From a Dylanfest, a note on 'Series of Dreams'

Last night I coconvened a celebration of Bob Dylan at seventy. Nine Dylanologists each chose one song, prepared a short, informal talk about that song, and arrange some sort of presentation of this music (some performed arrangements themselves, others chose an audio excerpt). I spoke about “A Series of Dreams,” a song of the late 1980s, and then played the opening three minutes of the final episode of David Milch’s John from Cincinnati. Here is the text of my talk:

I’m mostly turned off by the Christian Bob Dylan, and so you’ll wonder why I chose what is almost certainly meant to be a song expressing an abstract faith. And I’ll need a television series to help me explain this.

My favorite single song is “Love Minus Zero, No Limit” and as for a favorite album — on some days Blood on the Tracks and on others, Blonde on Blonde. And I like much of his work of the 1990s. So I’m a sixties, seventies, and nineties guy. The 1980s? Dylan’s worst decade, to my lights, although Infidels has earned my respect and “Blind Willie McTell” is remarkable — and I treasured Bob’s four sung lines in “We Are the World” of 1985. 

The finest and most compelling song of the 1980s is “Series of Dreams.” Most agree that it’s the strongest song in the Oh Mercy group and yet, strangely, it was omitted from that album. I should note that “Dignity” was omitted from the same album, and so perhaps there’s no strangeness here at all — just bad decisions. “Series of Dreams” came to most of us through Bootleg Series 1–3 and to a few intrepid TV watchers by its use as the song leading into the final episode of David Milch’s eccentric, one-season-only HBO series John from Cincinnati, about which more in a moment.

Daniel Lanois, the great producer of Dylan in that period (and also later), gave this song of visionary abstraction a driving, tumultuous production: insistent drumming much louder than usual for Dylan (louder than we’d heard since Desire), a foregrounded tamborine, the bass turned way up, an instrumental arrangement implying Lanois’ insistence that Dylan sing the entire song as if it were a bridge.

A whole song sung like a bridge? In his autobiography, Dylan writes revealingly about this: “I knew what [Lanois] meant, but it just couldn’t be done. Though I thought about it for a second, thinking that I could probably start with the bridge as the main part and use the main part as the bridge … the idea didn’t amount to much and thinking about the song this way wasn’t healthy.”

Not the first time Dylan’s memory or description of intention has been misleading. For thinking about “Series of Dreams” this way — each verse having a bridge-ish quality, a crescendo all the way, up up up and up, with no clear way back to the melody as it began — is really just about the healthiest thing I’ve heard in all Dylan’s work.

You see, it’s tempting to understand the dream of this song as a single recurring dream dreamt by one dreamer — the believer Bob Dylan, dreaming of (in a phrase of the song) “nothing too very scientific.” But unlike explicit Dylan dream-songs such as “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “I Dreamed I saw St. Augstine,” where the single dreamer frames a subjective vision and inside the frame the genius is permitted to wander narratively and musically, this is a series of dreams with no individual specificity — and they seem not to be dreamt in sequence, one after the other, but simultaneously.

Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo fly
And there’s no exit in any direction
’Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes

Wasn’t making any great connection
Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinking of a series of dreams

Dreams where the umbrella is folded
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world

In one, numbers were burning
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb
Wasn’t looking for any special assistance
Not going to any great extremes
I’d already gone the distance
Just thinking of a series of dreams

This is a song of dreams dreamed by many simultaneously — variable but singular in its source. Dylan’s thought is not about the dreams’ content so much as the fact of them as a concurrence. The line might be “thinking of the idea of a series of dreams as spiritually distinct from that of the unique dreamer.”

Enter David Milch. In the final episode of season 1 of John from Cincinnati — and he knew this very weird show was bound to be cancelled, so in effect he was making the final final episode — this strange prophet/diviner/savant/hope-channeler John, “J.C.,” a man not so much from Cincinnati but from “another world” — has gone off. This is a series about a self-destructive surfer family and a hopeless, sketchy beach community near the California/Mexican border. The protagonist surfing dynasty has lost and then found again and then lost again its youngest, most innocent member, grandson Shaunie (played terribly and brilliantly by a real surfer kid). Every member of the cast has invested all their hopes and faith in Shaunie; he is exactly as innocent and good as they are guilty and wasted. David Milch wants them to discover a genuine soulful communitarianism, but as the final episode begins Shaunie is still missing — and each character is disjunct and dissolute. And then, from out among the far-off big waves, John from Cincinnati miraculously returns — with Shaunie — and they are in perfect surfing sync. They come in from the sky, born of and borne on the waves, and everyone is having a version of the same dream in a series of dreams.

When Milch chose a song rejected from Oh Mercy, “Series of Dreams,” to open this final episode, he offered a movingly recuperative interpretation that I think is exactly in the spirit of an all-crescendo, all-bridge-ish lyric that is as powerful as the finest visionary concurrent communing in all of Dylan — even “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row” — except here there is hope expressed through the hidden love we do finally have the capacity to share:

And there’s no exit in any direction
’Cept the one that you can't see with your eyes.