Sunday, June 10, 2018

Master Blueprints # 22: “I'll Ramble and Gamble for the One I Love. And the Hills Will Give Me a Song”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Red River Shore”
Album: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006
Release Date: Date: October 2008 (produced in 1989 during the Oh Mercy sessions)

Part 1 of 2

Flash back to early summer 2006, the first day in the week of a very large computer mapping (GIS) conference at the San Diego Convention Center, being hosted by ESRI.  Since I’ve been through this before, I know I’m in for a main-stage all-day marketing bonanza by the hosts.  Several colleagues are aware of this as well, and so, with the hope of getting some real work done, we make plans to take the 3-hour drive north to Redlands to meet with a few ESRI technical staffers at their corporate headquarters.  After a predictably productive day in Redlands, we start heading back to San Diego on an alternate scenic route though the canyons, which is recommended to us at the meeting. I’m driving, and as we weave our way up the mountain roads, I turn on the XM satellite radio that comes with the rental car and immediately I hear a familiar voice over the airwaves talking about, of all topics, mothers. Yes, those mothers: The (mostly) wonderful woman who reared us. 

This was my introduction to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, which began airing the week before (“Mother” was episode # 2 of 100) and I was fortunate to have stumbled into it so early.  I mean, to put this into perspective, I’m not someone who jumps out of the gate to get new technology.  My cell phone is antiquated.  Our home computer is too.  And so is my car and its satellite-bereft radio.  What can I say?  I don’t see it as a priority to jump on technology bandwagons, and neither does my wife Nancy (though we have not subjected our children to this position, and help pay for their various modern devices so they can fit in and not have to face good-natured ridicule like us). 

For those who have never listened to Theme Time Radio, I recommend you begin doing your homework (episodes are available on line).  The show works for anyone who loves music, period!  And it will never be dated.  The basic concept had Bob Dylan as DJ choosing a weekly theme, say “Death and Taxes” and then playing songs that reflected that given theme from all genera – be it swing, punk, blues, even sea shanties - since the dawn of recorded music.  Dylan would also offer up between-song commentary in the form of trivia, minutiae and anecdotes, which was often humorous.   It was all so fascinating, but most important, the program taught me more about the vast world of music than anything else I’d ever experienced. 

Aside from a few additional random moments with Theme Time Radio Hour on XM radio in cars not my own, I may have foolishly left that Southern California drive as a nice isolated experience if not for good friend Jeff Strause coming to the rescue.  Half a year into Season One, I received a parcel of 10 cd’s in the mail, each with a recorded episode.  Over the next few years I’d receive several more parcels of episodes.  These were some of the best gifts I have ever been given in my life, as I have listened to those cd’s as much as anything else I have in my entire record collection, and that’s saying something.  Thanks again, Jeff!

Before I dive into an idea I have for this entry, I need to reflect on a few memorable hillite-reel moments from Theme Time Radio.  My favorite episode was “California”, followed closely by “Days of the Week”.  Both captured the perfect mood for the given theme, and the diversity of music for each was masterfully orchestrated (about as well as Bob Dylan orchestrates his own songs).  Other great episodes included “Blood” and “Smoking”.  Then there was the hilarious lead-in to the “Classic Rock” episode; Dylan building up the anticipation for weeks.  When it finally came, the songs were all about…. rocks and other forms of geology.  LOL! (I have never and will never use that term again in this series, but it fits well here).  I loved Bob Dylan’s interpretation of an angry exchange between Nikiti Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the “Presidents” episode.  And hearing him cracking up while talking about the Byrds in the “Birds” episode.  I also loved DJ Dylan’s reflection on a handful of the famous last words of people on their death beds in the “Death and Taxes” episode, including Lou Costello’s “That’s the best ice cream soda I ever tasted”.  The man was clearly in his element, episode after episode after episode. 

Amazing music moments include Kris Kristofferson “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (closing the “Days of the Week” episode), Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead” (heard on the “Death and Taxes” episode), They Might Be Giants singing “James K Polk” (“Presidents” episode), Linda Thompson’s heart wrenching “Withered and Died” (“Death and Taxes”), and Townes Van Zandt’s eerie “Nothing” (from the episode of the same name).  There was the pleasant surprise of hearing Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins sing “Happy” (episode “Happiness”) and listening to Jolie Holland closing the “California” episode with “Goodbye California” (never mind hearing Dione Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and the Sir Douglas Quintet singing “Mendocino” in the same episode).  There was local Boston band “Morphine” singing “Thursday” on “Days of the Week”, Nervous Norvus singing “Transfusion” on the “Blood” episode, and Billie Holliday singing “What Is This Thing Called Love” in the “Questions” episode.  The list goes on my friends.

At one time or another Bob Dylan would end up playing the music of pretty much any quality musician you can think of including such diverse acts the Rolling Stones (once stating that he played them more than average because they were always supportive of black acts as backup bands at their shows), Randy Newman, Judy Garland, Muddy Waters, the Mississippi, Sheiks, Bing Crosby, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Lois Armstrong, Tiny Tim, Mose Allison, and Thunderclap Newman.  With that said, the only quality act Bob Dylan never covered on his radio program was the music of Mr. Top Cat himself… in other words his own songs (“Top Cat” by the way was the instrumental music that closed each show).  To my recollection there was one minor exception: An in-studio instrumental performance of “Blowin’ In the Wind” on the recorder during the “Days of the Week” episode. This was done immediately after Dylan played the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and discussed Brian Jones timeless playing of the recorder on that record (at the time, DJ Dylan called the recorder the most beautiful sounding of all musical instruments).  After this short rendition of “Blowin’ In the Wind” Bob Dylan courteously chirped “How about that!”.  Yeah, how about that. 

With all this in mind, I thought what I’d do in this entry and the next is envision a fictitious episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, consisting of all Bob Dylan songs.  The theme?  “Astonish”.  Here’s a chance, I thought, to run through 10 Dylan songs that have blown me away and do it in radio-format style.  I’ll have to substitute here for Bob Dylan as DJ, because Dylan would be too humble to do such a thing, so I won’t put myself in his shoes.  In the process I will do my best to honor the ambiance of the original Theme Time.  For those who read my blog series on a regular basis, you may notice a few songs that I’ve already covered as Blueprints. Mostly however, I’ll roll out songs that I’ve yet to discuss.  Here goes….

Good evening and welcome to Alternate-World Theme Time Radio.  Tonight’s episode, which is focused on the music of the real-world Theme Time host, Bob Dylan, may have you astonished, astounded, and floored.  Perhaps talking to yourself, speaking in tongues, or off on a quest for the Holy Grail.  Are you ready for mind expansion? Ready to solve the world’s problems?  I’m thinking it may be time to dust off that old VHS of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe take a Quantum Physics course.  Go ahead and stare deeper into that Burning Bush. It’s the new golden age of the enlightenment folks.  Be sure to eat your cheerios for breakfast, avocado for lunch, and fish for dinner. Then do what you must do, and after you do so, keep an ear open for Nobel to give you a call.

We can’t dive into the deep end right away.  It’s too steep.  So, let’s start with a little dream-sequence ditty from Bringing It All Back Home. You know the number: It’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”.  Hold on tight.  This dream makes Alice in Wonderland feel like a mandatory corporate training session.

There you go Alice.  Stick that in you pipe and smoke it! 

There’s a moral to the story here: If you find yourself in a dream that puts you in an endless parade of hopeless predicaments you gotta kinda roll with the punches. 

Speaking of stories, morals and predicaments, let’s move on to “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”.  Of the two characters here, who is the hero? Who is the victim?  You decide:

“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” starts off well enough, speaking to us average Joes in simple language we can understand.  This goes on for about three verses, where you’ve got a straight-up story of one guy (Frankie Lee) needing to borrow money and another (Judas Priest) willing to help his friend.  But my goodness, by the start of the fourth verse things start to get a whole lot deeper, with Judas Priest telling Frankie Lee that he’ll wait for him down the road in “Eternity” as Frankie Lee decides on how much money he wants to borrow. At the same time, Frankie Lee, apparently an agnostic, disputes Judas’ Priest use of the term.  The story just gets wilder from there, culminating with Frankie Lee tracking down Judas Priest (with the help of a ‘stranger’) at a bright home with “four and twenty windows, and a woman’s face in every one”.  Here Frankie Lee loses control “over everything he had made while the mission bells did toll”.  The saga ends with Frankie Lee dying of thirst in Judas Priest’s arms. There’s only one response to this story:  Yow!

“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” keeps you glued from beginning to end, but for my money it’s the closing stanza that I can never get enough of:

Well the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So, when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

Sing these words as you listen.  They’ll sink in…in ways that are difficult to explain.

Where to go from here?  How about we head for the hills…. the highlands to be more precise, which is the title of Bob Dylan’s longest song; 16 minutes and thirty-one seconds of raw emotion.  The “Highlands” highlight is of course the middle-frame storyline, which places Dylan in a “Boston Town” restaurant (being from the area, my thought is that the locale was in bordering Cambridge, at the old Wursthaus Restaurant in Harvard Square).  Go figure?  Boston is about as far from the highlands as one would think.  Well, this song is all over the map, and I’m not going to dwell here on the significance of the title.  What elevates it to being included in this Alternate Theme Time episode is in his exchange with a waitress in that Boston restaurant.  I’ll tackle that in a quarter hour or so.  In the meantime, set aside 16 minutes of mind space and have a listen:

As you may have deciphered, the waitress comes across from the beginning as …. confrontational.  She knows who this famous person is the second she lays eyes on him alone in his booth, and she’s ready to confront him for what she has already concluded as being a male chauvinist (which he addresses in the song).  You would think this a courageous stance, but the way the waitress goes about her protestation comes across as shallow and devoid of compassion.  Bob Dylan, trapped in his seat, sees this right away.  However, he adapts to the moment, albeit begrudgingly seeing as he’s forced into revealing to this waitress that she has become but a figment of her true self.  How does he do this?  Well the waitress knows that Dylan is an artist on the side and demands he draw a sketch of her.  After drawing a few lines on a napkin, he hands the results over and she tosses it back angrily while stating it looks nothing like her.  Dylan then says, “Oh kind miss, it most certainly does”.  She says, “You must be joking”.  His reply on its own fits our theme word “Astonish” like a glove: “I wish I was”. 

Next on the docket: “Red River Shore”.  First up in the astonish category regarding this song: How do you bury it?  Cut in the studio for the Time Out of Mind sessions in 1997, producer Daniel Lanois, along with the session musicians, all thought they caught lightning in a bottle.  But to their dismay, Bob Dylan decided to leave it off the final record.  It could be easily argued that “Red River Shore” was the best of the best of songs performed for Time Out of Mind.  And this is not an isolated event.  Dylan has done this throughout his career.  It’s head shaking when you think about it.  Without further ado, let’s have a listen:

It’s a beautiful song, is it not? Dwell for a moment if you can on Bob Dylan’s singing.  For example, when he sings the lyrics “well, I been to the east and I been to the west and I….”.  The slight hesitancy in that last “and I” makes it sound so personal.  To me “Red River Shore” is about a man who dedicates his life to a singular memory, and in doing so maintains his integrity despite his loneliness.  As with “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, this song also starts simple, chugging along in “I think I can” fashion.  But soon enough it shifts tracks to the mind-boggling speed rail.  The last three verses (6 - 8) are heartfelt and fascinating.  If we could all tap that deep into the well of creativity that is inside all of us this world would be a better place.

The rest of this Alternate Theme Time episode will conclude next entry with six more song reviews in Part 2 of 2. 

Closing 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.  



  1. Well thanks Pete. Red River Shore is my favorite, well top three, song of Dylan's. As always, I enjoyed today's posting and can't wait for part two.

  2. Superb, thanks. You carried the style quite nicely.

  3. Red River Shore recorded during Oh Mercy sessions, I think not... it was for Time out Mind, Jim Keltner played drums on it and was furious that it was not included. Okay maybe this masterpiece was to different from the rest of the songs, and maybe Dylan could not reach the sound he had in his head, like with Carribean Wind and Blind Willie Mctell, still TooM would have been better with it, like Things Have Changed would have made Love & Theft even more a masterpiece, but then he is the artist who decides
    greeting and thanks

    1. Correction made (there was a little voice in my head to do a little bit more research on that fact...thank you!)

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    I'll appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing.

    1. thank you! .... just not sure what you mean by "watch out for brussels" ??


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