The Thousand-Yard Stare

This weekend, I saw “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ film about Bob Dylan. Portland has a couple notable filmmakers. Haynes is one of them. He’s made a beautiful film, the kind you walk out of thinking: I wish I’d made that. If you’re out there, Mr. Haynes, thank you.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Dylan. Knew who he was. Knew “Like a Rolling Stone,” of course. Everybody knew that, along with a handful of the protest songs, maybe “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He just never quite clicked. The Stones fit so much better with all the testosterone I was dealing with.

It was when I got to college and ran into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for an intro to poetry class that I went: hmm. This is interesting. A friend’s girlfriend (who I was secretly in love with) loaned me “Bringing It All Back Home,” and, wham! I had to hear everything he’d done. Right now.

And I pretty much have. Dylan’s work is hard to like. You have to be flexible. Work on faith. I don’t think he even delights in confounding us–he just keeps moving, following his instincts, and we come along or not. I think he’s had to, so many people trying to fit him in a frame, hang him on a wall. “Poet” is a pretty hard brand to market. Almost as tough as selling poetry.

Other musicians, I like their sound or lyrics or the mood or time they take me to. I like some songs from almost every genre. A few bands–the Stones, the Airplane, the Doors, the Clash, REM, Nirvana, U2–are inextricably woven into places and events of my life. But I think only Dylan’s work has gone as deep, reached down and become one with my personal history.

“Blind Willie McTell” says pretty much everything I feel about America: bountiful, damned, mysterious. Haunted.

A lone tree in an empty field erupts in flame. Burns. Silently falls to the group. Smoke rises through dusk. Then all is dark, save a red moon rising.