As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam recently, I’ve been performing in a big amateur production of a Broadway musical. We do two shows a week all over the country– which is only as big as New Jersey, but hey, that was a good enough start for The Boss. Still, it’s a shlep, to go to another city twice a week after working Ye Olde Day Job, with 27 tons of equipment, giving a big show, then slinking back home very late at night. There’s a team of dedicated volunteer roadies who go in the morning, unload the truck and set up the stage. But then after the show, after greeting the fans and friends, after removing the makeup, everyone pitches in for The Load-Out. Which apparently in Show Business means what we mortals would call the load-up.
It has its own special feeling, this activity of taking apart the scene of the masque–illusion dissembled, post-applause, the adrenaline shuffling back into its pen for the night. So, of course, there’s this one song about that, and that’s what’s been on my mind and in my ears, and that’s our SoTW.
If a Martian came up to me and asked me to play some California music for him, I’d most certainly pick that most quintessential of The Angels, Jackson Browne (b. 1948).
In the 1970s, Jackson started out with a series of five spectacular singer-songwriter albums, introspective with a beat and a hook, about California-based themes such as love, opthamologists, angst and cocaine. Then he contracted acute Political Awareness, addressing himself passionately to issues such as saving the Brazilian Rain Forest Blue Bat and Integrity and Cocaine.
Daryl Hannah and Beau
I enjoy a lot of Jackson’s songs, though I think it’s criminal to mention him in the same breath with his contemporaries James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Perhaps all three were working out of the same 1970s singer-songwriter idiom, but JT and JM are major artists, and JB is a very talented pop musician. I find his best work touching, effective and affective. But even in his pre-politico preaching days, too often he’s mushy, soppy. Even swishy. But heck, he dated Daryl Hannah, so what do I know about the way these things work in LaLa Land? Anyway, we come not to bash Mr Browne, but to praise him.
The last of his personal/poetic albums was “Running on Empty” (1977), a ‘road album’—all the songs were recorded on stage or in the hotel or the bus, and/or dealt with the experience of performing on tour.
Maurice Williams and Zodiacs
At the tender age of 15, young Maurice Williams of Lancaster, SC was busy writing songs while his friends were out stealing hubcaps (did they have hubcaps in Lancaster, SC in 1953?). At 17, he somehow got himself and his buddies an audition in Nashville, where they recorded Maurice’s ‘Little Darling’ under the name The Gladiolas. It hit #11 on the R&B charts and #41 on the pop charts, but then got covered by a white Canadian group, The Diamonds, and Maurice didn’t need to work again for the rest of his life. But he did, playing fraternity gigs around the South (well, if they had fraternity gigs they must have had hubcaps, no?), and in 1960 Maurice and his current cronies, now known as The Zodiacs, recorded another song he had written back in 1953—to the same girl! ‘Stay’ became as much of a doo-wop icon as its sister piece, and even had the distinction of being the shortest #1 hit ever, clocking in at 1:37. Over the years it was a Top 20 hit for the Four Seasons, Rufus & Chaka Khan, the Hollies, and it’s still sung regularly on Friday nights by many thousands of drunken fraternity boys on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Jackson Browne circa 1977 would end his show (as he does the album “Running on Empty”) with a long, lovely, rambling tribute to his roadies. It’s done on solo piano, and talks about the post-show weariness, the packing up, and that lingering adrenalin that I’ve been tasting so strongly in recent weeks. Here his band slowly rejoins him on-stage, and the song mashes into ‘just one more song’–a revisit to Maurice’s big hit, with the object of affection transformed from that unnamed Little Darlin’ to The Audience. Pretty neat, how these Californians write songs.
Here are the album versions of the combo-song. And here’s a video version from 1982 that works pretty much the same way.
, with the divine Rosemary Butler providing one short verse and David Lindley providing the Maurice Williams falsetto.
I’ve got three more shows to do next week. I’m a professional amateur. No cocaine, no groupies, just a bunch of us enthusiastic townies strutting and fretting our three hours on-stage and backstage, putting on a show and packing it up before we go home to the wife and kids.
Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down.
They’re the first to come and the last to leave,
Working for that minimum wage,
They’ll set it up in another town.
Tonight the people were so fine,
They waited there in line.
When they got up on their feet they made the show.
And that was sweet but I can hear the sound
of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that’s a sound they’ll never know.
Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and get ’em up them ramps.
‘Cause when it comes to moving me
You know you guys are the champs.
But when that last guitar’s been packed away
You know I still want to play,
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for this piano.
But the band’s on the bus
And they’re waiting to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same.
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.
Now we got country and western on the bus, R&B
We got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
And we’ve got rural scenes & magazines
We’ve got truckers on the CB
We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video
And we got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away.
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play.
People you’ve got the power over what we do–
You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through.
Come along, sing the song
You know that you can’t go wrong
‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here.
People stay just a little bit longer
We want to play just a little bit longer
Now the promoter don’t mind
And the union don’t mind
If we take a little time
And we leave it all behind and sing
One more song
I want you stay just a little bit longer
Please, please, please
Say you will, say you will.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:
083: Ezio Pinza, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ (“South Pacific”)
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’
066: Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Skeletons’
061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’
054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’
Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Shostakovich, Prelude in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva) (1987 version, if you want to be really anal about this)
Shostakovich, Fugue in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva) (1992 version, what the hell, take a walk on the wild side and mix them)
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)
In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”
To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.
In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever. Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.
Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.
So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.
Siege of Leningrad
This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.
Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”
Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.
On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).
“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).
From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.
It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.
Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.
And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.
Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.
Here’s a video clip of Tatiana Nikolaeva playing Prelude No. 17.
Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.
I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:
SoTW 005: Toccata in Cm, JS Bach (Glenn Gould)
SoTW 077: ‘The Art of the Fugue’, JS Bach (The Emerson Quartet)
Posted by jeff on Nov 18, 2016 in Other
, Song Of the week
Mose Allison — ‘Young Man Blues’
The Who – ‘Young Man Blues’
Mose Allison — ‘Parchman Farm’
Photo by Mike Wilson
“Hey, Jeff, did you hear who just died? You gonna write about him?”
They’re dropping like flies.
Mose Allison, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kantner, all jamming in that roadhouse honky-tonk in the sky.
Teenagers dying of old age.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-g-generation.
For that matter, Dylan’s Nobel prize is also a death. How can you be a revolutionary when the establishment is embracing you? Well, I guess studiously avoiding the ceremony is one way.
And I went to see Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” tour in the summer. There are things worse than death, I guess.
They say “Inside every grown man there’s a teenager screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’” Actually, it’s not ‘them’ who says it, it’s us. We all know that we were our true selves at 15, and everything that’s happened since then has been a perversion of or deviation from the person we were then.
For me perhaps more than for some. I believe every person has his inherent age. I sometimes look at an 11-year old and see him as a 40-year old in disguise, or a man of 50 with the demeanor of a 9-year old.
Me, I’ve always been a teenager. You can call it youthful, you can call it creative and energetic. I usually call it arrested development.
I’ve always felt comfortable with people my own age – 17-23. Put me in a social situation with my chronological peers, I’ll most often gravitate to the more interesting among their children. Who wants to hang around with old people?
I was a high-school teacher for many years. During breaks, I’d usually hang out with the best and the brightest of the kids, rather than snore through the teachers’ room. I learned to speak Teenager. Which was perhaps pathetic in one way, but on the other served me in excellent stead for writing plays geared at a young adult audience.
Then I began to work in hi-tech, where the median age was in the mid to late 20s. I never felt out of place there, at least age-wise. My temperament and metabolism worked well in that environment.
And now I spend my days with the 45-voice rock choir I formed three years ago. “The kids”, as I call the members, are mostly in their 20s. Those I work closely with still tell me I’m a kid at heart. They’ve witnessed up close just how profoundly irresponsible and snarky I am deep inside. But I’m the head of the group, and I try to behave in a dignified manner.
Yes, it is true that Yair and I once dropped frogs through the window into the girls’ shower and listened to them shriek. He was 17, I was 45, the drama teacher accompanying the cast of a play on an overnight.
But now, with Vocalocity, I try to behave with the dignity becoming a mature and thoughtful leader. It’s a role I have some discomfort playing.
But I – the one screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’ louder than anyone else louder than any other 68-year old in the tenth grade – am gradually becoming accustomed to the fact that I’m growing old.
I don’t eat Shredded Wheat, I don’t go wandering down the street in my bathrobe, and I don’t wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. But it’s there.
I communicate by phone, rather than by the latest digital platform. I believe in explaining an idea before condensing it into 140 characters. I express my emotions and I try to make personal contact.
In other words, I don’t know how to communicate with Generation Y. They make me feel old. Well, they’re right, I am.
My contemporaries are dying, and in nature’s actuarial terms, it’s no longer ‘a tragedy’. It’s “young by today’s standards”, but come on – 68? As my mother-in-law RIP used to say: “So he lives to eat another sack of potatoes, so what?” We’re done. Extraneous. Over le hill. Bye, Baby.
My granddaughter is a blossoming 16-year old.
I’ve met kids who know the facts of The Beatles’ career better than I do.
Barack Obama is 13 years younger than me.
I’ve fulfilled my biological, sociological and political role.
I’ve begun to reconcile myself to the fact that I probably never will learn to love opera, successfully finish writing an action novel, or date Scarlett Johansson.
Let’s face it, Jeff. You’re old. Your peers are dying. You got a few good years left, but you’re a senior citizen.
I know. But what the fuck happened? I didn’t use to be old.
I was recently in a fine, serious conversation with a bright and chipper 22-year old member of my group. She has the enthusiasm of a puppy. She’s only known me for a couple of years, and (for some reason I’m still struggling to grasp) does not really see me as her contemporary.
“I haven’t been old for that long,” I said to her. “It’s a new condition for me. I was young for a really long time. Up till now I wasn’t old.”
She looked at me with a sincere and utter lack of comprehension. ‘But it’s now,’ her expression said. ‘I live in now, not in then.’
I tell her I saw The Beatles perform, that I was at Woodstock. She’s as impressed as she would be if I were telling the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, that we all have to see ourselves as if we personally were taken out of Egypt. “That’s so cool,” she says, but in her bones she doesn’t really believe that I was there.
I’ve often thought about the fact that my grandfather was a teenager when he read in the (Yiddish) newspaper about the Wright Brothers; and that he had all his marbles when Neil Armstrong took his jaunt.
Me? I remember the Cuban missile crisis, and have lived to see the downfall of the Soviet empire. I fear that if I reach my life expectancy, I may witness the fall of the American empire as well.
I’ve lived through so many decades that I can compare them. For example, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that (at least for those choosing a traditional study>job>wife>kids>mortgage>career life path,) the decade of about 35-45 is the best one. The most optimistic one. You’re finally steady but still hopeful. The steadiness soon becomes a curse, and the hope a memory.
But, hey, you didn’t come here to hear a toothless old geezer rant and ramble about people and things that went before. You’re here for the music, and I’ve got a job to do.
Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Elston Gunnn
I’m no expert on Mose Allison (1927-2016), but I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He was born and raised in rural Mississippi, moved to New York in his mid-20s to make a respectable living as a jazz pianist, playing straightforward 1950s jazz with the likes of Stan Getz, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. But left to his own devices, he played and sang a unique blend of cool, sophisticated country blues (‘Your Molecular Structure’, ‘Your Mind is on Vacation’.
Mose had a long, productive, low-key career. He recorded an album every year for a couple of decades, then slowed down. But his career was always kept afloat by the great esteem in which he was held by the cognoscenti. Mose was always Mr Cool. All along, those in the know were covering his wry, sardonic, laid-back blues compositions.
He was Randy Newman before Randy was, and I don’t think anyone would deny his influence on Dylan, The Stones and Tom Waits. He was covered by John Mayall, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and The Who. Van Morrison, together with Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran and Mose himself recorded a #1 jazz album in 1996, “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.”
I first encountered Mose through Gnossos Pappadopoulis, the hero of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”. Gnossos was a fan of Mose (according to the book), as was Dick (according to his college buddy Thomas Pynchon).
Fariña (1937-66) was a harbinger of the folk music movement, duetting with his wife Mimi Baez (Joan’s sister). Together with Joan’s friend Bob Dylan, they comprised a royal foursome in the nascent Village folk scene of the early 60s, as wonderfully documented in David Hajdu’s “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña”.
Mose and Dick are the two coolest people I’ve never met. They’re inextricably intertwined in my fuzzy memory. One died tragically young, one had a long and respectable career.
Gnossos used to listen to Mose’s ‘Young Man Blues’ back in 1958. Since then it’s been covered by youngsters such as Joe Bonamassa and Foo Fighters, but most famously by The Who, a signature song of the lads at their manic best. You can read the lyrics (Oh, well, a young man/Ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days). But seeing is believing – here from the Isle of Wight, 1970.
You want me to make sense of all this? Ferget it. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’. Some fine old singers are dying, and I listen mostly to music made by people in their 20s, whether now or 30 or 50 or 70 years ago.
Although Chuck Berry just turned 90 and is releasing his first album of new material in 38 years.
There’s probably a profound lesson to be learned from that, but I’m not sure what it is.
After my nap.
Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2016 in Personal
, Song Of the week
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
Too Much of Nothing
Quinn, the Eskimo
Nothing Was Delivered
Well, Bobby, you done it. Pulled another rabbit out of your illusionist’s top hat. The master of sleight of word has once again danced the dance of the seven veils and come out fully clothed, masked and smirking.
Folks are all a-buzz, and that’s great. The more people buzz about Bob, the better the world. A bunch of SoTW readers have said they expect me to weigh in, so here goes my 2¢.
I’m going to step on some toes here. (Howie/Shmuel, I love you, but I’m gonna be speaking my mind here, not The World’s.)
I’m going to talk about my relationship with Bob.
Wheel’s on Fire
Let me clarify that. Most people who write or talk about Dylan passionately want to explain him to you. I once saw a TV show in which a bunch of local artists each presented “My Dylan”. I was sick in bed for two weeks. My Dylan? What is he, a catcher’s mitt? An aquarium?
They don’t own him, any more than you own your child, any more than you own the wind. He owns himself. I have no My Dylan. He baffles me. He befuddles me. He eludes me, deludes me, precludes me, secludes me, fastfoods me…
I don’t own Dylan, I don’t possess him. Hell, I don’t even grasp him.
The most I can do is to try to describe how I perceive him, shade it with some biographical or socio-historical hues, season it with a bit of humor. But if you’re looking for the key, that’s not me. You can find it in the Nobel-worthy John Wesley Harding liner notes: ‘The key is Frank.’
I offer you as a foil My James Taylor.
James began sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings with me when we were 20, and they have been a balm for me ever since. I embrace him in my mind, in my heart.
Not so Mr Dylan. He has informed me, stirred me, enlarged me, served me as a model for emulation. But I wouldn’t go up to him and hug him. The one time I did meet him, in his dressing room backstage at The Johnny Cash Show, May 1, 1969, I had the opportunity. I didn’t hug him. I stuttered. “Hi. I’d like to talk to you.” “About what?” “About music.” “I don’t know much about music.”
The fleeting moment of Dylan intersecting with my real world.
My Perception of Dylan
I’m guessing that 98% of the people voicing their thoughts about Dylan receiving the prize will talk about him still growing strong at 75. I’m in the 2%. I just listened to 20 seconds of him at Desert Trip, 10 of McCartney and 5 of The Stones. That’s way more than too much for me.
Dylan earned my vote for what he did 50 years ago. I choose to ignore these old farts’ pathetic attempts to stay relevant (and rich). My respect is for them in their prime, not in their dotage.
What I talk about when I talk about Dylan
His great works:
- Freewheeling (1963)
- The Times They Are A-Changing (1964)
- Another Side Of (1964)
- Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
- Blonde on Blonde (1966)
- The Basement Tapes (1967)
- John Wesley Harding (1967)
- New Morning (1970)
- Blood on the Tracks (NY sessions, 1975)
- Desire (1976)
- A couple of handsful of assorted songs.
I’m not including his admirable-but-less-than-great works, because they obfuscate matters: Nashville Skyline (1970), Planet Waves (1974), Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006).
I’m also not including a whole gaggle of stuff I have great admiration for, which reflect Dylan at his finest, but are outside the scope of his primary achievement, his songs: various liner notes (especially Bringing It All Back Home and John Wesley Harding), Chronicles, his satellite-radio show Theme Time Radio Hour.
Is Dylan eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
A former secretary of the Nobel Committee told me that the judges adhere meticulously to the letter and spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. But I checked, and Al’s will doesn’t specify what constitutes ‘literature’. “…One part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Al invented dynamite, and was sharp enough to appoint experts to choose the laureates. ‘The prize shall be awarded by the Academy in Stockholm.’
Last year’s laureate was Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist whose written corpus consists of interviews. No one made a peep, not even in Belarusian. Winston Churchill was an orator.
Haruki Murakami was considered a leading candidate. I’ve read a number of his books, and I’d put money on him saying something like ‘Dylan’s a million times more worthy than I of the prize’. Haruki is a fine writer, and he sounds like a guy I’d want to hang out with over a couple of beers. We’d probably talk about Dylan. In my most Dylanesque dreams, I couldn’t envision myself schmoozing with Bob over a brew, talking about Murakami.
Leonard Cohen’s reaction: “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
In other words, the prize is nice, it’s cute, but it’s not validating. Dylan doesn’t need anyone’s validation.
Does Dylan write poetry?
The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains
He writes lyrics to songs that he sings.
But he publishes his lyrics as written words!
So did Harold Pinter. You can buy the script of a Bergman movie.
Dylan’s defining mode of expression is singing songs. The lyrics and the music and the arrangement and the performance are all part of his artistic gestalt.
I’m no expert on the subject, although I do have a couple of academic degrees in the subject, and I’ve been following Dylan closely for about 52 years, so I guess I ought to be able to say something coherent on the subject.
Unfortunately, I can’t. The question of whether Dylan’s lyrics stand as ‘poetry’ is one I’ve never really been interested in addressing. It’s speculation, it’s moot, it’s irrelevant.
It’s no more reasonable to judge his lyrics as poetry than it is to set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and to judge them as lyrics.
Old Willie Yeats hit it on the head: O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Is Dylan worthy of The Nobel?
For Halloween give her a trumpet, and for Christmas buy her a drum
Dylan made his initial mark as a protest singer. I’m not even going to put that in quotation marks. It was his first persona, singing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God on Our Side’ with Joan Baez and marching with Martin Luther King (August, 1963). But by January 1964 (liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changing”) he was singing a different tune:
Woody Guthrie was my last idol/he was the last idol/because he was the first idol/I’d ever met/face t’ face/that men are men/shatterin’ even himself/as an idol/an’ that men have reasons/for what they do/an’ what they say/an’ every action can be questioned/leavin’ no command/untouched an’ took for granted/obeyed an’ bowed down to/forgettin’ your own natural instincts/(for there’re a million reasons/in the world/an’ a million instincts/runnin’ wild/an’ it’s none too many times/the two shall meet)/the unseen idols create the fear/an’ trample hope when busted/Woody never made me fear/and he didn’t trample any hopes/for he just carried a book of Man/an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile/an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson/ /you ask “how does it feel t’ be an idol?”/it’d be silly of me t’ answer, wouldn’t it . . .?
And by August, 1964, we were listening to another side of Bob Dylan: Good and bad, I define these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow./Ah, but I was so much older then,/I’m younger than that now.
That was the first life lesson I learned via Dylan. Not from him, but through him. I was only 16 when he recorded and I heard ‘My Back Pages’. I had my pantheon of heroes—John & Paul, and John Keats, I guess. Preceded by Mickey Mantle and The Lone Ranger. Succeeded by Hitchcock and Primo Levi and Oliver Sacks and Rav Soloveitchik and JS Bach. In 1964, at 16, Dylan was my idol. And he’s telling me that there ain’t no idols. So that was a bit confusing. But most everything is confusing for a 16-year old, and Dylan is so often confusing. Like in 1974, when he finally released a live album with The Band, and it was so bad, his shouting a parody of a drunken, tone-deaf fraternity boy shouting out the lyrics. Or 1980, when he espoused a belief in Christianity. Dylan, the brightest of all, was spouting patent poppycock.
First he told me that there are no idols. Then he demonstrated it to me.
I always lagged behind Dylan, for a myriad of reasons. One of them is that he’s seven years older than me. I really encountered Dylan seriously in 1964, with “Another Side Of”. I was in the 10th grade. He was 23. That’s a big difference. I didn’t have 23-year old friends then, obviously. He was writing songs like ‘All I Really Want to Do’, the most disingenuous seduction song I know.
I’m guessing that at 16 I took it at face value, hearing the same theme as The Beatles’ ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’, which was released the very same month. (If you’re wondering why Dylan got the Nobel and not the Beatles, there’s your answer. Sixteen year-old Jeff had no trouble palling around with them.) Or the rich, impassioned love/hate songs ‘I Don’t Believe You’ (I can’t understand, she let go of my hand) and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (Go ‘way from my window, leave at your own chosen speed.) How could I grasp those songs at 16? I’d barely been kissed.
And so it went, over the decades. So many songs just took me years to digest, to intuit, to get close to. I started to say ‘to wrap my mind around’, but that’s not really true. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or ‘As I Went Out One Morning’–I fail to comprehend (that’s denotation as ‘wrap your brain around’) as much today as I did at 19, when “John Wesley Harding” was released. I’ve learned to accept their mystery, to love it. That’s where Dylan’s energy is, his electricity. In the synapses between what he says and what I understand.
Big brass bed
What has Bob Dylan been for me? (And again, let me stress how different that question is from ‘Who is Bob Dylan in my eyes?’.)
I’m very uncomfortable with that term. No, he’s a human, directed not by the word of God, but by his own imagination. I’d maintain that there’s a fundamental connection between God and Dylan’s imaginative capacity, but Isaiah and Jeremiah made their reputations on the distinction between themselves and God, not by the overlap.
From the git-go, Dylan has been a man not of answers, but of questions. The answer is blowing in the wind.
I’ve certainly learned through him. But he’s never stood up in front of me and said ‘Open your book to page 61’ or ‘Spit out the gum’ or ‘You have to listen to this’. And I never asked him for permission to go to the john. All three times I saw him, I bought a ticket and he sang some songs.
Myself, what I’m going to do is rent Town Hall and put about thirty Western Union boys on the bill. I mean, then there’ll really be some messages.
I’ve never sneered at a former girlfriend ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’. I’ve never flirted with Christianity. I’ve never been painted in white-face, sported a pencil moustache, or uncovered Sinatra.
Bob Dylan writes songs about what he sees and thinks and feels. I listen to them, form my impression of them, and go my merry way. More often than not, they give me food for thought. They enlighten me, because I learn things about the world through his eyes.
As he said in his later years about Woody Guthrie, “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.” There’s a big difference between that an idolatry. The learning is on the listener.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.
The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.
Music like that that played an instrumental, formative role in my learning how to live – to the extent that I’ve done so.
The Basement Tapes
In July, 1966 (shortly after the release of “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan had a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye. In December, 1967, he released the somber, enigmatic, cryptic “John Wesley Harding”, full of biblical allusions and newly-coined myth.
I ingested the album immediately – acoustic, soft and gentle in texture, profound and ominous in content. I’m still working on wrapping my mind around it, because that’s what I do. I know I’ll never be any wiser for all the effort, at least not in this lifetime.
We didn’t know it back then, because there were no alternative media resources, no Rolling Stone, no interweb, but Dylan recorded “John Wesley Harding” during a short break from his main occupation of the summer of 1967. He was hanging out with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, making music, old and new. Garth had a tape recorder.
A few pieces leaked out, but we couldn’t put them together: Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (September, 1967); Manfred Mann’s ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ (January, 1968), and most importantly “Music from Big Pink” in June, 1968, containing ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. In November, 1968, The reconstituted Byrds released the first country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, including ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’.
Each one was an inscrutable, Sphinx-like enigma, although together with “John Wesley Harding”, some sort of picture was beginning to emerge – something home-sy, acoustic, grounded, back to basics. There was sublime humor (‘I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist’) and profound anguish (‘Any day now, any day now, I shall be released’).
“Nashville Skyline”, released in April, 1969, just made things confusinger.
Jeff the Bootlegger
But sometime in the winter I took a trip up to that town of refuge for bohemians, Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College, and came back with some paradigm-shifting booty: “The Great White Wonder” and “Troubled Troubadour”— unofficial, illegal vinyl recordings of the Basement Tapes and a few other unreleased Dylan oldies–the very first bootleg albums.
Years later I would organize the best of these recordings onto a cassette that I played till it plopped. I called the cassette “Never Felt So Good”, which can be read in two very different ways. The music reflected both.
The Up Side was a series of hilarious verbal tours de force – Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread; Million Dollar Bash; Tiny Montgomery; Lo and Behold; Please, Mrs Henry.
The Down Side contained several Scary Clown cuts (Nothing Was Delivered, Quinn the Eskimo, Too Much of Nothing), and several songs so serious, so profound, so rich that they continue today to shake and touch me to the very core–Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s on Fire, I Shall Be Released.
There was one cut that was too serious for The Up Side, too funny for The Down Side. Just like life. To even out the cassette, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ went on the shorter side.
Tree with roots
Clouds so swift rain won’t lift, gate won’t close and the railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
(chorus) Whoo-ee! Ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come.
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly down in the easy chair!
I don’t care how many letters they sent, morning came and morning went.
Pack up your money and pick up your tent, you ain’t goin’ nowhere
Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots, tailgates and substitutes.
Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Genghis Khan, he could not keep all his kings supplied with sleep.
We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep when we get up to it
That’s Dylan for me. Elusive, slippery. Riveting. Hilarious and harrowing. “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.”
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
But my mind was busy rocking and rolling at that time. I’d mark ‘that time’ from the release of “John Wesley Harding” (December 1968) till May, 1970, 18 months.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
It was the headiest of times. Musically, it was the golden age of our lifetimes. Politically, the war was raging and the draft was a horrifying specter. Personally, I was having the time of my life. Hell, it was Woodstock! It was the apex of “The 60s” – sex, drugs and rock-and-roll dangling from every lovely tree.
Then on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on protesting students at nearby Kent State, and it all came crashing down.
The university closed down, and every single familiar, friendly face in my life disappeared into the woodwork. My parents had left town half a year before. I was unmoored. Lost, disillusioned, terrified. Freefall.
Suddenly, I was rudderless, depressed and desperate. I did something unconscionably reckless, and paid for it with a 24-hour living nightmare. The next day, my sister was in town to visit her in-laws. I sat in the front seat of my car with her, held her perfect, innocent 10-month old baby in my arms, and wept.
I said, “I don’t like the life I’m leading. That’s not me.”
But what was me? I had no clue. Like always, I turned to the jukebox in my head for an answer. Do you know what came on? “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Within six months I was engaged to a rigorously clear-minded and focused woman, had moved to a fledgling country whose very existence was still precarious, and had committed to a religiously observant life.
Am I thrilled by Dylan’s being awarded The Nobel? As my father used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. But, no, The Nobel is nothing more than a nice-to-have.
Almost 50 years ago, in my heart and soul and mind and life, I bestowed an award on this artist for introducing me to a new direction, a path I chose to adapt and adopt and live by. So today, let’s make it public and formal:
I hereby pronounce you, Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, the recipient of The Meshel, for creating music that has had a profoundly formative impact on my life.