THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE
“Well, I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face/With my fist/I took my potatoes/Down to be mashed/Then I made it over/To that million dollar bash.” This isn’t a passage from Shakespeare’s 16th Sonnet. It’s a lyric from a song on THE BASEMENT TAPES, the long rumored/now legendary home recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band when
nobody was looking in 1967.
“This wheel’s on fire,/Rolling down the road,/Best notify my next of kin,/This wheel shall
It’s hard to make interesting Art. The minute you try to do it, you’re already too self-conscious to
allow anything interesting to happen. It’s the same with regular, everyday life – falling in love or
sinking that free throw with the game on the line: The second you start to think too hard about it,
you might as well throw in the towel and go for a walk.
“I come into Pittsburgh/At six-thirty flat./I found myself a vacant seat/An’ I put down my
hat./‘What’s the matter, Molly, dear,/What’s the matter with your mound?’/‘What’s it to ya, Moby
Dick?/This is chicken town!’”
Unfettered creative freedom can lead to some goofy, self-indulgent places. As much as artists
rail against creative constraints, it is often those very constraints – exhibition deadlines, word
count, conceptual restrictions, length – that force artists to make their most creative work.
Finding endless worlds within the four walls of a cardboard box, as it were.
“Tears of rage, tears of grief,/Why must I always be the thief?/Come to me now, you know/We’re
so alone/And life is brief.”
I saw Bob Dylan perform this song in the theater at Madison Square Garden in 1997 during a
three-night stand with Van Morrison. That refrain – “We’re so alone/And life is brief” – has
always haunted me, the same way that when I was14 years old, heating up hot-cocoa in the
microwave oven at our house on North 20th Street in Bismarck, North Dakota in the middle of a
blizzard, I’d watch the digital green numbers on the machine count down the time: 3-2-1-...
Playfulness is important in Art. Critical, even. Sincerity, too.