Way back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote “My Back Pages,” a song many fans found disconcerting because it seemed to turn away from leftist political orthodoxy. Musically it also took a sharp turn away from the pure acoustic of the folk tradition toward electronic instrumentation.
“Back pages” refers to the seemingly less important columns, like this one, tucked into the last pages of a newspaper. In other words, not the headlines or photographs that pull readers in. I considered naming today’s column, “My Blank Pages” because after a family wedding, fishing trip, and Memorial Day weekend in quick succession, I was staring at a blank page that refused to write itself. But that takes me back to Bob Dylan.
In the same period he wrote “My Back Pages,” Dylan experimented with how he wrote songs. He went from beginning a new song knowing what he wanted to write about, to allowing the songs to write themselves. The lyrics to “My Back Pages” unroll like that, as if each verse had stumbled upon itself and regrouped with the refrain: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
You may not care about Bob Dylan but I am working toward a conclusion here, one that Dylan seemed to be working his way towards as well. We all know the critique of academia these days, that it is full of something the right-wing calls cancel culture and previously referred to as political correctness. Dylan had a verse for that way back in 1964:
“Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, ‘rip down all hate,’ I screamed
Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”
In 1964 we had “America, Love it or Leave it” and “No More War.” Now we have BLM flags and signs. Ironically, BLM can mean “Black” or “Blue” even though, as I have written previously, there is no equivalency between them. Still, they insist upon beliefs in an unequivocal truth, and that only one side can be true.
“The Big Lie” is another awkward declaration that forms a hard-edged rhetoric — claiming the 2020 election was a lie or the accusation that those who deny the election are lairs. One or the other.
Such flags, posters, and slogans are songs written with the meaning known ahead of time. They start with the conclusion and find life’s lyrics to go with it.
When we begin writing such scripts for life knowing what we want to say ahead of time — whether for politics, religion, or even family and relationships — we end up in a mental jail of our own making. Our thoughts quickly mold into black and white, right and wrong, unequivocal moving toward unchangeable. When we write instead, as we go along collecting data, and allow it to speak to us and shape the direction of our script, we have the chance to see more clearly, less rigidly, allowing ourselves to be surprised and changed along the way.
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”