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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Turns 68: Will he have cake or eat the document?

"Broken hearted and so sad,

Big blue eyes all covered with tears,
Was a picture of sorrow to see,
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told me"

It was supposed to be a simple song about a simple man who, in a fit of drunken rage, turns violent and kills a boy’s dog.

But if it was so simple then why 42 years later is the press hounding its author? Because, it turns out, it isn’t quite that simple after all.

Written in the summer of 1957 while attending a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, the two-page poem is believed to be the earliest known handwritten lyric by camper-turned-culture icon, Bob Dylan.

Simple enough on the surface, sure. But things suddenly got complicated last Wednesday when it was revealed the words weren't Bob's. Instead, they were lifted almost verbatim from a song by the popular Canadian country singer, Hank Snow.

In the imitable words of the man in question, “things are gonna get interesting right about now.”

What’s interesting about all this mixed up confusion over Dylan’s youthful indiscretion isn’t so much that Dylan plagiarized someone else’s work (an issue we shall revisit and ultimately dispute). What’s interesting is that it got to the point where it’s become an issue at all.

Certainly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But for the sake of simplicity let’s start with Christie’s, the prestigious auction house that planned to relinquish this ‘lost gem’ to the highest bidder. Christie’s should have known the poem was a not Dylan’s. In fact, anyone with a computer could have figured it out.

A simple Google search of the first line of the poem would have rendered that Dylan’s ‘lyrical brilliance’ as Christie's so carelessly alluded to the 2-page document was nothing more than a line-by-line transcription of Hank Snow’s 1947 song, “Little Buddy.” A song, by the way, Snow performed every night he appeared on stage at the Grand Ole Opry for 46 years.

But it seems this piece of pop culture trivia eluded Christie’s pop culture specialist, Simeon Lipman, who apparently couldn’t spare the .24 seconds it would have taken to perform the search.

There’s no shame in what Dylan did all those years ago. Nor, frankly, should his act of ‘appropriation’ take anyone by surprise. By revising existing lyrics by changing words around and adding a few of his own, Dylan was, in effect, affirming an old country and folk tradition.

And while the impressionable Bob Zimmerman may have erred on the side of relying too much on the existing lyrical structure and underlying narrative of Snow’s song, the tradition he was embracing undoubtedly served us all well in the long run.

Stop and think for a moment. What if that naïve, wide-eyed 16-year-old kid from a little Minnesota mining town had been precluded from drawing on the Bible, popular film, and pulp fiction— not to mention all the writers and critics who prophesied with their pen long before he came along? Dylan’s body of work would have been very different indeed.

Take the famous rhetorical refrain from Dylan’s 1963 social anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in which Dylan inquires:

"How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?"

If the question seems an eternal one, that’s probably because it is. A similar line appears in Revelation 8:8. It reads: “it were [as if] a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea.”

A deeper dive into ancient text finds a passage from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh in which the question Dylan asks of his listeners is asked in almost the exact same way:

"How many times must a home be restored or a contract revised and approved?
How many times must two brothers agree not to dispute what is theirs?
How many wars and how many floods must there be with plague and exile in their wake?”

Without question, Dylan knew his Bible…and his Blake…and his Warhol…and his John Ford. The lyrical allusions to scripture, literature, pop culture and cinema serve as starting points, signposts and send-ups throughout so many Dylan songs that entire books, dozens of websites, even a class at Boston University are devoted into delving into a lyrical landscape that is littered with characters culled from the complete human experience.

Perhaps David Hajdu, author of Positively 4th Street, said it best with this wry observation: “We have this idealized image of the creative process that is essentially fallacious, this idea that what the artist does is commune with the muses and to bring forth expression that’s never existed before.”

Maybe the Muse isn’t some spiritual, intangible force who sporadically touches the artist at the most opportune moment. Maybe the Muse is the artist himself; and the ‘inspiration’ we hold with such hallowed regard is nothing more than the artist’s ‘interpretation’ of the work of those who came before him.

And while “Little Buddy” may not demonstrate Dylan’s brilliance in interpretation, perhaps relishing the words of another inspired Dylan to embrace a talent that, over time, would prove to be more than authentic…

Little Buddy Rest In Peace,
God Will Watch You Thru The Years,
Cause I Told You In My Dreams That You,
Were Mine

To learn more about the Biblical allusions in Dylan’s lyrics, click here.

Dylan has always been a self-proclaimed film buff. To learn how that love has infiltrated his work, click here.
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Sunday, May 17, 2009

‘All Along the Watchtower’: Dylan added to Guitar Hero’s set list

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,

"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

By 1965, Dylan had already garnered a reputation as a prankster. His mercurial nature and increasingly interpretative lyrics had resulted in a goading ability to confound critics and fans alike.

And so, when Dylan stepped onstage at Newport with a Fender Stratocaster strapped across his back instead of the familiar Gibson Nick Lucas Special acoustic guitar with which the folk set was accustomed, in all likelihood his fans were probably hoping this was just another one of Bob’s attempts to bewilder. The joke, it turns out, was on them.

And while Dylan’s defiant act of ‘going electric’ undoubtedly sent a shock of horror through the crowd, in all the chaos that followed chances are those in attendance probably failed to appreciate just how good a guitar player he really was. That’s all about to change.

And even though we’ll need to wait until later this summer until we can emulate our favorite traveling troubadour, the buzz has already begun.

That’s right, Bob Dylan is officially a ‘Guitar Hero.’

And what song did the good people at Activision, the makers of Guitar Hero, choose to showcase Dylan’s talent as an axman? “All Along the Watchtower.”

And just so you know, contrary to Bob’s lyric instructing otherwise, there very much is reason to get excited.

Sparse and restrained, “Watchtower” is the perfect song for the revised Guitar Hero format, which unlike previous incarnations allows multiple players to play a multitude of instruments.

So what makes “Watchtower” so well suited for Guitar Hero? It’s open for interpretation. Whether it’s Dave Matthews’ slow burn acoustic build, Bono’s politically infused lyrical addition, or Hendrix’s searing, Wah-Wah wig out that rightfully snagged the song the #5 spot on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, all have offered a unique, interpretative variation on this tumultuous tale of intrigue.

Interpretation, of course, is exactly what lies at the genius of Guitar Hero. And having performed the song more than 1,500 times, Dylan’s been afforded quite a few opportunities to reinterpret the song himself over the last 35 years.

But there’s another reason why this timeless classic makes perfect sense. Because just as the simple construction of the song lends itself to interpretation, so, too, does the lyrical content.

Unlike many of the “talkin’” songs Dylan was composing around this time (many of which ran in excess of 12 verses), “All Along the Watchtower” is essentially a stripped-down three-chord folk song, consisting of three tightly crafted verses, no chorus and plenty of room for solos. Yet while the song isn’t especially structurally complicated, it turns out it’s actually one of Dylan’s most complex.

The joker, the thief, the prince, the businessman, the barefoot servants, the approaching riders, the plowmen, the howling wind. It’s tough not to get lost in the cast of enigmatic, inscrutable characters scattered throughout “Watchtower’s” turbulent terrain. But buried beneath this laconic landscape is a cautionary tale that is alarmingly applicable to the times in which we live.

Clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 33 seconds, Dylan uses his time, and his expansive imagination, wisely. The song opens and closes with two figures guarding what we are led to believe is a medieval castle. And while Dylan’s parables are often puzzling (this one is no exception), many have kept the Kafkaesque view that the castle is representative of established society’s existing power structure.

But just what exactly are the princes guarding? Are they intent on preserving the old guard? Or will they be swayed by the inevitable change brought on by the distant howling wind? And should it get too late, what happens then?

Thematically, the song also strikes a resounding chord. As the song circles back to its haunting conclusion, some have cited the final refrain of William Butler Yeats' famous poem, “The Second Coming” as inspiration: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

And while the reference to the Irish poet points us in the right direction, in the end it doesn't completely satisfy. Neither Dylan nor Yeats offers explanation as to the ominous outcome, leaving us instead with a sense of foreboding mediation on the looming conflict, and its potentially catastrophic consequences.

It's only to be expected. As with all of Dylan’s diabolical diatribes, “All Along the Watchtower” works on many different levels. But at its core, the song focuses like a laser beam on a fundamental issue of the era in which we find ourselves— the realignment of human values against the established order.

And when to stop to think about it, isn’t that precisely the scenario our own newly anointed political prince must now confront?

President Obama has admitted to being a Dylan enthusiast. Chances are, however, we won’t have to worry how Barack Obama might interpret this harrowing harbinger of things to come even if he were to try his hand at the newest addition to Guitar Hero’s set list.

It turns out, unlike many of his presidential predecessors, Obama does not play an instrument. But then again, doesn’t that make him the perfect candidate for the game…

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ain’t Working on ‘Maggie’s Farm’ No More: Dylan tops record charts; Specter breaks Republican hearts

I got a head full of ideas

That are drivin' me insane.
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

It’s been nearly 45 years since Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, electric guitar strapped across his back, and defiantly told the establishment that had made him a star, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

And while Dylan’s transition from the world’s most beloved folkie to full-blown cultural icon is now largely forgiven even by his most adamant detractors, at the time the chord Dylan struck was far from harmonious.

Dylan's landmark appearance at Newport was wedged between two long forgotten acts by the name of Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers. The fact that these two groups were so closely culled from the folk tradition only accentuated the disruption Dylan caused. So horrified was the crowd by Dylan’s now notorious 3-song set, that shortly after the band finished someone is reported to have shouted: "Bring back Cousin Emmy!"

Much in the same way Dylan’s performance at Newport took the folk movement by surprise, US Senator Arlen Specter’s unexpected decision last week to switch political affiliation shocked the Washington establishment.

Chances are slim there’ll be any cries to “Bring Back Uncle Arlen!” on the part of the Republicans, however.

In hindsight, the real disdain the folkies had toward Dylan back in 1965 wasn’t so much that he ‘went electric’ (“Like a Rolling Stone” was, after all, already at the top of the charts). It was the way in which he thumbed his nose at them in such a defiant way, and did so in such a public forum.

Similarly, Specter’s decision to announce his defection one day prior to Obama’s 100th day in office was hardly the sign of a wallflower. Like Dylan, Specter was given a stage and he used it to maximum benefit.

But let’s be honest. Just as the fans at Newport knew they weren’t going to be able to keep Dylan in their pocket forever, the Republicans had to have seen this coming. Back in February, Obama’s $787 billion dollar stimulus got a total of three Republican votes— and Specter was one of them.

Admittedly, politicians cross the aisle all the time to imbue their political capital. But to cross the aisle on that vote at that defining moment in Obama’s young presidency was clearly a telltale sign of things to come, especially considering Specter’s long history of political vacillation.

There’s no question Specter needs to replenish the capital in his waning political coffers. Polls show the Pennsylvania senator has the support of only 30% of the likely GOP voters in the 2010 primary. But why the seismic shift to the Left? Two words: Barack Obama.

Roughly 180,000 party moderates – the very people Specter needs to win the upcoming Republican primary – switched parties in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama in the general election. As a result, Specter is seen (and probably accurately so) as a political dead man walking.

Dylan was at a strikingly similar point in his career when the Festival Committee asked him to headline Newport in 1965. Not that Dylan’s supporters had abandoned him— far from it. When Dylan walked out on stage that warm July night, he was at the top of his game— loved, admired and perfectly in tune with the times. But Dylan knew something his adorning fans didn’t. It was time to move on. Time to chart a new course. Time to explore a new direction. In short, it was time.

It’s one thing to reinvent yourself. As any observant Dylan aficionado knows (is there any other kind?), Dylan was inventing “Dylan” long before he ever got to Newport. Even politicians need a bit of reinvention from time-to-time. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan—perhaps the most significant force in the Republican Party in the last 50 years—switched parties in 1962, claiming, “I did not leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” Sounds remarkably like the rationalization Specter has repeatedly given when pressed to do a little soul searching on why he’s thrown his lot with the Left.

But in the end, Specter’s defection to the Dems is no Newport. Dylan wasn’t closing the door to his legions of supporters; he was opening a new one. He wasn’t walking away from his admirers; he was inviting them to join him. And on the topic of introducing electric music and the years of controversy that followed, for Dylan, "It was honest." Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Pennsylvania politician. For Specter, it was all about self-preservation.

There’s no question the times in which we live are uncertain. And, as history has repeated shown, no one bears the brunt of these changing times more than our politicians and cultural icons.

Dylan opens his 3-song set at Newport with 'Maggie's Farm'.

Dylan was right. We really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; public opinion will do just fine…

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Brought ‘Together Through Life’: Are Dylan’s new album, Obama’s first 100 days true milestones or just grist for the mill?

Talk about me babe, if you must.

Throw out the dirt; pile on the dust.
I'd do the same thing if I could
You know what they say? They say it's all good.

Last week marked important milestones for two figures who factor prominently in this blog.

On Tuesday, Bob Dylan released his 33rd studio album, Together Through Life. Twenty-four hours later, Barack Obama crossed an equally transformative transom— his first 100 days in office.

Obama’s press conference was characterized by a cool, calm detachment emblematic of the man himself.

Stepping to the mike, he urged to press corps to take a deep, reflective breath: “Please be seated. Before we begin tonight, I just want to provide everyone with a few brief updates on some of the challenges we’re dealing with right now.”

Opening his first album in three years with a rollicking rim shot recalling an electrifying time when he was in his prime, any pretense of cool detachment on the the part of Dylan was obliterated by what can best be described as the musical equivalent of hell, fire and brimstone.

“The most important thing we now know about [him] is…that he means to confront that way of life directly and profoundly, to exchange sand for rock if he can. Whether you agree with him or not — whether you think he is too ambitious or just plain wrong — his is as serious and challenging [a figure] as we have had in quite some time.”

It turns out, Time magazine reporter, Joe Klein, was referring to the impassioned political journeyman from Illinois. Of course, he could just as easily have been writing about a traveling minstrel from Minnesota who goes by name of Bob Dylan.

Bar a few well documented missteps, the press has uniformly given Obama high marks. Their assessment of his first 100 days has been no exception. As presidential historian, Doug Brinkley, observed: "Nobody will ever be able to accuse him of being an idle man during his first 100 days. He's clearly showing himself to be a progressive in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, with the moral core of Jimmy Carter."

And while Obama’s legions of champions probably don’t think of the man who led them out of 30 years of political desolation as a gangly gimp with a Boston accent who can’t make up his mind which side of the street to stand on, such a character would be very much at home on the new Dylan album.

It would hard to deny that something very haunting and mysterious is happening in the border town terrain Dylan traverses on his new album. But whether Dylan’s Tex Mex influenced song cycle ends up becoming infectious part of our collective musical DNA, or just another benign addition to the Dylan discography isn’t entirely clear yet. As always is the case with Dylan, the prognosis is never that cut and dry:

Sat, May 2, 2009 © Copyright (c) The London Free Journal
“Well, after nearly 68 years and 33 studio albums, the master still hasn't lost his touch. Together Through Life, like the last trio of releases in his remarkable late-career resurgence, is another layered work of genius that seems straightforward, but inexorably draws you deeper into its web with every listen.”

May 2, 2009 © Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
By TOM MURRAY, freelance
“Good, but not great. In the end, it feels as though Dylan is in stopgap mode again, releasing a collection of OK to good songs because he feels it's time.”

April 23, 2009 © Copyright (c) Rolling Stone
“Ultimately, Together Through Life is a mixed bag of this decade's Dylan — impulsive, caustic, sentimental, long done with the contrived details of contemporary record-making. That hardened, bleating voice is also perfect for these times: A nation drunk on hope less than six months ago now drowns in red ink and pink slips.”

Of course, you don’t need Rolling Stone to know which way the wind blows. And while nearly everyone who's heard the new Dylan album has an opinion it, in the end Erik Thompson of Culture Bully probably got it right when he wrote: “….reviewing a new record by Bob Dylan is a bit like reviewing the Roman Colosseum (sic); you might not like the way it looks now, but there is no denying the cultural significance of the structure and the history found within. [Dylan] has indeed slayed his share of lions over the years, and that the blood of those battles still colors his music even now.”

A charismatic, youthful president’s first 100 days in office; the release of a hauntingly alluring album that recalls a century of America popular music. Considering the place these men hold in our collective cultural imagination, the dogged determination to put their respective milestones into some sort of perspective was probably, in hindsight, inevitable.

The irony, of course, is that perspective is best achieved looking back. And that's something both have vehemently vowed never to do…

Brick by brick, they tear you down.
A teacup of water is enough to drown.
You oughta know, if they could,
They would whatever goin' down, it's all good.
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