Saturday, May 26, 2018

Master Blueprints # 20: “All Rubin’s Cards Were Marked in Advance, the Trial Was a Pig-Circus He Never Had a Chance”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Hurricane”
Album: Desire
Release Date: Date: January 1976

Part 3 of 3 (see Master Blueprint #’s 18 and 19 for the first two installments of this 3-part mini-series of personal thoughts inspired by the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, which consisted of 24 locales in the Northeast; 1/3 of which took place in my home State of Massachusetts.  Eight locales are covered for each of the 3 entries).

November 24, Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Civic Center

The last 8 shows on the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Review tour would find the ensemble spreading their wings some geographically, but continuing to orbit around my home State of Massachusetts.  The next stop after the second stretch of Boston-area shows (see last entry) was the capital city of Connecticut.  My Mom’s endearing sister Marie lived in Hartford most of her life.  My brother Joe got married to his lovely wife Monica in her nearby West Hartford hometown on a pristine fall day in 1989.  Another great memory of the area had my wife Nancy and I taking the kids to nearby Dinosaur State Park in the winter of 2001, where their lifelong love of natural history was significantly stimulated (the year of that excursion is easy to remember because we carried on to New York City afterward, where we enjoyed many Big Apple highlights, including the Statue of Liberty:  A photo of us on the Staten Island Ferry, with the Twin Towers as a backdrop is a refrigerator-door keeper, but it is also an eerie reminder of what would occur just a few months later). 

I’ve made the trek to Hartford for work on numerous occasions, staying overnight a few times for the rare multi-day meeting.  Great restaurants, great company.  One of the biggest Bob Dylan fans I’ve ever known, Steve Grady, worked in our Hartford office during my first 2 decades at USGS, and has long since retired.  As a child of the 60s, Steve attended many-a Bob Dylan shows, including the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan went electric (if I recall correctly, he also attended several of the Rolling Thunder Review shows too).  It was always a treat to get Steve’s take on Bob Dylan, since I did not have any other long-term personal context in my life on this brilliant musician.  I’d like to believe that Steve appreciated my younger, upcoming angle on all-things-Dylan too. 

This week I did some research on the set lists of shows on the Rolling Thunder Review tour, after observing that the Hard Rain album - consisting solely of music from the 2nd leg - has a more heavy, personal, melancholy vibe than the Bob Dylan Live, 1975 album, consisting solely of music from the first leg.  For example, when I listen to “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “I Threw It All Away” off Hard Rain, I can’t help but feel the pain coming through in Bob Dylan’s vocals.  Had the end of the road with his wife Sara become more evident as the tour progressed?  Possibly related: I have not done a tally, but I’m thinking Bob Dylan performed more songs from “Blood on the Tracks” on the second leg, which as Dylan fans know, is his breakup album.  As such, I can’t help but disagree with Larry Stoman’s otherwise excellent liner notes in the Bob Dylan Live, 1975 booklet, where he hints that the second leg of the tour lacked the energy of the first.  I think it was simply more personally heavy for Dylan, but he was able to convey those emotions in the same awe-inspiring way that he was able to covey exuberance and protest during the first leg.

“Bird on the horizon, sittin' on a fence
He's singin' his song for me at his own expense
And I'm just like that bird, oh
Singin' just for you
I hope that you can hear
Hear me singin' through these tears”
--- “You’re a Big Girl Now”

November 26, Augusta, Maine: Augusta Civic Center

Maine was the last of the six New England states visited by the Rolling Thunder Review. It’s a state with an amazing range of natural beauty.  I hate to say it, but the capitol city of Augusta itself is not much to write home about…the larger Maine city of Portland, an hour or so ‘down east’ has significantly more character. Augusta’s capitol dome is darn impressive, though.  And if you make your way along the Kennebec River for a short stretch you will stumble upon the hip hamlet of Hallowell, home to several classic downtown pubs, including the Liberal Cup and the Quarry Tap Room. 

Augusta does have a crown jewel, however; the aforementioned Kennebec River, which was relieved of its last major dam in July 1999.  I was there to witness this, along with Bruce Babbitt, the then Secretary of the Interior, and many others.  At that moment the river’s natural state was freed up for the first time in over a century and a half.  Since then Augusta has witnessed a river transforming back to the anadromous fish habitat it once was. 

Having listened 3 straight weeks to music from the Rolling Thunder Review tour, I’ve picked up on a handful of individual musical highlights, including 1) Rob Stoner’s bass on the Hard Rain version of “Shelter from the Storm” 2) Scarlett Rivera violin on “One Too Many Mornings” and “Hurricane” 3) Mick Ronson’s guitar during the musical bridges of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (along with Stoner’s bass) and 4) Howard Wyeth’s drumming throughout.  For the most part though, it was an all ensemble effort all the time.  And these musicians were not just there to backup Bob Dylan; they were tuned into the emotional sway that played out from song to song.  Case in point, Wyeth imitates a judge’s gavel pounding just after Bob Dylan utters the lyrics “In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and during “Isis” he imitates the sound of a dead body being rolled into a ditch as Dylan sings I picked up his body and I dragged him inside, threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover”.  And Mick Ronson imitates thunder on his guitar as Dylan sings “was that the thunder that I heard” during “Romance in Durango”.  These are but small samples of how zoned in the musicians were; and of course, none of them more so than Bob Dylan himself. 

“Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, baby blue” --- “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”

November 27, Bangor, Maine: Bangor Municipal Auditorium

I’ve always thought of Bangor as the gateway to Maine’s Great North Woods.  It’s the last significantly populated area in Maine before hitting the vastness of the hinterlands to the north that includes Baxter State Park, Moosehead Lake, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and Maine’s highest peak, Mount Katahdin (which includes one of the most spectacular stretches of trail along its “Knife Edge”).  Bangor is also the gateway east to the splendid beauty of Acadia National Park.  I’ve had the privilege of enjoying each one of these regions and then some. 

The Allagash River on the far northern edge of Maine is so remote and isolated that once you are portaged upstream to the launch point on rugged dirt roads, it requires 4-5 days of strenuous canoeing to get back to any semblance of human habitation.  One of the most lasting images of my life was at dusk about halfway back to civilization, turning around to catch a moose crossing the Allagash, with the enormity of the red setting sun behind him.  A snapshot in time.

The Rolling Thunder Bangor show was performed on Thanksgiving, 1975.  One year later, on the very same holiday, Bob Dylan would be the most special of special guests at The Band’s Last Waltz concert.  There were a lot of famous musicians at these two events, but off the top of my head, the only other musician other than Dylan who was at both was Joni Mitchell.  Anyhow, there’s a little Dylan trivia for ya.

“I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the axe just fell” --- “Tangled Up in Blue”

November 29, Quebec City, Quebec: Colisée de Québec

I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know the Quebecois over the years through school and work connections, and despite the fact it’s the one province in Canada that is predominantly French speaking, there’s a New England affinity with these people that can be hard to explain.  I believe much of this is due to a shared Northeast experience.  Before I recognized this affinity in my Quebec neighbors, I would have thought the ‘Bostonian mentality’ was something unique to my own more immediate neck of the woods.  The similarities?  Well, one example is there’s a bit of the wisecrack in the Quebecois: You must be on your toes, at least early in any given conversation.  The aggressive driving is also familiar.  So too is the jaywalking.  Most important, there is a shared sense of humor. 

Quebec City is the only Old-World-feel city in North America.  It’s walled.  Many of its oldest structures are built of mortar and rock.  The food is exquisite.  The history, relatively speaking for the New World, is …. older.  One of my most recent visits there was on a Father-Son excursion with my Dad.  It was an invaluable and extremely memorable opportunity to have one on one time with my Pop for 4 days.  After two days in the old city, we headed further up the St. Lawrence River to the mouth of the Saguenay River, where a boat tour of this deep-water fjord had us witnessing Beluga Whales bobbing up and down in the water by the hundreds, their all-white bodies easily mistaken for wave caps to the untrained eye.  The St. Lawrence River is the center of the Quebecois world:  A prized possession of countless gems along it’s valley, much of which is not-well-advertised (I’m thinking intentionally) to the outside world. 

The set list for Bob Dylan’s portion of the show in Quebec City included “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “Dark as a Dungeon”, each of which were played a dozen times or so on the tour.  Other songs that were not quite as common on the tour included, “Catfish”, and “Walls of Red Wing”, “Seven Days” and “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”.  The only musician I know who could have gotten all the lyrics to that last one down would be Mr. Dylan himself. 

“Backstage the girls were playin' five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin' for a third to match her pair
Outside the streets were fillin' up, the window was open wide
A gentle breeze was blowin', you could feel it from inside
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts” --- “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”

December 1-2, Toronto, Ontario: Maple Leaf Gardens

In terms of Rock and Roll music hubs, Toronto had its own big thing going in the early 60s, particularly on Yonge Street.  Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins (his band consisting of what eventually would become The Band), Stephen Stills, and Neil Young were all part of the scene.  One could argue that, at the time, it was as hot as it gets.  For this and other reasons, it was no wonder why bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones found Toronto to be like a home away from home:  That early 60’s scene greased the skids.

The first time I was in Toronto was 1980 when I vacationed with my parents and siblings across Upper State New York and Ontario in a motorhome RV.  I remember the year for 2 reasons.  First, I recall watching the Republican National Convention on a tiny tv in the camper on the shores of Lake Ontario in a campground just outside Toronto (Reagan trying to talk Ford into being his VP).  Why I was interested in this at the age of 17, I can only speculate.  Second, it was the summer before my going off to college, and I was struggling to determine a major. This trip was when I first mentally connected with a natural skillset I had related to mapping and navigation, seeing as my Dad endlessly required a co-pilot to get from point a to point b, and it appeared I had the knack.  This would end up leading to my career path in the world of geospatial (GIS) analysis

The story goes that “One More Cup of Coffee” was written about a Bob Dylan experience in France, but I cannot help but hear a Spanish influence in this song, particularly Mexico.  Same obviously with “Romance in Durango”.  I also sense a connection between Bob Dylan’s 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and his Desire album.  Dylan spent a lot of time in Mexico during the making of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Was the Desire album partly an attempt to finish something he started 2 years earlier? 

“Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight; your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie” --- “One More Cup of Coffee”

December 4, Montreal, Quebec: Montreal Forum

Here’s a Montreal memory:  Great friend, Mac and I made the trek to Ottawa – 2 hours further west - in late winter, 1983, to reconnect with my Carleton University crowd (where I spent the previous year on an exchange program) for a long weekend.  I hitchhiked from North Adams, Massachusetts, up Rte. 7 in western Vermont and met up with Mac in Burlington, Vermont.  The two of us then continued the hitching to Montreal (a story in itself) where Bob Mainguy, another great lifelong friend, picked us up by driving the 2 hours from Carleton (having appreciated our effort to get that far).  After a stellar weekend, Mac and I took a bus back to Montreal, where we planned to take another bus to Burlington.  When we arrived in Montreal, however, we had a change of heart.  The decision to stay put was at least partially due to the outrageous cost of the bus tickets to Burlington, but was also driven by not wanting to miss an opportunity to take in the Montreal night life.  Fine enough, but these were the days before bank cards, and neither of us had credit cards.  We had just enough cash between us for a few beers.  Finding a place to stay?  How to get out of the city the next day?  We would figure all that out later. 

We helped close Wellington Street, and when we walked out of the last pub of the night, it was pouring out.  A local YMCA proved impossible to get into.  After roaming the streets for a while, we came up with a thought:  McGill University.  A TV lounge, perhaps?  Sure enough, we found a dorm, but the door was locked.  Somehow, we were able to get in (I remember a security guard, a student, a shrub and a skunk, not necessarily in that order).  We then made a B-line for the lounge, where we angled the couches to face the opposite wall.  This was to prove insightful seeing as before falling asleep, I watched as a night-patrol flashlight scan of the room passed overhead.  The next day we slipped off campus early, split a breakfast, and spent the remainder of our cash on a subway ride over the St. Lawrence River, where a highway awaited our thumbs pointed south.

After listening to live Rolling Thunder these past weeks, I’m now thinking Bob Dylan may have been better off not releasing a studio album for Desire. The best of that album was fleshed out live on the tour, before the studio album was released.  Desire could have been a live album, like Neil Young’s Time Fades Away, or Rust Never Sleeps albums.  In Young’s case it’s clear that this is the way these songs were meant to be heard.  And from what I’ve read (and heard now), the studio version of the Desire songs pales in comparison to what was witnessed on stage. 

“I was thinkin' about turquoise, I was thinkin' about gold
I was thinkin' about diamonds and the world's biggest necklace
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold 
I was thinkin' about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless” --- “Isis”

December 7, Clinton, New Jersey: Clinton Correctional Facility

So, here’s where things start getting a little more serious.  Granted Bob Dylan was making a case throughout the tour in word, deed and song for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer convicted of the crime of murder, which he would later be acquitted of (in great part thanks to this tour).  But at the Clinton Correctional Facility, where Carter was incarcerated, as well as the last stop on the first leg of the tour in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the focus on injustice would get ratcheted up significantly.  Dylan visited “the Hurricane” in prison, and played to inmates while there too.  The subsequent Madison Square Garden show would be a charity event to raise money for Carter’s defense. 

Clinton New Jersey is close to the Pennsylvania border.  Its where Bob Dylan and friends honored a moral Christian code by visiting the imprisoned.  Another angle of that moral code is sheltering the poor.  Coincidentally, my most significant memory of the area was in nearby Reading PA, where I spent a week with my daughter on a mission trip, doing our small part to help rebuild some of the lowest-income sections of that beleaguered city on the Schuylkill River.  Commitments like these can change a person.

There’s some good footage in the movie Renaldo and Clara of Rolling Thunder Review’s visit to the Clinton Correctional Facility, which includes Rubin Carter speaking in his own defense.  The scenes of the band performing in the prison reminds me of the great closing scene in Walk the Line when Joaquin Phoenix reenacts the famous Johnny Cash concert for inmates at Folsom Prison in 1968.  I’m sure Bob Dylan was inspired by his good friend Cash in this regard.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world” – “Hurricane”
( )

December 8, New York City, New York: Madison Square Garden

The Massachusetts-centric first leg of the Rolling Thunder Review tour ended in New York City.  Go figure!  But hey, us outward-bound Bostonians can appreciate the Big Apple on occasion.  Besides, it was Bob Dylan’s home turf in those days, and of course where his career took off.  And so, I believe it was apropos that the best tour of Dylan’s career would end in New York, as a charity event for a black boxer, with the goal of releasing him from jail for a crime he did not commit.

The seven times I’ve spent more than one day in New York City have all been incredible adventures.  I briefly discussed several in this 3-part series already.  Two others were fleshed out in their own blog entries, the first of which kinda comes at you from a boxer’s angle, which I wrote back in 2008 ( ).  The second included discussion points on my only visit to Madison Square Garden, to see the Who perform Quadrophenia ( ).  So obviously, New York has influenced me.  There’s no other place like it that I know of.

That’s it for my 3-part whirlwind summary of the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Review Tour, and the memories jarred out of me in relation to reading up on the tour stops.  Listening to Hard Rain and Bob Dylan Live, 1975 these past 3 weeks has me more convinced than ever that this Gypsy Caravan was living out something the Beatles envisioned in 1967.  Yes, this was the real Magical Mystery Tour.  I wish I was about five years older at the time.  I’m guessing I would have been there.

Back to the regular single part series next time.


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