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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…..at 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: https://vimeo.com/197625859 ), 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.

Pete

3 comments:

  1. I think the song Red River Shore would have fit considering this storyline you project here. Interesting. I always thought Mississippi and RRS had made Time Out of Mind a true double lp an even more a masterpiece.

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    1. Bob Dylan works in mysterious ways. I appreciate the feedback. thank you

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  2. Pete. you writing is kindling my spirit and fueling my desire to get back to New Orleans. My one night on Bourbon Street remains at the top of my music life. I bounced from bars playing Blues, to Jazz, to Country, to Rock, and back to Blues again, having a drink at each stop and constantly conflicted in a should I stay or should I go frame of mind. It was music nirvana

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