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Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again: Bob Dylan, A Masked Man in Search of Redemption?

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"He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it."

George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant"

The lobby of the temple of time travel called the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts was suffused with a nostalgic vibe tinged with the whiff of encroaching death when I walked in for The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. I had earlier asked the ticket girl if most of the tickets for the two sold-out preview shows were being purchased by old people; she told me no, that many younger people had also bought tickets. However, I didn't see any. All I saw were grey or white heads and beards, not with "Time Out of Mind," as Dylan titled his 1997 album, but with time on their minds, as they shuffled into the dark to see where their time had gone and perhaps, if they were not mystified by their fetishistic worship of Dylan, to meditate on who they had become and where they and he were heading in the days to come. I imagined most were aware that Dylan had said that he's been singing about death since he was twelve, and that his music is haunted by images of love and time lost as bells toll for those traveling the road of life in search of forgiveness for their transgressions.

How, I wondered, would this Dylan documentary "story" fashioned by Martin Scorsese, whose own work is marked by themes of guilt and redemption, affect an audience that might never have taken the roads less traveled of their youthful dreams but "fell" into the conformist and oppressive American neo-liberal way of life? Would this film, in Dylan's words, get the audience wondering "if I ever became what you wanted me to be/Did I miss the mark or overstep the line/That only you could see?" Would nostalgia for their youth be a liberating or mystifying force, now that forty plus years have transformed American society into a conservative, postmodern, shopper's paradise where commodity capitalism has reified all aspects of life, including art objects and artists such a Dylan, imbuing them with magical powers to redeem those who buy their products, which include songs and celebrity "auras"? I knew I was sitting among people who had fetishized Barack Obama as a savior even while he was waging endless wars and killing American citizens, bailing out his Wall St. and bank supporters, and jailing more whistleblowers than any American president in history, and that Dylan had accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from this icon of rectitude who had served to quell all thoughts of rebellion and whose war victims were not counted by those who bought his brand since God was on his side. Here in this darkened dream factory in a hyper-gentrified "liberal" town, my mind was knotted with thoughts and questions that perhaps the film would address.

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The Man Who Isn't

I knew that no one would answer my questions, but I asked myself anyway. Moreover, I knew there is no Bob Dylan. He is a figment of the imagination first his own and then the public's. Perhaps behind the character Bob Dylan there is a genuine actor, and I hoped to catch an unintended glimpse of him in the film, but I knew if he appeared it would be obliquely and through a gradual dazzling of truth, as Emily Dickinson would say. An unconscious disclosure. For if the real Bob Dylan took off his mask and stood up, his ardent fans would receive it as a slap in the face, and their illusions would transmogrify into delusions as the spell would be broken. To tell the truth directly is a dangerous undertaking in a country of lies.

Dylan, the spellbinder, has, through his public personae, hypnotized his followers with his tantalizing and wonderful music. "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me," wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem, "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through." This sounds like Dylan's artistic credo. His masks (personae = to sound through) have served as his medium of exchange. He has been faithful to his tutelary spirit (if not to living people), what the Romans called one's genius that is gifted to one at birth and is one's personal spirit to which one must be faithful if one wishes to be born into true and creative life. If one sacrifices to one's genius, one will in return become a vehicle for the fertile creativity that the genius can bestow. A person is not a genius but a transmitter of its gifts.

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Like Lawrence, Dylan has served as a vehicle for his genius. His many masks, unified by Bob Zimmerman under the pseudonym Bob Dylan, have served as ciphers for the transmission of his enigmatic and arresting art. But while the music dazzles, the "real" man behind the name can't stand up or is it won't? because, as always, he's "invisible now" and "not there," as his songs have so long told us.

I wondered if my theater companions understood this, or perhaps didn't want to. Could that be because their own reality is problematic to them? Do generations of his fans sense a vacancy at the heart of their self-identities - non-selves - as if they have been absent from their own lives while reveling in Dylan's kaleidoscopic cast of characters? Do Dylan's lyrics "People don't live or die people just float" resonate with them? Lacking Dylan's artistry, are many reluctant to ask why they are so intrigued by the legerdemain of a man who insists he is absent? Has a whole generation gone missing?

I am only familiar with the musician who acts upon a special social stage, and I love his creations. Because Dylan the performer has the poet's touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic, he draws me into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truths. He is an artist at war with his art and perhaps his true self, and therefore forces me to venture into uncharted territory and ask uncomfortable questions. His songs demand that the listener's mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved him. A close listening to many of them will force one to jump from verse to verse to shoot the gulf since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.

A Magic Show

From the start , The Rolling Thunder Revue, a fused compilation of film from a tour throughout New England concocted by Dylan that took place in 1975-6 as a rollicking experiment in communal music making, announces that we are going to be played with and that Dylan and Scorsese are conjurers whose prestidigitations are going to dazzle us. The film is gripping and cinematically beautiful. The opening scene is taken from a very old film in which a woman is sitting in a chair and a man throws a cloth over her. When he pulls the cloth away, the woman has disappeared. Call it playful magic, call it fun, call it entertainment we can't say we haven't been warned but after decades of postmodern gibberish with the blending of fact and fiction, fake news, endless propaganda, and the fiction-of-nonfiction, one might reasonably expect something more straightforward in 2019, but these guys get a kick out of magic tricks and conning people, which they do in this film.

I could understand it if it served some larger purpose, but as the film shows, it doesn't. Later in the film, Dylan says, as if he needed to pound the point home, "If someone's wearing a mask, he's gonna tell you the truth. If he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely." This may be true for him, but as a general prescription for living, it is bullshit. Of course lies are commonplace, but isn't it best to strive for truth, and doesn't that involve shedding masks. Then again, what does he mean by a mask?

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Society trains us all from an early age to lie and deceive and to be socially adjusted persons on the social stage, and since person means mask, do we need some white face paint to obviously mask ourselves to tell the truth? Why can't one take off the masks and be authentic? Why can't Dylan? In an interview in 1997 with the music critic Jon Parles, Dylan said while he is mortified to be on stage, it's the only place where he's happy. "It's the only place you can be who you want to be." These are the sad words of a man living in a cage, and only he might know why. I am reminded of Kafka's story of the caged Hunger Artist. Yet we are left to guess why Dylan is unhappy off stage, but such guessing is the other side of the social game where gossip and pseudo-psychoanalysis sickens us all as we try to decipher the personal lives of the celebrities we worship. Maybe we should examine our own looking-glass selves.

The Mask Falls

Despite being a masked man, there are times in this fascinating film when the lion in Dylan breaks out of the cage, and while the face paint and costume remain, one can see and hear a sense of short-lived liberation in his performances. His performance of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is so true, so passionate, so real, so intense that his true face shines through in its genuine glory. The same for his performance of "Hurricane" and a few others. It's all in his face and body, his articulation and energy, his fiery eyes. The performances refute his claim that only a masked man can speak the truth. As Joan Baez mordantly says, "Everything is forgiven when he sings."

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Edward Curtin writes, and his work has appeared widely.

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