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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Master Blueprints # 50: “Someday Everything is Gonna Be Smooth Like a Rhapsody, When I Paint My Masterpiece”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “When I Paint My Masterpiece”
Album: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II
First Recorded: March 1971

Welcome to my final Master Blueprint entry, capping off a yearlong commitment of listening almost exclusively to the music of Bob Dylan, and in the process, writing down the thoughts and memories that his music ignites in me on a weekly basis.  When I started this series, I must admit it was with a bit of dread, which I hope you can come to understand as you read on.  That feeling began to seep in a full 6 years earlier, when I made the decision on the order I would tackle this overriding Music and Memory concept.  At the time, I zeroed in on 5 musicians/bands who I believed I had enough ammo on to dedicate an entire year each of weekly writing; those being the Rolling Stones (2012), Neil Young (2014) the Who (2016), Bob Dylan (2018), and the Beatles (planned for 2020). 

One early idea I had was that I would alternate between the three established bands and the two musicians who are known better as individualists, which has helped to keep things fresh (as it turns out this alternating also happens to be between British and North American musicians, which has also kept things fresh).  Another early thought was that I would write every other year, taking a break in between each series.  A key reason I did this was in anticipation of this Master Blueprint series.  I knew I would need an extra year to prep for Bob Dylan; the depth and breadth of his material was simply too expansive to dive right in after wrapping up the prior series.  Dylan was intimidating in other ways too.  Just listen to any of his albums.  He’s challenging his listeners all the time, and I felt strongly six years ago that this all-encompassing challenge was going to translate big time when it came to writing thoughts that centered around his music.  Sure enough, it most certainly did. 

Perhaps because Bob Dylan is always challenging us can at least partly explain why many people struggle with making inroads to his Nobel-winning ‘literature’ (music) despite its grandeur.  In other words, the ear training is much more than just adapting to his oft simple, sparse arrangements and even more-often raspy vocals.  Indeed, there are multiple layers of peeling needed to truly connect with this artist, who can only be embraced a bit at a time.  Put it all together though – the lyrics, tonality, instrumentation, grammar, phonality, semantics, melody, attitude, sincerity, longevity, spirituality, depth, breadth - and you ultimately have a very good angle on truth.

I’m sure I surprised a majority of my family and friends this year with the intensity of my connection to Bob Dylan’s songs.  Anyone who knows me well is fully aware of my on-again/off-again enthrallment with the Who, Neil Young, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among other great musicians.  But not so much Dylan.  The fact of the matter is that I’ve always found it relatively easy to get those other band’s music on to my turntable when entertaining others.  Bob Dylan, however, has ended up being the one musician I listen to primarily on my own.  Why?  Well, not only is Dylan an acquired taste (as discussed above), he also requires focus.  Accordingly, my guests would have had to deal with my being constantly distracted or immerse themselves in my distraction.

And so, like the boy who hears the jingle bell in The Polar Express or, closer to home like my Dad when listening to Mozart, I’ve kinda had to accept this semi-private world as is.  How do you explain the jingle bell?  You don’t, unless you are in communion with others who hear it.  I long ago concluded that it is up to the individual to make inroads into Bob Dylan’s music. No one’s going to compel you….at least audibly.  The written word might be another matter though, seeing as over the past year I think I’ve been able to relay my Dylan fascination to those who read this blog series on a regular basis.  Regardless, we all know there are many ways for people to tap into the deeper meaning of things.  This just happens to be a significant one for me, which has allowed me to expound.

Listening to Bob Dylan’s music this past year has taught me a few things about myself.  For example, I’ve always known that I have an odd tendency to refrain from taking in or tackling the entirety a good thing, be it a band’s discography, a television series, a programming language, a coin collection, a book series, etc.  In the past I’ve explained this away as my taking comfort in the fact that there would always be some undiscovered treasure out there.  I mean, what fun is it to know you’ve found it all?  To a degree I still believe this to be true. 

But now I know there’s much more to it.  Bob Dylan has committed himself fully to his craft, which is a very difficult thing to do. This includes the musical historian in him, and the artist, and the poet, the writer, the stage act, the DJ, and of course, the musician.  Enveloping it all is his spirituality; his quest for salvation.  I now see my resistance to taking in the entirety of something through this prism.  I’ve tried to put my all into this blog series however (as well as the ones that preceded it), and I hope to build on that effort with other works in my future, be they related to writing, faith, or any other endeavor.

As with my other blog series on the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and the Who, there were a handful of Bob Dylan songs that blew me away for the first time this past year, including “Desolation Row” (more on this one below), “Heart of Mine”, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”, and “Roll on John”.  Other songs cut deeper than they ever had before, including “Foot of Pride”, “Brownsville Girl”, and “Chimes of Freedom”.  Alternatively, I knew I was not going to soar much higher than I already had with anything off Bringing It All Back Home, John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Infidels, Oh Mercy or Time Out of Mind.  In those circumstances, it was up to me to recall my highest of highs from the past.  Capturing a past high can be a lot harder to do than taking a fresh perspective on something of quality, where you have never reached the mountaintop before.  Those new peaks for me were achieved with the overall essence that is Blonde on Blonde, Street Legal, Shot of Love, and Modern Times.

Back in 2008 and 2009, before I started these blog series, I wrote 100 email letters to family and friends, which I dubbed Gem Music Video of the Week (these can be found on this blog site, if you scroll to the very beginning).  My very first entry began:

Hey everyone, here’s my new home email address.  I'm launching this address with a weekly series: Gem Music Video of the Week.  It's pretty amazing having all this video music at your disposal on YouTube, so for those who are search-challenged I am tracking some chestnuts.

The idea started small – posting music videos and concert tracks of many of my favorite musicians and their songs with some commentary - but grew over those 2 years, leading to what I’m doing today.  The very last of those 100 email letters was centered on Bob Dylan’s song “When I Paint My Masterpiece”.  In a rare case of double dipping, I would like to use it again here.

In that writeup, I wrote about the concept of quality, having just finished the Robert Pirsig novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has this concept at the core to the storyline (so much so, that the word is capitalized throughout).  The book had been recommended to me earlier that year by one of the recipients of those emails, one of my great Canadian friends, Pat Shea. I went on to write about some of Pat’s unique qualities and then followed up writing about the unique qualities of several other recipients. To sum up, I then went on to say:

Yet the concept of Quality can be related to other things as well:  Music, writing, friendship, parenthood, anything you put your mind to.  I hope by opening myself here over these past 2 years, a bit of Quality came out in this writing.  As for the selected set of Gem Videos, well, there's no question.’

When I was back to Ottawa this past fall for work (and an opportunity to see Pat), a guy sat next to me at a bar as I watched my hometown Boston Red Sox in the World Series against the L.A. Dodgers.  He was an amiable fellow and I soon concluded that my undivided attention to the game was not going to happen.  That was ok.  This guy was interesting.  At one point, he mentioned Robert Pirsig, and asked if I’d read his books.  I told him, yes, I’d read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  He then responded, ‘how about the sequel, Lila’.  I told him no, I had not.  He finally suggested I check it out.   

I just this week finished Lila, and although not as good as Zen, it has its moments.  Where the central concept of Zen is quality, with Lila, its morals. While reading, I was probing for a tie-in to this closing writeup.  I’d pretty much concluded that thoughts related to Lila were not going to fit in with this series.  That is, until I got to the last sentences of chapter 26, near the end of the book, which references the 18th century short poem “The Tyger” (also referred to as The Tiger: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43687/the-tyger  ), by 19th century artist/poet English William Blake.  At the time, I’d thought, ‘ok, I’d never heard of this poem until 3 months ago (when I referenced it in Master Blueprint # 39), and here I am hearing about it again’.  That first occurrence was initiated by a Bob Dylan twist of the poem in the closing lyrics of his last original song on a studio album to date; “Roll on John” off 2012’s Tempest.  It was just another serendipitous moment in a year loaded with them.

There’s all sorts of intriguing stuff going on here, but I need to hit the homestretch, else I could be in danger of starting my own sequel (and besides, much in relation to “Roll on John” and “The Tyger” was already covered in that earlier #39 entry).  The connection I want to focus on has to do with a lyric in this week’s closing Master Blueprint, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (https://vimeo.com/75113136 ).  It’s what gave me a nice final headshaking moment to this amazing year.  The lyric goes:

Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see em’

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is a song that Bob Dylan appears to have had a lot of fun with.  He’s messed with the lyrics over the years, and blended ancient history with modern times.  It’s like a painter trying to figure out color and layout. What I’d not observed until this week is that he also appears to have lyrics out of place.  For example, “young girls pullin’ muscles” doesn’t seem to fit where it is with “clergymen in uniforms”, but it most certainly would fit with “had to be held down by big police” (connoting a Beatles-like fan riot).  Same with the notion that “a long, hard climb” would fit much better with “when I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese”. 

I believe what Bob Dylan is saying here is that you can have all your pieces to a masterpiece there right in front of you, but if you don’t see how to arrange them you may as well be sitting in front of a blank canvas.  It gets an artist to do inconsequential things like messing with the color or the layout.  These thoughts are what “mighty kings of the jungle” jarred out of me.  The line before, Bob Dylan sings of lions in the Coliseum.  The thing about lions is, they live in savannah’s not jungles.  But their close relative, the tiger is a jungle dweller.  Perhaps Bob Dylan never had this nuance in mind, but I do think he had a lot of riddle-like fun with this song.  Regardless, I’d have never gone down that thought process without reading the aforementioned last sentences in chapter of Lila. 

It’s been so much fun making these kinds of observations of Bob Dylan’s songs this past year.  I’ve made a good number of them, although I’m sure there are many more left on the cutting room floor.  A favorite of mine was when I tackled “Desolation Row” (Master Blueprint # 36).  One thing for sure, if you are going to paint a masterpiece it’s going to have to be from that proverbial place, Desolation Row.  It’s a mental space, and anyone who explores the arts, be it music, literature, painting, is going to have to pay a price to find it.  I may or may not have painted my masterpiece with this blog series (there likely being one too many pieces out of place?), but I do believe I at least found that mental place to write it.  I’ll take it.  It puts me in good company.

Pete

2 comments:

  1. Great review. Masterpiece is one of my favourite Dylan songs. Have a listen to the "Night of the Hurricane" version. The revised line that includes "Boticcelli's neice" for "... a pretty little girl from Greece" just works so much better given both the context of the song as well as the title.

    One minor point, the line with "...young girls pulling muscles" should be "... young girls pulling mussels" given the earlier reference to Brussels.

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    1. Edwin, thank you for your feedback! I'm searching out that "Night of the Hurricane" version now. As for 'mussels' vs. 'muscles'... I've been back and forth ono this one. It's spelled 'mussels' in the official Dylan lyrics book. cracks me up.

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