Listener Essay - Bob Dylan And The Aurora Borealis

Oct 28, 2014

    Carole Owens is a writer living in Stockbridge, MA.

800words-- Reading Breathing the same cold air, we grew up –he and I. And I tell you now, all you who talk about red states and blue; you never lived in the North Country. If you had, you would know that we don’t align ourselves with the right or the left, we don’t align with anyone. In the far North Country we think about, we battle, and we shake a fist at the cold air and the hard ground.

Up here we are alone, looking down, in a manner of speaking, on the rest of the country: unconnected to ever-perspiring Southerners, purse-mouthed Easterners, and unintelligible West Coasters. I grew up on a lake where the wind swept across unchecked; a widening in the road with a gas pump, an A & W root beer stand, and a telephone switch board in Hazel’s parlor. He grew up 35 miles north in a real town.

The one source of warmth in my life was Granny. I remember sitting all the days of my growing-up watching her hands: tatting, padded satin-stitching, quilting, sewing, making noodles for Swedish meatballs, turning the compost pile, staking peas, digging potatoes, holding the pail to prime the pump, and putting those hands deep in her pockets, lowering her head, and hissing “stay still child not a sound” as the mother bear lumbered by.

One day Gran said we would go into Brainard – his town. I didn’t meet him that day, but I think I saw him. Or after he was so famous and there were pictures everywhere, I saw a photograph of him sitting on the broad porch of Zimmerman’s dry goods store and thought it was a real memory.

When we headed home, it was late and dark – the pitch black-dark of the north in winter when there were no street lights and house lights, if any, hug the boundaries of the house as if trapped inside – trapped by the warmth – afraid to venture out in the cold.

Now Granny’s car was an ancient Plymouth and had no floorboard on the passenger side. It rusted out, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me because sitting on the seat, my feet didn’t touch the floor. When Gran slammed on the brakes it threw me forward. I grabbed for the door handle, and the car door swung open.

So there I was hanging half out in the night air looking up when Gran said, “Look up! Not everyone gets to see the Northern Lights.”

They, because I thought the lights were alive, were pastels – sheets of pastel colors that waved and shimmered like sheets drying on the clothes line in a constant, but gentle wind. I could see them, yes, but I could also feel them in my throat: the way you see and feel a puppy or see and feel a bulging Christmas stocking above an open grate – right in the eye and throat. There was a sound associated with the lights – the sound that is the absence of sound – the swallowing up of whatever sound you thought you should hear.

The living lights stayed with us almost all the way home, then we went up a hill, down a hill, and on the flat the lights were gone – as if there were light switches in heaven.

Gran said they were the northern lights, our lights, ours exclusively. They were God’s pay-off to us in exchange for the cold air and the hard ground and the loneliness.

Like I said, I don’t know that I saw him that day, but I did meet him later that year. I went to the city to stay with my friend Abby who was his cousin Abby and he came from Brainard.

Abby’s mother said, “you have to entertain Bobby – you have to take him along.”

We didn’t want to. When we walked down the street, he didn’t walk with us, but dragged behind or went ahead, and that was only one reason we didn’t like him, also, he was funny looking and looked at the world funny, but we had to take him along. We went to the Copper Kettle, and he went right up – when they called “open mike” -- and sang. Abby and I were mortified, embarrassed because he was scrawny and his voice was nasal and not very melodic. We wanted to ditch him but were afraid to, so he kept singing and we kept sitting.

There was another guitarist that night – big and blond and grinning. I thought he would be a star. I thought Bobby Zimmerman from Brainard would always be a scrawny, twangy, pain-in-the-neck-country-cousin. Yet, you know, I remembered the words he sang.

“It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why Babe. It don’t matter anyhow. An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why Babe if you don’t know by now. When the rooster crows at the break of dawn look out your window and I’ll be gone. You’re the reason I am traveling on. Don’t think twice it’s all right.”

So there it was: a banner year for sight and sound. I understood that one was significant but not the other. I loved the lights and dismissed the boy. I wanted to chase the light and run away from the kid and yet...I never forgot either sight or sound.

Later the whole world got mad at him. Said he had betrayed them, deserted them. They called him Bob Dylan then and said he had been the voice of a generation; said his songs spoke for them but now he changed his tune.

They hated him for that and for the first time I felt a kinship with Abby’s cousin. Bobby Zimmerman wasn’t the voice of a generation; he wasn’t the sound of some political cause.

I felt akin to the kid from Brainard because I tell you now we don’t align ourselves. We don’t talk much and we sure don’t speak for others; we survive and shake our fists at whatever made it hard. His words were not the voice of others; his words were the sound of his lone survival. His songs were the gravel-like, obdurate words, sung a bit quiet lest the fates hear. His songs were the triumph over -- like the lights -- the compensation for -- the cold and the hard ground, the short growing season, the high-banked snow, the frozen pump handle, the whistling night wind, the lumbering she-bear, and the isolation.