I think “Being Alive” from the musical “Company” is the greatest song ever written. The grit in Raúl Esparza’s voice when he says his final “Mock me with praise” kills me every time. And yet, I didn’t listen to it for almost a year after my first breakup because every time I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from remembering the time I played the song in my now ex-boyfriend’s mom’s SUV and how, when the song finished, he turned to me and said, “So that’s why this is your favorite song.”
This isn’t a particularly novel occurrence. When I love things, I love to share them. This is a blessing because it is beautiful and binding and intimate when someone you love cares about the art you bring to them or when art you love reminds you of someone you love just as much. However, in the shadow of that sunshine, I find myself estranged from my favorite things every time a relationship ends.
The worst it ever got was the first semester of freshman year. When I left for college, I didn’t have a single photo of the boy who I had been close friends with for the past year and had been dating that past summer. No profile pictures or Instagram snaps or pictures on my phone. Nothing. He told me it was something about the National Security Agency and surveillance, and I tried not to inquire further. Looking back, he always made a point of not being known, and when we continued seeing each other after I left for school, this obscurity only intensified.
Whether I missed him or simply him as a manifestation of the security of home is hard to tell. But a few weeks into classes, while shopping for things to put up on my dorm wall, I bought a postcard of Bob Dylan photographed by Daniel Kramer in 1965. It is a black and white picture of Dylan sitting up on a stool. His hand is covering half his face, with his hair as wild as ever, and a smirk lifts up the uncovered side of his mouth. The boy I was seeing told me a woman once had told him that he looked like a young Dylan, and looking at this picture had me convinced this lady had a point. I put the postcard at the foot of my top bunk.
Dylan’s music has always been a dormant part of my life, a sort of constant din that drifted out of our speakers during the better part of my childhood. But now, armed with a longing for connection, I began watching interviews and backstage footage of Dylan. I marathoned documentaries and loitered in Pegasus Books, flipping through unauthorized biographies and photo books. That period of my life became so closely intertwined with Dylan’s music that at some point, I’m not sure when, Dylan and the boy back home became one mythic figure, who I did not understand and who I could never hope would understand me.
The irony of using young Dylan, a notorious recluse, as a stand-in for my own absent boyfriend is far from lost on me. When we broke up, as we were bound to, my oversights came sharply into focus. The cocktail I had created of the two of them was toxic, and the hangover left me spinning. The day after the split, the world felt dry and crunchy. I played Dylan all day until his voice felt like gravel in my ears, and his words spat out of speakers as I ground my teeth to the sharp whistle of his harmonica. But I kept the postcard up in the left-hand corner at the foot of my bed.
The pulling apart proved much more difficult than the mixing together. As they say, you can’t unbake a cake. But then again, why would you ever want to unbake a cake? I’m sure we could unbake a cake if an unbaked cake had written “One Too Many Mornings.” As days became weeks and weeks became months, I decided to make a playlist called “Home” — something to remind me of all the old records that my dad would play over our stereo system. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor served as my soundtrack from ages 0 to 13, until I switched over to Now That’s What I Call Music CDs exclusively. On my search, I fell onto Another Side of Bob Dylan, just as I had so many months ago.
Many of Dylan’s most melancholic songs are his love songs, or his farewell-to-love songs. Equal parts heart-wrenching and comforting, all parts something I am not ready to give up. To completely forego his music because of the emotions connected to it seems absolutely antithetical to the purpose of art. When I felt Dylan’s words most deeply was when I really needed them, and even when they were the most mine. I still keep the picture of Dylan on my wall next to a picture with my family.
Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected].