The Day I Heard The Tambourine Man
I, like others, was whisked away by the Gallatin genie just as I was about to drown in the requirements of my previous school. If NYU hadn’t had a school-without-walls, I wouldn’t have graduated, if you want a soundbite about it. The trade-off they offered was that I had to read a whole bunch of great books — which seemed like the point of life anyway — in exchange for taking whatever classes I wanted. It was rough, but what the heck.
As a recently transplanted Canadian “Beat,” I was striving to understand everything that drove that particular subculture of America. Although I missed the fifties (and the sixties now that I think of it) it seemed to me that the most exciting period in 20th century America was that explosive window just after the Second World War, when the winds of change shattered a pane and in blew Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and … well, you get the idea.
So there I was, completely beaten, trounced by the system and ready to get drunk at The Kettle of Fish, when in through my window flew Walter Raubicheck, the Gallatin advisor assigned to guide my light. I still had to take a few classes, of course, but what changed my tune were the Independent Studies he and I developed.
Each week we would meet at Bobst Library for our private sessions. Living on Washington Square North, I had to walk through the park every day in order to get to school (which probably did more to hamper my grade-point-average than any other excuse I’ve come up with). In that park I could see what made America great in the first place. People were going for it, and didn’t care what the neighbors thought. There were frisbee dancers and guitar players. There was book reading, soap box philosophizing, and a capella singing. There were clowns, saxophones, wandering salesmen, and young girls sitting on benches reading books. There were back-slapping brothers, and homeless poets who would recite a dream for silver. But more than anything, there were the songs that filled the air.
I heard many Dylan tunes for the first time in the very park where he wrote them. I heard the verses of freedom from Woody Guthrie to Tracy Chapman, and tossed back beer between the harmonies. There was something about that park in the youth of my America that I hope is still there for today’s huddled masses. It was the collective celebration of a sunny day, a guttural desire to not let this one slip away. America! Pow! The stomping down of the foot and hollering I’m going to do what I want, right here, right now. “I AM WHAT I AM!”
This was another planet, you understand, to this frostbitten Canuck.
It was one of those sunny summer Saturdays after passing through this festival that the curtain of my enlightenment rose. My advisor and I would try to get one of those little study closets on the seventh floor of Bobst to conduct our skull sessions in, but as it happened on this day, some fellow crammer with excellent hearing objected to our discourse and Walter suggested we adjourn to the outer hallway that encircled the atrium. I followed him out to the balcony where he promptly dropped to the carpet cross-legged and began reciting poetry.
My frostbite was tingling again.
That week we were focusing on Kerouac’s legacy, and Walter cited Bob Dylan as one of his leading apostles. I’d always had trouble with Dylan’s seemingly intentional obliqueness, so, having recently read a book dedicated “to Bob Dylan for Mister Tambourine Man,” I thought I’d challenge the professor to plug this into The Beat Picture.
He began reciting the verses from memory as a brilliant afternoon sun overtook the wall of windows behind him, backing him like the light beyond Saint Peter. Sitting on that suspended walkway with seven flights of space below and as many above, there was the oddest sensation of floating.
Right from the opening verse, as he quoted, the “… evening’s empire has returned into sand, … left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping,” my personal nightly explorations of the ancient empty streets of New York were suddenly coming to life. My own actions and emotions, which I’d previously been told were wrong and bad, were suddenly being recited in a library by a professor.
In joining Gallatin, I’d been searching for someone to “take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” of language and art. That afternoon, its advisor issued me the passage that had somehow eluded 14 years of classrooms and English lessons.
I discovered that the gangsters and pranksters who peopled my park were the same “ragged clowns” who were “laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun.” Soon afterward he showed me how they were also singing songs of themselves, and songs of innocence and experience.
As I sat transfixed, Walter peeled off one line after another, my body tingling with each new image. The wall of blinding sunlight began to obliterate the narrator, and pretty soon all I could see was the light.
As he recounted, “And but for the sky there are no fences facing,” somehow he, or Dylan, had finally voiced the boundless optimism I’d been struggling to pinpoint ever since my arrival in the land of the free.
When he prefaced the last stanza with, “I think this is one of the great romantic verses of all time,” I felt a wave of enchanted images crest and then break over me. That an English teacher would steer someone toward rock ‘n’ roll, and not away from it, transformed my perception of what education could be. It was no longer us against them, but a teamwork of understanding. An authority figure wasn’t dishing out dated discipline, but rather enhancing the world I lived in. William Blake was suddenly in the park. I could hear Walt Whitman on the radio. Thoreau made the evening news. What was once alien was now internal. Maybe I had to go all the way up to 1965 in order to understand Blake’s 1785, but it took this advisor to articulate the connection.
So take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, Mr. Tambourine Professor, down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, the haunted frightened trees, out to the windy beach of free expression. As he held my future in his recitation, he taught me in no uncertain terms, “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” And I’ve been dancing ever since.
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For more Adventures in Music — you may want to check out the New Orleans Jazz Fest ride.
Or the night Dylan showed up at Springsteen’s show at Shea Stadium in New York.
Or when Neil Young returned to Massey Hall in Toronto.
Or Furthur came back and reprised the Dead at Madison Square Garden.
Or when the Dead, Janis, The Band and others took the Festival Express train trip across Canada.
Or the night I was hanging with Dr. John’s band in Toronto.
Or the (Route) 66 Best live performances ever captured on film.
by Brian Hassett firstname.lastname@example.org BrianHassett.com