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November 22, 2006

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The recent PBS documentary of Dylan's early years was generally good. I loved the parts where he and Joan Baez gave their different versions of events. And his performances of songs like "It's a Hard Rain" are just astonishing.

Hard to believe, but it was my mother who discovered Bob Dylan in my family. She really tried to keep up with things in the '60s, and someone had told her about him. She sent my brother to buy his first two albums for her. When I got home from college (1962 or 3) she had them already. I saw him sing several times, a couple of times with Joan Baez, and followed every album religiously through "John Wesley Harding." Then our interests diverged.

He was clearly a poet not a political pied piper, and many people resented him for that, and especially resented him for changing.

And for anyone over the age of about 48, it is November 22 today, a date none of us can ever really forget.

Given the website's recent attraction for trolls, it would be worthwhile to check back later to see what they have to say about cites like your excerpt from Hard Rain, above; though in their drollish manner, certainly they will have some libations to offer.

I was thinkin the other day about the dullness and hipness which is rap, and some local ethnics drove by in a car with Air Shocks and a boom box with tuba music, and over this cacaphony was a meter of talking dustbowl prosody startlingly like Guthrie and early BDylan. The talking voice over guitar instead of singing voice riding melody to me always is an uncomfortable moment, like the break between sets; and like the breaktime often the best transition is comedy. Both Guthrie and BDylan had ample humor; because of BD's later times, BD exhibited more humor, I thought.

The talkin blues, to me, are a measure of the suffering of performer and listeners. Taking your canine theme, though there are ample more atavistic images in BDylan, consider this one from the epoch postNewport, when Dylan was riding the milk train but had gone beyond Ahab the X, called "On the Road Again":
Well, I woke up in the morning
There's frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she's a-hidin'
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin'
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, do you have to ask?

Well, I go to pet your monkey
I get a face full of claws
I ask who's in the fireplace
And you tell me Santa Claus
The milkman comes in
He's wearing a derby hat
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, how come you have to ask me that?

Well, I asked for something to eat
I'm hungry as a hog
So I get brown rice, seaweed
And a dirty hot dog
I've got a hole
Where my stomach disappeared
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, I gotta think you're really weird.

Your grandpa's cane
It turns into a sword
Your grandma prays to pictures
That are pasted on a board
Everything inside my pockets
Your uncle steals
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, I can't believe that you're for real.

Well, there's fist fights in the kitchen
They're enough to make me cry
The mailman comes in
Even he's gotta take a side
Even the butler
He's got something to prove
Then you ask why I don't live here
Honey, how come you don't move?

One has to have lived those times to capture the sense of ennui which the singing hipster is voicing in those brief stanzas. The music has a peculiar cadence, if you have heard that song; it is rock music, but the singing is a bullying jibing humor. Here is a book by a BU prof I recommend; the book appeared last year. There was a recent book by a different author, archived review in NYorker; the reviewer tries, but misinterprets a lot about Dylan, perhaps because of the neoGenerationGap.
I listened to the audio clip in the link you provided to boxOffice, and understood the musical's problem with music; there are uninspired voices slipping off of the rhythm of the original words to the song, electronically mixed with soundtrack of some instruments. The instrumental tracks are precision, and inspired; the voices drift aimlessly through someone else's lyrics dropping subtleties and replacing them with opsis; perhaps that is why your mention of the circus. Being an upstate NewYorker, BDylan likely thinks of creative arts outlets natural attraction to the play district in NY.
A lot of the influences that formed Dylan and his songs still have to mellow with aging; there could be a revisit to the concept, in a different format.
If NY's Rangel has his payback way soon, some of the anguish in BDylan's lyrics will play again in the souls of conscripts shipping to some nearby place which is close to Iraq. Rangel's idea, I suppose, is to bring families together to march for peace in the US. There is a better way to accomplish that.

Here is another lyric in full from the early BDylan period, also a danceable music but superimposed with bizarre images as was BDylan's wont in the early timeframe in his career:

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning

You say I let you down
You know it's not like that
If you're so hurt
Why then don't you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You're in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I'd make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don't know to begin with

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it

When you know as well as me
You'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once
And scream it

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I'd rob them

And now I know you're dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don't you understand
It's not my problem

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you

BD could get pretty feisty about this intrasocietal strife business, having charged his way thru exiting ordinary civilized channels to career and seeking his own blazing new way to meld music, charm, and subtle understanding of the difference between maturation and what he called life 'in the old folks home in the college':

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead


All these excerpts I replay here are from far distant times, and fairly unremarkable each taken separately, but singing for BD was like a diary, I think, and as long as he said what he was going through he would experience some kind of catharsis and transit to the next turn in personal development and growth.

If you happen to live in WA state these days, your Bonneville electric utility can provide you with a brochure about the Roosevelt-Guthrie engineering feat a 500 kV upgrade to existing electric towers; WGuthrie sang commercials for BPA to earn cash in a WPA era unemployment economy. See nondescript brochure there.

Woody and Marjorie Mazia had a daughter, Nora Guthrie. She was also a dancer. She runs the Woody Guthrie Archives in NYC.

What a great post, emptypockets -- chock full o' fun stuff. ("Despite his best efforts he'd often send the dancers bumping into each other" -- I'll carry that with me forever.) Yeah, much as I adore Dylan, and happy as I was for the success of the Billy Joel show (I'm always happy for a theatrical success), I always had a sense of foreboding about this one; Dylan's work just never seemed a promising fit for Broadway voices and the strictures of the form, even in the hands of Twyla Tharp. And the circus-clown thing -- I dunno...on the whole, I'd say your instincts would've produced a much better outcome. But it's comforting to know he's following in Woody's footsteps yet again. And from Megaphone Mark to colliding dancers, this post is officially added to my list of things to give thanks for tomorrow.

(BTW, this reminds me that you once expressed an interest in what I guess you'd call the biology of aesthetics; if you do go in that direction, I hope you'll let us all know how we can keep tabs on your discoveries.)

OT, but yes, Mimikatz, this is definitely one of those dates that shoots an undercurrent throughout the day, always. Not completely unlike September 11 for many, probably. I'm trying hard lately to see those two dates, roughly, as possible bookends to this dark period in our history, preceded and followed by something truer to our better selves. I like to think the current focus on RFK (thanks to the movie, which I haven't seen) at a time when the Democrats are getting back in the ring is a coincidence that might serve to remind everyone what they're in the ring for, and to give them some strength and larger purpose for the fights ahead. And this week, of course, had another notable date: Monday was Bobby's birthday.

rj: I kind of think it may be 11/22/63-1/20/09 that are the bookends. Unless it ends sooner.

One of the most trenchant commentaries on and class and race is Dylans's "Only a Pawn In Their Game", about the man who killed Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. That, and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

John, I've always liked to imagine an interview in which a serious BBC-type says, "Mr. Dylan, you are considered one of your generation's greatest poets, artists, philosophers -- tell me, what are your songs really about?" and seeing Dylan reply with unrestrained glee "They're about WORDS that RHYME!"

There is a great experiment in psycholinguistics that demonstrates a phenomenon called "priming" -- the researcher flashes combinations of letters on a screen ("giapl," "orange," "loytu," "hairy"), and the subject pushes a button if s/he recognizes the letters as a word, and the time it takes the person to hit the button is recorded. The observation is that seeing one word will cause one to more quickly recognize other words with a logical association to it, so seeing "chair," "gptyiu," "frietd," "table" -- you'll recognize "table" more quickly after having seen "chair" than if you hadn't. This is called priming and suggests that when we see a word, we move all related words into a faster-access part of our memory, as if in anticipation for being likely to see one of them next. It turns out that words that rhyme also prime each other, so seeing "door" will prime "store." The implication is that whenever we see (or, presumably, hear) a word, we are also thinking about all the words that rhyme with it, and I personally think the satisfaction we feel at hearing phrases that rhyme may be derived from having that anticipation fulfilled. I would love to see Bob Dylan given one of those tests. I bet that whatever part of the mind is responsible for priming, I bet that his is unusually hyperactive.

rj, very good memory -- I remember that thread, maybe a year ago??, and what I just wrote above about priming is very relevant to it because I think that's part of why poems "work." Un(?)fortunately I'm pretty well entrenched in basic cell biology and genetics so I doubt I'll ever cross over to those kinds of whole-mind studies but it's a really interesting area. Thanks so much for your kind words on this post, I thought it was a little off the wall but it's some of the stuff I love and am glad someone else shares those affections!

Watson, I heard Nora give a very nice talk on some of Woody's graphic art not long ago, and she seems like a really beautiful person in every way. She was not Woody & Marjorie's only child -- in fact, another of their children (and a handful of their grandchildren) will be giving a concert at Carnegie Hall this weekend that I'm reall looking forward to going to...

I forgot I was going to include some of Nora's own recounting of the Woody Guthrie-Sophie Maslow story -- parts of it are verbatim in Klein's book, I don't know who copied whom. From here:

The dances were all choreographed to records (78's) and the dancers used these recordings to rehearse. What happened then has become part of our family lore -- something that we told and retold over the years, and still do. A story that, with all its humor and chaos, always seemed to define much of what fueled, and still fuels, our Guthrie family life -- chaos and humor! My mother would act it out, with all of us laughing hysterically as she dramatically reenacted the story. [...]

The first rehearsal was a complete disaster, as Woody could/would not play the song the same way as he recorded it. Nor could he even play it through the same way twice. Rushing to get to their places, dancers were bumping into each other, falling all over each other, and being thrown up in the air with no one there to catch them on the way down. My dad was having a great time -- and something had to be done to stop him!

I'm glad it wasn't just me but the whole Guthrie clan for whom the image of graceful dancers smacking into one another, with Woody's guitar filling in somewhere between a conductor's baton and the wand of the sorceror's apprentice, was such a riot.

Ash her is the answer to the continuing woody, not that that is how a bitch uses flesh to get even for a male having time.

John,

I was thinkin the other day about the dullness and hipness which is rap,

see also the concert review in today's Times:

"Has Bob Dylan been listening to hip-hop? That’s what it sounded like when he performed some old love songs at City Center on Monday night. While his band played folk-rock, he chanted “Boots of Spanish Leather” in staccato bursts of one note, cramming in syllables before the chord change, and he rattled off verses of “Tangled Up in Blue” like an elocution test, clear and perfunctory."

ep, I wanted to go to that concert, but I'll be in Mass (grrr). Saw Arlo in Carnegie Hall awhile back -- best Thanksgiving weekend ever...

Yes, Mimikatz, I guess I did use the word "dates" kinda loosely (faster than saying "the roughly-five-year periods each of those dates ushered in"); I just hope the bookend idea holds, and that '09 is indeed the outside edge (endpaper? felt? just please let it be...). And while I'm making OT comments, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your posts (and comments) these days. I haven't had much commenting time lately, but I always try to read all of TNH at least, and your contributions have made this terrific site even better. Thanks for the great work.

Sorry to continue the OT, but the November 22 thing is interesting to me. I remember several years in late elementary and middle school when my teachers would tell us how everyone old enough would remember exactly where they were when they heard the news, and that we had to ask our parents. I dutifully asked, and neither of my parents really remembered. Not only that, they clearly thought that the claim that they would remember was kind of odd, and possibly some kind of expression of conservatism on the part of my teachers. So I have always associated discussions of that memory with a conservative impulse. This discussion here is therefore giving me some things to think about.


If you were going to buy a golf club, you wouldn't walk into a store and buy the first one you see, would you? Of course not; especially if you want to improve your golf game! You'll want to hold the club, take some practice swings, hit some balls if the store has a practice spot, and look at the price, of course. If you are considering buying running shoes, you need to go through a similar process and take the time to find the perfect shoe.

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