and the girl whose guilt I share.
I’ve Been Down on the Bottom of a World Full of Lies
“I’m going to go sleep in my car,” my brother says as he walks through a room full of five or six snickering drunks.
“Buddy, why don’t you take a spot on the floor of my room, I’d give you my bed but Chris is already sleeping in it,” I answer quickly standing to meet him before he reaches the door. “It’s not nearly as cold as it is gonna get out there.”
He momentarily thinks about my proposition before replying, “Nah, my V-Dub is super comfortable, besides its way too messy to sleep in this shit hole.”
“Oh fuck off,” I laugh and walk him out to the porch, I need a cigarette anyway. “Your loss, bro, if you change your mind there is plenty of room up here.”
As he nods, he holds his hand out and his girlfriend slips slyly by me to take his hand. He hugs her and tells her his plans. She protests, but my brother is too thick-headed to back down. Though my brother’s, short, petite girlfriend finally lets it go, she lets him know that she is still going to stay up for a while and have a few more drinks. My brother kisses her and leaves for the parking lot as I light up one of my last cigarettes and sit down at the bar on my porch, a beer waiting for me in the cold box of Straub cans.
“Do you think you can spare me one of those,” my brother’s girlfriend asks pointing to my smoke, a slight pout on her face.
I have been drinking for almost four hours now and am certifiably drunk. Because of this I find myself all too willing to share my final cowboy-killer with the pouty face of my brother’s woman. She holds the cigarette in between her thin lips and leans forward. I am slow to react but eventually get the hint and hold my lighter up to light the Marlboro Red. She leans back into her seat as I take a large swig of my beer. I actually welcome this alone time with her; since she started dating my brother I had not been able to really sit down and get to know her. There weren’t many opportunities like this since my brother had just recently moved to Virginia because of a job offer with Capital One. Though having grown up in my home school district, she had basically moved in with him over the last few weeks. Still, I remain quiet hoping she will open up the conversation first. I am way too inebriated to figure out discussion topics.
“So, your brother tells me you have a new girlfriend, when we gonna meet her?”
She is right. After a year of battling with feelings, and the disapproval of my roommates over a sexual relationship I had developed over the summer, within the last week or so I decided to take the dive and see where things would go with this girl. She was sweet, and fun, and for the first time since my ex broke up with me I didn’t feel so lonely. I tell her things were good, and that she would be attending my family’s Thanksgiving Dinner this year. She congratulates me an expresses her excitement over my new found love interest. I smile before taking a long drag on my cigarette. There is a long pause between us; the cool breeze softly strokes my skin as I listen to the cars whizzing by in the distant night.
“Eric, this is gonna sound weird, but what do you think of me? We haven’t talked much and your brother said you said a few things.”
I stop her before she can continue. I remember what I said to my brother, and I knew he had relayed all the information incorrectly. She had a child with another man, and my brother believed that the said child would never interfere in his relationship with his girlfriend. I knew that was naive and simply warned him to be prepared for the relationship he was getting into. I explain this to her as earnestly as I can, stumbling and slurring on the words. She nods her head before I continue.
“Honestly, when I first met you I thought you were very nice. I mean you told him to buy me a car,” we chuckle and she reaffirms that initial conversation we had. “He’s a good guy; I just don’t want him to believe that your kid will never play a part in your relationship.”
She agrees and promises me she will talk to him about it. I finish another beer before grabbing two out of my case, offering one to her. She accepts and we continue talking for another 45 minutes or so. I decide to be daring and finish my next two beers in my roommates beer bong. By now, my perception of memory has begun to fade, as I find myself slipping in and out of consciousness. The next moment I can remember I am sitting on the black pleather couch sitting in the corner of my room, some terrible pop song playing on the Television. My brother’s girlfriend’s friend is sitting on the matching sofa next to me, two of our guests passed out on the garbage strewn floor. My brother’s girlfriend is standing in the center of the room dancing, her flat stomach peering out from between her pants and shirt. I cover my eyes, feeling that the way she is moving is inappropriate. She says something to me about her dancing but I block it out.
One more beer down and I again regain consciousness sitting inches from her on the porch again. We are both out of cigarettes and are in need of a smoke bad. She suggests the brilliantly drunk idea of looking through the fishing pail that sits on my bar, sand and cigarette butts inside, for acceptably lengthed butts to smoke. Unable to reason with the filthy nature of the suggestion, and craving nicotine badly, I agree and begin talking as we light up our half assed, bent and burnt cigarettes.
I begin drunkenly ranting about my lack of confidence and how people like her shouldn’t talk about losing weight and being unhealthy. She stops me and relates a story of how she was once interested in me while we attended high school. I remain silent but have no recollection of her during my days in high school. She begins saying she is cold, so I hand her my sweat shirt. The beer and Jack Daniels from earlier in the night has provided me with a natural blanket of warmth. My memories become continually vague and spotty, but not even the alcohol can make me forget what happened next. She continues her stories about her interest in me and I begin to slowly lean toward her – I cannot remember if it was out of intent or general lack of balance (for my sake I hope the latter). Eventually my numb lips meet with hers and we begin to kiss.
We pull away from each other ashamed of what happened. My guilt is already burning a hole in my heart, I try to walk away but she catches my wrist and tells me we have to go to the bathroom where we can be more private and figure out what had just happened. I reluctantly agree, my fuzzy mind doesn’t allow me to protest. She collapses onto the dimly lit bathroom’s dirty floor and leans against the counter. I follow suit sitting in the doorway that separates the toilet and shower from the sinks. We talk, but I cannot recall what was said. I know we lean in to kiss a few more times pulling away from each other violently, ashamed by what we have done. I want to leave, run away, forget what ever transpired, but instead I collapse backward almost dozing off.
In my mind I see the smiling face of my lovely girlfriend waiting for me in Mansfield, I see my brother, my arms around his shoulders in an old family picture. I have dozed off for too long and finally I realize his girlfriend has undone my pants and I can feel a tingle rising from my pelvic region. It takes a second or two for me to comprehend what is happening but I sit up to push her away as she retreats into the corner. I button my pants, stand up, and rush out of the door sobered by the experience.
I hear from the bathroom her exasperated voice repeating the words “I’ve cheated, I’ve cheated, I’ve cheated” over and over again. I can’t face that fact. I walk through the living room, onto the porch, down the stairs, and wander the Lion’s Crossing property for what seems like forever. I have tears burning in my eyes. I have guilt eating at my conscience. I have hate ripping at my mind. Hate for my brother’s girlfriend. Hate for the alcohol. But mostly hate for myself. I return some time later. Retrieve her from the bathroom, walk her onto the porch and tell her we need to talk about what to do. She wants to tell my brother, as do I, but asks that we discuss it over the next few days first.
My brother wakes up after an uncomfortable eternity. I shake his hand, look him in the eyes, and walk away as he embarks for his trip back to Richmond – Judas. I rush off to bed, hoping than when I wake up I will find that it was all a dream; that it never happened. Instead I wake up to a text from my brother; a text that basically announced his disowning of me; a text that sealed my fate as the son of a bitch destined to roam between bars alone; a broken and damaged man.
I Was Born Here and I’ll Die Here Against My Will
What is a man without his name? What is man without his dignity? What is a man who has allowed life to drag him from the church pew to the bar stool instead? Pathetic; that’s what he is. Like Dylan, who drug his image through dirt and mired his career in drugs and addiction, we have become shells of who we were meant to be. All we have set out to do is immediately matched with our transgressions. Though we were once the victims and should know what it means to be berated, we have failed to learn from these experiences, and failed to stop the endless cycle of sin.
I finish my last beer, burn my cigarette to the filter, and trip out of the bar. It is night now, the warm sunlight has long left and instead the earth is frozen over like the gates of hell. I lean against my car, lighting another cigarette in hopes of sobering up. I recall the condemnation my brother handed down; the friends who justifiably turned against me; the girlfriend who forgave me with a frown at the end of her lips. How, after Bob Dylan has done so much wickedness and has lost so much, can he still say that it’s “Not Dark Yet?” As I look around my hometown, all I see is darkness; dilapidated buildings; sullen old men staggering in and out of the bar; a flickering street lamp up the road. For me, a man who has nothing left, it seems that it is definitely dark now. While Dylan may have been talking about death, for me death seems like a brighter fate then the tarnished life I must lead now. I get in my car swerve a mile down the road to my home, and crack open one more beer, hoping that tomorrow will once again bring a sliver of light.
It's Never Too Dark
Dylan, Bob. "Not Dark Yet." Time out of Mind. Columbia, 1997. MP3.
Leung, Rebecca. "Dylan Looks Back." 60 Minutes. CBS Interactive Inc., 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.