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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Master Blueprints # 16: “But Please Tell That to Your Friend in the Cowboy Hat. You Know He Keeps on Sayin’ Ev’rythin’ Twice to Me”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “She’s Your Lover Now”
Album: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
Release Date: March, 1991 (recorded in Jan. 1966 for the Blonde on Blonde sessions)

Rolling Stone magazine has Bob Dylan in at # 7 for the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time ( https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-singers-of-all-time-19691231 ).  When I first glanced at the rating I thought….what’s up with this?  I mean, I love Dylan’s music (hopefully stating the obvious at this point), but I’d never put much thought along this particular line when reflecting on what it is that makes his music superb, and before reading that Rolling Stone list, I could not recall anyone who had ever made such a compelling case for this aspect of his musicianship.  Yeah, maybe toss him in as a courtesy somewhere in the 80s or 90s, but # 7?  Was this not akin to ranking Dylan’s guitar prowess with the likes of Clapton, Hendrix, and Santana? It just did not register at first. 

When it comes to singing, there will always be strong cases made for the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Roger Daltrey, Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, and Curtis Mayfield and many others.  These musicians are all obviously extremely talented in this regard.  Heck, even Neil Young has gotten the rare nod as a great singer, at least for those of us who have an attuned ear for what many others may consider a vocal delivery akin to shrieking.  With Bob Dylan however, I have always had felt that his singing was more a means to an end and surmised perhaps that even he felt this way. 

However, the Rolling Stone #7 slot got me thinking, and it did not take long before I was changing my tune.  After all…. there has to be a reason why Bob Dylan sings all his own material; this despite the fact that he himself has called his versions blueprints (hence my blog series title).  And then it dawned on me: Dylan sings every single one of his own songs because he knows how honest he is with himself, and in this way he trusts himself to deliver his version of any song first and let the chips fall from there.  Honesty with oneself can be revealing in many ways but I can’t think of any that are more revealing than in how someone delivers a song vocally.  From this point of view, there are few out there who can rival Bob Dylan when it comes to singing.  Rolling Stone Magazine got it right.

All this came to mind this week as I listened to the deep cut “She’s Your Lover Now”, a song from the Blonde on Blonde sessions that did not make the final cut.  Why a blog focus on Bob Dylan’s singing in this song, and not say “Blowin’ in the Wind” – where Dylan is speaking core truths – or “Lay Lady Lay” – where he comes across in a rare comforting sort of way – or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – where the day of reckoning is expressed so poignantly - or “Every Grain of Sand” – where deep Faith shines through?  Converse to all those gems, “She’s Your Lover Now”, like its blood relatives “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Positively 4th Street” “Idiot Wind” and “It’s All Good”, drips with sarcasm, in a way that is both hilarious and downright scary at the same time.  These are not the type of emotions that typically stir the soul, which is what great vocals do.  So what was it that tripped that Dylan-vocals wire in my head this week?  Well I’ve already greased those skids, because….. I did say just say ‘typically’. 

When I think of singers who can express themselves in ironic fashion, Ray Davies immediately comes to mind (“Plastic Man”, “Shangri La”, “David Watts”).  John Lennon is not too far behind (“How Do You Sleep”, “Working Class Hero”).  After that, Bob Dylan is right there in the mix and the song that does it best for me in this regard is “She’s Your Lover Now”.  The lyrics are priceless, and the delivery of them is equally astonishing.  This is a complex song (one of the most complex in Dylan’s catalog), which may be the biggest reason it never made it on Blonde on Blonde.  The version we get on The Bootleg Series cuts off abruptly near the end of the fourth and final stanza, Dylan presumably forgetting the closing lines (although I leave room for this being a slip up with one of the Nashville session guys).  But other than causing it not to make the original classic album it was intended for, it matters not.  The cat is out of the bag by this point of the song.  Every ounce of artistic energy has already been spent. 

Bob Dylan sets the scene brilliantly in “She’s Your Lover Now”.  We are placed in the world of mid-60s counterculture, likely Greenwich Village, New York City, the protagonist in the song laying it all out on the line to a former love interest, who comes across as extremely headstrong and self-absorbed.  And equally on the receiving end of the verbal abuse is her new lover, who kowtows to her egocentric ways.  We get brought into the hip social setting of the day, and there’s a light shed on it that is devoid of praise.  You get the sense that Bob Dylan was on the cusp of heading for the hills (which indeed is what happened less than a year later). 

Out of the gate, Dylan sounds mockingly saccharine with the line “the scene was so cra-zeeee, wasn’t it?” j…..catching lightning in a bottle with one of the hip phrases of the day (when I listen, I’m reminded of Richard Manuel singing “Cuz’ I’m tired of everything being bea-uuuu-tiful, bea-uuuu-tiful” on “Orange Juice Blues”…. same era phrase coming out in sarcastic wit there).  From that point on it’s a relentless surge of ridicule.  There are four or five tempos, verses and bridges going on here but at the core of it all is a recurring toggle of the protagonists attention, first toward his former love interest in the form of indignation, and then toward her current lover in the form of disgust.  When he switches attention to the new lover it’s always with the line “and you….”, as in “and YOU!”.  The listener can almost see him pivot and wave a finger in the poor saps face. 

I love analyzing this song because it’s endlessly entertaining.  One of the early great lines directed at the former love interest goes “Now you stand here expectin’ me to remember something you forgot to say”.  That’s another thing about “She’s Your Lover Now”; we hear anger directed at the laziness of spirit.  Just after that line, the protagonist pivots attention to the new lover for the first time with “Yes, and YOU, I see your still with her, well.  That’s fine ‘cause she’s comin’ on so straaaange can’t you tell”.  The double barrage attack is now becoming apparent.

The second stanza includes my favorite line in the entire song (and also the title of this entry) - directed at the former love interest: “But pleeeease tell that to your friend in the cowboy hat. You know he keeps sayin’ ev’rythin’ twice to me”.  We are all welcomed into the room of the bohemian party scene here, and the big bruiser bouncer type, coming across as a mercenary for the former love interest, looking to lay a beat down on the protagonist for either real or imagined slights (more likely the latter).  The insight to conceive of a line like that is what puts Bob Dylan in a class all his own. 

Later in the stanza there’s this: “Now you stand here sayin’ you forgive and forget. Honey what can I say?”.  So very real: Considering the circumstances, there is really nothing to say.  Again, Bob Dylan, as the protagonist, being true to himself.  And then the 2nd pivot to the new lover: “Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?  I see you kiss her on the cheek ev’rytime she gives a speech”.  I’m staggered every time I hear it.  And there’s more rollicking verbal abuse immediately after that line, but I’d just be repeating myself with description.

On to the third stanza, which includes the line “Now you stand here while your finger’s goin’ up my sleeve”.  Yow!  There will have to be some reevaluation at some point for that former love interest if she ever hopes to get her life back intact.  And then the 3rd pivot: “and YOU, just what do you do anyway?  Ain’t there nothin’ you can say?”  This is the way it’s written out in the on-line lyrics (as well as Bob Dylan’s book of lyrics).  But when Dylan sings it on the Bootlegs version, I hear “there ain’t nothin you can say”.  Note, there’s no question mark here at the end.  This is a statement of fact.  I like it much more, as well as the notion of how far a simple rearranging of words can make a difference.  This is followed by one of the most mind boggling lines in Bob Dylan’s vast laundry list of lyrics: “She’ll be standin’ on the bar soon. With a fish head an’ a harpoon.  And a fake beard plastered on her brow”.  Dylan howls this out, dragging out the last word.  It’s fascinating, but I don’t even know where to begin with it.  Somebody help!

One thing that makes “She’s Your Lover Now” so effective is one particular transition that resonates in each stanza.  I’ll use the line in the first stanza as an example.  It’s where Dylan sings “Did it have to be that way?” ….with a long drawn out “waaaaaaayyyyy”, where Dylan sings down through several octaves, as if slipping into the deep abyss.  It’s a feeling of hopeless resignation and Bob Dylan makes it so palpable in the way he sings it.  Again, Rolling Stone got it right.

I could not find the Bootlegs version on the internet.  If you’ve never heard it, you’re just going to have to track it yourself (I recommend it).  Another take is here: ( https://vimeo.com/153198336 ).  It’s a solo version, with not as much, ahhh …… venom.  But it carries its own weight. 

Ok, so Bob Dylan’s vocals are top notch. I get it.  An acquired taste, yes, but definitely worth putting the effort in to acquire.  This entry got me thinking though along another line.  Dylan’s musicianship has never been in question, however, if you isolate the argument to how great his guitar playing, piano playing, harmonica playing, what have you, is, you are left thinking that none of it percolates to anywhere near the aficionado realm.  But as with Leonard Cohen, it’s much much deeper than that.  That’s partly what this blog series is about.  To get to the bottom of why --  that --  is.

Pete

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Master Blueprints # 15: “You Never Turned Around To See the Frowns on the Jugglers and the Clowns When They All Did Tricks for You”


(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Like a Rolling Stone”
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Release Date: August, 1965

The birth-year range of the “Baby Boomer” generation is defined by Wiki as “beginning early- to mid-1940s and ending anywhere from 1960 to 1964”.  Those of us on the tail end who were teens in the 70s (I was born in 1962) relate strongly to our Boomer roots.  We see the images of The Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Woodstock, and we think, yeah, I can dig that (I just had to slip in this term in honor of those older Baby Boomer brethren).  Most of us do anyway.  In fact, there’s a fascination with it all.

Invariably, however, there’s bound to be a bit of disconnect when one has not experienced something firsthand, which requires research and reflection if you hope to hurdle this truism.  I went through just such a hurdling process this week as I listened to Bob Dylan’s magnum opus (one of them, anyway), “Like a Rolling Stone”, opening wide a cascade of new insights on what it must have been like to be in your formative years in 1965, and hearing this song when it first came out.  

I’ll get to that moment and the ensuing cascade of thought soon enough.  First a bit of background. 

Transitioning from one song focus to another on a weekly basis for these blogs can often be smooth, but I was under no illusion that this time around would be one of those.  I’d been on a roll of sorts with the previous 6 entries, diving into some of my favorite Bob Dylan albums and/or building loose ideas and storylines from one to the next.  But as I leafed through my cd options this past Sunday, I felt it was time to take a leap of faith.  I’d been avoiding Dylan’s two mid-60s album outputs, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.  I was well aware that both of these records are often ranked at or near the top of the all-time greatest Rock albums by critics, and so I was beginning to feel I’d be remiss to not tackle them sooner than later.  With this in mind, I performed a quick eeny-meenie-mynie-moe, and with not much of a clue where I was heading, I proceeded to remove the winning cd from its sleeve and popped it into the player.

Why the hesitancy? Well those who have read these blog entries even on a cursory basis can pretty much conclude that I’m a studio-album-oriented kinda guy.  I get many of my writing points from that broad perspective and then hone in on a given ‘song of the week’ as I continue to listen to it through the lens of the original host album.  Great albums have a contextual story behind them, and I’m often compelled to tackle that first.  My hang-up here was, although these 2 seminal works are chalk full of song chestnuts, I’d never really felt that ‘album vibe’ from either of them.  As I began listening to Highway 61 Revisited this week, I recalled feeling the same way from time to time when I was writing my ‘Stepping Stones’ series six years ago, which was centered on the music of the Rolling Stones.  Those occasions were when I was writing about some of the Stones earliest hits from albums like Out of Our Heads and Aftermath. The album vibe wasn’t working then either.  In such cases I would have to come at things from a different angle. 

It’s been fairly well documented that the Beatles Revolver (released in 1966) and then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (’67) were the first album-oriented Rock records, and I tend to agree (although I have to say, Bob Dylan’s much more subtle first contribution to album orientation, John Wesley Harding, came out around the same period).  So if Highway 61 Revisited (released in 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (’66) predated album orientation, what was it about them that was so revolutionary?  The answer, which I came to this week, is actually quite mind boggling:  I now believe that virtually every song on these albums conceptually equates to a classic rock album in and of itself.  Bob Dylan was so prolific at this time in his career, that he would singlehandedly usher in the era of album orientation……by actually taking the concept one quantum leap further!

Once that ton of bricks hit me over the head after several cycles through Highway 61 Revisited, I began thinking, “ok, how am I going to zero in on anything here if I’m listening to up to nine different ‘albums’ for one blog entry”?  At this stage I had to make another conscious leap of faith…. this time it was to choose a song and just run with it.  I narrowed it down to four choices:  The title track, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Desolation Row”, and what my final choice turned out to be; the opening number “Like a Rolling Stone” (I’ll just have to circle back to those others at some other time).  I simply decided this song was too big to pass up.

It had been a while since I’d been truly bowled over by “Like a Rolling Stone”:  Sometimes a popular song like this one introduces you to a great artist and then you move on to deeper stuff.  However, with my new perspective this week….listening to it as an album in and of itself, I felt I had a fighting chance to get those old wowed sensations again.  Another thing that would end up helping:  Bass guitar lessons. For almost a year now, I’ve been getting great weekly lessons by a young virtuoso guitarist named Jake Hallett.  Part of Jake’s approach has been to try to get me to hear every note in a major or minor scale as relating to a specific emotion.  He often teaches in the key of C, because there are no sharps or flats which allows us to get better focused on his priorities, whereby he ties the major notes in C (C, F, G) to different uplifting emotions and the minor notes (D, E, A) to more melancholy emotions.  Hearing the notes this way, helps to get creative with melodies, along with all sorts of other benefits.  Slowly, it seems to be working.

Anyhow, in the past, when I’ve listened to “Like a Rolling Stone”, I’ve never gotten past 1) the singing, 2) the lyrics, and of course 3) Al Kooper’s Hammond organ playing.  Each of these components are dominating ones.  This week for the first time however, I cued in on Mike Bloomfield’s guitar.  The reason?  He plays it arpeggio style - or one note at a time.  In other words, like a bass.  Most standard guitar work is done in chords: triplets of notes played simultaneously (typically 1, 3, and 5, which in the root key of C would be C, E, and G), but not here.  This lead guitar sound was something I could emulate.  On top of that it was a fairly straightforward stepping up and down of notes.  At first I was not sure what key the song was in because I needed my guitar in hand to figure it out (it would end up being in C), but I could hear the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5… the do, re, mi fa, sol, and to some degree even the emotions of each (still working on that).  It was fantastic.  In my mind’s eye, I was suddenly singing in the Salzburg Austria foothills with Julie Andrews.

Kidding aside (kind of), once I tuned into Bloomfield’s guitar this past Monday on my way to work, the floodgates of connection to “Like a Rolling Stone” began opening up all over again.  I guess all I really needed was this new observation, this new ear.  When I returned home I went directly to my bass and within minutes I had the entire song down; I’d pretty much worked it all out in the car.  This added to my reacquaintance with my old song-friend.  I began to envision what it must have been like for those older Baby Boomers who were in their formative years when “Like a Rolling Stone” first came out.  Many Rock fans, and aspiring musicians of the period, including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, have commented that it was a life altering experience for them. 

Every commentary I’ve ever seen that critiques “Like a Rolling Stone” focuses on who the source of Bob Dylan’s venom is in this song, which could be anyone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and na├»ve to those who had not.  All well and good, but I think this misses the point.  I believe Dylan had something quite a bit more intense in mind. After all, the type of person he was singing about would never be the type who would listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” in the first place.  No, this was a song of solidarity.  The people who were listening were those who could relate.  This would include anyone who had been rejected, or who had experienced loneliness, or awkwardness, or struggles of any kind, particularly those who were going through these struggles at the time the song first came out…..”to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”.  This was solidarity with the misfits, the free spirits, the oddballs, and the poets, the soon to be hippies and the agonizing Vietnam Vets as well as the draft dodgers. 

There were many folkies and beatniks who did not understand.  To them, Bob Dylan was abandoning the power of folk-music-protest that he had been blessed with when he went electric and started writing songs about other topics.  But no, that was not it at all.  Dylan was building on top of that foundation.  He was choosing creativity over stagnation.  With this in mind, a case could be made that the 60s as we know them really started right then and there with “Like a Rolling Stone”.  Dylan had already done his protest stuff (which I will get to in this blog series).  What he was doing now was rallying the troops.

Associating with this deeper meaning now, I can see even more why I loved this song when I first heard it back in my own formative years.   Being on that tail end of the Boomer generation helped to pull me away from the traditional views of success that tie it solely to wealth and power.  My inherited attitude did not come without adverse reverberations.  Yet, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for all the tea in China, because they were learning experiences.  There is much to be gained from an independent spirit.  Despite some of the ugly reputation related to drugs and dropping out, the 60s did after all teach us 70s kids this fact.  And Bob Dylan was on the front lines, speaking his mind in extremely formidable and inspiring fashion.

-        -  Pete

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” ( https://vimeo.com/80491883  ).  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.

Pete

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” ( https://vimeo.com/251843900 ) 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 

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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)