Bob Dylan and David Lynch Revisited
New Zealand Chess Championship, 1952. That’s when David Lynch stopped chess master Ortvin Sarapu’s winning streak of 10 games in a row with a draw in the last round. David Ireson Lynch had won the New Zealand Championship the previous year. He died in 2002 aged 92, having played at grandmaster level up until the 1980’s when he was able to draw with the likes of Eduard Gufeld and Murray Chandler.
His namesake, film director David Lynch, enacts in the TV-series Twin Peaks a confrontation between FBI agent Dale Cooper and his enemy Windom Earle based on a twisted chess game with innocent lives at stake. Earle — the villain — plays a sick game of life and death with Cooper where, for any chess piece he captures, a person gets killed. In one way or another Windom Earle always notifies Agent Copper his next moves in order to let the battle continue. Cooper publishes his responses on the Twin Peaks Gazette and is forced to play a stalemate game to avoid the possibility of further victims. Whenever he loses a piece one person dies. Patterns and conflicts leading to life or death revolve relentlessly around the chess board.
July 10, 2013. David Lynch pays homage to Bob Dylan by releasing his own version of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, a cinematic song about a desperate farmer driven by utter poverty to kill himself and his family. The final verse — “There’s seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / Somewhere in the distance / There’s seven new people born” — may represent a sign of hope or indicate that fate is about to repeat itself. Be that as it may, Dylan’s narrative focuses on the cosmic predestination of violence, a theme that may have resonated in Lynch’s sensibility.
August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King gives his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. On that occasion Bob Dylan performs “Only a Pawn in Their Game” to make a point that white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith, the killer of Southern black civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is a victim of sorts, too — a “pawn” in the game of racist divide-and-conquer politics. “They lowered him down as a king”, sings Dylan about Medgar Evers. In “Jolene”, a song that may be dedicated to Joan Baez, he unashamedly compares himself to the king of rock and roll and the female protagonist to the queen (of folk music?). Similarly in Twin Peaks, villain Windom Earle doesn’t care for pawns because he wants royalty and wonders whether agent Cooper is prepared to sacrifice his queen. Another Dylan chess reference may be found in “Clean-Cut Kid” with the opening line “Everybody wants to know why he couldn’t adjust” where “adjust” stands for the English translation of “j’adoube”, an expression used by chess players before touching a piece on the board without intending to move it. Bob Dylan is even rumoured to have played a chess game with world champion Bobby Fisher once.
Both Dylan and David Lynch do not only take a keen interest in chess. They share also a fascination with electricity. When asked what attracted him to electricity, Lynch once replied in an interview (quoted on welcometotwinpeaks.com): “The fact that it controls us. I don’t know why all people aren’t fascinated with it. It makes beautiful sounds, and it makes a lot of times some incredible light. It runs many things in our world and it’s beautiful. It’s sometimes dangerous, but it’s magical. It’s such a power and it can make some beautiful images…and sounds.”
Bob Dylan changed the world of music and literature by going electric in 1964. His decision to expand his repertoire into rock music enabled him to conjure “that thin, wild mercury sound” he had been hearing in his mind constantly during that particular period of his career. He described it as “metallic and bright gold”. “Visions of Johanna” is perhaps the song that best epitomizes his conversion to electricity. It counterposes a claustrophobic and decadent folk community to the visions of the future in the music scene, represented by rock and roll, that are conquering Dylan’s mind.
In “Visions of Johanna” everything concerning the folk scene is old and offers no way out, repeating itself in endless circles (“infinity goes up on trial”). Its members live in denial, inside a museum, and don’t accept that the world is changing while Dylan alone feels the power of the “ghost of electricity”. They take themselves too seriously and brag of their misery. They mutter “small talk at the wall” accusing him behind his back of having sold his soul to the devil for turning electric. They compare him to Judas and speak “of a farewell kiss”.
History will prove him right. At the end of the song Dylan’s conscience “explodes” in a release of energy that will pave the way for the music of future generations and create beautiful sounds. This is the power of electricity.