I’m sitting in my dorm room on a Monday night. A red milk crate next to my dresser contains some of my favorite vinyl albums I have ever bought myself, or found in my dad’s record collection. Flipping past albums by David Bowie, The Who and even Kendrick Lamar, my fingers linger on the ragged edge of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I remember buying it in a record shop in Clawson, Mich. It still feels like it did when I bought it: in shitty condition, but like someone else had cherished it as much as I do now. I slide the album out of its cover and watch the needle slowly descend onto the outer rim.
As the first note resonates through the speakers, memories of yesteryear begin to manifest. My eyes slowly close as I lean back on my carpet, ready to remember.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”
I saw myself sitting at some random open mike in some random café in some random city in metro Detroit. The espresso machines, acting as percussion, let off steam while songwriters croon their hearts out to a crowd of 10 or 20. I said I hadn’t planned on performing (even though everyone saw my guitar case next to my seat). The signup sheet, which was once filled to the brim with performers, was empty. The MC pointed at my case and called my name. My dad probably set her up to it. Instinctively, I grabbed my songbook and flipped to the track playing in my ears right now. I must’ve been 11 or 12 years old then.
Sliding my guitar strap over my neck and pretending like I knew how to tune by ear, my prepubescent voice squeaked in the microphone. It wasn’t my first open mike and it wouldn’t be my last, but for some reason this one seemed important.
“I dedicate this one to my dad,” I began.
“Girl from the North Country”
Despite having nothing to do with Dylan’s lyrics about a former lover, this song transported me to the summer before freshman year of college. I had a ton of friends who went to the local Catholic high school. They’re all still confused as to why I know them. Nonetheless, we spent the entire summer together.
In my friend Lucy’s backyard, we would grab blankets, dust off cheap plastic chairs and build the biggest bonfire we could. Sweatshirts were a must given the cool summer breeze. We would practice handstands and fall on faces or on our backs if we were lucky.
The orange glow of the fire reflected in my friend Lily’s eyes next to me. We all knew we would be going to different corners of the state, country and even the globe in the upcoming years. We decided to save the tears for later.
Instead, we opted for handstands.
“Masters of War”
In my ears, Dylan strikes a menacing chord lamenting about the men behind the wars that “build the big guns.” It reminds me of the first protest I saw during a vacation in Chicago the summer of 2014.
Walking through the city with my friend Sean, my mom and her boyfriend at the time, I heard a faint crowd in the distance. Two streets over on Michigan Avenue, I saw thousands of men, women and children holding signs rallying in support of the state of Palestine. I stood in silence for a few minutes, mentally wishing them the best of luck. It was all I could do in the moment.
“Down the Highway”
Every two or three weeks when I was little, my parents and I would make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Kalamazoo. This was before their divorce. Grandparents and cousins from both sides of the family lived about 10 miles from one another around the city. Sometimes, I would fall asleep on the ride because my mom always said they would “take the shortcut” so we would get to Humma’s quicker. The logistics behind this magical secret route they took never crossed my mind.
I would stare out the window and watch the long stretches of pavement in front of us. The trees waved at me as they shook from the breeze. Large highway signs were just colors to me. I felt every bump of the road shake my seat. As I slowly got tired of listening to the highway rumble underneath our car, I decided to let my parents “take the shortcut.”
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”
Bob Dylan’s ramblings and harmonica permeate my train of thought. I can almost feel the cold metal of my old harmonica I had when I was 12. It was in the key of D.
It was opening day for the Tigers. Instead of going to the game, my dad and I went to his friend’s tailgate around the corner from Comerica Park. Radios blared live coverage of the season opener all across the parking lot. I had an orange Tigers cap on the ground, my harmonica in my hand and a duct tape wallet that longed for a couple of bucks. Playing the only song I knew, “Love Me Do” by The Beatles, intoxicated baseball fans stumbled past my section of the sidewalk. I watched them saunter down the street, laughing and resting on each other for support. I doubt it was my phenomenal harmonica skills that convinced the Detroit pub patrons to toss a couple bucks in my hat. My wallet was packed to the brim with singles as the sun set on a beautiful day of baseball.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”
Immediately, this song forces me back to the day of my great-grandma Nanny’s funeral. I know I was 11 because we have her memorial card on my fridge back home.
She had always been my favorite relative to visit. Not just because she would let my cousin Evan and I eat chocolate donut holes for breakfast, but because she didn’t care what other people thought. It hurt for months when she passed. The concept of “getting old” never resonated with me until that moment. Then I understood all too well.
At the funeral, I had to step outside with my dad to get away from the stuffy visitation. I didn’t like my tears landing on the lapel of my tiny suit. In the sky, I saw dark and menacing clouds in the distance, heading straight for the funeral home. I knew Dylan understood my pain through his lyrics. “A hard rain’s gonna fall,” pain exists, and you can’t avoid it. Like the clouds in the sky, they were going to come no matter how much I didn’t want them to. I just wished they wouldn’t have come that day. I wanted see the blue sky and remember how sunny days would reflect on the pond in Nanny’s backyard. I wanted to remember better days. But I couldn’t.
Side one comes to an end. My eyes open but I can feel my tear ducts welling up. I rub my face and sit for a moment in stunned reflection. I lift the needle, switch off the turntable, flip to side two, and brace for another track.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
Just as Dylan begins his fingerpicking, I realize how the music resolves itself.
Pain in life brings reassurance and creates the memories I recalled tonight. Of course rain falls, but rain clears and the remnants of the showers create puddles for children to play in the next day. As Dylan reflects on another lost love, I reflect on the role Nanny played in my life before and after her death. She’ll be with me. Always. “Fare thee well.”
We etch our memories into the blank plastic canvas of our minds. Happy, sad or anything in between, we carve them all. We can’t choose when we remember what we do, but that’s the beauty of music. Songs are arranged in their order to guide us through the past. The record spins until side one’s time has elapsed, and this is where the true magic of an album comes to life. We trust music to guide us through in the best direction it can — toward the center of the album and beyond.