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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Master Blueprints # 25: “They Say Sing While You Slave but I Just Get Bored”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Maggie’s Farm”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

Earlier this week I asked the following question on the always-absorbing Facebook group-page Dylanology: “What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song to sing along to in the car?”.  You know, ala James Cordon (Side thought: Can anyone imagine Bob Dylan doing something like what Paul McCartney did with Cordon recently, touring his old haunts and karaoke-ing his songs? … me neither).  I got some great responses, which included a bit of fleshing out in relation to the second part of the question (“Why”?), adding up to 68 of Bob Dylan’s compositions getting the nod from at least one Dylan fan.  Below is a summary of the top 15, which all got five votes or more (the summary includes “likes” for a given response).  I’ve also added in parenthesis the total number of votes for each entry on that top-15 list and a brief comment on each song as well:
  1. “Positively 4th Street” (29 votes) … the runaway winner.  Sounds like Dylan fans are getting their backs stabbed these days.
  2. “Tangled Up in Blue” (11) … one of 4 to make the top 15 from Blood on the Tracks.  Another one, “Shelter from the Storm”, just missed the cut.
  3. “Idiot Wind” (11) …. Other than the winner, this song got the most individual votes (in other words, without “likes” included for every song it would have come in a very close second).
  4. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (10) …. Been there, done that, belting this one out (for that matter, been there with most of these).  I admit, this one can be a tear jerker if your mind is taken to certain places. 
  5. “It Ain’t Me Babe” (10) ... Liberation, baby!
  6. “Like A Rolling Stone” (9) … of course!  Probably a top 10 if the same question was posed to an all-inclusive rock-song audience. 
  7. “Desolation Row” (8) … all the power to ya for being able to sing the lyrics to this one.
  8. “Simple Twist of Fate” (6) …. Yeah!  I love that this one made it.  Heavy, deep, all encompassing.
  9. “Everything Is Broken” (6) …. This was a surprise. It popped up three times (with 3 likes added).  It’s a great song, and it’s now clear I need to reevaluate in order to connect better with these voters. 
  10. “Brownsville Girl” (5) ... A singular vote with 4 likes.  Nice addition.  Again, lots of lyrics.  How do you do it? 
  11. “Hurricane” (5) … the one formal protest song to make the top 15. 
  12. “I Threw It All Away” (5) … the live version from Hard Rain is intensely heartfelt.  It must be that version that got these votes (although the original is pretty darn good too).
  13. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack Hearts” (5).  Confucius say, if you have this memorized, you are a person who knows how to have fun.
  14. “Shooting Star” (5) Wow.  Fantastic.  The commentary for one of the responses on this one was touching (singing child to sleep with it and convincing mother it was a gem)
  15. “Things Have Changed” (5) yeah! Note to self: Get around to this one in my blog ASAP
Amazingly, the song I had in mind, “Maggie’s Farm”, which is the focus of this entry, was not even voted on once (I also had in mind “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”, neither of which got a single stinkin’ vote).  Just goes to show the quantity of lyrical sing-along affiliation that Bob Dylan exudes out of us from his repertoire.  The reason I thought of this topic for “Maggie’s Farm” is that the lyrics have a universal appeal.  Most of us have been there; the job from hell.  And when it’s a family run business, as is the case with “Maggie’s Farm”, it can be 10 times worse.  Internal beefs between family members can be taken out on the other employees.  Bob Dylan expresses this masterfully in the lyrics, from the first line to the last, and he makes it a joy to sing along to it.

Thank goodness that work hell is a distant memory for me.  After landing a job in my professional path at the US Geological Survey (USGS) over 30 years ago, I’ve been very fortunate.   I have to say though; those long-ago experiences were eye opening.  If you don’t go through it, you don’t know what you don’t know…. if you know what I mean.  On top of that, if I had not been through those experiences, I’d never be able to relate to “Maggie’s Farm” to the degree that I do.  Oddly, adversity can have positive after effects. 

“Maggie’s Farm” is an open palate for adding verses.  Bob Dylan hilariously narrates the pathetic situation for the worker, which is personified in the overbearing personalities of Maggie’s Brother, Pa, and Ma in three consecutive verses, along with the remarkable opening and closing stanzas ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luj4azrlkdE ).  But what about other family members?  I’m going to take liberty here and add verses for Maggie’s daughter, son, sister, and boyfriend.  Here goes:

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more
She treats the cash register as if it’s her own piggy bank
Those who have reported it soon find that they must walk the plank
Takes 3-hour breaks while others man the store
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s daughter no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more
He spends much of the work day on web sites of ill repute
His bossy way with the older employees the family finds quite cute
Listen through his office door you’ll hear him snore
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s son no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more
She lurks about the hallways, the storage space and sheds
Will dock you pay for transgressions like not bowing your head
Her angry nostril flares you really can’t ignore
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s sis no more

Oh, and that boyfriend….

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s boyfriend no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s boyfriend no more
He zips into the parking lot scattering workers to and fro
Then raps an endless cacophony of “Yo” and “Bro” and “Ho”
Vanity selfies is a hobby he adores
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s lover no more

I believe I’ve got enough experience to impart some advice to those seeking their career path so they can avoid such a scenario.  First off, find something you enjoy.  I told this to my children when they were seeking their majors in college.  Don’t put money or comfort or expectations or low-hanging-fruit first.  Take a risk and run with your passion.  After all, this is a decision that will have a huge effect moving forward, as you will likely be spending a considerable percentage of your waking life doing it.  What’s questionable today as a career path can explode into something fascinating tomorrow.  Take this from one who went through it; I studied geography in college and then the new world of GIS fell in my lap.  Hey, if you love something that already fits in today’s economy, great for you.  Either way, go for it.  It will pan out if you stick with it.

Second, if you don’t have all that much aspiration for supervision or management, as has been the case with me, then angle toward something you can be the specialist in and stick with it.  Best case is where you turn out to be the singular expert.   It can be something you create on your own, or it can be something already there that needs attention.  In other words, if you want autonomy or have a rebellious spirit, then aside from starting your own business (as my Dad did), this is your only real path forward.  The concept works in both the private and public sector.  You may stumble into it not even realizing until later, but keep that passion going.  It will eventually give you the elbow room you need to keep your integrity and your relevance intact.

The real message with “Maggie’s Farm” is resisting conformity.  The work place will challenge you at one time or another to do the right thing.  Perhaps your response will have you bucking the system.  It’s a risk you may have to consider in maintaining that aforementioned integrity.  You are bound to see folks caving.  Others may simply have a natural tendency to conform.  It works out kinda strange though. The big bosses tend to have a begrudging respect for the rebels, because in the end, they are the ones that push the envelope forward.  Much of the time, they are the ones who innovate. 

There’s a balance here though.  “The Man” is someone who may deserve your respect.  First off, it’s their neck on the block more than anyone.  There can be a lot of stress in running a business.  Second, like all of us, they are human and at some point, you may find yourself connecting to that humanity.  I was lucky enough to make this connection during a fascinating moment in my early 20s.  I had been bartending for over a year at a very busy restaurant (a story I briefly touched on in my 2014 Forever Yong blog series # 34, centered on the music of Neil Yong), the Pub Dennis, in Milford, Massachusetts.  The owner was a cantankerous fellow in his 60s who by then had opened a handful of locales, primarily based in Rhode Island. On the rare occasion he would visit the Milford restaurant, he barely gave me the time of day, as most of his focus was on the management folks. 

With tips the job paid well.  This was important to me, because, along with 2 other jobs at the time, I was saving up for a summer-long backpacking trip to Europe. On the last day of my employment, after having given my 2-week notice, this ornery owner came up to me, and surprisingly started conversing.  He stated that he had heard I was leaving to travel abroad.  I nodded in agreement, and then he said something that shocked me.  It went something like: “I’m wealthy because I worked hard and never stopped, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do what you are doing”.

Wow!  Maggie was human after all. 

Pete

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Master Blueprints # 24: “This Morning I Looked Out My Window and Found, A Bluebird Singing but There Was No One Around”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Congratulations”
Album: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1
Release Date: October 1988

We all have our comfort zones.  Many of us do everything we can to try and stay in that zone at all cost, and I’m often amazed at how good people can be at it.  Those who are successful can’t really be categorized:  This ability cuts across all income strata, for example.  Regardless, I consider being ‘stuck in your ways' a liability that needs to be hurdled.  Live long enough, and you are bound to be yanked out of your comfort zone at some point.  Perhaps it will be related to an illness, or an emergency or a friend in desperate need.  It’s gonna happen.  Best thing you can do is prepare yourself for the inevitable by breaking out on your own every once in a while, before your forced to do so.

Me, I try to challenge my comfort zone on occasion, which can include what I write about in these blog entries.  Another such example occurred recently when I gave a speech of praise at a banquet for a recently retired colleague who I have been working with my entire career.  Part of my speech included expressing my admiration for the risks this colleague took in developing a cutting-edge product.  In subtle ways, I put others to the challenge in that same speech, several of whom were in the crowd.  Expressing both the praise and the challenge in front of a large audience was definitely out of my comfort zone, but sometimes you can be compelled to do something out of the ordinary if you listen to your inner voice, your inner spirit.  I felt it was needed, I had the opportunity, and so I did it. 

Friendship was part of the equation that pulled this out of me:  Friendship with my retired colleague.  Often that’s the case.   It most certainly was for Bob Dylan when he agreed to be a Travelling Wilbury.  Here is the only time in his career where we get to see Dylan in a unique (for him) role as just one of the guys; a bandmate in a band of equals.  There were likely a number factors that contributed to Bob Dylan’s decision to join this band, including 1) trying something new to break out of an 80s-period funk and 2) the awe-inspiring collection of talent.  But the real driving force very likely lies somewhere else, and relates to how one can overcome their insecurities when responding to the overtures of a very close friend.  In this case, I’m of course referring to George Harrison.

It should come as no surprise that of the Fab Four, it was Beatle George who Bob Dylan grew closest with.  George Harrison’s quiet demeanor, integrity, and quest for a higher, spiritual meaning in life are all traits that would appeal to Dylan.  Harrison also had a bit of an underdog status in the Beatles, which seems to appeal to Dylan as well, seeing as he grew closer to both Brian Jones and Ronnie Wood than he did to their dominant songwriting bandmates, Jagger & Richards. 

George Harrison had another character trait however, and that was an uncanny ability to persuade.  It may not have worked so well in the leadership structure of the Beatles, partly because George was the youngest and partly because his music-writing ability took longer to develop than the team of Lennon & McCartney (hence the underdog status).  Harrison’s persuasive powers were evident early, however.  He convinced the other Beatles to travel to India to retreat with the Maharishi, where many of their great “White Album” songs would subsequently be written.  After the Beatles broke up his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 was the first superstar rock fundraiser.  George did most of the recruiting, including getting a then reclusive Bob Dylan to sign on.  His soft touch worked.  Some people simply bring out the will in us to help.  And it worked again in the late 80s in his recruitment for the Travelling Wilburys.  Harrison was in the process of a minor career revival.  He was interested again, much like how John Lennon was just before he was killed.  George Harrison’s nature to normally recoil against such fanfare as a super group probably fascinated Bob Dylan.  Here most certainly was a strange twist of fate.  How could you resist.  

It’s almost comical when I watch videos of the Travelling Wilburys to witness Bob Dylan as a team player.  There’s a touch of the unnatural, but not so much so that it curtailed his creativity.  The videos show lots of laughter and bantering about, mostly from Harrison, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.  But Dylan keeps his cool.  There’s one seen when the entire band is singing “Dirty World” where Roy Orbison sings the line “She loves your Trembling Wilbury”, which stops the recording in its tracks.  Everyone is cracking up, which is fun to see.  When you look close though, Dylan is not laughing.  At the same time, he’s not drawing attention to himself; no ‘Debbie Downer’ here.  Just Dylan being Dylan, quietly reserved.  Most of the time, however, the camaraderie among all five is palpable, particularly while singing, which I believe is when Bob Dylan is at his most comfortable. 

There’s a Dylan effect from the very beginning of the album The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1, if only funneled through George. “Handle with Care” has an upbeat tempo and positive reaffirmation, yes, but it still has heavy lyrics to contemplate, including “reputations changeable” and “I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled”.  These are not happy-go-lucky pop lyrics.  This is harsh reality speaking; about how you can suddenly find yourself in a vulnerable situation after years of success.  It’s times like this where we need good love the most, which comes out in the refrain.  When I listen to “Handle with Care” I’m reminded of many of the songs on All Things Must Pass, which I do not dispute is Harrison’s personal creative masterpiece, but surely had a Bob Dylan stamp of approval.

Song number two, “Dirty World” reveals to me that Bob Dylan was fully committed to this Travelling Wilburys idea.  He takes a straight-up Dylan-like song and allows it to be an ensemble.  One of the truly great things about the Travelling Wilburys that should be chewed on some by future Dylanologists is that this band was not Bob Dylan’s idea.  He needed to buy in.  How often has this happened in his career?  Zero as far as I can discern.  The man has always been one step ahead, thinking through this, that and the other thing well before he enters the studio to work with other musicians.  Each and every one of the 38 studio albums in his career feels as if it was preordained.  Not so here. “Dirty World” exemplifies Dylan’s approach to the Wilburys; a man letting go of the reins.   

The DVD component of the Travelling Wilburys Collection gives numerous visual insights into the dynamics of this super band.  One thing I got out of it was that they were all learning from each other’s approach to songwriting.  Harrison, in very Beatle-like fashion, compiling lyrics from newspaper clippings.  Jeff Lynne taking cues from a drum beat.  Roy Orbison building novel approaches to his vocals with each take.  Tom Petty taking in everything around him and then applying on impulse.  And of course, Bob Dylan’s focused hand-written notes, evolving rapidly and masterfully into lyric and song.  You get a rare glimpse into this process on the DVD as Dylan pulls “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” into form.  The focus on this song by critics has always on how Bob Dylan appears to be aping in jest the content and style of Bruce Springsteen’s songs.  For my money though, I’ll forever be mostly intrigued by what the meaning of the refrain must be: “And the walls came down, all the way to hell.  Never saw them when they’re standing never saw them when they fell”.  Sometimes it’s good to just leave well enough alone and sing along.

One of the more interesting songs on the Travelling Wilburys first album is “Margarita”.  The opening salvo sounds to me as if Bob Dylan is revealing some of his early history:

It was in Pittsburgh, late one night
I lost my head, got into a fight
I rolled and tumbled till I saw the light
Went to the Big Apple, took a bite

I picture Dylan’s first hitchhiking venture to New York in bitter cold winter of 1961.  Did he stop in Pittsburgh?  Did he have a transfiguration-like moment when he “saw the light”?  I’ll have to consult my fellow Dylan fan, Linda for her take.

“Congratulations” is Bob Dylan’s biggest gift to his fellow Wilburys.  Much like “Oh Sister”, “One Too Many Mornings” and “I Threw It All Away”, “Congratulations” sneaks up and touches your heart when you least expect it.  Sometimes all it takes is one line expressed in the gut wrenching way that only Bob Dylan can do: “This morning I looked out my window and found, a bluebird singing but there was no one around”.  No one there to share the experience with that is. 

What may Bob Dylan have been thinking?  How about....'There you go guys…. a little ditty for ya.  Thanks for your friendship. Especially you, George': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dsl_krW7ZkE

The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 was such a breath of fresh air when it was released, and it just may have been a key factor in putting a lid on the mostly-soulless music of the mid-80s.  Arguably of even more importance, it may have jump started Bob Dylan’s 2nd wind.  Often a second wind can be the reward for stepping out of your comfort zone.  It might not come over night.  But be patient.  It usually will play out quite nicely. 

Pete

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Master Blueprints # 23: “He Not Busy Being Born is Busy Dying”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

Part 2 of 2:  An alternate world Theme Time Radio Hour episode, where I fill in as the host.  The 10 songs covered are all Bob Dylan’s - seeing as he never covered his own music on his show. I’m also trying to emulate Dylan’s style on his Theme Time show.  The first 4 songs were covered in the last entry (# 22), and the remaining 6 are here.  Oh, yes, the Theme: “Astonish”

Mark Twain once said “Do the right thing.  It will gratify some people, and astonish the rest”.  The origin of the term ‘astonish’ goes back to 16th Century Old French, and combines the Latin terms ex- (out) and tonare, which means ‘to thunder’.  The word is often used to describe great literature.  For example, this from American novelist Terry Southern: “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish.  Not shock -shock is a worn-out word – but astonish”.  And, from the great comic writer Alan Moore: “If you give me a typewriter and I’m having a good day, I can write a scene that will astonish its readers.  That will perhaps make them laugh, perhaps make them cry – that will have some emotional clout to it.  It doesn’t cost much to do that”.  Finally, Milan Kundera may have summed associating literature with astonishing up best: “The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish”. 

In the case of Bob Dylan, the ability to astonish plays out on several levels.  The written word, yes, but also in the harmonious vocal delivery and the accompaniment music.  Many have speculated this multi-tiered approach to his success was a big reason why Dylan was reluctant at first to recognize receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. In other words, the notion that the listener needs to take in the entire package to make the connection apparently made him feel ill at ease to receive such specialized recognition.  If so Dylan was not alone in his negative reaction.  Don’t count me on that list.  Yes, I agree you need to take the entire package in to truly appreciate what’s there in the genius that is Bob Dylan, but I thought it was extremely insightful of Nobel to toss aside the narrower definition in this special case.  There are always exceptions to the rules.  This is one of them.

However, Bob Dylan does have astonishing ‘passages’ that stand on their own, including “he not busy being born is busy dying” from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which may just top them all.  It’s timeless. My first impression when I really took it in was that Dylan must have quoted it from the Bible, maybe Saint Paul.  But no, this is an original.  My parents had this caption up on their kitchen wall for years.  It was on a poster with an idyllic nature scene, given to them by my late, great Aunt Ginger, who was a Dominican Sister (Sister Virginia Smith). Both my parents and my Aunt predated the Bob Dylan/Beatles/Woodstock 60s era by a good 10 years.  The influence of the music of that era on my parents was limited at best (a particularly high hurdle for my Dad seeing as, from early in his life, Dad has always been a Classical Music guy, and couldn’t stand the Elvis-lead music of the 50s even as he was living it out at the perfect age).


Ginger tragically died in a car accident around the time that I was just ramping up my fascination in all things Bob Dylan (back in the late 80s and early 90s).  To this day I wonder if my Aunt knew whose quote that was, seeing as my parents did not.  Having a good feel for her populist allegiances…. I’m betting she did.  Anyhow, all three – Ginger and my parents - lived up to the standard expressed in that short phrase (in the case of my parents, they continue to do so).  I believe Bob Dylan has lived up to it too.  It’s why he continues to produce quality music deep into his 70s.  With that said, let’s give “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” a listen.  After all, the vast remainder of the lyrics only add to the astonishment of this literary gem:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYajHZ4QUVM

I mentioned comics a few moments ago.  Stan Lee and his Marvel Universe has been the king of that hill for pretty much my entire lifetime.  I was an avid reader of Marvel back in the day, and have enjoyed the blockbuster movie adaptations for the most part.  Stan the Man has been in the business of astonishing for quite some time.  In fact, he’s attempted to cover the gambit of synonyms in this regard, associating a stunning adjective with virtually every one of his comic book series.  And so, the title of, say, the Hulk’s series wasn’t just “The Hulk”, it was The Incredible Hulk.  The X-Men were “Uncanny”.  We also had The Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Avengers, The Amazing Spider Man and The Fantastic Four, among many others.

What may have started this adjective frenzy was Tales to Astonish, which made the leap from Marvel’s forerunner Atlas Comics to Marvel in the early 60s.   Stan Lee personally wrote many of the stories in Tales to Astonish.  One of the most famous characters to get created in the series was Henry Pym, aka Ant Man.  The series eventually morphed into The Incredible Hulk in the late 60s. 

Stan Lee has also been a longstanding advocate for human rights and civil rights.  His Uncanny X-Men series, which has humans treating mutants as outcasts, was an indirect way of addressing bigotry to young minds.  Bob Dylan has done his share of calling out in this regard too, including in his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”.  This true-story of the murder-by-whim of a black maid by a young socialite may or may not have been executed out of pure ignorance alone.  But Dylan points out in the song that the racial injustice is still there, in the meager sentencing. 

There are several astonishing lines in this song that I’d like to reflect on here.  The first is in the refrain: “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears”.  Bob Dylan reminds us that we need to connect with these types of stories on a personal – vs. objective – level.  Otherwise, we forget and move on prematurely (this is surely why the word "lonesome" is included in the title). 


The second astonishing line(s) can only be discussed by first reading though the lyrics:

“Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger”


Notice, the three lines in a row that end with the same word: table.  How I interpret this is, the disgust was so palpable when Bob Dylan came up with these lyrics, that he does not even bother to find words that rhyme.  The astonishing thing is, it works on a “whole other level” - far more so than if he had attempted to negotiate in rhyming words.  As I’ve said before in my blog series – who does this?

Here’s a superb version of Bob Dylan performing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” around the time he wrote it in the mid-60s.  I also recommend tracking down the version on the Bootleg Series Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review, which can’t be beat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyxL3sYXPf4

2006 was not only the year of the start of Theme Time Radio, it was also the year of the release of one of Bob Dylan’s all-time best albums, Modern Times.  What is astonishing in this case is the creativity that had been maintained by Dylan seeing as, at the time he was 65 years of age.  Modern Times is one of Bob Dylan’s most consistent albums.  There are no hits.  There are no low points. There’s simply solid bluesy excellence from beginning to end.  It’s arguably the most even-keeled album I’ve ever identified with.

If there is any disc where Bob Dylan put himself in someone else’s shoes routinely throughout, this is it.  You must keep this in mind when you listen.  The Blues can be deceiving.  At first glance there’s a “woe is me” interpretation.  But the Blues evolved out of hard, poor living, created by struggling soul’s way back when, who were experiencing life in a way that can be very difficult to understand in our relatively cushy world.  Bob Dylan is astonishingly able to relate to those struggles on Modern Times. 

One thought that comes to mind regarding hard living is a visit to Prince Edward Island with my wife and children, as well as my Mom and Dad, back in 2002.  We connected with distant relatives while there.  They were very simple folk; the bluest of blue collar, with an entirely different angle on life than us.  It’s their lives that resonate as I suck in “Workingman’s Blues # 2”.  Give it a solid listen…. you may be surprised where your thoughts go:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPPbQexwTR4

What has astonished you?  The power of love? The birth of a child? A natural wonder? A hole in one? There are many experiences in life that can hit us like a ton of bricks.  Sometimes it’s simply a feeling.  For example, a place you’ve never been that feels extremely familiar.  Other times, it’s that sense of déjà vu.  It could also be a sudden flashback to a long-forgotten memory.  And then there’s that sense that you can get on occasion where you feel as if you are going through a predetermined course of events. Destiny. Fate. Things happen for a reason. That sort of thing. 

One Bob Dylan song that’s on my all-time Top 10 list is “A Simple Twist of Fate”.  It’s hard to explain why.  Perhaps it’s because Dylan sets the scene and the mood so brilliantly.  It may also have something to do with the fact that…. I feel as if I understand this song better than the experts.  “A Simple Twist of Fate” opens Blood on the Tracks, which many consider to be Bob Dylan’s most heartfelt album; by virtually all accounts a personal narrative on the turmoil that accompanies estrangement.  In this opening-salvo position, it serves the rest of the album’s narrative to a tee.

So, how does this song astonish?   Well first off, it’s the perfect painting.  Or paintings.  Every stanza creates a brush-stroked image in the mind, physically and emotionally.  You can feel the mutual heaviness of the moment in that opening park-bench setting, the couple struggling with their thoughts.  And you can feel the separation playing out soon after; the woman slipping away pre-dawn, the man coming to terms with his new reality, alone in the neon-light hotel. 

But what’s in the title?  What’s fate got to do with it?  Well, contrary to those expert interpretations I’ve read, which suggest a one-night-stand rendezvous, I believe this is the key breakup moment of a longstanding relationship.  It’s too emotional not to be.  And if fate is going to play a role in your life at any point, be it a twist or not, one would think it would have to be significant.  But don’t let me talk you into it.  You be the judge:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cU_uVXkADN8

I brought up Alice in Wonderland earlier in the episode.  Two characters in that story – some might say one - are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, which just happens to be the title of the opening track on Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”.  One thing Dylan does as well as anyone is shining a light on bad actors to help make the case for doing what’s right.  You see this throughout his discography: “Masters of War”, “Jokerman”, “Seven Curses”, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”.  "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum“ is no exception. 

Dylan astonishes here by continuing to figure out innovative ways to write a song.  He does this on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” by switching the two names around to pick up on more rhyme potential.  When Dylan needs to rhyme with ‘sun’, ‘run’ and ‘some’, Tweedle Dum gets thrust into the rhyme spot.  And when Dylan needs to match up with the words ‘silently’, ‘tree’, and ‘knee’, Tweetle Dee gets the honor.  The two characters are interchangeable, which gives Bob Dylan this luxury, and I’m sure he was aware of that going in.  There’s all sorts of other rhyming getting thrown in the mix too.  It’s a lesson to young songwriters from the master of the game. 

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x377ke0

We have time for one more folks.  What astonishing Bob Dylan song to close with?  Let’s see… thumbing through my leftover list, we’ve got “Angelina”, “Wallflower”, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”, “Precious Angel”.  Ahhh, how about this one.  A deep cut from Bob Dylan and The Band’s Big Pink recordings.  “I’m Not There” is one of those Dylan songs where you marvel at the change in his vocal delivery.  It’s a vocal style he would use but once.  It’s a dark, weary Bob Dylan we hear here. 

The title of course was used by the producers of the film of the same name to tell the story of Dylan in six of his various incarnations, always changing, never what you expect.  On one level, I get it: Bob Dylan has morphed often over the years.  On another level, however, Dylan has been the same guy all along.  Consistently true to himself.  “I’m Not There”… ok.   Conversely, then, the unspoken response could be “I’m everywhere”. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKx33bxmTbM

I’ll leave you with this poem called “Astonish” by Odious Wench:

I can't wait to have my
Knocks Socked off!

Until next time, if you are going to dive, choose the deep end!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTyTkD1Pz_E

Note: this 2-part series is dedicated to fellow Theme Time Radio Hour enthusiast, Linda Whiteside (from Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing MN no less!) and Jeff Strause, who fed the flame. 

Pete