Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to School with Bob Dylan: A to Z

It's time to go back to school. Time for reading, writing, and 'rithmatic all over the world. Just in case your school's curriculum yet to note that times have been a-changin' for more than half a century, let's make it clear here and now that a class in Bob Dylan should be required for all. Whether you are homeschooling or getting ready for your new locker, here is a back-to-school primer for your Dylan studies, A-Z.

Augustine
Nearly every song on John Wesley Harding has a main character shrouded in gray–from the Landlord to Tom Paine. The hero of the album might be Saint Augustine, a fantastical, real life Late Antiquity church father drafted into Dylan's reworking of labor standard "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" via a dream of martyrdom that appears often in Dylan's work. Think "Blind Willie McTell" tracing Dylan's fantasies of America as a place where "many martyrs fell." In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” Dylan sings a sad complaint that "No martyr is among ye now" while the singer, who had left public life at the height of his powers, returns from a public death with an enigmatic album, an altered sound and appearance, and no further comment.

Brownsville Girl
Dylan is the master of the rock 'n' roll epic. Few roll with the color, humor, and cinematic scope of "Brownsville Girl." No one knows who is who, but someone got off track. In fact, "the only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter."


California
It's one of the states in one of the countries that Dylan calls home. He dedicated not one but two Theme Time Radio shows to it. But what more compelling reason for California in our primer than it inspiring this line from the song "California" recorded early in Dylan's career and released much later:

Well, I got my dark sunglasses
I got for good luck my black tooth
I got my dark sunglasses
And for good luck I got my black tooth
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth

Desolation Row
Fittingly, the word "desolation" comes from the Latin word desolaredesolatum, meaning "to forsake." Dylan literally sees his generation literally forsaken, frozen and dead, forcing him to create a new matrix for living. So he stares back at the world and everyone in it and rearranges their faces and gives them all another name. Now that's rock 'n' roll.

Elijah
As I wrote in a review of Todd Haynes' sort of Dylan biopic I’m Not There some time ago, Elijah might be the best prophet for thinking about rock and roll prophecy in general and Dylan's prophecy particularly. Stories of Elijah’s countless masks, rages, and demands animate the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish commentaries and folklore, Elijah can be found everywhere, in disguise, at the gates of a city in the morning and in the houses of royalty by night; he blesses the poor, unsettles the rich, and continually shuffles the deck of fate with his many faces, always in disguise, keeping people on their spiritual toes because of the possibility that he might actually be near. Yet Elijah is most famous for the moment he does not arrive at all. Remind you of anyone?

France
Last year Dylan was awarded France's highest honor, the Legion of Honour. The Guardian reported that the award was temporarily put on hold after the grand chancellor of the Legion, Jean-Louis Georgelin, declared the singer was unworthy of it, citing Dylan's anti-war politics and use of cannabis as key reasons to block his nomination.

More on this important point later.

Going, Going, Gone
Talking about The Basement Tapes jem which provided the name for Todd Haynes' film, Robbie Robertson suggested that "Going, Going, Gone" is the studio release song closest to plunging the depths reached by "I'm Not There." And it quotes grandma.

How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down Before You Call Him a Man?
So begins "Blowin' in the Wind." An additional question might be: Can you imagine the world without this song? 

I and I
Because "I and I" includes the line "I made shoes for everyone, even you/but still I walk barefoot" we add it to the primer. There are many other reasons as well, of course, but that reason (and all of those shoes) are more than enough.

Jesus
It's simplistic to say that Dylan had a "Jesus period" when he released a series of evangelically charged albums in the late seventies. Something certainly caught fire, but falling in love with Jesus, his message, the passion he invokes in music-
these are all so very much a part of of what makes Dylan great in different faces and names throughout his career. Even on the Christmas album. Every period is his Jesus period.

Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Everyone sings this song–even Guns 'N' Roses–but it's hard to imagine a version more potent than Warren Zevon's, sung from something like a death bed recording session on his last album. It may have taken Dylan four minutes to write it, but it just keeps being rewritten.


Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie
Even if his high school yearbook lists his life ambition as being to "follow Little Richard," the master teacher of at least the first portion of Dylan's career is Woody Guthrie. "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," written and performed in 1963, is as loving an ode of a young man to his teacher as any I know. It ends like this.

And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown
Marijuana: The French were right. Dylan smoked a lot of pot. Maybe he still does. But could there have been a more important joint smoked during the Decline and Fall of  Western Civilization that the one Dylan used to turn on the Beatles?

North Country: Wise women and men have made the convincing case that without contextualizing Dylan's vision in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, you just cannot understand him. I buy it.

Oh Sister
For the haunting electric violin played by Scarlet Rivera (not Einstein), for a lyric easily inserted into the Song of Songs or the Zohar, for a narrator confusing sister, father, lover, and wife, and for appearing on Desire, "Oh Sister" gets the nod.

Pretty Polly
It's hard to appreciate Dylan's resurgence in the 1990's without considering Greil Marcus' book The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Marcus writes so beautifully and thoughtfully about some of the possible secrets of Dylan's magic, it is tempting to think he somehow opened new seams for Dylan to connect and reconnect with audiences. In proposing Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes as vessels of kindred spirits of America's "invisible republic"which was the original title of the bookMarcus goes as deep and as convincingly with pop as anyone ever has. His take on the old if not ancient iterations of "Pretty Polly" from the British Isles to Kurt Cobain captures the essence of his approach,  with Dylan both a witness and a driver in the story he tells.

Queen Jane Approximately
On an album that includes "Like a Rolling Stone," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Desolation Row," it is hard for even a classic song of longing like "Queen Jane Approximately" to stand out–but it does. Juxtaposing the words "approximately" and "queen" in a song title is already such a clever and compelling reach for the pop of his time, the fact that the song is just the invitation for the heart breaker to consider coming back makes the whole jangling journey a killer.

Rolling Thunder Revue
Dylan was hanging in his old neighborhood in the mid-1970's, even popping into gigs of old friends to lend a guitar, vocal, or harp. The Rolling Thunder Revue was an unwieldy attempt to capture some of the spirit of the Greenwich Village scene of the sixties on the giant stages that Dylan's star now demanded (including the Astrodome.) Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs, and Roger McGuinn were just a few of his guests. The 4-plus hour film Renaldo and Clara (which few have seen though many have panned) as well as monster versions of chestnuts like "One Too Many Mornings" and "Lay Lady Lay" and a wild visit to Jack Kerouac's graveDylan in a white mask of death every step of the waywere just a few of the results.

Stage Fright
There have been more than a few arguments about the central figure of one of the Band's last beautiful original tunes. Robbie Robertson, a man that few claim to trust as a historian but many rely upon as a teller of myth, suggests he wrote it about Dylan edging back to the stage after years away. Rick Danko sings it and it is indeed a gorgeous, sympathetic take on what it takes to "sing just like a bird."

Theme Time Radio Hour
No album, no Chronicles, no interviews, and no concerts say as much about what makes Bob Dylan tick musically than the 100 radio shows he recorded of "dreams, themes, and schemes" on Sirius XM. Humor, pathos, recipes, crooners, gangsters, TV and film clips, and music, music, music. Welcome to Bob Dylan's brain. Doctorates will be written about this show someday.

Up to Me
Like "Blind Willie McTell," a true classic which never received a proper studio release, "Up to Me" appeared as an outtake. For "Up to Me" this was 1985's Biograph, which also kicked off the trend of rockers curating box set retrospectives. "Up to Me" is studded with lyrical gems like this:

The only useful thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk
Was to pull your picture down off the wall near the cage where I used to work...
Dylan's waste bin songs often surpass the best numbers of the first team.

Velvet Underground
Professor Thomas Crow once gave a terrific talk at the Guggenheim Museum in New York about the period in 1965 when Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol essentially held the world of art and culture in their hands. It was a competitionfor influence, people, hipness, moneyand until his motorcycle crash, Dylan was winning as he symbolically took one of Warhol's Elvis cut-outs from the Factory in the back of a convertible and drove away. The Velvet Underground were one of Warhol's biggest gifts to the era, especially Lou Reed, a rocker even crankier and meaner than Dylan and, according to some, just as important to rock 'n' roll.


Woodstock
Dylan arrived in town at Albert Grossman's suggestion. Woodstock was a long time artists' and freaks' town, and this is where Dylan holed up (along with the Band) after his motorcycle crash. Some say the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was located and named as it was in order to pull Dylan out of seclusion and onto the stage. It did not work.

XSara
It's always been their business, of course, and that's why it was so stunning when the song "Sara" appeared on DesireBlood on the Tracksknown as Dylan's divorce album and which he claims he doesn't understand how people can standcarries so much pain, presenting all kinds of suggestions of the dissolution of a marriage. But "Sara" named it in a way almost too hard to hear.

You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows
One of hundreds of almost throwaway Dylan lines that sound like Scripture he pinched, this one capped "Subterranean Homesick Blues"proto-rap, proto-punk, proto-MTV video, and also featuring Allen Ginsburg davening in the background as Dylan literally flicks signs into the air. The Weather Underground used this phrase to name themselves, emerging from the shards of sixties activism and revolutionary communities as home grown terrorists. That's what was blowing in the wind.

Zevon
Bruce Springsteen once called him a "moralist in wolf's clothing" and Dylan dug him. When Warren Zevon was dying of cancer, Dylan sang his songs on stage often. One of his favorite's was "Mutineer:"

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Hoist the mainsail–here I come
Ain’t no room on board for the insincere
You’re my witness
I’m your mutineer
I was born to rock the boat
Some may sink but we will float
Grab your coat–let’s get out of here
You’re my witness
I’m your mutineer

I once owned an LP of a radio interview with Bob Dylan from the mid-’80s. He was asked if there was another trade he would ply if he had not wound up a singer. He was mumbling in the answer, but his sounds ended in a final clear phrase: “Or maybe I should just be on a boat.” Aren't you glad he spends so much time on land too?

Have a happy school year, friends.






Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams: Before the Stars Were Torn Down





There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, 
he wore a gun and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

-Bob Dylan, "Brownsville Girl"

If you are plugged-in to the interwebs--addicted, burrowed, defanged, enlightened, numbed and endlessly refreshing your browser with the thought that something big might be happening at any given moment--you know that Robin Williams killed himself this week. You also probably know that Lauren Bacall died the following day.

Robin Williams was clearly the kind of genius artist whose demons drove his creativity. It's easy to say now that we in the peanut gallery could see the sadness in his eyes or that--in whatever way we might ourselves know mania or depression--his gifts and flaws were one and the same.

Thoughts about mortality are no strangers at my door, and great artists have knocked on it early and often. Everyone obsesses about death sometimes, but some of us went farther into the Jim Morrison myth than we should have done on the cusp of middle school and never quite left. By the time Kurt Cobain offed himself in the early 1990's the meaninglessness of dying young and pretty had transcended even the most staid cliches about suffering artists; and yet, it still hurt.

The same week that Robin Williams died, a friend of mine noted, five hundred children were said to be suffocated in the hinterlands of Iraq by ISIS, which combines the worst of the Crusaders, the Nazis, and Attila the Hun. Their push to establish a fanatical, evil caliphate is something we should really be losing sleep over. 

Still, guiltily, agonizing about geopolitical madness in dark and light, last night from my cultural perch in Jerusalem, I, like so many of us, stayed up late looking for Robin Williams--for another early stand-up clip I had not yet seen, an improv sketch with Jonathan Winters, or another reasonably deft explanation for what moved me about his death. Then when I awoke and heard the news about Lauren Bacall I thought about stars and death again. That quote from Dylan came to mind: Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.

If you came of age in this Golden Age of Media--TV, film, literature, music, and sports--even if you were devout in other ways, the voices and visions of stars like Williams and Bacall were the mythic heroes who shaped you like no other. Often, the media raised and comforted and named you as much or more than the people with whom you lived. Mork was your secret friend, even weirder than your weirdest, most awkward self, sweetly exploding all of the norms that troubled you so. Bacall was the highest class of woman you either wanted or wanted to be, living in an ancient age of black and white but somehow cooler than any high definition alternative. 

And these two--just two amongst hundreds if not thousands of other stars you know bits and pieces about or practically live through vicariously--are the conveyors of ultimate myths of meaning in our world. With Williams, we lived the heartbreak of Garp (a double whammy since John Irving shaped so much of our lives, too), the loving teacher of Dead Poet's Society, the therapist you wanted to speak to in Good Will Hunting, and the furiously brilliant associative mind that smashed past gatekeepers of boredom and just kept storming the castle as if this could bring freedom for us all. 

Whatever our ship, wherever we are headed, we set our sights on the horizon and see stars--rock stars, movie stars, TV stars, sports stars, stars of cult and culture. When they fall naturally like Bacall, it's sad. We return some spark of the eternal that goes away with them even if their words and images remain. 

When stars explode and disintegrate before our eyes like Robin Williams or Kurt Cobain, it's not just sad. It also steals from us some of the light that a bright star had granted a world of darkness. What's left in a world where stars of such light are so swiftly and painfully extinguished despite all that they give? Nothing. Just us.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen V: Places, Sacred Stories, and the Law

This summer at Shalem College I taught a course entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I posted key songs, texts, and comments from each of the eight sessions on this blog. Read about previous topics with a click on Creation MythsMasters and Teachers, Dreams and Visions, and Gods and Angels, Battles and Journeys. This is the final installment of the series.

Places
As Bob Dylan's contemporary manifesto for the ancient art of memory"Desolation Row" models how an artist gathers and reimagines inherited mythologies. Cinderella, Bette Davis, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Einstein, Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, Nero's Neptune, the Titanic, and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot all gather in a single place. (Click here for the full song text.)



This is how a poet takes possession of the pantheon--much the same way the Beatles staked their cultural claim in the album cover portrait of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band two years later. Just as mythic tales of the sacred canon populate the walls and ceilings of cathedrals, “Desolation Row” links a chain of myths, but with reservation and revision rather than dogma:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
Unless you are willing to visit Dylan in his perch, your message is unreadable, even offensive, because it ignores the fact that only reconstructed reality in the place of the poet's choice can preserve mythic meaning. 

Cohen is characteristically contrite and courteous in thinking about a holy place in "Show Me the Place," a song and space we already visited in thinking about myths of origin:

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Show me the place
I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place
For my head is bending low
Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

This is a site which is the opposite of Dylan's reworking of people and things in "Desolation Row," but the intent is similar: a single place tells the entirety of a mythic story--just like the Garden of Eden or Gethsemane or Mecca. Cohen sees all narratives flowing back towards simplicity and "the place where the suffering began." Dylan sees stories flowing from simplicity towards complexity. In either approach, their work is about making those sacred stories sing in new ways.

Sacred Stories
In his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan claims that a single myth serves as the touchstone not only for all of his work, but all of America as well:
I couldn't exactly put in words what I was looking for, but I began searching in principle for it, over at the New York Public Library, a monumental building with marble floors and walls, vacuous and spacious caverns, vaulted ceiling. A building that radiates triumph and glory when you walk inside….In one of the upstairs reading rooms I started reading articles in newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to about 1865 to see what daily life was like. I wasn't so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times....Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing symbolic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write….I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.
Recorded during the period of Infidels but released years later, "Blind Willie McTell" vividly demonstrates how a single story serves as a font for a flow of related stories that ultimately define a mythic vision:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell
Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell


In a soliloquy from a hotel window, Dylan describes the world of exile and ghosts emanating from the Civil War. He sees these martyrs perfectly, but he is not destined to join them, only to witness. He finds imperfection everywhere, especially in himself, carrying a voice that can never match a true seer. And still, his only choice is to keep telling the tale, a singer in the image of Blind Willie McTell just as "we all want what's His."
Leonard Cohen also describes his work as an echo of another grand story, the biblical landscape. In 1993, Arthur Kurzweil asked him about a line from "The Future" saying "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible." Cohen explains:
Oh, I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible. "You don't know me from the wind/You never will, you never did." I'm saying this to the nations. I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible. I'm that little one. "I've seen the nations rise and fall/I've heard their stories, heard them all/But love's the only engine of survival." I know what a people needs to survive. As I get older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it's really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything. Now, what is the biblical landscape? It's the victory of experience. That's what the Bible celebrates. So the experience of these things is absolutely necessary.
Sometimes Cohen and Dylan find themselves parked at the exact same spot, interpreting the same sacred story. In one case, it is indeed part of the biblical landscape. Dylan places the Sacrifice of Isaac on Highway 61, which runs right down the center of the United States, beginning in Minnesota at the Canadian border near Dylan’s birthplace and ending in New Orleans at the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as the Blues Highway, Highway 61 was a primary route of exodus of slaves from the South towards the industrial cities of the North "where many martyrs fell." As Dylan hears it:

Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'
Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'
God say, 'No.' Abe say, 'What?''
God say, 'You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run'
Well Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin' done?'
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’

Abraham is an easily corruptible huckster who builds an altar for his own son, a mythic model for four successive examples of the blind leading the lame. Cohen has a similar take on the blindness of the father in "The Story of Isaac." According to the biblical account, Isaac was blind. In Cohen's telling he sees everything, and the song squeezes paternal, authoritarian cruelty for all it is worth:

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word. 

This formative myth seems all but impossible to shake--just like the Law.

The Law
Franz Kafka
In Franz Kafka's “Before the Law” a man from the country wastes his entire life waiting to enter the gate containing the Law. On the verge of death he discovers that the door he has been waiting behind had been meant for him all along if only he had  had the courage to open it. 

Dylan's “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" offers a stunningly close parallel to Kafka's conflict. Yet his hero, standing alongside the messianic figure of Senor, wants to fight back:

Senor, senor, do you know where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before.
Is there any truth in that, senor?
How long are we gonna be ridin'?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, senor?....
Senor, senor, let's disconnect these cables,
Overturn these tables.
This place don't make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, senor?

Dylan's freedom comes in kicking up against a force that looms too large for his comfort, a myth whose faces and names must be rearranged. When Cohen sees a seemingly immutable force, he bows to it and waits almost like Kafka's man from the country. But rather than falling to weakness and silence in his submission, Cohen makes the force of the will of the law his own. Consider "If It Be Your Will":

If it be your will 
That I speak no more 
And my voice be still 
As it was before 
I will speak no more 
I shall abide until 
I am spoken for 
If it be your will 
If it be your will 
That a voice be true 
From this broken hill 
I will sing to you 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing


Dylan and Cohen are in continual dialogue and conflict with the Will of the Law, but their faith in their own creative powers to redirect myth defines a code for managing the friction it fuels--and making it hum. As Dylan sings in "Absolutely Sweet Marie," telling truth to the Law invites a person to stake a unique claim to it. But real outlaws "outside the law" can only survive if they craft a new code as part of this challenge:

Well, six white horses that you did promise
Were fin’lly delivered down to the penitentiary
But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

So too in Cohen's "Like a Bird on a Wire":

Oh like a bird on the wire, 
like a drunk in a midnight choir 
I have tried in my way to be free.

True freedom is contradictory. A bird holds to a wire even if it could have chosen to fly away. The one "born with a golden voice" does not leave the chorus to sing solo. Freedom comes from abiding tensions between the obvious choices myths suggest and deeper truths that emerge only after challenging them and living with them. 

As Joseph Campbell said when we started this conversation: "Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths." Great artists make hard-earned offerings of both.