Monday, July 16, 2018

Master Blueprints # 27: “I Was Born Here and I’ll Die Here Against My Will, I Know It Looks Like I’m Movin’, but I’m Standing Still”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Not Dark Yet”
Album: Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September 1997

Let’s see now, how can I follow up on last week’s rosy, domestic-bliss-centric entry.  Ah, I know.  I’ll discuss death. 

All in all, this is my 277th blog write up (each and every one of them available here on Music and Memory) and to date I’ve not shied away from a topic when it’s subconsciously speaking persistently to me.  So why start now?  After all, “Not Dark Yet”- a song that addresses the subject of death - has been whispering in my ear since I started this Master Blueprints series ( ).  It’s a difficult song to take in for anyone who turns to music as a pick-me-up or for solace, because this is a heavy, forlorn tune, which at its core is a check on one’s own mortality.  Yet despite the fading of the light expressed in the refrain and elsewhere in the lyrics, “Not Dark Yet” does include, if not upbeat, then certainly rallying lyrics of being willing to tough things out (for example, see the title of this blog entry above).  All in all, it’s a beauty of a song: Honesty and talent blended together tend to generate an aura of grace regardless of subject matter.

Bob Dylan was 55, going on 56 when he produced and released Time Out of Mind, on which “Not Dark Yet” is track # 7.  Coincidentally, that is the age I find myself at as I write this Dylan-centric blog series.  The entire Time Out of Mind album is brutally honest (see Master Blueprint # 11 for more commentary), - arguably the most painfully revealing album In Bob Dylan’s vast catalog - and among other deep subject matter, it tackles dying, death and the afterlife, particularly in a handful of songs (aside from “Not Dark Yet” the others that come to mind include “Highlands” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”).  Dylan once commented that pulling this album together was akin to fighting in a boxing match, pinned in the corner and ‘reeling from the blows’ (that quoted piece, stealing from a line in Time Out of Mind’s “Can’t Wait”).  Basically, he was describing how difficult it was to get his creative juices flowing again. 

Oh, how tough it can be at midlife and beyond to create something of quality that is brand new.  I can absolutely relate to it.  Case in point:  I started this on-line series with 50 entries on The Rolling Stones music back when I turned fifty years old (my “Stepping Stone” series).  At the time, I could crank through any given blog entry in one sitting.  Now, it’s often quite a bit longer to pull it all together.  I thought I had anticipated this when I decided on the order of musicians I would focus on from year to year, believing (correctly) that the Stones needed to be tackled first, because they were the band who primarily identified to my youthful abandon, and in turn, the band I needed to absorb as soon as possible…. before those adolescent sensibilities faded from memory. Built on top of that premise was my deducing that the other musicians who I wanted to write about (Neil Young, The Who, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles) would fall into place easy enough as I passed that 50-year-old threshold and connected with more ‘sophisticated’ memories and topics.

But now I realize its more complicated than that.  Insight and creative thinking can come at you from many directions for sure, but these gifts can also come at you in varying rates of frequency.  They can flow, they can dribble, they can seep, they can drip, or, they can abandon you altogether.  I now recognize that a significant aspect of the creative process has something to do with age.  This part I did not anticipate when I was writing during my Stepping Stones series six years ago.  And so, now I am even more impressed than in yesteryear with musicians the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, who have done some of their best works in midlife and beyond. You need to rally yourself in your later years to do what comes naturally in your younger years.  Be there no doubt, you can do it, maybe even better than ever.  However, it is going to take …. some…. additional…. effort. 

One thing I am pretty darn sure of is that Bob Dylan is going to continue to try to make the most of his God-given abilities all the way to the bitter, glorious end.  He sees this as a responsibility of sorts; a deal with The Big Man himself.  It’s what we should all aspire to.  But perseverance and commitment over the long haul is bound to uncover new ways of looking at life, and sometimes these new views are not all that savory.  In other words, if you commit yourself to creativity in your later years you are likely going find yourself having to take on subject matter that is not nearly as in-your-face at a younger age.  Like dying and death.

I recently started reading Behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin, about the life of Bob Dylan.  Early in the book, Heylin alludes to the fact that, already at a young age, Dylan had “a fascination with those who died young, preferably at the height of their powers” (pg. 10).  Those of great interest to him at the time included Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and James Dean.  I can understand this.  It’s a ‘geez, what could have been if only he/she lived longer’ kinda wonderment.  For me the list is long, and includes John Lennon, Brian Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Warren Zevon, Marvin Gaye and Townes Van Zandt.  Heck when I was younger I even had a fascination with comic book characters who were knocked off at the height of their powers (i.e Jean Grey of the X-Men).  There’s another angle to this fascination.  It’s got something to do with a ‘why am I alive and they are dead’ sort of thing.  If you are a person of faith, it goes more like ‘why was I chosen to live this life through maturity while others were chosen to get snuffed out prematurely?’  This is where I find the man in me intersecting most intensely with what motivates Bob Dylan. 

Dylan is not the only popular musician to take on the topic of death in his music.  Another well-known songwriter who was engrossed by the subject was George Harrison (this is a bond between them that I overlooked when discussing their friendship in Master Blueprint # 24).  The title track of Harrison’s album, All Things Must Pass is enough to testify to this.  Probably as much as anyone, George Harrison was mentally ready for the Great Beyond when his time came at the too-young age of 58 (in fact, I’m thinking that more than anything, Harrison’s strength in the face of death was likely the primary suspect in what moved Paul McCartney to a torrent of tears when he visited Beatle George not long before his passing).

One thing I found interesting about Bob Dylan’s “Death and Taxes” episode on Theme Time Radio Hour (see Master Blueprint entries # 22 and 23 for more on this topic) was that, although a George Harrison song was appropriately played by DJ Bob, it was in the ‘taxes’ category (any casual Beatle fan should be able to figure out what that song was) and not in the ‘death’ category, for which he is better remembered by anyone who really knew him (including Dylan).  That Theme Time episode was one of my favorites (again, as mentioned in that earlier blog entry # 22).  A big reason was the closing stretch of the show which pulled together three mesmerizingly amazing songs about death.  The first was “Freddy’s Dead”, which is Curtis Mayfield’s ode to a street corner junkie (or more to the point it’s a warning as well as a declaration that no one should be forgotten) off the album/soundtrack street-hood story “Super Fly”.  The second was David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album (here is another man by the way who was ready for his own demise.  Just watch the video “Blackstar” on YouTube, which Bowie released not long before he died of cancer.  It is incredible).  The third was even more heartfelt, “Withered and Died” by Richard Thompson (sung by his then wife Linda Thompson).  It is haunting and staggering in its beauty.   There were also two intense poems (that I actually understood thru and thru) in the “Death and Taxes” episode, both read in their entirety by Bob Dylan; E.E. Cummings “Dying is Fine” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”.  Look them up.  These poems, as well as the three songs mentioned, are worthy of your effort.

(Side note: Other than “All Things Must Pass” the only other song I believe that Bob Dylan seriously overlooked/omitted in that episode was the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died”.  Oh, and of course his own song “Not Dark Yet”, but I’ve already gone over why that was not happening – again see entry # 22).

Back to that proverbial boxed-in corner.  Bob Dylan fought his way out of it by facing his pain head on, the source of which was primarily hinged on lost love.  You can hear it over again on Time Out of Mind, including in “Not Dark Yet” (“she wrote a letter and she wrote it so fine….”)  There’s a Catch 22 here that needs to be explored.  Facing your struggles and woes can age you, which is precisely the point of “Not Dark Yet” (the title is a refrain line in the song which is consistently followed up by “but it’s getting there”).  The weakness in our humanity can have us resisting this.  But here are the other options: Either we succumb to mediocrity or we shut down our emotions entirely.  These are the BIG reasons why we inevitably lose our creativity when we get older.  We know how it feels to be burned and we don’t want to risk feeling that way again. He/She is the rare bird who hurdles this.

“Not Dark Yet” begins with the line “Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day” …. the word ‘day’ dragged out in hopeless weariness, in a way that only someone in the moment could pull off (Dylan does the same thing in “Highlands” with “The parties over and there’s less and less to say. I got new eyes, everything looks far away”).  The best lines in “Not Dark Yet” are near the end. Bob Dylan almost always saves his most amazing lyrics for last in any given song.  In this case we are served “sometimes my burden is more than I can bear” (an especially profound statement from the man who has been at the center of it all) and “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer”, which in a nutshell captures Dylan’s Herculean effort to get out of that proverbial boxing corner and fight for salvation. 

As with anyone who has lived a blessed long life, Bob Dylan has seen his share of death regarding his collegial friendships.  Off the top of my head, that obituary list includes 3 members of The Band (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm) and 3 members of the Travelling Wilburys (Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty), along with Johnny Cash, Brian Jones, Mick Ronson, David Bowie, Howard Wyeth, and I am sure countless others.  Hey, some of us are simply in it for the long haul, and those who are must find a way to deal with the trials and tribulations of death in a way that connects us.  I believe that somewhere around the making of Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan found a way to turn that corner.

We should all hope we have the strength to do the same.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Master Blueprints # 26: “Why Wait Any Longer for the World to Begin, You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Lay Lady Lay”
Album: Nashville Skyline
Release Date: February 1969

That beaming smile spoke directly to me when I pulled the Bob Dylan record out of a large wooden bin at a New Hampshire open-air flea market on a hot spring day in 1995.  Dylan's expression, captured forever in time there on that album cover, was portraying one very happy man. There was no doubt in mind.  This was not a fabricated mugging for the camera that I was observing.  This was joy personified.  And that cover grin would prove to be an apt bellwether for the music contained within.  Dylan fans would know right off which album I am referring to, because it’s the only one of his studio albums where we get to see such euphoria.  Of course, I’m referring to 1969’s Nashville Skyline.

What was my visceral connection to that Chillin’ Dylan cover on that day?  I couldn’t have described it at the time, because I did not know the full context.  But over time as I got more familiar with Dylan’s past and gained hindsight on mine I would get to know better the common vibe.  How shall I explain?  Well, let me put it this way:  As I crouched down to thumb through that bin of albums at the flea market, my wife by my side, I had a backpack on.  This was not the typical backpack that first comes to mind when conjuring up an image, however, nor was it carrying standard fare such as accessories, purchases or necessities.  This was a baby backpack and it was carrying a very young girl, my daughter and first born, Charlotte. 

Bob Dylan was a young Dad too when he released Nashville Skyline.  As with every period in his life reflected in song, Dylan would take this role seriously, in this case very much so, removing himself from the public spotlight by going into virtual seclusion in Woodstock, New York for over 5 years while his children were young and his family was growing (he predated John Lennon’s more famous “house husband” period by a good 8 years in this regard).  And so, that expression on Bob Dylan’s face on the cover of this album has more specificity to it than just being happy.  That look, that smile, is one of domestic bliss. 

** Side Note: In the “For What It’s Worth” department, of the 36 Bob Dylan studio albums recognized in Wiki and most other references, 21 have cover art that depict photographs of Dylan (a handful of them with others), 3 are paintings of him (one of these, Planet Waves, includes caricatures of 2 others; presumably members of The Band?) and the remaining 11 reside in the ‘other’ category.  Of those whittled-down 21, the one cover other than Nashville Skyline where Bob Dylan could possibly be flashing anything that would be construed as much more than a smirk is the album John Wesley Harding.  I’m thinking this is no coincidence, seeing as JWH is the immediate precursor to Nashville Skyline and Bob Dylan was by then already a year or so into his splendid domestic isolation.

Anyhow, back to my story.  So, I asked the guy at the flea-market table if he knew much about this Bob Dylan album.  At the time, I was not all that familiar with it, seeing as in those days, I was not yet particularly intent on filling in the cavernous gaps of my personal Dylan discography.  He told me he most certainly did, going as far to call Nashville Skyline “the last Dylan DYLAN album”.  I got what he meant.  One reason I did was because this guy looked to be about 20 years older than me, a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and having engaged with many people over the years about music, I concluded he was likely to be the type to disregard anything that came along post one’s own formative years.  I could have objected, having by that time already immersed myself in Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Oh Mercy and the live album Hard Rain, each of which came out well after 1969.   Instead, more intrigued by his comment than agitated, I nodded in approval and made the purchase. 

At the time, I still had a turntable readily available at my beck and call in the living room of my home (now stored away in the attic, partly due to my having purchased a new cartridge for it at a specialty store – since closed - and then foolishly misplacing it).  I played the record early and often.  This was a Bob Dylan album like no other.  Indeed, Nashville Skyline was relaxing in a serene, meditative sort of way.  These were more upbeat songs than what had been served by Dylan to the public to that date (and since), the core concept; a celebration of the joys of loving and of being loved (thinking of it in this way, one could argue Nashville Skyline is the antithesis of Blood on the Tracks).  Bob Dylan’s vocals were reflected in this mood too.  Gone for the time being was that relatively gruff exterior exemplified in the vocals of each and every one of his other albums.  This was replaced here by vocals that connoted whimsical charm. 

Bob Dylan has been criticized for not connecting with the protestations of the late 60s, which were related to war, politics, civil rights and assassinations.  My kneejerk reaction has always been to agree when I read a fresh angle on this.  But here’s the thing.  This was Dylan’s one and only chance to conquer the real world’s problems by immersing himself in family life.  It just so happened that he was engaged in young-Dad domesticity at a very turbulent time.  From this perspective one could counter argue that in doing so, Bob Dylan would subtly reveal the true values of life to his fans; the real McCoy kinda stuff.  And perhaps in doing so, he was allowing the younger folks who were engulfed in those turbulent times to see an exit strategy; to have some measure of sanity they could envision to counterbalance the insanity that was surrounding them.  Yeah, once again Dylan was seizing the moment in ways that were not readily obvious.  Once again, he was running with his muse.

A few reflections on the songs themselves.  First a general all-encompassing thought that came to mind this week: One of the things unique about Nashville Skyline is that it is very simple lyrically in comparison to other Bob Dylan releases.  In the book Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985, none of these songs take up much more than half a page.  Quite a contrast from say, Blonde on Blonde, where many song lyrics take up several pages.  Bliss and simplicity appear to go hand in hand.   Makes sense to me.  Life is not complicated when you’re on cloud nine. 

Domesticity is consistently reflected in the music and vocals on Nashville Skyline, but the lyrics are a bit more quintessential Dylan in a handful of cases.  Several songs however, are of the no-holes-barred-bliss variety. These would include “To Be Alone with You” “Country Pie” and “Peggy Day”.  No ambiguity in the lyrics of these ditties.  A fourth, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” is close enough, yet with a little more than a hint of pre-marriage days gone by. These are the core offerings that keep the album light and airy.

The most powerful songs on Nashville Skyline though are the reality checks, the longing, and the regret because even in blissful isolation, the real world, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, can come knocking at your door at any time.  The heaviest is “I Threw It All Away”, which is a fantastic song that has survived and will continue to survive the test of time.  The version here is convincing enough, but if you really want to hear an in-the-moment rendition then the live version on 1976’s Hard Rain is where to look, where we painfully hear Bob Dylan in the throes of matrimonial chaos.  Either way, the bridge lyrics say it all:

Love is all there is, it makes the world go ‘round
Love and only love.  It can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it
Take a tip from one who’s tried

The signature track, “Lay, Lady Lay” ( )  though lovely in every way, also has some subtle sadness to it.  But this one has both feet in the domestic bliss box, because these are common emotions for a spouse with newfound parental demands.  There’s the give and take.  There’s the questioning of your own worthiness in being so blessed.  There’s the pursuit to try and show the best of yourself to your significant other and the hope it is recognized. There’s the “me no longer first” to deal with.  It’s all good, because it’s all true and it’s all human.

You hear it frequently:  Life can fly by.  And I must concur.  However, there are snapshots in time that do seem like ages ago. Our daughter is 23 years old now.  I remember loading her into the back of the car at the hospital right after she was born and thinking ‘is this maternity-ward staff really entrusting us to go it alone from here?’.  Sometimes, it even seems like another lifetime.  So too does that backpack moment at the flea market.  Three years later, not long after our son Peter was born, I recall looking over at my wife Nancy as she held him in her arms, the look of domestic bliss unmistakable in her face.  It was priceless and remains unforgettable.  But it also stirred a bit of memory that I could never quite get to the bottom of beyond the fleeting stage.  Now I know.  All I needed to do was connect the dots by writing this blog entry and leafing through my old album collection…. to catch a glimpse of that Nashville Skyline album cover all over again. 


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Master Blueprints # 25: “They Say Sing While You Slave but I Just Get Bored”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Maggie’s Farm”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

Earlier this week I asked the following question on the always-absorbing Facebook group-page Dylanology: “What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song to sing along to in the car?”.  You know, ala James Cordon (Side thought: Can anyone imagine Bob Dylan doing something like what Paul McCartney did with Cordon recently, touring his old haunts and karaoke-ing his songs? … me neither).  I got some great responses, which included a bit of fleshing out in relation to the second part of the question (“Why”?), adding up to 68 of Bob Dylan’s compositions getting the nod from at least one Dylan fan.  Below is a summary of the top 15, which all got five votes or more (the summary includes “likes” for a given response).  I’ve also added in parenthesis the total number of votes for each entry on that top-15 list and a brief comment on each song as well:
  1. “Positively 4th Street” (29 votes) … the runaway winner.  Sounds like Dylan fans are getting their backs stabbed these days.
  2. “Tangled Up in Blue” (11) … one of 4 to make the top 15 from Blood on the Tracks.  Another one, “Shelter from the Storm”, just missed the cut.
  3. “Idiot Wind” (11) …. Other than the winner, this song got the most individual votes (in other words, without “likes” included for every song it would have come in a very close second).
  4. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (10) …. Been there, done that, belting this one out (for that matter, been there with most of these).  I admit, this one can be a tear jerker if your mind is taken to certain places. 
  5. “It Ain’t Me Babe” (10) ... Liberation, baby!
  6. “Like A Rolling Stone” (9) … of course!  Probably a top 10 if the same question was posed to an all-inclusive rock-song audience. 
  7. “Desolation Row” (8) … all the power to ya for being able to sing the lyrics to this one.
  8. “Simple Twist of Fate” (6) …. Yeah!  I love that this one made it.  Heavy, deep, all encompassing.
  9. “Everything Is Broken” (6) …. This was a surprise. It popped up three times (with 3 likes added).  It’s a great song, and it’s now clear I need to reevaluate in order to connect better with these voters. 
  10. “Brownsville Girl” (5) ... A singular vote with 4 likes.  Nice addition.  Again, lots of lyrics.  How do you do it? 
  11. “Hurricane” (5) … the one formal protest song to make the top 15. 
  12. “I Threw It All Away” (5) … the live version from Hard Rain is intensely heartfelt.  It must be that version that got these votes (although the original is pretty darn good too).
  13. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack Hearts” (5).  Confucius say, if you have this memorized, you are a person who knows how to have fun.
  14. “Shooting Star” (5) Wow.  Fantastic.  The commentary for one of the responses on this one was touching (singing child to sleep with it and convincing mother it was a gem)
  15. “Things Have Changed” (5) yeah! Note to self: Get around to this one in my blog ASAP
Amazingly, the song I had in mind, “Maggie’s Farm”, which is the focus of this entry, was not even voted on once (I also had in mind “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”, neither of which got a single stinkin’ vote).  Just goes to show the quantity of lyrical sing-along affiliation that Bob Dylan exudes out of us from his repertoire.  The reason I thought of this topic for “Maggie’s Farm” is that the lyrics have a universal appeal.  Most of us have been there; the job from hell.  And when it’s a family run business, as is the case with “Maggie’s Farm”, it can be 10 times worse.  Internal beefs between family members can be taken out on the other employees.  Bob Dylan expresses this masterfully in the lyrics, from the first line to the last, and he makes it a joy to sing along to it.

Thank goodness that work hell is a distant memory for me.  After landing a job in my professional path at the US Geological Survey (USGS) over 30 years ago, I’ve been very fortunate.   I have to say though; those long-ago experiences were eye opening.  If you don’t go through it, you don’t know what you don’t know…. if you know what I mean.  On top of that, if I had not been through those experiences, I’d never be able to relate to “Maggie’s Farm” to the degree that I do.  Oddly, adversity can have positive after effects. 

“Maggie’s Farm” is an open palate for adding verses.  Bob Dylan hilariously narrates the pathetic situation for the worker, which is personified in the overbearing personalities of Maggie’s Brother, Pa, and Ma in three consecutive verses, along with the remarkable opening and closing stanzas ( ).  But what about other family members?  I’m going to take liberty here and add verses for Maggie’s daughter, son, sister, and boyfriend.  Here goes:

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more
She treats the cash register as if it’s her own piggy bank
Those who have reported it soon find that they must walk the plank
Takes 3-hour breaks while others man the store
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more
He spends much of the work day on web sites of ill repute
His bossy way with the older employees the family finds quite cute
Listen through his office door you’ll hear him snore
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more
She lurks about the hallways, the storage space and sheds
Will dock you pay for transgressions like not bowing your head
Her angry nostril flares you really can’t ignore
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more

Oh, and that boyfriend….

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s boyfriend no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s boyfriend no more
He zips into the parking lot scattering workers to and fro
Then raps an endless cacophony of “Yo” and “Bro” and “Ho”
Vanity selfies is a hobby he adores
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s lover no more

I believe I’ve got enough experience to impart some advice to those seeking their career path so they can avoid such a scenario.  First off, find something you enjoy.  I told this to my children when they were seeking their majors in college.  Don’t put money or comfort or expectations or low-hanging-fruit first.  Take a risk and run with your passion.  After all, this is a decision that will have a huge effect moving forward, as you will likely be spending a considerable percentage of your waking life doing it.  What’s questionable today as a career path can explode into something fascinating tomorrow.  Take this from one who went through it; I studied geography in college and then the new world of GIS fell in my lap.  Hey, if you love something that already fits in today’s economy, great for you.  Either way, go for it.  It will pan out if you stick with it.

Second, if you don’t have all that much aspiration for supervision or management, as has been the case with me, then angle toward something you can be the specialist in and stick with it.  Best case is where you turn out to be the singular expert.   It can be something you create on your own, or it can be something already there that needs attention.  In other words, if you want autonomy or have a rebellious spirit, then aside from starting your own business (as my Dad did), this is your only real path forward.  The concept works in both the private and public sector.  You may stumble into it not even realizing until later, but keep that passion going.  It will eventually give you the elbow room you need to keep your integrity and your relevance intact.

The real message with “Maggie’s Farm” is resisting conformity.  The work place will challenge you at one time or another to do the right thing.  Perhaps your response will have you bucking the system.  It’s a risk you may have to consider in maintaining that aforementioned integrity.  You are bound to see folks caving.  Others may simply have a natural tendency to conform.  It works out kinda strange though. The big bosses tend to have a begrudging respect for the rebels, because in the end, they are the ones that push the envelope forward.  Much of the time, they are the ones who innovate. 

There’s a balance here though.  “The Man” is someone who may deserve your respect.  First off, it’s their neck on the block more than anyone.  There can be a lot of stress in running a business.  Second, like all of us, they are human and at some point, you may find yourself connecting to that humanity.  I was lucky enough to make this connection during a fascinating moment in my early 20s.  I had been bartending for over a year at a very busy restaurant (a story I briefly touched on in my 2014 Forever Yong blog series # 34, centered on the music of Neil Yong), the Pub Dennis, in Milford, Massachusetts.  The owner was a cantankerous fellow in his 60s who by then had opened a handful of locales, primarily based in Rhode Island. On the rare occasion he would visit the Milford restaurant, he barely gave me the time of day, as most of his focus was on the management folks. 

With tips the job paid well.  This was important to me, because, along with 2 other jobs at the time, I was saving up for a summer-long backpacking trip to Europe. On the last day of my employment, after having given my 2-week notice, this ornery owner came up to me, and surprisingly started conversing.  He stated that he had heard I was leaving to travel abroad.  I nodded in agreement, and then he said something that shocked me.  It went something like: “I’m wealthy because I worked hard and never stopped, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do what you are doing”.

Wow!  Maggie was human after all. 


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Master Blueprints # 24: “This Morning I Looked Out My Window and Found, A Bluebird Singing but There Was No One Around”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Congratulations”
Album: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1
Release Date: October 1988

We all have our comfort zones.  Many of us do everything we can to try and stay in that zone at all cost, and I’m often amazed at how good people can be at it.  Those who are successful can’t really be categorized:  This ability cuts across all income strata, for example.  Regardless, I consider being ‘stuck in your ways' a liability that needs to be hurdled.  Live long enough, and you are bound to be yanked out of your comfort zone at some point.  Perhaps it will be related to an illness, or an emergency or a friend in desperate need.  It’s gonna happen.  Best thing you can do is prepare yourself for the inevitable by breaking out on your own every once in a while, before your forced to do so.

Me, I try to challenge my comfort zone on occasion, which can include what I write about in these blog entries.  Another such example occurred recently when I gave a speech of praise at a banquet for a recently retired colleague who I have been working with my entire career.  Part of my speech included expressing my admiration for the risks this colleague took in developing a cutting-edge product.  In subtle ways, I put others to the challenge in that same speech, several of whom were in the crowd.  Expressing both the praise and the challenge in front of a large audience was definitely out of my comfort zone, but sometimes you can be compelled to do something out of the ordinary if you listen to your inner voice, your inner spirit.  I felt it was needed, I had the opportunity, and so I did it. 

Friendship was part of the equation that pulled this out of me:  Friendship with my retired colleague.  Often that’s the case.   It most certainly was for Bob Dylan when he agreed to be a Travelling Wilbury.  Here is the only time in his career where we get to see Dylan in a unique (for him) role as just one of the guys; a bandmate in a band of equals.  There were likely a number factors that contributed to Bob Dylan’s decision to join this band, including 1) trying something new to break out of an 80s-period funk and 2) the awe-inspiring collection of talent.  But the real driving force very likely lies somewhere else, and relates to how one can overcome their insecurities when responding to the overtures of a very close friend.  In this case, I’m of course referring to George Harrison.

It should come as no surprise that of the Fab Four, it was Beatle George who Bob Dylan grew closest with.  George Harrison’s quiet demeanor, integrity, and quest for a higher, spiritual meaning in life are all traits that would appeal to Dylan.  Harrison also had a bit of an underdog status in the Beatles, which seems to appeal to Dylan as well, seeing as he grew closer to both Brian Jones and Ronnie Wood than he did to their dominant songwriting bandmates, Jagger & Richards. 

George Harrison had another character trait however, and that was an uncanny ability to persuade.  It may not have worked so well in the leadership structure of the Beatles, partly because George was the youngest and partly because his music-writing ability took longer to develop than the team of Lennon & McCartney (hence the underdog status).  Harrison’s persuasive powers were evident early, however.  He convinced the other Beatles to travel to India to retreat with the Maharishi, where many of their great “White Album” songs would subsequently be written.  After the Beatles broke up his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 was the first superstar rock fundraiser.  George did most of the recruiting, including getting a then reclusive Bob Dylan to sign on.  His soft touch worked.  Some people simply bring out the will in us to help.  And it worked again in the late 80s in his recruitment for the Travelling Wilburys.  Harrison was in the process of a minor career revival.  He was interested again, much like how John Lennon was just before he was killed.  George Harrison’s nature to normally recoil against such fanfare as a super group probably fascinated Bob Dylan.  Here most certainly was a strange twist of fate.  How could you resist.  

It’s almost comical when I watch videos of the Travelling Wilburys to witness Bob Dylan as a team player.  There’s a touch of the unnatural, but not so much so that it curtailed his creativity.  The videos show lots of laughter and bantering about, mostly from Harrison, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.  But Dylan keeps his cool.  There’s one seen when the entire band is singing “Dirty World” where Roy Orbison sings the line “She loves your Trembling Wilbury”, which stops the recording in its tracks.  Everyone is cracking up, which is fun to see.  When you look close though, Dylan is not laughing.  At the same time, he’s not drawing attention to himself; no ‘Debbie Downer’ here.  Just Dylan being Dylan, quietly reserved.  Most of the time, however, the camaraderie among all five is palpable, particularly while singing, which I believe is when Bob Dylan is at his most comfortable. 

There’s a Dylan effect from the very beginning of the album The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1, if only funneled through George. “Handle with Care” has an upbeat tempo and positive reaffirmation, yes, but it still has heavy lyrics to contemplate, including “reputations changeable” and “I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled”.  These are not happy-go-lucky pop lyrics.  This is harsh reality speaking; about how you can suddenly find yourself in a vulnerable situation after years of success.  It’s times like this where we need good love the most, which comes out in the refrain.  When I listen to “Handle with Care” I’m reminded of many of the songs on All Things Must Pass, which I do not dispute is Harrison’s personal creative masterpiece, but surely had a Bob Dylan stamp of approval.

Song number two, “Dirty World” reveals to me that Bob Dylan was fully committed to this Travelling Wilburys idea.  He takes a straight-up Dylan-like song and allows it to be an ensemble.  One of the truly great things about the Travelling Wilburys that should be chewed on some by future Dylanologists is that this band was not Bob Dylan’s idea.  He needed to buy in.  How often has this happened in his career?  Zero as far as I can discern.  The man has always been one step ahead, thinking through this, that and the other thing well before he enters the studio to work with other musicians.  Each and every one of the 38 studio albums in his career feels as if it was preordained.  Not so here. “Dirty World” exemplifies Dylan’s approach to the Wilburys; a man letting go of the reins.   

The DVD component of the Travelling Wilburys Collection gives numerous visual insights into the dynamics of this super band.  One thing I got out of it was that they were all learning from each other’s approach to songwriting.  Harrison, in very Beatle-like fashion, compiling lyrics from newspaper clippings.  Jeff Lynne taking cues from a drum beat.  Roy Orbison building novel approaches to his vocals with each take.  Tom Petty taking in everything around him and then applying on impulse.  And of course, Bob Dylan’s focused hand-written notes, evolving rapidly and masterfully into lyric and song.  You get a rare glimpse into this process on the DVD as Dylan pulls “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” into form.  The focus on this song by critics has always on how Bob Dylan appears to be aping in jest the content and style of Bruce Springsteen’s songs.  For my money though, I’ll forever be mostly intrigued by what the meaning of the refrain must be: “And the walls came down, all the way to hell.  Never saw them when they’re standing never saw them when they fell”.  Sometimes it’s good to just leave well enough alone and sing along.

One of the more interesting songs on the Travelling Wilburys first album is “Margarita”.  The opening salvo sounds to me as if Bob Dylan is revealing some of his early history:

It was in Pittsburgh, late one night
I lost my head, got into a fight
I rolled and tumbled till I saw the light
Went to the Big Apple, took a bite

I picture Dylan’s first hitchhiking venture to New York in bitter cold winter of 1961.  Did he stop in Pittsburgh?  Did he have a transfiguration-like moment when he “saw the light”?  I’ll have to consult my fellow Dylan fan, Linda for her take.

“Congratulations” is Bob Dylan’s biggest gift to his fellow Wilburys.  Much like “Oh Sister”, “One Too Many Mornings” and “I Threw It All Away”, “Congratulations” sneaks up and touches your heart when you least expect it.  Sometimes all it takes is one line expressed in the gut wrenching way that only Bob Dylan can do: “This morning I looked out my window and found, a bluebird singing but there was no one around”.  No one there to share the experience with that is. 

What may Bob Dylan have been thinking?  How about....'There you go guys…. a little ditty for ya.  Thanks for your friendship. Especially you, George':

The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 was such a breath of fresh air when it was released, and it just may have been a key factor in putting a lid on the mostly-soulless music of the mid-80s.  Arguably of even more importance, it may have jump started Bob Dylan’s 2nd wind.  Often a second wind can be the reward for stepping out of your comfort zone.  It might not come over night.  But be patient.  It usually will play out quite nicely.