Earlier this week, a friend asked me about the Bob Dylan concert I’d just attended. Being a non-US citizen, she knew of Dylan primarily as a folk singer from the 60s. While that is certainly true, it’s really just where his journey began. In my opinion, he currently represents ‘American Music’ better than anyone else living. He simply is American Music.
I described the show to her in this manner:
“The rhythm section–the bass and drums, and in this case, an added and dedicated rhythm guitar–are in charge of keeping the train on the rails. They drive it like a jackhammer, actually. They are as reliable as the catcher in a trapeze act. They never miss a thing, no matter what else happens. They just keep on drivin’.
“Another band mate adds an atmospheric backdrop, via steel guitar, mandolin, or trumpet.
“Against this backdrop, and on the shoulders of the rhythm section, Dylan and his lead guitarist, Charlie Sexton, create havoc. They use dissonance as freely as harmony. They might interweave their leads, or they might mash it all together into one cacophonous wail. Dylan moves between keyboard and harmonica and guitar, playing each with determination and rebellion. Sexton is a master, and the soulful sweat he pours into his guitar is offset by his almost punkish nonchalance. Dylan is stiff in his movements, while Sexton paces and prowls and kneels.
“Being there is like you’ve stumbled upon a packed underground blues or jazz club, where the hot sounds have come out onto the sidewalk and dragged you in. The band can do anything: blues, swing, jazz, country, rock. There is mischief in their virtuosity, and the leader seems determined to push it too far. You watch, amazed, wondering if it’s going to all go off the rails at some point. The miraculous thing is that it doesn’t.
“The whole experience is immersive, expansive, and artistically confirming. Artists can, and should, challenge their own work, subjecting it to their own examinations and reinterpretations, in order to prove its validity.”
Clearly, for Dylan, the studio and the stage are different things. One need only hear his voice in the two venues to understand this. Or listen to the legendary Bootleg Series 4: Live 1966 recording—he is clearly stretching the boundaries of the songs during the ‘electric’ set. His stretching indicates what it’s all about: having more room in which to create and express. He’s a vivid example of an artist subverting himself in his quest for more creative space.
At times, the need for more creative space requires deconstruction. Tear the work down to its frame, then rebuild, replaster, repaint. Take it down to bare bones, then add new guts. It’s what Dylan does every time he’s on stage.
I began an artistic journey about 15 years ago. I began with music, writing songs and performing them either solo or with a band. My music wasn’t cutting edge by any means, but within that medium I found my first voice. In its simplicity and straightforwardness, it was in contrast to the trends around me.
I continued my travels with more writing—this time, prose rather than music. My first novel, In Lieu of Heaven, is nothing if not subversive, which should be evident by the title alone. It is a work of deconstruction, clearly aimed at the christian concept of god. But it went deeper than that, for the genesis of the story, and its fuller execution, was based in a deconstruction of what I had formerly been. It was necessary that I take my life down to its skeletal structure, so I could rebuild myself from the depths of my gut.
I work as a chef now, in addition to writing. And like writing, culinary arts are simultaneously constructive and deconstructive. The materials are gloriously malleable. Other than a few technical issues—like how much binder is required for a certain amount of liquid, for example—there are no real rules. Every single thing was made up by someone, somewhere, at some point in time. Against this legacy information—the skeletal structure—many have improvised, often on top of previous improvisations. The ongoing accretions lead to confusion about the original intent.
Once I gave up animal products, I had to rebuild my own diet. As a chef, and especially as a teaching chef, I’ve had to rebuild a considerable amount of American cuisine. In one massive deconstructive sweep, I had to clear the cupboards so I had room in which to create.
It would be inaccurate to consider Dylan a virtuosic musician. But he is without a doubt a Master Artist, full of restlessness and dissatisfaction. He refuses to let his past music define him. Quite the opposite, for he confronts his own work in a manner that lets him recreate it. He is a model of what any artist strives to be.
As I continue on this path as artist, working in my current medium of food, I find myself continually improving. I look back at past efforts, and know that I can surpass them today. I will look back tomorrow and feel the same way. There can be nothing sacred as I work: everything is subject to clearing and deconstruction in pursuit of more creative space.