Saturday, December 8, 2018

Master Blueprints # 45: "How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down, Before You Call Him a Man”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Blowin’ In the Wind”
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Release Date: May 1963

Pilgrimage 3 of 3

Back in early March I visited the town of Bob Dylan’s upbringing, Hibbing, Minnesota, while on a work trip to International Falls, Minnesota, which I wrote about in Master Blueprint # 10.  I took another Dylan-related journey to Woodstock, in the Catskills of Upper State New York in early September, in search of inspiration from that geographic cornerstone in his life, which I wrote about in Master Blueprint # 34.  And my trilogy of Bob Dylan-centric destinations was completed this past weekend when I traveled with my wife Nancy to Greenwich Village, in the heart of Manhattan, New York City. 

This was the 8th trip to the Big Apple in my lifetime, all of which have been very memorable. Scattered among them, I’d pretty much taken in all the major sightseeing locales: The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the United Nations, the Museum of Natural History, Strawberry Fields, Tribeca, Little Italy, Chinatown, Soho, Harlem, and of course, Greenwich Village.  I have written about a handful of my excursions to NYC in these Music and Memory blog pages over the past decade, including two indelible winter road trips with my Canadian brethren back in the 80s, each of which was spent homeless for a night (see Under the Big Top # 7 here ).  Another writeup that comes to mind was about heading down with a crew of great friends to see the Who perform Quadrophenia at Madison Square Garden (see Under the Big Top # 9 here ).  And then there was the fantastic Ray Davies show at the Westbeth Theatre that I witnessed with my great friend Mac, which I’ve discussed here and there in these pages.  I drove through a blizzard to see that one.

One trip I’d not elaborated on was taken in the spring of 2001, a few months before 9/11 (which, by the way is an event which I have also written about….see Under the Big Top # 37 here ).  That was the last time I’d traveled to Manhattan.  I was with Nancy and the kids.  Charlotte was only six at the time.  Peter was two.  I recently dug through the photos from that trip, knowing I’d be heading back there soon.  One photo is of us on a ferry heading out to the Statue of Liberty.  It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.  Behind us are the Twin Towers, glimmering in the sunlight.  It brings back great memories, but it’s also eerie when I look at that photograph.  9/11 was also cloudless. 

Seventeen years have passed since that trip.  Our daughter is 24 now, our son 20.  Empty Nesters, Nancy and I, with quite a bit more freedom to hit the road. Not that I’m anywhere near there yet, but I now have another angle on why people travel a lot in their retirement:  Life on the road gets you to think out of the box far more than life at home, which in turn can get the creative juices flowing.  From this perspective, travel tends to feed itself.  Nancy and I have done a lot of travelling over the years, before and with children.  Those experiences can now pay off in ways that were unforeseen until these recent insights.  All we must do at this point is get back out there.

As mentioned in the last entry (Blueprint # 44), marriage is a blending of two individual’s values.  which played out to a tee over the weekend, seeing as Nancy and I tackled not one, but two locales for this trip, the other being Asbury Park, New Jersey.  This one was Nancy’s contribution.  She’s a big Southside Johnny fan, he who is one of a handful of Jersey Shore rock stars who got his feet wet playing at the local clubs along the boardwalk, including the most famous of them all, the Iron Horse (where we got to spend some time exploring that Friday evening).  Nancy and I have been to a good number of Southside Johnny’s shows in the Boston area over the years, she more than myself.  He’s a helluva showman. 

Anyhow, from a Bob Dylan ‘pilgrimage’ and blog-writing perspective, this side trek rounded out the journey perfectly.  For example, Dylan’s image was surprisingly cropping up all over the place in Asbury Park: Street art, murals, postcards, and other depictions. I’m now thinking this must have had a lot to do the man who inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss is already a legend in this neck of the woods.  His image, along with others in his E Street Band takes up about half the wall space at the Iron Horse (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Juke cover a fair percentage too).  And so, if Bruce Springsteen looks up to Bob Dylan, it must follow that so does most everyone else who lives there. 

Nancy and I strolled the lengthy boardwalk early Saturday morning from the Asbury Park Convention Hall deep into neighboring Ocean Grove and back, talking about Charlotte (now in Colombia), Peter’s schoolyear, Hurricane Sandy, “Under the Boardwalk”, the value of sand dunes, and the day ahead.  Back at the Convention Hall, which was just opening for business, (photo below) we split up for a bit while shopping around.  My mind wandered to my blog world.  I thought about Bob Dylan getting detained by police while roaming the nearby streets in the pouring rain about 10 years ago, looking into the windows of a property that was for sale.  It’s been speculated he was in search of the home where Bruce Springsteen penned “Born to Run” ( Dylan-detained-Jersey-Shore ).  I thought about Dylan’s supposed ‘ode’ to Bruce Springsteen and his Jersey haunts, that being the song “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” off the Traveling Wilburys first album, which Joan Osborne performed brilliantly two nights earlier at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston (again see Blueprint # 44).  Was “Tweeter” and the Monkey Man” praise, or parody?  Bob Dylan’s not sayin’.  Finally, I thought about the relationship between these two men and the effect Dylan has had on so many of us, Springsteen right there near the top of the list.

The first part of our journey complete, we then drove north up the Garden State Parkway and Route 95, veering East on Route 78 into Jersey City, the Holland Tunnel minutes away.  I’d never had this view of Manhattan before, usually looking at it from the Northeast, North, or Northwest.  It was impressive.  The elevated highway view revealed the immensity of the metropolis in front of us, from Battery Park to the George Washington Bridge.  There’s nowhere else like it in the world to my knowledge.  I thought about Bob Dylan and what he must have felt like arriving here for the first time, hitchhiking from the Midwest on a wing and a prayer, in the harsh winter of 1961, a full year and a half before I was born. What was he doing there amongst the populous right now, 57 years later, near the end of his Beacon Theatre residency?  I thought about many of the other musicians and bands who adopted New York as their home-away-from-home over the years, including British groups like the Rolling Stones and the Who, and most notably, John Lennon.  I thought about those earlier treks of mine into New York.  I thought about Spider Man swinging from high rise to high rise, and all the great movies filmed there.  Aside from those random thoughts, Nancy and I were having fun, laughing at the cars in the cash lines as we cruised into the tunnel, having just gotten our first ever EZ Pass the day before (we the hapless ones to that date). 

Arriving in Manhattan we veered north a few blocks into Greenwich Village and immediately found a metered parking spot near the intersection of Bleecker and LaGuardia. We were here!  I thought I would be able to rely on my earlier instincts with this area, but in many ways, it was as if I were tackling the Village for the first time.  The familiarity was vague, which may have had something to do with coming at it from a different direction.  Anyhow, right in front of our car was The Bitter End, where Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review band took shape in the mid-70s.  Great place to start.  It turned out this was ‘open mic’ day.  Musicians and their guitars were signing up and lining up, waiting for the place to open.  Nancy and I got in line with them.  When the doors opened, we took in the aura of the place and watched the first musician perform.  Her music was a bit of a downer, she obviously struggling, singing about selling out to make ends meet.  But she was singing from the heart and she was passionate.  Good luck there, young lady.  Many struggling musicians got their start on that stage, some who because quite famous.  Hopefully you will get to where you want to be too.

As already mentioned, I was very much aware of Bob Dylan performing that nite at the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, and we dabbled with the idea of heading that way later in the day to see if we could scalp tickets.  The fact of the matter was that, like my Woodstock adventure, very little was planned for this trip, partly because we were not sure until the last minute if it would pan out due to other factors back home, and partly because… that’s the way we operate.  Amazing things can happen when you wing it, or they can fall flat.  It’s a crap shoot. But truthfully, the Dylan show was not my focus.  Being with Nancy in Greenwich Village was my focus; dining, shopping, doing whatever.  A melding of our values was my focus. Besides, I’ve seen so many great shows over the years, including Bob on five occasions. And so, I vowed I was not going to let that whisper get too loud in my ear. 

Despite this inner declaration, the notion was still tugging at me.  However, at the same time I was beginning to feel the effects of the prior 5 weeks; work travel (see Blueprint # 41), concerts, Thanksgiving, burning the candle at both ends, people hacking all around me all that time.  My body was yelling at me; cold, flu… something was happening.  I was suppressing it, but for how long?  We had not booked a place to stay yet.  That was both good and bad.  Good because it gave us flexibility.  Bad because it seeped into our thinking more than we would have liked.  We are usually good in this sort of situation, but Manhattan is a different beast than virtually anywhere else we’d made last minute decisions like this over the years.  There were a few options for us; places to stay.  But they were pricey to say the least.  Worth it in most situations was my thinking.  But in my state?

We chewed on our options as we roamed the streets, taking in our surroundings, and soon found ourselves in Washington Square Park (photo below) which was full of life.  Then over to the Washington Square Park Hotel, which is no longer the dirt-cheap place it used to be when Bob Dylan used it as a virtual squat house upon arriving in the city.  I thought about Joan Baez’ song “Diamonds and Rust”, which is about her romance with Bob Dylan and which mentions this hotel.  I thought about what that namesake Park in front of it must have been like in the 60s. A few blocks further down we passed the iconic location where Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo were photographed for the cover of Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the first song on it being this entry’s Blueprint.  I was feeling the vibes.

As darkness settled in, we made our way down to Soho for some Christmas shopping, and then up over to Little Italy, where we found a nice Italian restaurant for dinner.  My appetite was there, but I was fading, with the rain now coming down hard too, and the forecast for Sunday being more of the same.  We were slowly concluding that this was our last downtown stop of the day, and so, we took our time, and enjoyed it.  Then we headed back to our car.

We flirted with the idea of stopping somewhere on the way home and staying the nite, perhaps taking in some place in Connecticut or upper-state New York the next day, but in the end, we drove all the way back to our home in Pepperell Massachusetts.  For a good stretch we listened to the excellent soundtrack to the even more superb movie “I’m Not There”.  Nancy is not as enamored by Bob Dylan’s vocals as I am.  Not by a long shot.  But when the cover of “Ballad of a Thin Man” came on she made the comment that she liked Dylan’s vocals in the original.  I thought, ‘now that’s some very keen insight’, seeing as I’ve made the same observation myself.  There is hope! 

My mind wandered again as we drove late into the nite.  I thought once more about my last Blueprint entry (# 44) and the song of choice from it, “High Water (for Charley Patton)”.  It’s a song of such foreboding.  One contemplative aspect related to the song is that the album it’s on, “Love and Theft” - which includes many other foreboding tunes - was released on 9/11/2001.  Even though I’ve always known this fact, I did not bring it up for that entry, seeing as it did not fit my storyline. It does here though.  

How has the world changed in the 17 years since I was last in New York, back in 2001, months before 9/11?  I recalled a Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan week’s after that album release and that catastrophic event.  I searched for and found it a few days after settling in back home this week. As I had remembered, this reread once again revealed Dylan’s comments to be very poignant throughout the article.  It’s a real time capsule of a piece.  Near the end of the interview Bob Dylan was asked about 9/11.  First, he quoted a verse from the Rudyard Kipling poem “Gentlemen-Rankers”, which goes: 

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth
 We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung
 And the measure of our torment is the measure of your youth
 God help us, for we knew the worst too young!

(I recalled showing this to my Dad back in those heavy, heavy weeks after 9/11.  Dad was quiet after reading this). Bob Dylan then went on to say, “If anything my mind would go back to young people at a time like this”.

Young people.  My son and my daughter today. American, Iraqi, and Afghani youth, on the cusp of fighting their parents and grandparents battles after 9/11 (I’m sure Dylan was referring to all of them with that quote above).  And of course, Bob Dylan when he released The Freewheelin Bob Dylan in 1963, at the tender age of 21, along with its powerful opener, “Blowin’ in the Wind” ( ) which was his true introduction to the free world.  Unlike those Gentlemen-Rankers of yore, Bob Dylan not only knew the worst too young, he expressed it, perfectly, in that very first hit, and he never let it go.  I am grateful for having recognized this.  My visits to New York City, Woodstock and Hibbing contributed to that recognition.  I’m grateful for that too.

- Pete

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Master Blueprints # 44: "I Can Write You Poems, make a Strong Man Lose His Mind, I’m No Pig Without a Wig, I Hope You Treat Me Kind”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “High Water (for Charley Patton)”
Album: “Love and Theft”
Release Date: September 2011

One of my favorite sketches on Saturday Night Live was back in the late 70s, when Don Novello would don priestly garb and morph into the fictional character Father Guido Sarducci, employed as the gossip columnist for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (this in and of itself is a hilarious thought). Sarducci poked fun at the Catholic Church, but in an enchanting way that often allowed for more than a hint of respect, and even reverence. One of his best skits was when he explained what it takes to be deemed worthy for sainthood by the Holy See, one criteria of which was that you needed to have performed at least 3 miracles to even be considered.  He went on, in his classic straight-faced way, to complain of a European bias (particularly Italy) stating that in other parts of the world, someone can perform 10, 20 miracles and be ignored, where in Europe you perform just one miracle… “and they wave the other 2 miracles”.  Funny stuff.

Other than learning of Jesus’ life in the catechism classes of my youth, this was my bizarre introduction to the concept of miracles, in terms of really thinking about it.  “Miracle” is defined in the dictionary as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency”.  Do you believe in miracles?  I do.  I started to - from a grown up, analytical point of view - around the time of watching that Father Guido Sarducci skit.  Such a strange way to start believing in miracles, huh? At the time, I began thinking along the lines of ‘well, if someone is true to their belief system, and if they are spiritually enlightened, they can do things that are indeed inexplicable’.

Now, I very much wish I could go all wiggy here and write about miracles that have happened in my life, but I can’t because those top tier miraculous moments have been elusive to date.  However, I have gotten little tastes of it here and there; mini-miracles so to speak.  Hard to explain phenomenon.  Amazing experiences. Happenings. I’m sure everybody reading this has too.  I mean, life can be incredible at times, can it not?  We can all relate to this, be it in the context of love, prayer, dreams, coincidences, déjà vu, nature, travel, you name it.  I’ve learned over the years that if you are attentive to these possibilities, great things can happen.

This year I’ve been zoned into these types of experiences at an accelerated rate, and I credit this Blue Print series. I’m sure that my reflecting and writing, as well as the intensity of listening to Bob Dylan’s music, have been what has made me more tuned to them (I’ll also credit some of the great feedback I’ve received from you all).  This week was up there on the bizzaro-meter.  What follows are a few 'telltale' examples.

Wednesday night (11/28) I attended a fantastic Joan Osborne concert at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston with my great friend, Mac.  The show was a tribute to Bob Dylan, and his songs were all that Osborne and her band performed that evening.  They tackled an incredible diversity of Dylan’s music, including highlights “Maggie’s Farm”, “Ring Them Bells”, and an intense extended jam of the tragic tale “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (proving to me that this singer and her band were serious). 

For me the best head-shaking experience of the evening was when, between songs, Joan Osborne talked about the 2001 Bob Dylan album “Love and Theft”, which she stated has had a tremendous effect on her.  I was sitting there thinking ‘ok, very cool…. not a highly recognized Dylan album in terms of covers, but that’s the disc I’ve homed in on this week’.  I had bounced all over the place with a Blue Print song selection from it, each of the 12 being as magnificent as the other.  Earlier that day - the day of Joan Osborne’s show - I’d finally made the decision, “High Water (for Charley Patton): ” ( ).  And wouldn’t ya know it; that was the song she announced, and then performed with passion.  It was my favorite song of the show, partly because I’d felt I had made some sort of inexplicable connection with Osborne.  I consider that a Happening. I'm sure anyone who has attended concerts routinely over the years can understand what I mean.

There was another bizarre moment Wednesday night; I got to see Bob Dylan disappear... for the second time in a week!  This one obviously needs more detailed explanation than usual.  I'll tackle the first event first, which many others saw too; no real shock here.  So, I’ve recently found out that Dylan has a reputation for vanishing in crowds. I’m not surprised, seeing as I can relate (personal vanishing acts for another time).  And, as Wade Boggs once stated when being attacked by a knife-wielding antagonist (ok, his wife), sometimes you just gotta “will yourself invisible”.  Anyhow, I was reading about this Dylan alchemy in Sam Shepard’s mercurial The Rolling Thunder Logbook over the prior weekend.  At the very same time, I had the T.V. blaring and an ad for that night’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon came on, which to my pleasant surprise, was going to include a rare Bob Dylan appearance.  Would it be an interview?  A performance?  I could not determine. I stayed up and, sure enough there was a Dylan moment – a skit - which fascinatingly included a vanishing act: ( ). (Side Note: The link is worth a watch.  It’s short and sweet.  Also note, I was particularly impressed by the steadiness in that 77-year-old hand as Dylan poured and drank whiskey with Fallon).

Flash forward several days back to that Joan Osborne show.  This guy is sitting in the front row and I’m telling you, he’s a spitting image of Bob Dylan: Curly puffed hair, wiry in mannerism and the way he walks, slender, dressed in classy, star studded garb. Face, nose, everything.  I spotted him right off and joked with Mac that the band hired this Dylan clone to sit there, who was nodding in appreciation to most every song.  So, there’s a break in the action, just before intermission, and I seize the moment to head down to the restroom before the crowd.  Mac takes the initiative as well.  The two of us are there in the men’s room, no one else around, when, wouldn’t you know it, the Bob Dylan clone strolls in and ponies up at the 3rd urinal.  This was too good to be true.  I made a comment about having the opportunity to take a leak with Bob.  I thought I spotted a smirk.  Then, we all head back up to the main event, but this guy makes a beeline outside.  It ends up he would be gone for the night.  I just caught him out of the corner of my eye as he maneuvered out the venue.  Vamoose! “I’m Not There” folks; “I’m Not There”!

This kinda thing has been happening to me all year, from Big Pink, to Hibbing to Albuquerque, to Baltimore, to my commutes to and from work, to my weekend activities at home. The blog stories are coming to me now too. Several months ago, I was concerned about inspiration and fresh ideas, but not anymore. Things are rolling in at a quick pace.  Carrying on this Happening theme:  After finishing Sam Shepard’s book, I picked up the thought-provoking Robert M. Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, which was the long-awaited sequel to his master work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

I’m still early into Lila, which, as stated in the title, is a tale woven around the concept of morality (where Zen is woven around the concept of quality).  One of the narratives that Pirsig introduces early in the book relates to how modern American culture is a blending of Native American and European values, personified in the Midwesterner.  American’s who live in that region of the country have shared experiences with Native American people the most.  All of this, Pirsig argues, has played out in our attitudes toward Europe and in our politics, to this day.

I would not do justice to explaining this further other than to suggest you read the book.  What I will state however, is that this Pirsig narrative had me harkening back to my most recent blog entry before this one (Blueprint # 43); that cowboy-hat-wearing escapade of mine with my wife Nancy to Big Bend National Park in Texas many years ago.  In that entry I suggested that, in wearing the hat, I was in search of an America that once was, or maybe never was. 

Sometimes you just reach a point reading a book where your mind begins to wander way too much. Obviously, I’d reached that point as these thoughts floated in several nights back, so I closed the book, turned off the night light and reflected on all this.  Suddenly what came to mind was how I met Nancy; at a Halloween party.  She was dressed as a Native American woman!  The cowboy hat, the quest, the Pirsig insights. It all dovetailed in that moment.  This was a beautiful thing I thought:  Modern American culture as a blending of Native American and European values transitioned to a personal analogy of marriage as a blending of two individual’s values.  I would never have pulled this thought process together without having written that blog entry last week.  Another Happening is my conclusion.  And what’s more fascinating is that this value-system all played out wonderfully on a road trip Nancy and I took this weekend to Asbury Park and Greenwich Village (the 3rd and final Dylan pilgrimage of my Dylan year).  I’ll have to save the elucidation on that one for next week, seeing as it’s in need of a blog entry all its own. 

I’d like to close with some thoughts related to the album “Love and Theft”, as well as this week’s Blueprint from it: “High Water (for Charley Patton)”.  If any album epitomizes Bob Dylan’s sleight of hand, it should be “Love and Theft”.  The Dylan look-alike who vanished into the night air halfway through the Joan Osborne set on Wednesday, as well as the real Bob Dylan’s escapades on The Tonight Show last weekend, pretty much sums up the effect of this album.  Dylan produced it under his pseudonym ‘Jack Frost’.  He also released a cool little commercial for it with card shark Ricky Jay ( ).  It all fits, including the lyrics to every song.

When I first heard “Love and Theft” I was not overly impressed.  It sounded like an old-timer album to me.  Images of a late career, overweight BB King sitting on a bar stool danced in my head.  I simply was not ready for that type of sound back in my early 40s. Not enough high water under the bridge I suppose.  It took a while, but I’m certainly all the way there now.  I wrote about “Mississippi” way back in Master Blueprint # 2, one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs of all time.  “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” has been climbing my personal fav ladder too, as has “Po’ Boy”.  “Things Have Changed”, a song not on the album, but a prelude to its attitude, is also extraordinary ( ).  I’d love to figure a way to do a writeup on that one.  Side Note: Has anyone else out there tuned into the ominous hissing sound that rears its head off and on during “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”.  It sounds like either 1) someone breathing through his teeth to convey anxiety 2) a balloon deflating and/or 3) a snake hissing.  One place you can hear it is at the beginning of the 8th verse while Bob Dylan sings the line “Tweedle Dee’s on his hands and knees”.

And now “High Water (for Charlie Patton)” has seeped its way deep into my inner consciousness.  The song is loosely about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (as well as an ode to one of the original bluesman, Charlie Patton), but more to the point it’s about sin and redemption.  Most of the song drags the protagonist down into those nasty proverbial floodwaters.  But in the end, there’s some hope for this lost soul.  Yessiree, Bob, everyone, there’s always a little room for redemption.

Larry Campbell plays an incredibly authentic banjo on “High Water”.  It sounds as if he were channeling a far distant Blues period.  I connected briefly with Campbell earlier this year after catching one of his shows (with Teresa Williams) at the Bull Run in Shirley Massachusetts.  I pulled out an inner sleeve album photo of him playing poker on the tour bus, sitting next to Bob Dylan, who appeared to be raking in the chips (it occurred to me just before the show to bring it in from my car).  I asked Larry Campbell what he may have been thinking at that moment.  He laughed and said, “I can’t tell you”.  This was the perfect reply, all that mystique still intact: Sleight of hand, vanishing acts, cowboy hats.  Happenings cropping up all around him at a torrid pace; too fast to make sense of. 

Yeah, after the past week, I’m not ruling out anything.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Master Blueprints # 43: "Strange How People Who Suffer Together Have More Connections Than People Who Are Most Content”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Brownsville Girl”
Album: Knocked Out Loaded
Release Date: July 1986

The below was written in the spirit of Bob Dylan’s (and Sam Shepard’s) majestic “Brownsville Girl” ( ):

Well there was this cowboy hat I wore one time
On a ’93 trip across Western Texas, which I borrowed from my Dad
Who purchased it 8 years earlier at the Boston College-won Cotton Bowl in Dallas
I’ve never worn a Stetson before or since; it was a very short-term fad

Well, Dad wore that cowboy hat through the winter and spring of ‘85
The funny thing about it was, we live in Massachusetts, far from cattle country
Another strange twist was that Dad never really could care less about cowboys
This all influenced me; respect, curiosity, and the leaf never too far from the tree

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
Leaving high water marks in its wake; memories that don’t decay
She’s driving with me from San Anton’ toward Mexico and the Rio Grande
Hot springs, roadrunners, pronghorn, canyons; the beauty makes it feel as if yesterday

I can still remember that first border town of Del Rio not far upstream of Brownsville
We were on our own now, and feeling the freedom of the road
That river was flowing, that city was vibrant, that bridge was teaming with people
This was different for us, but we believed in each other, it showed

Well we drove that car all day, up the Rio Grande, and into Big Bend National Park
All the while thinkin’ back on the week, your cousin, aunt, uncle, and the Alamo
You were in your element there, family oh so important
You carried that forward with a flair, a smile and a glow

Well, we’re driving this car and we are stalled by the crossing of peccaries
But now my mind is blown away, we are indeed in a different world
And I’m mesmerized by you, the night, the stars, the desert,
the looming Chisos Mountains just waiting to be explored
Big Bend’s ocotillo, yucca, and agave soon to be unfurled

Big Bend Girl with your Big Bend Curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Big Bend Girl, show me all around the world
Big Bend Girl, you’re my honey love

Well, we headed up into the Chisos and soon we were on horseback
My stallion quite aggressive, nipping at everything in sight
And we crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, the remoteness almost elusive
Baking under that desert sun, we slipped into a small dark saloon
Nobody there but us, the grizzled bartender, and two tough hombres’
It was like a scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but we blended in, unobtrusive

Back in the Chisos we hiked to the highest among them
I veered off the beaten path for a moment and soon was being circled by vultures
They swooped in low, I didn’t know whether to duck or run, so I ran
Later while sitting by our campfire, dozens of large bats in the tree above
Keep an eye on the sky…. was this all some effect of being in the land of ancient cultures?

Further up the Rio Grande the next day in Lajitas we were on the edge of nowhere
The road like a roller coaster, several times I swear we were airborne
We stopped into a small diner, it was surreal, it was all black and white, no color
The waitress speaking in tongues, I could see she was reborn

Something about that cowboy hat though, I just can’t get it out of my head
It was way more than the novelty, I’m sure that I was aiming for something much higher
Was I searching for an America that once was, or maybe never was?
People approached me differently; perhaps the hat being what was required

Big Bend Girl with your Big Bend Curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Big Bend Girl, show me all around the world
Big Bend Girl, you’re my honey love

The sky was the limit now, could we shoot for El Paso?
Thinking back on my 2-week journey had me aiming for more of the real McCoy
I started out on my own in Chicago, stranded there by a blizzard
Roaming the streets with Mac and that hat on my head, the aura of Midnight Cowboy

My real first destination was Mobile, Alabama, where I would be stuck inside for a week
But my Chicago flight had me touching down in New Orleans
I took in the French Quarter before driving my way East along the Gulf of Mexico
Lake Pontchartrain, Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi
Hugging the coast, as I would the Rio Grande the following week…by all means.

I was feeling the music, I was feeling the vibes
Down on the bayou, alligators, grits, and moonshine
I got out ahead of the snowstorm, others from the Boston area were stranded
A work week in Mobile ahead, along with two heady presentations
And a depressed economy reflected in a downtown in need of a lifeline

The cowboy hat worked out a little better here though than it did in Chicago
But it would not kick into high gear until I landed in San Anton’
It worked in the Missions, it worked at the market place, and worked at the carnival
And it worked with her family, deep discussions that knocked you right down to the bone

Big Bend Girl with your Big Bend Curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Big Bend Girl, show me all around the world
Big Bend Girl, you’re my honey love

Alas El Paso was not to be; we headed North after hitting Presidio
Saying so long to the Rio Grande as we veered off from its meanders
The border patrol eyed us suspiciously, our car having been through the mill
But there would be giant telescopes, caves, and petroglyphs all worthy of a gander

When I got home I returned that cowboy hat to my Dad, the wisdom of its ways now complete
It was complete for him too, this a fact many years earlier, I never saw Dad wear it again
Neither of us needed to, we had both heeded its soothsaying non-verbal advice
Doing our best to help veer the good ship forward,
In our faith and how we interact with our contacts, our spouses, families and friends

Big Bend Girl with your Big Bend Curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Big Bend Girl, show me all around the world
Big Bend Girl, you’re my honey love


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Master Blueprints # 42: "Where the Angels’ Voices Whisper to the Souls of Previous Times”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Changing of the Guards”
Album: Street Legal
Release Date: June 1978

I was reminded this week by a friend of a key reason why I started this Music and Memory blog site in the first place; to try and explain the unique experience of being a teenager in the United States in the 1970s, and maybe even more importantly, to explain the after effects of having lived it.  Those 70s years have crossed my mind off and on over the course of this Master Blueprint series, but to date I’ve not tapped that well nearly to the degree that I had done for my 3 earlier year-long series on the Rolling Stones (Stepping Stones in 2012), Neil Young (Forever Young in 2014), and the Who (Under the Big Top in 2016). 

Perhaps there has simply been too much water under the bridge at this stage.  Forty years; that is a long window of time to reconnect to anything.  I had expressed concern about this way back when I started that first series (Stepping Stones) six years ago when I turned 50, thinking I was reaching some sort of demarcation line.  To some degree, I’m pretty sure I was right.  Another thought that came to mind this week was that perhaps I’d gotten it all out of my system with those earlier series.  But then I thought, well, maybe these connections have become so infused with all this writing that the thought process related to those times has shifted from the conscious to the subconscious.  Yeah, there ya go…. I’m running with that last one.  This entry then will be an attempt to bring that 70s focus back to the conscious.

Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album has such a solid 70s sound to it, with no song better highlighting that period-production than the opening number, “Changing of the Guards” ( ).  This is a very complicated song, due mainly to the lyrics.  Others have tried to break it down.  I did not try to do that to any great degree here.  What I did do, however was tap into that sound throughout the week, in an effort to bring back those old memories once again, this despite the fact that the song and the album were a million miles from my mind at the time of release. And yet…. maybe in my subconscious it wasn’t that far away after all.

First off, a cool observation I made this week:  I was 16 years old when Street Legal was released in 1978, which just so happens to be the opening line on that opening track, “Changing of the Guards”:

Sixteen years
 Sixteen banners united over the field
 Where the good shepherd grieves
 Desperate men, desperate women divided
 Spreading their wings ‘neath the falling leaves

Bob Dylan could have been singing about himself here.  He’d been recording for 16 years at that point, having released his first, eponymous-titled album in 1962, the year I was born.  Yes, he had been around a while, and at this stage of the game he could have indeed felt that there was a changing of the guards playing out…. Rock and Roll guards that is. Pete Townshend clearly felt this way, the Who releasing just around the same time the extremely underrated album Who Are You, which was all about a changing of the guards (Townshend, desperately hoping this would be a positive development, with the then advent of Punk, and he willing to fall on his own sword to witness it (See Under the Big Top # 10: ).

These thoughts brought me back to a few months ago, when my sister Jen and her husband Dale hosted a dinner party for my wife Nancy and I, along with Jen’s and my cousin Becca and her husband and my longtime friend, Dave, as well as another great friend of all of ours, Mac.  The seven of us wined, dined and grooved the night away. In the midst of it all, Jen and Dale began tossing out verbal requests to their sound system for songs, with “Alexa” responding to each demand as if we were the lucky first callers on the request-line of a popular radio station. Now, I may be a bit antiquated – ok I am – but this was a first for me. Anyhow we had a lot of fun with it, each of us ultimately calling out a handful of our very favorite songs and building on one another’s concepts and themes. 

The music of Bob Dylan eventually slipped into the playlist, but it was not my doing, it was Mac’s.  We had begun delving into a Latino music theme when Mac came up with the seminal Señor” request to Alexa (see Master Blueprint # 5).  It’s not a Latino song per se, but, well… if you’re still reading this, I’m pretty sure you get it.  Anyhow, from there the conversation swayed to the host album for “Señor”, which as you may have concluded, is also the host album of this week’s Master Blueprint. Dave was asking questions about it; Mac and I were offering our critique.  This reminded me of Mac and Dave bringing me up to speed all those years ago as we listened to the entirety Who Are You on the radio not long after its release. 

Mac, Dave and I go way back…. to 16 years old and beyond.  We’ve always valued each other’s insights on just about any topic, but most particularly when it comes to music.  This has worked out tremendously for one and all over the years, because each of us has helped the other climb his own proverbial Tower of Song, which has played out between the three of us in countless concert halls, on turntables, in heavy discussions, as well as while listening to those aforementioned nocturnal emissions on car radios.  The process was baby steps for me at first.  I had a solid foundation with the Beatles by the time I turned 16, but this love affair was kinda becoming a stranglehold.  If I was ever going to be multidimensional with my musical knowledge, I needed to start building on top of that Fab Four base. 

The first floor built on that Beatles basement of my personal Tower of Song was interesting and all over the map:  Albums like Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, the Cars first, self-titled album, Rush’s Permanent Waves, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, and Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, all of which were released in the late 70s.  But talk within my circles gave me insights that these popular selling albums were or would-soon-be underlain by deeper, lesser known material by these same artists, of which the only offense was that this other material was simply not as commercial sounding.  For example, in the years following his debut, Look Sharp, Joe Jackson would be releasing Jumpin’ Jive, a classic, underappreciated effort. Many ‘fans’ would soon be jumping off his bandwagon and on to other commercial endeavors by other artists.  Not Mac.  He helped open my eyes to the treasures buried in Jackson’s and many other great musician’s discographies.  I dug deeper with the Cars as well, tuning into their second album, the more seasoned “Candy-O”.  Even though these musicians were not at the top of the Rock and Roll heap, this kind of rounding out was extremely important in completing the first floor to my Tower of Song. 

At the same time, I was flirting with the heavy hitters, but it would take some time to break free of their greatest hits.  Indeed, by the late 70s I was listening to the Kinks (Kronikles), the Rolling Stones (Hot Rocks), and Neil Young (Decade), getting my feet wet so to speak.  The puzzle pieces were coming together.  A big breakthrough would be that evening in the car with Mac and Dave, listening to the Who Are You album for the first time, where my Tower of Song would soon begin to add floors at a far more rapid rate.  This was an original studio album, released during my coming of age, and by a top tier band.  The sky was now the limit.

That same summer and fall of 1978, the Rolling Stones would release Some Girls, Neil Young came out with Comes a Time, Bruce Springsteen released Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Elvis Costello gave us This Year’s Model.  And amidst all this creativity, there was Bob Dylan rolling out that under-the-radar, 70’s-sound album Street Legal.  Listening to it reminds me of one of the great things about Bob Dylan: Each decade he’s morphed his sound, with so many others often carrying suit. I mean, he basically created the 60s sound.  But despite that lofty achievement, he never hung his hat on that success.  He just continued to build on it with new floors.: His own personalized Tower of Song.

Franklin, Massachusetts was a small, rural New England town in the 70s, with more woods than neighborhoods. It was an idyllic world for that 70s sound.  I’ve said this before in this series, but it’s worth saying again: In the 60s, music was simply a part of the scene, but in the 70s, the music was the scene, at least for young impressionable teens like Mac, Dave and me.  What was especially great about the vibe was that we had 2 decades of material to work with.  In other words, until Punk, the 70s was not only about its own evolution of sound but it was also about honoring the generation of music that was made in that prior renegade decade.  Several musicians who persevered from one decade to the next helped to gel these two generations of sound, including Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Neil Young, and of course Bob Dylan. 

Even though I have no recollection of “Changing of the Guards” or anything else on Street Legal upon its release, I’d like to believe I took it in somewhere.  Maybe it was on my drive to work one evening, listening to WBCN in my white button shirt and black pants, to bus tables at Welik’s Coach House Restaurant.  Maybe it was in the attic of good friend Bruce, who benefited from having older hip siblings, each of them having left behind many of their albums as they spread their respective wings on their own individual journeys.  Maybe it was on a boombox, by a fire, during the infamous “Bucko’s Keg” gatherings deep in the woods.  Or perhaps on the turntable in the party-central mansion-home of friend George.  The song and album have that type of ring of familiarity to them.  That bygone era, when Dave, Mac and I ruled the world.