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.

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.