Can Music Save Your Life?
Who hasn’t at least once had the feeling of being remade through music? Who is there who doesn’t date a new phase in life to hearing this or that symphony or song? I heard it—we say—and everything changed. I heard it, and a gate flew open and I walked through. But does music constantly provide revelation—or does it have some other effects, maybe less desirable?
For those of us who teach, the question is especially pressing. Our students tend to spend hours a day plugged into their tunes. Yet, at least in my experience, they are reluctant to talk about music. They’ll talk about sex, they’ll talk about drugs—but rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever else they may be listening to, is off-limits. What’s going on there?
When I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, not long after it came out, I was amazed. At the time, I liked to listen to pop on the radio—the Beatles were fine, the Stones were better. But nothing I’d heard until then prepared me for Dylan’s song. It had all the fluent joy of a pop number, but something else was going on too. This song was about lyrics: language. Dylan wasn’t chanting some truism about being in love or wanting to get free or wasted for the weekend. He had something to say. He was exasperated. He was pissed off. He’d clearly been betrayed by somebody, or a whole nest of somebodies, and he was letting them have it. His words were exuberantly weird and sometimes almost embarrassingly inventive—and I didn’t know what they all meant. “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.” Chrome horse? Diplomat? What?
I sensed Dylan’s disdain and his fury, but the song suggested way more than it declared. This was a sidewinder of a song—intense and angry, but indirect and riddling too. I tried to hear every line—Dylan’s voice seemed garbled, and our phonograph wasn’t new. I can still see myself with my head cocked to the spindle, eyes clenched, trying to shut out the room around me as I strained to grab the words from the harsh melodious wind of the song. “Ain’t it hard when you discovered that / He really wasn’t where it’s at / After he took from you everything he could steal.”