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The Road To Fort Worth

Read » Chapter 8: Danville

Mr. Tambourine Man And Addiction

I was a senior in high school when Bob Dylan premiered Mr. Tambourine Man at a solo appearance at London's Royal Festival Hall. I bought his first album the next summer and later added Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Buffy St. Marie to my collection of favorite albums. I didn't "discover" the Rolling Stones until the early nineties, and it wasn't until early in 2000 that I really listened to the words of Mr. Tambourine Man. I was driving to work, listening to the song on the radio, and the last verse struck me like the discovery of a four leaf clover in a field of dandelions:

"Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves. Let me forget about today until tomorrow."

I spent the better part of that evening pouring over the words and playing the song:

"Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand, vanished from my hand, left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping. My weariness amazes me. I'm branded on my feet. I have no one to meet, and the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming."

More than once, I'd known the feeling of being wide-eyed, broke and homeless after the party was over. I lived on the ancient empty street far longer than I want to remember.

"Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you."

When I was in the throes of active alcoholism, the chorus could have been my entreaty to the universe to save me from my plight. I needed a song to fill my empty heart. There was no doubt that a jingle, jangle morning always lay ahead. My mornings were filled with remorse and malaise until I heard the jingle, jangling of keys opening the front door of the barroom and followed Mr. Tambourine Man to the tap.

"Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship. My senses have been stripped. My hands can't feel to grip, my toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin'. I'm ready to go anywhere. I'm ready for to fade into my own parade. Cast your dancing spell my way. I promise to go under it."

With the first shot of whiskey, I began my day's long journey into night on the magic swirling ship of drinking myself straight until I was, at last, numb again.

"Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun, it's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run, and but for the sky there are no fences facin'. And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme to your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind; I wouldn't pay it any mind. It's just a shadow you're seein' that he's chasing."

The poetry of the lyrics has been interpreted as a religious allegory, Dylan's appeal to a muse for inspiration, a prayer for transcendence, and the usual drug metaphor interpretation. I don't choose to join the debate. I know what the song means to me. Once a writer has given his words to the world, he has no control over the way people choose to interpret them anyway.

I've had hallucinations and have heard skipping reels of rhyme that were so real that they led me into another realm of existence. I've seen the endlessness of space before the world came crashing down on my thread-bare soul. During those times, I could almost feel the ragged clown breathing down my neck in the mid-day sun.

"Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, the haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow."

The first part of the last verse is reminiscent of the way that Jack Wendell felt in a scene from The Road To Fort Worth: Jack and Hawkeye were having a conversation over a beer in Howard's Bar:

"Hawkeye said, 'If I can't handle the stress, then I'll excuse myself, jump in the water to cool off, and if that doesn't work, then I'll just keep on swimming. That's what I feel like now, Jack, that I should just keep on swimming.'"

"No one wanted to keep on swimming more than Jack, away from his longing for Lisa, his disdain for Laura, far from his anxiety attacks and the endless drinks that he needed to survive."

Both Dylan and Jack longed to be "far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow." In the final analysis, Mr. Tambourine Man is a song of transcendence. The desire to be free from the bondage of self is the goal of every alcoholic, drug addict, and anyone else in the world seeking to soothe their existential angst. The poetry of the final verse dances through our bereft souls looking for the promise of serenity, yet restrained by the loneliness of one hand waving free, perhaps inspired by the Buddhist koan of the sound of one hand clapping?

"Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves."

And the final supplication is "Let me forget about today until tomorrow."

When you've finally hooked up with Mr. Tambourine man on some desperate morning to board the magic swirling ship, you cannot bear to think that the ride could end. You take the ride with complete abandon, knowing you'll be searching for another ride the next morning.

Some commentators have said that the song is Dylan's call to his spirit or muse in his search for transcendence. However, an article in Wikipedia states that "the song itself is evidence that the muse has already provided the sought-after inspiration"

Copyright ©2012 Michael Jackson Smith

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