Thursday, March 22, 2018

Master Blueprints # 11: “Some Trains Don’t Pull No Gamblers, No Midnight Ramblers Like They Did Before”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”
Album: Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September, 1997

A book review of Richard Knights 2001 travel and music guide The Blues Highway: New Orleans to Chicago reads:

“The Blues Highway is a classic road trip through the cradle of musical innovation in America. This definitive travel and music guide follows Highway 61 and the Mississippi River to explore the roots of jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, country, gospel, soul, and rock & roll music. Trace the story from Congo Square in New Orleans to down-home Delta blues joints then on to Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Davenport, and eventually to Chicago

Knight’s travel book takes you south to north, which is the direction the blues spread.  But you can also go downstream in the opposite direction, which I believe is the route Bob Dylan went when he was writing music for his great comeback album Time Out of Mind.  I’ll get to that soon enough.  First I’d like to share a similar experience I had only a few years prior to the release of that album (if you want to cut to the Dylan angle however, you can leap forward 9 paragraphs).

Back in the early 90s I had one of the most interesting work trips of my career (and I’ve had a number of them, including the one through Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota several weeks ago – see Master Blueprints # 9 and 10).  The final destination was Mobile, Alabama (from my home base in Boston), which in and of itself was a bluesy experience; my own version of “stuck inside of Mobile”.  But the journey to-and-fro proved just as interesting.  It included an unplanned snow-bound night in Chicago and a return-night stay in New Orleans, both of which involved great blues music.  It also included an extra leg to San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, but that’s another story.

A month or so before the Mobile conference, I got wind of an inner-agency policy whereby if you could prove in a cost-compare report that a modified itinerary was less expensive than a direct trip, then headquarters would accept it as part of your travel authorization. Boston to Mobile and back was a pretty steep fare at the time due to Mobile being a small airport that required two connecting flights.  But Boston to New Orleans – a 3 hour drive from Mobile - was much cheaper; to such an extent that an added leg to San Antonio could easily fit under the cost bar (which was the intention, as I wanted to meet up with my wife who was flying there directly from Boston to connect with her extended family).  The cost compare was approved.

I had no problem with the notion of landing in the Big Easy and driving the ~ 150 miles east and back.  I’d only been there once before a few years earlier, and I loved it.  I also liked the idea of travelling along the Gulf Coast; from New Orleans, over Lake Pontchartrain and then down to coastal route 90 thru Gulfport and Biloxi and finally Mobile.  This was all part of my plan, but the stranding in Chicago was not. 

The Friday before my travels, which were supposed to commence on Sunday, I picked up on a weather report calling for a large snowstorm moving into the Boston area from the west.  It did not look good for my flight out and my admin officer agreed, so we moved my flight up to Saturday (a number of colleagues in the northeast ended up missing the conference due to Sunday flight cancellations).  I got out of Boston early that morning and landed in Chicago fine enough.  Only problem was, the same storm that was heading to Boston was already dumping on Chicago.  I was hoping it was early enough to get in and out.  Check for getting in.  Not so for getting out, as not long after landing, all flights in and out of Chicago were cancelled for the day.  I was screwed. 

Or was I?

I suddenly recalled that my best buddy, Mac was in Chicago for the week on business.  I had no clue where he was staying, but this minor inconvenience was not going to stop me. I tracked a pay phone (these were the days before cell phones, which can still matter little for me, but that’s yet another story) and reached out to his family back home.  His Dad answered the phone and gave me the Michigan Ave address of Mac’s hotel.  I took the subway into the heart of the city and made my way to Mac’s swanky lodging.  The registration desk informed me he was out, and so there was nothing I could do but wait in the lobby.  Within an hour, Mac came walking in to the hotel.  He looked up, and saw me sitting there.  I said “hey Mac, we are wasting time.  Let’s paint this town red!”  For once in his life the man was temporarily speechless.  

Mac and I are music buddies, having attended countless shows together, so there was no question how the night was going to play out.  Venue after venue was a musical joy ride of Chicago blues.  The last place we wandered into, around 2 am, was as old and bluesy of an establishment as Chicago can offer.  I recall a very large female singer belting out song after song, cutting straight to my soul.  My night was complete.

Next morning I got up and out to a very early flight after about 2 hours of sleep.  The trip down to New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast lined up wonderfully with my prior envisioning.  I did a lot of reflecting, as one is prone to do when travelling alone.  The week in Mobile was not so predictable though.  The downtown hotel location was pretty run down.  For a short time, Mobile had been known as a Navy-base hotspot.  Only problem was the Navy had pulled out a few years earlier and left a night-life support network behind to fend for itself.  I can usually handle tough crowds, but this was not a good scene.  After dodging a beer bottle thrown at my head from a car on my way back to the hotel the first night (while roaming the streets) I decided it would be a good idea to avoid the immediate neighborhood for the remainder of the week (several colleagues would later have items stolen from their rooms during the conference).

I did catch some great music at a couple of classic rural venues that week though.  And I learned something in the process.  Several of the bands I enjoyed were from New Orleans, but were struggling to make inroads there and so had to make the trek to Mobile to get a concert residency.  Again, these bands were very good and New Orleans is loaded with music venues, so how could such great music be denied?  I put two and two together:  If you are ready and willing, you could spend a lifetime in New Orleans and enjoy an endless parade of great music by jumping from venue to venue (and the occasional parade).  There’s nowhere like it in the world.  I did just that, if only for one nite, when I drove back to New Orleans on Friday to catch a Saturday morning flight to San Antonio (I would get a solid week in many years later, witnessing at least 40 bands in a 6-nite span).

Ok, enough about me.  Here’s Bob Dylan’s part of the saga:

One of the most pleasant surprises in Bob Dylan’s entire body of work came in 1997 when he released the phenomenal Time Out of Mind (even more amazing - this record would ultimately prove to be just the tip of the iceberg for Dylan in terms of a latter-day career resurgence).  The album’s title is telling.  They say time heals all wounds, but what Bob Dylan was seemingly attempting to do here was to reverse the process and open some of his old wounds back up.  In other words, in order to get his creative juices flowing again, it appears Dylan felt that he needed to get time out of the equation… get it ‘out of mind’.  And oh mercy, did he ever succeed. 

Time Out of Mind is a heavy, introspective record about heartache.  At times when I listen it can make 1975’s Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan’s most-oft-critically-acclaimed album, which is renowned for this topic of heartache - sound like a stroll in the park.  Indeed, with lines like “When you think that you’ve lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more” (from “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”) and “Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there” (from “Not Dark Yet”), and the metaphorical “I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound” (from “Cold Irons Bound”), along with countless other lyrics, one can conclude pretty quickly that Time Out of Mind is not for the faint of heart.  But when it comes to high-quality artistic expression, even when the genre focus is on war, or holocaust, or environmental destruction, or in the case of Time Out of Mind, emotional anguish, anyone who seeks the truth can get drawn in.  

Over the years, I have dug deep into Time Out of Mind… least as deep as I have dug into any other album.  And through this immersion, I’ve tapped into what I think is a loose thread that manages to tie the individual songs together; the notion of Bob Dylan making his way south, down the Blues Highway (a Highway 61 re-revisit of sorts) and the Mississippi River, from his home state of Minnesota (again, see last 2 entries) and Chicago, Illinois, all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  He’s making this journey alone, on a quest to strip away the layers of emotional neutering that have built up over time: To reconnect to his soul, which includes a broken heart.  Through this honest (one might even say artistically sacrificial) expression of heartache we the listeners get to hear something that is tangible and exquisite. 

There’s a state of constant movement on this album.  Bob Dylan is either ‘walking’ or ‘going down that dirt road’ or ‘trying to get closer’, as if being on the move will get him to somewhere or something.  Back to the specific geography of the album, however, Dylan is moving his way down the “Blues Highway”.  To help prove my point and maybe initiate some discussion, I’ve extracted a few key lyrics from songs on the latter half of the album (but not the first half, because, although the general theme of heartache hits you from the get go with the opening lines to track # 1, “Love Sick”, the geographic thread does not kick in until track # 5, this week’s Master Blueprint focus song, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”):

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (track # 5: ), Bob Dylan is making his way south.  Three of the verses make this clear:  1) “The air is getting hotter, there’s a rumbling in the sky. I’ve been wading through the high muddy water. With the heat rising in my eyes” and 2)When I was in Missouri they would not let me be. I had to leave there in a hurry. I only saw what they let me see” and the most revealing verse 3) “I’m going down the river. Down to New Orleans. They tell me everything is going to be alright. But I don’t know what alright even means”.  Side Note: This is my daughters’ favorite Bob Dylan song.

“Til’ I Fell in Love with You” (track # 6): “Tomorrow night before the sun goes down, 
if I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound

“Not Dark Yet” (track # 7), Bob Dylan finally makes it to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  Three verses work here: 1) “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day. It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away” and 2) “I followed the river and I got to the seaand 3) “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from” (which reflects a journey).  A bit more mysterious, but I believe related to Dylan’s strong connection with America’s heartland: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will”.  Note: The 2 songs that fit most tightly together in this journey are “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet”.

“Cold Irons Bound” (track # 8) includes “Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds”.  I realize this is a bit of a stretch, but Bob Dylan does like to throw curveballs.  My thinking is he’s reflecting back to the beginning of his journey, when he was walking through the “streets that are dead” (“Love Sick”)

“Can’t Wait” (track # 10) includes the line “the air burns” (New Orleans of course: I remember that feeling the first time I ever stepped off a plane there)

The biggest Dylan curveball is the closing number “Highlands”.  A good chunk of the lyrics to this 16 minute musical ballad takes place in “Boston Town”.  The song also repeats on a yearning to be in the high prairies.  But, my goodness, it fits!  I just can’t explain why at the moment, other than to say I love how it flows with the cut before it, “Can’t Wait”.  The two songs seem to complement each other.  Anyhow, I’ll be needing to do an entirely separate blog entry for this one. 

Finally lest not forget that “Mississippi” was originally meant for Time Out of Mind (it makes its appearance on Bob Dylan’s next release “Love and Theft”).  This song too could have been a great closer here (for more on “Mississippi” see Master Blueprints # 2).  And it would have made a bit more sense with the journey angle for sure.

My geographic and musical “Blues Highway” journey from the northern part of America’s heartland to the south 25 years ago probably had something to do with my connecting the dots a few years later - when first listening to Time Out of Mind - in relation to Bob Dylan’s odyssey.  Last week I was talking to a colleague, Marie-Eve, who likes to travel on her own, and she told me a journey is only a journey if it’s not guided.  She was somewhat lamenting a trip she had taken a few years earlier to sub-Saharan Africa, where her travels were restricted (even though she did love the safaris).  I get what she meant.  When you are on a journey it opens your mind up to all sorts of free thought that is not as possible when in a controlled environment. Another way of putting Marie-Eve’s lament was how Bob Dylan put it in “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:  some trains don’t pull no gamblers, no midnight ramblers like they did before”. 

I took a journey to Chicago and New Orleans many moons ago.  Bob Dylan likely did the same.  If so, the man was around 56 years old at the time, which is very promising for all those of my generation who wonder if they have anything left in the tank in terms of ingenuity.  All I can say to this end is keep that spirit alive my friends!  The proof is out there that it can be done.  Get out there, and take that journey. 

You may find yourself amazed how it all plays out.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Master Blueprints # 10: “If you’re Travelin’ in the North Country Fair, Where the Winds Hit Heavy on the Borderline”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Girl from the North Country”
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Release Date: May, 1963

We all have circles of support in our lives: Family, friends and acquaintances who have your back through the good times and the bad.  These are the folks you never have to worry about, be they near or far, in conversation with you or with others.  Your strengths are emphasized by them.  Your weaknesses are understood, massaged, maybe even prayed for by them, but never are you at risk of being forsaken.  And if necessary, your privacy is secure with them. 

For a genuine person who has strong character, those circle are typically abundant with human satellites, be they near and dear inner orbits, loosely connected outer orbits, or anywhere in between.  Most of us know a genuine soul when we meet one.  Naturally we gravitate to such individuals. And if we are lucky enough, or have that gravitational pull ourselves, a bond of some sort is formed.  In these circumstances, keeping that bond alive then becomes a priority.  A trust soon settles in, often remaining unspoken. After all, those with strong character are very likely to have an equally strong sense of trust, so stating as such is unnecessary. 

As someone makes a name for himself, be it in work circles or more out there in the public eye, and does so with integrity, that circle of support can actually expand to include faces who may remain little known, maybe even unknown and unseen. Word of mouth gets around related to your deeds and accomplishments. I’ve personally witnessed this with a handful of well-respected colleagues.  Brilliance, selflessness and a willingness to help others has a domino effect for these individuals: Their reputation frequently precedes them.  That’s how the outermost satellites form in their realm of influence: The Pluto’s of their personal solar system.

Anyone who tunes into Bob Dylan even just a bit can pretty quickly surmise a deep admiration for him from those within his circles.  This admiration comes from all his satellites near and far: The Mercury’s the Jupiter’s, the Pluto’s and beyond.  And what becomes more evident and more impressive as you read up on Dylan is just how much these circles have his back (which I’m sure is strongly correlated to the fact that he has theirs).  He’s the one famous person who I have rarely if ever heard any dirt on, which I find wonderfully extraordinary.  Perhaps there is none.  But if there is, no one’s sayin’.

I had the tremendous opportunity this week to meet someone who is well entrenched in Bob Dylan’s personal solar system, with a related history all her own.  Her name is Linda Stroback, and she lives in Dylan’s original hometown of Hibbing Minnesota (for background on this great-north-woods region of the country, please see my last blog entry).  For 30 years, Linda and her husband Bob Hocking were the owners of a classy one-of-a-kind restaurant in Hibbing called Zimmy’s, which was THE most important place to visit for anyone making a pilgrimage to the town of Bob Dylan’s upbringing.  They were also principle figures in organizing “Dylan Days”, a yearly hootenanny of sorts that is currently in a suspended state of animation/flux as events potentially dovetail with those in Dylan’s birth town of Duluth.

Knowing I’d be heading through Hibbing this week on a journey to a work meeting in the far northern Canadian-border town of International Falls, Minnesota (a 3 hour drive north from my airline arrival point in Duluth), I reached out to Linda after connecting a few dots via the internet, one of which was a 2016 Minnesota Public Radio article “Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing struggles with how to honor its most famous son”, which included an interview with Linda.  She was most gracious to follow up soon thereafter and after several back and forth messages, which included my pointing Linda to this blog series and she inviting me for a visit on my way through town, we got on the phone. 

Our nearly one hour long discussion on that call was chalk full of anecdotes and of course our common love for the music of Bob Dylan.  I could sense from Linda a deep respect for the man, but this was a respect that came from a position of strength.  There was zero sense of kowtowing here.  I was talking to someone who had made her own mark on the world.  On the flip side, there was no hardness emanating through that phone line either.  Despite having been through quite a bit the previous few years with the closing of Zimmy’s and the shifting sands related to Dylan Days and how to celebrate Bob Dylan in the region, all I got from talking with Linda was a sense of tenderness and compassion that focused on the good. 

I was now getting very excited about my visit to Hibbing. 

What lead me to reaching out to Linda in the first place was that the town itself does not currently have much to offer the Bob Dylan enthusiast.  Go figure!  This will change one day I am certain, but for now, there is nothing but a few bread crumbs coming out of Hibbing’s Chamber of Commerce.  After thinking more about this, however, it does make some sense; this lack of embracing.  Bob Dylan has diverted people from his hometown all his life.  When reporters would ask him where he was from in his early days of success, he would either fabricate a location (Missouri and Colorado come to mind) or say he was brought up in a travelling circus, or something else equally outrageous.  This was primarily done to protect his loved ones from the searing eyes of the outside world as his popularity grew and grew, which goes back to my earlier point on Dylan having their backs. 

Linda Stroback is 20 years Bob Dylan’s junior, and so obviously was not around for his upbringing. But she had gained trust with Dylan’s local circles over the years, including his original band mates, the “Golden Chords”, his Mom, and his first “true love”, Echo Helstrom.  Linda did this by honoring that orbital Dylan code of conduct, which appears to have come natural to her, and which I sensed the moment I took a peak into one of “Zimmy’s” windows several weeks after it closed its doors back in 2014 (my only other time through this region….again, see my last entry).  Living in Bob Dylan’s shadows, Linda saw and seized an opportunity while at the same time tapping into a special balancing gift she has of honoring the man in a classy way, while maintaining a respectful distance (I could even say by maintaining a respectful distance, because that’s really what it takes to do such a thing).

After welcoming me into her home, Linda Stroback introduced me to a close friend of hers, Linda Whiteside, who turned out to be a bird of a feather, having amazingly similar interests in Bob Dylan’s music and other aspects of his resume, however obscure, including:

  1. Our common fascination in his Theme Time Radio Hour series
  2. A handful of deep cuts in his discography
  3. A passage in Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Volume One regarding a conversation he had with an elderly caretaker in an old hotel he had lodged for the night south of New Orleans (while recording Oh Mercy)
  4. Dylan’s comment a number of years ago in Rolling Stone related to a ‘transfiguration’ event
  5. How and why Dylan sat on all the great 1969-70 material finally released 3 years ago as Another Self Portrait (the original 1970 Self Portrait was panned for its poor content)
One of the first things I brought up in our conversation was related to having just read (on the plane ride in) a Mavis Staples interview in the recently released edition of Rolling Stone magazine.  Staples is someone Dylan has known and admired since his early performing years in New York and she had just recently backed him on his last tour.  A quote from the last paragraph in the interview, about the last night of the tour, reads “He wanted to say goodbye in person, and we hugged.  I ain’t telling you no more.  Don’t write all of my secrets.  But, yeah – we did a lot of hugging.”  This part of our coffee conversation, along with that prior mentioned phone discussion with Linda - where we delved a bit into respecting Bob Dylan’s privacy - gave me the light-bulb moment I needed for the primary talking points of this blog entry.

The three of us talked over coffee for a good two hours on many other Bob Dylan related topics as well, which could have continued for God knows how long if not for all of us running up against other commitments.  Before parting however, Linda S took us for a brief tour of Hibbing, showing me Echo’s former modest home on the outskirts of town (now in a state of disrepair), and then the home of Bob Dylan’s upbringing, and finally a train crossing where it’s been told by one of his Golden Chord band mates how Dylan was nearly killed by a locomotive on his motorcycle around the age of 16 (this being the first, lesser known such occurrence than his well-documented motorcycle accident in ’66 near Woodstock New York), possibly resulting in a transfiguring “blood on the tracks” life-jarring moment (to be contemplated more deeply at another time).

Perhaps there really is no permanent way that Hibbing can honor Bob Dylan.  Tulsa, Oklahoma has a corner on his archives now.  A Bob Dylan Graceland is not in the cards for Hibbing either.  I think what it will continue to take is for someone else to one day see what Linda and her husband did and run with it again.  I believe that’s the only real angle you can come at his legacy from in Hibbing:  A living, breathing, classy establishment with good people, good music, good food, and good conversation, constantly morphing and evolving…. just the way Bob Dylan would want it.

Prior to leaving her home that amazing afternoon, Linda handed me some memorabilia from a few of the Dylan Days of years gone by, including a postcard with the image of Echo Helstrom on it, most likely Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”, who passed away earlier this year.  Linda also mentioned that she had the remnants to the Zimmy’s welcome sign in her shed, which included a large image of Echo.  I asked if there was a potential for a photo op and she was right on it.  We walked out back and into the shed and when I saw the sign, my first thought was “ahh, so that’s where I’ve seen that face before”, based on the recollection of my visit to Hibbing four years ago. 

My second thought was a bit more poignant though.  I needed a photo of that sign with Linda alone in front of it.  I asked and she obliged (photo below).  The reason?  Well here’s the thing.  “Girl from the North Country” ( ) is a song about Bob Dylan’s love and respect for a woman who held up her end of the bargain all those years ago in Northern Minnesota.  Loosely applied, I believe that mantle was passed years ago to one Ms. Linda Stroback.  She carried the North Country Girl torch as well as anyone could in the public eye for as long as she could. 

Linda Stroback's torch-carrying may not be so public anymore, but I believe she’s still doing so.  There were so many ways how this became evident, capped off with that coffee conversation.  To me Linda is as much a part of the Bob Dylan story as the Golden Chords, or Marvis Staples, or Echo Helstrom.  Maybe even more so.  This, more than anything, was what I got out of my mystical second visit to Hibbing, Minnesota this past week.


Photo: The former and current "Girl from the North Country”

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Master Blueprints # 9: “They Never Did Like Mama’s Homemade Dress, Papas Bankbook Wasn’t Big Enough”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Tangled Up in Blue”
Album: Blood on the Tracks
Release Date: January, 1975

It was precisely four years ago this upcoming week when I made my first and (to date) only foray to the frigid northern outpost town of International Falls, Minnesota for a work meeting.  You can’t go further north without crossing over the Rainy River into the equally far-reaching wilderness of western Ontario, Canada.  This is Lake of the Woods country, where timber wolves and woodland caribou roam.  It’s where I took one of my favorite wildlife photos, that being of a Great grey owl, a bird of the great north woods, and largest owl species on the planet, sitting on a branch by the railroad in the middle of nowhere and refusing to budge as I inched my way closer and closer for a near-perfect snapshot.   

The easiest way to get to International Falls is to fly into Duluth, on the western-most border of Lake Superior, and then drive due north for 3 hours.  The trek takes you through rugged back country and super-sized wetlands, particularly as you get close to the destination.  This is partly because International Falls abuts the vast watery world of Voyageurs National Park, much of which is inaccessible by car.  Yes, this U.S. border town is about as remote as you are going to get in the lower 48, and the feeling of isolation had me sucking in every minute of my visit.

With a small detour on that drive north, you can also check out a musical landmark of sorts:  Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s childhood home.  I did just that on that late winter 2014 work trip, in order to see for myself this, the initial source-locale of Dylan’s creative juices.  I liked Hibbing (even though I’m not sure Bob Dylan would say the same).  It had a classic American feel, including the primary retail street, E Howard, which easily reminds you of the downtown scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life.  I parked my rental car and strolled the icy sidewalks, popping into a few stores, taking in the old-townie feel.

The only sour note on that self-guided tour was when I came upon a restaurant I was looking forward to visiting called “Zimmy’s” which had to my dismay closed shop just days before; a makeshift sign on the front door alluded to a tax burden, making clear this unfortunate fact.  I took a peak through the windows.  There were all sorts of memorabilia visible on the interior walls from that vantage point alone. It looked like a Hard Rock CafĂ©, but dedicated solely to one musician.  Other than Zimmy’s however, which at that moment appeared to me more like a structural apparition than a restaurant, there was very little to give a Bob Dylan fan much of a pilgrimage feel.  Hibbing, a tough blue collar mining town in days gone by, presumably still has a ways to go to accept its place in American history as the childhood home of this iconic, Nobel Prize winner, who at the same time, remains an often-misunderstood figure.

As a longstanding employee of the US Geological Survey who works regularly with all things topographic, Hibbing also happens to connect with me in a significant geographical way as well:  The town sits at the junction of 3 major North American watersheds.  It’s a distinction Hibbing shares with just a few other locations on the continent.  Rain falling on the Southeastern side of town makes its way into small tributary streams that flow south to Lake Superior, then into the other Great Lakes, and eventually over Niagara Falls and up the St. Lawrence River to the North Atlantic Ocean.  On the Northern side of Hibbing, the flow heads north to the Rainy River, then west for a spell to Lake of the Woods, then to Lake Winnipeg and from there due north up the Churchill River to Hudson Bay and the Northwestern passage, which wind its way to the Arctic Ocean.  And finally, on the Southwestern side of town, raindrops will find their way south to the mighty Mississippi River, which in this headwater region of Minnesota, is a mere figment of itself:  Not much more than wetlands connected by rivulets. 

Pretty cool when you think about it:  A musician with such a reverberating effect on American culture, beginning his life’s journey at a geographical crossroads, including the source of the Mississippi, which along with Highway 61, makes its way downstream through such renowned Rock and Blues haunts as St Louis and Memphis and eventually into the deep south of the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans.  That journey down Ol’ Man River and Highway 61 is a story for another time though.  For now, I’d like keep my thoughts focused on the North Star State. 

There’s a specific reason why I bring all this up in this entry:  Next week I’ll be heading back to International Falls for a second - and likely final - work-related trip there.  I am sure to be stopping in Hibbing again on the way north from Duluth (which also has Dylan ties, being his birthplace and closest good-sized city during his upbringing).  This time, the side trek will be a bit different, however, because now I am of course actually writing about Robert ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman – as Bob Dylan was known in Hibbing before changing his name - and the effect that his music has on my memory and my psyche (four years ago my writing was being inspired by the music of Neil Young). 

When not actually working, I’ll be looking for local inspiration for my next blog entry on this coming week’s journey, from the minute I step off the plane to the minute I settle back into the familiar confines of my Pepperell, Massachusetts home.  I’m very much looking forward to it.  Oh, and I’ll be including International Falls in that quest for inspiration too.  After all, from a geographer’s point of view, I can’t think of any place more fitting near Hibbing that fits the Bob Dylan lyric “if you’re travelling in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline” from his early beloved song “Girl From the North Country” (I reserve the right not to commit to that song as next week’s Master Blueprint just yet).

Bob Dylan, not known for his strong ties to his home state, did head back there on at least one fairly well documented visit in late 1974 to re-record 5 songs for what was to become one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Blood on the Tracks.  The story goes that his brother, David, heard the original recordings and convinced big bro Bob to rework a handful of the songs with a local Minneapolis band.  We all get to hear some of those original recordings now on Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, and although they are good, it’s pretty clear that brother Dave was on to something.  Side note: Hardly known in Dylan circles as an RFK to his brother’s JFK, Dave Dylan is a nice additionally-unique piece of storyline on the history of Blood on the Tracks.

After quite a lengthy period since Bob Dylan had last released a truly classic beginning-to-ending album (I personally would go back to 67’s John Wesley Harding), how and why did Blood on the Tracks work out so well? Sure, there’s something to be said for the spontaneity of enlisting a solid, no-frills local band to back him for those Minnesota re-recordings.  And of course Dylan’s then rocky marriage contributed to his emotional edge too.  However, my thinking is that Bob Dylan was at least equally inspired with his surroundings after being summoned back to his home state.  Similar to the ’67 Basement Tapes ‘Big Pink’ recordings with The Band in the Catskills of New York (I’ll be getting to that one in the weeks ahead), I believe the location of those final 5 cuts for Blood on the Tracks had quite a bit to do with taking what was a solid product already, and turning it into an all-time rock and roll gem. 

I’d like to think we all have a childhood hometown somewhere out there, be it literal or figurative; a place where we can reflect, and hopefully get inspiration from on a return visit.  Like any source of inspiration, one can’t tap into that well too frequently or they’ll lose it.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and seizing the moment with an occasional revisit to the home of your formative years certainly ranks right up there.  It’s all about finding that right mood.  And however that mood was drawn out of Bob Dylan for Blood on the Tracks, be it connecting with old friends and family, walking through intimate woods or neighborhoods, visiting where he may have “worked as a cook for a spell”, or strolling  along a set of familiar train tracks (be they bloody or otherwise), we get to hear the mood that was meant to be for Blood on the Tracks, an album which captures the essence of a deep thinking man in his mid-30’s, baring his soul, which was at the time in a state of turmoil.

Of the 5 tracks that Bob Dylan re-recorded in Minneapolis, one was to prove to be among his greatest songs, “Tangled Up in Blue” ( ).  Even those who do not have an ear for Dylan have shown an affinity for this masterwork.  “Tangled Up in Blue” is a song with a universally emotional appeal.  You can hear that appeal in the lyrics, in the vocals, and in the music itself.   The song is all over the place in terms of reflections, but that’s part of what makes it so captivating.  It’s as if the flood gates of bittersweet memory opened wide in Bob Dylan’s mind, overflowing in this song.  We the listeners can only hang on tight as the images fly on past.  When I listen it has me thinking, how did he do that?  And yet, even more uncannily, it’s the mood heard on the record that I believe had to be even more difficult to capture than the barrage of lyrical memory and imagery. 

Perhaps I’m overdue for my own reconnect to some of the intricacies that made my upbringing in my hometown of Franklin, Massachusetts so vibrant and alive (which I believe now more than ever).  Yes, maybe it’s time to take a stroll down my own magical set of train tracks, to see if I can recapture some lost parts of me, while at the same time, reach out when those images go flying by, to capture that elusive mood, and then hold on tight.

And so it goes, Duluth, Hibbing, and International Falls for now, and Franklin not far behind.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Master Blueprints # 8: “It Was Raining From the First and I Was Dying There of Thirst, So I Came in Here”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Just Like a Woman”
Album: Blonde on Blonde
Release Date: June, 1966

Note:  This is the 2 of 2 conclusion of the last write up (Master Blueprint # 7).  If you have not read the introduction to that entry, read it first before reading on here, otherwise a full connection with this entry will escape you ( ).

Carrying on now with my top 10 covers of the Bob Dylan The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden, New York City, October 16, 1992. # 10 up to # 6 were reviewed in that 1 of 2 link above.  Here I tackle the top 5, working my way up to # 1:

# 5. “Mr. Tambourine Man” sung by Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, and the Heartbreakers ( ) .  I think I’ll simply paraphrase here on a paragraph from my Master Blueprints # 1 entry ( ), which was written with this song in mind: 

“I recall as I listened to it thinking at the time that Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty both had in mind Dylan himself as they sang the lyrics.  Near the end of the magical rendition of this song, Tom Petty catches McGuinn’s eye and offers a knowing wink.  At that moment, I felt a kinship with these musicians.  A common sense of wonder in relation to the man they were honoring, not only through a song written by him, but now being interpreted as also being about him”.

Not much more needs to be said other than to suggest reading that fist Master Blueprint entry, inspired by the beauty that is “Mr. Tambourine Man”. 

Ok, no more pushing folks off to other entries. 

#4. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, sung by Kris Kristofferson ( ).  I’ve rarely seen a performer so elated singing as Kris Kristofferson is here.  Other musicians on the stage included Willie Nelson (who did an admirable job just prior with “What Was It You Wanted”) and Don Was on bass, who had produced Bob Dylan’s then-most recent studio album Under the Red Sky (I once read a review of those sessions where one of the musicianS who was there was reflecting on Don Was’ fascination in finally having a change to work with Bob Dylan, at one time asking him “So, Bob, did you ever wonder, y’know: ‘Why me?’”, and getting no reply).

A quick listen and one could easily conclude that “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a simple love song.  But nothing is simple with Bob Dylan.  Years ago I interpreted this song as being from the perspective of an infant, singing to a parent (hmmm….I’ll add a grandparent to that short list).  Others have concluded this too, because subsequently I read a gratifying Dylan reply to an interviewer, stating that he supposed it could be construed that way (that’s about as good as you are going to get from him). 

So I’m going to run with that, as I am sure this angle was on Kristofferson’s mind too.  His elation is the pure joy emanating from the memory and perspective of a man blessed to have been a father, as I believe Kristofferson (and of course Bob Dylan) was.  Picture a young Dad, any young Dad, seemingly after a weary, long day at work.  I mean, my goodness, from that perspective there is just no beating the line “Kick your shoes off. Do not fear.  Bring that bottle over here. I’ll be your baby tonight”… bottle that is.

Yes, it’s no wonder Kris Kristofferson was on such a high.  If you leave a song up for interpretation, as Bob Dylan always does, it must be so much fun to figure it out for yourself, and then go out and perform it, knowing you’ve got the inside scoop.

# 3. “License to Kill”, sung by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ( ).  You’d think there would be nothing that could top Kristofferson’s performance, but in my opinion there were three such instances.  # 3 on the list is this (see link above) killer rendition of “License to Kill” covered by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a song about the misinformation that can fill a man’s mind, and a woman’s lament to be unable to do anything about it.  It’s a brave and insightful song for a man to write, and should put no doubt in any equal-rights-minded woman that Bob Dylan has their back (including the Boston waitress who confronts Dylan in an incredibly summarized exchange, which can be heard on the song/novella that is “Highlands” off of Time Out of Mind).  One could also easily envision the “woman” in the song to be any peacemaker, giving “License to Kill” some affiliation with “Watching the River Flow”, which was the focus-song for Master Blueprints # 6.

Anyhow, after a warm greeting to the crowd, Tom Petty’s smile turns into something completely different, which stays with him for the entirety of his intense performance. Mike Campbell adds a brilliant lead guitar during the instrumental bridge near the end. The lyrics are poignant and, in comparison to many of Bob Dylan’s songs, relatively easy to interpret.  With that said, if you have never heard this number off of Infidels (or even if you have) give it a listen:  “License to Kill” is always worthy of further contemplation. 

# 2. “Seven Days”, sung by Ronnie Wood ( ).  First off, I love that Ronnie Wood got his own slot at the Dylan 30th; he and Ringo Starr, often there for the party at these mega rock events over the years, but consigned to only getting on stage for the end-of-show jam fests (think The Last Waltz).  Not so here, Ronnie Wood delivering the goods in this gem of a rarity, which he covered on his 1979 album Gimme Some Neck (there are perks to being a beer connoisseur buddy with Bob Dylan).  Recently I’ve been reading this song as being about a son’s reunion with his long lost mother. 

Oh, and did I say jam?  Yeah, well, I’ve rarely enjoyed one as much as the magnificently drawn-out instrumental bridge that plays out here.  Ronnie Wood comes across as a well-versed conductor, spontaneous to boot, pointing to various members of the Booker T and the MGs band to take lead during the jam.  At one moment, at the 2:55 mark of the link above, Wood appears so zoned in as he backs away from Booker T, that I can’t help but think he’s as close to vaporizing into a big ball of music as anyone who has ever played in a band.  G.E. Smith, the normal conductor for much of the evening, adapts masterfully on the fly, working closely with the rhythm section (check out G.E. when Ronnie calls out Booker T to take the 2nd lead transition during the jam).  The fourth and final lead (back to Ronnie Wood) is a classic moment too, with Steve Cropper aping Wood’s chords 2 seconds behind, like only a seasoned professional could. 

My number 2 and number 1 choices were performed back to back that magical evening; a solid one-two punch.  Number 1 you ask? …….

# 1. “Just Like a Woman”, sung by Richie Havens ( ).  My sister Amy is in the know on this one; the most transcendent moment in the concert as far as I am concerned.  This Richie Havens’ performance of “Just Like a Woman” swung wide open for me the door to connecting with the depth of the beauty in this song, and is that not the intention of any musician, whether singing their own song or someone else’s?  To blow away the crowd, not just with the musical element, but with the narrative and reflective one too?  It all adds up to a strong emotional bond when the stars align. 

When a casual listener thinks of Bob Dylan I believe they relate to him mostly as a folk singer, or a protest singer, or going electric, or his faith journey, or contributing to the weaving of the American narrative.  One normally does not associate him with love songs.  But when you dive into Dylan’s music, you realize that love - and love loss - are the most prominent sources for his creative inspirations.  In turn, when you have someone with the prolific abilities of a Bob Dylan who is willing to open up in this way, you can make some pretty profound connections to your own life experience in relation to this the sweetest – and most painful - of all feelings. 

“Just Like a Woman” comes across to me as a two part account of a relationship achingly nearing its end.  The first 2 verses focus on the woman and her delicate state of mind at the time of the break up.  As I listened to Richie Havens cover this week, I thought of the Counting Crows song “Round Here”, which I now believe was at least partly inspired by “Just Like a Woman”  (heck, on the same album - the solid and well balanced August and Everything After – the Counting Crows even mention Bob Dylan in the lyrics to “Mr. Jones“).  The second two verses, from the man’s view, are even more painful.  There’s not a wasted word in these lyrics, each line making clearer that the songwriter is dealing with heavy heartache.  But at the same time, there is a tenderness and a universality that underlies the entire song, lifting it from the ashes. 

I am grateful to have attended a Richie Havens concert, and one of the big take home messages I got from that show was the buildup.  Havens was slow out of the gate in terms of enthusiasm when Nancy and I saw him, but he knew how to work a crowd, and before long we were all caught up the aura of his musical tapestry.  By the end the entire crowd was enraptured.  The amazing thing about Richie Havens’ performance at the Dylan 30th was that he took that skill for building up a concert and condensed it into one song.  Watch that buildup play out in the link.  It’s more than talent.  It’s genuine empathy.

Well, that’s my Bob Dylan The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration top 10 list.  Honorable mentions include George Thorogood singing “Wanted Man” (what a surprise that was, and it didn’t even make the cd release), The Band singing “When I  Paint My Masterpiece”, and Neil Young’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”.