Tomorrow Is a Long Time

In early September, Private Eye magazine ran one of their cartoons about forgotten scenes in the music business. In it, a bunch of grade school kids sit in front of the teacher. At the front, a boy with a prominent hooked nose.

The teacher is saying “Zimmerman, how do dandelions disperse their seed?”

For many years I’ve hoped the Nobel committee would award the prize for literature to one Robert Zimmerman. As Dylan aged (he’s now seventy-five), it became a race against time.

It’s a terrible confession, but I don’t have much time for poetry. I do own a couple of books, and occasionally a poem pops out at me, but that’s about it.

Except when you put it to music, and it becomes a song. Then you don’t call it poetry any more—if you want to be posh about it, they’re called lyrics, otherwise it’s just words.

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
Money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

I may not have that perfect, but it’s close enough. And here’s the real deal. For me, that’s up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Road to Mandalay, which Sinatra memorably recorded in Las Vegas.

Kipling won the Nobel in 1907, and now Uncle Bob’s got one too.

Opinions on Dylan run across fault lines like Clinton / Trump or Apple / Microsoft. But no one is indifferent to him, and that’s the best news of all. Nothing hurts more than indifference.

When Dylan started writing songs, he emerged onto a stage that featured the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. Rock and pop were new, catchy, and loathed by the older generation—all the ingredients for a teenage runaway success.

Dylan added the gravitas, moving popular music from a linguistic desert of she me love yeah do want mine play hand we too to a richer terroir, where words blossomed into sentences full of romance, darkness, and allegory.

They’re selling portraits of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Words like that, spat out by Dylan’s harsh and guttural delivery, and punctuated by strident harmonica breaks, sent shivers up my spine the very first time I heard them.

But Dylan’s music isn’t necessarily love at first sight—I put it on a par with whisky. I was twelve years old when I first tried Scottish wine, and it would have been a wee stolen dram of VAT69 or Red Label. It was horrible, but deep down I knew that would change—and it did.

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

I can never hear those lines without thinking of life in England in my late teens, where the rent was ten bucks a week and the outhouse was… er, outside. When the plumbing stopped working, a Sikh who looked older that George Harrison’s maharishi would cycle down the road to the rescue.

He sat bolt upright on the bicycle, as if he was levitating, and he had two bricks strapped to the rear rack with a rubber bungee. His eyes, ensconced between the turban and the white beard, seemed oblivious to the road. I often wondered about the bricks—maybe they were ballast, in case his levitation took the bike up.

Britain was full of immigrants then too, doing the jobs the locals rejected.

In those days life seemed infinite, though I did a number of things to counteract that—if they’d succeeded, I’d certainly save you a bit of reading.

On either side of Dylan were Clapton and Cohen, and the joy they’ve all brought to my life is impossible to describe—but with Dylan’s prize comes sad news on other fronts.

Leonard Cohen, another great poet, releases a record (does that word still mean anything?) on October 21st. It’s a dark piece, reflecting his words in a recent interview to the New Yorker: ‘I am ready to die.’

Cohen has four styles of guitar playing, and that did it for all his music, but his lyrics are rich and subtle—and like Dylan, permeated with humor. In his interview, Cohen talks about getting his house in order as he prepares for death.

So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better … At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

Cohen is eighty-two, and Clapton is a much younger man. At seventy-one, he’s the baby of the trio. But he’s suffering from a disease that has a totally meaningless name—peripheral neuropathy. That’s just a tony way of saying there’s something wrong with your nerve endings.

Eric Clapton is not the only musician afflicted by the condition—the late Dave Ball, axe-man for Procol Harum, summed it up with wry British humor:

I’m a guitarist by trade and as you probably know, we use our fingers to make a noise.

But Clapton went on the record a couple of months back, stating that playing guitar is becoming increasingly painful, and there may be a time when he can no longer play.

When it comes to music history, these three men are up there in the pantheon—composers and musicians who radically shifted everything they touched.

Back in 1964, Dylan explained it all better than anyone today. The clip below has only part of the song—I guess the BBC didn’t like the rest of the message.

Or maybe it was just the length. In a classic Playboy interview in 1966, Uncle Bob reveals his secrets.

DYLAN: …I do know what my songs are about.

PLAYBOY: And what’s that?

DYLAN: Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.

PLAYBOY: Can’t you be a bit more informative?

DYLAN: Nope.

But I do like the rest of that song, because I see Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Russia in there—so here it is.

I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side
Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Oh, and about those dandelions? If your botany isn’t what it used to be, the answer is blowing in the wind.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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