In Bed With Bob Dylan
The writer unpacks her record collection and the lazy pleasures of a lifelong music listener
I often wish that being lazy were an Olympic sport. I would win. Doing nothing is a lost art, and I am good at it. I would be happy to medal just for lying in bed. I do that exceptionally well. In a world where everyone is proud to be overbusy and overscheduled, I have no such need. I am quite content to lie around. Alone or with someone else: They are distinct pleasures. And I have always been like this: Starting in first grade, I faked being sick so I could stay in bed all day, and I do that now. Sometimes I don’t even make excuses. Do I need one? Of course not: I have an active mind. I know that wanting to stay in bed all day is a symptom of depression. Very well, then: I’ve taken to my bed because I’m depressed. But please understand that I am having an absolutely fantastic time.
There is nothing like lying in bed listening to music. Sometimes it’s better on a sun-drenched happy day; sometimes I prefer the cool gray winter sky. There is nothing better still than a Sunday morning in Greenwich Village under the covers with Blonde on Blonde playing. You could fake the experience in another city or even in another part of this city, and maybe it would even be the same—but when it comes to sensual matters, the details count. And it really works. I have been spending Sundays with Dylan for a long time now. I have done it in cassette and vinyl and CD and mp3, because it doesn’t matter. (This point is so obvious that it is necessarily parenthetical: Nothing sounds better than an LP, but nothing feels better than not having to flip it over three times.) What matters is that there are people who may get their clients a consistent 12 percent return on investment and there are others who run corporate empires, but I am sure their lives are not anywhere near as rich as mine is, because they don’t know what I know. Just being a great listener to music has made my life impossibly sweet. And all the while, it has kept me clear of any of the many industries that are really just hastening civilization’s decline. Or maybe it has kept me in my nightgown. I have many lovely lacy nightgowns.
I realize that as with everything else, there’s an app for this, for being a connoisseur of listenization. There is Spotify, and I am sure there is the advanced beginners version of it for people who don’t have time to listen and just want to impress expensive body parts over dinner at NoMad—or invest more wisely in the entertainment and media sectors. But there does not exist an app for living well and loving what you love and, in my case, not being at all interested in anybody else’s taste in music because I have more than enough of my own, and I will keep it with mine. (Actually, probably there is an app for that too.) When someone says, There is something you have to hear, that is a cue for me to leave. I am the opposite of interested. I am so uninterested as to not believe what I just heard. I eschew other people’s likes.
I discover new bands all the time because I love a song in a movie or something I hear having a glass of wine at a bar. I have seen great bands on Saturday Night Live over the years; it surprises me to say that. I don’t know how many albums I have bought because the lead singer is hot, but it turns out that good looks really are a proxy for talent, or else the Lemonheads and the Old 97s would not be so fun. (Go ahead and be angry all you want, but you can’t make Paul Newman a bad actor either, and you can’t possibly make Jennifer Lawrence less adorable.) I have never been turned on to music by a boyfriend, because only stupid girls listen to what men do and don’t figure it out for themselves. The longer I live, the more it looks like the world is full of stupid girls. Some of my best friends are stupid girls. Men email me YouTube videos to watch all the time, and the more I like them, the more I don’t click the link. So there.
I recently moved, which means that once again, I had reason to unpack my music, or what is now known as content. I have had a lot of my LPs since high school and my CDs since college. I have the first Foreigner album on cassette tape, and I must have bought that in seventh grade. I will never again be able to listen to my eight-tracks of Saturday Night Fever or Andy Gibb. My Beatles albums belonged to my parents, and Apple Records made such fine, thick vinyl that they are as slick and shiny as the blacked-out screen of an iPad at rest, which is of course the thing that has made those disks the decorative relics of sentimental hoarders and stereophiles. Filing my music collection in alphabetical order, I felt how long my life has been and also how much the world has changed: The pictures literally have gotten smaller, from the significance of LP’s to the small squares on CD jewel boxes to the thumbprint of an mp3. Who even listens to an entire album anymore anyway? Just as email has made us a 19th-century epistolary society once again—except, of course, that no one knows how to be expressive—iTunes has returned us to the mid-20th century and the hit single. Where is Alan Freed when we need him? The songs are smaller. The bands are smaller. Quite honestly, life is smaller.
I wonder if there will ever be another rock star. Probably not. Axl Rose was the last one in the sense of having a drug problem, dating a centerfold, showing up onstage at Madison Square Garden two hours and 15 minutes late to an audience that continued to sit and wait. No one would sit and wait anymore. Too exhausted. And the whole point is to post that it happened on Facebook, not to have the experience. Kurt Cobain was an anti-rock star. That was good too. Eminem: maybe. Jay-Z is a businessman—it’s not that he isn’t talented, but he is a professional, the kingpin of an entertainment conglomerate. The opposite of a rock star is a professional. He is the platform and the content. And really, ideally you are the platform, even if that makes you inanimate: People now form lines around the corner not to buy a new album but because a new iPhone is out. Then they use it to send text messages mostly, or to do something they could have done two devices ago, but in any case the wait begins at 4:45 a.m. Which is to say that the party is over. Or maybe standing there as the dark of night becomes the light of day and the Apple Store opens for business is the fun part. Steve Jobs was weirdly both a rock star and a professional, so it figures he would check out before this got any worse.
I understand why death happens: Eventually you can’t stand it anymore.
Fanaticism, truly loving music the way I do, or movies or books or baseball, is a talent that begins any other talent. No one who is gifted in any way—art or astrophysics—got there without loving a lot first. Anyone’s level of criticism precedes his level of ability, and you learn to do great work by imitating your idols. I learned to write from rock ‘n’ roll. I never thought people were choosing between reading one of my books or another author—I thought it was me or Madonna or Hole or whatever was going on at the time. I could never figure out why I was cursed with the worst voice and would never be a rock star, which was obviously what should have happened. I wanted to be on the cover of my books, because that was how albums looked. I was so affected by how much I loved Bruce Springsteen that it was my only point of comparison: In the first song on his first album, he mentions Harvard, which is why I went to school there, and I just wanted to write like he sings. I can’t think of an author who affects me that much, which is good, because the lesson of any pop song is urgency. When I hear REM’s “Begin the Begin,” I am ready for the party to start. Neil Young singing “Tonight’s the Night” is a sure sign that something very bad is going to happen. I cannot listen to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” without knowing for sure that I will never find my way home. Bruce Springsteen is so doomed and dangerous in “State Trooper” that I am comforted by how surefooted the darkness is. In “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Bob Dylan makes loneliness ecstatic. I know that you can nurse the same heartbreak for years from listening to Emmylou Harris, most especially “You’ve Been On My Mind.” When I hear the Danger Mouse mashup “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” I want to misbehave. Because Over the Rhine recorded a love song for grown-ups called “I Want You To Be My Love,” I believe that adults fall truly, madly, deeply in love as if they did not know better.
I read somewhere that a neurologist at Stanford had studied this quite thoroughly and concluded that musical taste stops evolving at age 28. My own experience bears that out. I like Mumford & Sons a lot, but I don’t own any complete albums. But maybe that just proves I am more of the times than I care to admit: Like everyone else, I download by the song. All the same, I never tire of Gram Parsons, and I am rediscovering the Cowboy Junkies, a band I lost track of for a long while but loved before I was two stone years. I have 1,447 songs on my iPhone, and I run errands and walk my dog and take the subway with the soundtrack of my life playing, and that is mostly how I listen to music these days. The range is from AC/DC to Zero 7, but there is more Bob Dylan than anything else. Of course. In the movie Beautiful Creatures, when hipster teen Alden Ehrenreich is driving around Gatlin, S.C., in a foul mood, he is listening to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” because all these years later—50?—there is still no better way to project subversive and misunderstood youth.
I have wasted a lot of time. I have missed opportunities. I am missing a few right now. I am just that way. But smart people know that opportunity is the biggest waste of time of all: It is at best a lousy dinner date, and usually another three-day conference with panels of experts who are not discussing the future of technology or women or news, with questions that are monologues, and altogether not even anything accomplished worthy of that infamous line from Macbeth. No one with anything worthwhile to do has any use for any such things. I don’t. If it’s important, it will show up in my bedroom, preferably with a California red. I know what life is for. There were all these things I wanted to do. Some of them I got around to. A lot of them, well God said ha! That is just the way it is. Cue the harmonica. What was the name of that song?
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