For three years I walked—we walked, I mean, James Brown and I—every evening near sunset, through the fields behind our house, through milkweed and Virginia Creeper and ashy stalks of dried brown grass, across the tiny winding inches-deep Rutledge Creek, which for a while James Brown was afraid to wade through and so had to be carried across.
In his lifetime James Brown—not my James Brown, of course, but the other one, the original, with that voice, those moves, with two legs instead of four—in his lifetime James Brown spoke and sang and shouted some wonderful words, among them these: You may not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway.
I wasn’t looking for the promised land. I was just walking. One of my eyes had gone bad; I couldn’t read or write. I’d fallen a fair distance out of love with my own life. Walking seemed like a good idea, and James Brown always wanted to go with me. Somehow he knew the very moment I’d even simply begun thinking about setting off. He wagged his tail double-time, sidled right up to my feet, made sure he kept close. He had nowhere in particular he was trying to get to; he just wanted out.
There’s a whole lot of walking in Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. The first words in the first song: I’m walking through streets that are dead / Walking, walking, with you in my head. Then one song to the next, the walking goes on and on: down dirt roads, through summer nights, into the middle of nowhere, through the mist and through the mind and along the line.
And when the walking stops, everything just gets worse: He’s pacing around rooms or standing out in the cold or crawling down avenues. He’s drifting in and out of a dreamless sleep or wading through high deep muddy water or praying for salvation laying ’round in a one-room country shack. He’s twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound.
I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around, that weary croaking scorched husk of a cavernous voice admits. Well, I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown.
It’s in the fall, of course, with all that dying left to do in the cold months ahead and when you feel all used up and the fields have turned brown, that walking becomes a kind of sullen gray defiance, a march against rather than a journey toward. Walking in the fall, you understand that all manner of love and beauty has already been lost. You go on because, well, what’s the choice?
Everywhere, it seems, and all through time, anguish and longing, love and loss are the fuel that sets the afflicted heart aflutter. When I hear your name the death sweats come on me, the cantaor in flamenco cries out as though his side has just been pierced by a poisoned arrow. Sweet Jesus! Compañera, what I go through, loving you! Or he yelps with bitter resignation: I went to a field to cry like a mad man screaming, and even the wind kept telling me you loved someone else.
In fado the fadista, arms cast wide in grand supplication, laments:
My love my love
My knot of pain
My millstone of tenderness
My vessel of torture
This sea has no cure
This sky has no air
We stopped the wind
We don’t know how to swim
And we, we die
Slowly, so slowly
And here in America, in our many musics, all of which have roots tangled in the relentless horror and desolate hope of the African American, dark is the night and cold is the ground, love is careless and hearts are weary, and days are lonesome and long as we wander through a world of woe.
But hope, desolate hope: There's no sickness, toil, nor danger in that fair land to which I go.
After the uninterrupted unrequitedness of “Love Sick,” hope briefly bobs to the surface in “Dirt Road Blues,” the second track of Time Out of Mind, but it’s a grim hope at best:
Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed
That’s about the same kind of miserably happy resolution you find in Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” when the poet-child listens carefully to the sea waves and discovers that they are hissing melodious, laving him softly all over, the word of the sweetest song, and all songs…the low and delicious word Death.
In 1875 Whitman endured his second stroke. The first, two years earlier, did its damage to his left arm and leg. This second stroke took care of the right. He moved in with his brother George, living in the same room that his mother, who’d just passed away, had been living in until her death. Five editions of Leaves of Grass had been published. Whitman’s life’s work—his life itself—seemed about done. He was fifty-seven.
When he was fifty-seven, Bob Dylan seemed about done as well. He’d released a couple of covers albums. He’d unveiled a third volume of greatest hits, got feted for 30 years in the troubadour business, unplugged himself—had he still been plugged in?—for MTV.
Maybe that low and delicious word, the word final, superior to all, was ringing ever louder in his ears, and he went looking for some way to answer it. Maybe he’d just sat down for a spell, taken a rest.
Whatever the reason, in 1997, Dylan released Time Out of Mind and laid claim as firm as he ever had to wandering and weariness and misery, laid claim not to the barbaric yawp so much as the hoarse murmuring of the sea’s waves, trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
It’s not dark yet, he sings—and then there’s a wry smile, an acquiescence—but it’s getting there.
In the fall, as the sun began to set and James Brown and I turned to head back toward home, thousands upon thousands of starlings would take flight from a distant bamboo grove for their evening murmuration, a remarkable weaving and shimmering and shape-shifting display that never failed to leave me breathless. Then they disappeared, sank back down into the bamboo grove, and night began.
I been hurt all my life. I learned how to turn the pain around and get energy, and I learned how to be alone. Those are James Brown’s words.
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain, the old man that Dylan has become sings on Time Out of Mind.
Of course, that was nearly two decades ago. Dylan was only fifty-seven.
Even my James Brown, four legs and all, knows the classic reply to that line: He’s younger than that now.
Time Out of Mind—what exactly does that title mean anyway? That one has put time—and all its destruction—out of one’s mind? That for a time one was out of one’s mind?
Two decades later and Dylan croons Sinatra now like he hasn’t a care in the world, like it’s all been gravy, like he never bothered to listen to the low murmuring and heard the waves whispering that one low and delicious word.
Maybe he’s just sitting a spell, catching his breath.
—John Gregory Brown
Photography by John Gregory Brown