Perhaps W.B. Belcher’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune won’t turn out to be another High Fidelity—that is, another book that launched a thousand wistful or grateful “That’s the book I would have written if I’d written a book about what music means to me” from legions of heartbroken, music-obsessed guys. In fact, Lay Down Your Weary Tune more closely resembles another Nick Hornby book, Juliet, Naked, about a guy who defines himself by his exhaustively informed fixation on a long-retired musician whose own diminished self and corrosive self-loathing also feature prominently in the book.
As its title—borrowed from a majestic song Bob Dylan wrote in 1963—suggests, Lay Down Your Weary Tune is steeped in the folk mythos of Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. The narrator, Jack Wyeth, a sometimes folk musician and failed writer, has built his life around his pre-occupation with enigmatic and elusive folk-rocker Eli Page. Page’s musical history and longtime penchant for self-mythologizing bear strong similarities to Dylan’s, and Wyeth describes the impact Page’s music has had on his life in much the same way Dylan himself describes the first time he heard Woody Guthrie’s records in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1: “When I first heard him it was like a million megaton bomb had dropped. [Guthrie’s songs] had the infinite sweep of humanity in them… Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces.” Likewise, Jack Wyeth writes, “[S]omewhere Eli Page is singing the blues, and people like me can feel their lives ripping apart at the seams.”
Like Dylan, Wyeth befriends his idol in deep decline. Dylan famously visited Guthrie in a hospital in New Jersey where the folk icon lay decimated by Huntington’s Chorea. Dylan began to write his own songs and take up the challenge he heard Guthrie issue to him, through his records, before they even met: “I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.”
The fairy tale-like story of Dylan and Guthrie—the disciple dutifully sitting at the feet of his dying hero—might be the nicest part of the many Dylan myths that’s actually true. In his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, fellow folkie Dave Van Ronk, who portrays his former friend Dylan with no illusions, sentimentality or rectitude, acknowledges that Bob was a genuinely “stand-up guy” when it came to Guthrie.
Jack Wyeth and Eli Page’s relationship proves much more prickly. Once, as an undergraduate managing a campus folk concert, Jack briefly encounters Eli Page as a near-no show who appears just before curtain and captivates the crowd—myth made flesh, just as advertised. But Jack’s real involvement with his idol begins years later in his own downward-spiraling life as a failed musician and writer still reeling from an ugly breakup, when Eli’s manager offers him a gig ghostwriting the folk legend’s memoirs.
Jack finds Eli living in a dilapidated farmhouse in a riverside upstate New York town, emaciated, irascible, often drunk and utterly unwilling to cooperate with Jack or have any part of the writing project. What’s more, Eli inhabits a startlingly silent house from which he seems to have banished all music and any memory of it. The rest of the town is nearly as unwelcoming to Jack as Eli, although he does strike up a promising friendship with a whip-smart, thoughtful and intriguing young woman named Jenny, who seems to know the painful personal stories Eli refuses to share but guards the old man’s secrets as closely as Eli himself.
Aside from a few interest-piquing moments with Jenny, the first 150 pages of the book (dubbed “FIRST”) are tough-going. Belcher goes to great lengths to establish Jack Wyeth as a non-entity—awkward, stilted, and utterly flummoxed by the stand-offish Eli Page. His blunt, sledgehammer-like efforts to get Eli to talk about his life seem more like inserted plot devices to keep Eli’s story from coming out too soon than the plausible efforts of a guy with journalistic experience who’s apparently overmatched by this particular subject. Eli’s dialogue alternates between monosyllabic mundanities and press conference outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back that were just as evasive, but not clever enough to make the movie.
At times Belcher seems uncertain about whether he wants to present the warts-and-all, masks-stripped-away, determinedly-dull-as-dirt Eli Page and the still-feisty, laconic genius. As I struggled through this section, I began to wonder if an author living out many a Dylanologist’s dream—to find a publisher who’d give him carte blanche to cram as many Dylan allusions into his book as he has in his head—had blown such a magical opportunity. Much later, it becomes clear that Belcher is constructing a convincing and compelling character (albeit a little too slowly), for whom croaking out Dylanesque, self-mythologizing, faux-evocative nonsense isn’t an image-burnishing put-on anymore. After 50 years, it’s as involuntary and automatic as calling the dog or telling his guest that he’s going to take out the trash.
Mutual understanding between Jack and Eli (as well as Jack and Jenny) evolves slowly as the book progresses, but what’s remarkable about this book is what an absolute delight to read it becomes after that difficult and overlong first section—and how quickly the change comes about. All it takes, it seems, is a wonderfully realized scene that ingeniously evokes the song referenced in the novel’s title to help Belcher’s book take flight. After weeks of being ignored and angrily put off by his purported writing partner, one morning Jack surreptitiously follows Eli and his dog deep into the woods behind Eli’s house to a riverside graveyard. Eli catches Jack in the act and advises him to shut up and listen to the sonic landscape at the spot where Eli says he goes each day to collect his thoughts and escape his consuming self-loathing. Jack does, and finds his mind flooded with washes of memory and imagery. He goes back to the farmhouse and starts writing a song to the tune of the Scottish hymn “The Water is Wide”—melodic inspiration for Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” itself a song in part about embracing symphonic sounds in nature. Jack Wyeth comes into focus, and Belcher’s book becomes wonderfully engrossing and rewarding reading from that moment forward.
In the near-final reckoning of Eli Page, Belcher finds and reveals something well beyond validating grief-on-a-gilded-chair rock star self-pity: “For so long, I’d wanted to stand in Eli’s shoes, to live inside his life, to be him in every possible way, but I finally saw what he was trying to show me. Like rushing water, the past had washed over him and pulled him under. Sorrow was too weak a word for what I felt for Eli, pity too short and sweet. He’d spent his entire life pretending to be something he wasn’t. I mourned for the Eli Page who never had a chance to exist.”
Until I read that paragraph, rock critic Lester Bangs’s pithy line “Dylan faked his whole career” seemed both accurate and insightful, and an odd sort of compliment from a writer who clearly recognized how real the impact of Dylan’s songs has been on his fans, however fake the shifting personas of the man who sang them. But Bangs never made me wonder what remains, 50 years later, of the person who preceded the personas. W.B. Belcher did.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.