Sunday, October 14, 2018

Master Blueprints # 38: "I’m Beginning to Hear Voices. And There’s No One Around”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Cold Irons Bound”
Album: Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September 1997

Autumn has always been a particularly stimulating season for me.  All five senses seem to go into overdrive. I’m sure living in New England has something to do with it: The fall foliage (seen), the falling acorns (heard) the evening breeze (touched), the wood burning in the fireplace (smelled), the pumpkin pie (tasted).  Perhaps as an effect of all this multi-sense stimulation, my memories tend to be retained more intensely from autumn-seasons gone by - in relation to other seasons.  I’ve recently wondered if this is my brain tapping into its most primal modes of survival: Ancient ancestral genes and synapses having stored prehistoric experiences in every way possible, to best track, and to best elude. 

My fall memories have played out on these blog pages over the years, most notably in relation to Halloween.  Go figure!  It’s not like this celebration stands out among other annual celebrations - such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, Easter, and the Fourth of July - when it comes to special moments.  But Halloween does benefit from sitting smack dab in the middle of that leaf-dropping, night-moves, wind-swept, memory-soaked time-of-year.  The Halloween’s of yesteryear that I’ve devoted writeups to already are; 1) the evening I met my wife (see my The Who-centric “Under the Big Top” series entry # 16 here ) and; 2) the hilarious night my son Peter decided to don a Richard Nixon mask for trick-or-treating (see my Neil Young-centric “Forever Young” series entry # 37 here ).  I’m going to add to that list here with another Halloween memory, this one much earlier in my life. But before I do, I want to tie in the Bob Dylan angle. 

This is the 3rd time I’ve swung back to Time out of Mind in this Master Blueprint series.  It goes to show how great of an album I think it is (the only other album with a Blueprint threepeat thus far is Bringing It All Back Home).  Time out of Mind is a haunting disc, about love lost.  Every song attempts to express this unique type of pain, with memories, analogies, regrets and innuendos piling up from track to track, and a likely journey down the Mississippi River (and Highway 61) cutting across it all (see Master Blueprint # 11: here ).  There’s imagery everywhere on this album, with one song in particular -- the mesmerizing, bass-guitar-driven “Cold Irons Bound” -- offering up the strongest imagery of them all.  Much of it comes courtesy of a single refraining line:

20 miles out of town in Cold Irons bound

Setting aside the fact that ‘Cold Irons’ is capitalized in the lyrics (connoting that this could be a place - as opposed to shackles - …. a place where you don’t want to be), I’d like to focus here on that more obvious image: A man in chains, twenty miles from any semblance of hope. This image is so visual to me, in ways similar to the powerful visual effect that comes with listening to “All Along the Watchtower” (see Master Blueprint # 32: here ).   In my mind’s eye I see a vast forest sprawled out between the imprisoned protagonist and the town.  I see darkness.  I see howling wind and pouring rain.  I see …. Iron Maiden album covers (now there’s one band I never thought I’d mention in this blog series).  I see Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. 

And, I see the childhood Aurora model “The Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare” ( here ), which my lifelong friend, Phil, had finished and painted at the base of his cellar stairs, an eerie entry into the labyrinth beyond.

Phil’s Martin Avenue home was next-door to my family’s home in my early grade school years (we moved a few blocks away when I entered 6th grade).  Our homes were in an idyllic New England neighborhood in the then-small town of Franklin, Massachusetts.  Old stately Victorians, along with cottage-style and farmhouse-style homes surrounded us.  Equally old and stately trees lined the avenues.  There was plenty of woods.  There were train tracks, which were well-traveled by my friends and I.  And all of it was close to a classic Bedford-Falls-style downtown.

This was all quite bucolic, but such an environment could also play games with the wild and vivid imaginations of a young adolescent, especially in the fall.  Large oak trees with their rustling leaves could take on a life of their own to a wandering mind.  At night, heading home from any number of friend’s homes nearby, shadows danced about.  The wind made human-like howling noises.  What’s around that corner?  The Forgotten Prisoner coming back to seek revenge on anyone who dared cross his path?  I’m tellin’ ya, when I hear that driving Tony Garnier bass beat kicking off Bob Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound”, it’s like the soundtrack to those spooky moments. 

It was during one of those Autumn nights in our home on Martin Ave, just before Halloween, when my parents and their closest hometown friends, the Rappa’s, gathered all their kids (along with Phil and another neighbor friend, Jeff) down into the cellar.  We sat in a circle.  Not soon after, the lights went out, excepting for a candle which flickered on a small table beside Mr. Rappa, who commenced to reading an unfamiliar poem called “The Terrible Ghost Story” from a thick book of many short poems.  It began “There was a man named Joshua Brown, who disappeared one night from town”.  That caught our attention.

After each verse, Mr. Rappa hesitated in order that we could take in the gruesome details of a fictional murder victim being discovered one body part at a time (i.e. “as they searched the fields and lanes, they came upon the victim’s veins”).  The breaks in the action were highlighted by our parents in two ways.  The first of these were recommendations in the book, whereby a given ‘body part’ (food items, such as grapes for eyes) had been pre-prepared in baggies.  These items would be passed around from one trembling, blinded, nervously-giggling kid to the next (the poem is at the end of this post, including the suggested food items in parenthesis…. you can probably guess ahead what item was used for those veins).  The second highlight was much more impromptu; my Dad whacking the oil tank in the rear of the basement with a baseball bat after each verse, to produce a loud, horrifying GONG (we eventually got a kick out it). 

This was a hugely successful coup by my parents and the Rappa’s, seeing as none of us kids would ever forget it.  However, our Mom’s and Dad’s would have to deal with the immediate after effects for a spell.  I for one didn’t sleep all that great that evening, or subsequent evenings for that matter, and I’m pretty sure the same went for my friends and siblings.  My buddy, Jeff, had to head back to his home in the dark that evening, which was less than a block away (we could see his home from ours).  I watched him out the window with my Mom.  I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone move that fast before or since.  The long-term effect was much more positive though.  Moments like the one my parents and their friends created in that dark basement can be expansive to the imagination of a young mind; indelible, often in unforeseen ways.  Counterintuitively, I believe it’s the sort of thing that can have you ultimately overcoming your fears.

It took me decades to track down “The Terrible Ghost Story” again, which I accomplished about 15 years ago.  At the time, I preserved the poem in its entirety.  However, for the life of me I could not find it one last time this week, in order that I could credit the author, who I do not recall.  I apologize up front to the author (as well as anyone reading this whose name is Joshua Brown). If anybody can track down the poem’s author, I’d be grateful, and I will subsequently include it here.

As for “Cold Irons Bound”, it’s these same terrorized emotions that Bob Dylan tries to pull out of us in this song (how else could you interpret a song that begins with the lyrics “I’m beginning to hear voices, and there’s no one around”).  Since I cannot find the original bass-driven version on line I’ll have to settle for this alternate take (I recommend the original though): Cold Irons Bound alternate take

Keep alert in the night air, folks. And be careful of what might be behind that large oak tree up ahead.



The Terrible Ghost Story

There was a man named Joshua Brown
Who disappeared one night from town.

His friends with fearful thoughts were filled.
Where is he now? Has he been killed?

The proof they had right from the start.
They were almost sure when the found a part.

A part of Brown,you've soon to know
What they found was his big toe ( Have kids feel a piece of carrot)

It was too bad he had to die,
What they found next was his right eye? (grape)

Too bad he had to die so young
The next part found was Joshua's tongue.( a few slices of deli meat)

"Who done him in? The robbers band?"
They asked as they found Josh's hand ( wet glove filled with sand)

We must be sure: We must have proof!
Ah, Here's a clue! It's Josh's tooth. ( a wig or a small stone for tooth)

As they searched the fields and lanes,
They came upon the victim's veins. ( cold, cooked spaghetti)

They screamed, they showed their grief and pain,
What next they found was poor Josh's brain. (damp sponge)

They knew J. Brown was surely dead,
When they picked up his only head. (head of cabbage)

The ghosts will talk, the witches fly,
No one will speak. None saw him die.

Oh, who could be so cruelly mean,
And kill Josh Brown on Halloween!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Master Blueprints # 37: "May You Always Know the Truth and See the Lights Surrounding You”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Forever Young”
Album: Planet Waves
Release Date: January 1974

Seemingly coincidental occurrences just keep piling up in this The Year of the Blueprint.  This time around it was a musical mind-meld with my wife, Nancy.  I’d started the week listening to Bob Dylan’s most recent album of original songs, 2012’s Tempest, with the usual intention of writing something related to it (the title track being a strong contender for a Blueprint choice, along with “Roll on John”).  By Tuesday afternoon’s drive home from work however, I’d concluded that I was going to need more time with Tempest.  Fortunately, I had a backup plan, seeing as one of Dylan’s most heartfelt songs, “Forever Young” had been playing in my head for weeks. As quick as you can say ‘cd switch’ I had its host album, Planet Waves, emanating through my car speakers, and for the remainder of the week I homed in on all things “Forever Young”. 

Anyhow, I usually keep my evolving thoughts to myself as I’m formulating them, even from Nancy.  I think it’s a creative process thing; a fear of writer’s block if you prematurely reveal your subject matter until its finalized.  As has been the case for virtually every entry to date, no problem there.  And so, you can imagine that I would be momentarily speechless when Nancy told me not soon after I made the disc switcheroo that she’d written a personal note to our son, Peter with the lyrics to “Forever Young” in it.  Nancy had done this once before, for our daughter Charlotte as she was spreading her wings, moving into her own rental pad for the first time.  Now it was Peter’s turn. But it had been four years since Nancy had written that letter to Charlotte, and so “Forever Young” had not been front and center in our daily spousal exchanges in quite some time.  A memorable coincidence for sure (or perhaps more than that).

Nancy and I disagree on one major aspect to “Forever Young”.  She likes the Rod Stewart cover version.  I, of course, prefer the original ( ).  One thing that irks me about Stewarts cover:  He and his cowriters, Jimmy Cregan and Kevin Savigar, mess quite a bit with the original lyrics (in their version, Cregan and Savigar are bookended between Bob Dylan and Stewart in credit order). In the annals of music covers, how often does this happen? Nancy insists the meaning is made clearer, and there certainly is truth to this (it’s Stewart & friends lyrics that Nancy wrote to Charlotte and Peter).  Rod Stewart aims for simplicity and sentimentality.  Perhaps it was his intention to open this Bob Dylan song to a broader audience, which clearly worked for Nancy.  At its core, Dylan’s version (he not prone to sentimentality) aims for something a bit deeper and in turn somewhat more difficult to grasp.  And yet, there’s a little voice gnawing at me: I can’t help but think that Rod Stewart was also in some ways trying to ‘rewrite’ history. 

Regardless, I’d like to focus on the commonality of Nancy and my love for this song, which is that both versions were written with sons and daughters in mind.  Indeed, no matter how you slice it “Forever Young” has universal parental appeal.  I will add here my slice to the Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Nancy Steeves pie.  I’ll to do this by breaking up the original version into its three stanzas, following up each with my own commentary, both personal and universal – along with a little Dylanology sprinkled in for you Bob Dylan fans.

Here’s stanza number one:

May God bless and keep you always
 May your wishes all come true
 May you always do for others
 And let others do for you
 May you build a ladder to the stars
 And climb on every rung
 May you stay forever young

One term that people tend to use a lot these days when someone in their lives is graced with good fortune is “how lucky you are”.  I’m much more inclined to say, “you are blessed’.  Luck sounds random, does it not?  On the other hand, if you are blessed, it means you followed your true path and made something work within that context.  Wishes coming true go hand in hand.  What is it to be blessed? Daughter Charlotte, being patient enough over the course of days in the rain forest to finally catch a rare sighting of a family of resplendent quetzals fluttering overhead in the wilds of Panama.  That’s blessed.  Our son Peter’s understanding of honesty and true friendship and an uncanny ability to see b.s. the moment he hears it.  Again, blessed.

The next set of lines are deep.  “May you always do for others” can have you contemplating that helping others is core to a healthy life; that giving of oneself is what makes you truly happy.  Think of the alternative…. selfishness.  Anyone with children advises them to avoid that vice.  Dylan simply flips this sort of advice on its head: Positive vs negative reinforcement in lyrical form.  The real deep line, however, is the follow-up “and let others do for you”.  It may be as simple as letting someone pay for the meal out at a nice restaurant, or as heavy as knowing when to be humble, admitting when you need guidance.  There are those who tend to think that if they allow these things to happen they will forever be indebted to those who ‘did for them’. ‘Let it be’ I say to my son and daughter.  All of us will have our time to lead and to guide.  To get there you first need to learn the right way to follow.    

This feeds into that 3rd part of the first stanza about ladders, stars, and rungs, with the rungs being the most thought-provoking of these metaphors.  In other words, earn your keep every step of the way.  Pay attention to the details as you forge along your path.  Listen more than talk.  Don’t step on others as you blaze that trail. I’m reminded of a line in Bob Dylan’s “Foot of Pride”, which goes “You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up. Sooner or later you are gonna meet them comin’ down”.  Again though, “Forever Young” and its parental declarations are about positive – not negative – reinforcement.  One of the great things about Charlotte and Peter’s generation (early 20’s) is that they seem to understand all this ‘every rung’ stuff (in this day and age, they have to).  And so, I look at reflecting on these words of wisdom as simply a good way for them to know that we their parents know this too.

One additional comment about the beginning of “Forever Young” for you Dylanologists.  The song starts off with a western guitar style (Robbie Robertson I’m sure) that is reminiscent of Dylan’s prior album Pat Garret & Billy the Kid.  I’ve been noticing this about Dylan’s discography.  There’s a tiny bit of overlap in musical style from one album to the next, with this one being the most pleasantly surprising.  I welcome your thoughts.

On to the second stanza:

May you grow up to be righteous
 May you grow up to be true
 May you always know the truth
 And see the light surrounding you
 May you always be courageous
 Stand upright and be strong
 May you stay forever young

To be righteous is to not compromise your convictions.  When you do something right, people see it and feel it.  And when you do things right on a regular basis, many of us see and sense that you are someone pleasing to God.  A true person’s private moments are just as righteous as their public ones.  In your journey through life you will meet those who will have a strong effect on you in amazingly positive ways.  I think it no coincidence that they have found you and you have found them.  Foster these relationships.  Don’t let them wither on the vine.

If you are on the right path, you will know it.  It’s all about seeing that ‘light surrounding you’ that Bob Dylan mentions (as I typed these words, I thought of that early-week flirtation with “Roll on John” – an ode to John Lennon – and the line in the refrain “you shined so bright”).  There will be moments when you just know there are greater forces at work, and that you are part of a much bigger plan which you may not fully understand (I most certainly don’t).  These moments occur when you follow the righteous path.  Savor them, so that you can feed on the memory of these moments when your path forward inevitably becomes difficult to discern or takes a rocky turn for the worse. 

A second Dylanology footnote: I find it interesting that Bob Dylan wrote “Forever Young” during his third and final stint with The Band (# 1 being the boo-bird tours of 1965-66 and # 2 being the Big Pink summer of ’67).  He very likely saw the struggles several of the Band’s members were going through with drugs and alcohol.  The importance of this song to Dylan in this context would be revealed in his penultimate tribute to them in his closing tribute for the Band’s Last Waltz. 

As for the 3rd part to that 2nd stanza above, there will always be adversity.  These are the moments when you get to see what you are made of.  Sometimes you must cut the adversity off at the knees. Sometimes you must confront it as soon as it plays out.  Sometimes you must be patient and play a bit of chess.  Always pray and ponder.  Whatever it takes be sure to do your best to approach the situation with all the integrity you can muster.  Try to not let fear get in the way.  Faith is the best way to combat fear.

The third and final stanza goes:

May your hands always be busy
 May your feet always be swift
 May you have a strong foundation
 When the winds of changes shift
 May your heart always be joyful
 May your song always be sung
 May you stay forever young

It’s natural that others will be impressed when they see you use your hands and feet in productive ways, be it building, cooking, writing, knitting, painting, running, hiking, swimming, exploring, performing.  Resist idleness; the temptations of sloth.  There is always need for relaxation, but even when sitting in front of the T.V. you can keep busy in one capacity or another (for example, I like to write these blog entries while sporting events blare in the background). 

Change is bound to happen.  It will be up to you to decide whether that change is good for you and others, or not so.  Sometimes you will be signaled out if you don’t conform to changes to the norm.  Stick to your guns. Often that norm loops right back again.  It may take a while but be willing to stick it out. If you feel strongly about your position don’t waver.  We all have a little rebellious independent spirit in us.  Use it every so often.  You may find yourself amazed at how it all plays out in the long run. On the flip side, you may be at the heart of change, driving it.  A strong foundation helps on this side of the fence too.  Others will jump on board.  It can be very exciting, particularly when you know you are on to something…. something good.

Dylanology footnote number three: The Band’s unique chugging style kicks in as “Forever Young” winds down, driven by Rick Danko’s bass and Levon Helm’s drumming.  Bob Dylan must have found this so alluring, which is why he returned to these guys more than any other musicians in his career.  Think about everyone Dylan has worked with: Robert Hunter, Joan Baez, Mick Taylor, Jerry Wexler, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, Mark Bloomfield, Scarlet Rivera, Al Kooper, Mick Ronson, Stevie-Ray Vaughn, George Harrison, Daniel Lanois, T-Bone Burnett, Ronnie Wood, the list goes on.  Still, it was this one-of-a-kind band, The Band – Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson - who Dylan found himself most strongly affiliated with, which is reflected in the album covers he painted for “Music From Big Pink” and “Planet Waves”, both of which show that Dylan sorta felt like he was part of this crew. 

Bob Dylan closes the lyrical portion of “Forever Young with “May your heart always be joyful.  May your song always be sung”.  I was talking with Charlotte & Peter’s Grandma this morning as I do every Sunday.  Mom mentioned to me that she and my Dad were out with friends this past week for dinner, one of them being Dad’s best friend (and Best Man) from his youth, who leaned over to Mom during dinner and asked, “how is it that Pete is always so happy and full of life?”.  Mom responded in her subtle, unassuming way that it’s love and faith, with the connotation that the faith part is oh-so important.  I’ve been blessed to see my Dad clairvoyantly in this regard.  As for your song always being sung, well of course it’s a metaphor for most of us, but it’s the one line that in my mind hits closest to home with Mr. Bob Dylan. The man who wrote “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” early in his career will never have to be concerned with having to do so with his own music. His song will always be sung.

Yours can too.

Pete (Dad)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Master Blueprints # 36: "And the Good Samaritan He’s Dressing, He’s Getting Ready for the Show, He’s Going to the Carnival Tonight on Desolation Row”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Desolation Row”
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Release Date: August 1965

What makes transcendent art?  More to the point, what makes a transcendent artist?  Well, I can only speculate, but I do think I’m in a better position to do so than I was before I started writing these Music and Memory entries over 8 years ago.  For example, I know now that if you are doing something creatively, you can’t cherry pick your subject matter.  If a handful of thoughts are dangling in front of you, they all need to be plucked sooner than later. It’s the only way you can move on to another handful of thoughts.  And it’s the only way that I know of to keep the creative juices flowing.  At times, a given thought can be daunting, even risky; be it related to the complexity or heaviness of the subject matter.  These are the moments that make or break your creative spirit.  You are either going to plow on through, take a breather, or bag it all together.

I’ve forever been drawn to the creative risk takers among us, which includes musicians.  A leap of faith has often proven to result in something brilliant for such musical souls, including Neil Young, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Van Morrison, and of course Bob Dylan. Mr. Young confounded his live audiences time and time again, playing only new music on many of his tours, which could on occasion be bizarrely experimental (see Trans).  At least twice he took this to the extreme, producing his new music right there in front of the crowd.  Several of my favorite Neil Young albums were done this way, including Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps.  Mr. Lennon up and quit the Beatles, and not long after was declaring that war (Vietnam) was over (if you want it).  He made these declarations during “Bed In” interviews-for-peace with his wife Yoko Ono. One could make the argument that this oft-ridiculed act freed Lennon’s mind-space up for his first two superb solo albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine.  Mr. Townshend pushed a grand concept, Lifehouse, to nervous breakdown and back, going as far as involving a large studio audience in his concept before succumbing to pressure to release something before it was truly ready (the salvaged remains would end up being nothing less than the super-charged Who’s Next).  Mr. Van Morrison left his band and homeland (Ireland) behind to start anew in ‘Boston Town’ in the late 60s (broke and forgotten), leading to his seminal work Astral Weeks. 

These chosen paths are not for the mild or meek (all these gentleman, as well as Bob Dylan - who I’ll be getting to – have/had abrasive sides to their personalities).  Such paths can lead to loneliness and isolation (to use the title of a beautiful John Lennon song off Plastic Ono Band).  And yet, this is what separates the top-tier musicians from the crowd.  The process of taking big risks can be painful, and excruciatingly difficult to maintain over an extended period.  Few artists who have tackled such risk to the degree that Neil Young, John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Van Morrison have, can handle it in the long-term.  Those who cannot either die young (Mozart), burn out (Syd Barret) or fade away (pick em'). 

From my rather limited perspective, no musician has pursued that artistic purity, nor expressed the sense of sacrifice, solitude and what it takes to get and stay there better than Bob Dylan.  The amazing thing is that he began expressing an understanding of this at a rather early stage in his career.  His song, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a perfect example.  The real quantum leap, however can be found in the songs off Highway 61 Revisited, personified in the closing number “Desolation Row”, which frankly knocked me off my feet this week, as I found myself taking in the song as if I’d never heard it before.

How to describe my mid-week clairvoyant moment regarding all things “Desolation Row”?  Let me start with another song off the album, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, which offers up in many ways the counterpoint to “Desolation Row”.  I was originally planning to build on Thin Man as this week’s Blueprint (which, by the way, I chalk up as one of Bob Dylan’s all-time best vocal efforts, albeit cynical in a style Ray Davies would be proud of).  I had reservations, however.  Although superb in every way, “Ballad of a Thin Man” detracts from one of my core values of this blog site, which has me attempting to stay above the fray.  The song rips into people who just don’t get it, the type who cave to superficiality and never see the forest for the trees.  Although Bob Dylan had reached a stage in his career at that time where I believe he was deserving of delivering such general criticism, I myself feel as if I am far from it (at least within the context of this blog series). 

And so, as I listened to Highway 61 Revisited I kept my options opened.  I had already tackled the opening number, the monumental “Like A Rolling Stone” (see Master Blueprint # 15), which was much more affiliated with “Ballad of A Thin Man” anyhow in terms of song meaning.  But there are so many other masterful songs on this album.  Indeed, roughly one fifth of my eventual 50 Bob Dylan entries could conceivably be based on songs off Highway 61 Revisited alone.  It’s that good.  

In preparation for most entries into this blog series, I’ve often done a bit of homework, researching here and there on what others have said about the song at hand.  Not this go around.  At least, not consciously.  This time it was 100% personal and visceral, which is the ideal place to go mentally.  It’s what I truly strive for in this blog series:  A moment listening to the music when I can say “Wow. I am so thrilled to finally make this connection.  I have broken on through to the other side”.   

How did this come to be?  Again, I was tooling around with “Ballad of a Thin Man”, trying to conjure up ideas related to losing/finding yourself, when I let the album play out in its entirety for the umpteenth time. “Desolation Row”, the 9th and final song on the album, queued up and played out in my ears as it had so often before. Most of my connections with this song to date had been confusing.  Bob Dylan sings of a seemingly endless parade of real and fictional characters, as well as a place with the type of name (Desolation Row) which leads one to believe that…… you just don’t want to go there.  Which in ways already described earlier in this entry is somewhat true (in terms of how hard it is), just not in the way I had been thinking to that point.

But for whatever reason, this time it was different.  Suddenly I was hearing “Desolation Row” like I’d never heard it before (it happens with this blog series).  I don’t know how to explain…it just clicked!  Where before there was randomness, now there was a pattern.  Tears welled up in my eyes. In a ‘New York Minute’ the song had become…. beautiful ( ) I’ll try to explain in the paragraphs below, but right up front I’ll say this:  Bob Dylan’s harmonica breaks, both prior to the last stanza and in closing the song, are telling.  Where before my ‘breakthrough’, these instrumental breaks were borderline irritating, now they were deeply moving.  They put the icing on the cake.  I believe there is analogy here with Dylan’s vocals too, not only in this song, but in all his music. You just hope for the moment where you can finally see what all the fuss is about.

Before I get into the lyrics I feel a need to reach out to the true Dylanologists out there.  I know that you know how deep this song is. But I admit, I’m a relative novice because deep inside, I’m more of an integrator:  I’ve been writing about many musicians in these blog entries over the years.  And although I realize Bob Dylan is at the top of the heap, I’m often spread too thin to be able to master the subject matter in a way that you can.  I only hope you can appreciate my peripheral insights in a way where you can say “yeah, this guy gets it”.  This is more than I could hope for. 

At the heart of “Desolation Row” is purity and pain. The two go hand in hand.  Brilliance (which is there too) is but a biproduct.  The song opens with lyrics that are very misleading in terms of the song’s core meaning: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”.  This is Bob Dylan at his best.  He throws you off the scent.  What he’s really doing here, however, is presenting a polar-opposite character trait from what he eventually gets to; the type of persona that is defined by integrity and wisdom.  The opening stanza must continue along this vulgar vein first though, and soon Dylan is rolling out one of his most all-time classic lines:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants

Dylan sings this with such hopeless resignation. These characters go nameless, as everyone who Dylan sings about in a negative light goes in this song.  These are individuals on the outside of Desolation Row, which again, can be confusing to the novice listener.  What’s the twist?  The first hint is at the very end of that first stanza, when Dylan sings “As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row”.  Here is where the insider perspective kicks in.  And it carries on with Cinderella in the 2nd stanza, and the hunchback of Notre Dame and Good Samaritan in the 3rd stanza, and Einstein in the 5th, and Casanova and the Phantom of the Opera in the 7th and T.S. Eliot in the 9th (Dylan toggles between outsiders and insiders every other stanza).  These are individuals, both real and fictional, who have beared their crosses so to speak.  Who have chosen the truer path.  Who have confronted tyranny by not caving to it; sticking to the ideals of who they are.  These are the individuals on Desolation Row.  Others are peaking in (Ophelia).  The remainder avoid it at all cost, with some (the Fascist types) even trying to prevent people from getting there. 

I’m a good way into Clinton Heylin’s voluminous Bob Dylan biography Behind the Shades Revisited, which is loaded with quotes about the man. One of my favorite quotes thus far is from poet Allan Ginsberg who stated around the time of the release of Highway 61 Revisited in 1966; “Dylan has sold out to God.  That is to say, his command was to spread his beauty as wide as possible.  It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox. And he proved it can”.  I’m guessing Ginsberg had “Desolation Row” in mind when said that.

I too was elevated this week after my cathartic moment of insight. I’ll try to hold on to that burst of wisdom for as long as I can.  I’ll keep this week’s Blueprint in mind when I see someone do something extraordinary, or utter kind words, or stick to their virtuous ideals rather than cave to weaker, easier choices.  And I’ll try to keep it in mind if I see someone beaten down and weathered.  Perhaps that someone “was famous long ago”, and now they are simply gazing out at me ….from Desolation Row.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Master Blueprints # 35: "Sitting with a Girl Named Nancy in a Garden Feelin’ Kinda Lazy”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Handy Dandy”
Album: Under the Red Sky
Release Date: September 1990

Life and lyrics have converged often in these Music and Memory writeups, but rarely in the way that they did this past week. I’d been listening to Bob Dylan’s 27th studio album, Under the Red Sky searching for inspiration in the music and words, as I always do.  The album, which is dedicated to Dylan’s then four-year-old daughter, “Gabby Goo Goo” (Desiree Gabrielle Dylan), is chockfull of nursery-rhyme-like lyrics, which is all fine and ‘dandy’, particularly seeing as this theme would ultimately lead to my talking points this week.  However, I initially ran into detours (hence the lengthy gap between entries) which can be attributed to the strong likelihood that Under the Red Sky will not go down in history as anywhere near one of Bob Dylan’s best efforts.  Relatively speaking, it’s a somewhat disjointed product, lacking cohesion.  You get the sense that if just a little more attention was given to one aspect or another, that a much clearer artistic statement would have emerged.  And so, early on I was struggling to make the type of connection that I needed to make to write something related to it that was compelling.

But as with virtually all of Bob Dylan’s projects, there’s an aura to Under the Red Sky that inevitably peaks your curiosity and draws you in.  In this case, that process started for me when I picked up on occasional bizarre lyrics sprinkled in among much more standard fare (for nursery rhymes). Soon those lyrics were jumping out at me left and right, including “Wiggle till you vomit fire” in the opening track “Wiggle Wiggle” (which was universally slammed by critics upon release); as well as “One day the man in the moon went home and the river went dry” in the impressive title track; and finally “Handy dandy, if every bone in his body were broken he would never admit it in this week’s Master Blueprint “Handy Dandy” ( ) .  A persuasive viewpoint was settling in my mind that one should never think that a nursery rhyme needs to be sugarcoated.  After making these inroads, I persisted, and soon enough the wheels began to churn as my own childhood wonderments seeped in. 

Typically, I will pull my talking points together for a blog entry as I listen to the music in my car or in my mind’s eye while jogging or hiking.  This time, however, my most inspiring moments came literally in my own backyard.  Why didn’t I optimize on this locale before?  Ok, let me explain: There’s a Zen-like location in my backyard that is like no other place for me.  It’s by our fish/frog pond (complete with waterfall), which I built about 14 years ago.  In that spot I can sit and zorb out for hours on end, without a need for reading material or company.  I just glance around and take in my surroundings. 

The pond itself is the most tranquil element of this pastoral backyard world, replete with koi and goldfish, as well as green frogs, who make their way to this oasis from nearby wetlands every year (this year, at least 8 have settled in around the edges).  An abundance of wildflowers has thrived in and around the pond too, including burweed; a type of wetland reed grass that daughter Charlotte transplanted from a local stream not long after the pond was built.  And mayapple, which in May springs up from the ground, mimicking a cluster of Lilliputian palm trees. 

The original intent of designing the pond was not so much for koi as it was to have a place where Charlotte, as well as my son Peter and their friends could deposit creatures that were collected from nearby streams, including dragonfly nymphs and mayfly nymphs, as well as mussels, crayfish, catfish, slugs, and I’m sure a handful of other creatures that are slipping my mind.  As the kids have grown older, this activity has faded, but just the sight of the pond brings back those memories for all of us.  And just this spring, as I was cleaning out the pond of debris after a tough winter, I spotted a hellgrammite (a dobsonfly nymph) which is the sign of a healthy, balanced biome, and a sign that perhaps some of those transplanted creatures decided their once new home was a perfect place for decedents. 

The pond is about 40 feet from the back door.  To connect the two, I came up with a patio design in the shape of a river network, which has the effect (for me anyway) of the waterfall pouring into that real pond, then ‘continuing’ onto the patio which ‘flows’ as flagstone from a small pond shape to a river shape to a large pond shape to the back door.  In the middle of the backyard, just beyond the patio is a firepit, which we also built; a cast iron ring within a brick ring… the latter separating the blaze from the crowd.  Stately oaks and maples, as well as white and red pine, crown much of this, and tucked within them is another memory for the kids; a treehouse, which was the first thing I built in the yard, and which amazingly remains standing.  It’s one of my proudest achievements in terms of the use of my hands to build something, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyhow, I’m sitting in this home-haven-location earlier in the week, this time with my wife Nancy, enjoying a peaceful end to a long day when the lyrics to (arguably) the best song on Under the Red Sky, “Handy Dandy” popped into my head.  Those lyrics are in the title of this entry, but I’ll repeat here for the sheer enjoyment of doing so: “Sitting with a girl named Nancy in a garden feelin’ kinda lazy”.  It was fleeting at first, this synergistic thought, but it did not take long for a domino effect to kick in.  I went back to the song and started listening with more intent.  “Handy Dandy” has been dissected by several very insightful souls on the web ( ).  They see lines of lyrics that reference the Sermon on the Mount, and lines that are confessional, among other factoids.  I’m not going to attempt to add to those discussion points here.  What I will hone in on, however is the fairytale element, because, first off, this appears to be the central concept of the album, and secondly, the fairytale angle is at the core of why I got that lightbulb moment in my backyard.

This summer has been an unusually active one for wildlife in our backyard.  Along with the fish, frogs, and hellgrammites, a bear loped through in the late spring (in turn, having to contend with the no-win predicament of a stare-down with Nancy).  Both red shouldered hawks and barred owls have decided to call the forest immediately behind and adjacent to our home…their home as well.  The call of the pileated woodpecker has echoed around us and we occasionally spot them darting between the trees like an alien spaceship.  There have been voles, moles, shrews, and flying squirrels, along with bats, opossum and deer. There have been dragonflies and butterflies by the dozens, as well as katydid, cicada, treefrogs, garter snakes, and a woodchuck the size of a racoon (not good for the garden).  And of course, there have been a broad range of birds in both variety and abundance: Hummingbirds, jays, cardinals, goldfinch, doves, robins, chickadees, nuthatch, titmice, oriole, flicker, bunting, waxwing, wren, and kingbirds to name a few.  Chipmunks scurry about at my feet.  Red and Grey Squirrels challenge me to a staring match. 

Yes, this backyard summer has had its share of moments where I’ve felt an affiliation with Dr. Doolittle, St. Anthony, and…. the Scroobius Pip. 

The Scroobius Pip?  What manner of beast is this?  I’m glad you ask.  The Scroobius Pip is a character from an Edward Lear poem of the same name that may have had the greatest effect on me as a child when it comes to nursery rhymes.  In the poem, the Scroobius Pip is the Pied Piper of the entire animal world ( ).  He’s a bizarre looking chimera-of-a-dude who gains the fascination of all the earth’s creatures through imitation.  He does this by inheriting the best body part of each of them (much like a platypus).  The poem starts “The Scroobiusb Pip went out one day, when the grass was green, and the sky was grey”.  When the animals ask if he’s bird, beast, fish, or insect, he answers in riddle and rhyme: “Chippetty Flip; Flippety Chip; My only name is the Scroobius Pip”. 

When I was a boy I loved the wild world of animals, from okapi, to tapir, to aardvark, to platypus, and was for the most part very serious about this passion.  The Scroobius Pip was one way to add a little bizarre fun and imagination to the mix.  It’s an important piece of the pie for any child who gets in deep with any subject matter, be it dinosaurs, cars, dolls, whatever.  And the more edge there is to that piece of the pie, the better.  That edge can be witty, bizarre, scary, even a little dark.  Without it, children’s stories – heck all stories for that matter – can ring hollow.

Bob Dylan of course, understands this.  In fact, I’d go much further and say that he’s done a helluva of an amazing job bringing that angle back into all his songs, particularly those that played out on his fantastic series of albums that followed Under the Red Sky. Perhaps this album was a pivot; an attempt to bring back some of his old self.  I hear all sorts of old and new Dylan on Under the Red Sky now. I hear “Quinn the Eskimo”, “Senor”, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, “Tweedledee and Tweedledum”, “Jokerman” and “Tempest”.  As with all those brilliant tunes (several of which I have written about already), Dylan adds a human touch to songs on Under the Red Sky, most notably “Handy Dandy”. Case in point, his stuttering of the line “Boy you’re t-talkin’ crazy”.  It’s intentional (he does the same thing on alternate takes that he does on the studio version).  It’s fun.  Indeed, it’s almost childlike in its delivery.

Back to my back yard.  I suppose I’ve created an adult fantasy world; a carryover of my childhood.  It’s where I allow my younger self to take over, assisted by a flurry of wildlife this year, large and small, winged and slithering, climbing and tunneling, swimming and hopping, chirping and hooting.  The Scroobius Pip would feel comfortable in such a locale.  So too, I think, would Bob Dylan.

Riddle Me This!