West Palm Beach, Florida

June 26, 2013

 

I agree with Harold Bloom’s statement that Shakespeare plays better on the page than on the stage. He plays even more poorly in the open air. After many summers of struggling to enjoy the labors of semi-professional theater groups performing Shakespeare in Seattle’s parks, I had an epiphany. The audience was not in attendance to see a play, but to have a picnic.  The play was peripheral entertainment for a weekend outing. People would eat and laugh and talk and occasionally a scene from the play would capture their momentary interest, after which their attention would be diverted to the ice chest for another beer. I tried watching the play with this attitude and was surprised at how the pleasantly the rest of the afternoon passed. Once I stopped trying to make sense of the individual performances, the scenes started to float by me without narrative purposefulness, and I realized this manner of spending a Sunday afternoon was preferable to staying home and mowing the lawn.

I have only seen Bob Dylan perform in the open air on two occasions, at the Tanglewood shed in Lenox, MA on July 4, 1991 and at Boston’s Harborlight Pavilion on June 19, 1995.  They were the two worst Dylan shows I had ever seen and heard. I had avoided  him all through the eighties because he only played outdoor venues in the Boston area, and I had never felt that such an atmosphere was conducive to concert listening.  Like Shakespeare in the park, people came for a picnic, not a performance.  They wanted to party with Bob, not listen to him.  And most of them were there because of his name recognition, not because they were particularly enamored of his music.

I had seen Dylan in 1966 at the Seattle Arena, 1974 at the Seattle Coliseum, 1978 at the Los Angeles Forum, and twice in 1980 at Seattle’s Paramount. Each of these concerts was a defining event in my life.  I regret that I missed his 1981 concert at the Orpheum in Boston, but I didn’t like his new album, “Shot of Love,” and stupidly stayed home.  The tapes from that show are evidence that 1981 was one of his best years; perhaps his last great year until his resuscitation began in 1994. The next show I went to was at the Boston Opera House in 1989.  With his first decent album since Infidels and a classy venue like the Opera House, I was hoping for a proper concert, not the fairground fiascos in places like Mansfield’s Great Woods that were turning him into the kind of act that plays State Fairs. The Opera House show was a shambles, the only memorable performance being the proud and terrifying self-assertion of some of the lines in “Most of the Time.” I took another chance in 1991 with what I hoped would be a special Fourth of July show at Tanglewood.  But it was a piss poor performance, and I didn’t want to see another like it.

So I stayed away from Dylan concerts until 1994, after a friend from Lawrence Kansas sent me tapes of the show he had just attended that made him believe Dylan was relevant once more.  When he came to Boston that fall, I caught two of this three Orpheum shows. They were in not in the class of his concerts between 1966-1981, but they were pretty damn good, especially the acoustic sets. Then I caught the outdoor show in the summer of 1995, and   the memorable December 10th show at the Orpheum, during which Patti Smith joined him to sing “Dark Eyes.”

I was unable to see him again until 2001 at the Seattle Key Arena, formerly the Coliseum, and he was brilliant. The next year was pretty good as well. Then, in 2004, at the Paramount, a concert so wretched, so boring, that I have not seen him in concert since.  I have kept up with him, though, through the labors of the tapers, and have been happy to hear what he was up to without having to experience the decline of his powers first hand.

Last spring was the first time I had really wished I could have attended one of his concerts, but I am now living in Ilo, a small port city on the southern coast of Peru, and Dylan, who has never even played Lima, is unlikely to come anywhere close to here.  The shows from last spring were a return to form for Dylan, and I covered the tour as well as I could from where I am in the blog “I Am Jean Valjean.”  I had no idea I would continue with it until a few days ago, when something compelled me to carry on with “The Return of Jean Valjean.”  Those of you who have read the entries from last spring will know what to expect, and for those who haven’t, the original entries are still posted here, as well as an edited version of the whole shebang.

So the fun begins tonight at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, where he has not played since opening his 1999 tour with Paul Simon there. The joint was called Coral Sky then, because the stage sat to the west so you could watch the sunset while letting the sounds roll by. It has had several names imposed upon it by various sponsors, the current one being Cruzan Rum. They don’t allow alcohol inside though, so the name is something of a paradox.

I don’t think those who miss this tour will be missing much, but those in attendance should have a good time watching the sunset while listening to My Morning Jacket and then dancing in the dark while Bob Dylan and his Band roll out the blues.  But I could be wrong.  Anything might happen. Time and again, Bob has proven himself impervious to time and place, delivering crap shows in regal surroundings and measures of transcendence in squalid quarters. I am hoping that he keeps his back to the sun and amazes the crowd at his feet. 

bob dylan goes on tour this thursday, and jean valjean will follow him once more, blending news of the world with  a geographical survey of bob’s itinerary.   the following is a final draft edit of “I Am Jean Valjean,,” which appeared here this spring in unedited form, on a
blow by blow basis as it happened. “The Return of jean Valjean” begins here on Thursday.

I AM JEAN VALJEAN!
An expatriate reflects upon the North American Experience while following Bob Dylan’s Spring 2013 tou

    4/5/2013    

                                             Buffalo, New York

Tonight, Bob Dylan starts his first North American tour of 2013 in Buffalo.  An old friend of mine lives there, but I don’t know if he is going.  I posted something on his Facebook, but he never answered. Maybe he thinks I went crazy when I expatriated myself out of the country to marry Kel, a Peruvian doctor who had .been my Internet paramour for nearly seven years.  A lot of old friends say I lost my mind long before that, even before the Seattle PI closed up shop and I became a jobless  hermit, writing two books that I never even tried to get published because books didn’t really exist anymore. I had little reason to remain in Seattle, as  the United States as I had known it  was being  wiped away by illiterate boors who got their ideas about culture and politics from talk radio and  their dating do’s and don’ts from television reruns of “Friends.”

Shortly before I left the country, Bob Dylan released “Tempest” and was touring the states but not playing many songs from the new album. He hit Seattle a few nights before my departure but I didn’t go because prices were too high and I wanted to hear the new songs, not the same show he had been touring for the last decade.  He had better play a lot of Tempest songs on this new tour.  If he doesn’t, I’m afraid people are going to forget the album exists.

That would be a pity because it’s a damn good album. I listened to it a lot before boarding the train in Seattle that took me to Fort Lauderdale where I caught a cruise ship for Peru.  We left the harbor an hour before our scheduled time of departure to outrun Hurricane Sandy.     Once we passed the devil’s loop, the sea was a placid friend all the way to Panama and down the West coast.

There are creeps like Charles Manson who think records contain personal messages.  I’m not that kind of a nut.  Although “Tempest” begins on a train and ends on a ship, the idea that Dylan had recorded “it to warn me not to get on the boat was only a passing fancy. Besides, Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” is heard from a phantom train, and his Titanic is not the Titanic of History but the Titanic of Prophecy. Amtrak is not yet a ghost, and Holland-America is anything but a symbol of the World’s End.   Quite the opposite; those ten days at sea gave me a taste of the luxury that most North Americans expect and accept as their birthright, sure as they believe that Science gave them the bomb so they wouldn’t need the protection of saints.

Today, the U.S. is gagging on the fallout of a stink-ass war that was supposed to have ended sixty years ago, and Bob Dylan is on tour again. In Argentina, The Black Pope rises to rescue and return the church to God, and Bob Dylan opens the first concert of his new tour with “Things Have Changed.”  Nicolas Maduro accuses the opposition of sabotaging Venezuela’s power grid, and I’m listening to Tom Robbins’ Notes from the Underground, a show he used to do for three hours every Sunday night on KRAB radio in Seattle. And the sound of the music is so aggressively present, like music used to be in the days of records and radio.

Between the songs, Robbins talks about LSD, subhuman policemen, the superiority of the Peanut Butter Conspiracy to the Mamas and Papas, the sexual desirability of both Sonny and Cher, and the replacement of linear thought with original intelligence.  He reads from the Bible and the LA Free Press, then answers a letter from a teenage girl fan who wants to know if artists should go to college. This was July 1967; a year and a half after the night Bob Dylan took a break from a recording session in New York City to answer phone call-ins on Bob Fass’ late night show. Damn, radio used to be good.

Kel and I had been invited to a dinner by a pharmaceutical company with a new painkiller on the market. It was a formal affair though, and we hadn’t any clothes, so we stayed in and followed Dylan’s live set list from Buffalo on Expecting Rain.  With Duke Robillard replacing Charlie Sexton on guitar, four songs from “Tempest” were performed, with the rest of the show mostly ignoring material from the early days.  Dylan was finally delivering the show he should have prepared for last fall. For the first time in years, he played neither  ”All Along the Watchtower” nor “Like a Rolling Stone,”  the latter of which should have been retired long ago.

It had been thrilling to hear that song played live in 1966 and 1974, but when something has such a shape-shifting effect on popular culture, the chances of it retaining significance throughout future years is slim. The song was diminished by its big band arrangement in1978, was renewed by its author’s spiritual backslide in 1981, and enjoyed Tom Petty’s parody of the original arrangement in 1986.  After that, it was nothing but sputtering and choking, the tedious verses long and wavering, and the chorus bereft of the bite and spite of its echoed irony.  In 1974, when Dylan challenged the audience with the “How Does it Feel To Be a Lost and Forsaken Remnant of European Civilization?” refrain, they responded with cheers and lighter waving that answered, ”It feels goddam good.” Dylan was playing the prophet and the audience the ignorant multitude. Phil Ochs was right in fearing Dylan would be assassinated if his audience got wind of what he was saying,

4/6/2013

Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst, MA is a college town to which New England girls flee after breaking up with their high school boyfriends. This town where they flourish and sometimes write memorable pop songs is the Yankee version of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill, and Bob Dylan, aside from changing out “Highway 61” for “All Along the Watchtower,” played exactly the same show here as in Buffalo on the previous night.

While Dylan entertained in Amherst, Keane put on their show in Lima, but Kel and I were without the price of a ticket. In my ten years of reviewing concerts for the PI, the only time I ran out the day after a show and bought the CD was after seeing Keane, a band I reviewed without having heard their music. It is always exciting to see a band breaking out of the gate. There is a communication between performers and audience that is rare in the world of corporate rock. Tom Chaplin had been a drunken coke-head during that first tour and went into rehab before the second one.  Sobriety took the fire out of his performance. Without the drugs, he was just another tosser.

Dylan had his share of boozy performances; some good and some bad. His brain would go fuzzy when trying to play in time and in tune with the band, but on his own he was a killer.  The worst thing I saw him do was “New Morning” at Tanglewood on the Fourth of July in 1991. But on the same show he did a marvelous acoustic version of “Trail of the Buffalo.” Some of his best live performances from the early nineties were inebriated versions of traditional folk songs.

Bob was not drunk in Amherst. The concert was tough and sober as “Tempest.” He restrained his tendency to rush the lengthy blue-based sagas, taking everything ferociously slow, and making sure we heard every word.  With Dylan confining himself to   piano and harmonica, careful not to mess up the rhythm with a wayward guitar, a stately pace is maintained.

On Sunday Kel and I drove to the family house for her mother’s birthday.  Her grandfather asked if there was going to be war with Korea and I said no, but even as that idiot in North Korea threatens the world with his slingshot bombs, the 20,000 year war continues in the Middle East. Unlike the rules and treaties that are meant to referee ground combat, there are no treaties regulating aerial warfare. Maybe the United Nations should do something worthwhile for once and draft an international law prohibiting the firing of missiles across borders.

Whatever the outcome of North Korea’s baby-fat threats, I doubt they will compare with the historic import of next week’s presidential election in Venezuela.   Envisioning the future from his deathbed, Hugo Chavez must have seen that the Bolivarian revolution was about to take a big hit. Maduro is to Chavez what Stalin was to Lenin. If elected, he is likely to make a mess of the country, then hide in his paranoia behind a hair-triggered military. When the streets of Caracas are choking on human sewage, the people may well embrace the promises of a right-wing jackass. On the other hand, if Capriles is elected, public sympathy for Chavez may keep the new president in check, preventing him from destroying the good things that the former president has done for his country.

The United States is fortunate in having an infrastructure so sound that it can survive the antics of its leaders.  So many other countries have no such foundation, and are whipped around by the whims of the lunatics who take office.

                  

 

        4 /8/2013

Kingston, Rhode Island

The proximity of Kingston to the site of the Newport Folk Festival might  inspire Dylan   to  switch out “Watchtower” for “Maggie’s Farm” tonight, but Newport is probably as far from his thoughts as is the dead queen. Fans are already complaining about the first two shows having near exact set lists, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. This may turn out to be among Dylan’s finest tours, even if he doesn’t switch out one more song.

In Chile, the body of poet Pablo Neruda is being exhumed to determine whether he died a natural cancer death or was assassinated for his opposition to Pinochet. Over 3,000 people were murdered by Pinochet’s regime, among them folksinger Victor Jara. Soon we will find if Neruda was also among the Chilean dictator’s victims.  But is this exhumation any different than what Hugo Chávez did to Simón Bolívar in 2010? And will the day come when another ardent theorist digs up the bones of Chavez to prove that he did not die from cancer, but was poisoned by the CIA? As Neruda’s bones are swept from his coffin, someone in Argentina is shooting ferrets up with steroids and selling them as toy poodles.  Next time you are on an animal shopping spree, be sure to check the hump on that Chihuahua.

Kingston gets the same show as Amherst, which is to say they were not cheated. It used to be that you had to follow Dylan from town to town if you wanted to get the complete show. If you were lucky, you lived in a town where he did a three-night stand, and you had a good chance of hearing a few of the songs you wanted to hear if you bought tickets for all three nights. But what a drag it was for those in Seattle who had tickets for the show at Wamu in October 2009, where they heard six duds from the execrable “Together Through Life” and missed the gem-laced concert the previous night at the Moore that had been a last-minute addition to the itinerary.  If he keeps playing the same show throughout this short tour, nobody will have cause to complain of being gypped. .

4/9/2013

Lowell, Massachusetts

On April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs killed himself in Queens.  On April 9, 2013, Bob Dylan is in Lowell, perhaps putzing around at Jack Kerouac’s grave. He plays tonight at the Tsongas Center at UMass, one of a dozen or so college halls he will occupy this month, and is offering student discounts at some of them.  . I saw Phil Ochs in 1972 at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall when he was cheerleading for the George McGovern presidential campaign. He was exhausted and marvelous as he sang and mourned an America that would re-elect Richard Nixon.

Jack Kerouac is worshipped by the Boston poets, but I never thought he was much of a writer.  The book that made his name is an unexceptional account of a guy driving across a country about which he had little to say.  I thought when I crossed the country by rail that I would be writing the whole time, looking at the country I was leaving as it passed by, and listening to the stories of all the people that lived in all the towns.  But when I got off the train in Florida to catch the ship to Peru, I discovered that I had even less to say than Kerouac.

The guy who had some things to say about this country was Phil Ochs. He wrote “Power and the Glory” and wasn’t even invited to play at the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Tribute at Carnegie Hall. Dylan and the Band were there, as were Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Odetta, and Tom Paxton, but the guy who was Woody’s truest heir was snubbed. And despite the almost ridiculous adoration Dylan has enjoyed throughout most of his career, I think Ochs may outlast him. I believe that the generations of Americans to come will revere the songs of Phil Ochs, while most of what Dylan has’ written will have little meaning to them.  While Ochs never wrote anything as transcendent  as “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Dylan has never written anything as historically profound as “When In Rome,” as heartbreaking as “Pleasures of the Harbor,” as revolutionary as “The War is Over,” as honest as “Rehearsals for Retirement,” or as well-targeted as “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”  In their early days, Ochs could not compare to Dylan.  Listen to their respective songs about the boxer Davey Moore and it is obvious that Ochs was only a second rate journalist while Dylan was profoundly a second-rate poet. But when both graduated from setting newspaper headlines to music, Ochs moved into the universal with songs like “There But for Fortune” and “Changes,” while Dylan indulged himself in obscurely personal songs in the pop song annex of Desolation Music Row.

Dylan has been the guiding light of popular song for half a century, and many of his songs will find a lasting place in the American Songbook alongside those of Stephen Foster and Woody Guthrie.  But I don’t think the people of tomorrow are going to love, still love Victor Jara. Or Argentina still loves Facundo Cabral.  Or France Edith Piaf. This is, I believe, how Phil Ochs, in the future, will be loved.

Dylan is specific to his time, and we who share his time are reflected in his art. He swallows us whole and when we escape his whale-like influence, we find ourselves in a new shape.  No matter whom we are or who he is when we meet him. we are changed by the encounter. But when he is gone, when time tramples the last of us who remember him, what then will his legacy be?

The people will always need to hear someone sing “I Ain’t  Marching Anymore,” if only to be reminded that one has the option of refusing to do that which contrary to one’s principles, but is there any purpose in raising the collective voice of the future to sing “I See You Got Your Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat?”

They say that Ochs fell into a suicidal depression because the words had stopped coming, but I believe that his despondency resulted from the isolation of his being the odd man out after the parades of protest had faded from the land .There was no place for him in the complacent society that re-elected Richard Nixon and watched with dead, causeless eyes as the president’s house in Chili was bombed and Victor Jara tortured and murdered in the stadium that now bears his name.

4/10/2013

       Lewiston, Maine

 

The Indians took flight from Lewiston, Maine into Canada after the fur trade destroyed inter-tribe relationships by placing monetary value on things that were once shared freely by all.  Tonight, Bob Dylan sets the western union afire with a dramatic change in the program. “Summer Days” replaces “Thunder on the Mountain.”  The paradox is that “Thunder on the Mountain” is a second-rate copy of “Summer Days,” which it replaced in Dylan’s shows after the release of “Modern Times” on the nights when both songs   were not performed.

“Summer Days” may be the first rock and roll dance tune written and performed by a senior citizen. The language of rock and roll is the language of adolescent sexual drive and frustration, the language of those denied the full measure of participation in life.  Plenty of rock and rollers continue to play music into their seventies, but if they write new songs, they rarely measure up to the old ones.   Dylan marks the change, making rock and roll a universal language, a language with a lexicon, a language through which death, as well as acne, is confronted.  .

Summer days, summer nights are gone,

I know a place where there’s still somethin’ goin’ on.

This sentiment is echoed in “Spirit on the Water,” when he sings:

You think I’m over the hill

Think I’m past my prime

Let me see what you got

We can have a whoppin’ good time

The trilogy of “Time out of Mind / Love and Theft / Modern Times” is perhaps the finest literary achievement in rock and roll.  It begins with “Love Sick.” (Walking through streets that are dead) and ends with “Ain’t Talkin’. (In the last outback at the world’s end.)

This is a journey through a century of popular music, half of which was dominated by the singer’s own work.  It is the search for love that is the prime motive of modern man’s existence, and it ends in his absolute failure, not only to find love, but to escape from the vanity of the search itself. The trilogy is similar to Michelangelo Antonioni film trilogy of “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), and “L’eclisse” (1962).  Both Dylan and Antonioni see eroticism as the disease of the modern age. As “L’Avventura” was honored at the Cannes Film Festival for its “remarkable contribution to the search for a new cinematic language,” so should Dylan receive commendation for doing the same thing with popular music.

 

       

        5/12/2013

   Newark, Delaware

Bob Dylan is the last man standing in a game that he bluffed his way into as a sideman for Columbia Records.   When he got a chance to make an album of his own, he used the occasion to advance his reputation as a harmonica player and to make himself known as a guitarist, rather than risk blowing it on staking out a claim as a songwriter. That is why his first album sounds more like the resume of an untested sideman than a debut album from a promising folksinger.

It wasn’t so easy to get into the game in 1962.  Pop music was dominated by good looking Italian kids who learned to sing in the church choir. Folk music was a back door to nowhere.  When Dylan’s first album neither sold well nor impressed Columbia’s producers into giving him more work as a sideman, he responded with an album of original songs that was so good that he not only opened a window of opportunity for himself, but opened it so wide that a whole generation of Elvis wannabes climbed through that window.  They all got into the game, and now that game is over,

Dylan played out his string, not only through his own genius, which was palpable, but by bluffing, lying, stealing, and making everything he touched his own.  If you didn’t like folk music, you did after you heard Dylan play it.  If you didn’t like country western, you did after hearing “Nashville Skyline.”  You may have never thought of buying a gospel record before “Slow Train Coming,” and Dylan did more for extending the life of the blues than all the hotshot English guitarists put together.

Dylan influenced everyone and changed everything.  This game that would never have knowingly accepted his ante was transformed by the cards he played.  No one was content to do what they had done before. Even the Beatles were no longer satisfied being The Beatles. They wanted to be Dylan too. Paul Simon, who might have languished in the poetry pages of a University journal, became an international singing star. Even Bobby Darin, who had dreamt of nothing but being the teenage Frank Sinatra, chucked his formal wear and dragged out an acoustic guitar to sing a protest song written by Tim Hardin in the glitter of Las Vegas.

The game is over now.  The record industry has collapsed.  Millions of songs are posted on the internet. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad. The CD’s recorded on computers and distributed through sites like ReverbNation are useful as promotional tools and souvenirs for those who show up to the gig, but it’s not the same as having a record out back in the day when a music industry still existed.  Even those who get signed to the remnants of a major label are unlikely to shake things up in the cities.  Their music may get copied to some IPods, but only to be part of a general mix of protective sound in the anxiety coma of contemporary American life.

Still, a few stalwart celebrities from ancient days continue to ply their trade. Unlike Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen, who charge $300 a seat for a three hour concert that gives the fans what they paid for, Dylan chooses to gallivant the globe like an itinerant cowboy singer, throwing a few classic hits into whatever else he feels like playing on any given night, not paying much attention to whether he is getting $100 a ticket for an arena show or $40 for a college auditorium.. The fans that follow him around the world like it this way, but the poor soul who only gets a chance to see him once every two or three years is not so forgiving when he plays three or four throwaways from Nashville Skyline and nothing from his latest album. The last time I saw him was one of the first shows of his 2005 tour with a new band.  It was the first time I had ever been bored at a Dylan concert and the last concert of his that I attended.  I’ve downloaded dozens of concerts from the last eight years, and don’t feel I’ve missed anything. The current tour is something else, though. He has finally put together a show that sums up what he has been doing for the last fifteen years or so, and what he has been trying to do all his life.

“Mixed-Up Confusion,” his first single, was a weak emulation of the Elvis Presley sound that lacked the conventional structure of a Presley song. The flip side, “Corrina Corrina,” was a successful blues croon that evidenced the type of a singer Dylan aspired to becoming.  Throughout his career, he has returned to the music that was popular around this time, His occasional practice of covering sentimental pop ballads in concert such as “Soon,” “Moon River,” and “You Don’t Know Me:, as well as releasing official recordings of “You Belong to Me,”  “Blue Moon,” and “Let It Be Me” prove that he finds magic in these songs.  Attempts at writing something original in this vein, such as   “When Teardrops Fall,” have been pitiful until now.  With the help of Bobby Fuller’s “A New Shade of Blue,” he has come up with “Soon After Midnight.”

He begins by stealing Fuller’s unmistakable riff, as well as his guitar tone. Then he goes on to use the chord structure as well as its internal dynamics as a girder against harmonic disaster.  . “A New Shade of Blue” is so solid that Dylan can go out of bounds in the lyric and the song is only enhanced by it.  Compare how out of place it sounds in “Bye and Bye’ when he starts carrying on about baptizing people in fire and starting a civil war to the verse about dragging Two-timing Slim’s corpse through the mud in “Soon After Midnight.” The music of “Bye and Bye” could not shoulder the shifting of the lyrical weight.

“I’m a thief and I dig it”…Jawbone, The Band

Even though Dylan is a thief, we all share in his plunder when we enjoy what he does with his booty.

 

         

 

 

           4/13/2013                                                                   California, Pennsylvania

         4/14/2013

     Ithaca, New York

Angels and devils danced together in the aurora borealis last night, but it was just another gig for the band on the mirrored stage. And it is bound to be the same tonight, without Blake and Swedenborg’s celestial dancers on the cosmic roof.  I am more interested in who wins the vote in Venezuela today than what songs Bob Dylan will play tonight in Ithaca. This is a week that could change the course of history, and not only for Venezuela.  Papa Francis is calling for a meeting of the cardinals to reform the church, his first step in bringing about the apocalypse that will free the church from the Vatican. Most Christians of the United States believe the apocalypse is the war between good and evil that will anticipate the Reign of the Beast.  But it is more probable that the apocalypse signals the end of the beast’s reign and the return of the church to Christ.

Neither of Venezuela’s presidential candidates is capable of running the country. Although Maduro has been anointed by Chavez, he seems an ignorant, paranoid moron who is likely to be deposed by a disgruntled populace who won’t want to see their country destroyed.  The right wing will then take power, and the gringo imperialists will re-open the veins of Latin America. If Capriles   wins the election, he will have to run a conservative administration or risk overthrow by the Chavists. But a Capriles victory would be a setback to countries such as Uruguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where Simon Bolivar’s vision is being actualized.

Then there is North Korea, a mad country that can only be stopped by China.  Yet John Kerry is trying to get into the game as well. In 2004, Kerry ran a winning campaign against Bush and then changed his tactics into losing ones.  He threw the race in order to introduce the unknown Barack Obama to the power elite.  The deal was done.  Kerry would throw the election, giving Bush four more years to fuck the country up even more than he had in his first term.  Then, when any Democrat pulled out of a hat would be a cinch to defeat the next Republican candidate, Obama would run and win and he could pull any bullshit he wanted to pull and people would applaud him because he was not George Bush…  Now Kerry has his reward: Obama has appointed him Secretary of State.  The Chinese think he is an oaf, but prefer him to the witch Hilary, so they let him in on the talks regarding the manner in which North Korea will be handled.  But he doesn’t return home with any real information.

This is the week in which anything might happen. Anything except Bob Dylan singing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, that masterpiece of masterpieces that begins with the intro to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” then goes on to rival Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” as the most spectacular tribute to womanhood in the English language since Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.”

4/16/2013

     Richmond, Virginia

 

And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.  (Hebrews 5:22, King James Translation)

 

The American Revolution began on April 19, 1775.

The Mexican – American War began on April 25, 1846

The War Between the States began on April 12, 1861.

The Spanish American War began on April 25, 1898.

Perhaps Eliot was onto something when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.”

The U.S. favors April as a month for war dancing. Their wars sometimes end in April as well. It was April of 1865 that Richmond, Virginia, the Capitol of the Confederacy, fell to Yankee troops. Last night, Bob Dylan and his band brought their show to Richmond. It was two days after the Bombing of Boston, and one day after a US helicopter fell out of the North Korean sky. The day after a 7.8 earthquake shook Iran all the way into India. Three days after Maduro won the presidency of Venezuela by a narrow margin, a victory contested by the opposition.  Although Maduro agreed to a recount, the National Electoral Council said they did not know when the recount would take place, but that when it did, whatever the outcome, Maduro’s victory was irreversible. April is also the month during which the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are traditionally observed, although this year, those events fell at the end of March.

Last night in Richmond, Bob Dylan sang, “I pay in blood, but not my own.”  I am still trying to unravel the mystery of the narrative voice here. The song is a succession of apparent contradictions.  Is this Christ saying that next time around, he will redeem man, not with his blood, but with theirs? Or is it one of the pretended apostles of the Catholic Church, making a mockery of the Lord’s sacrifice? Or perhaps the devil himself?  No, probably one of those demonic priests whose blood brings Dracula back to life, or whose unholy suicide raises an army of the walking dead.

After reading that there had been explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I turned on CNN and watched it through the rest of the day and into the night.  The next morning, half of what had been said the day before was retracted, including the report that the police had safely detonated a third bomb, and that two more remained to be inspected.  There had also been the odd comment that six other bombs had been found along the Marathon’s trail, a statement that received no follow-up in any quarter.  The reportage exposed the shortcomings of the CNN team, many of them looking like ex-models who didn’t have enough talent to get into the movies and so became news anchors. Most of them displayed an outrageous lack of knowledge of Boston’s geography, placing the JKK library in Cambridge, the Commons directly behind Copley Place, and Boston College in the immediate vicinity of the bombings.

I hadn’t watched CNN since the first Gulf War, when they redefined the character of world news by turning the theatre of battle into their private soundstage, where a controlled vision of the events could be piped through television cables without the interference of independent or even network news sources.  But they couldn’t put a freeze on the internet, where an article about an Arab suspect being held for questioning in one of the Boston hospitals was posted.  CNN denied the existence of a suspect, although the next day it was admitted that the internet story was in fact true.  Little cracks in their story appeared throughout the day, as they distracted us with increasingly graphic footage of the explosions.

Why does the chief of police hold a press conference if he does not plan to answer any of the questions?  Why does Obama give a speech if he has nothing to say? Is it just to keep the show going, to keep people tuned in? Wouldn’t it be better just to give us updates as they come in, rather than try to create some sick kind of reality programming out of such a horrible tragedy?  There was one brutish woman who kept butting in on the reportage with a plea to shoppers to enjoy their holiday as planned. On the morning after, the insensitive business reporter rued the decline of the stock market on the day of the bombings, but assured the people of the United States that the market had opened strong with the Dow regaining the points lost on Patriot’s Day.

I remember a time when reporters would circle the globe, interviewing people who knew what they were talking about, who tried to shed some light on confusing and frustrating events as they unfolded. Today, they collect information on Twitter and share the tweets of celebrities with us, celebrities who communicate in tweetspeak such unoriginal sentiments as, “My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston on this sad day.” I have nothing against simple thoughts expressed in simple words, but when I turn on the news, I want to hear the perspectives of those in the know. Maybe such people no longer exist.

The most idiotic statement I heard on that day was, “Unlike Waco and Oklahoma City, this was not a terrorist act.”  The attack on Waco was a non-provoked military action authorized by Bill Clinton and Janet Reno against an unconventional religious commune that refused to give up its arsenal. Now, I’m not saying that it is a good thing for off-kilter Christians to stockpile weapons, but it surely isn’t a crime that should be punished by massacring the men, women, and children on the premises.  Oklahoma City, on the other hand, was a revenge action in response to the massacre, and should certainly be classified as a terrorist act, even by those who may disagree with Clinton’s methods of disarming Christians.

The reason Obama would not classify the marathon bombing as a terrorist act is because he was afraid of offending the Muslims, as there is the belief in the white house that the word terrorist is synonymous with Arab.  Even if that were so, should the president’s vocabulary be restricted to the use of PC euphemisms? Gee, the nicest president in the world, Jose Mujica of Uruguay, playfully called Cristina Fernandez, president of Argentina, “an old shrew who is worse than her one-eyed late husband, Nestor Kirchner,” Argentina’s previous president. You have to love a country where the president is free to speak his mind, not shackled like poor Obama, who probably doesn’t even have the authority to choose what to watch on Netflix when his wife coaxes him into their fancy new rec room.

There are many inspiring passages in the Bible, but few of them are to be found in the pages of the Paul’s epistles…  His allegation in Hebrews 22 that there is no remission of sins without blood has its basis in Old Testament law, not in the law of love as taught by Christ. And it is precisely this law of revenge, this paying in blood, which is the motivation for many of these terrorist acts. The officials drone on about unknown motives, but these motives are well known to all.

You can’t graduate from middle school without learning that every action has an opposite and equal re-action.  So how come the people who guard the official word haven’t learned it?  The creeps who set off these bombs are pissed off about something.  We should take a lesson from the Palestinians and the Jews, caught in an endless and stupid game of ping-pong that leaves dead children scattered all over the place.  If they want to have a war, let each take their cowardly armies out into the desert and have it out.  Let the winner take all.  Just be sure they have their dirty little war somewhere where civilized human beings won’t get hurt. Don’t chip off half their skulls or split their limbs with your popgun missiles. If two rival gangs endangered the American public the way the revenge addicts of Israel and Palestine endanger each other’s citizenry, they would all be arrested, tried and imprisoned…  But these ruffians, who should be cold-shouldered by all sentient beings, tread the Earth with diplomatic immunity.

If the United States is to thrive in the coming millennium, it is imperative that it take the path of truth and reconciliation, to admit its wrongs and make amends with those it has wronged. I am praying those responsible for the Patriot’s Day attack will be quickly apprehended and punished.  There is no excuse for their actions.  Regardless of what Saint Paul has written to the Hebrews, revenge is not sweet; it is the very essence of Hell.

4/18/2013

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

4/19/2013

Akron Ohio

Last night, several Latin American presidents got together in Lima to decide whether or not to recognize Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela. An agreement was reached as the National Election Council decided to go along with the request for a recount by the opposition. In Boston, a police offer was killed in the chase to apprehend the two bombing suspects, who are brothers with a Russian heritage.  One of them was killed. .The other is at large and residents of Boston and surrounding suburbs have been warned to stay home and lock their doors. No buses, no subway, no train, and no taxis. Kel and I spent the evening filming traditional Peruvian dances, while Bob Dylan sang to the descendants of Bethlehem Steel Workers, who had manufactured 1,110 warships for the first and second world wars. Tonight he will perform the same show at the University of Akron, where students from the nearby Kent Sate are also expected to attend.

By 1968, the cops were having a hard time telling the difference between a flowerchild and a militant radical, so they followed the lead  of the military, which solved the problem of  identifying the North from the South Vietnamese  with the memorable quip,. “The dead ones are from the North.” On August 28, Chicago’s Mayor Daley sent his police force through Lincoln Park to attack and disable any and all civilians in the area. On May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a protest at Kent State University against Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. Several of the massacre’s victims were not involved in the protest.

One Saturday morning in the mid-seventies, while making my janitorial rounds through the Sand Point Naval Air Base in Seattle, I asked a commander who was sitting behind his desk in the War Plans office what he thought about the Trident protests.  He answered that he never gave any thought to the protest activities of hippies, since they had already shown an unwillingness to die for their beliefs. The military, however, was willing to absorb any necessary casualties in achieving their ends.

This was the America in which I came of age. It seemed the government was fighting a war against the kids. A cop once pulled a gun on me in an elevator after arresting me for playing guitar for an audience of winos, and assured me that he had the justification to kill me on the spot, just by saying I went for his gun… It wasn’t only the cops we had to watch out for. I got stomped by a gaggle of marines one night just because I was walking ahead of them, softly singing “Masters of War” to myself.

At the time, I thought such brutality was a response to our non-participation in the war, but as the war ended, the assaults against youth continued.  In 1978, at a club in Seattle called The Bird, a punk-rock singer displayed her broken arm to the audience, explaining that the police had attacked her on the way to the gig.  I moved to Boston in 1981, where the police were much calmer than those in Seattle, and I concluded the reason for this was that many of the Boston police walked a beat, while the Seattle cops always rode around in cruisers, never getting to know the neighborhoods or the people who lived in them.  The Boston cops knew who everybody was, while the Seattle cops based their judgment calls based on apparent appearances.  Also, the Boston cops were crime-fighters, not street bullies.  They had better things to do than bust innocent heads.

I lost my fear of the cops during the seventeen years I lived in Boston, where I learned to like and respect police officers. Then, in 1999, I returned to Seattle and found the police there to be as vicious as ever. I was working at Borders on Fourth Avenue on November 30, when a group of protesters tried to block the WTO’s fascist limousines from arriving at the convention center. Mayor Norm Rice sent the police force in to bust heads. We were told to close the store and go home but the manager refused to comply and set the store up as a rest and rehabilitation center for those who had been bludgeoned and tear-gassed by the cops. When my shift ended, I zigzagged my way home, as the police were attacking anyone on the street suspected of being anti-WTO. The next day, a cordon of police in Star Wars regalia refused to let me pass in order to go to work.  So began the several days of Martial Law in Seattle, during which students were tear-gassed on their way home from classes, bicyclists were pulled off their vehicles and beaten, and all who resisted were arrested. Such situations were common in most of the cities where the interests of the power elite conflicted with the will of the people, and now I knew that Seattle was no different than Geneva or Prague.

And now I have something to say to all you angle boys of the cosmos who thought you had an in with the Big Operators — ‘Suckers! Cunts! Marks! — I hate you all — And I never intended to cut you in or pay you off with anything but horse shit — And you can thank The Rube if you don’t go up with the apes — Is that clear enough or shall I make it even clearer? You are the sucker cunts marks I invented to explode this dead whistle stop and go up with it –’” William Burroughs, from Nova Express

What Burroughs captures here is the essence of inequality between the small idle classes that is sustained by taxing the larger working class. This holds true for all countries, regardless of pretended ideologies. The idea of the United States as a free country has its inception in the American Revolution, through which it freed itself from British rule. It became an independent country governed by its own elite class, not by a foreign government. Freedom only exists in relation to enslavement.  To be free, one must be free from something.  There is no freedom of, but only freedom from.   One is always free to do something, but only the truly free are free to not do something.  In many countries that hold elections, voting is mandatory. In others, such as the US, it is not compulsory. The US citizen has the freedom not to vote. The Arab living in the US has the right to live outside the law of Islam. Throughout much of its history, the Catholic Church has imposed the beliefs and observances of its religion upon the people over which it held power.  Not in the United States, where people have the freedom to not participate in religious rites. They also have the right to participate in political process, but they do not have the right to determine the outcome. For example, in Seattle in the early 70’s, there was a referendum to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18.  The votes were cast, and the referendum passed.  But the state government, against the will of the people, overturned the referendum, and kept the drinking age at 21. They never intended the age be lowered. As Burroughs so eloquently puts it, the big operators never meant to cut the hired help in on anything.

The lesson to be learned from Kent State and Seattle is that the government will always side with the powerful, even if those powers do not act in the best interests of the public, and that the National Guard makes no distinction between people when they open fire on a crowd.  If you are in their vicinity when they are deployed, you are the enemy.  President Clinton sicked the National Guard on the people of Seattle because foreign dignitaries feared for their safety.  The mayor of Kent sicked them on college kids because threats had been made to downtown businesses and he feared the kids were planning to burn the city to the ground as a result of police interfering in their demonstrations against Nixon’s illegal bombing of a neutral country in the Vietnam conflict.

Tonight, while Dylan sings his apocalypse to the Kent State students who venture into Akron to hear him and his band, who will be remembering those four students who are going to miss the show? They would be in their sixties now, had the politicians of their city and state not turned against the very people they were paid to protect.

4/20/2013

   Kalamazoo, Michigan

CNN exploited the Boston bombings and their aftermath to create a reality mini-series that shocked and thrilled the people of the United States. It was the crowning achievement of the infotainment media, and the deepest plunge into exploitive depravity yet taken by any news group in the free world. For five days, the country gorged on rumors, lies, suppositions, assumptions, retractions, promises, deceptions, anticipations, and finally closure.  It was an episode of Criminal Minds played out in real time, with real people.  This was interactive media, in which anybody might have the opportunity to play hero, a game in which anybody might get killed. Boston was transformed into a miasmic labyrinth of fear and suspicion that enthralled the outside world.

Spending the week watching the garbage spinning out of the CNN wheel was like reading a trashy novel that is written in that tricky way that allows an illiterate to race through 400 pages a day.  The trick is to let the reader know what is going to happen before it happens so they will keep reading to find out if their suppositions are correct. One example of this Stephen King technique is to tell the reader that a suspect is being questioned at the hospital. Then you have the police deny that any such suspect exists.  Later, you issue another statement that someone in fact had entered the hospital and was being questioned as a person of interest. Then it is denied that the person is a suspect.  Later, it is confirmed that this interrogation led to some vital information.  The reader knew from the start that a suspect was being interrogated at the hospital, but the series of denials and retractions keep them reading so they can feel superior to the characters in the story by knowing what they do not know.

Is the bomber a homegrown lunatic or is a foreign terrorist group sponsoring his deeds? We are given clues that point in all directions, and a denouement that could go either way. Whatever happens, the viewer is always a step ahead.   It is the easiest way to keep an audience hooked. In writing class, they call it good storytelling. But I don’t want a news media that is manned by good storytellers.  I want factual news updates interrupting the scheduled programming. I don’t want the belated revelation of the victims’ identities to be the scheduled entertainment.

One thing that frightened me was the attempt to profile the killers.  Everybody had trouble believing that kids who were good at sports and liked to party could commit such acts.  The younger brother especially was well-liked by all who knew him, none of them being able to believe that he could be responsible for acts that seemed inconceivable to the civilized mind.  . You may remember Bob Dylan writing a song about just such a clean-cut kid:

Everybody’s asking why he couldn’t adjust
Adjust to what, a dream that bust?

They took a clean-cut kid
And they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did.

They said what’s up is down, they said what isn’t is
They put ideas in his head that he thought were his.

They took a clean-cut kid
But they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did.

He was on the baseball team, he was in the marching band
When he was ten years old he had a watermelon stand.

He was a clean-cut kid
And they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did.

 

This kid is probably the most hated person in the United States right now, and for good reason. When his old friends shared their memories with the CNN reporters, they were repeatedly asked whether he had said anything detrimental against the United States. They were asked if he had adjusted well to the new land, or if he was having trouble fitting in. Did he ever talk about his homeland?  In the end, he seemed like such a nice kid that the CNN reporters shifted the blame to his older brother, suggesting the sway of an evil influence.  Maybe it is so, but a person can kill without any reason, just as one can eat without any appetite. There is so much disassociation in the world today that almost anything can happen without a purpose. The daily violence that plagues the United States is not by foreign powers hostile to the US.  Violence is a product of the person committing it.

Is it so hard to believe that an athlete is incapable of violent acts?  Eric Naposki, Robert Rozier, Rubin Carter, and Jim Mahady are among America’s celebrity sportsmen who have been convicted of murder. Those convicted of criminal sexual assault include Mel Hall, Eddie Johnson, Tom Payne, .Ruben Patterson, Thomas Henderson, Dave Meggett, and Keith Wright. Criminals are criminals.  It doesn’t matter what their politics are or what country they are from.  Ideas are not crimes. They come from thinking.  There is nothing wrong in having ideas that are critical of your homeland. Having ideas is simply evidence that your brain is not dead.   There are few ideas that are inherently bad.  It is the manner in which ideas are carried out that leads to ends that are ultimately good or bad. If convicted, Dzhokhar Tsamaev will not be sentenced for being a Muslim, or for his attitudes about the United States.  He will go to prison, and possibly the death house, for murder.

4/21/2013

Bowling Green, Ohio

Joan Baez never had to learn to sing. She needed only open her pipes and let it rip. Now, as her voice decays, her pitch becomes unsteady and her range restricted. Sometimes she goes for a note and nothing is there.  It is tragic. Yet she carries on, even knowing that her only gift is falling to rust.

Bob Dylan was told that he had no voice. That didn’t stop him from learning how to sing. To this day, he continues to learn.  No matter the state of his voice, he always finds ways to make it work. He takes what he has and does something with it. Baez cannot afford to hit a wrong note. With Dylan, there are no wrong notes.

It is like that with the old-time blues singers, some of whom never even learned how to tune a guitar and few of whom bothered to count measures. The 16 and 32 bar blues were the invention of the bands that imposed such restrictions on the singers so everybody could agree on where the changes fell.  There are a couple of songs on “Love and Theft” that show what the blues can be like outside of these confines.

Dylan has been stretching his lines out since “Like a Rolling Stone,” an extrapolation on the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” that was popularized in 1958 by Richie Valens.  When he wasn’t stretching lines, he added them, cramming extra lines into the final verses of songs to build a longer crescendo. Two fine examples of this are the final verses of “Hard Rain” and “Visions of Johanna.”  Tonight he did something special to that last verse of Johanna.

Among the things that make Dylan the top singer on the planet is his knack for illuminating lines that you have heard countless times without getting them. Listening to Bowling Green’s Visions, I realize that the mule from whose neck the jewels and binoculars hang might be one of those dowdy rich women at the opera. Most of this verse consists of a humorous view of women who live in paintings, the funniest of which is the defaced Mona Lisa who is somewhat appalled by the discovery that her body is cut off just above the knees.

The bejeweled mule could well have been derived from one of the paintings in the opulent museum that is contrasted with the drabness of the empty lofts where the artists live. The dreaded chasm between the imagination and daily phenomena is represented throughout the song, which ends with the realization that art is the only thing that gives meaning to life. The force of this truth accelerates the final verse, which concludes here on the spookiest note Dylan has ever sung.

4/23/2013

    St. Louis, Missouri

 

The death of Richie Havens and the release of Bob Dylan’s 1970 recording of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” remind us  that Dylan was no genius anomaly, but part of a scene that included many singers and writers who were as passionate and articulate as himself, and that many of these people were his friends and accomplices. When Dylan’s career took off, there was a lot of jealousy among those in the Greenwich Village crowd who complained, “It should have been me.” Dave Van Ronk had the truest answer to these claims, when he replied, “That may be so, but you didn’t write Hard Rain, and you didn’t write it first.”

I was surprised to hear that Dylan had recorded a song by Eric Andersen for his “Self Portrait” album, and even more surprised to hear that song was ”Thirsty Boots,” as it had been inspired in no small degree by Phil Ochs, who prodded Andersen to finish it after hearing the first verse in a New York Subway. “Self Portrait” was bursting with the music that had  played a part in forming his musical palette, and ”Thirsty Boots” would have fit nicely into the mix, right alongside “Early Morning Rain” and ”The Boxer.”

Another thing we tend to forget is that Dylan’s early success was due to the proliferation of recordings of his songs by other artists, beginning with the Peter, Paul, and Mary hits and continuing into the electric era, when everyone from  Jimi Hendrix  to Dino, Desi, and Billy was covering “Like a Rolling Stone.”  After the 1966 World tour, the Basement Tapes were written and recorded with the primary aim of getting the songs cut by popular artists.  Most writers fail in their attempts at solo careers, and depend upon established stars to get their material into the marketplace. While it is relatively easy for people to write for themselves, it can be a bitch writing for others. And you’ve got to be a pushy son of a bitch to get anywhere.

Dylan had a lot of help from his manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Peter, Paul, and Mary, and was slicing the pie in all directions by taking a piece of the publishing along with a percentage of performer royalties. But even with a pushy bastard like Grossman doing his legwork, Dylan had to write the songs that everybody wanted to record because they wished they had written the songs themselves. Even more, they had to feel as if they had written it; that was their song.  And that is how, to this day, millions of amateur musicians the world over feel when they pick up a guitar and open the Bob Dylan Songbook.

“Chimes of Freedom,” the 3-CD compilation of Dylan covers, is a testament to the continuing relevance of the Dylan legacy.  That a varied group of contemporary artists can be moved to such unexpected interpretations ensures a future in which Dylan’s music will withstand the many ways in which time will change it.

But back to where it started. Although Richie Havens had been on the scene in Greenwich Village since the beatnik era, he wasn’t part of the early sixties’ folk revival. Since he didn’t put out his first record until 1967, he was neither a threat to Dylan nor was he threatened by him. It is strange to find that he was only one year older than Dylan, as seemed like an old soul from the beginning, where Dylan was just a kid. At Woodstock, he looks and sounds like a toothless African sage, but was only 29 years old.

His debut album,” Mixed Bag,” features one of the first versions of a Dylan song to rival the original, a soulful and heartbreaking version of “Just Like a Woman.”  Twenty years later, his recording of “License to Kill” shows that he was one of the few who understood what a brilliant and important song it was. Every songwriter, even Bob Dylan, needs people like Richie Havens to keep his music in the air.

That was one of Phil Ochs’ problems.  During his lifetime, nobody wanted to cover his songs.  Joan Baez had a mini-hit with “There but For Fortune,” and all the coffeehouse folksingers played “Changes,” but that was about it. Oh, and Melanie did “Chords of Fame.”  But the songs outlived the obscurity of their creator, and today there are Phil Ochs song nights all around the country, where people who love his music get together to play his songs. And there are loads of troubadours even more obscure than Ochs who have been shuffled into the shadow of Bob Dylan. Eric Andersen, David Ackles, Paul Siebel, Tom Rapp, Ron Davies, Mike Heron, Robin Williamson, Tim Buckley, Joe MacDonald, and so many more. Dylan is like the woman on the block with the reputation for making the best cherry pies in the neighborhood.  As a result, all those other delicious cherry pies are known only to the lucky few for whom those pies were made.

These are the kind of simple myths that have obscured the country’s history and prevent its people from facing the truth about where they come from and who they are and the crimes they have committed. Next Door Joe is known as the guy who flips the best burgers at the barbeque, not as the pervert who molests his stepdaughters. Down The Road Sam coaches the best little league team in the neighborhood when he isn’t hitting black kids with baseball bats when he creeps out in early morning to catch them fishing off the bridge.

What good are you, Bob Dylan?  From where I stand, you are just about the last good thing that has come out of the United States.  As long as there is someone somewhere singing a Bob Dylan song, an echo of what the country might have been will still be heard.

                                                             4/24/2013

                                                     Springfield, Missouri

Bob Dylan wasn’t too happy with his 1974 tour, complaining that it was a failed attempt to do the same show he and The Band did in 1966.  He did, however, mention that he thought the shows in Texas went pretty well, suggesting   people closer to Mexico had a better feel for what he was doing than those in the rest of the country.  He made a similar statement some years later about English audiences being more receptive than those in the States because they understood where the music came from, referring to the English ballads that form the structural basis for much of his writing.

“Beyond Here Lies Nothing” is one of Dylan’s better attempts at Tex-Mex music, even though it doesn’t push the genre the way “Romance in Durango” did, or expand the possibilities of a cowboy ballad as he did with “Billy.”

Unlike the many gringos that think Texas needs a firing squad and not a border patrol along the Rio Grande, Dylan knows that the world doesn’t end at the river, Last year at this time, he was on a Latin American tour that began the revitalization we are seeing now. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” was a staple of that tour, but it had an aggressive lurch whereas it is now locked in to one of Bob’s favorite bass lines. Also, the harmonica has supplanted the guitar solos. Although little of the Tex-Mex feel remains, we still feel we are somewhere near the edge of a flat world.

And that is exactly where so many denizens of the Northern hemisphere have placed their Southern neighbors.  Barack Obama, who refused to attend the funeral of Hugo Chavez, will not acknowledge Nicolas Maduro as his successor.  .  Relationships between the two countries have been strained for several years now, but today Maduro has made a diplomatic overture to the United States, which concluded with both an invitation and a challenge for the future.

“We hope one day to have respectful relations with the United States, a dialogue between equals, state-to-state,” Maduro said.  “Sooner rather than later, the elites running the United States will have to realize there is a new, independent, sovereign and dignified Latin America.”

 

4/25/2013

     Champaign Illinois

I don’t expect Dylan to sing “Champaign, Illinois, “a song he wrote with Carl Perkins in 1969, tonight in the city of its title.  I doubt that Dylan even remembers writing it.  I have been skeptical of Dylan co-writes ever since Danny O’Keefe told the story about Dylan writing the phrase “down in the well” on a scrap of paper and inviting Danny to finish it. Roger McGuinn received a similar gift from on high when Dylan scribbled the phrases, “The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be, flow river flow” on a napkin, gave the napkin to Peter Fonda and told him to give it to McGuinn.  That was the seed for “The Ballad of Easy Rider.”

Some of the co-writes have been substantial.  Jacques Levy wrote at least half of “Desire,” Robert Hunter co-wrote “Silvio,” most of “Together Through Life,” and   “Duquesne Whistle” from “Tempest.”  The most monumental co-write must be “Brownsville Girl” with Sam Shepard, and you can spend hours trying to figure out who wrote what on that one.  My guess is that they were writing different stories that had a common thread.  Dylan wrote about his experiences acting in the picture, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” while Shepard wrote of weeing the movie “The Gunfighter” with the admirable Gregory Peck. The flip side of this one is the execrable yet hilarious “Vomit Express” written with Allen Ginsberg.

There are tons more, including a mess of stuff with the Traveling Wilburys. “Heartland” with Willie Nelson, “I’d Have You Anytime” with George Harrison, “Saved” and some other gospel songs with Tim Drummond,  a number of  quasi-secular songs with back-up singer Helena Springs,” Under Your Spell” with Carole Bayer Sager, “Tears of Rage” with Richard Manuel, “This Wheel’s on Fire” with Rick Danko, and “Steel Bars” with Michael Bolton.

Co-writes with Dylan are advantageous to both parties. One gets the status of writing a song with the world’s greatest songwriter and the world’s greatest songwriter gets half of the money.

4/27/2013

       Murray, Kentucky  

Half the population of Murray, Kentucky could pile into the campus auditorium where Bob Dylan and his band will perform tonight. This town was neutral during the Civil War, but that didn’t stop the Yankees from burning and pillaging it. That whole damn war was little more than bands of bastards from the North burning farms, killing boys, and raping girls. And when they finished with the poor Southerners, the Armies of the North spent the next 25 years decimating what remained of the Indian nations.

History is written by the winners of the wars, and so it is written that the Civil War was fought to liberate the slaves.  It would be more honest for the Yanks to admit that the conflict between the North and the South originated with their decision to house the National Bank in Philadelphia rather than the previously agreed-upon Washington DC, as it would give the northern industrialists a financial advantage over the agricultural South.  The South responded by establishing its own government with a separate economy.  This succession from the Union provoked the Northern Army to attack.  As far as the slavery issue goes, most of those slaves were kidnapped from Africa by Northern adventurers who sold them to Southern plantation owners. By destroying the South, these slave traders hoped to retrieve the people they had sold into bondage and put them to work at sub-standard wages in their northern factories.

Dylan fans have been complaining about the static set-lists, they were somewhat appeased when, in Champaign, Illinois,    the exquisite “Scarlet Town”  was switched out for “ Workingman’s Blues #2”,  the chorus of which was  lifted from Merle Haggard, with whom Dylan  had toured shortly before the release of “Modern Times.”  So much of Dylan’s latter day work is embroidered plunder that it was not surprising when it was discovered today that “Duquesne Whistle,” which had seemed the most original music on “Tempest,” was stolen outright from Jelly Roll Morton’s “Each Day,” Now, those people in Champaign didn’t get an extra treat with the switch-out. All they got was one less song from “Tempest.”  I don’t think it was fair to deprive the Champaign audience of Scarlet Town just so Bob and the Band could enjoy a romp through “Workingman’s Blues #2.” If he wants to give the crowd something extra, he should extend the encore.  That is what the encore is for.  First you play the show as laid out on the playbill, and then you come back and play a mess of tunes that are different each night, depending on what the performer feels like playing.

4/28/2013

                                                   Louisville, Kentucky

 

                                                            4/30/2013

Ashville. North Carolina

Charlie Patton can sing the blues better than Blind Willie McTell, who was more of a rag singer.  Sure, there was blues in the rags, but there was no goofy rag stuff anywhere in Patton’s voice. On a good day, Bob Dylan can sing the blues just as well as McTell, sometimes even better. His” Delia” beats the hell out of McTell’s “Little Delia”. Some of the best singing Dylan has ever done is on Delia’s hook, a line to which McTell gives neither depth nor variant readings.  Charlie Patton had more influence on the way Dylan would sing the blues, so one can only guess why Dylan cites McTell as the singer to beat. It could be that he doesn’t think most of his own listeners know one blues singer from the next, so he chose the one whose last name ended in a syllable that was easy to rhyme on.

Blind Willie McTell never wrote a song like Bob Dylan’s song “Blind Willie McTell.” Being deep and literate just wasn’t his style.  His songs were as light as his fingers and as smooth as his voice.    He was not one to tread the journey from “Love Sick” to “Ain’t Talkin.”  Were he looking for a blues road to travel he would start with “Outlaw Blues” and get off at “Spirit in the Water.” When Dylan takes the bouncy road, he pays his tribute to McTell in songs like “Po Boy,”

Bob is a ballad singer who sticks close to the blues. On the current tour, the only songs that show no blues influence  are” Soon After Midnight,” “Visions of Johanna,” “What Good am I,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man;” and I’m not so sure about that last one. There may be a faint echo of “Saint James Infirmary” in there somewhere.  My mama used to warn me about letting the blues go out of my music. She thought all music came from the blues and if you let the blues go, it would all fall apart.  Well, there’s a lot of truth in that.  Dylan has been careful to not let this happen with his own music but sometimes falls into the routine of letting the blues completely take over, but even when the blues is minimized, it is still there.  He was a blues singer from the start and although this tour is one of the least bluesy of recent years, he still uses blues structures to anchor most of the ballads.

One way in which Dylan’s blues differs from their forebears is his trading of the literal and commonplace for allusions and metaphors.  Where Patton’s “High Water” tells the story of one man travelling from town to town, trying to find a place where the rising water is not flooding everything, Dylan’s rewrite turns the high water into a metaphor, with each verse representing a different kind of evil that is destroying society. His is not the voice of a nomadic everyman, but of an accusing prophet, a Jeremiah on the loose in 21st century America. Dylan is not looking for a place where he can stay dry, but for some wet people to yell at.  It is the same narrative voice we hear in “Blind Willie McTell,” a voice that finds its full range and vocabulary in “Tempest.”

                                                        5/1/2013

                                               Charlotte, North Carolina

I was married yesterday in Lima, Peru. I arrived here six months ago and it took us this long to get all the documents in order. Every time you attempt to enter a government building, the security forces assume you have no business there.  It takes much arguing before they relent and allow you admission. I have known Kel for over six years, but we only met in the flesh this past November. It might sound weird, but we know each other better than most couples who met in a bar, shacked up, got hitched, and still haven’t read their favorite books, listened to their favorite music, or watched their favorite movies together. I am happy to get out of the United States, because I see no future there, only a growing ignorance and intensified madness. Nothing will change until the whores are elected to office instead of their sons.

Tonight Bob Dylan ventures into Charlotte, North Carolina, where Yankees go to breed.  The city is kept clean by squads of Mexicans who look like aliens with blowers on their backs as they blow the refuse off the sidewalks…  The women here lived, until six years ago, in anticipation of a close encounter with Tammy Faye Bakker at the beauty parlor, while their husbands continue to  proudly drive by Billy Graham’s house when entertaining friends from out of town.  This is where the gray has turned the bluest, and the old time residents chortle at the phrase “The New South.”

Charlotte is the center of the United States banking industry. The bankers get up early on Sunday mornings so they can beat the church crowd to the cafeteria.  Central as these cafeterias are to the social and culinary life of the city, they will never become hip poseriums like the Crocodile Café in Seattle. With no hip scene, the Charlotte hipsters are forced to stay home and work on their art. In Seattle, they hang out in coffee shops and whine about being ignored.  I know a guy there who has been a total flop since he started trying to write songs about fifty years ago.   The reason this guy has never been able to draw any fans is  that he spends all his time wising off in coffeehouses rather than staying home and learning something about how to put words and music together.  Were he living in Charlotte, he would get so bored that he might even consider learning how to read

I’m here in Lima after a lifetime of living in places like Charlotte and Seattle. Yesterday I got married to the most extraordinary woman I have ever met. This morning I woke up with her and she was even more beautiful that she was when I fell asleep beside her.  My wife is a doctor and doesn’t make much money. She does it because she wants to heal people, not rob them.

One problem with Lima is that Bob Dylan has never come here.  He performs everywhere else in South America, but avoids Lima.  Maybe he has heard horror stories about the homicidal traffic, so is fearful of the drive from the airport to the venue. Or maybe the red tape here is so convoluted that he couldn’t put up with it. When Brett Anderson played Lima recently, he was held up at the airport for so long that he missed his date in Santiago. Stuff like that doesn’t sit well with superstars.

5/2/13

 Raleigh, North Carolina

 

The first commercial cigarettes were made in 1865 by Washington Duke on his farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, but the graveyards that house the unlucky consumers of his product will always be known as Marlboro Country. Raleighs were a nasty cigarette, right up there with Pall Malls.  My granddaddy always said that as long as you stayed away from Pall Malls you didn’t have to worry about catching any of them cigarette diseases. If you compared cigarettes with soft drinks, your Raleigh would be the equivalent of a Diet Pepsi. I once heard tell of a country store outside of Raleigh getting robbed by some high school kids.  When the owner of the story checked his inventory, he found the only thing missing was a case of Diet Pepsi.  The cops asked if he wanted to prosecute and the old guy replied, “Hell no.  If they drank that Diet Pepsi, they’ve already been punished enough.  That crap is the sorriest drink I’ve ever tried to swallow.”

“Tangled Up in Blue” was among the top ten songs in Dylan’s set lists from 1993-2001. It was the most played song in 1998, 1999, and 2000.  It went out of favor in 2003, and wasn’t played again with any regularity until 2006.  It was played only five times in 2005, then became a regular fixture in 2010 and has been getting more plays with each subsequent year. Dylan has had sung more variations of this song than of any other, with Europe’s  acoustic sets in the summer of 1998 featuring new melodic inventions nearly every night. The 1999 versions on the tour with Paul Simon were possibly his best since 1976 and 1984. And his new 2013 version is his best since 1999.

Although historians may cite “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan’s signature piece, I believe that “Tangled up in Blue” is the one most fans will remember him for.  While the story of  “Like a Rolling Stone” is a crucial chapter in rock and roll history,  not that many people at the time of its release had  a clue as to what this gush of words set to the chord changes of “La Bamba”  was all about.  Nobody had heard anything quite like it before, and there has been nothing like it since, but few of its listeners had much in common with the poor little rich girl to whom the song is addressed.

“Tangled up in Blue,” on the other hand, is a true anthem that resonated with the nomadic, neo-hippies of the eighties and nineties who were a growing part of Dylan’s faithful fan base.  They followed him around just as their parents had followed around The Grateful Dead.  Right from the start, Dylan was taking “Tangled up in Blue” apart and investigating the many ways he could put it back together.  His flawless delivery in the whiteface scene from “Renaldo and Clara” should be studied by every actor who is confronted with a large body of text that is filled with challenges.  The 1978 version finds Dylan in his Edith Piaf mode, a melodramatic street singer inviting all of Parisian society to hear his woeful tale.  The drastic rewrite from the 1984 tour demolishes the BOTT version, and Dylan started picking up the debris in 1990 and spent the next ten years making different songs out of what remained. Now, in 2013, he has put his humpty dumpty of a song back together and it is a thing of beauty to behold.

5/4/2013

                                              Charleston, South Carolina

I’ve been around this whole country, but I never did find Scarlet Town.  Someone told me it was in Alabama, buts I couldn’t find it.  Gillian Welch seems to have been there, and from the song she wrote from there, it is likely the same place Bob is singing about.  Maybe the only way to find it is from Hell, looking through a telescope, although I wouldn’t know where to shop for a telescope in Hell.

I’ve been trying to find Scarlet Town on the map. It can’t have existed only to give Barbara Allen a place to murder William-o, with the expectation that Gilliam Welch and Bob Dylan would come along and find something else significant about the place. The narrator of his “Scarlet Town” claims to have been born there, as does the narrator of “Barbara Allen” Gillian Welch claims not to have been there until the events of her song took place. She disappears and winds up in Hell without much of an explanation. Maybe that happens to everybody who fails to find a hiding place fast enough.

Sunday morning Kel and I will be leaving Lima, where she has lived since birth and I have spent the happiest six months of my life.  She has contracted for a one-year job in a small town on Peru’s southern coast.  Bob Dylan will also be in a new place, playing his first concert ever in Saint Augustine, Florida, the last stop on his tour.  But tonight he is in South Carolina, where North Carolinians drive to fill up their tanks with cheap gas…

It is hard leaving a city that you are just beginning to know. There isn’t anybody to say goodbye to, just a lot of things you think of that you wish you had done. I wonder what Dylan thinks of all the cities he comes into and goes out of. There has got to be something special to him about some of them. I wonder why he picked these cities for this tour.  Did he have any reasons at all, or did somebody just hand him an itinerary?  I believe him when, in “Can’t Wait,” he sings, “It doesn’t matter where I go anymore, I just go.”

I’ve got a friend who travels the world singing the blues.  He has a wife in South Carolina and an apartment in New York City.  Last time I saw him, in Seattle at Jazz Alley, he said to me, “Bill, the reason you ain’t famous like me is because you like staying home too much.”  And he was right.  I do like staying at home. But tomorrow I hit the road again.  Not because I want to leave home, but because I want to stay home, and my home is spinning around inside a tornado named Kel.  Lord knows I love her so.

5/5/2013

                                                Saint Augustine, Florida

Mr. Jones grew up in a small town so far north that he was almost a Canadian. There wasn’t much going on in his town so he listened to the radio all the time and pretended that he had been all the places that he heard about in the songs.  When he finally did leave home it was just to attend state college, where it was easier to lie about his past than in the small town where everybody knew he was just a nerdy egghead. He quit school and ran away to New York City, where he made a little money playing the harmonica behind some of the blues and beatnik singers. Pretty soon he became a blues and beatnik singer himself, and was the first of his crowd to get a contract with a major recording label. His first record bombed, but a famous country western singer convinced the label to give him another chance. The second record was the greatest record every made by a folk singer and some of the songs on it, which he wrote himself, are still being sung around campfires today.  When he made his third record, he never imagined that when he was 71 years old, he would be singing its title song to the President of the United States. By the time his fourth record came out, he was dating the Queen of folk music and was therefore the King of folk music, just as Elvis was the King of rock and roll, but some of the fans of his first records didn’t like the fourth because there were a lot of stupid love songs on it that sounded like the crap you heard on AM radio, except there was no backing band.  He was facing some of the same flak that Dr. Zhivago got when he wrote that book of love poems about Lara instead of topical tales to edify his comrades.  But this kid wanted to express his own feelings, not sing newsy stories at political rallies. On his fifth record, he had a side of flimsy songs with a band and a second side with the four greatest songs anyone had ever written. He went to England and filled the auditoriums with hero-worshipping eggheads like himself and they loved the shows although they had no idea what an asshole egotist he had become and how badly he was treating the Queen of folk music.  Lots of celebrities hung around him, including Alan Price, who quit playing organ for The Animals just to follow him around.  Although big time folk singers had been recording his songs, he got more excited when the rock bands out in Los Angeles started getting them into the top ten. He did a big concert and was introduced by big time deejay Murray the K, who got booed.  Then he went onstage and he got booed too, His audience had become stupid and they laughed at almost every line in Desolation Row, thinking it was a comedy song like “Motorpsycho Nightmare.”  He got loaded up on dope and went back to England, where the kooks and freaks who joined his entourage were even freakier than before, and he was right in the middle of it all and the midgets, geeks, lumberjacks, and sword swallowers expected him to be the King Freak with breasts bursting with milk but he was just a scared little Jewish kid from a cold little town way up North by Canada and he knew something was happening but didn’t know what the hell it was.  So he went around hiding behind dark glasses and a sarcastic wit so that nobody would see who he really was, and when the excitement died down and he got a little time to himself, he would go through all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books and jot down bits such as “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!'”

5/08/2013

                                                            Ilo, Peru

                                                      Postscript

My wife, being half my age, asks me why I was born so soon.  “Why didn’t you wait for me?” she asks. “Because I didn’t want to miss Bob Dylan, “I reply.  In 1966, my stepmother bet me ten dollars that I would have forgotten all about Dylan in five years.  I have never bothered to call her on the bet, happy enough that my life has been enhanced by his work.  He has set a standard for all of us who pick up a guitar and write a song, a standard we rarely meet, although it is surprising how much work has been done in the field that rivals his.

I don’t think Bob Dylan is intrinsically better than the rest, but he is the one who opened the vaults. He brought the music of the ages and the music of the spheres to us, tuning us into that music that had always been in the air but was obscured by the trivial junk that filled our lives and television screens.  Before Dylan, songwriters were clever and wrote a lot of sweet serenades, but they were cut off from their roots in Elizabethan ballads and Afro-European blues. Before Dylan we had Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney, and Fabian.  After Dylan there was the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and many more songwriters worth listening to.

But I didn’t desert Kel in the ether just to hear some Dylan songs.  I came for James Jones, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, and others who made me want to be a writer.  It took decades for me to get any good at it, and by the time I learned to write, my potential audience had forgotten how to read.  Today, there are no thinkers to help the young understand what is going on in the world. There is just a mass community of tweeters.  On person will write a word such as “Pink” as their Facebook status, and a hundred or so friends will respond with inane phrases they somehow find related to the stimulus word. And God protect the dissident who dares write a phase in conflict with the color pink. He will be de-friended and ostracized in an instant.

I followed Phil Ochs into this world because he told me of the earthly destinies of swan-diving angels who would assume the names  Elvis Presley,  Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Sam Peckinpah,  John Cassavetes,  Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Andy Warhol, Brother Blue, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Tim and Jeff Buckley.

When asked if I miss Seattle, I answer that the Seattle I miss no longer exists. Neither does the country I had so much fun growing up in exist.  So I conclude my American Experience and look for something better elsewhere. But there are still a few things that make America great, and principal among them is Bob Dylan. The others include a lot of people you have never heard of.  In Charlotte, North Carolina there is a magnificent artist by the name of Alex Clark. On Whidbey Island in Washington State, there is an outstanding violinist named Talia Toni Marcus.  Another violinist of celestial note is Anna Presler, who leads California’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. Seattle is home to so many obscure musicians who shoot light sparks with every breath that you could walk around inspired every night if you happened to stumble into the right hole in the wall.  There are also a lot of non-talented nincompoops who fight their way into careers, pushing out those reticent souls who deserve to make a living spreading the glory of their creations. But it is the weeds of a dumb and wicked society that are growing and choking the things of beauty that once thrived on those lands.

The people of the United States do not cherish their poets.  That is why there are so few of them remaining.  Seattle’s David Horowitz spent half his life in a work cubicle, so he never broke through to the universe he was destined to create.  But although he was   stunted by the national ill-will against those who note the changes in the colors of the day, he continues to fill each moment of his life with the poetry that surrounds us all and is invisible to most. The country needs some nerdy egghead from a nowhere town to stumble across a Bob Dylan album and believe that he, too, can recreate himself in the image of that which used to be and still is  although few can see it. There is still a glory land out there somewhere.  But to get there, you first have to pay off the debts of your forefathers. You can’t just be a Michael Corleone, a nice guy who turns into a killer because some devil told him it was the only way to make a success of the family business.

Someone said the blood of the land is in Dylan’s voice.  It is going to take more than that to raise another Dylan from these comic-book streets. The blood of the dispossessed needs to be in that voice. Or we can just forget about this blood shit altogether and open ourselves to the spirits of our ancestors and maybe they will show us how to live, how to make amends, how to turn away from the course of destruction and embrace a future America that does not strive to be the military center of the universe, but a country that uses humanity, love, and  its position within an emerging world where all are equal, and no creature or country  is left in a ditch to drown in the  blood that flows from their opened veins.

Postscript

My wife, being only half my age, sometimes asks me why I was born so soon.  “Why didn’t you wait for me?” she asks. “Because I wanted to see Bob Dylan, “I reply.  “I wanted to live in the same time as he. I wanted to be ten years younger so I could look to him and see where I was headed in the coming years.”  In 1966, my stepmother bet me five dollars that I would have forgotten all about Dylan in five years.  I have never bothered to call her on the bet, happy enough that my life has been enhanced by his work.  He has set a standard for all of us who pick up a guitar and write a song, a standard we rarely meet, although it is surprising how much work has been done in the field that is the equivalent, and sometimes even superior, to his.

I don’t think Bob Dylan is intrinsically better than the rest, but he is the one who opened the vaults. He brought the music of the ages and the music of the spheres to us, tuning is all into that music that had always been in the air but was obscured by the trivial junk that filled our lives and television screens.  Before Dylan, songwriters were clever and wrote a lot of sweet serenades, but they were cut off from their roots in Elizabethan ballads and Afro-European blues. Before Dylan we had Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney, and Fabian.  After Dylan there was the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and many ore songwriters worth listening too.

But I didn’t come only for Dylan.  I came for James Jones, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Sam Peckinpah,  Lenny Bruce, Henry Miller, John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Marlon Brando, and Richard Burton.  I came to the country at the time when it was brimming with intellectual and artistic fervor. Every time you turned around, there was somebody worth listening too.  Even Nixon, when he was Vice-President to Eisenhower, set forth a transparent and articulate elaboration of the Cuban situation on the Jack Paar show. John Lennon sang “Woman is the Nigger of the World” on Dick Cavett, and Neil Young sang The Needle and the Damage Done” on the Johnny Cash show.  Even assholes like William F. Buckley were thoughtful and well-spoken when it came to expressing their views.

This was the American Experience I came to experience.  These people made me want to be a writer.  It took decades for me to get any good at it, and by the time I learned to write, Americans had forgotten how to read.  Today, there are no thinkers to help the young understand what is going on in the world. There is just a mass community of tweeters.  On person will write a word such as “Pink” as their Facebook status, and a hundred or so friends will respond with inane phrases they somehow find related to the stimulus word. And God protect the dissident who dares write a phase in conflict with the color pink. He will be de-friended and ostracized in an instant. 

Someone asked me recently if I missed Seattle.  The only think I could think up in response was that the Seattle I missed no longer existed.  And I could go on to say that the country I had so much fun growing up in no longer exists.  So I decided to conclude my American Experience and look for something better elsewhere. But there are still a few things that make America great, and principal among them is Bob Dylan. Others are a lot of people you have never heard of.  In Charlotte, North Carolina there is a magnificent artist by the name of Alex Clark. On Whidbey Island in Washington State, there is an outstanding violinist named Talia Toni Marcus.  Another violinist of celestial note is Anna Presler, who leads California’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. Seattle is home to so many obscure musicians who shoot light sparks with every breath that you could walk around inspired every night if you happened to stumble into the right hole in the wall.  There are a lot of non-talented nincompoops who fight their way into careers, pushing out those reticent souls who deserve to make a living spreading the glory of their creations. But it is the weeds of a dumb and wicked society that are growing and choking the things of beauty that once thrived on those lands. Kel read that horrible piece of trash that is the top best seller there and she thought it was like a Mexican soap opera laced with pornography, 

America doesn’t cherish her poets.  That is why there are so few of them remaining.  Seattle’s David Horowitz is one of those who should have developed into a major figures, but he had to spend half of his life in a work cubicle so he never quite broke through to who he was destined to become but was stunted by America ill-will towards seekers of truth and all others who don’t think a shit sandwich is all that tasty. America needs a renaissance, It needs some nerdy egghead from a nowhere town to stumble across a Bob Dylan album and believe that he, too, could aspire so something beyond the cage into which he was born. There is still a glory land out there somewhere.  But to get there, you first have to pay off the debts of your forefathers. You can’t just be a Michael Corleone, a nice guy who turns into a killer because it’s the only way to successfully run the family business.

Someone said the blood of the land is in Dylan’s voice.  It is going to take more than that to raise another Dylan from these comic-book streets.  The blood of the generations of dispossessed needs to be in your voice, the blood of the lamb and the blood of the martyrs.  Or we can just forget about this blood shit altogether and open ourselves to the spirits of our ancestors and maybe they will show us how to live, how to make amends, how to turn away from the course of destruction and embrace a future America that does not strive to be the military center of the universe, but a country that uses humanity, love, and art to earn its position within an emerging world where all are equal, and nobody is left to die on the road.

Chapter 21- Mr. Jones Unmasked in Saint Augustine

Mr. Jones grew up in a small town so far north that he was almost a Canadian. There wasn’t much going on in his town so he listened to the radio all the time and pretended that he had been all the places that he heard about in the songs.  When he finally did leave home it was just to attend state college, where he found it easier to spread stories about himself than he had in the small town where everybody knew he was just a nerdy egghead who idolized Bobby Vee.  He quit school and ran away to New York City, where he made a little money playing the harmonica behind some of the blues and beatnik singers. Pretty soon he became a blues and beatnik singer himself, and was the first of his crowd to get a contract with a major recording label. His first record bombed, but a famous country western singer convinced the label to give him another chance. The second record was the greatest record every made by a folk singer and some of the songs on it, which he wrote himself, are still being sung around campfires today.  When he made his third record, he never imagined in his wildest dreams that when he was 71 years old, he would be singing its title song to the president of the United States. By the time his fourth record came out, he was dating the Queen of folk music and was therefore the King of folk music, just as Elvis was the King of rock and roll, but some of the fans of his first records didn’t like the fourth one as much because there were a lot of stupid love songs on it that sounded like the crap you heard on AM radio, except there was no backing band.  He was facing some of the same flak that Dr. Zhivago got when he wrote that book of love poems about Lara instead of topical tales to edify the common folk. But this kid was only concerned about expressing his own feelings, not singing newsy stories at political rallies. On his fifth record, he had a side one of flimsy songs with a band and a second side with the four greatest songs anyone had ever written. He went to England and filled the auditoriums with hero-worshipping eggheads like himself and they loved the shows although they had no idea what an asshole egotist he had become and how badly he was treating the Queen of folk music.  Lots of celebrities hung around him, including Alan Price, who quit playing organ for The Animals just to follow him around.  Although lots of big time folk singers had been  doing tons of his songs, he got really excited when the rock bands out in Los Angeles started recording them and getting into the top ten. He did a big concert and was introduced by big time deejay Murray the K, who got booed.  Then he went onstage and he got booed too, Not because of what he played but because he let himself be introduced by that greaseball Murray the K. His audience had become stupid and they laughed at almost every line in Desolation Row, thinking it was a comedy song like Motorpsycho Nightmare or Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. A little later, he played the Newport Folk Festival, which is where his coronation had taken place in a previous year, a million miles away from where he was today. The crowd booed when he and his band left the stage after three songs, but loved him again when he came back to play two more by himself. Most of the people who joined his entourage were kooks and freaks and he was right in the middle of it all and everyone expected him to be the King Freak but he was just a scared little Jewish kid from a cold little town way up North by Canada and he knew something was happening but didn’t know what the hell it was.  So he went around hiding behind dark glasses and a sarcastic wit so that nobody would see who he really was, and when the excitement died down and he got a little time to himself, he would go through all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books and jot down bits such as “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!'” 

Chapter 20 – Is there a Scarlet Town in Alabama?

I’ve been around this whole country, but I never did find Scarlet Town.  Someone told me it was in Alabama. Couldn’t find it.  Gillian Welch seems to have been there, and from what she has to say about it, it is likely the same place Bob is singing about.  Maybe the only way to find it is from Hell, looking through a telescope, although I wouldn’t know where to shop for a telescope in Hell. I can’t even find a Scrabble board in Lima.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYLe_FweguY

Sunday morning Kel and I will climb into Arthur, our European Ford Escort, and drive down the coast to our new home, leaving Lima, where she has lived since birth and I have spent the happiest six months of my life.  I keep hearing the song “High Noon” in my head, Frankie Laine singing “I do not know what fate awaits me/ I only know I must be brave.”  Bob Dylan will also be in a new place, playing his first concert ever in Saint Augustine, Florida, the last stop on his tour.  But tonight he is in South Carolina, where North Carolinians drive to fill up their tanks with cheap gas. And tonight Kel and I spend our last night in Lima.

I’ve been trying to find Scarlet Town on the map. It can’t have existed only to give Barbara Allen a place to murder William-o, with the expectation that Gilliam Welch and Bob Dylan would come along and find something else significant about the place. The narrator of Scarlet Town claims to have been born there, as does the narrator of the Barbara Allen, while Gillian Welch claims never to have been there until the events of her song took place. She disappears and winds up in Hell without much of an explanation. Maybe that happens to everybody who fails to find a hiding place fast enough.

It is hard leaving a city that you are just beginning to know. There really isn’t anybody to say goodbye to, just a lot of things you think of that you wish you had done. I wonder what Bob Dylan thinks of all the cities he visits.  He comes into them and goes out of them.   There has got to be something special to him about some of them. I wonder why he picked these cities for this tour.  Did he have a reason for going through them, or did somebody just hand him an itinerary. I believe him when, in “Can’t Wait,” he sings, “It doesn’t matter where I go anymore, I just go.”

I’ve got a friend who travels the world singing the blues.  He has a wife in South Carolina and an apartment in New York City.  Last time I saw him, in Seattle at Jazz Alley, he said to me, “Bill, the reason you ain’t famous like me is because you like staying home too much.”  And he was right.  I do like staying at home. But tomorrow I hit the road again.  Not because I want to leave home, but because I want to stay home, and my home is spinning around inside a tornado named Kel.  Lord knows I love her so.

Chapter 20 – Is there a Scarlet Town in Alabama?

I’ve been around this whole country, but I never did find Scarlet Town.  Someone told me it was in Alabama. Couldn’t find it.  Gillian Welch seems to have been there, and from what she has to say about it, it is likely the same place Bob is singing about.  Maybe the only way to find it is from Hell, looking through a telescope, although I wouldn’t know where to shop for a telescope in Hell. I can’t even find a Scrabble board in Lima.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYLe_FweguY

Sunday morning Kel and I will climb into Arthur, our European Ford Escort, and drive down the coast to our new home, leaving Lima, where she has lived since birth and I have spent the happiest six months of my life.  I keep hearing the song “High Noon” in my head, Frankie Laine singing “I do not know what fate awaits me/ I only know I must be brave.”  Bob Dylan will also be in a new place, playing his first concert ever in Saint Augustine, Florida, the last stop on his tour.  But tonight he is in South Carolina, where North Carolinians drive to fill up their tanks with cheap gas. And tonight Kel and I spend our last night in Lima.

I’ve been trying to find Scarlet Town on the map. It can’t have existed only to give Barbara Allen a place to murder William-o, with the expectation that Gilliam Welch and Bob Dylan would come along and find something else significant about the place. The narrator of Scarlet Town claims to have been born there, as does the narrator of the Barbara Allen, while Gillian Welch claims never to have been there until the events of her song took place. She disappears and winds up in Hell without much of an explanation. Maybe that happens to everybody who fails to find a hiding place fast enough.

It is hard leaving a city that you are just beginning to know. There really isn’t anybody to say goodbye to, just a lot of things you think of that you wish you had done. I wonder what Bob Dylan thinks of all the cities he visits.  He comes into them and goes out of them.   There has got to be something special to him about some of them. I wonder why he picked these cities for this tour.  Did he have a reason for going through them, or did somebody just hand him an itinerary. I believe him when, in “Can’t Wait,” he sings, “It doesn’t matter where I go anymore, I just go.”

I’ve got a friend who travels the world singing the blues.  He has a wife in South Carolina and an apartment in New York City.  Last time I saw him, in Seattle at Jazz Alley, he said to me, “Bill, the reason you ain’t famous like me is because you like staying home too much.”  And he was right.  I do like staying at home. But tomorrow I hit the road again.  Not because I want to leave home, but because I want to stay home, and my home is spinning around inside a tornado named Kel.  Lord knows I love her so.

Chapter 19 Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan in Marlboro (I mean Raleigh) Country

The first commercial cigarettes were made in 1865 by Washington Duke on his farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, but the graveyards that house the unlucky consumers of his product are still referred to, throughout the Carolinas, as Marlboro Country. Raleighs were a nasty cigarette, right up there with Pall Malls.  My grand daddy always said that as long as you stayed away from Pall Malls you didn’t have to worry about catching any of them cigarette-related diseases. If you compared cigarettes with soft drinks, your Raleigh would be the equivalent of a Diet Pepsi. I once heard tell of a country store outside of Raleigh getting robbed by some high school kids.  When the owner of the story checked over his inventory with the police, he found the only thing missing was a case of Diet Pepsi.  The cops asked if he wanted to prosecute and the old guy replied, “Hell no.  If they drank that Diet Pepsi, they’ve already been punished enough.  That crap is the sorriest drink ever poured beneath God’s sweet heavens.”

When Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, Dylan picked up the torch and became a surrogate Jerry for kids who needed a band to follow around the world. His guitar noodling stretched songs out to twice the necessary length and his difficulty cueing endings kept things sputtering along for an extra minute or two beyond that.

By 1997, he had learned to be a decent band leader, and the closing jams on the Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” provided a heartfelt tribute to the much-loved guitarist, as did his acoustic version of “Friend of the Devil,” which he  had been performing sporadically since 1990.  He only played it once in 1995, one month after Jerry died.  The song was then played with some regularity from 1996 through 1999.

“Tangled Up in Blue” was among the top ten songs in Dylan’s set lists from 1993-2001. It was the most played song in 1998, 1999, and 2000.  It went out of favor in 2003, and wasn’t played again with any regularity until 2006.  It was played only five times in 2005, then became a regular fixture in 2010 and has been getting more plays with each subsequent year. Dylan has sung more variations in his performances of this song than of any other, with Europe’s  acoustic sets in the summer of 1998 featuring new melodic inventions nearly every night. The 1999 versions on the tour with Paul Simon were possibly his best since 1976 and 1984. And his new 2013 version is his best since 1999.

Although historians are bound to cite “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan’s most well-known song, I would claim that “Tangled up in Blue” is the one that most fans will remember him for.  While “Like a Rolling Stone” was certainly important in the development of rock and roll songs as a minor art form, not that many people at the time of its release had the slightest clue as to what it was all about. It was just a gush of words set to the chord changes of “La Bamba.”  It was significant in that nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before, and certainly there has been nothing like it since, but despite a chorus that invites a response from the audience, few of its listeners had much in common with the poor little rich girl to whom the song is addressed.

“Tangled up in Blue,” on the other hand, is a true anthem that resonated with the nomadic, neo-hippies of the eighties and nineties who were a growing part of Dylan’s faithful fan base.  They followed him around just as their parents had followed around The Dead.  Much as Dylan is pigeon-holed as a spokesman of the sixties, it wasn’t until 1988, when he undertook his Neverending tour, that he bent the nation’s collective ear. I am not saying that he went about misunderstood for the first 25 years of his career.  Plenty of individuals heard what he was singing about.  But check the average record collection in 1969 and you are more likely to find a copy of “Nashville Skyline” than “Highway 61 Revisited.”

I remember the day “Blood on the Tracks” was released.  I can’t say I was too impressed on the first listen. The verses of “Tangled Up in Blue” were pretty good, but the tag-line embarrassed me.  Next came the simplistic rhymes of “Simple Twist of Fate,” followed by a pretty decent break-up song.  Then came the centerpiece of the album, “Idiot Wind,” which I loved. But it was followed by the honky tonk triviality of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When you Go.” I flipped the record over and couldn’t wait until “Meet me in the Morning,” a throwaway blues if ever there was one, ended, and then enjoyed the tale of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” I loved “Shelter from the Storm,” but thought “If You See Her Say Hello” sounded like a Gordon Lightfoot song and “Buckets of Rain” was a laundry list. The album grew on me after a few more listens, mostly because Dylan was singing so well, but I still think “Desire” and “Street Legal” are better albums.

Right from the start, Dylan was taking “Tangled up in Blue” apart and investigating the many ways he could put it back together.  His flawless delivery in the whiteface scene from “Renaldo and Clara” should be studied by every actor who is confronted with a large body of text that is filled with challenges.  The 1978 version finds Dylan in his Edith Piaf mode, a melodramatic street singer inviting all of Parisian society to hear his woeful tale.  The drastic rewrite from the 1984 tour demolishes the BOTT version, and Dylan started picking up the debris in 1990 and spent the next ten years making different songs out of what remained. Now, in 2013, he has put his humpty dumpty of a song back together and it is a thing of beauty to behold.