Sunday, May 17, 2015

Long Live the King: B.B. King

Long, long time ago I decided to leave school, pack a rucksack and guitar, and try to touch all forty-eight states in the continental US. My cousin agreed to join me for the first leg of the trip, a swing through the south that brought us to New Orleans where we teamed up with a more seasoned traveler who convinced us against our better judgement to continue on to Mexico where we wrecked our car and were stranded for two weeks. I made it to California eventually, started a band or two, and kept looking for a code that would shape me.

Music was my guiding star then as now, and the symbolic crossroads, the place where that whole journey out of one life and into another started was the Front Row Theater. There I saw B.B. King, Albert King and Bobby "Blue" Bland two nights in a row.

B.B. King: smooth searing guitar, weeping and wailing and sailing above the stars; a booming voice full of love and humor; a grimace, a smile, warm words he had shared thousands of times with his backing band and his audience as he sweated and shimmied and glowed.

The recordings of the live shows were always my favorites, and seeing him live for the first time was a pilgrimage to witness a liturgy of the heart enacted by a High Priest who gives life to his people. I still know many of those albums note by note, having played along best as I could for years, eyes closed, imagining myself trading licks with a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather who -- despite lifetimes of difference between him and me -- assured with the giantness and gentleness of his person and music not only that the blues were an invitation I could accept, but that accepting the blues meant accepting love, and never being alone, and that even in the lowest, saddest of times the good work could get done, hauling sorrows and joys hand over hand with the King of the Blues, the One, the Only, B.B. King.

His music goes so deep -- deep as darkest dark. Yet it also buzzes with zest and vigor like purest light. There was a threshold across which B.B. King and his friends who taught the blues -- especially the electric blues -- carried an entire culture. That basket of blues held the possibility of all things, just like the arks that the Israelites carried out of Egypt.

"What's in those arks?" the passersby would say.
"One holds the Holy Torah and one holds the bones of Joseph," they replied.
"But how can you carry the living alongside the dead?" they asked.
"If not for this one, that one never could have been," they said.

Without music, it's hard to image living, but rising up for me as he did when he did, B.B. King was the rare musician whose warm, wise, simple, booming greatness offered an embrace so perfect amidst the imperfection of the world that it's hard to imagine my life itself without him.

That's a King for you, and this is his kingdom -- and feeling this way about these things is something grand and pure that cannot be explained. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

MusiCares, Who Really Cares? The Full Transcript of Bob Dylan's Speech

Below appears the full transcript, via the L.A. Times, of Bob Dylan's epic speech at the MusiCares Gala at the 2015 Grammy's. 
As usual, it's not clear who is zooming who in Dylan's presentation of music, self and the universe - but it's all in there. Thoughts on the speech from this corner in a few days. In the meantime, enjoy:
I’m glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.
I should mention a few people along the way who brought this about. I know I should mention John Hammond, great talent scout for Columbia Records. He signed me to that label when I was nobody. It took a lot of faith to do that, and he took a lot of ridicule, but he was his own man and he was courageous. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The last person he discovered before me was Aretha Franklin, and before that Count Basie, Billie Holiday and a whole lot of other artists. All noncommercial artists.

Trends did not interest John, and I was very noncommercial but he stayed with me. He believed in my talent and that’s all that mattered. I can’t thank him enough for that. Lou Levy runs Leeds Music, and they published my earliest songs, but I didn’t stay there too long.
Levy himself, he went back a long ways. He signed me to that company and recorded my songs and I sang them into a tape recorder. He told me outright, there was no precedent for what I was doing, that I was either before my time or behind it. And if I brought him a song like “Stardust,” he’d turn it down because it would be too late.
He told me that if I was before my time — and he didn’t really know that for sure — but if it was happening and if it was true, the public would usually take three to five years to catch up — so be prepared. And that did happen. The trouble was, when the public did catch up I was already three to five years beyond that, so it kind of complicated it. But he was encouraging, and he didn’t judge me, and I’ll always remember him for that.
Artie Mogull at Witmark Music signed me next to his company, and he told me to just keep writing songs no matter what, that I might be on to something. Well, he too stood behind me, and he could never wait to see what I’d give him next. I didn’t even think of myself as a songwriter before then. I’ll always be grateful for him also for that attitude.
I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group.
They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.
The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher — they made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.
Purvis Staples and the Staple Singers — long before they were on Stax they were on Epic and they were one of my favorite groups of all time. I met them all in ’62 or ’63. They heard my songs live and Purvis wanted to record three or four of them and he did with the Staples Singers. They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs.
Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. These were the artists I looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she [inaudible] to me. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about.
Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames — something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.
Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too, up in about ’63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. “Big River,” “I Walk the Line.”
“How high’s the water, Mama?” I wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with that song reverberating inside my head. I still ask, “How high is the water, mama?” Johnny was an intense character. And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted letters to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing.
In Johnny Cash’s world — hardcore Southern drama — that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. They just didn’t do that kind of thing. I’m always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the man in black. And I’ll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice.
People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby little waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Love. And she’s a free, independent spirit. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman with devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.” I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,
Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes He asked poor Howard where can I go Howard said there’s only one place I know Sam said tell me quick man I got to run Howard just pointed with his gun And said that way down on Highway 61
You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.
“Ain’t no use sit ‘n cry / You’ll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away.” “I’m sailing away my own true love.” “Boots of Spanish Leather” — Sheryl Crow just sung that.
“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.
I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”
“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” “If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”
If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”
You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.
“When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women in Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.”
All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.
Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.
Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You’ve just got to bear it. I didn’t really care what Lieber and Stoller thought of my songs.
They didn’t like ‘em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn’t like ‘em, because I never liked their songs either. “Yakety yak, don’t talk back.” “Charlie Brown is a clown,” “Baby I’m a hog for you.” Novelty songs. They weren’t saying anything serious. Doc’s songs, they were better. “This Magic Moment.” “Lonely Avenue.” Save the Last Dance for Me.
Those songs broke my heart. I figured I’d rather have his blessings any day than theirs.
Ahmet Ertegun didn’t think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He produced some great records: Ray Charles, Ray Brown, just to name a few.
There were some great records in there, no question about it. But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Radical eyes that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I’d rather have Sam Phillips’ blessing any day.
Merle Haggard didn’t even think much of my songs. I know he didn’t. He didn’t say that to me, but I know [inaudible]. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. Merle Haggard — “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” I can’t imagine Waylon Jennings singing “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
“Together Again”? That’s Buck Owens, and that trumps anything coming out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.
Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?
What have I done to deserve this special attention? No vocal range? When’s the last time you heard Dr. John? Why don’t you say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. Talk about slurred words and no diction. [Inaudible] doesn’t even matter.
“Why me, Lord?” I would say that to myself.
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and it was moving.
After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note — that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was on a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Where were the critics? Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don’t really think I do that. I just think critics say I do.
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you [inaudible].
Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that’s coming along and you never expected it. Way back when, I was in Nashville making some records and I read this article, a Tom T. Hall interview. Tom T. Hall, he was bitching about some kind of new song, and he couldn’t understand what these new kinds of songs that were coming in were about.
Now Tom, he was one of the most preeminent songwriters of the time in Nashville. A lot of people were recording his songs and he himself even did it. But he was all in a fuss about James Taylor, a song James had called “Country Road.” Tom was going off in this interview — “But James don’t say nothing about a country road. He’s just says how you can feel it on the country road. I don’t understand that.”
Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter. I’m not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.
It was called “I Love.” I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he’s just like you and you’re just like him. We all love the same things, and we’re all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow- moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.
Now listen, I’m not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not going to do that. I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I’m just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway. Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable, doing their thing.
This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He’s still in Texas. Everything was very copacetic. Everything was all right until — until — Kristofferson came to town. Oh, they ain’t seen anybody like him. He came into town like a wildcat, flew his helicopter into Johnny Cash’s backyard like a typical songwriter. And he went for the throat. “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Well, I woke up Sunday morning With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad So I had one more for dessert Then I fumbled through my closet Found my cleanest dirty shirt Then I washed my face and combed my hair And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.
You can look at Nashville pre-Kris and post-Kris, because he changed everything. That one song ruined Tom T. Hall’s poker parties. It might have sent him to the crazy house. God forbid he ever heard any of my songs.
You walk into the room With your pencil in your hand You see somebody naked You say, “Who is that man?” You try so hard But you don’t understand Just what you’re gonna say When you get home You know something is happening here But you don’t know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?
If “Sunday Morning Coming Down” rattled Tom’s cage, sent him into the looney bin, my song surely would have made him blow his brains out, right there in the minivan. Hopefully he didn’t hear it.
I just released an album of standards, all the songs usually done by Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr., maybe Brian Wilson’s done a couple, Linda Ronstadt done ‘em. But the reviews of their records are different than the reviews of my record.
In their reviews no one says anything. In my reviews, [inaudible] they’ve got to look under every stone when it comes to me. They’ve got to mention all the songwriters’ names. Well that’s OK with me. After all, they’re great songwriters and these are standards. I’ve seen the reviews come in, and they’ll mention all the songwriters in half the review, as if everybody knows them. Nobody’s heard of them, not in this time, anyway. Buddy Kaye, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, to name a few.
But, you know, I’m glad they mention their names, and you know what? I’m glad they got their names in the press. It might have taken some time to do it, but they’re finally there. I can only wonder why it took so long. My only regret is that they’re not here to see it.
Traditional rock ‘n’ roll, we’re talking about that. It’s all about rhythm. Johnny Cash said it best: “Get rhythm. Get rhythm when you get the blues.” Very few rock ‘n’ roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is. Rock ‘n’ roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.
The other half of rock ‘n’ roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Bros., Stanley Bros., Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley … groups like that. Moonshiners gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock ‘n’ roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.
You have to have the right kind of rhythm to play this kind of music. If you can’t hardly play the blues, how do you [inaudible] those other two kinds of music in there? You can fake it, but you can’t really do it.
Critics have made a career out of accusing me of having a career of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do. That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations.
“What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.”
You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations.: And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. What does that mean? ‘Why me, Lord? I’d confound them, but I don’t know how to do it.’
The Blackwood Bros. have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is “Stand By Me” by the Blackwood Brothers. Not “Stand By Me” the pop song. No. The real “Stand By Me.” The real one goes like this:
When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me
In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou who never lost a battle / Stand by me
In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand / Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me
That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not on that album, though: “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Anyway, why me, Lord. What did I do?
Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. [applause, inaudible]. They’re all singing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices.
I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a son of rock ‘n’ roll, obviously.
He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance.
So Billy became what is known in the industry — a condescending term, by the way — as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.
He did it with style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas — I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan — I’ve got nothing against them. Soft rock, hard rock, psychedelic pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff, but after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet.
I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day.
I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.
And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing — because John sang some truth today — one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying.
And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, and helped him to get spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.
I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams said, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

Growin' Up: The Day that Bruce Springsteen Asked God

It's creation story season. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of a new year in the Gregorian calendar. It's the dead of winter and oddly, in urges set by a standard for the yearly cycle thousands of years ago, humanity wants to renew hope and light in the dark.

bruce and band
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Agora, 1978
Where does hope and light come from? What generates the spark that grows to a flame that affirms a path out of the cold? 

Just this week -- in time for the holiday shopping season, no doubt -- the Bruce Springsteen Empire upon which the sun probably never sets has released an official version of what acolytes of the Boss have called one of his greatest concerts ever.

The year was 1978. The place: Cleveland, Ohio. The venue: the Agora Theatre and Ballroom, a legendary concert hall seating just 1200 people that hosted nearly every rocker in the universe during the 70's and 80's. The event was the 10th anniversary of WMMS, 101 FM, the Buzzard, arguably the most influential rock station of its era, and more of a reason for Cleveland housing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum than Cleveland's own Alan Freed who some say popularized the term rock 'n' roll. This anniversary was marked by a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band simulcast on WMMS and a network of other like-minded AOR stations estimated to reach three million listeners around the time they kicked into "Rosalita" at the three hour mark.

Springsteen tells a tale of lost youth in the rectory, parents and a parish priest unsure how to relate to their long-haired, guitar-playing, desk-pissing charge. He must go to God, the priest says, to determine the meaning of his life, to inhabit the sources of his creation, to become the man he is meant to be. And this sends the Boss to the Big Man, of course, and the Big Man sends him (in a nicer car and with a request for divine assistance in finding a stolen tape deck) to the holy place where God awaits him. The place is packed. All of humankind is there. Everyone wants to know what it's all about. Bruce Springsteen finds a quiet corner and asks the question that all of the authorities have demanded that he ask the Lord. And so Bruce Springsteen comes to the Lord inquiring about the meaning of his life. And so the word comes down to the Boss in three words that would chart the course of all that was to come: Let it Rock.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

New Skin for the Old Ceremony with Dylan and Cohen: The Radio Version

You wanted even more of the course New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, right? Wait no more. Below find links to a two-part radio show inspired by the class and recorded in the Summer of 2014 on the great you want to begin at the beginning of this whole enterprise, join us here.)

The commentary is in Hebrew (that's me talking...) but the tunes are in whatever language you choose. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

I and I: Where One's Nature Neither Honors Nor Forgives

Jacob's struggle in the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:42) is framed by revelations about the meanings embedded in places and names. Nothing surprising there -- who gives a name, what that name means, and how a place becomes known for the transformative moments occurring upon it, all define much of the biblical story.
Jacob's Angel
Part of the collection of the Ratner Museum.
Click here for more from the collection.
Vayishlach begins with our hero on the run. Recall that Jacob emerges from his mother Rebekah just moments after his twin brother Esau; in adulthood, with his mother's help, he tricks his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for the firstborn. Esau vows to kill Jacob, and even after establishing a large family and formidable wealth and power, Jacob still fears his brother as he waits for a fateful reunion alone by the banks of a stream.
Something or someone visits him that night: "Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Genesis 32:25). Some say that this man is Esau. Others think it is an angel, a messenger of the divine. Still others believe that Jacob wrestles with himself. Whomever or whatever Jacob tangles with, morning comes and he names the place of his struggle Peniel ("Face of God") before limping off to meet Esau.
This is the first of three critical junctures in this Torah portion where names and places mark the essence of a family-nation's entanglement with the divine. A few verses later a recalcitrant Jacob tells Esau "to see your face is like seeing the face of God" (33:10), echoing the language of Jacob's naming of the place where he wrestled. And finally, in chapter 35, God appears before Jacob and changes his name to Israel, literally "Wrestler with God".
In addition to a focus on names and places as windows onto the holy, questions about just how and whether humans and the divine come face-to-face mark Jewish lore at every stage and in every era. Consider the case of Moses, God's mouthpiece and arguably closer to the mysteries and power of the divine than any biblical figure. He asks for a direct encounter with God, and is told: "You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). So which one is it? No one, not even Moses, will be allowed to see the face of God and live, and yet Jacob/Israel, like an entire chain of biblical heroes, seems to be hardwired to see God's face everywhere he looks.
Biblically-inspired imaginations still wrestle today with the question of who and how people might experience the Divine Presence. Bob Dylan's "I and I" from 1983's Infidels could serve as the theme song for any number of biblical figures struggling with the apparent paradox of divinity being both too close to them and too far away. Here Dylan asks how a seeker honors the divine spark within him- or herself, and notes the eminently human struggle that this balancing act requires.
I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives
Alluding to the ancient teaching from Genesis that all people are created in the divine image, Dylan describes a person shaped by the continual conflict of human and divine elements. People are defined by their contradictions, some of the deepest of which are a kind of "face-off" in which they cannot see their true selves any more than they can see the divine. And yet, the divided self in "I and I" is also a self that wants to see its other half, always gazing upon itself "eye to eye." As Jacob knows, facing the divinity of both the other and one's self is not without its risks -- among them, burnout from the intensity of this engagement, and the soul-killing arrogance of experiencing oneself as greater than someone else, especially one's kindred.
In his 2012 song "Show Me the Place," Leonard Cohen, another contemporary commentator on ancient wisdom, both articulates the desire for the divine encounter and offers an approach to grounding that encounter in humility:
Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone
Show me the place
I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Much of Jacob's story concerns discovering the kind of humility about which Cohen sings. To his mother, he is a golden boy who should be given more than he deserves. To his brother, he is a triumphalist trickster. While family hubris continues with Jacob's and Rachel's son Joseph, who is humbled when he is sold into slavery by his brothers, all of Jacob's clever victories bring him face to face with challenges of chosenness and leadership that will define much of the Israelite story to come -- that is, experiencing directly the blessing of the Divine Presence, constantly wrestling with the meaning of this gift, and submitting in some form to powers greater than one's self in order to fulfill the promise of a calling.
This is a place, the place of struggle, where "one's nature neither honors nor forgives" and grand ambitions are grounded by a humble spirit of service -- almost like a slave, or at least a servant. When a leaders loses this balance between ambition and humility, the call of conscience in darkest night, or the face of an enemy they know they have wronged in order to survive, reminds them who and where they really are: right back in that place of wrestling "eye to eye" and "I and I" once again.
This piece originally appeared here in the Huffington Post as part Seventy Faces of Torah, a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rebellion and Fun: A Glimpse into the History of Rock 'N' Roll

As reported with all due diligence on this blog in the hot summer of 2014, I recently taught a course entitled The History of Rock 'N' Roll (and Everything in It) in Ten Songs at Shalem College. Inspired by Greil Marcus' The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs. I divided rock history into themes carried by ten tunes. (The list actually went up to eleven, but it was close enough for rock 'n' roll.)

Read more about the course here and the themes of Rebellion & FunProphecy, Love & Friendship, and War & Work & Sex & Death by following the links.

Below you can watch a brief clip on the theme of Rebellion & Fun, calling on music by Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Bently Boys, and Bob Dylan

The full list of songs from the course play list appears here:

One: Rebellion & Fun*
  • Chuck Berry, “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
  • The Replacements, “Bastards of Young” (1985)
  •  The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel” (1963)
  • David Bowie, “Rebel, Rebel” (1974)
  • Tom Petty, “Rebels” (1985)
  • Tracy Bonham, “Mother, Mother” (1996)
  • Little Richard,“Tutti Fruitti” (1955)
  • The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home” (1967)
Two: Prophecy, Love & Friendship
  • Patti Smith, “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” (1975)
  • Them, “Gloria”
  • Blind Willie Johnson, “John the Revelator” (1930)
  • R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
  • Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Love
  • You)” (1967)
  • Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets” (1975)
Three: War & Work
  • David Crosby (The Byrds) after “Chimes of Freedom” at the Monterey Pop
  • Festival (1967)
  • Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival (1969)
  • The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
  • The Bently Boys, “Penny’s Farm” (1929)
  • Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (1965)
Four: Sex & Death
  • Meatloaf, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (1977)
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio” (1970)
  • Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
*Songs in bold are the 10 main songs of the course; other songs on the list helped us understand them.

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 has 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.

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."

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.