On 24th May, Bob Dylan turns 81 years old. While this might not be considered a milestone, it seems to me that every birthday in one’s ninth decade is noteworthy. As the years tick by, a time comes when we have more birthdays behind than before us. All of us will have a final birthday commemoration; few of us will know it at the time or have a say about it. “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” Dylan wrote in “Not Dark Yet”. As I am in the midst of my 60th year, these are thoughts that press upon me more frequently and piquantly.
Of course, time, ageing and mortality have been themes of Dylan’s work throughout his career. “How much do I know/To talk out of turn/You might say that I’m young/You might say I’m unlearned,” sings the narrator in “Masters of War”. “But there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you,” he counters. In “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, Dylan wrote: “The slow one now/Will later be fast/As the present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fading”.
In his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, one of Dylan’s characters is “Trying to get to Heaven before they close the door”. Another muses, “it’s mighty funny, the end of time has just begun/ . . . I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate/But I don’t know how much longer I can wait”. In the aforementioned “Not Dark Yet”, another ruminates that “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day/It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away/ . . . It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”. And way back in his 23d year, Dylan played with these themes in the deeply ironic, “My Back Pages”: “Good and bad, I defined these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow/Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now”.
Dylan’s most recent album, Rough & Rowdy Ways, from 2020, takes up these themes in his enigmatic song, “My Own Version of You”, a lyrical reprise of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Similarly told in the first person, Dylan’s narrator, “in the winter of my discontent”, searches morgues and monasteries looking for the necessary body parts to “create my own version of you”. While it is not clear who the “you” of the song is, it seems to me that it is the narrator himself. “You” is “I”. “I’ll bring someone to life—someone for real/Someone who feels that way that I feel”. Or perhaps “you” is a proxy for anyone who, like the narrator, contemplates the inevitability (and proximity) of his own demise. Thus, “I want to bring someone to life—someone I’ve never seen.” “You know what I mean—you know exactly what I mean.”
This “version” of you is nothing less than the salvation: “If I do it upright and put the head on straight/I’ll be saved by the creature that I create”. And his motives are ostensibly altruistic: “I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind”, he declares. But all is not well with the project, even while it is progressing. Along the way, the narrator finds that he has no place to turn, and thus hits the wall. The creature cannot deliver the goods that the narrator seeks. Or, perhaps better, the narrator cannot be the creator of his own immortality. He asks his creature, “Can you look in my face with your sightless eye?/Can you cross your heart and hope to die?”.
In other words, Dylan, through his character, seems to be contemplating the tension that we all feel as we age: the simultaneous desire and futility to grasp at our lives in the here and now, fuelled by apprehension of both the process and end of ageing. “I can see the history of the whole human race,” he says to his creature. “It’s all right there—it’s carved into your face.” And as the song winds down, the narrator realises the desperate conceit of his project through a command that contradicts the aspiration: “Show me your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife/I’m gonna jump start my creation to life.”
Thus does Dylan teach us something about the vanity of our own quest to save ourselves by our own devices. It’s a “step right into the burning hell/Where some of the best known enemies of mankind dwell”.
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