Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
I let an old man suck my big toe once. He had experience. Watching Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese, I was tempted to visit my own past and glorify it.
I’m alone for two weeks. My sons are away with family, my husband shooting his latest project. I have no responsibilities except to feed myself and work. I watch the Rolling Thunder tour. It reminds me of an age when there were no endings, no attachments, only a book with blank pages.
I find it difficult to watch. My heart sinks as a thirtysomething Dylan sings “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” His eyes are wild at times. The brim of his hat, a stage for unearthed flowers and runaway feathers. His face is smeared with white makeup like a decorated human, or an undecorated clown.
A driver is interviewed in Rolling Thunder. He says of seeing the show, “Watching the audience with the performers on stage was like watching one battery charging another.” This Bob Dylan story completely charged me.
Raising kids doesn’t give you much time to reminisce. But this week, I didn’t need to bread a pork chop, didn’t need to study spelling words. There were extra hours in the day. I visited my friend from college, from 30 years ago. He values the performances of dead actors, cherishes old articles, and smiles at revived memories. I wondered if Bob Dylan could invoke his days gone by too. My friend treats all things from the past as treasures. He doesn’t have kids. Says he has time to reminisce. For me, the past forms a little fist and punches at my chest. My memories beckon me to turn and walk through them like the fragrance of milkweed beckons the butterfly down wooded paths. While watching Dylan, I had to flap my wings and go there.
I dated a poet in college. He wrote me poems and I wrote him prose. While he was reading Bukowski, I was reading Kerouac. On the Road took me to the Gateway to the West, took me to Highway 66. I didn’t believe college was going to help me with anything. It seemed a scam. I couldn’t live in any institution. I couldn’t live with four walls or a ring around my finger. I couldn’t live in a room without windows, or at a desk with four edges. I kept wondering, when do we start living? What’s outside this box? Just a few months before graduation, I took a hit of ecstasy. I stared at a tree after midnight. I said to my painter friend while he wandered into a pumpkin field, “Let’s go west.” He had a Ford Galaxy 500. It took a lot of gas. He said he had $200. I said, “I have a lot of books.” Baudelaire, Genet, Rimbaud, Kerouac all collided in the trunk together. We brought a camera and a pool stick. This guy could play pool. That’s probably all we did in college. Drink beer, play pool. We would play pool for money as we went across the states, we would hock the camera and books when we needed to. He brought a lot of cans of white tuna. I never knew tuna could be white until I met Eddie, White Boy Eddie. I left school and my boyfriend. We went on our 1993 tour of America.
I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be so many things, but my first form of expression was a poem written by a nine-year-old me who I don’t know anymore. It was written on a very small piece of paper. “I want to be free, I want my own privacy. I want a basset hound, that runs round and round.” That’s how it started. I can’t remember the rest.
I had been deprived of Dylan. I grew up in a head-banging, pop rockin’ kind of town. I never investigated other possibilities. I wish I’d heard his lyrics then. I might have taken my little poem more seriously. As I watched him now, in Rolling Thunder, I knew no one could ever be Bob Dylan. But then I realized no one could ever be Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell. Then, no one could be me, either. Was there legend in my past?
I’m not sure why we kept going on that road. We had a chance to turn around in Philadelphia. To do things the “right” way. We could go back to our college, read books with our lovers, pay the rent, walk to class with limbs of numbness. We could stack up our debt and put a smile on Sallie Mae. We got in the car and continued west. I never wrote while I was out there. I guess I didn’t believe I was a writer. I didn’t have a pen. Forgot my underwear, too. I think we needed to see what country we lived in; was it really a sweet land of liberty? We needed to go fast, we needed to meet types of people we’d never known. We needed to race beside freight trains on the highway under a full moon.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything, life is about creating yourself and creating things,” Dylan says in the doc.
By the time we got to St. Louis, we were broke. We found a table and a tournament. We won 50 bucks! We met Ollie, who’d been sitting on a barstool with a gin in his hand and a sponge on his head. He was in his early sixties. Had a grey beard and a seductive stare. He and I would do a few more road trips before he died. He would call me “Baby Girl.” He introduced us to Bob, who pretty much ran the town. Bob was a handsome urban cowboy who threw chunks of marble off balconies then glued the shattered pieces together to create a ground floor. Bob got us jobs. We stayed in St. Louis for three weeks. Got fed cupcakes in the park by a boy from the projects. Met a couple in love who couldn’t afford their rent but cooked us mac and cheese. And we learned from the masters of the road. Ollie and Bob taught us about the blues and bebop, and surviving, and living. They told us their stories, the legends they had created and the ones they had known, the roads they’d taken and the places without roads. Soon we got the bug to continue on. We were movin’ again. People used to tell me we were lucky to meet Bob and Ollie. They were real rolling stones, they’d say.
Me and Eddie slept in the car a lot. Along the way to the West, we had people we could visit. More stones rolling across the land that Bob and Ollie had told us about. Ollie had a dried-up gin-drinking pal in Arizona. He got us a gig housesitting out there. We hung out at the pool hall, partied with the young pool players, visited clay houses with kids shooting up in the bathtubs. Made it to New Mexico, where we got stuck. Ran out of gas and money. Met a 6-foot-5-inch Indian. He showed us where we could stay. A homeless shelter with food, shower and a bed. He said bad luck was on his trail. Darkness following him. He put on his jacket one night and a black widow came crawling out of it. Eddie said it was time to go.
We got to San Francisco and met a young man on speed. We raced up the cliffs with him. We pried open the last can of tuna and stared at the sunrise on the Pacific. We’d made it out West. Now what? California was beautiful but seemed taken. It was full of scammers, and druggies, and felt really hard to break into.
Hungry on Haight Street, I hocked Jean Genet for two cheeseburgers. We imagined living there. We imagined our future. We imagined this road could go on forever.
We made some more cash playing pool and headed up the West Coast to Seattle. I slept in the closet of an apartment that two lesbians shared. Eddie slept with a lesbian. I ate my first tomato. Once in a while, I spoke to Ollie. He’d say, “Get off the road. Go back, finish college.” Eddie stayed in Seattle. I sat on a bucket and cut strawberries until I made enough money to take a train back to New York.
The whole time on the road, I never felt like we were chasing something, never felt like we were following. I just always felt like we were riding along with it. Like riding along with a freight on the Santa Fe line. Like singing along with a Bob Dylan song. Me and Eddie had just finished our tour.
Most of those folks I never saw again. Except for Ollie. We did a couple more tours together. Then one day he brought the road to my college town. He pulled into the parking lot with his grey Honda, “BEBOP” on its license plate, a limp in his leg, cancer creeping in his step. “Baby girl …,” he’d mumble, and a soft sound would follow like the hum on the lips while eating a salty, buttery ear of corn. He came to my room, he stared at me a long time. I couldn’t go with him. My feet were naked and nearby. He held my foot, sucked on my toe, said that’s all he needed. Then he hit the road.
Bob Dylan says that all he got out of the Rolling Thunder days was “ashes.” Ashes get blown away. To me, these memories from the road are like bones in the body. Sometimes they ache and sometimes they break, but they’re moving you in a direction to create, and to live, and sometimes to sit down and think about where you’ve been.
Ginsberg, who was on the Rolling Thunder tour, says at their last performance:
“Try and get yourselves together … find your community … become more mindful of your own friends, your own work … your own proper art your own beauty … go out and make it for your own eternity.”