Bob Dylan's
Together through Life

One obstacle to reviewing a Bob Dylan album is the immense baggage his career brings to any new work. His songs have always tended toward the autobiographical, so have resisted broad formulations because Bob has created music through a variety of characters. At the same time, he strips away enough details from his lyrics that they are apt to become generalized and universal, so the many layers of biography have grown opaque, and disintegrate if peeled away. Though a Bob Dylan album might prove to be an enduring work of art, it serves as a highly questionable onion.

Dylan's latest phase (Time out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times, and now Together through Life) is filled with songs that are on the surface simple, yet their reflective stance tangles us up in his previous music, public image, and private life. Coming to terms with a Bob Dylan album is like a human relationship: the Other is shadowed by a past, and highlighted by the promise of a future.

Since a review would be speculative at best, and it would be foolhardy to saute a Bob Dylan album like an onion, I will take Together for Life out for a night on the town. We head west on the freeway, into the breeze and plains of a rural night. I exit at FOOD, pass Burger King and Applebee's, and drive several miles into wherever. We seat ourselves at RESTAURANT, and Hazel comes over to take our order.

I ask for a menu, but they don't use menus. "Just tell me what you want," says Hazel. I order a clubhouse.

Hazel brings my order to the cook, Slick, and he says, "What the hell's a clubhouse? I'll make him a corned beef sandwich."

Bob and his band are playing where a few tables have been pushed aside. Some artists are defined by where they perform, and others are defined by how they arrive at that venue. Not that Bob and his band came with me. Neither did Together through Life. I'm going to change the way this night started, which is something you can do in stories and memories--at least your own stories and memories.

The band is loose, almost casual: they don't play here for money, but because they want to play. The songs are liquid and flow easily. Dylan casts a lure into the slow-moving creek of his lyrics (forget RESTAURANT altogether), pleasantly relieved at his isolation, removed from all the human minds he can read so easily. Yes, Bob Dylan always had the power to read minds, but in recent years has chosen to ignore others' thoughts, and tackle the more difficult task of reading his own mind--well, not reading his own thoughts, but articulating them. This might not make sense, but art, like life, like love, is full of contradictions: it is not true, but it is often true.

We spend a couple hours wetting our lines. The wind is lazy; the trees rustle. Some music is defined by the kind of fish an artist catches, and some music is defined by how much it rains while the artist is fishing. The sky is clear, the stars tangible, and Bob is frying three modest rainbow trout over an open fire.

Let's get back to RESTAURANT. I'd really like a clubhouse. Hazel brings Bob a corned beef sandwich, but I get pan-fried rainbow trout. Some artists are defined by the kind of sandwich they are served, and others are defined by the meals their companions are served. The trout has a side of sauteed onion, clear and mellow, and the meat has the delicious character of open-air cooking.

"What is that?" I ask Bob.

"A corned beef sandwich."

"I can see that, but why are you eating it? I ordered a clubhouse, you fried me trout, and Slick made you a corned beef sandwich."

"I've learned to eat whatever Slick serves up. There are no menus here."

"But what does it mean?"

"How should I know? This is your story."

Three trout and a starry night for a past, a future, and another milestone in a body of work that could never be ordered off a menu.

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