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Monday, January 1, 2018

Master Blueprints # 1: “Take Me On A Trip Upon Your Magic Swirlin’ Ship”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: January, 1965

It was a cold winter’s night, I’m thinking 1987-88.  I’d driven into ‘Boston Town’ to meet good friends, Phil and Mac and catch some live music at a jazz club.  First order of business was finding a metered parking space, particularly seeing that in those days every penny counted and meters ran free after dusk.  After a few circles around the block, I spied a prime spot near the club, and shoehorned my barebones white Datsun into the questionable car space available.  As was always the case in the 80s, WBCN FM, the “Rock of Boston”, was blaring on my radio, and as I proceeded to turn off my ignition - and in turn the music - the DJ just happened to be in the middle of introducing the next song.  Out of curiosity I hesitated:  WBCN DJ’s were known to throw deep cuts and curve balls at the listener in those days, and experience told me to hear her out.  It was a wise decision.

Over the airwaves, the opening guitar salvo to the live Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue version of “Shelter from the Storm” (off the live Hard Rain album) permeated through my speakers.  To my knowledge, I’d never heard this song, not even the studio version off of Blood on the Tracks.  It immediately resonated with me, and despite its length (the studio version clocks in at a bit over 5 minutes) and my running a tad late, I sat and listened to it in its entirety.  It was the tipping point moment in my connection with the music of Bob Dylan.

In the years previous, I’d slowly been perking my ears to Dylan’s music.  All my other major music influences from the 60s and 70s, including the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Kinks, and Van Morrison, had already made serious inroads into my rock and roll heart.  But Bob Dylan had remained elusive, despite being mentioned as a major influence by these musicians, and so many more who I already had the utmost respect for.  Dylan’s songs were also covered more often than anyone else’s music at shows I attended.  What was it that they were drawn to?  What did these incredible musicians connect to that I did not quite grasp?  Sure I had respect for the man who had written a handful of timeless protest folk songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.   But why all the seemingly over-the-top accolades?  What did they hear in this gravelly voiced soothsayer that blew their minds?  I - wanted - to - know.

That Boston car-parking moment was the first real clue for me.  Since then it’s been an avalanche of head shaking, jaw dropping wonder.  Very few people I know understand this fascination, and since I have been so moved by this artist, I see it as my duty to try and explain.  And so, over the next year or so, I’ll attempt to do just that through my standard approach; blending personal reflections that are inspired by music (as I’ve already done with 50 blog entries respectively in relation to the music of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and the Who).  Bob Dylan is truly the cream of the crop.  He’s poetry in music.  His greatest strengths are inspiration and truth.  He ceaselessly seeks redemption.  He’s a man who is always busy being born.  He is the artist of our times who will above all others, not just survive the test of time, but thrive the test of time.  And oh boy, does he ever have a body of work.  There’s no way I can fit it all in with 50 entries, but I welcome that challenge. 

I can’t think of a song more apropos to launch this series than “Mr. Tambourine Man” (I’ll get to “Shelter from the Storm” later).  There are several reasons for this. The first is related to the only personal connection I ever made with Bob Dylan.  It was at the Roy Orbison tribute show at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in the spring of 1990, which I have written about in a previous entry (see http://pete-gemsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2009/02/gmvw-59-got-it.html ).  My wife, Nancy and I had won tickets to this show and were seated in the second row, center stage.  Every musician that performed that night covered a Roy Orbison song, except for a surprise, somewhat out-of-context, one-off reunion of three of the original members of the Byrds (David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn) who played a short set of several of their most famous songs from the 60s.  If that were not shocking enough, who comes roaming onstage with them halfway through their set, but Bob Dylan!  After he playfully tussled with Crosby for a moment they all got serious and broke into “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a Dylan song made into a hit by the Byrds in 1965. 

I knew right away it was a historic music moment and, in a rare move in relation to the plethora of concerts I have attended throughout my life, I pulled a camera out, not heeding a warning from friend Jeff Strause that Bob Dylan was averse to any means of recording him in those days (Jeff having his tape recorder swiped from him by security at a Boston show earlier that year).  As the song played out, and I snapped a few shots, Dylan honed in on me, drifted to the edge of the stage in front of us, and glared at me and my camera.  My one encounter with this musician-icon, as with another, Pete Townshend, years later ( http://pete-gemsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2016/01/under-big-top-1-pete-meet-and-greet.html ), was not a warm and fuzzy.  But after all the stories I had read about how Dylan sometimes works with studio musicians and how he often deals with reporters and fans, at least I did not feel completely isolated in my supposed wayward moment.  Regardless it felt in that instance as if daggers were emanating out of Bob Dylan’s eyes, cutting clear though to my soul.  This was one intense man, and I got a self-inflicted taste of his medicine, momentarily losing my good vibrations on that otherwise glorious evening.  I got the hint, put my camera away, and simply took in the show for memory alone from that moment on.

The second strong connection I made with “Mr. Tambourine Man” was while watching the live simulcast of the 1992 Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert (I plan to write more on this show in the months ahead, seeing as there were so many highlights).  The song was performed that night by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, along with the aforementioned Roger McGuinn.  I recall as I listened to it thinking at the time that Petty and crew had in mind Dylan himself as they sang the lyrics.  And then near the end of the song, Tom Petty catches McGuinn’s eye and offers a knowing wink.  At that moment, I felt a kinship with these musicians.  A common sense of wonder in relation to the man they were honoring, not only through a song written by him, but now being interpreted as also being about him.  Not long after, I purchased the VCR tape of the show and every time I get to that Petty-winking moment, I feel that same connection (most recently in a slightly different light after the sudden death of Tom Petty this past October).  

Which brings me to the meaning of “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  Let me say right off, I’m not going to make any claims in this series to know precisely what Bob Dylan means when he puts pencil to paper when composing.  All I can do is to try and relay how I interpret his songs, which often evolves with each listen.  Anyhow, to me this song is about being astonished by the strength of someone’s (or God’s) character, which is conveyed here in that being’s ability to emit unearthly beautiful music, and you yourself wanting nothing else but to listen.  Dylan gets this across with the aura of an early morning urban setting after an all-night escapade, the protagonist weary but somehow energized.  We’ve all been there.  Dylan is an expert at this sort of thing - tapping into your conscience through common life experiences - like no other songwriter I know. 

I’m thinking this series on Bob Dylan will be fairly unique.  Unlike other series on the Rolling Stones, Who, and Neil Young, I’ll be discussing the instrumentation much less here.  Dylan is more about the spoken word, the lyrics, the cadence, and the meaning (although the meaning is a commonality with all these series’, it’s a bit more so here).  I’ve dubbed this series “Master Blueprints” because part of what fascinates me with Dylan is that he never appears to try and perfect his delivery on stage or in studio.  He lays it out there, for others to work with, even more so than for himself.  These are blueprints you hear on his records, which in some miraculous way, makes his songs even more profound than if they had been expertly crafted.  I will strive to make this blueprint concept a common theme in this series, particularly in regards to how I write my part of the story. 

Also, unlike other series, I’m not going to make a regular attempt to add a url link of the song of choice.  The original studio versions are too hard to find on the web.  I suggest if you find yourself intrigued or curious that you go out and purchase the given record if you don’t have it, or borrow it from the library.  And finally, these entries are likely to be more sporadic than the weekly output In typically try to pull off, as I’m multitasking with all sorts of things these days.  I’ll try my best to keep a routine though.

Happy New Year.

Pete

4 comments:

  1. After a well deserved hiatus, I am excited to read on, and I cant think of a better topic than Dylan. Of the many memories of living on Lake Street, putting Blood on the Tracks on the turntable was not only memorable, but altering. I had never been a fan, but that was an easy position to have; your reference to the mid-80's starting the Dylan journey was the spark I needed. Once again, you fuel(ed) my own musical journey.

    I look forward to dissecting Mr. Tambourine Man. You have made me lazy and although I will find a link, I always appreciated your providing access, especially to a version you like.
    Your interpretation of the songs conveyance "...in that being’s ability to emit unearthly beautiful music" reminds me of my love of the song "Killing me Softly". Powerful stuff.
    I'm excited for more.

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    1. Fred, I'm going to work harder at finding those urls. Keep the feedback coming if you are so inspired (as I told Jeff below). It feeds the flame.

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  2. Tambourine Man is the first and one of few songs I have a strong visceral feeling for, walking around streets of Harrisburg one day in the late sixties looking for something to do and finding nothing, but with fragments of the lyrics and that poetic hopeful feel of the song clanging around in my head. I was too poor to get much of any albums until 70-71 on but heard enough through AM and some FM radio (WMMR) to have a good variety of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, and various stuff on my mind.

    Tambourine Man is I suppose one of the key songs from his catalog with that uber-literate nobel prize blah blah with the spectacular lyrics. But for me none of the songs have much meaning without the musicality that surrounds the song and gives it its feel. I've always had trouble following the story in more dense songs and only really pay attention to the lyrics of any song unless they kind of hit me over the head. Which of course a lot of good songs do, but only when the music matches the message. And that is after spending most of my live listening in the past 40 plus years at folkie type venues and listening to less pure 'rock and roll', more lyrics-oriented stuff.

    Anyway, aside from that I had to think a bit about the 'master blueprint' paradigm. I suppose it makes a lot of sense, but on the other hand, I have this horrible tendency of being pretty stuck on the early musical offerings, I almost always like the first few albums and versions of songs I hear more than later ones. I first heard 'There but for Fortune' from Joan Baez 5, and later became a big fan of Phil Ochs, but still like her version better. Meanwhile, there are very few Dylan songs I heard from someone else first, and invariably I like his better. I'mm just a crotchedy old narrow minded bugger.

    But there is one aspect of a 'blueprint' type effect that makes sense to me, in a different way than yours. Its been well described over the years and especially for his earlier songs where he has taken the music from traditional British Isles songs, as his early hero Woody Guthrie took music from Carter family songs, and remade them with his own lyrics. So in this remaking, he is taking the 'musical blueprints' from earlier songs and making them into his own.

    So anyway, enough of my 'alternative facts' for now ...

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    1. Jeff, thanks for that feedback. If anyone I know can describe how music adds to lyrics its you. Keep the feedback coming if you are so inspired. I love it.

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