Sunday, February 18, 2018

Master Blueprints # 7: “Struck Down By the Strength of the Will”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Foot of Pride”
Album: Unreleased from the Infidels sessions
Release Date: October, 1983

Out of the gate for this series, I mentioned an early breakthrough I made with Bob Dylan’s music, listening to the Rolling Thunder Review version of “Shelter from the Storm” off of the live Hard Rain album.  That was back in the mid-80s.  There were a number of leaps forward not long after that, a significant one being the release of Oh Mercy in 1989 (I’ve yet to tackle a song from that album, but this is imminent).  One particularly large leap was made several years later while watching a live simulcast of Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at my good friend Jeff’s apartment.  The actual event, a tribute show, took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City that same evening; October 16, 1992. 

As I’ve mentioned before, Bob Dylan gets covered more than any other musician I know…. by a country mile.  I’ve also mentioned that the best Bob Dylan covers are those where a musician finds a song that suits his/her style.  There is something in his vast catalog for everyone, and I’ve always believed this availability of his music to be intentional on his part (again, it’s why I call the series Master Blueprints).  This all played out brilliantly in the 30th Anniversary Concert.  Virtually every musician who performed that night played a song suitable for them. 

What an incredible night of music and gathering of musicians that was (I could even feel the vibes via simulcast, and I’ve been to many concerts in my lifetime - where the real vibes preside).  If you ask me it was right up there with Woodstock, Monterey, Live Aid and the 2016 “Desert Trip” concert for star power and talent.  I recall Eddie Vedder stating in a pre-concert interview that he felt as if he were hanging with seven of the twelve apostles.   The set list was pretty incredible too:  A perfect cross section of songs from every phase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting career; the choices of deep cuts and hits balancing out nicely.  What an honor it must have been for Dylan to get such a profound tribute, and at a relatively young age (51).

There were a few marquee performers that night who got to perform 2 songs including Neil Young, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and the man of honor himself.  All were memorable, but it was primarily a handful of the one-off acts who stole the show (as well as Petty, a marquee performer who truly rose to the occasion).  As I watched and listened for the umpteenth time this week (but the first time in over a decade), I was glad to see my sense of wonder still persists (although it was tough to take in how many of these performers are no longer with us).

I’ve put together a personal top 10 list of the most stirring performances from this event below.  I’ll be working my way from # 10 up to # 1, with commentary on each, including how the song worked so well for the musician who covered it.  # 10 up to # 6 are in this entry.  The top 5 are in the next.

# 10.  The Times They Are A-Changin’, sung by Tracy Chapman ( ).  Several young bucks covered Bob Dylan’s early protest songs in this show (including Vedder, who performed “Masters of War” quite admirably).  Chapman gets the nod though.  She sounds sincere and earnest here, not having the appearance of being starry eyed in the least.  Politics was in the air on this evening, only 2 weeks away from a presidential election (Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush).  I had just turned 30 years old two months earlier and I remember the build-up to that election well (it was the first time in four attempts that I would end up voting for the winner, and unlike prior elections, I could feel victory in the air).  The protest songs were fitting in my mind, and Chapman was classy in her delivery (alternatively, I felt Stevie Wonder was a bit over the top with his drawn-out, politically-charged introduction comments and subsequent rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”… one of the only energy drains of the evening).  “The Times They Are A-Changin” has and will continue to endure the test of time. 

# 9. “It Ain’t Me Babe”, sung by June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash ( ).  Admittedly past their prime, but there is some beautiful passion and sincerity here, particularly in June Carter Cash’s singing the refrain. Today when I watch it, I think of Walk the Line, a fantastic movie that I have sat through on at least three occasions (more often I have just fast-forwarded to the classic Folsom State Prison scene at the end, one of my favorite movie moments of all time).  After getting that insight into their life together (the movie coming out 13 years after the Dylan 30th event), the passion in June Carter Cash’s vocals now makes more sense. 

In Walk the Line, the character of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) comes across as doting in his endless advances toward June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), which was understandable:  Cash was smitten.  With all the issues Johnny Cash was dealing with (substance abuse, marriage break up) - which was not sugar coated in the movie – June Carter was rather measured in her response.  So now when I listen to this performance, I get out of Johnny Cash’s singing the sense that he is respecting June Carter Cash’s rather stoic (albeit door ajar) reaction to his advances during their long courtship, and June Carter Cash is belting out how she dealt with him in reply.  Yes, the lyrics to “It Ain’t Me Babe” reflects June Carter Cash’s approach to their relationship to a tee. 

# 8 “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35”, sung by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ( ).  It’s too bad I could only track down the audio here, because if there is any performance in this top 10 list where you get the full effect with the visual, it is this one. Here we see Tom Petty (a shocker of a passing this past year) and crew add a little fun to the mix (although virtually the entire event was exhilarating).  Prior to watching Petty’s rendition, I’d been pretty ambivalent with this song.  Now I get a big kick out of it, which I believe was Bob Dylan’s intention all along.  Having toured with Dylan in 1986 - a rabble-rousing tour from the accounts I’ve read - Petty knew this as well as anybody.  And boy does it come out on that Madison Square Garden stage.  Indeed, no matter which way Bob Dylan turned when he wrote the song back in 1966 he likely had some form of mind altering substance shoved in his face.  I envision an animated music video being dreamed up for this song someday.  It will be a hoot. 

# 7 “Highway 61 Revisited”, covered here by Johnny Winter ( ).  When Johnny Winter walked out on the stage I was transfixed.  For a split second, I thought I was looking at Freddy Krueger!  Was this guy going to start shooting lightning bolts out of his fingers at the crowd and bring the house down in a big ball of flame?  I soon recovered my senses, with a bit of help from Johnny Winter’s Texan brother, Jeff, sitting in the chair next to me, who’d seen Winter on numerous occasions.  But then Johnny Winter preceded to do just that!  His performance, particularly his guitar playing, was the most on-the-edge, high flying moment in the show that evening.  The fast pace of his playing and singing did such a great honor to “Highway 61 Revisited”, a truly bizarre tale of that middle of America Blues Highway, which generally winds along the Mississippi River from Dylan’s home State of Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana (I’ll have much more to say about this North/South blues linkage for Bob Dylan when I review some of the more conceptual elements from Time Out of Mind).  The euphoric instrumental wrap up alone would have been worth the price of admission.  This song is going to have to get its own Master Blueprint at some point, if only for the opening verse (I’ll leave those not in the know to either try to interpret Mr. Winter or find the lyrics).    

# 6 “Foot of Pride”, covered here by Lou Reed ( ).   Probably the closest-to-perfection of the alignment of a Bob Dylan song and a musician covering it that I have ever heard (ok, I’ll grant that Jimi Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is right up there too).  Dylan has never performed this song live, despite having been on that truly never-ending ‘Never Ending’ tour for decades now, where he is always rolling out nuggets.  This avoidance is understandable, however.  “Foot of Pride” is HEAVY (even by Dylan standards), extremely complex in vocabulary (including the exclamations), and to date no one has aptly explained the meaning other than in the generality that the song is an indictment on significant chunks of humanity, personified in the lyrics by a handful of well justified character attacks (whether these seriously flawed characters be real or fictitious is of little consequence).

Regardless of all this, Lou Reed pulls the song off masterfully here, despite the use of teleprompters.  In fact, I think his use of teleprompters actually adds to my fascination in how he nails it, seeing as Reed’s phrasing and his raw emotions are absolutely tuned in to the spirit of the original recording.  In other words, Sweet Lou is nowhere near auto pilot.  There are numerous examples of the unbridled force in this very rare live rendition of “Foot of Pride” including Reed’s delivery of one of my all-time favorite Bob Dylan lines: “You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up.  Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down”.  To this day I still recall the chilling feeling of hearing those lyrics for the first time at Jeff’s apartment that night (which was the first time I heard this at-the-time unreleased gem of a song from the 1983 Infidels sessions). 

One other note about Lou Reed in relation to Dylan’s 30th: Before the show Reed was interviewed and he prophetically stated that Bob Dylan had not even done his best stuff yet.  It was quite a statement, considering that so many contemporary musicians prove to be well past their prime by the time they hit middle age.  What was to come for Bob Dylan over the next 20 years was much more in line with Lou Reed’s vision.

It’s a wrap.  See you next entry for the top 5.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Master Blueprints # 6: “But This Ol’ River Keeps on Rollin’ Though”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Watching the River Flow”
Album: Released as a single
Release Date: June, 1971

My office walls are adorned with a number of the masterly art-works of my daughter, as well as a handful of classic maps (being close to the vest in relation to my profession, I’d be remiss not to include a sampling of cartographic gems).  Tucked among all of this is a relatively modest exhibit, a short poem by the late American poet James Dillet Freeman called “Rivers Hardly Ever” ( ).  This framed verse was a gift from my Mom, who handed it to me at the tail end of a visit home several years back. 

At first glance “Rivers Hardly Ever” comes across as a simple yet poignant take on earth’s sinuous, flowing sensations, and as with anything expressed eloquently, it is worthy of pondering from that angle alone.  But even after just a quick read, this poem is not too difficult to construe the deeper meaning:  Freeman is using the physical traits of a river’s morphology as a metaphor for some of our better human traits, including perseverance, adaptability, and fortitude (for more on rivers and humanity, see ).

If not for “Rivers Hardly Ever”, I may never have come to a fully satisfactory interpretation of Bob Dylan’s 1971 single, “Watching the River Flow”, one of the multitude of Dylan’s underrated, lesser-known songs, which I have enjoyed for some time, but had never grasped in a thoroughly gratifying manner.  That changed early this week as I drove into work.  I had only the day before picked up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II at a local library, for the sole purpose of listening to this song (friends and family may recall that I’m not one for “Greatest Hits” compilations, but seeing as this was the only album I could find this ditty on, I had no other recourse).  Not long after slipping the disk into the CD player, I got a nice little light bulb moment - the kind of moment I always hope for in relation to this blog series - as I listened to track 1, the song focus of this entry. 

At that moment, I came to the realization that “Watching the River Flow” shared very similar metaphorical analogies to Freeman’s poem.  As the work week progressed I went back and forth between poem and song, and with each cycle that proverbial light bulb illuminated a bit more.  And so, much of the remainder of this entry I’ll be elucidating on this commonality in meaning by breaking down “Watching the River Flow” into digestible chunks.  But first things first:  Thanks, Mom!

Ok, before I dive into “Watching the River Flow” I need to take a slight meander (pun intended).  Those of us graced to have children are never short of sound advice for them, but one bit of guidance that can be very difficult is in explaining the importance of not getting caught up in the power struggles of life.  We do, as young adults, make this connection in a loose sort of way with our peers, which plays out around our senior year of high school as we eyeball promising but uncertain prospects for the future. Just take another glance at your dusty old yearbook.  How many comments from fellow graduates advise us in one way or another to avoid “plasticity” (aka fakeness) by staying true to ourselves? 

These are but stepping-stone tips to understanding the core effects of straying from who we really are, but it’s all still sound advice; I’d even go as far as to say its right near the top of the list really.  And many of us as adolescents got this advice in a roundabout way from adults as well.  But when you are young, it’s still be a bit of a leap to connect plasticity to all the vices that can crop up  if we allow it to seep in, including that aforementioned vice of getting caught up in power struggles.  That’s where the adult experience really needs to factor, in a way our young peers can’t yet envision.  All that being said, I’ve been graced with parents who in some way knew how to get me to mostly avoid those pitfalls.  I’d like to think my wife and I have found ways to relay the same wisdom to our children. 

Thinking a bit more about power struggles though, there are likely a handful of reasons for a lack of direct advice, first and foremost being that we as parents may come to believe this to be too hard a concept to get across to our sons and daughters until they have truly lived it.  Much of our advice to our children is offered up while they are living under our roofs.  In our minds we may feel this reality is keeping them somewhat ‘sheltered from the storm’.  But the fact of the matter is that they are already seeing power struggles all around them, even during this period in their young lives.  And it’s all having an effect on them.  The seeds are already being sown.

A second reason is that we want our kids to be ambitious.  Teenagers often come across as ambivalent, even rebellious toward most anything authoritative and entrenched.  And so, we are caught in a conundrum.  To guide them to go out and seize their piece of the pie or to steer them away from the tangled web-weave of materialism?  To empower or to humble?  For many of us, it’s a never ending balance, not only in the ways in which we advise our children with these fundamental questions, but also in the ways in which we advise ourselves. 

Avoiding plasticity and the related power struggles that come with it is a cornerstone of the rock ‘n’ roll message, inherited from folk music (Bob Dylan the key bridge by the way).  It is the biggest reason why this music will always be considered by the over-the-top power-hungry types to be subversive.  But I digress.  It’s time to dig into “Watching the River Flow”, one of those rock ‘n’ roll cornerstone-message sorts of songs.  I’m going to do this by breaking it down verse by verse, with commentary interspersed. 

The song (see below for url link) starts out with Bob Dylan in a rural all night café in the wee hours.  I imagine a truck stop. This out-of-the-gate setting and mood is already telling:

What's the matter with me
I don't have much to say
Daylight sneakin' through the window
And I'm still in this all-night cafe
Walkin' to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin' slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

Dylan is in search of inspiration and not finding it.  The river remains..... a river.  At this stage the song slows to a grinding halt.  But then Leon Russel’s boogie piano kicks the rest of the instrumentation back in and we move on to the second verse, where the mood in the lyrics begins to change:

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand
If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I'll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow

I love how in the 2nd line above, Dylan adds the word “old” in describing the bank of sand he is sitting on.  He’s a bit angry at it, because nothings coming to him.  But later in this verse, his mood is beginning to change.  Note the second-to-last line, the word “contentedly” is included to describe his changing mood as he watches the river flow (in the second-to-last line in the first verse this adverb is absent).  I believe what Dylan is insinuating here that inspiration is beginning to kick in.  Here’s where things get much deeper:

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn't help but cry
Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin', though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I'll just sit here
And watch the river flow

I recall that when I first began to love this song, it was this series of lines that did it for me.  Have you ever seen a stranger break down in a public place?  I don’t mean in an obvious way, for all to see, but a moment you just happened to catch yourself, maybe sitting on a bus, plane or train and glancing across the aisle over at another passenger weeping silently.  Anyhow, it’s happened to me on a few occasions. In these cases I left well enough alone, because I got the sense that whatever emotions I saw were meant to be private.  But these moments can have you thinking about how life can catch up to people sometimes.  Bob Dylan channels these type of thoughts a bit, directing the listener toward why the person he’s alluding to in this verse is crying, which he blames on disharmony in the world, due to a seemingly endless dispute between factions on what is right and what is wrong.  This one line is why I meandered for several paragraphs earlier to write about power struggles. 

However, the central point to “Watching the River Flow” is the anthropomorphism of the river, which really begins to get driven home here.  As with “Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” (see Master Blueprints # 4) Bob Dylan dips us down near despair, but in the end pulls us out again with a positive closing message.  In this case its’ by pointing to those great human characteristics inherent in all of us – but not always utilized - that are also referred to in Freeman’s poem: Perseverance, adaptability, and fortitude. 

After a great instrumental bridge, the last verse kicks in:

People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you want to stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol' river keeps on rollin', though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I'll just sit here
And watch the river flow

It’s a repeat on the talking points in the 3rd verse, but that’s fine by me, seeing as this fourth verse reaffirms the core messages.  

To get the most out of this song, I believe you need to hear the original studio version, but it’s impossible to find on YouTube (there are several live Dylan versions and a number of covers, but no original to be found).  I did find it on a Japanese video-sharing website called Ninonico, but I had to sign up (it’s quick however, and free of charge):

Bob Dylan and James Dillet Freeman each found ways to give praise to the steady-as-you-go peace makers of the world through the metaphor of a river. The notion of righteousness, ultimately besting immorality. We shall overcome indeed.  As one other songwriter once put it, “Ol’ Man River, he just keeps on rolling.  He just keeps on rolling along”.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Master Blueprints # 5: “How Long Are We Gonna Be Ridin’?”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Señor”
Album: Street Legal
Release Date: June, 1978

A tradition in my household during the Christmas season has been to watch one or more of the many film adaptions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.  I’d say we have probably watched about eight in all, most on numerous occasions, and have found that you really can’t go wrong with any of them (although our favorite and most watched is the 1970 musical staring Albert Finney as Scrooge).  There’s something about the story that brings out the best in the actors, directors and producers, no matter the film era or the budget. 

However, one piece of the plot I have been a bit confused about over the years was the purpose of the ghost of Jacob Marley.  Here’s the dilemma: If you are accursed, as Marley apparently was, then why bother to reach out to Scrooge?  What was in it for Jacob Marley?  I mean, with all those money boxes and chains he’s lugging around, and all the moaning and groaning, and his own doomed self-analysis, one can’t help but conclude that this ghost is a lost soul, damned for all eternity. 

On top of these personal afflictions, there is, in at least one movie adaptation - the one starring Finney – a scenario that has Scrooge and Marley drifting above the night streets of London amongst truly hapless apparitions, all of whom are floating about aimlessly in a torturous haze.  And later in that same film, Marley welcomes Scrooge to hell, which will presumably play out, if, in the words of the Second Spirit, “these shadows remain unaltered by the future”.  It appeared that Jacob Marley was in a very bad place, with no chance for parole, so how is he out and about in the first place?  This all seemed a bit flawed. 

After reading Dicken’s original tale however, I have come to believe that the author probably meant for Marley to be in some sort of purgatory - in pursuit of atonement - and not hell.  Alas, purgatory is not heaven, not by any stretch of the imagination.  But it isn’t hell either.   After all, despite the impression of forlornness that Jacob Marley exudes, he does in fact have an affiliation with the three spirits, who he forebodes to Scrooge.  And the spirits are there to try to make matters right, so they can only be coming from a good place.  With this in mind, maybe, just maybe, Dickens meant for Scrooge’s salvation to be Marley’s salvation too; a high stakes Christmas Eve, not for one, but for both of these former business partners.

Ok, enough about Jacob Marley.  To get to my Bob Dylan connection in this entry I need to round this out and move on to the 3 spirits; the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  There is no mistaking their purpose in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, which is resolute and clear.  All bring ominous tones in their messages to Scrooge, with the 3rd spirit’s message the most dreaded of all, not only to Scrooge, but also to many of us who connect with this story.  This is at least partly because, unlike the other 2 spirits, the 3rd spirit is rooted in Christian theology.  He’s the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death.

Bob Dylan’s own tale of purgatory and journey with death appears to play out in transcendent fashion in his majestic song “Señor” ( ).  I have to say up front, I’ve never read anything where Dylan has actually come out and stated this as being what the song is about, but I’ve suspected it for some time.  It was a recent Bono cover story in Rolling Stone, one where the U2 front man basically states the same thoughts, which pretty much confirmed my interpretation, at least for me (Bono adds in his interview that the subtitle of the song “Tales of Yankee Power”, is Dylan pulling the listener off the trail).

The title of “Señor” is Bob Dylan’s name for the Angel of Death, whom the central figure in the song is imploring from start to finish, and much like Ebenezer Scrooge, receiving nary a reply.  Also, much like Scrooge’s tone by the time he meets the 3rd Spirit, the protagonists tone in this song toward Señor is one of awe-inspiring respect, albeit a respect also interspersed with confusion and consternation.  As the song plays out, this yearning soul takes a mind-boggling ride with this reverential figure, not knowing the why or the where to, but getting an endless parade of glimpses into his life’s journey, along with what appears to be occasional glimpses into mankind’s journey.  As with Scrooge, what he is shown is of a very serious nature. 

There are seven stanzas in “Señor”, with the fifth being the most intense:

“Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
 Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
 A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
 He said “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

Yow!  I interpret the first half of this stanza as the protagonist seeking Divine Mercy, with a terrified eye on those who have rejected it.  The second half comes at you from a different angle.  One image that flashes through my mind as I listen is that of a homeless person, a soul who remains firmly planted in terra firma, and yet who alone can actually see what is playing out in this spirit-world of a journey, and respond in kind, as the central figure and the Angel of Death drift past. It’s so unique of a plot twist, and with such specific detail, that I can’t help but believe it really happened.

“Señor” is a truly open, honest, extraordinary song.  One thing that separates Bob Dylan from many of his contemporaries - which plays out here - is that he’s willing to face his own mortality (George Harrison was another).  Other musicians can come across this way, but they don’t express it in the way Dylan does.  Often, their expression is through self-destruction, which in reality is not really facing the music.  Dylan does face the music however, because his expression is founded upon a never-ending quest for redemption. 

The very beginning and ending of “Señor” is identical; a slow methodical series of guitar notes, which has me pondering that nothing has changed – despite the supernatural sojourn.  Nothing yet, anyway.  The album Street Legal - aside from “Señor” an otherwise average album by Bob Dylan standards - was released just prior to Dylan’s “Gospel Years” (see Master Blueprints # 3), and so this kinda makes sense.  Dylan was stuck in a sort of purgatory at that stage in his life, but soon he would be ready to break that mold. 

There is much to mull over when listening to “Señor”.  Yes, this is likely Bob Dylan’s purgatory, but as with any great work of art, there is a piece of all of us in there too.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Master Blueprints # 4: “But I’ll Know My Song Well Before I Start Singin’”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Release Date: May, 1963

On the same weekend I turned 16 years of age, I attended the marriage of one of my parent’s closest friends, my Godfather Jack, to Ellen.  It was the ‘Godfather’ part that got me the invite, which allowed for some invaluable solo time with Mom and Dad for an entire day (being one of six, these alone-time memories with both my parents were few, far between, and cherished).  It was a beautiful summer day, with a slight breeze coming off the ocean on Massachusetts’ South Shore.  A large tent was set up for the reception in Ellen’s backyard, with a classical band contributing to the joyous mood, performing on the grassy hillside, which sloped off to reveal a serene view of Cape Cod Bay behind them.

In many respects this was a coming-of-age day for me.  The conversations with my parents – to, from, and at the wedding - were more adult-like than before.  Those conversations were also more two-way.  On top of that development, this was one of my very first weddings.  A vast majority of the people who attended were much older than I.  The food was adult.  The music was adult.  The beverages were adult. The dancing was adult.  The humor, the sophistication, the wealth, the strengths – and the weaknesses - were virtually all adult. 

There were several of us in the younger bracket there however, holding up our end of the generational spectrum.  This small representation would include my slightly older, free-spirited cousin, Lori, who I took a brief stroll with to the beach (engaging in yet another coming-of-age type conversation if I recall).  There were also several of Jack’s nieces and nephews, one of whom was doubling up on my own forays to the beer tent (and later paying for it).  This too was, in its own way, a coming of age experience.  However, it was the performance of another one of Jack’s nephews, one who was about half my age, which gave me my most lasting impressions of the day.

Toward the end of the ceremony, not long after the band had departed, this boy stood on a chair to make his presence known, with the obvious intention – with a little help from his Mom and Dad - of entertaining us.  I had never met him before, so I did not know what to expect.  Others in attendance knew what was coming though, and they gathered around him in hushed tones, listening intently as this youngster first collected himself, and then launched into the ballad, “Danny Boy”.  If not for his singing, you could have heard a pin drop over the subsequent 3-minute span.  It was a masterful rendition.  I say this not only because he was good, but because he got this jaded teenager’s attention, which was not an easy thing to pull in those days, particularly by a kid.  He also stimulated my curiosity, and in turn capped off a thought-provoking day; a day I look back on now as having contributed quite impressively to the shaping of my world view.

“Danny Boy”.  What was it that so deeply stirred this predominantly Boston-Irish crowd on that hot afternoon, August, 1978?  I concluded right off that it could not be the singing alone, which was good, but not that good.  No, there was history playing out here, recent history.  And deep raw emotion, which was thinly veiled just beneath the surface, but bubbling up now.  I saw tears and I heard sobs, and I connected.  It took a while for that connection to gel, but gel it would. 

The Irish journey, like many other 19th and early 20th century journeys, was not an easy one.  It witnessed its fair share of sacrifices and separations.  The people at this wedding were remembering their families past.  What I was seeing and hearing was both gratitude and lament for the sacrifices and turmoil that their forefathers (and I’m sure a number of them) had endured.  Yes, the song played out only for a few brief moments.  But for my then-newly-minted 16-year-old ears and eyes, a few moments was long enough.

“Danny Boy” is a ballad about the parting of a son from his Irish homeland, and it’s delivered from the perspective of his Dad.  There’s a sense that the son is going off to war, but it could also be that father and son are being forced to separate for some other reason equally dire (famine, opportunity overseas, British rule).  The lyrics are a grieving of sorts, that this is the last time the two will see each other, and that the father will no longer be alive when and if his son returns.  This is all heady stuff, but the toughest pill to swallow in the lyrics of “Danny Boy” are heard between the lines.  There’s a sense that this Dad knows all too well what his son is in for.  There’s an immense loss of innocence just around the corner.  And there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  The fact that this part of the story goes unspoken, makes “Danny Boy” even more stirring than if it was.

Bob Dylan took this concept to the nth degree with “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”.  Here we hear the other side of the son’s journey, the coming home side, and the journey experience the father had feared.  Where have you been?”, “What did you see?”, “Who did you meet?”, and “What did you hear, my blue eyed son?” “My darling young one?” the father repeatedly asks.  The son’s responses?  I’d do an injustice to extract a sampling, so here’s a link to the original studio version for a listen ( ).

Whether or not this ‘Danny-comes-home’ concept was Bob Dylan’s intention, I am of course not privy.  But it’s what I mostly hear when I listen.  I also on occasion, hear “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” as Dylan singing to his own father about his own journey.  For example, at one point near the end of this uncanny song he sings the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”, so you get the sense there’s at least a small piece of him there.  If this be case it could be related to his journey up to the date he wrote the song (1963) or more profoundly, it could be him anticipating his remaining journey as well, which is still playing out.  Bob Dylan is a poet, and poets see the world more intensely, and often more starkly, than most of us do.

If Bob Dylan left the song at those series of questions and answers mentioned above, it would have left the listener to ponder the gnawing pang of a conclusion: Who’s to blame? But Dylan doesn’t stop there.  The last question from father to son goes “Oh, What’ll you do now my blue eyed son; oh, what’ll you do now my darling young one?”  The response is a strong, defiant one, twice the length of all the previous responses, and includes the most brilliant line among brilliant lines: “then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’”.  In other words, faith will propel this son forward from this moment on.

The father has lost a boy, but he’s gained …..a man. 

My journey has not been the same as that of the son in “Oh Danny Boy” and “Hard Rain”, or the journey of Bob Dylan for that matter.  But despite this, I believe I can relate.  How can this be?  How can someone like me, who has lived a relatively sheltered life, relate to a storied son who has been to hell and back, or a man who has inspired a generation?  It comes down to moments in your life.  Moments that shape who you are.  Moments like the ones I spent on a hot summer day, with my parents, at a wedding, on my 16th birthday


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Master Blueprints # 3: “Oh, Though the Earth May Shake Me”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “I Believe In You”
Album: Slow Train Coming
Release Date: August, 1979

Several months ago the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Trouble No More 1979 -1981, was released, which includes recordings from his aptly-dubbed “gospel years”, a period that covered three studio albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love) along with a considerable amount of in-the-Spirit touring (yes, that’s Spirit with a capital S).  Dylan’s outpouring of his Christian faith (and little else) during this time would end up alienating him from much of his longstanding fan base, but, not surprisingly this did not deter him.  After all, by this stage in his career, Bob Dylan had abandoned his past on at least several occasions.  In each of those cases, a degree of separation soon followed. This time, however, the stakes were higher.  This stark new reality was not a change in his music - the root of his prior detours - which remained rocking and rolling.  No, this newness was in his unwavering, unequivocal message.   

My own introduction to this period of Bob Dylan’s life, came later in the 80s.  I was still playing catch up, only several years into my personal odyssey into Dylan’s music when a friend and colleague, Jeff, handed me a tape of Slow Train Coming and suggested I give it a listen.  Jeff was aware that my appreciation of Dylan was promising, but in its infancy, and he was trying to broaden my horizons.  Whether to simply connect me to good music (which Jeff did and does often) or to give me a new angle on my own belief system, to this day I am not certain (perhaps I should ask him).  Whatever the motivation, it worked, albeit - as the title of the album suggests - in a slow, methodical way. 

Jeff caught me at a good time with Slow Train Coming.  I was still just skimming the surface of the treasure chest that is Bob Dylan’s catalog, so this full frontal assault of a message disguised as an album was helpful at this stage in my learning curve, giving me the proper perspective to interpret Dylan’s more subtle faith-centered lyrics later, on albums like John Wesley Harding and Oh Mercy or songs like “Señor” and “Shelter From the Storm”.  The fact of the matter was that hearing songs about Christian faith in the rock music I loved was new to me.  Yes, I’d already delved into George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and virtually the entirety of Pete Townshend’s catalog; solo and with the Who. Both Harrison’s and Townshend’s music is loaded with beautiful songs of faith.  But their faith was the faith of Far Eastern origins, particularly India.  Conversely, what was radiating through each and every of the nine original songs on Slow Train Coming was my faith.  Up to that point, virtually all Christian faith-centric songs I connected with were hymns and psalms at Catholic Church services. I credit Bob Dylan (and my friend Jeff) for broadening that base for me.

The first song on Slow Train Coming that struck a chord was, strangely enough, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”.  It’s the one light touch on the album, many critics referring to it as a children’s song.  But it does have an ominous ending, the song hanging in mid-lyric with the introduction (to the Garden) of the snake.  It’s this ending that ties “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” to the rest of the album; emblematic of the mood that permeates throughout.  Slow Train Coming is loaded with Biblical truths and consequences, from Genesis all the way through to Revelation.  Bob Dylan pulls no punches here.  An attentive listen to this album is not for the faint of heart, or the weak in spirit…. unless their willing to contemplate making some changes in their lives. 

There are three gems on Slow Train Coming:  “Precious Angel”, “When He Returns” and this entries’ Master Blueprint, “I Believe in You”.  As with just about any of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, there’s always some point in the tune where his vocal delivery resonates particularly strongly; a stanza where you feel he is truly in the moment.  I have been touched this way listening to all 3 of these songs.  In “Precious Angel” it’s when Dylan sings the line “Sister let me tell you, about a vision that I saw” (at 2:40 mark of the url: ).  It lasts all of 4 seconds, too fleeting to auto-repeat, but the essence of Bob Dylan can be heard on that brief stretch (put in proper context of course, by listening to the whole song).  Side Note: That’s Mark Knopfler playing the great lead guitar, which is topped only on the title track.

Start to finish, Bob Dylan’s singing on the song “When He Returns” (sorry, no studio-version video to be found online) is some of his best.  There are many great lines delivered here, but the most poignant one for me is near the end when he sings “Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is un-con-cerned”.  “When He Returns” closes Slow Train Coming, which is appropriate in Biblical terms.  The song is stripped down, Dylan alone at the piano.  It’s raw, emotional, and powerful. 

As for “I Believe in You” those resonating moments would be all 6 times he exclaims “Oh” in the song (i.e. “Oh, though the earth may shake me….”: ).  Listening to these exclamations, I can’t help but conclude that “I Believe in You” is as much a prayer as it is a song.  There’s as much resolute devotion in the track as any church hymn I’ve ever heard. 

“I Believe in You” is a perfect example of why I am calling this series Master Blueprints.  Bob Dylan’s vocals, though amazing to some (including myself) are not for everyone.  He’s probably always known this.  And so, I believe one aspect to Dylan’s genius is that his songs are studio-produced in a way for other musicians to listen to, feel a connection with, cover, and make their own.  Many musicians have tapped into this deep well, including Richie Havens (“Just Like a Woman”), Lou Reed (“Foot of Pride”), Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”), Johnny Winter (“Highway 61 Revisited”), Ronnie Wood (“Seven Days”), The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), Joan Baez (“Love is Just a Four Letter Word”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), the list goes on.  In all these cases, it’s as if the song was written for that artist alone to discover and to sing.  I don’t see this anywhere else in the annals of music, not to this degree anyway.  Heck, last night Nancy and I went to a local show and both bands played Bob Dylan songs in unique and admirable ways that were compatible to their own styles.  I see this on a routine basis at shows I attend.  Incredible.

At least two musicians picked up on this made-for-me insight with “I Believe in You”.  The first was Sinead O’Connor, who was originally supposed to cover the song at Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992.  But in reaction to getting heckled by some in the audience as she walked onto the stage - this being not long after her appearance on SNL when she burned a photo of the Pope - she stared down the crowd for a good stretch.  At one point Kris Kristofferson came out to her from offstage to implore O’Connor by whispering - near enough to the mike for all to hear - “don’t let the bastards drag you down”.  His advice went unheeded.  Sinead tore off her headset, and stopped the band, who were trying to launch into “I Believe in You”.  She then ripped into a scathing vocal-only rendition of Bob Marley’s “War”, in turn ending up being the only artist that night who did not cover a Bob Dylan song.  Anyhow, she later covered the song at her own shows, including this lovely rendition in 1999: ( ). God is forgiving. 

And then there was Alison Krauss who also makes “I Believe in You” her own in this moving rendition: ( ).  Definitely worth a listen.

Slow Train Coming launched an invaluable 3-album period in Bob Dylan’s career. Faith was always in his repertoire, but full disclosure was necessary.  I believe the honesty, integrity and bravery of ‘the gospel years’ was a bridge of sorts that would eventually propel forth such brilliance in his later works.  That’s what faith, openness and honesty does.  It frees the soul and stirs the natural creative juices that are inside us all, juices always longing to be sprung.  I try to take these lessons to heart.  It’s not always easy, but I know when it’s happening, because when I feel it, it’s really, really real.