Dylan and the art of doing nothing

Another self portrait

Another self portrait (Looney).

MY automated to-do list usually kicks in at about 6am. In fact, it usually wakes me.

I lie in the Philip Larkin pre-dawn working through my planned tasks before gradually hauling myself up and into another day.

This happens on work days, on non-work days, on holidays. This morning, driving to the train station, my wife pointed out that I even manage to obsess about things I have to do on a day, like this, when I really don’t have to do anything.

And doing nothing, at the right time and in the right place, is just as important to me as doing something.

That’s why I crave the mornings when I wake and realise that my mental diary’s been closed overnight, that my mind and the hours ahead are clear.

With this clarity comes rest and with this rest comes peace of mind.

_____

Bob Dylan achieved this peace of mind, albeit briefly.

Waking early and at ease one morning last week I rose, walked into the sitting room, and turned on the stereo.

The most recent Dylan release, a bootleg series issue called Another Self Portrait, is made up of songs written when he was, to the public at least, living the life of a recluse in the Catskill Mountains.

The bulk of the collection’s 35 songs were either rehearsed or written in this period, in 1968 and early 1969, and recorded in New York City in 1970 when Dylan returned to live there.

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Most are covers, something Dylan was criticised for when he included other versions of the same songs on his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Hearing these songs now though, at a remove of more than 40 years and in a digital age inconceivably different to the era of their recording, the listener is struck by a mood of peace and rest.

This feeling is most apparent on Time Passes Slowly #1, an early version of a track that appears on the album New Morning.

Dylan’s languid vocal is Walden-in-Woodstock. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” is his entry line.

Later he sings, before his voice is joined by an blissed-out George Harrison vocal:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere…

_____

Having no reason to go anywhere that morning I laid on the sofa and listened to half of Another Self Portrait. I encountered Railroad Bill (“never worked and he never will”), Thirsty Boots (“take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile”) and All The Tired Horses (“in the sun”).

Much of this was and is beautiful art, offering everything except urgency.

That most of it was conceived during a period of apparent R&R for Dylan offers a lesson in how the best work can be done when the mental diary is cleared, or binned.

Or as the self portraitist puts it: “time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”.

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