Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bringing It All Back Home… Side Two

If side one suggests, lyrically, a crack in the dam, on side two the levee breaks, the concrete crumbles… pray for those people in the houses down in the valley.

Yes, “Mister Tambourine Man” is a reference to guitarist Bruce Langhorn, but this is clearly not to suggest that the song has anything to do with Langhorn. It’s easy to read the text as a drug song as well – “Take me on a trip…” “The smoke rings of my mind…” but that’s a bit too easy too. I believe the pleasures here are all right on the surface, not to be found in some deeper meaning needed to be dug out.

Now the language play begins in earnest.

The magnificent parody video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” done by Weird Al would never work here. These lyrics can’t be replaced by nonsense verse and palindromes. It’s also right that the rock band backing is gone too, nothing here to get in the way of Dylan the writer, the wordsmith.

“My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet / I have no one to meet /And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.”

“Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun / it's not aimed at anyone / it's just escapin' on the run /And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.”

And he saves the best for last. The “one hand waving free” calls up my favorite line in any Springsteen song – “What else can we do now but roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair?” Find me a popular image of FREEDOM in which something isn’t waving. Go on, I double dog dare you.

“Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

The Byrds added McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string – a guitar whose distinctive sound is not just in the novelty of an electric 12-string guitar, but in the way the Rickenbacker is strung on the lower 3 sets of strings with the octave strings in the opposite position than they are on other makes of 12-strings – and changed the time signature. And, as good as it is, their version is more a novelty that Dylan’s acoustic recording which has a certain naturalness to its presentation that suggests some sort of psychedelic troubadour.

I have a friend in New York who collects rare psychedelic records and is a Dylan fan, but bristles at the description of these records as psychedelic; something I find genuinely puzzling as Dylan’s LSD use starts around the time of Another Side and can be heard rising up in the lyrics of songs like “Chimes Of Freedom.” To me, the 1965-1966 trilogy seems increasingly acid-fueled as it grows in intensity; much like John Wesley Harding seems so ahead of the curve as far as post-acid music is concerned.

“Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” seem to me cut from the same cloth as “A Hard Rain.” I’ve long suspected The Doors got the idea of ending their records with their own epic songs (“The End” “When the Music’s Over”) from this and the next couple records. And what better way to announce “This is an epic” than to begin with a reference to the mother-of-all epics.

“Of war and peace the truth just twists / its curfew gull just glides.”

The lines that end “the gates of Eden” are interesting too for the choice of “inside” “outside” etc. It seems like a precursor to “Desolation Row” in that regard. “Mail them from (not “too”) Desolation Row… etc.” By the next record the rather stern, foreboding – I always imagine them made of wrought iron – gates of Eden get transformed into the run-down funky neighborhood of “Desolation Row.” Creatively, it’s a move that suggests an Old Testament story rewritten as a John Steinbeck novel.

“Gates of Eden” is stuffed full to bursting with a tableau of characters that leap forth from Dylan’s inflamed imagination. The curfew gull, the cowboy angel, a lamp post that stands with folded arms and iron claws; the savage soldier, shoeless hunter, utopian hermit monks… the list expands throughout the song as these vague, half-formed images root around in your mind, reaching one of its peaks is the fourth from last verse:

“The motorcycle black Madonna, two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause the gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden”

That dichotomy is one that I think Dylan borrows from the Beats – the hip outsider world versus the square gray flannel world – and it’s clear which side Dylan prefers (remember too how the gray flannel world continually tries to capture that icon of resistance and co-opt it. See: the Fonz).

One of Dylan’s strongest 1990s songs is the outtake “Series of Dreams” and I think many of the songs from 1965 can be approached as series of dreams. The closing verse here sort of supports that idea:

“At dawn my lover comes to me, and tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what's true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”

Close your eyes and try to imagine bringing Bringing It All Back Home home in March of 1965. Maybe it’s a little chilly, that last little bit of winter hanging on before the world changes. Back then Columbia records were not sold in plastic shrink wrap. The record was sealed inside the cover, it came in a plastic inner sleeve that had a perforated edge that you had to tear off to open the sleeve and take the disc out. The edge always ended up tearing the bag itself, so, there you are, that little strip of plastic in your hand, setting the disc down onto the platter of your Garrard turntable, your copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan leaning up against one speaker, dropping the tone arm and BOOM!

You just sat through the most amazing side one of a record, probably ever. Your head is spinning, you can barely remember your own name; you stumble back to the player and flip the record over and drop the arm on side two. While the blaring electric yowl of side one is gone, the simple acoustic arrangements put the exploding surrealism of the lyrics even more front and center.

You’re not in Kansas anymore.

The structure of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is five sets of three verses each divided by a series of three-line refrains that stick a variation of the title in the last if the three lines. There is a relentlessness here that actually works against the song after a bit, at least it seems that way to me now, 40 years later. We’re told “there is no use in trying” because “he not busy being born is busy dying” and we’re really just “one more person crying.” And “while others say don't hate nothing at all except hatred” “it's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred” and “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” (a line that caused crowds to explode in the fires of Watergate when Dylan returned to the road in 1974 after an eight year absence).

The third set of verses reminds me of a section in Dylan’s magnificent “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Compare this set of verses about half way through “It’s Alright, Ma…”

“Advertising signs that con
You into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done,
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.”

…to this section of “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”

"Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house
And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain't on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it's funny
No you can't find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain't in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you're bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain't a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you
And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you
And it ain't in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star's blouse
And you can't find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain't in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain't in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin'
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can't even sense if they got any insides.”

I also hear strong similarities in the way this has to be sung and with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I’d love to discover a lost outtake in which that same band rocked-out on a version of “It’s Alright, Ma…” Try to imagine these lyrics sung on top of that driving electric band with Michael Bloomfield’s guitar at the wheel:

“While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?”

“What else can you show me?” indeed.

Maybe the album opens with “It used to go like that, now it goes like this” which is kind of an aggressive way of saying “things have changed.” But the album ends on a more melancholy note, as if Dylan accepts that his exit from the Folk/Protest Pantheon can never be that easy. Hearing this the first time in the swirling context of “Dylan has sold out!” and condemnations in Sing Out! magazine (with the wonderful reply from Johnny Cash who, at that time, hadn’t yet met Bob) and the story of how, after being booed from the stage at Newport, Dylan returned with an acoustic guitar and played this song and then left (true, not true, who cares) it is without question that when you heard this song at the end of the acoustic side of this record you heard it as the most eloquent “Dear John” letter of all time, from Bob to the folk community.

“You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast. . . . .
Look out the saints are comin' through
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.”

How many songs does this guy actually know? Who else takes “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In” and twists it into that line, “Look out now, the saints are comin' through….”?

Ancient New Orleans idiom music recycled as end of an era folk melancholia.


The thing that just knocks me off my feet and won’t let me up is this endless parade of characters, all arising as if from the subconscious of the body of 20th century modernist literature. The list grows: the orphan with his gun (how do you cry “like a fire” anyway?), the empty-handed painter, seasick sailors, reindeer armies, and the vagabond who's rapping at your door.

Listen to the explosion of songwriters A.D. (After Dylan) as they all do their best to populate their songs with similar characters. Just off the top of my head, look at this cast of characters from “Blinded By the Night,” the opening track off Bruce Springsteen’s first album:

Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer (with a teenage diplomat), some all-hot half-shot, some fleshpot mascot, young Scott with a slingshot, some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the East, some new-mown chaperone, some fresh-sown moonstone, some silicone sister with her manager's mister, and Go-Cart Mozart, little Early-Pearly, some hazard from Harvard, and some kidnapped handicap. And, if there’s room, add Crazy Janey, her mission man, Wild Billy with his friend G-Man, Hazy Davy and Killer Joe (from the cast of “Spirits in the Night”).

I don’t quite know what to make of the fact that this is also a record of my own time.

My memories of 1965 are hazy at best, I would have been 12 years old in March of that year, and turned 13 in late August. I can’t say for sure but I’m fairly certain I came to Dylan via The Beatles. My earliest recollection of The Beatles is an interesting one, I think.

I remember sitting in a classroom in the Catholic grade school I attended when the voice of the Mother Superior came over the public address system. She told us that the parish priest had something important to tell us. The appearance of the priest on the school’s PA was reserved for the deaths of presidents or a 5 minute heads up before a full scale first strike by the Russians. Duck and cover my 4th grade Polish ass… we were nervous.

“Boys,” the disembodied voice intoned; “I want you all to understand in no uncertain terms that beetle haircuts will not be tolerated.”

That was it.

It was like one of those coded messages transmitted over allied radio in enemy territory, “The captain has embarked and we will engage the fish in October; I repeat, the captain has embarked and we will engage the fish in October. That is all.”

But I didn’t have the code. And as I looked around at my fellow Catholic youth, in our matching uniforms of short-sleeve white shirts and blue plaid school ties, I could tell no one else did either. No matter, whatever it was, we wanted one. This was probably in December 1963 and may mark the actual start of the sixties.

I was with the Beatles starting with that first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in February 1964. This was where the fuse of my later record collecting self was lit. At some moment in there, with some LP or single, I must have experienced that first, primal pleasure rush that comes when you show someone something you have that they don’t have and you can see them want it and realize you feel good because it makes them feel bad.

It’s hard to describe the heady rush of those times; the acceleration of the culture. Think of it this way: The Beatles released the albums Meet The Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles 65, The Early Beatles, Help!, Beatles VI, Rubber Soul, Yesterday and Today, and Revolver in 1964-1965.

During that same period Bob Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

Rufus Wainwright released five albums between 1998 and 2007, and he’s fairly prolific by contemporary standards.

If your own adolescent consciousness was forming at that same time, if your own growth covered a comparable distance from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” or from “Boots of Spanish Leather” to “Visions of Johanna” then it’s in that context that a 12 year-old runs out to buy Bringing It All Back Home when it hit the stores in March/April 1965.

So…. It’s the impact of living through those times versus hearing this record for the first time in 2007 that I can’t quite measure. I just don’t know if it means anything or, if it does, what it means.

The recent CD remaster of Bringing It All Back Home is exceptionally well done with sound that rivals the original vinyl pressing. Some Dylan fans complained that the Dylan remastered CDs were too short and should have added some bonus material but I think “bonus tracks” are a curse of the CD age; most especially true for reissues of genuinely great albums. Should this ever get reissued again with a bunch of outtakes tacked on at the end, I’ll tell you now, I won’t buy it. This album needs extra material like The Bicycle Thief needs extra scenes.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bringing It All Back Home... Side One

Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was his first masterpiece; a record that, over forty records later, still stands as one of his best works. That record was followed by the dour and dated The Times They Are A-Changing, an album of Dylan, posing as a Dorothea Lang photo on the front, trying on the folk-protest “voice of his generation” crown and quickly finding it too binding, too restrictive.

His fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, simultaneously benefits and suffers from being tossed off in one marathon wine-fueled session. The looseness that engenders helps, especially in light of the uptight album it follows. But ultimately the record serves a transitional role in Dylan’s catalog, connecting his earlier Woody Guthrie-rooted persona to the burst of creative energy that would follow.

And I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the enormity of that burst. It is the pop music equivalent of a star going nova. It was like looking at the energy released when the song writing atom was split for the first time. It was the equivalent of the Big Bang for all popular songwriting that came after. Dylan’s fifth album would start a chain reaction that would produce, not just the often described 1965-1966 trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, but also The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, a series of five albums (7 discs) of museum quality work.

As I think about this e.e. cummings shows up in my mind, and a day-dreamed image of a 1965 Bob riding

a watersmooth-silver stallion

and breaking onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

I’ve always thought the first side of Bringing It All Back Home, instead of “Side 1" right on the label and jacket should be labeled “It used to go like that, now it goes like this.”

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” With one foot in the proto-hip-hop lyrics of Chuck Berry and another in Public Enemy and a third (OK, so he's a tripod) in some sort of mutant blues/rockabilly there’s no first song side one of any other record I can think of that had a greater immediate visceral impact.

And it was the single!

In April 1965 this was streaming audio pushing its way out of AM car radios. I remember cars pulled over to the side of the road, people getting out, standing around, and looking up in the skies for the saucers.

There is a word that I can’t quite recall at the moment, something similar to kinesthesia, that has to do with the physical pleasure of speech ("rubber baby buggy bumpers, rubber baby….") and whatever that is, it goes to 11 in this song. It was fun to try and sing it in 1965 and remains fun in 2006. It’s impossible to hear it without recalling the proto-music video with the cue cards in the alley. The pleasure comes from the rhymes themselves more than from any specific meaning here. It’s tinged with the same surrealism that was seen in little glimpses on Freewheelin’ and gets turned up full blast on the next two records. It reminds me of the moment when Hemmingway figured out how to write dialogue in that thoroughly unique voice, or when Hendrix figured out how to control feedback and distortion. It’s a song that could be released tomorrow and be utterly contemporary. It is simply amazing.

The contrast of the frenetic character of the opener to “She Belongs to Me” introduces the hard/soft/hard/soft textural rhythm that ping-pongs through the first five tracks. Dylan’s new found surrealism works in both contexts. “She can take the dark out of the night time and paint the daytime black.” “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique.” “For Halloween get her a trumpet, for Christmas, get a big drum.”

This is essential to understanding Dylan from this point on: it is NOT that these lines don’t “mean anything,” it’s that they don’t mean any ONE thing. It’s what poetry would look like at the quantum level where all solid matter becomes a blur, a vibration. Meaning doesn’t so much disintegrate as it becomes relative, just like Einstein predicted.

“Maggie’s Farm” is almost as up tempo and rocked-out as “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It is this blend of surrealistic word-play with older, traditional musical form that grabs a hold of you here. The pleasure for me is in the contrast of the utterly alien with the very familiar; and he tells us right upfront in the very first verse “I got a head full of ideas/that are drivin' me insane.” The song itself is not nearly as clever as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; it’s just a litany of complaints regarding each member of Maggie’s family. The power here is in the placement on the record. Using “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as the opener, Dylan feints with “She Belongs to Me” and then goes upside your head again with the agro-electricity of “Maggie’s Farm.”

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” extends Dylan’s language play into his song titles, and what a song! I think it may be the best pure “love song” of his catalog. Four verses, no chorus or “middle eight” in sight – a technique that’s almost trance-inducing in his longer songs. The first and last verses are the most clear-headed. His love “speaks like silence” “is true like ice, like fire” “laughs like the flowers” can’t be bought with valentines. In the end, he uses the image of the most fragile thing, a bird with a broken wing. But those middle two verses… wow. You can find the seeds of Paul Simon’s career in, “In the dime stores and bus stations / People talk of situations / Read books, repeat quotations /Draw conclusions on the wall.” And that third verse just puts pedal to the metal: “The cloak and dagger dangles/Madams light the candles/In ceremonies of the horsemen/Even the pawn must hold a grudge/Statues made of match sticks/Crumble into one another/My love winks, she does not bother/She knows too much to argue or to judge.”

How thick does someone need to be to say that this is nothing but meaningless babble? At the same time, approaching it as if there’s a code that needs to be broken is just as thick an approach. The language is glorious; I let it wash over me.

Listening to “Outlaw Blues” always makes me think of Captain Beefheart’s avant-garde take on Howlin’ Wolf. I have a long-running fantasy of making a film about Jesse James and the period of Civil War reconstruction. At the end the credits roll over Bob Dylan singing the old folk song “Jesse James.” Even though Springsteen just recorded it, I haven’t altered my daydream one bit. I hear it in the film in my head and it sounds a lot like Bob singing “Dixie” in Masked & Anonymous. “That dirty little coward, who shot Mister Howard, and laid Jesse James in his grave.” Robert Ford shot Jesse from behind as he hung a picture frame in the only case on record of a state ordering the assassination of one of its citizens. My point here is simply that during this amazing 1965-66 run it sometimes seems that EVERY Dylan song can be opened like a box in a box in a box in a box and the meaning gushes out in waves.

“On the Road Again” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” are the last two pieces on the “It used to go like that, now it goes like this” album's first side. The opening fit of laughter from Bob & his producer at the failure of the entire band to come in at the start of the last song is perfect, like a small sticker with instructions on how to enjoy this music: listen, laugh, repeat.

As I listen I’m thinking more and more about this odd blend of surrealism and country/folk/blues/rockabilly and thinking that this is what side one of Bringing It All Back Home is all about. A coming out party for Dylan’s new medium – like traditional oil paintings done on canvases of corduroy and cereal boxes, old sandals and finger puppets. The album’s title - Bringing It All Back Home – suggests that appeal to the traditional, without anything more than the ominous look of the front cover photo to hint at just what “all” might entail.

Coming up… side two.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

When is a riddle not a riddle?

I was thinking about some stuff yesterday and, for some reason, I remembered this riddle I heard when I was 11 or 12. An uncle told it to me and it distracted me for weeks. Here's the riddle:

A father and son are driving home from dinner when they are in a bad accident. The father is killed, the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to a nearby hospital and wheeled into the operating room for emergency surgery. The surgeon walks into the room and looks at him and says, "Wait. You'll have to get another surgeon. I can't operate on my own son."

Now the riddle revolves around how the boy can be the doctor's son when the boy's father is dead? I drove my uncle crazy with questions.

"Was he adopted?"


"Um... he wasn't adopted?"


"Are you sure he wasn't adopted?"



"Yes, I'm sure he wasn't adopted."

If you have the time, go rent the DVD of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a 1961 musical that was made into a film in 1967. It's actually quite good, loads of fun, but it's also like this riddle, an artifact of another civilization.

Pre-civil rights, pre-women's movement, a snap shot of that Old Mythic America, the one Ronald Reagan rode to the Presidency on. Gasoline was .20 cents a gallon, a new house cost about ten grand, a new car maybe fifteen hundred. It never rained when there were parades.

All the executives were men, straight and white. All the janitors were black and brown. All the women were pretty and wore tight dresses and did things like sit on their bosses' laps and take memos.

Boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Those were the days.

The movie and the riddle are both contained in the song that Archie and Edith Bunker sing at the start of All in the Family.

"Gee, our old LaSalle ran great."

A place for everything, and everybody knew his place.

Remembering that riddle and the fact that is really isn't a riddle anymore; the fact that it's been reduced to something just nonsensical by the changes across the past forty years, actually makes me feel pretty good about the world. And it isn't that often that I feel pretty good about the world.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Great Debut LPs #1….

I’ve been into buying original mono copies of some classic records in recent months. I got a lovely “6 eye” late-50s Kind Of Blue last month, and the first Buffalo Springfield LP in mono and with “Baby Don’t Scold Me” which was dropped from all but the very first copies. It was replaced with their hit “For What It’s Worth” (“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…”).

I have an actual memory of sitting at the base of the Washington Monument with a girl named Patty something and she had a Martin D-18 guitar and sang that song, and Peter Yarrow’s “The Great Mandela” right there at the base of the monument after we’d taken a bus from Philadelphia to DC for one of the big anti-war marches.

She was the first person I knew with a Martin guitar. We went out a couple times but she lived way out in Bucks County in this house that seemed impossibly large to me at the time and I remember I just sort of let the whole thing fall away.

One time I was supposed to drive out and meet her for something or other and I was with my friend Michael Murphy. Michael had just started at a community college and made friends with some grad student lecturer in the English department and we stopped by to see him. I can’t quite remember the guy’s name but it was a really great one, something like “Huxley Praxton” or something equally memorable.

The guy was the first person we ever knew who grew his own pot. He grew these enormous plants that he would dry hanging from chains in the attic. He rolled joints in one of those tobacco rolling machines that rolled joints way fatter than the ones we’d roll by hand. His pot was also stronger than we were used to. We sat around and smoked 2 or 3 and then left for Bucks County.

I was driving my father’s blue Galaxie 500 and Michael was giving me directions. Every time we reached a intersection I’d ask “Which way?” and every time I asked Michael said “Make a left.” After a half hour or so of this as the terrain became less and less familiar I realized that, like myself, Michael was also higher than he'd ever been. So much so that his entire vocabulary had been wiped clean and the only words he remembered were “a” “left” and "make."

“Do you have any idea where we are?”

“Make a left.”

“Isn’t that the boulevard?”

“Make a left.”

“Man… I am really high. Have you ever been this stoned before?”

“Make a left.”

It was only by sheer luck that we managed to stay in Pennsylvania.

But I digress.

I bought a mono copy of The Rascals Once Upon a Dream a few days ago. This was their Sgt. Pepper (everybody had released their own Sgt. Pepper in the wake of The Beatles' LP), an elaborate package with inner book and loads of effects between songs. There’s even the requisite sitar track “Satva” which is actually rather beautiful. When I was putting it away I pulled out the other Rascals LPs I owned and stuck on a mono copy of their debut, Good Lovin’, released when they were The Young Rascals and forced to wear some pretty hideous matching Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits on front.

These guys were maybe the best blue-eyed soul garage band ever. The LP was released in March of 1966 and, other than an excusable and disposable version of “I Believe”, doesn’t have a weak track on it. Side two is a lesson in how to be a garage band in the US in the mid-60s with definitive versions of the title track, “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour.”

The band is dominated by the two vocalists, organist Felix Cavaliere and percussionist Eddie Brigati. Drummer Dino Danelli is one of the best rock steady drummers of the era and the guitarist, Gene Cornish, is a solid player who brings some folk rock leanings to the band with his cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The cover is a decent one, helped by Cavaliere's Hammond organ. He's a better organist than Al Kooper so he is able to quote from Kooper's signature playing on the original Dylan track, while embellishing it enough to balance the fact that Cornish, while earnest, isn't Dylan.

I get the impression that it was the guitar player who most likely took acid first, but probably after this record, which has an overall vibe of the garage band. American garage band music reaches right up to the beginnings of psychedelia. If I had a few wishes to spare I know one would be for a box of tapes of the countless bands that played on every block in my neighborhood in the Summer in the mid 1960s. The row houses had garages that opened onto the alleys out back and on Summer evenings all the local bands would set up on the back steps and small back yards and play (mostly the songs on this album).

Childhood is supposed to be infused with magic and tragedy is often defined by the degree to which this is absent. Those were magic times. And it reminds me of a rare moment of affection on Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, the title track: “Down in Joe’s garage / we didn’t need no dope or LSD / just a couple of quarts of beer / would fix it so the intonation / did not offend your ear.”

As good as side two is on this record, it’s the opening cut on the first side that makes you stand up and pay attention. The Beatles had done a cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” but the Rascals’ version derives its power from not owing anything to the Fabs. The song virtually explodes out of the speakers, an effect even more pronounced on the more direct mono version. For the first 10 seconds or so it sounds like it’s poised on a precipice between 1966 and 1968, one foot in the future, the way everything would sound in another 18-20 months. It’s the best track on a great LP and it’s right there, before the hit single, before the more recognizable garage band or soul covers. It’s what makes a really good record a great record.

The defining characteristic of a great debut album is that it present the band, fully formed and this record does that in spades. Connections, the follow-up, may actually be a better record overall, but this has earned a spot on the list of great debut albums.

I will explore this in the future, just as the actual idea of an “album” recedes into the past. Nice timing, no?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Remembering the Killing Fields....

I’ll get back to music and the arts in a day or two but the thing that has me distracted isn’t the Virginia Tech shootings so much as the little electric jolt of memory that I felt when I read Liviu Librescu’s biography in the Washington Post and NY Times. Librescu was the 76 year-old professor who died using his body to block the classroom door and allowing his students to escape through the window.

When I read about Librescu’s death – a Romanian Jew, survivor of the Holocaust – the shock of recognition sent me back to February of 1996 and the shooting death of Haing S. Ngor in Los Angeles by a street mugger when Ngor refused to surrender a locket he wore with the picture of his wife inside. Ngor was an obstetrician whose wife died in childbirth. A Caesarian section could have saved her life, but he would have been exposed as an educated person had he done so and both he and his wife would have been executed by the Khmer Rouge.

I can’t quite imagine him standing by, unable to assist. I have a pretty strong imagination, but I can’t really imagine Pol Pot, nor can I imagine Hitler. I can visualize both of them, standing there, looking like they do in photos. But I can’t really imagine the killing fields of Cambodia or the camps at Treblinka or Dachau.

Liviu Librescu lived through the Holocaust as a teenager and fought against the Communist dictatorship in Romania, losing his government aerospace job when he sought to emigrate to Israel.

After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Haing S. Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp inside Thailand, and left for the United States on August 30, 1980. In 1985 he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the journalist Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields. He'd never acted before and I don't believe he ever did again.

Both men survived some of the worst horrors humanity has managed to come up with to date only to die senselessly in their adopted country. Some people would turn this into a call for stricter gun control laws. Some others might turn it into a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life, the fundamental pointlessness of existence, the “Spin the big wheel!” character of it all.

Increasingly I think we see the world and our lives as a movie, I think it is the dominant metaphor, the template we overlay on the world to makes sense from it. It’s fun to do that; sometimes it’s an action adventure movie, sometimes a mystery. Sometimes is one of those quirky independent films; on occasion it can be a prime example of experimental cinema when fueled by the right stuff.

But it isn’t a movie.

It doesn’t follow the most basic rules of narrative storytelling. And it is most definitely not a movie about us. I can’t say that it is a solace I take from it, but the deaths of Liviu Librescu and Haing S. Ngor and countless others are a reminder that life, while like a movie, isn’t a movie. I don’t think it is meaningless, I just think that whatever it means, it isn’t about us.

I’m sorry if that’s just too confused, it started out as if it would have a bigger payoff at the end but ended like T.S. Elliot said the world might, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Images of Freedom in Popular Song....

I was reading something someone over at Expecting Rain had posted in a discussion of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and he'd quoted one line from Springsteen's "Thunder Road" which is one of my favorite lines, ever.

"So what else can we do now, except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair."

There's something about freedom, something about possibility, something about... I don't know, I can't quite articulate it; something about... Old America in there.

I don't mean the Old Weird America that Greil Marcus works out in his book about (not about) The Basement Tapes. I mean some vague ill-defined notion of an earlier America, an America that still had a sense of uphill motion, still had some sense of possibility.

And I say all this very much aware that I may not be thinking of America at all as much as remembering some earlier version of myself.

But I digress.

There is a mixture of freedom and responsibility in Springsteen's "Thunder Road" that I think is unique within American popular music, at least of the last century or so.

The screen door slams, Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again

When you're hearing the song for the first time it's easy to hear that verse in the voice of Charles Starkweather driving up to the house where Caril Fugate stood on the lawn. A few years later Springsteen would write "Nebraska" and sing into a 4-track cassette recorder,

I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

But here Springsteen isn't in Truman Capote mode yet, isn't trying for a 3 minute version of In Cold Blood. He's writing about the same people he was writing about on every record so far - and this I think is crucial in understanding Springsteen - he follows his cast of characters from their adolesence into adulthood.

Don't run back inside, darling you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me

What makes this song as powerful as it is might be that it is never about sex. Sex isn't anywhere near as scary as what she knows he's "here for." And he's a charmer, isn't he? Maybe a lack of articulation is the sincerest form of flattery.

You can hide `neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets
Well now I'm no hero, that's understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, Heaven's waiting on down the tracks

Driving on a 2-lane black-top in the night, in the dark, with the window down and her hair blown back by the wind.... Can't you feel the plastic wrapper on the cigarette pack stuck in the arm of your t-shirt pressing against your bicep? Can't you see the headlights cut a path through history?

Or is it just me?

The whole song could come crashing down in ruin if the third line in the next verse were "your front porch to my back seat." But this song is not about sex, though I don't doubt that the two characters are having some. The ride's not free because it turns out that nothing really is.

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door's open but the ride it ain't free
And I know you're lonely and there's words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free, all the promises'll be broken

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn you hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Tao of Music

"We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect it's unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing.

When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best.

Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point.

And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” - Alan Watts

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Don't We All Want To Be Freewheelin'?

If there is one principle true for all great art it is that repeat visits are rewarded with new insights. This is true for the greatest paintings as it is true for the greatest films and it is true for the greatest pop records. I just relistened to this album. I’ve heard this, I can’t begin to estimate how many times in the past 4 decades or so and it offers its rewards each and every time. In Dylan’s expansive catalog I’m hard-pressed to name another record that’s actually better than this one.

Dylan's sophomore album, Freewheelin' was the follow-up to his eponymous 1962 debut, an album that sold so poorly that Dylan was nick-named "Hammond's Folly" inside Columbia Records. But where his debut presented Dylan in full Woody Guthrie mode, still making wild claims about a mythical childhood in the Southwest and being raised by wolves in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, it's on Freewheelin' that Bob Dylan finds his voice. It's here that he puts the finishing touches on his persona, adding touches of James Dean and Brando to Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack.

Just like "true" Beatles fans identify themselves by denigrating Sgt. Pepper, so too is there a tendency among "true" Dylan fans to dismiss “Blowin’ in the Wind” as "overrated." But "true" fans are, when you get down to it, more often clueless idiots than not, and obsessive devotion to Bob Dylan minutia will most likely blind you to the BIG truths. That "Blowin' in the Wind" is among the greatest American songs of the 20th Century is one of those truths. I imagine it gets the short shrift now because it sounds like one of those songs, like “Amazing Grace” or "We Shall Overcome," a song that can’t possibly have an author (or a song that simply dwarfs its authorship, rendering it irrelevant). On an album of various major and minor masterpieces this really does remain the jewel in the crown.

Like many early Bob songs, “Girl of the North Country” is based on an older folk song (George Harrison based “My Sweet Lord” on “He’s So Fine” and look where it got him). It’s a timeless melody, made near-perfect by this set of lyrics; the album performance is simply sublime.

"Masters of War" has always seemed like a bit of a sore thumb here. It's Dylan's "protest songs" that are the most dated of his catalog (and the follow-up to this album, The Times They Are A-Changing, is his only dated-sounding LP from his early work). But Greil Marcus has made a strong case that the value of the song is in its emotional excess, not in its literal interpretation as “protest” song.

“Down the Highway” is Dylan playing in a classic country blues style. Not the best song here, it adds spice and variety to the record as a whole. The first album was Dylan-as-folksinger, this album is Dylan-as-Dylan and every song here is a piece in that portrait.

"Bob Dylan’s Blues" plays the essential role here of releasing some air from the profundity balloon. It also reminds me that one of the real casualties of Dylan’s post-1964 career was how his phenomenal comic abilities got lost. In 2007 it's almost impossible to imagine Dylan as a comic, but I also imagine that, in his later years, it was just as difficult to look at Chaplin and still see the Little Tramp. Remember, things change.

“A Hard Rain…” Yes, it’s based on an old Scottish ballad, but it stands there, with one foot in the 17th Century and the other in the 20th. It encompasses Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats and who knows how many other references I’m not well-read enough to pick up on. Dylan’s denial that the “rain” is atomic fallout shines a light on the whole problem with authorial intentionality. The songs exists apart from Bob and, set in the cold war and Cuban missile crisis, clearly includes nuclear rain at the top of its list of signifiers. It’s hard to imagine today what hearing this song in the early 60s was like. Hard as it is for a 2007 Dylan audience to imagine, people actually stopped going out for more beer and screaming “WATCHTOWER BOBBY!!!! WOOOO!” during it. People sat, dumbfounded, just stunned by it, like they must have reacted to hearing Charlie Parker for the first time, or Bill Monroe, or anything actually, genuinely NEW.

"A Hard Rain" is also the BIG BANG of what would become the singer/songwriter movement; it is the moment that redefined folk authenticity and made writing and singing original songs a requirement rather than grounds for banishment.

“Don’t Think Twice…” is AS good a song as anything else on here. It’s like a perfect miniature portrait. The album version is that rare flawless thing. It's also the sort of underhanded sly misogyny that would define Dylan's romantic relationships for the rest of his life.

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” is one of my 5 or 6 favorite Dylan songs. I like to sing it a cappella in my car (and LOUD) when I’m on the highway coming back from or on the way to a visit with my oldest and best friends. “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain. That we could sit simply in that room again. Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I’d give it all gladly, if our lives could be like that.” Jesus. Who wouldn't?

“Oxford Town” is the conjoined twin to “Masters of War” but not as good (it would need to call for the death of everyone in Oxford to be as good), not as excessive. The earlier “Emmett Till” is very much a superior song. The performance is lacking too. Richie Havens covers it on a very early record and it’s way stronger. The tell-tale sign of a lesser Dylan song is when someone else does it better ("All Along the Watchtower" excepted).

“Talkin’ WWIII.…” More great satire stuffed with brilliant one-liners. You get the impression that this guy would sound interesting putting in a breakfast order. Can you imagine the 2007 Bob Dylan doing something like this? I know. I can't either.

I wonder if the sequencing of these last three tracks, which result in the record closing slightly less impressively than it opens, has something to do with the last-minute juggling of tracks when 4 songs that were slated to be on the album got pulled and replaced. Those songs, good ones too, were more Bob-as-Woody and already too dated to make the 2nd LP – an indication of his off-the-scale growth rate at the time.

“Corrina, Corrina” was a revelation because no one knew or suspected that little Bobby was a rocker at heart. His piano-playing-kicked-off-the-HS-talent-show shenanigans wouldn’t come to light for decades yet. The 45 track “Mixed Up Confusion” never got air play or got around and sank from sight once he took the Folk King crown. Great song and a great version.

“Honey, Just Allow Me…” and “”I Shall Be Free” both give the suggestion of being wine-fueled studio improvs, though I have no idea how true or false that is. They’re outrageous and funny and help deflect a one-dimensional self-importance that would not have benefited the record over time.

Finally, there's the cover.

The amazing cover.

A simple photo of Bob and girlfriend walking down a winter street in the Village, it somehow manages to encompass the vague and uncertain concept of "freewheelin'" and the result is that an entire generation would long to be "freewheelin'."

To be freewheelin' seemed to have something to do with your relationship to the future. If the defining characteristic of what is now called "THE SIXTIES" was an ability to imagine a future as something other than the simple extension of the present then the sixties start here, in those boots, those jeans, that jacket.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Attack of the 50-foot Pop Star....

Michael Jackson is in discussions about creating a 50-foot robotic replica of himself to roam the Las Vegas desert.

Currently living in Las Vegas, Jackson is making plans for a comeback that include an elaborate show in Vegas, which would feature the giant Jackobot striding around the desert, firing laser beams from its eyes.

A 50-foot tall Michael Jackson robot that shoots laser beams from its eyes.

Why write fiction, ever?

If built, the metal monster would apparently be visible to aircraft as they come in to land in the casino capital. It is the centerpiece of an elaborate Jackson-inspired show in Vegas, according to Andre Van Pier, the robot's designer. Luckman Van Pier, his partner at the company behind the proposal, claims blueprints have been drawn up for the show and seen by the star. "Michael's looked at the sketches and likes them," he told the New York Daily News.

I see this vague outline of a future in which a 50-foot tall George W. Bush with laser beams coming out of his eyes fights a 50-foot tall Osama Bin Laden in the desert just outside of town. Every day. Three shows.

In other cities, a 50-foot tall Donald Trump (with laser beams shooting out of his comb-over), a 50-foot tall Paris Hilton (with laser beams shooting out of her hoo-ha), the culmination of Doctor Evil's dream of sharks with laser beams.

Or an endless parade of metaphors for the fall of Rome; the slow descent of Empire into banality.

"What was America?" asks the space baby of the future.

"America was a 50-foot tall Michael Jackson robot with laser beams that shot out of his eyes."


Monday, April 2, 2007

Five H.L. Mencken Quotes.

“Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”

“Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.”

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

“I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.”

“I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.”

Discuss amongst yourselves.

For background information on Mencken start here.