Sunday, April 15, 2018

Master Blueprints # 14: “There Are No Mistakes in Life Some People Say, and its True Sometimes, You Can See It That Way”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Man in the Long Black Coat”
Album: Oh Mercy
Release Date: September, 1989

As they passed their fourth and fifth decades of public attention, a number of my favorite musicians, including Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson looked back on their respective careers with autobiographies.  Each and every one of their books would prove to be excellent reads, and all well-reflected the given author’s personality.  Each also reveals the great memories of these second-career authors. Put them all together and you have a pretty darn good cross-section synopsis of the Rock and Roll music world in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Five or so years ago - in the span of what would equate to a college semester - I would read most of these books, including Dylan’s (Chronicles: Volume One), Townshend’s (Who I Am), Young’s (Waging Heavy Peace) and Richards’ (Life).  Going in, I was curious about a lot of things, and for the most part that curiosity was satiated.  One of my big-ticket items of curiosity was studio-album oriented.  I wanted to get a better sense of how some of the greatest rock and roll albums of our time came to be.  How did the stars align in such a way that elevated the final product above the fray?  How did the individual songs come together?  Who raised their game?  Where was everyone’s head space at during the production?  How did the interpersonal dynamics effect things?  How did that period of either rising or declining popularity of the musicians who contributed factor in?  How did the lyrics come together?  How did the music come together? What made that moment in time unique? 

In one single chapter of his book, Bob Dylan did the best job out of all these musician-authors of addressing those fascinating questions.  One big reason Dylan nailed it was in the way he approached Chronicles.  The book was unlike any autobiography I had ever read.  Rather than a chronology of his life, he plucked out specific periods for self-scrutiny (in turn, leaving plenty of in-between space for future ‘Volumes’).  And there were only five chapters in all, which was brilliant, because it gave Dylan breathing space to dive into details.  Not the type of detail that can get watered down if an entire book is dedicated to one topic.  But just enough to make things tantalizingly interesting. 

The singular chapter I’m referring to is titled “Oh Mercy”, which is about the making of the masterful Bob Dylan album of the same name.  All the questions I pose above were answered in this chapter.  Dylan has a reputation as being a bit opaque and mysterious.  This is not what you get here.  There is clairvoyance, and open honesty about the struggle of pulling Oh Mercy together.  The reader is brought behind the scenes in a number of ways, and so can get a taste of what it takes to create something from scratch; something that in the end can be truly lasting.  One take-home message is that all good things require effort.  When that effort is particularly significant, once you’ve been through it a handful of times - whether successful or not - human instinct can have us shy away from doing so again.  You have to grab yourself by the bootstraps and persevere somehow.  Often it takes considerable introspection.  Sometimes it takes compromise.  These are some of the key points that Bob Dylan articulates both directly and indirectly in this chapter. 

Oh Mercy (the album) was the first Bob Dylan album that hit me hard upon its release.  In the years prior, I was primed for a strong Dylan album out of the gate: My rock and roll ‘education’ had finally reached this stage of awareness.  But throughout much of the 80s, there would be nothing that even hinted at a great album from this extremely talented artist.  This did not only apply to Dylan, it was the case with virtually all of the iconic 60s musicians.  What was it about the mid-80s that sapped them of their mojo?  The Rolling Stones Dirty Work, released in 1986, was disjointed at best.  Bob Dylan’s mid-80s efforts, Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, were not much better.  The Who released the disappointing It’s Hard and then called it quits.  Neil Young seemed to be going completely off the rails (Trans, Re-Ac-Tor, and a handful of other unmemorable efforts).  You would think this burn out/fade-away would have happened in the 70s.  But no, the 70s were actually pretty productive for most of these 60s icons. The creative dormancy did not go into effect until the big hair MTV 80s.  Perhaps there’s only so much sustained shelf life for a rock and roll musician or any musician/artist for that matter.  Someone should write a master’s thesis on it.

But then, quite incredibly, as the 80s curtain began to mercifully close, there was a momentum shift.  Creativity was on the rebound for a number of long timers, who were now entering their 4th decade of being in the public eye.  Within a handful of years we would get The Travelling Wilburys self-titled Volume 1 (sounds familiar), Lou Reed’s New York, Leonard Cohen’s The Future, and three amazing albums by Neil Young (Freedom, Ragged Glory, and Harvest Moon).  And of course there was Oh Mercy.

What was it about Oh Mercy that elevated it above its immediate predecessors?  For one thing, Bob Dylan appears to have admitted to himself for the first time in his career that if he was going to accomplish something significant this time around he was going to need help.  Much of that help would come in the form of Canadian record producer/musician Daniel Lanois who would assert his own creativity in the studio like no other individual Bob Dylan has worked with before or since (including when Lanois produced the masterpiece Time Out of Mind in 1997, which is the only other collaboration he has had with Dylan.  In that case his contributions appear to have been more subtle). 

Back in 2011, as I contemplated an every-other-year focus on my favorite musicians and the memories their music inspires within me, I made the conscious decision to toggle that focus between bands and solo musicians.  And so, first out of the gate was 50 blog entries on the Rolling Stones (“Stepping Stones” in 2012).  Next came the Neil Young “Forever Young” series in 2014, followed by the Who-inspired “Under the Big Top” series in 2016.   Now it’s Bob Dylan’s “Master Blueprints” (I’m not sure what I’ll be calling my Beatles series, slated for 2020).  Anyhow, the reason I did it this way is that I see a distinct difference between musicians who succeed mostly on their own and those who succeed as a collective unit.  I concluded right off that I would need to bounce back and forth to keep my own juices stirring.  

I’ve known all along that I’m a bit more fascinated with collective creativity than what comes from one individual alone (with rare exceptions, including Messrs. Dylan and Young).  There are more variables with collective creativity.  More dynamics.  More fluidity. This is why Oh Mercy, as a Bob Dylan album, is so intriguing to me.  Dylan was allowing others (particularly Daniel Lanois) into his creative space.  As he explains in his autobiography though, that paradigm shift came with angst and setbacks and futility and energy-draining days where little was agreed on or accomplished.  I think Bob Dylan knew what he was in for.  He sucked it up and made it work.  So did Lanois. 

What did Daniel Lanois bring to the table?  Well I’ll say this… Oh Mercy sounds like no other Bob Dylan album (same for Time Out of Mind).  Dylanophiles could argue that none of his albums sound like any other, but this is particularly the case for Oh Mercy.  It’s extremely ethereal, which is in direct contrast to how one would describe the meaning of each and every one of the 10 songs on the album, which are all extremely heavy.  This was likely the struggle that had to play out in the studio:  Bringing together these two polar environments.  The end result: It works.

Of all the ethereal and the heavy that the listener is bombarded with in the songs on Oh Mercy, the most ethereal/heavy of them all has to be this week’s Master Blueprint, “Man in the Long Black Coat” (  ).  And of all the songs that Bob Dylan describes how they came to be in Chronicles, this one stands out in extra potent detail.  He tells of how the drawn out sessions in New Orleans were nearing an end but there was still room for several more songs on the album.  Dylan felt he had to get away from it all for a bit, and so he and his wife took a 2-day motorcycle ride southwest over the Mississippi River and into Louisiana Bayou country.  On the second day, as Bob Dylan describes it “a gaunt shack called King Tut’s Museum caught my eye” (it ended up being a general store of sorts).  Dylan went inside while his wife sat out on the deck and he proceeded to have an extraordinary exchange with the proprietor, an ‘old timer’ named Sun Pie (who did most of the talking).  You would have to read Chronicles to understand how it plays out, but in essence, the entire 2-day road-trip experience, culminating in this exchange, is how “Man in the Long Black Coat” germinates.  Afterwards, Bob Dylan got back to the studio, and in no time, he, Lanois, and several New Orleans cats would be putting the icing on the Oh Mercy cake.

I’d like to close this entry with several acknowledgements…..

Other than the 2 Linda’s I met in Hibbing last month (see Master Blueprint # 10), the biggest fellow Bob Dylan enthusiast I personally know is Mike Major; a Canadian colleague who lives in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  We’ve collaborated and met quite often over the past 3 years.  Whenever we exchange emails we include a Bob Dylan quote in closing.  We also have been known to sing a bar or two when the mood is right, say after a long day of meetings.  The song we refer to the most is “Man In the Long Black Quote”, especially the bridge.  When we do this we take turns with the lines, which go:

There are no mistakes in life some people say
And it’s true sometimes you can see it that way
People don’t live or die people just float
There was dust on the man in the long black coat

Added side note for my concerned brother:  These lyrics do not reflect mine or Mike's views (particularly that 3rd line).... but it is intriguing to contemplate that there are those out there - Sun Pie for instance - who feel that way.  In Chronicles Bob Dylan called "Man in the Long Black Coat" his "Walk the Line", so I'm pretty darn sure he's not in that 'people-just-float' camp either.  A credit to brother Joe as well for recognizing the similarity with a line in Forrest Gump: I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. “.... which prompted my "Walk the Line" recall.

Acknowledgement # 2:  Of all the great tidbits of Bob Dylan’s life’s journey that he describes in Chronicles it was that 2-day motorcycle journey which resonated most with me when I first read it.  Since it had been a while, I felt that I needed to refresh my memory somewhat on the details of that short story before writing this entry.  I picked the book up at a local library (originally, Chronicles was lent to me by good friend, Jeff Strause) and began reading from the very beginning of the 80 page “Oh Mercy” chapter.  The re-read definitely helped. 

After I read it though, I came to a rather unexpected realization:  That there’s a fair likelihood I’ve been unconsciously attempting to emulate Bob Dylan’s autobiography style in these blog entries. In his book, a somewhat unique philosophy plays out in Dylan’s words and accounts where it appears as if he’s often compelled to follow through with inklings of thoughts that may at first seem somewhat inconsequential to those around him, but later pan out to be much more significant.  In other words, he’s driven to make meaning out of what first may appear to be peripheral to the moment.  He follows his muse and then encapsulates it all in a way that cuts to the core.  Apparently it’s an approach that is having an effect on my end.

With that, it’s a wrap.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Master Blueprints # 13: “Now, Each Of Us Has His Own Special Gift. And You Know This Was Meant To Be True”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Dear Landlord”
Album: John Wesley Harding
Release Date: December, 1967

In late 2016 the magazine Uncut released the excellent “Dylan: The Complete Story”, which included an equal-treatment review of every one of Bob Dylan’s 37 studio albums to that date (#38 Triplicate had not been released yet).  Part of the review was a five-star ranking of every song on each album (1 being the lowest and 5 the highest).  After reading through the reviews and song rankings, I found myself agreeing with the magazine to such a degree that I did some math. I tallied the total number of stars for all the songs on a given album, and divided by the total number of songs on that same album -- to get the mean.  What album ended up ranking on top?  Why it was none other than the relatively obscure (by Dylan standards) John Wesley Harding, which received a 4.75 out of possible 5 (see the bottom of this entry for the full statistical summary of every album, ranked best to worst based on that star summary).

For those out there who are loosely interested in Bob Dylan’s music, perhaps even many of those who consider themselves fans, I’m pretty sure this would come as a bit of a shock, possibly even evoking a “John Wesley who?” response.  Not me.  I love this album.  In fact - and this could be sacrilegious to you ‘Dylanologists’ out there – over the years I have found myself connecting more frequently to this record than I do to the masterpiece that preceded it; 1966’s Blonde on Blonde.  It may have something to do with John Wesley Harding being one of Bob Dylan’s least ambiguous albums.  It may have to do with the professional bare bones rhythm section.  As with any of Dylan’s music, however, it’s far more complex than that.

The story behind how John Wesley Harding came together is quite profound, which surely contributed to the aura of what we hear in the final product.  At the time (1967), Bob Dylan was immersed in musical isolation with The Band in upper state New York (see the last Master Blueprint for details), writing and performing a plethora of new material.  While he was doing this, he was also privately working on material for what would become John Wesley Harding.  Not a one of the songs from that album did he ever rehearse with The Band.  He would make several forays down to Nashville by train to work on John Wesley Harding with three entrusted session musicians.

I find this all fascinating.  I mean, who does this?  Both endeavors would end up proving to be astoundingly creative.  Both were masterfully conceived.  And both totally separate from one another, but done at the same time. In effect, Dylan was compartmentalizing two brilliant concepts, one (what would ultimately be known as The Basement Tapes) of which he was content to leave secluded from the public eye. 

So there’s a little backdrop.  Back to focusing squarely on John Wesley Harding, which I listened to all of this past week.  What is it that rates it among Dylan’s best works? 

Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Years” in the late 70s and early 80s are well documented.  And if that period is to be associated with the New Testament, as “Gospel” would suggest, a follow up thought that could arise from this general recognition is… how about the Old one?  Well, that’s the Testament feel I get when listening to John Wesley Harding.  As with the Old Testament, there’s foreboding on this album.  There are lessons to be learned too.  And there are flawed characters, which play out on John Wesley Harding in the guise of messengers, hobos, immigrants, drifters, little neighbor boys, jokers and thieves.  There are also martyr-like heroic qualities that play out in the form of St. Augustine, John Wesley Harding and Tom Paine. There’s also moral dilemma to contemplate all over, particularly in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”.  And there is a general sense of prophecy that permeates throughout the album. 

On top of all that there is what I believe to be a plea to God in the guise of….. a landlord (a twist perhaps on Lord)

“Dear Landlord” should have been the first song on John Wesley Harding (it is the first song on side 2 of the record).  Bob Dylan was making a “soulful bounding leap” in 1967, from his high octane, urban, plugged in, world traveler persona to a rural, pastoral family oriented one (again, see the last Master Blueprint entry for more on this).  John Wesley Harding was the first public revealing of this new persona.  And no song could have portrayed this transition, this new awakening, any better than “Dear Landlord”. 

“Dear Landlord” ( ) is a Christian prayer.  I say ‘Christian’ because the second stanza includes the line “I know you’ve suffered much”.  I say ‘prayer’ because I can relate to this sort of prayer.  Bob Dylan is reflecting, and somewhat reluctantly coming to terms with his God-given gifts.  He wants to make it clear to God that he understands this.  There’s a bit of lament too (“All of us, at times, we might work too hard, to have it too fast and too much…..”).  But Dylan is not abandoning his past here.  On the contrary, he’s reaffirming it.  And so, I believe “Dear Landlord” sets the ground rules for the long haul of Bob Dylan’s life, including this Never Ending Tour he is on.  It’s a pact of sorts.  A pact with God.

I played John Wesley Harding in the car all of this past week, and I have to admit that I was struggling to come up with some talking points for my first-notion focus song, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (I will have to loop back to that one for some other time).  And then, on a drive back from a work trip to Augusta, Maine this past Thursday, a distinct memory came flooding back as I listened to “Dear Landlord”, and I immediately knew that I had to abandon my initial inclination.

The memory I refer to was from way back when I could not have been much more than 5 years old (I know this because it was a memory from the backyard of my parents first home on Mill Street in Franklin, Massachusetts).  My younger brother, Fred - who by the way has been my greatest support for these blog entries - rode a red tractor in those days.  Not only did Fred ride a red tractor, he took care of it.  When Dad washed his car, Fred washed his tractor.  And he tinkered with it too, lubricating, tightening bolts, buffing, etc.  The rest of us enjoyed our assortment of tricycles and scooters, but that tractor stood out. 

Anyhow, one day I recall looking over at Fred with his red tractor, and thinking….’he’s got it all figured out’.  Granted, I was only 5 years old, but this was the general gist of what I was comprehending at the time.  Fred was going to make it in this market-driven economy of ours.  I knew right then that he had the drive and the wherewithal to be successful.  And indeed he has been successful, running with his market savvy, and living his dream in a beautiful town, with a wonderful home and family. 

But the true core of my thought process back in 1967 (which by the way was the same year as the release of John Wesley Harding) wasn’t really about Fred.  It was about me.  Because at the same time that I was thinking Fred had it made, I was also thinking, ‘holy crap where does that leave me?  I have none of these inclinations.  I don’t want a red tractor, and if I did have one, I wouldn’t want to buff it! I guess I’m screwed!’

Well, it has not turned out that way for me, thank goodness.  Mom and Dad sensed my environmental leanings early on, and never tried to inhibit them. They also ran with Fred’s inclinations. For example, in our formative years, while Dad saw to it that Fred got his Wall Street Journal subscription, he paid for me to become a member of Greenpeace.  The end result?  Like Fred, I’ve also been blessed with a measure of success, although my journey has been a far different one, finding my niche as a computer mapping specialist (GIS) in the water resources branch of the US Geological Survey.  The key for each of us though was that we followed the path of who we were. But as with any given Dylan album, it's far more complex than professional success.  There are many other elements that contribute to us being successful at life. 

This brings me back to “Dear Landlord” and particularly those beautiful lyrics near the end of the song, (which I also am using as my Master Blueprint title for this entry): “Now each of us has his own special gift.  And you know this was meant to be true”.  It was that particular set of lyrics that set off that memory.  That moment in the back yard on Mill Street as a 5 year old was the first time I connected with this faith-based truism. 

Regardless of any measure of success however, I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what I first began contemplating 50 years ago.  I’m sure Fred is still figuring it out too.  And so is Bob Dylan.  We all are.  It’s a never ending journey to master one’s own God given gifts.  I’m pretty certain however, that the occasional “Dear Landlord” plea helps to move us in that general direction.

- Pete 


Rating Dylan albums based on song stars in the 2017 Uncut issue “Dylan: The Complete Story”.  Every song in Bob Dylan’s studio-album catalog was rated (1 lowest and 5 highest).  I took the sum of all stars for songs on a given album and divided by total number of songs on that album (the mean).  Below is my summary.  There are 3 numbers in parenthesis after each album. The 1st number is the order of the album in Dylan’s discography.  The 2nd number is the number of songs that got 5 stars on a given album - which was used to break ties – and the 3rd decimal number is the mean value. (* note: the Uncut issue was before the release of “Triplicate”)

 1.  “John Wesley Harding” (8/9/4.75)
 2. “Love and Theft” (31/8/4.667)
 3. “Highway 61 Revisited” (6/6/4.667)
 4. “Modern Times” (32/6/4.6)
 5. “Bringing It All Back Home” (5/6/4.545)
 6. “Blonde on Blonde” (7/7/4.5)
 7. “Blood on the Tracks” (15/6/4.5)
 8. “Together Through Life” (33/6/4.4)
 9. “Pat Garret & Billy the Kid” (12/5/4.4)
10. “The Basement Tapes” (16/10/4.25)
11. “The Times They Are A’-Changin’” (3/4/4.2)
12. “Saved” (20/2/4.111)
13. “Oh  Mercy” (26/4/4.1)
14. “Nashville Skyline (9/3/4.0)
15. “Shadows in the Night” (36/2/3.9)
16. “Slow Train Coming” (19/4/3.889)
17. “The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan” (2/4/3.846)
18. “World Gone Wrong” (29/1/3.8)
19. “Desire” (17/1/3.778)
20. “Time Out of Mind” (30/2/3.727)
21. “Good As I Been To You”  (28/0/3.692)
22. “Tempest” (35/1/3.6)
23. “New Morning” (11/2/3.5)
24. “Planet Waves” (14/0/3.454)
25. “Empire Burlesque (23/0/3.4)
26. “Bob Dylan” (1/1/3.384)
27. “Infidels” (22/0/3.375)
28. “Shot of Love “ (21/1/3.333)
29. “Fallen Angel “ (37/0/3.333)
30. “Street Legal” (18/1/3.22)
31. “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (4/2/3.182)
32. “Self Portrait” (10/0/3.041)
33.  “Under the Red Sky” (27/0/2.6)
34.  “Knocked Out Loaded” (24/1/2.25)
35.  “Dylan” (13/0/2.222)
36.  “Down In the Groove” (25/0/2.1)
37.  “Christmas In the Heart” (34/0/2.0)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Master Blueprints # 12: “Now, I’ve had Enough, My Box is Clean. You Know What I’m Sayin’ and You Know What I Mean”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Odds and Ends”
Album: The Basement Tapes
Release Date: June, 1975 (recorded in late winter, 1967)

Anyone who has ever loved Rock and Roll has likely imagined what it must have been like to be in one or more of the genera’s greatest bands during their peak.  To that end, perhaps you rock-god wannabe’s envisioned being a member of the Rolling Stones in the early 70s, cobbling together songs like “Ventilator Blues” and “Loving Cup” in the wee hours down in the subterranean labyrinths of Keith Richards’ French Riviera mansion-of-exile.  Or maybe you’ve imagined being part of the four-ringed circus-act that was the Who in 1969, on the stage at Woodstock performing Tommy as the sun rose over the massive, awe-inspired crowd.  Or as a Beatle in 1967, surrounded by adoring peers and an orchestra to sing “All You Need Is Love” to the world on live simulcast TV.  Or maybe as a member of Pink Floyd in 1973, listening back to the final master cut of Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. 

All amazing moments in incredible bands, but I’d trade any of them to be a member of The Band in 1967, creating music with Bob Dylan in that immortalized West Saugerties, New York “Big Pink” basement (or at least witnessing it all play out as a fly on the wall).  I’d go even further and say that I have to agree with an enlightening statement Eric Clapton once made.  He stated in so many words that when taking in the whole ball of wax, there was no band more true its namesake than The Band…..and therefore no band he’d rather have been in.  This ensemble was unique in how perfectly balanced their musicianship was and how complimentary they were to each other. They were also students of American roots music. Together, they bridged a vast American musical divide like no other band I know, and in doing so, blended our past with our then present. 

The names of The Band members alone have a certain throwback rustic allure:  Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Richard Manuel; one from the Deep South (Helm) and the other four Canadians.  All quality multi-instrumentalists who could play on strings, keys, wind instruments, plugged in or out, banging on things, you name it.  All with a Huckleberry Finn like story of breaking off from home at a very young age.  All straight out of the school of hard knocks.  And all with a soft, endearing side that made you root for them as individuals (to get a quick sense of this, I suggest you read one of my favorite passages in any book, which is Robertson’s touching “God only made one of those” closing remarks about each of his bandmates in his tremendous auto-biography Testimony - pages 488-490).

These 5 musicians became a significant part of music history through their connection with Bob Dylan, first as the backing band on his inharmonious/at times glorious first ‘electric’ tour in 1966 (receiving more jeers from the crowds than cheers) and then in splendid “Big Pink” isolation in the Catskills in 1967 (arguably these are the two most fascinating years in Dylan’s illustrious career).  But what’s really amazing about their story was how they evolved with Dylan in that 2 year period and, how the massive amount of Americana-style music they all wrote, performed and recorded together in ‘67 would not see the light of day until many years –even decades – later.  When The Band would finally emerge back in the public eye with a masterful album all their own in 1968 (Music from Big Pink), a reputation, shrouded in mystery and mystique, would precede them. Such a reputation can be hard to top from the eyes of a fellow musician, a musical historian, or a fan. 

Bob Dylan and The Band did not only write songs in the basement of Big Pink that sounded steeped in America’s past.  They wrote song narratives that fit the mold as well.  These were simple narratives about simpler lives, simpler times, and simpler notions that cut to the core.  They also had a lot of fun, Dylan often tossing into his lyrics what first comes across as amazing randomness.  But that wordsmithing fit the mold too, because Bob Dylan was trying to get into the heads of the quirky characters he was creating in his songs, complete with local dialects, odd rituals, head-scratching priorities and hilarious colloquialisms (to get a nutshell perspective on what I mean, just read the lyrics to “Tiny Montgomery”).

The Basement Tapes re-opened all sorts of doors for me. When I first got into Rock and Roll, the goal in my life was to broaden my horizons, turn over stones that had not been turned.  Satisfy that wanderlust.  All well and good.  But as the saying goes, a rolling stone gathers no moss and so, however fascinating that world of discovery is, there’s something to be said for ‘bringing it all back home’ and reconnecting with the familiar after all is said and done. 

My hometown of Franklin Massachusetts was an idyllic rural community to grow up in during the 60s and 70s (it’s now unfortunately quite built out).  “Gooey Louie” sold eggs down the street from our first home, straight out of his chicken coops.  Another neighbor, “Brett”, dropped off the milk bottles from his cow farm up the road, and picked up the empties in the process. The train tracks opened a world of woodsy exploration to myself and a group of outlandish lifelong friends (often the dogs who would accompany us would also outnumber us).  Mom and Pop shops were the rage in our small town, be it the hobby shop, penny candy store, news store (which included comic books) sub shop, drug store, diner, or department store, all replete with an assortment of eccentric owners and clerks. Not-your-average-Joe types roamed the streets, including Big Butch, a benign veteran of war casualty who walked around town with sunglasses on, and a radio held to his ear. 

The Basement Tapes also had a kin-folk angle, as intertwined in the narrative is the quirkiness associated with small town family life (which also comes alive in The Band’s Music from Big Pink).  The love is there for sure, but it comes at the listener from this rather odd angle.  One great example is how Bob Dylan and The Band manage to make the entirety of a song, “Cloths Line Saga”, focus on the simplicity of a kid taking clothes off the line for his Mom.  They do this by inserting whimsical whit into the equation; the type of whit that can only be applied to a day in the life of a healthy, happy, albeit whacky family.  I could relate to that. 

It’s not all fun and games on The Basement Tapes though.  Lines get sprinkled in on virtually every song that has you contemplating life’s moral value system. The refrain in “Odds and Ends” (this week’s Master Blueprint) includes the line “Lost time is not found again”.  “Open the Door, Homer” is laced with reflective lines, including “And remember when you’re out there trying to heal the sick; that you must always first forgive them”.  “Too Much of Nothing” is about the pitfalls of one of the seven deadly sins; sloth.  And then there’s “Tears of Rage” about a parent being abandoned by their child.  Yeah, and so, although there was plenty of the genuine and the pure to romanticize on in regards to rural America, Bob Dylan does not shy from what can tear that idyllic fantasy world apart either.

The Basement Tapes has plenty of magical musical moments, with the loveliest for me being Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ lead during the bridge of “Bessie Smith”.  Rick Danko’s bass is pretty funky in “Yazoo Street Scandal”.  Richard Manuel’s singing on “Orange Juice Blues” is quite stirring as well. For the most part, however, nothing ever really stands out on its own.  The ‘instrument’ is the entire sound of a band playing as if one person, or a well-oiled machine.  The greatest thing about the instrumentation though is trying to guess who was playing what instrument on each song.  Manuel, typically the keyboardist, added a remarkably peculiar style of drumming to his repertoire in the heady early months at “Big Pink”, when Levon Helm had abandoned ship for a spell.  Various members picked up a mandolin or standup bass, or whatever else was lying around for different songs.  The liner notes in the booklet that comes with the 2014 The Bootleg Series, Volume 11: The Basement Tapes Raw includes the comment “harmony and instrumentation are unknown because all involved were multi-instrumentalists and vocalists. No written documentation remains.”

On multiple levels, Bob Dylan was trying to connect with a more authentic period in American history, which included writing songs simply for the fun of it.  In fact, if not for Garth Hudson’s obsession with reel-to-reel preservation, not a one of the multitude of The Basement Tapes songs would have ever been recorded for posterity.   I find this fascinating.  It’s as if Bob Dylan were trying to channel the simplicity of a time that no longer existed.  A time when story and song only made its way from one generation to another through word of mouth and imitation.  Robbie Robertson mentions in his book a serious moment he had with Dylan when they contemplated burning the hundreds of hours of tapes.  These were not their tapes though.  Rational minds prevailed, thank goodness.

The Basement Tapes had something to do with my desire to seek out another 70’s Franklin for my children’s upbringing.  That wish came true 14 years ago, when the family moved to Pepperell, Massachusetts.  Here was a throwback town to my youth.  Not entirely, but close enough.  No traffic lights.  No lines at the bank.  Woods all around to explore.  And quirky characters galore, including a number of the great buddies our children became friends with.  This was a town you could slip The Basement Tapes or Music from Big Pink into the cd player, drive around, and think…. ’oh, yeah!’

Coming at The Basement Tapes on the back side of discovery and exploration is I believe the only way to do so: That experienced rolling stone perspective is most certainly a prerequisite for such self-awareness. It’s what Bob Dylan and The Band did after touring the world, pushing new horizons on what Rock and Roll could accomplish.  Dylan made the right choice after that experience though…. he turned back the clock for a spell, completely going against the Sgt. Pepper psychedelic grain of the times.  The Band responded in kind, and in doing so appealed greatly to Bob Dylan’s musical sensibilities and his vast wealth of creativity. 

Nearly two decades later, it’s what I did too: I reconnected with my American roots after setting off to see what else was out there.  I mostly have my upbringing to thank for finding home base again.  But there’s a piece of gratitude there as well for Bob Dylan and The Band.  For that matter, you can toss in Tiny Montgomery, Missus Henry, Silly Nelly, Rose Marie, Sadie, Lou and Lester, Valerie and Vivian, Half-track Frank and Skinny Moo too.


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

The book synopsis 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 into Mississippi, then down coastal route 90 thru Gulfport and Biloxi (where I would meet my wife's cousin and his wife for dinner) and finally a loop back up to the main highway (Rte. 10) for the last leg across the Alabama border to 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 lifted anchor 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 musical acts 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.