In college, I kept a photo of Bob Dylan on the wall. I’d torn it from a magazine article my freshman year at New York University. Though he’d undergone many transformations since the 60s, this was the image of him I chose to see: the early, folky Dylan in plaid shirt with acoustic guitar who–like myself–came to New York to meet his destiny.
I remember the transformative experience that was D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which follows Dylan on his 1965 UK tour. This was before the internet had archived and made available every second of popular media ever recorded. The library was my only access to the movie. I walked down 5th Avenue with the humility of a disciple attending the apparition of his deity. I would soak up Dylan’s cinematic wisdom the same way I listened to his songs, I told myself, with the prayerful intensity of an acolyte who hoped one day to attain the power and spirit of his master.
But I was shocked to find that he was a mere mortal. In a famous scene, Dylan berates a Time journalist with a critique of media consumerism tinged with 60s counter-culture jargon, informing the reporter that his magazine prints “facts” but not “the truth.” “What’s the truth?” the reporter asks.
Dylan thinks for a second. “A plain picture,” he says meaninglessly, continuing his rant with a meandering logic I recognized even then as total equivocating bullshit.
I was dumbstruck by the egotism of Dylan’s words. He was snarky, shallow, and oddly anxious. In the end, he had the brilliance of his music, which stood only for itself and seemed entirely separable the mystifying and mystical persona of its creator.
In retrospect, as I watched the film, it was dawning on me that Bob Dylan was a fantasy of my design. That fall I studied guitar with a lunatic intensity, devising tortuous exercises to increase my dexterity, putting my instrument down only to eat and attend class. I thought my compulsive quest would lead to the total realization of myself in music, which, in turn, would allow me to transcend my mundane life, becoming the creature of a limitless present unburdened by my past. But I’d invested Dylan with a warped faith generally reserved for cult leaders and manic preachers, staking my identity not on the realization of myself but my art–as if the two were mutually exclusive.
Suddenly the object into which I had poured all my hope, energy and ambition for so long was bewilderingly absent. I seemed to disappear with it, becoming lost, dropping out of school, and falling into a depression accompanied by a permanent state of spiritual and emotional panic.
Around the time I saw Don’t Look Back, I began taking lessons from a man named Jack Baker. Jack taught guitar in a rented studio on the Lower East Side. He was steeped in the culture of Greenwich Village. As I listened in adolescent awe, he’d recite stories about Dylan and other 60s figures he’d encountered on his way to musical obscurity. I was in bad shape at this point. My obsession with guitar obliged me to push all other concerns aside: class, friends, and my new peers. My nerves were destroyed. The city was getting to me, and I was unable to tolerate those who failed to understand my brilliance and the historic nature of my pursuit. Delusions of grandeur wrecked my reality and built a wall between myself and the truth: I was a kid, isolated and sad. I practiced alone, ate alone, and walked the streets alone in search of Bob Dylan’s New York, which no longer existed and probably never did.
On this particular afternoon, having gotten my usual three hours of sleep after working all night to perfect my technique on “Buck Dancer’s Choice” or “The Ballad of Stagger Lee,” I stumbled from my dorm on 5th Avenue to Jack’s place. Today a malicious spirit permeated Bleecker Street. The dark eyes of the city were on me, and I held onto my guitar like a talisman to ward off an unspecified evil.
When I opened the door of Jack’s studio, he was with another student. He turned to apologize for double booking the hour, but, jittery and paranoid, I somehow understood this gesture as an act of violence, responding as if Jack moved toward me with a large kitchen knife. I backed away without a word, closing the door and scrambling down several flights of stairs. I never went back, and I never studied guitar again.
On the street, my body continued its revolt. Some malevolent force sent electric shocks up my spine, unraveling my thoughts. Believing I’d crossed the threshold of mental collapse, I found myself unable to meet the eyes of other pedestrians for fear that their gaze might expose my insanity. The noise of traffic, the million footsteps hitting the pavement, a chorus of honking horns. I was paralyzed inside my fear, each sound shaking my being to its core.
I’d always understood this experience as a moment of unreality brought on by a creeping depression, but now I see that I’d come uncomfortably close to the truth of things. I hadn’t been enlisted by the zeitgeist to supply the sound of tomorrow. I was no wunderkind, no Bob Dylan. I couldn’t write songs, I couldn’t sing, and, most importantly, my art wasn’t going to deliver me from myself.
On that December day, my physical being registered as panic the magnificent gap between illusion and reality. I thought I had been pursuing the artist’s life, but I’d gone out looking for myself only to discover the simulacrum of an individual who didn’t exist, constructing a fantasy that evaporated on contact with the truth of things.
In time, I resumed my creative pursuits, becoming a poet. But my breakdown radically shifted my sense of the world and the nature of my work. Rather than trying to transform myself into a new being, I became fascinated by being itself, investigating the slippery edges of experience and the many paradoxes underlying personal identity. I cast Dylan aside for new models like Paul Celan. “And are these paths only detours, detours from you to you? ” he asks in his Meridian speech. For Celan the poet, “I” seemed an entity located and lost by turns along the circular route of artistic endeavor, the one I’d gotten tangled up in as a naive and delusional 18-year-old, finding only confusion and desires the nature of which I had neither the wisdom nor maturity to understand.
Am I on that road now? I have often asked myself since then, wondering what I’m searching for in my art, my relationships, my intermittent moves across the country in pursuit of some new city, some new life.
Maybe it’s that strange, recursive being I seem to catch only in fleeting Ruckenfigur glimpses–myself, in other words–though I’ve long accepted that I’ll never find him. The closer I come to this person, the further away he seems to get. Indeed, he moves with the reticence of time.