Make Me a Vessel
Reflections on Bob Dylan and the cost of becoming a channel
Welcome to this tenth reflection on In Fragments — this week exploring Make Me a Vessel, a ritual to craft a funeral urn for the cremated remains of my mother. You can view it here:
Because this particular ritual is fairly straightforward, I wanted to use this week’s reflection to do a “deep dive” into one of my main sources of inspiration, Bob Dylan, who perhaps as much as anyone embodies this notion of “becoming a vessel” (or what in Shamanism is sometimes called “becoming a hollow bone”).
A few weeks ago, I went to see Dylan perform in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was my fifth time attending one of his concerts, the last one being June 20, 2017 — the same day we welcomed our first family of guests to the old main house at High Acres Farm, following its gut renovation. Those first guests happened to be named Jonathan and Amanda, strangely matching the names of me and my sister. That evening, as they settled into our house, Dylan took the stage at the nearby Shelburne Museum, which was founded by my great-grandmother in 1947, the year before she gifted the land for High Acres Farm to her son, my mother’s father.
Dylan opened that night’s concert with a performance of Things Have Changed — and closed the show with Ballad of a Thin Man, repeating its portentous refrain:
Something’s happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
When Leonard Cohen died in 2016, former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow posted this brief eulogy:
Leonard Cohen is no longer our greatest living songwriter.
(Don’t howl at me about Dylan, who is merely God’s puppet.)
I’ve often wondered how this “Puppet of God” came to be…
How did “Robert Zimmerman” become “Bob Dylan”? How did he acquire his legendary virtuosity — his unique combination of honesty and mystery, truthfulness and tricksterism, poetry and power?
In 2004, Dylan sat down with Ed Bradley from CBS 60 Minutes to give his first televised interview in almost twenty years. You can watch it here:
Early in the conversation, Dylan describes his understanding of “destiny”:
It’s a feeling you have that you know something about yourself that nobody else does. The picture you have in your mind of what you’re about will come true. It’s kind of a thing you have to keep to your own self, because it’s a fragile feeling. And if you put it out there, somebody will kill it. So, it’s best to keep that all inside.
Bradley later asks Dylan why he’s still touring after all of these years. The brief exchange that follows may provide a skeleton key to Dylan’s enigma:
EB: Why do you still do it? Why are you still out here?
BD: Well, it goes back to that destiny thing. I made a bargain with it, you know, a long time ago. And I’m holding up my end…
EB: What was your bargain?
BD: To get where I am now…
EB: Should I ask who you made that bargain with?
BD: [laughs] With the chief commander…
EB: On this earth?
BD: [laughs] On this earth and in the world we can’t see.
The audio appears to have been tampered with starting around 14:14. There’s an out-of-place “D” sound just before Dylan says the word “bargain,” leaving Dylanophiles to speculate that what he actually said was “I made a devil’s bargain with it” — but that CBS chose to cut the word “devil’s,” while its audio engineers (possibly Dylanophiles themselves) preserved the hint of a “D” sound as a future clue for careful listeners.
This notion of “making a devil’s bargain” (or put differently, a deal with God) suddenly opens up a new dimension of understanding Dylan’s life and work.
In his 2016 lecture for his Nobel Prize in Literature, he reflects on Melville’s Moby Dick:
Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people. Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.”
And then later, reflecting on The Odyssey:
I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Like Ahab, did a young Dylan cut “grooves” in his soul to bind his fate with iron rails? Is his touring bus a kind of sailing ship, his life on the road his Harvard and Yale? In some far-out altered state in the late 1950s, did the young Zimmerman make a “deal” with God to ask “the Muse” to sing in him by creating “Bob Dylan” — and if so, what was the cost of his prescient and fateful request?
When I took my seat at Dylan’s recent concert in Albuquerque, sitting next to me was a young fan from Oregon who’d made the long drive to New Mexico just to see the show. I asked him what he loved most about Dylan, and he cited this quote from Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue:
Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything.
Life is about creating yourself and creating things.
With these words in mind, the concert began — and its setlist unfolded for me like a master class in the process (and price) of creating yourself in reality.
The songs are listed below in the order in which they were played, along with some brief commentary about what I feel Dylan may have been trying to communicate through the structure of his setlist (which has remained more or less consistent throughout his current tour).
1 . Watching the River Flow describes a neutral observer of life perched on the sands of a riverbank, as the chaos and drama of the world passes by. This is the cosmic ground zero, the place outside of time where everything ends and begins:
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow
2 . Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine describes this neutral observer in relationship to others, fully accepting their choices, leaving all judgment to the verdict of time. This the way of being that simply follows the flow of the river of life:
I’m just gonna let you pass
Yes, and I’ll go last
Then time will tell who fell
And who’s been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine
3 . I Contain Multitudes describes the range of complexities and contradictions that live within the world of this observer — mixing love and hate, life and death, revelation and revenge, while still relating to the flow of the river:
Greedy old wolf - I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it - only the hateful part
I’ll sell you down the river - I’ll put a price on your head
What more can I tell ya - I sleep with life and death in the same bed
4 . False Prophet describes the origins of pain and suffering in this observer — that the price of being able to sing the stories of the world is that those stories first need to be lived and experienced (perhaps the essence of the “devil’s bargain” from above):
Another day without end - another ship going out
Another day of anger - bitterness and doubt
I know how it happened - I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
5 . When I Paint My Masterpiece describes the false hope of imagining some perfect future beyond chaos and suffering — the futility of thinking that art can provide an escape from the complexity of the world:
Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police
Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece
6 . Black Rider describes the exhaustion of life on the road through a psychological duel between Bob Dylan the person and Bob Dylan the persona (the Black Rider) — rivalrous companions, bound together in a fated cycle of symbiosis and fatigue:
Black Rider Black Rider you been livin’ too hard
You been up all night havin’ to stay on your guard
The path that you’re walkin’ - is too narrow to walk
Every step of the way another stumblin’ block
The road that you’re on - same road that you know
But it’s not the same as - it was a minute ago
7 . I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight describes a brief respite from this constant road-weariness, perhaps in the arms of a faithful ally who might be the Muse:
Close your eyes, close the door
You don’t have to worry anymore
I’ll be your baby tonight
8 . My Own Version of You describes the process of synthesizing a new identity from the components of others — possibly akin to the strange alchemy performed by the young Robert Zimmerman when forging his creation, “Bob Dylan”:
I’ll take Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando
Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando
If I do it upright and put the head on straight
I’ll be saved by the creature that I create
I want to bring someone to life - use all my powers
Do it in the dark in the wee small hours
9 . Crossing the Rubicon describes the decisive embrace of the newly-forged identity, a point of no return like Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River that declared war on the Roman Senate, preparing the way for his rise to Emperor:
I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible - it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn
I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon
10 . To Be Alone With You describes the tender feelings of devotion to the Muse — whose powers are now fully accessible through the fateful embrace of the newly-forged identity:
I’ll always thank the Lord
When my working day’s through
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you
11 . Key West (Philosopher Pirate) describes the zone of creative inspiration — the “pirate radio station” where true ideas come in clear, the precious direct line to the Muse that guarantees immortality for anyone who channels her messages:
Key West is the place to be
If you’re lookin’ for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line
12 . Gotta Serve Somebody describes the philosophy of surrender that justifies the earlier choice to strike a “devil’s bargain” with the Muse — if surrender is inevitable, then why not do it consciously?
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
13 . I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You describes the careful process of discernment that led to the choice to surrender — in Dylan’s case, his surrender to life on the road as the price he pays for his ongoing access to the Muse:
I’m giving myself to you, I am
From Salt Lake City to Birmingham
From East L.A. to San Antone
I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone
From the plains and the prairies - from the mountains to the sea
I hope that the gods go easy with me
I knew you’d say yes - I’m saying it too
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
14 . Melancholy Mood (a Frank Sinatra cover) describes the inner conflict that arises from being shackled by this “devil’s bargain” — a kind of magic golden cage that’s filled with inspiration, yet never fully free:
Why must you blind me?
Pity me and break the chains
The chains that bind me
Won't you release me, set me free?
Bring her back to me
Oh, melancholy mood
15 . Mother of Muses describes a prayerful dialogue with the Creative Force itself — earnestly asking for its assistance in the process of self-creation, so as to become an open channel through which (like Homer) the great stories can flow:
Mother of Muses unleash your wrath
Things I can’t see - they’re blocking my path
Show me your wisdom - tell me my fate
Put me upright - make me walk straight
Forge my identity from the inside out
You know what I’m talking about
16 . Goodbye Jimmy Reed describes a possible future legacy that the newly-forged identity might eventually leave — the desired impact for its work to have in the world:
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
Go tell it on the Mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straight forward puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person’s alone
17 . Every Grain of Sand describes a return to the “sandy riverbank” where the setlist began. After the long journey of neutral observation, identity alchemy, persona creation, poetic surrender, and legacy construction, there is finally the recognition that all aspects of creation ultimately share the same fate:
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand
In this tenth ritual of In Fragments, I work with Ethan Bond-Watts to forge a glass “vessel” to hold my mother’s cremated remains. When the vase has been completed, my sister and I funnel our mother’s ashes into the newly-crafted urn.
What new containers might you imagine bringing into your life? How can those containers be of service to you — and you, to them?
See you next week,
Thanks for reading Jonathan Jennings Harris. Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
I have to say there is something truly generative about your sharing the Dylan setlist and the generosity and inclusivity in this gesture welcomes a world of understanding more and more of the texture of your rituals. "Our" genius contains the multitudes and our multiplicity is the context for this and those to become. I watched the interview and most appreciated Dylan's own awe of the genius emerging through and animating his offerings when he was channeling his own muse-ness.
What a beautiful, rich and amazing piece...just wonderful! Thank you Jonathan!