Big Sur is freedom. It is eternal youth smiling to you and shining above you with God’s great sun gleaming high as the waves crash in a morning tempest over the sharp rocks below. On this winding road you hang over the Pacific Ocean, and you hug tightly the green cliffs and the redwoods that are the golden shore of West America. Big Sur, with its mystery and giant-like aura is the great golden angel, the silent knight that stares out daylight and darkness into the endless Pacific. America’s guardian. And I imagined that somewhere up in the mountains, perhaps on the highest peak just grazing the surface of the blue morning sky, stood a watchtower, ancient and waiting with the ghost of Jack Kerouac.
The song Gates of Eden roared from my radio, as I slowed the car to a crawl with the windows down and the words echoed up and along the morning cliffs.
I had first thought about being a songwriter when I was halfway through my time at the University of Florida. My thinking then was to get my degree in whatever field was interesting enough and then take off for California immediately and pursue my destined career in acting.
But that was then. I had indeed moved to California in pretty good time, only now I was a different man, with a steel-string acoustic strapped ‘cross my back that I took with me wherever I went. I had Bob Dylan to blame for that change in me, mostly. I was listening to him alot lately, and I played nothing but early Dylan this morning, with the live ’64 Halloween concert playing on repeat. That night seemed like the eve of his transformation from the young, spirited folk troubadour to the electric, American rock rebel. I listened to the voice singing Gates of Eden, singing of the motorcycle black Madonna, two-wheeled gyspy queen. I could hear the feeling behind the words, the words that so many including me found baffling and odd to start but still making great sense. Maybe it was the power of images, images that didn’t have to be in sync with us or with our routine experience, just in sync with the rest of the images in the scene.
That is what they say about Dylan so often, with all his transformations. That there were so many that he adopted though his career, and that they often contradicted one another.
You can hear the beginnings of transformation in his voice that Halloween, in the recording that night. There is a feeling that this kid, singing to his sea of lovers and disciples and admirers, is beginning to say farewell; that it’s been a fun ride but that it is time for him to move on. It wasn’t long before they would call him a sell-out, a traitor. Judas.
But no artist can paint the same pictures forever, and by the same token, very few of them ever betray who they are at their very core. They never betray that most sacred and basic instinct that drives everything. Through all the changes they remain true to that inner fire, that identity which is ever constant. I don’t think Bob ever changed from being a man who stayed true to who he was, who followed his vocation as a storyteller; and though we were always permitted to judge, how he chose to tell those stories would always be for him to decide.
And so through all the transformations did he maintain one solid indentity? And did he know that identity more clearly than anyone else? Perhaps not. Perhaps he was still on the way to finding it. Maybe it is that basic pursuit that drives us all until the end. What we create from it in that time, however, what grows from that pursuit for all to see, is the art. The rest is flowers.
As for me, I could relate to the shape-shifting. The kid who’d vowed to move to LA to be an actor was now just as committed to writing songs the rest of his life, not only because he wanted to be like his hero, but because he too, like so many before him, saw it as an obligation. Songwriting. Writing. Telling a story. It was a duty. A privilege.
I would feel this way about acting as well in the near future, though for a while I’d thought I was done, that I could not go back because I wasn’t true anymore. I’d wondered whether acting was really ever a passion. And the more that I stalled, I’d thought, the less I would become. But the same debt I owed to Bob Dylan I would soon realize I owed too to Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp.
My mission then was to find the core, the fire from which all these things prospered. I could sense the spirits of all these men over me this morning. I had to find my own, or at least begin to. I wondered whether Bob had found it yet, whether Brando had before he died. I looked out toward the crystal sea. We’d all gathered here. I’d receive no help from them, nor from anyone in my pursuit. But the feeling that others had come before me with the same conflict was a greater help to me today than any I could have asked for. The ghosts of Big Sur, they understood everything.