In this series, we attempt to answer questions sent in by readers, or their attorneys.
Today’s question comes from Mr. Elston Gunn in Minnesota, who wrote us that he’s a retired miner after 49 years at the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine on Minnesota’s Mesabi Range. He’s been a part-time songwriter, he wrote, “since FDR was president, and a close personal friend and almost-collaborator with the legendary songwriter H.P. Danks, who wrote ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold.'” Married 48 years to his wife Dolores, he’s the father of nine children and seventeen grandchildren “at last count,” and used to play in the Little League with Dylan when they were kids, and Dylan was Bobby Zimmerman.
QUESTION: Do you know where Bob Dylan is?
FROM: Elston Gunn
ANSWER: Thank you for your question.
The simple answer is no. Yet it’s likely that simple answers aren’t what you’re after. Since it would be wrong to simply invent some “malarkey,” to quote the president-elect, we reached out to several of Dylan’s close confidantes, including one cousin, for this answer. When that failed, we turned to other sources who, while less reliable, did return emails.
His longtime pal and often producer, Jack Frost, was the first to reply. A messenger arrived with a black nightingale and an envelope stuffed with seven crayon-inscribed pages answering your question. , We did our best to transcribe it faithfully, but much was smudged and seemingly soaked in rum and kahlua, so it was tough to decipher in parts. But it goes a long way in answering the question, and then he keeps going. It’s too much and not enough. Dylan seems to have that effect on people. Here’s his answer:
JACK FROST: Yes, I know where he is. He’s at Iguana Ranas in Tijuana. Zona Rosa. In the back by the candles. He’s wearing a white Panama hat with Magdalena, the woman in the long black dress. Dogs are barking somewhere. A choir of St. Lucy candles are singing old Inkspots songs. He knows every word but doesn’t let on.
Edguardo, a güey from Chiapas, is wearing Buddy Holly’s glasses. Much later that night he picks up a sea-green Telecaster, heads straight to A minor, and sings of “El otro lado” like Roy Orbison in Spanish. Then comes old John the Revelator, both the song and the guy, in a long preacher’s coat and wild hair. Sarah and Martha, the twin daughters of the sojourner were there, the identical ones no one can tell apart, born in Spring. One blows the shofar with holy purity The other plays the old triangle. (Yes, that old triangle, still sounding jingle-jangle along the banks of the Royal Canal.) “Like Hendrix with guitar,” she says, smiling, and sits between a joker and a thief, both in need of coffee before they go. But they ain’t going nowhere but Ensenada, back home to Aztec gods under apple suckling trees, each day with too much of nothing but his sister Vivian, who was in a woman’s prison and swims everyday in the waters of oblivion.
Then that famous reedy nasality cuts through the clamor. It’s him. Standing in the light and shadow. He’s singing the melody, as Magdelena and the twins sing harmonies entwining.
“A hungry feeling flew over me stealing and the mice were squealing in my prison cell. Can ya tell me where we’re headin – Red Hook Brooklyn or Armageddon? ”
Somehow they segue into an epic “Run Rudolph Run,” before all dissolve into tears and laughter.
Someone in shadows starts singing “Senor” in A minor. “Try it in B minor,” he says. “It might be a hit for you.”
Then Dylan picks up a harmonica, and puts it to his lips but plays nothing anyone can hear. Anyone except Magdalena, that is, who starts to dance slowly to the unheard music, to the mystic mystery, like in a dream. Out in the alley seventeen dogs begin to howl, each abandoned in Zona Norte. A blind man on a pale horse rides by and disappears.
Then in the moonlit courtyard sees Johanna’s ghost by the eternal burro, sparkling with jewels and binoculars. All along the ruins of her balcony he hears the yellow railroad, and sings in his chains like the sea, lovesick for love, for love in vain, for love unchained, for love minus zero, for love like a wheelbarrow in lightning, a baby-carriage rolling down the old stone Potemkin steps.
“Those who are wed where lightning strikes,” he said to this sad siren ghost starving for physicality; just to hold a guitar again, or his hand again, or to smoke his cigarette or to have cold, fresh watermelon on the hottest day ever, “are young forever. Do you know where we’re headin? Tinker Street or Armageddon? Can Rosarita cook and sew and make flowers grow? This he asks from under the eaves, glowing, dubious, the frazzled one, the tambourine wild child, of crazy hard rain. He can’t help it if he’s lucky, anymore than he can help the wind, or change, or bells, or songs of the jingle-jangle morning, of the lost sheep, of the forever fifth day of May in drizzling rain in the year of who knows when sleepers wake opening eyes to the tune of an accordion, to sing with bongos and beat cadence of a precious angel under the sun near the tracks where green smoky haze settles as melodies are untangled of centuries, echoes of Woody and Cisco and Leadbelly too and Blind Willie McTell entangled and blue, a slow train still coming, the yellow boxcar stars and the new tattoo like crazy glue, of Judas and his wild mercury brothers, of the diner in Duluth, of love he threw away to time the thief, time the revelator, haunted by Ramon’s bloodied face in the cantina, and the hand that held the gun.
When God went electric the whole world got faster / They sang of the father the only true master/ gathering temple stones of alabaster
He swapped an old 12-string for a new Stratocaster.
Then with a wheel on fire, the mystery tramp / Played King David’s lyre through a Silvertone amp/ And music like medicine got under our skin
At the hour that the ship came in
So abandon not that which the soul understands / That the circle of song is unbroken / And the chains of the sea busted by our own hands
Are buried deep under Hoboken.
And then there’s nothing left but the laughter, and to die and be reborn, then just the geometry of sound, and then the empty song so hollow, too much and not enough, of the strong and stronger stuff, as he has one more cup of coffee, strong, for San Fernando Road leads to the valley of stone to the Cahuenga Pass and the Pacific crossing, silhouetted by her sea, by the words they wrote in stone and kelp, songs of sand and seaweed, that dance like castanets on stone, like Hank Williams on the telephone, as lonely as loneliness gets all alone on the Iron Range as the locusts sang. A wanderer he is, he wanders out and then in again in a red rodeo shirt with long sleeves stuffed with secrets, songs, psalms, poems, fortune cookie fortunes, dreams and sunflower seeds, laughing.