May 24, 2010KR BlogKRReading

Salute Him When His Birthday Comes

It’s May 24th, Bob Dylan’s 69th birthday, and I’ve had this collection of Dylan books stacked next to my desk since mid-March. After visiting Minneapolis a couple of months ago, and after listening to Chronicles, Volume Oneon the drive back to Ann Arbor, I thought I would post something quick and collage-like about the Minnesota native. And I thought I would write about Sean Penn‘s performance on the audio version of Chronicles — how it wasn’t exactly a Dylan imitation (which would have been easy enough to do, but which would have been distracting), but that it also wasn’t performed in Penn’s regular speaking voice; instead, he found an interesting middle range between the two voices that allowed for both world-weariness and enthusiasm. I wrote some of these ideas down on scrap paper, but I can’t find the scraps — and now I’m in danger of writing a blog post about not writing a blog post about Bob Dylan. Geoff Dyer apparently did something similar in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence. Though I bought Dyer’s book a while ago, I haven’t yet read it. Other scraps of life keep getting in the way.

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For instance: David Sedaris visited Ann Arbor six weeks ago. It was an early stop on his now-completed 36-city tour, and he looked especially fresh and dapper in a white shirt and yellow tie. Sedaris, of course, needs no introduction — and, at the Michigan Theater, he received none. Instead, he launched into tales from his forthcoming collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (scheduled to appear in bookstores, and at the top of bestseller lists, this October). Among my favorites were “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” (“now came the news that he had pancreatic cancer”) and “The Faithful Setter” (in which a pair of pooches rail against padded toilet seats, vanilla-scented candles, and labradoodles). Sedaris riffed on NSFW T-shirts and the Web site “People of Wal-Mart” (a mean but sort of addictively clickable house of horrors). He briefly directed the audience’s attention away from himself and toward Tim Johnston’s Irish Girl, the title story of which appears in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, a fantastic Sedaris-edited anthology that I used in my fiction workshop last semester. (I chose the anthology, in part, because it doubles as a fundraising project for 826NYC — an organization whose mission, according to Sedaris, is “to raise money for fucked-up kids.” That last part’s not 100% true, but it got a laugh at the Michigan Theater.) In the Q & A that followed the reading, someone asked, “Do people you write about ever write to you to say they recognize themselves?” Sedaris: “I try to write about people who aren’t big readers.”

Or, for instance: I was teaching Dorothy Parker in my Intro to Literary Studies class last Wednesday. It was the anniversary of Oscar Wilde‘s release from Reading Gaol, and I was thinking of Wilde’s line to Andre Gide: “I put my genius into my life, and only my talent into my works.” As much as I admire Parker’s stories and poems, what I love are the anecdotes. Here’s a sampling, some of which I’ve lifted from Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes:

Parker once encountered Clare Boothe Luce in a narrow doorway. “Age before beauty,” Luce declared, stepping aside. “Pearls before swine,” replied Parker, gliding through.

Parker was once interrupted on her honeymoon by Harold Ross (her indomitable editor at The New Yorker), pressing her for a belated book review. “Too fucking busy,” Parker replied, “and vice versa.”

Parker and a friend once fell into a conversation about a certain uninhibited and talkative celebrity. “She’s so outspoken,” the friend declared. Replied Parker: “By whom?”

Parker was once told that a certain London actress had broken her leg. “How terrible,” she declared. “She must have done it sliding down a barrister.”

Parker did not suffer boredom, or bores, gladly. (“He’s the type of man,” she remarked of one bore, “who is sure to keep the conversation ho-humming.”)

Upon the birth of her baby, Robert Sherwood’s wife received a congratulatory note from Parker: “Good work, Mary,” it read. “We all knew you had it in you.”

During her later years Parker increasingly found refuge in alcohol. Admitted to a sanatorium, she approved the room but told the doctor she would have to go out every hour or so for a drink. He solemnly warned her that she must stop drinking or she would be dead within a month. “Promises, promises,” she said with a sigh.

These are scraps, to be sure — but who would want to be without them? Not Dylan, I bet. To pocket a line from “Tombstone Blues”: “The tears on her cheeks are from laughter.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan. Across the land, across the blogs, I imagine that people are wishing you good fortune — wishing that you stay, as you once put it, forever young. I’ll wish something additional: that you stay forever droll. In the spirit of youth and drollery, here’s a final scrap, from Toby Thompson’s Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota, in which the biographer recounts his late-’60s pursuit of Dylan through the watering holes of Hibbing:

I sat at the bar next to a fortyish guy with graying hair and ordered a drink. He asked me where I was from. I told him and said I was here writing about Bob Dylan’s boyhood. Did he know him? “Yeah,” the guy said. “I used to be his babysitter.”