Nostalgia Is Death

Bob Dylan turned 50 on May 24, 1991.

I’d follow him 18 years later, but I only mention this because he just put out a new album this year—when he also turned 79—making one helluva strong case for “never looking back.”

Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn wrote about Dylan on that landmark half-century birthday. During their interview Hilburn noticed a road crew member slipping Dylan a paperback book that outlined all his live sets over the years. When Dylan gave the book back, the roadie told him to keep it as a souvenir. Dylan didn’t want it.

“Naw, I’ve already been to those places,” he said, “and I’ve done all that.” Then, with a quick grin, Dylan added: “Now if you ever find a book out there that’s going to tell me where I’m going, I might be interested.”

This immediately struck a chord with me because I realized I had such a “book” in my possession—all my diaries and journals. While they’re a record of my past, they’re oddly clairvoyant at times; I often dive into them somewhat randomly for just that effect.

Reading Hilburn’s interview, where the journalist asked the artist to dissect his rich and varied past, to which Dylan shot back acidly, “Nostalgia is death,” I felt an opening into something that’s been on my mind lately with this blog.

Now I’m fairly certain many readers here depend on my reminiscences for their own nostalgic jags: memories about 1970s drive-in movies, supper clubs, soda fountains, high school football games on rainy fall nights, cruising a main drag, attending a rock concert, or falling in love (for the first of many times). Those are the common themes that bind our lives together—however separated we may feel—into a shared narrative. Heck, I guess I should be grateful for being able to do that.

But friends, that’s definitely not why I show up here. That’s not why this blog matters to me.

And that’s why nostalgia is…well, yeah, just another form of slowly dying.

“He not busy being born is busy dying,” our rockin’ 20th century Walt Whitman also sang. So, how can we keep busy “being born”? How can a journal or diary help you move past “noxious nostalgic vapors” into something closer to clarity, self-awareness, and ongoing personal rebirth?

Well, I think I can help you out with that.

Let’s start with curiosity—the rabbit hole that often leads to unexpected insights. Here’s a question: “What was I doing on Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday, on May 24, 1991?” After all I had journals from that time, although I only started to lean harder on journal writing in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Hey, it was worth a look.

The bad news: no entries for May of that year, but I did find an entry that dovetails with Dylan on March 25, 1991. The juncture was his performance at that year’s Grammy awards, with a blistering and bewildering version of “Masters of War”—occasioned of course by the same thing I was writing about in my journal at the time, the terrifying month-long Persian Gulf War. With my trusty fountain pen I scratched out a late-night entry, posted here in full:

“It’s just after midnight, but feels like 3 a.m. I’m lying awake and afraid I’ll be dead at 31 of a heart attack. My stomach is rumbling for a second night. I think I had a mild case of food poisoning yesterday but it really isn’t worth mentioning. I suppose I’m writing more out of fear than anything now; I’m a little angry at the black side of solitude, the genuine feeling of loneliness. I’m fucking sick of it. But I don’t know what to do about it. Thursday night at work I asked N. if she wanted to go see The Doors movie (Oliver Stone) after work and she thought about it. Friday afternoon she asked me if I was still going and I said yes and asked if she wanted to go, but she gently declined. I didn’t say much the rest of the day and left at 7:30 (a bit sullenly, I suppose), just saying ‘goodnight.’ It was raining like all hell when I left, so I went and rented two movies and got something to drink. I did the same thing Sat. night after grocery shopping and Sunday afternoon I caught the aforementioned Stone movie, ate supper at the Lone Star Grill and had two drinks and went home. I hadn’t heard from anyone all weekend save the proverbial Folks who’re still enthusing about the Winning of the Goddamned War and Jesus Christ’s Fucking Pointless Resurrection et al next weekend. I suppose I’ve a little leftover Evil Lizard King left w/me, but shit, really. I don’t want a sitter, no ‘friend’ or chum/pal o’ mine. Want something MORE—something bigger than this shell of mine that fills a family. Life Alone Is Hell. But that’s not the same as solitude, which is like being a part of Something. When will it End?”

Well of course it would end, but it was startling to fast-forward two years and three months ahead to discover exactly how:

“A man who keeps a diary pays
Due toll to many tedious days;
But life becomes eventful—then
His busy hand forgets the pen.
Most books, indeed, are records less
Of fullness than of emptiness.”
William Allingham’s diary, 1864

That was on July 5, 1993, when—nine days later—I’d landed a new apartment at 108 Pierce Street in St. Paul’s Merriam Park. I’d be leaving Cathedral Hill and heading west again. The previous 1991 entry was a year before I moved to St. Paul—when I was holding down a dead-end job, living in a joyless apartment, trying to date indifferent women, and feeling completely hopeless about the future.

So, I shook things up.

It took awhile, but eventually “life became eventful.” And because life became eventful, I knew I had to get it down in my journal—so I wrote even more throughout 1993 and beyond. The early 1990s were a bad patch that I couldn’t see through—maybe like these “Covid-19 days” we’re all experiencing.

So let’s not wallow in nostalgia, friends. Nostalgia is futile, but when you’re there it sticks to your soul like rusty old coffin nails. There were no “good old days.” The best you can do is take what you’ve learned and retool that knowledge. Keep expanding.

Keep making better days.

Bob Dylan did that time and time again, as he’s currently doing with Rough and Rowdy Ways. He doesn’t take cues from the crowd. He goes inside and feels around for whatever treasures he finds there. Or more dirt to plant things in. Or interesting scraps to play with. Life is the grand experiment. If it feels like forward motion—even if no one else approves—then it’s all good.

And that, I think, is a great strategy for keeping busy “being born.”

Lastly I’m willing to bet Dylan knows he does have that book about the future—it’s all there in his sketch pads, notebooks, concerts, and every song and lyric he’s ever written—and will write as long as we’re blessed to have him among us.


Dylan photo above retrieved from Rogelio A. Galaviz C. Under Creative Commons license.

~ by completelyinthedark on July 29, 2020.

One Response to “Nostalgia Is Death”

  1. When I went to a book reading for Jon Bream’s Disc by Disc in 2015, someone asked Jon, “What do you think is next for Bob?”
    Jon responded, “With Dylan, you never know.”

    Liked by 1 person

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